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Saturday, December 15, 2012

No. 118 "Where did you get that shirt you're wearing" A Christmas Story

Like most every mother of the era, mine was a seamstress of sorts. Beyond sewing buttons, darning holes, and hemming cuffs, she would tackle the bigger jobs of making dresses for my sisters. Usually, but not always, she would use a paper pattern that had been come from Roses “dime store” in Beaufort, and often ones that had been used several times before.

And sometimes, if money was especially tight, she would use the material left over from those dresses to make shirts for her boys. I wore those shirts through most of my elementary school years.

For these she didn’t need or use a pattern. Instead, she fitted them on us individually as we stood erectly in front of her. All the while she sat and swiveled in front of the Singer sewing machine on her kitchen table. Within a few minutes, which sometimes felt like an hour, she would have fashioned our sleeves, collars, and shoulders — all held in place by small straight pins saved from unpacking the “real” garments bought in stores at town.

An hour or so later after she started, a new shirt would be laid out and ready to wear.

At least to us, over time it was easy to lose track of which shirts were mom-made and which ones were store-bought. I eventually learned, however, that some others were more discerning than me.

In December of 1963, when I was in the fifth grade, my mother made Teff and me special “Christmas shirts.” She used a dark green fabric that was almost like velvet. Because they were meant to be special, I didn’t wear it out of the house until the night of the annual Christmas festival held at the school. But when I finally did, I was so proud to have a new shirt for the event, and one that was fashioned for just such an occasion.

Just after getting to the school, and as I headed through the entrance and down the hall toward the auditorium, an older boy tapped me on the shoulder. He was almost ten years older than me, but I knew who he was because he played ball on the high school team, and I knew all of the players, especially those from the Island.

As soon as I turned, he seemed to give me a “once over” that caught me a little by surprise – I didn’t recall that he had ever noticed me in any way before. Then he just looked me in the eye  and asked,“Where did you get that shirt you're wearing?”

Without any hesitation I replied, “My mama made it for me.”

Just as quickly he responded, “You can tell that by looking at it,” followed by a wink and laugh.

I was so naive that I didn’t even consider that his comment wasn’t meant as a compliment! A second later he was somewhere else and it would be years afterward, when it was “me” who was playing basketball on the high school team before he ever spoke to me again.

That was it! I paid little or no attention to it then and not much in the years that followed. But recently, especially as I have observed the emphasis of a new generation of children on brand names and logos, my mind has been drawn back to that encounter.

Reflecting upon that occasion, and perhaps countless others that I may simply not have noticed, I have come to a simple conclusion. Just as I had no misgivings at the time I wore those “tailored” shirts to school, I have concluded that even if I did, those feelings now have been replaced with an appreciation and even a pride for both the rough cloth that became my shirts, and even more for the hands that fashioned them for and on me.

Monday, November 19, 2012

No. 117 Mullet Roe

Like ‘em or not, mullet roe were very much a part of life from the first full moon in October until well into the first new moon of November. Mention them to others, and even to some Islanders, and you’ll see a wrinkled nose and often a question such as “how can you eat that stuff?” But “eat” it was an understatement for many of my family and friends and others on Harkers Island. Whether fried or baked, fresh or frozen, salted or dried, fall would not be fall without at least one special meal of red mullet roe.

A fresh red roe waiting to frozen, salted, dried, or eaten
“Big mullets” is the name given to the fish when they swell to more than double their normal size while growing their eggs, literally millions of eggs. When the wind turned to the no’thard, these mullets would school by the tens of thousands, and dozens of crews would leave the Island trying to find them. Seeing even one of them jump would create a stir among the fishermen, causing them to let out a gill net in a wide circle that was then pulled together, if they were lucky, with hundreds, even thousands of pounds of the swollen and silvery fish caught in or rolled into the mesh.

In my early youth the fish themselves were discarded after the roe was harvested — only the “livers and gizzards” saved to be served as yet another delicacy. But not many years later, locals came to love the bulging fillets of the roe mullets, with its flaky white meat, almost as much as the roe itself.

During a mullet blow, people would gather at the fish houses just to get their hands on half a dozen fish, almost always given for free, to take home. Others would buy a hundred pounds or more so they could have enough to roe to freeze, salt, or dry, and to last them through the winter.

A small portion of the roe were white rather than the “reddish orange” that was everyone’s favorite. I never heard of anyone eating any of the white roe, and it was standard practice to squeeze the belly of any fish just enough to see the color of the roe that was squeezed out before choosing one to take home.

At our house, my father preferred a combination of dried and salted roe to any other. A yearly ritual was to lay several dozen on the south facing porch to dry in the autumn sun for several days. When at last they were ready, he would ship some by mail to my brothers who were living away at the time, and the rest he would keep in a large sealed can until all were finally shared or eaten.

In recent years, with the fish houses all gone, you consider yourself lucky to get even one roe in the fall. But even that one is worth the wait and trouble for those who grew up as accustomed to enjoying a mullet roe in October as to having a turkey in November.

No. 116 Roasting Conchs

In early Spring and late fall the waters of Back Sound can sometimes be as clear as glass. A    combination of lower temperatures and calming winds combine to remove whatever it is that makes the water so thick the rest of the year.

Besides offering a pristine view of the sandy bottom, the clear cool water allowed us to see the conchs [and welks] that hide in the grass lumps that dotted the tide line. With nothing more than a skiff and an ore, my brother and I would scour the bottom from David’s dock to Billy Hamilton’s landing. When we were lucky, we would see one or more, and sometimes as many as a dozen conchs nestled among the swaying sea grass. One of us would hold the skiff steady while the other would lean over and reach for the conch.

One thing about the clear water that we sometimes lost sight of was that it could be a magnifying lens, distorting how deep the water under us really was. Sometimes we would lean, and then stretch farther than we had expected, finally reaching so far that our rolled-up shirt sleeve would get wet all the way to our shoulder. Other times the cool clear water would reach to our neck and hairline, but in spite of that we never gave up or pulled back until we had that conch firmly in our grasp.
A live conch washed up on the shore at flood tide

Once we had gathered all we could find, we would hurry home to enjoy what we had taken. Sometimes that meant “beating them out” so Mama could stew them for us and the whole family. But other times, especially when the weather was bright and sunny, we would cook them ourselves.

That meant roasting them over an open fire. This required gathering sticks or tearing apart fish boxes to use for kindling. Believe it or not, we sometimes made our fodder from old wooden decoys that Edith’s Darrel (Willis) had thrown behind his old shed. Once the flames were burning, we would drop our catch into the flame and watch them as they began to sizzle. We could soon hear them “popping” as the outer shell began to crack in the searing heat. After a few minutes we would begin to poke and probe the smaller oval and outer shell that protects the living conch as it withdraws into the hollow of the bigger shell. We had learned from experience that when the oval shell falls off, the conch is ready to eat.

Then would begin the most delicate part of our operation; pulling the white hot conch out of the fire and dropping it into a bucket of fresh water we had pumped from a shallow well. Once it had cooled enough to be handled, the fleshy core could be pulled out and was ready to clean — that is if we had correctly determined that the conch was fully cooked. If in our haste we had jumped the gun, it would require using a hammer to break open what was left.

Almost all of a roasted conch could be eaten, even the “cheese” that was nestled in the point of the cone. Only a small gut on the inside of the muscle was usually discarded.  Once that was done, and what was left was washed off one final time, we would begin to tear off chunks of the meat to savor and enjoy.

One thing about roasted conchs that made them even better than stewed ones for some of us was that they were so very “tough” that every bite you took could take minutes to chew on and swallow. The longer that took, the longer you had to taste and enjoy it. And the happier you were that you had gone to the trouble of doing the whole thing in the first place.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

No. 114 Why is it called Shell Point?

Why is it called Shell Point? I’m pretty sure it is because of the massive mound of sea shells that once were piled high at the far eastern end of the Island. It was said that the shells had been piled there over many generations by native Americans, supposedly to build a bridge from the Island to Core Banks. Almost all of the shell mounds were gone by the time I can remember, although on low tide you could see remnants of the pile that headed out to the eastward.

Where did all those shells go?

Watching the sun go down at Shell Point with
my granddaughter, Eden.
One of my father's oft-told stories was that as a young man his earliest driving experience was with a truck. It was used to haul shells from Shell Point to dump along the path that became the main Harkers Island road. According to the story, his co-worker was Henry Davis, the son of Cleveland Davis.  Those shells were the initial bed for what is now Island Drive. I vaguely recall him saying that after their project was completed even more shells were transported elsewhere in the County for similar purposes.

My father explained that Cleveland, and Daddy's father, Charlie Hancock, had a contract or job to move the shells for one of the New Deal operations, so this would have been in the mid 1930s. He recalled it as the WPA, but it could have been one of the several others.

His anecdotes were mostly about how the shells would puncture the tires on the truck and that he and Henry would sometimes have to remove the tire and patch the tubes several times in one journey to and from the Point. Even with all the delays, their job was eventually done, and when it was, the shells at Shell Point became just a memory.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

No. 113 "Feelin' for clams"

When most people think of clamming, they imagine someone standing on a shoal, bending over a rake, and pulling and pushing it back and forth. With each pull they would try to feel or hear the scrape of the rake tongs on a solid shell. That is indeed how most people did it.

But on the Island, the most serious clambers left their rake in a skiff, and stayed far from the more shallow shoals. Instead they would squat or kneel in hip-deep water with a floating bucket strapped to their waist. There they would grope with both bare hands and bare feet to feel the clams with their fingers and toes and an acute sense of touch. “Feelers,” as they called them, could usually fill a bucket much faster, and easier, than someone toiling with an iron rake.

One family that I knew would go clamming as a group; father, mother and all six children. They would spends hours at a time, as long as the tide would allow, in Banks Bay or on Twelve O’clock Shoal, nestled together while working the bottom for “littlenecks,”  “cherrystones,” or “chowders.”

Working as a team they could scour an acre or more of sandy bottom in less than a day. In fact, one of the little girls was so energetic in churning the bottom with her ten fingers and ten toes that her brothers and sisters called her “Maytag.” When asked, why, one of them explained that the only other thing that could stir up as much water as she did was a Maytag washing machine.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

No. 112 "If they fire us, they'll have to pay us right away ..."

In the summer of ‘42 (sounds like a movie title doesn't it?) my mother, not yet thirty, awaited the birth of her seventh child. The first six had been born at home with the delivery overseen by Mama’s mid-wife grandmother, whom everyone, even her grandchildren, called “Aunt Marg.” But Aunt Marg was now more than eighty years old, and calling on her for the delivery was no longer a viable option. It was agreed that this time  Mama would have to go to the hospital in town.

Without insurance or a steady income, plans had to be made for how to pay for the doctor and several days in a hospital room. It was thought that the total cost would be almost exactly one hundred dollars. Wartime concerns had caused the Navy to impose restrictions on fishing on the ocean side of the Banks, so there was little hope of earning that much in the water.

But there was one almost sure way to make the money. The Army recently had commissioned the building of a station at Ocracoke on Pamlico Sound that included a long wooden dock for servicing the boats that patrolled the nearby Banks and Inlet. Word had quickly spread that workers on the dock were paid a dollar an hour, far more than any of the laborers along the Sounds had ever even heard of. So early one Sunday morning Daddy headed up and along Core Sound towards Ocracoke, looking for a job working on that dock.

Sure enough, he was hired as soon as he presented himself to the foreman supervising the project. Working as much as twelve hours a day, seven days a week, he began to count both his earnings and how much longer he would have to stay there before he could go home with the money he would need.

In less than two weeks he figured he had enough wages coming his way to gather his belongings and head back south down the Sound. But upon confronting his foreman he was flabbergasted to learn that he would  have to wait until the next pay day, more than week later, to collect his final earnings.  Bitterly disappointed he returned to his work with his sadness so evident that one of his coworkers asked him what was wrong?

When Daddy explained his situation, his friend commiserated with his predicament, and then suggested a plan for how both of them could get their money without having to wait.

"The foreman is right about having to wait until payday," he conceded to my father, "but only if you quit before the project is finished."

"On the other hand," he explained, "if they fire us, they will have to pay us right away and probably order us to get off of their dock as quick as possible. You just follow me and we'll both be out of here before the day is over."

My brother Mike, in the middle, with Denny (b. 1944)
and Telford (b. 1950)
So, together, the two laid down their tools, and then sat down on the edge of that portion of the dock that was already completed, sometimes laying back as if to take a nap in the summer sun. When told to get back to work they just ignored the order and continued to waste away their time as the other workers toiled on busily all around them. Finally, the foreman gave the two malingerers exactly what they had wanted.

"Both of you are fired," he shouted so loudly that others could hear, and hopefully learn from the example. "Go straight to the paymaster and get you wages and don't let me see either of you on this dock ever again!"

Within less than an hour Daddy was back in his boat with $115 in his pocket. Not long after sundown he tied up at the landing and ran up the path to let Mama know that he had the money they would need to allow for her to have her new baby in a hospital. Four weeks later my brother Mike was born in Beaufort, and Daddy paid both the doctor and the hospital for their services before carrying his wife and his new baby home in the same boat he had used to get to Ocracoke.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

No. 111 Academy Field

There are some place names on the Island that everyone knows and remembers, as if it were a birthright; Shell Point, the Sand Hole, Red Hill, and the Bay among them, each because the name describes a natural or physical landmark.In my youth, another was just as well known, even though the name recalled a structure that was long gone, and that only a very few Islanders could remember ever seeing.

That spot was and is called "Academy Field." It lies on the south shore, almost two thirds of the way from the Bridge to Shell Point, and directly across from the Island's elementary school. It took its name from "Jenny Bell's Academy," a primary school established in the aftermath of the Civil War by the Norther Methodist Church. Her school, and hundreds of others just like it, were an attempt by Yankee evangelists to help reconstruct the defeated South into a more civilized and egalitarian society in the decades that followed the War.

Long after Jenny Bell left the Island for the last time, her school house remained a central point and meeting place for the Island community. Both before and after the exodus from Shackleford Banks that quadrupled the Island's population at the close of the 19th century, that small building was the closest thing to a community center to be found. The land title for the academy remained with the Northern Methodist Church after the school's closure, but the church shared its use freely with other fledgling congregations that arose after the arrival of refugees from the Banks; even with the Mormons when their missionaries first arrived in 1898.

After the Island developed with numerous stores, churches, and even a theater (See post no. 70 The Island "Showhouse"), the building itself fell into disrepair due to age and neglect. It was finally demolished sometime before when the Northern and Southern Methodists were consolidated into one congregation in 1939.

But the ten acre or larger plot that surrounded it remained a form of community property almost until then end of the last century. Blessed with some of the largest and most sprawling oaks on the Island, it was an ideal setting for picnics and camp meetings. Several times each summer hundreds of people would line the shoreline there to watch the impromptu boat races that were a part of almost every Memorial, Independence and Labor Day celebration. The brush that surrounded the trees was cut often enough that it was sometimes used as a ball field, and on at least one occasion, a regional Boy Scout "camporee" covered almost the entire plot with tents, huts, and open campfires. Indeed, one of the best things about being assigned to the classrooms on the south side of the Island school house was that you could look to that field, and then beyond it, to see the Lighthouse at the Cape.

But by the decade of the 80s new owners had allowed the brush to grow so tall, and the pine trees to sprout even higher, that Academy Field became a new-growth forest, and even the path to the shore was hidden from everyone except the most ardent hikers. Still, more than a century after Jenny Bell and her supporters gave up on their plan to reshape the culture of a small section of coastal North Carolina, the school she established remains a part of the consciousness, if not the memory, of every Harkers Islander.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

No. 110 Ronald Davis (1933-2012)

Had he lived to his next birthday, my brother-in-law, Ronald Davis, would have been eighty years old. Because of his declining health, his last year seemed much more a part of that life than it should have been. Especially those last few months, as his life slipped away, it might have been hard to see in him the man who so much a part of our lives for so long and who added special moments that many of us will never, ever forget.

We were reminded of some things as we watched him slip from mortality, and we learned some things. No the least of these was about how fortunate he was to have found my sister, June, so early in his life. They were high school sweethearts that not only loved and married, but who literally shared a life together.

June & Ronald, holding two of my children, Joel & Alyson

Any of us who are familiar with how difficult those last few months were for both of them will attest that my sister was, in the words of the song, an "angel among us." It is impossible to imagine that she could have done or offered more than she did. She was and will remain an example to all of us who take seriously the vows we have spoken that include the words, "in sickness and in health, for better and for worse."

It was easy for some of us to assume that perhaps life for both of them might have been simpler and easier if Ronald had been moved to somewhere else, with more resources and stronger arms and backs to attend his needs. But that was not how he or she felt. And in the end, as is promised, it worked out – not just as we might have wanted or planned – but exactly as they wanted and needed.

I have been moved by the insight of man who described his own married life to his daughter:

"Love is not breathlessness, it is not excitement, it is not the promulgation of promises of eternal passion. That is just being in-love, which any of us can convince ourselves we are. Love itself is what is left over when being in-love has burned away, and this is both an art and a fortunate accident. Your mother and I had it, we had roots that grew towards each other underground, and when all the pretty blossoms had fallen from our branches, we found that we were one tree and not two."

-- Captain Corelli's Mandolin

So, now, for a season, part of that tree has fallen, but the other half bears no burden for not having done all she could and more. And she can lay claim to the promise that one day that whole tree will stand tall and full yet again.

June was the third of my father’s ten children, and the oldest that remains. When the folks from Munden’s arrived on Thursday to get Ronald, June greeted them at the door. She welcomed and thanked them, and then pointed to me and Tommy and said, "these are my brothers." And then still speaking in the present tense, she said, "I’ve got seven brothers and two sisters," as if all nine of us were standing beside her. In a sense that she appreciated, we all were (are).

Her home with Ronald has long been a gathering place for all of us and our children, and has been even more so in the fifteen years since Mama left us. On Sunday afternoons and summer evenings the cars have crowded beyond the driveway into her yard, so we could gather with and around her and him. If we were, by and large, June’s relations, it should be known that Ronald enjoyed having us, seemingly, as much as she did. If too long passed between visits, when you showed up he again, he would ask, "where have you been?"

Many if not most of the special occasions of my own children’s lives can be traced to that neighborhood, where June and Ronald’s home sat almost directly in the center - there in the middle of what we reminded him was "Hancock Land," flanked by June’s brother, and two sisters, living on a parcel that had first been developed by another brother, and surrounded on all sided by other land that could be traced back to a Hancock deed - that is where we gathered in the evening, even if we had already been together on Mama’s porch for most of the afternoon.

The World Series, the Superbowl, the Final Four, Political Convention Speeches, Election Night Returns, — these and many more occasions were just another excuse to gather together in that same living room with June and Ronald.

Unlike June, Ronald was an only child. And in a real sense June’s siblings became his family as well. Lest there be any confusion, he loved to talk about the Hancocks as if we were his curse. But he could do that because we knew in our hearts that deep down in his he considered us his blessing.

Ronald was especially sensitive and aware of family relationships. In describing someone on the Island that he knew, he invariably would explain that he or she was a part of some crowd or family, and then tell what were the attributes you could expect because of that. For example, if someone was a part of the Hancock crowd, then according to Ronald they were "stingy" (although we often reminded him that everything that was important in his life could be traced to a Hancock). He had similar traits that he would ascribe, some positive and some negative, to every other family grouping on the Island.

June and Ronald were married a just few months after I was born. Neither my brother Teff nor I can remember a June that did not include Ronald. To us, as to most of the people here, they were one and the same. And one of the great blessings of this wonderful journey that we call life, is that they will remain that way for an eternity.

Indeed, the two of them were able to lived-out what was Robert Browning’s dream:

Grow old along with me!

The best is yet to be,

The last of life, for which the first was made

Although Ronald was grafted in to the Hancock family, he remained to the very end a proud, even defiant champion of the legacy of his grand father, Cleveland Davis. Several things were near and dear to his heart, but it would be safe to say that the first, and always among the strongest of his identities, was that he was part of that "Cleveland Davis crowd", with all that it implied and meant to them and to others.

Ronald’s father, Tilton, was the second of Cleveland and Mattie’s nine children. Cleveland had been one of the literal founders of what became Harkers Island, and he remained a ‘mover and shaker" until his death in 1941. He had a fish house and a store, (the song "The Booze Yacht" mentions that store, as it was sometimes called at that time, the "Beehive") and along with a select few others, he controlled the politics of the Island for more than a generation. His sons, especially Tilton and Hubert, embraced that political legacy with all their hearts.

Ronald grew up following his father and uncles to political gatherings, hanging around at polling places on election days, and driving to Beaufort soon after sundown to be there when the final votes for the whole county were posted on a chalk board at the Courthouse. Long after the passing of his grandfather and father, Ronald continued that election night tradition, and if you had any doubts about his political feelings and passions — well then you didn’t really know him all that well!

Any listing of Ronald’s virtues would have "loyalty" near the top, and to the very end, even as political labels changed and new issues arose that were never even imagined by his parents, Ronald Davis remained true and faithful, and "loyal" to the political affiliations that had meant so much to Cleveland Davis and his descendants for so very long. Try and change to subject to some other issue you might think more relevant today, and Ronald would always remind you of something special that his "party" had done for him or someone he knew and loved.

Also on that list of loyalties was one that was tested with "ultimate disappointment" every summer since 1948. Ronald loved the Cleveland Indians. He grew up in the era of Bob Feller and Herb Score, and he kept thinking, or at least hoping, that his team would reclaim that post-war glory. With a small group of friends that included Henry Allen (Brooks) and his son, Kevin, Perry Ryan (Davis), Alton Paul from Davis, and eventually, my son-in-law, Rodney (Steelman), they were like a special fraternity bound together by their affection for something few other people could fully appreciate. Every time they saw one another, each one knew what would be their first topic of conversation.

Well, the Indians, came awfully close back in 1997, just one out away, but they never got that out. Still, every April up until this one, "hope would spring eternal," and Ronald, usually with a copy of the Sporting News in his hand would say, "I think this is gonna be our year!"

That Sporting News he carried, would turn out to be quite an influence in my life. Long before ESPN, or even local sports broadcasts, that weekly paper and dozens of other magazines were where we learned about Big League Baseball. There was only one televised game a week, and that was often so fuzzy we couldn’t tell the players apart. But in that paper and those magazines I came to know and love a game that, much as was the case with Ronald, has brought me more heartache than celebration over the years.

In fact, one of Ronald’s favorite ploys over the years, was when on those few occasions that the Indians might have won a game against the Red Sox, Ronald would always greet me by inquiring, "I ain’t seen the scores today, how did that game turn out last night?"

Ronald’s love for sports was not limited to watching and reading and arguing. He was quite the player in his day. He was a standout member of the last basketball team that represented Harkers Island High School, while his girlfriend, filled a similar role on the girl’s team. Ask Bobby Russell or my Uncle Dick (Lewis) about Ronald on the basketball court, even that outdoor concrete one that sat behind the old Harkers Island School, where they learned to shoot at straight angles, with very little arch, to avoid the ball being blown off-course by the northwest winds that were a constant part of winter practices.

Still later he played and coached a softball team that played in the county league, and that most memorably had two unforgettable wins over our local rivals; one that ended with his good friend Bob Shipp being thrown out at the plate after he had hit a ball so far that it took not one but two relay throws to reach the catcher. But reach it it did, and Bob was out no matter what kind of stories he may still be telling.

Those who knew and loved him could appreciate the small, sometimes unique, things that made his life and his person so special.

Early on in their marriage, every evening after work Ronald used to love to walk up to Fillmore’s store, right there in the heart of Cleveland Davis land and what was the closest we had to a down-town. He would get a six oz Dr Pepper and pack of nabs and stand in front, not inside, the store and visit with people as the walked in or by. That all ended when he observed someone who was stoned drunk leave the store one evening only to be involved in a fatal accidents a few minutes later. After Ronald was called to testify in the court hearing, he determined never to have that responsibility again, and his days of standing outside the store were over forever.

Like his father, Ronald loved small children, and unlike so many others, not just his. Each of my children in their early and formative years considered him as much a playmate as an uncle. He always, again like his father, carried some candy in his pockets to share with the children that he ran into, even at church. It was a ritual for my kids to find him as soon we arrived on Sunday morning, and then to come back to where we were seated, with a handful of candy.

Similar to what he felt for children was his affection for family pets. From the German Shepard, Dash, of my boyhood, and especially to my brother Mike’s Labrador Retrievers, Sandy and Charlie, Ronald treated them more like people than like pets. Even when money was tight, and other dogs were eating dried dog good or Alpo from a can, Ronald would drive to the store and come back with a package of hotdogs or even bologna or ham to feed to feed them, what he said was, "something they really wanted."

Ronald spent a short time in the Coast Guard. We loved to talk about while undergoing basic training, for some reason June and another wife decided to go all the way to Cape May, NJ to be close by so that whenever their husbands were granted leave, they were there to visit. We would always surmise that June was the first woman from the Island to undergo boot camp, and that Ronald was the first man from the Island to take his wife with him when he went.

After a few years of piddling jobs on the Island at the Fish House and building boats, Ronald eventually caught on at Cherry Point where he later would retire. But through all of that he still loved to hang around at the fish houses and docks, and was often part of my brother Mike’s crew when croakers and spots showed up in the late fall. Mike was probably his closest friend and the interaction between them was a delight to others as well as them. Each knew exactly how to pull the strings of the other, and they were especially happy to do just that. But they could do that because their bonds were so strong that like with small puppies, ribbing and even playing added to, rather than detracted from, their affection for each other.

I’ll give you a small example. As I mentioned, whenever he was available Ronald was always a part of the crew that went fishing with Mike. So when Mike entered on one of his projects, this time building what would become the "Seven Brothers," his largest trawler ever, Ronald would usually come home and then go over and "piddle" with Mike on the boat. In fact, Ronald was an accomplished "disk-sander" and it was assumed that this was one job that would always be left for him. But for some reason, as the boat neared completion, the subject came up of how many men it would take to work this boat with all of its gadgets, including a wench and a large spool, to take much of the hardest work from pulling in a sink net.

When Ronald mentioned that he would certainly be one of those who would still be needed, my brother Mike explained the following: "When it comes to crews for the boat, I’ve got two lists, and you’re on both of them. One is a list of those who will be going with me, and you’re on the bottom of that list. The other is a list of those that ain’t gonna go with me, and you’re at the top of that list! So you can rest assured that you’re on both of my lists!" You can imagine the way that Ronald looked back at him, and even guess what Ronald called him in his response.

Beyond having been together at the school they attended together there was another place where June and Ronald met together, and it was there that would be nurtured the tie that eventually would bind them as one for the eternities.

Because, if Ronald was heir to the cultural and political legacy of his grandfather Cleveland through his father Tilton, he was even more devoted to the religious legacy he inherited from his grandmother Annabelle, through his mother, Marie.

Annabelle had been among the first and most devoted converts to the Mormon Church on Harkers Island. Her sister, Sabra even donated the land that was home to the first Mormon chapel on the Island, and that was eventually burned. Some of Annabelle’s children, especially her daughters Thelma and Marie, embraced that commitment with all their souls. And Marie made sure that her son, Ronald, was aware of and true to that tradition.

Ronald was never the kind to seek, or even accept, public responsibility for leadership, not even in the Church. But from the earliest days of his youth, until the very end of his life, one thing could be said of him and his involvement in this faith, and it could be said without any reservation. He was always there!

From the late 1930's to the beginning of this decade, in every group picture of the membership or brethren of the LDS group on the Island, you can find his face, usually at the back, often partially hidden behind someone more prominent, but he is always there.

To use the expression made popular by Winston Churchill after World War II to describe refugees from Eastern Europe who, he said, voted with their feet, Ronald Davis showed his allegiance with his feet and hands. In his very extremities he was part and parcel of what he believed to be this great "Latter-day work."

Every sacrament meeting on Harkers Island, every Priesthood meeting in Kinston, every clean-up project at the graveyard and every welfare project tearing off and replacing shingles on someone’s roof, he always was constant in at least one thing. He was always there, lending his hands as well as his heart, sustaining the Priesthood in the best way he knew how, by being there and being counted.

In the New Testament Book of James, the brother of Jesus observed,

(New Testament | James 1:27) "Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world."

If James was right, and this be the case, then our brother Ronald had "pure religion," as much as any of us, and more than most of us.

If his co-workers remembered him for anything it was for bringing a pan of June’s light bread to someone who was sick or grieving. All over the Island, there are those who will speak with fondness of the little things he brought or did, often in the shade, to lift the spirits of someone he knew to be hurting.

Indeed, the one angle of the old political tradition that he held onto the most firmly was the idea that "government was supposed to help people!"

In Priesthood meeting each Sunday it is asked if there is anyone sick or who needed help. As long as he had ears to hear and a voice to speak, Ronald could be counted on to point out who it was that needed our help, and not just our prayers. Then, sometimes, audibly and sometimes under his breath, he would echo the same thing he believed about government by saying, "the church is supposed to help people!"

To quote again from that same Apostle James mentioned a moment ago, this too was Ronald’s religious credo,

(James 2:17 - 20)
7 Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.
18 Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works.
19 Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble.
20 But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?

Ronald was a man of faith, evidenced in little things like his prayers of faith, his tithes and his offering, his stated testimony, and constant presence. But more than any other way, he evidenced his faith by his works -small and away from the beaten path – but heartfelt and constant and never-wavering.

I knew Ronald Davis all of my life, and most of his. I knew him as a son and husband, as a father and as a brother, as an uncle and as a grandfather, and in all of these he tried to do his very best, and when judged by that standard he will not come up as wanting. But I also knew his as a worker in the vineyard of the Lord, and can testify in his behalf that he was always there to be numbered among the Saints.

Just like the Ronald Davis whom today we remember, we live, we love, we laugh, we cry, and then eventually, someday, all of us must die. The Apostle Paul had that in mind when he wrote to the Corinthians:

(New Testament | 1 Corinthians 15:19 - 22)
If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.
But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept
For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead.
For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.
When I was just a teenager I was asked to participate in the funeral of a friend, a teammate, who had been killed in a Holiday hunting accident. As I looked at his lifeless body, still handsome and vibrant as it lie in the casket, I thought that I fully appreciated for the first time the promise of the resurrection. Little did I understand the full lessons that life would teach me.

How much more fully I had come to appreciate how wonderful was the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ when last Sunday night I stared at Ronald as he lay on his own sofa, wearing clothes that my sister had loving put on his almost lifeless body, and compared that to the man I had known over the years – smiling, joking, laughing, working, playing and so much a part of the life that I had loved. Then I could sense more than ever the true miracle of the Resurrection and the promise that we, even our physical bodies, will someday be restored, and that not so much as a hair on our heads will be forgotten.

And as I saw the sadness and pain in my Sister’s eyes I was reminded that even more than that, the things that we hold most dear in life, will be restored as well - including our families and our sweet relationships that in the end, are more important to us than life itself.
"Temporary separation at death and the other difficulties that attend us as we all move toward that end [of life] are part of the price we pay for love in this world, the price we pay for the joy of birth and family ties and the fun of [life] spent together..." Still, it remains a price that we are willing to pay!
To Ronald, the shoreline beside Cleveland’s, later Henry’s, Dock was sacred ground. And so I leave you with these words of Longfellow.

The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls (Longfellow)

The tide rises, the tide falls
The twilight darkens, the curlew calls
Along the sea sands damp and brown
The traveler hastens toward the town
And the tide rises, the tide falls

Darkness settles on roofs and walls
But the sea, the sea in the darkness calls
The little waves with their soft white hands
Erase the footprints in the sands
And the tide rises, the tide falls

The day returns but never more
Returns the traveler to the shore
And the tide rises, the tide falls
Where Ronald Davis now walks, there is no tide or windblown sand that can ever again erase his footprints!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

No. 109 Wilson Davis, A Man Who Hit .300

Note: In 2004 I was asked to speak at the funeral for Wilson Davis, one of my boyhood coaches who remained an important part of my life. The following is an excerpt from my remarks.

I must have been a teenager before I realized that the name "WILSON" stamped on baseballs, gloves, and catchers' equipment was something other than the ownership marking of a man who was very much a part of my life, Wilson Davis. Let me explain.

Cap Anson, one of the earliest heroes of baseball (a player and coach for the Cincinnati Redstockings of the old National Association) chose to have the following inscribed on his gravestone. "Here lies a man who batted .300." In baseball, there is something magical about that number. Hitting .299 and everything below it is failure, or at best mediocrity. But a .300 average and all above it means you did it right; you were a success.  Wilson Davis was not just a .300 hitter. He was a .300 person.

One of the main lessons I learned from Wilson was that the game of baseball is supposed to be fun. There is a reason that each game, according to the official rule book of the game, must  begin with the words, "Play Ball" You should play it hard and play it well, and play to win, but baseball, like life, should be fun. As he once said, ''If it ain't fun, you ain't doing it right.''

I knew Wilson almost all of my life. I had hundreds of conversations with him, maybe a thousand, and BASEBALL was part, in one way or another,  of almost every single conversation:  how to play it, how to enjoy it, what it teaches us, what it meant and what it still means.

Even as we grew older; or should I say, especially as we grew older, the lessons we learned in baseball seemed to have more relevance.

In Ray Kinsella's classic novel, "Shoeless Joe," one of the characters (depicted in the movie "Field of Dreams" by James Earl Jones) makes an observation as he heads to the left field corn rows and into eternity.

"The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It's been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and that could be again. ...”

There is a reason that old men go back so often to see the game they once played, because more than any other, it has remained the same from generation to generation. Old eyes look again on the game they played as boys, and if for only a brief moment, they are somehow young again.

When young men cross the lines of white
Things are as they seem.
Boys play pall, the throw and hit
And run the fields of green.

Then as old men they come once more 
To cross those lines some day
But its in their hearts and their mind's eye
That once gain they play.

For when young men cross lines of white
Things are as they seem
But for old men it something more
It becomes a Field of Dreams.

(Field of Dreams-Joel Hancock 1985) 

But if baseball were of value and interest only for old men, wishing they were still young, then it would not have become the generational glue that it truly is.

Hence the following observation,

''Somewhere, at this moment,  ... in a backyard, a young child and a parent begins to play catch. The child holds the too-big glove on his hand, outstretched, while the parent tosses the ball underhand toward the glove. Missed. Again, underhand to the glove, hitting the webbing and out onto the soft green grass... Methodically, this parental attempt at the small success of the first catch can go on for hours, days, weeks. Sooner or later the ball softly thrown lands in the glove and the too small free hand clamps down over it, trapping forever in leather and love the sweet, satisfying moment of a child's first catch.

''This is work, often tedious and unrewarding. Most parenting is. Yet it is every bit as necessary as the difficult work done by a builder when he digs deep into the ground to lay a foundation. Once completed, the foundation is never seen again. It is buried under sand and dirt, covered with layer after layer of heavy block, designed to support the whole base. It will only be noticed again if its defective.

''As we look for answers, for solutions to the mysteries of raising children, we need to recognize the familiar as a way to build a foundation that will support our children throughout the epic shifts they will inevitably face in their lives. With baseball, the simple, purely American game of baseball, parents are afforded an opportunity to play with their children and, at the same time, teach them the rudimentary and the subtly discovered lessons of life.'' "Rules of the Game" - Hohenstein

In 1965 I was the youngest (not quite thirteen) player in Carteret County's Babe Ruth League (we still called it the "Pony League.) Wilson was my coach. I began as an infielder, but soon he convinced me that playing infield was for "Sissies." Real men, like him, always played the same position; they were catchers. ("Back catchers," who wore equipment that was called "the tools of ignorance.")

Our very first game was played on the field behind the old Beaufort High School. In my first at bat, Wilson prepared me with this advice. He, the fifteen year old pitcher for the Beaufort VFW, was so much bigger than me that he would try to over-power me. I could assume that his first pitch would be a fast ball down the middle. That would be my pitch to hit.

I took his advice and swung. I was a little late, but just a little, and I hit a rocket down the first base line and past the first baseman. Soon I had rounded first and was heading for second. In this situation I had been taught that now I should look to the third base coach and let him tell me what to do next. As I looked in his direction I could see Wilson with both hands high in the air, telling me to hold at second. Once there I looked behind me and saw that the right fielder still had not gotten to the ball. ( There was no outfield fence at the Beaufort field. The ball just kept rolling until it stopped.) Seeing that, I headed for third. Again, Wilson held up his hands and stopped me once more. This time as I looked back I could see the ball just now making it back to the infield.

"Why did you hold me up?" I asked. ''I could have had a home run.'' It was then I learned that in the heat and humidity of the summer's evening, Wilson had decided to clean his "coke bottle thick" glasses as I went to bat. Everything happened so fast that his glasses were still in his hand as I began my trip around the bases.

Explaining that to me he added, "With my glasses off I can't even see who's pitching, must less follow a three inch ball. I kinda felt like as little as you are, you ought to be satisfied with a double!" He made it a point to never hold me up again without a good reason.

As earlier mentioned, I was but one of many boys and men, and through them, our wives and children, whom Wilson touched. I am relatively sure, that he never received so much as a penny in compensation, but it was obvious then, and to the very end, that money was not what he was looking for. Oh, it was fun to him, maybe even more fun than coon hunting, but it was more than fun; it was a way of life.

After her stopped coaching Pony League, he worked and played with the Eastern Blues and several other teams, made up mostly of men like him, who still enjoyed playing a boy's game. In retrospect, maybe that was what we loved the most. Once inside the lines of a baseball field, we were all boys again, if only for a couple of hours; if only for nine innings! It helped him to keep everything else in life in a proper perspective.

Case in point. Many years later, on one of his frequent trips to West Virginia, where he kept some race horses that he owned, he had a heart attack - not just a scare but a full blown attack. When finally he returned after a lengthy convalescence, I asked, almost jokingly, "How was your trip?" He began to outline his trip as follows, "I had a heart attack,” and then he hesitated for a moment, before blurting out, “But I won a stakes race. So I guess, all in all, I had a good trip!"

The same could be said for the life he live so well, "All in all, he had a good trip!"

As I look back on his life, and the game that he loved, and that he helped me to love, I am reminded of George Carlin's classic monologue about the differences between baseball and football.

"... The objectives of the two games are completely different: In football the object is for the quarterback, also known as the field general, to be on target with his aerial assault, riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy in spite of the blitz, even if he has to use shotgun. With short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing this aerial assault with a sustained ground attack that punches holes in the forward wall of the enemy's defensive line... until he reaches the end zone.

In baseball the object is much simpler. It is to be safe! And to go home! - I hope I'll be safe at home!

Only slightly more sublime is the following observation made by Ken Burns & Geoffrey Ward in the preface to their book and documentary on the history of the national pastime.

"At the games's heart lie mythic contradictions: a pastoral game, born in crowded cities; an exhilarating democratic sport that tolerates cheating; a profoundly conservative game that sometimes manages to be years ahead of its time. It is an American odyssey that links sons and daughters to father and grandfathers...It is a haunted game, where each player is measured by the ghosts of those who have gone before. Most of all, it is about time and timelessness, speed and grace, failure and loss, imperishable hope, and coming home.

It’s now been more than eight years since Wilson Davis  rounded third for the last time and crossed the plate. I trust that he was safe at home!

Harmon Killebrew, a Hall of Famer from a generation ago, tells this brief story,

My father used to play with my brother and me in the yard.  Mother would come out and say, "You're tearing up the grass."  "We're not raising grass," Dad would reply.  "We're raising boys."

I’m lucky and glad that I was one of those boys. This tribute is my thanks to him for having helped to raise me and a hundred other boys just like me. And when I take my sons and grandsons to see his tombstone, I always  tell them, without reservation,"Here lies a man who hit .300!"

Like their father, my boys play baseball. They know exactly what I mean!

Sunday, September 2, 2012

No. 108 "Hardened Oak and Iron Nails," The Lesson of Earl Davis

Everywhere along the shore at the Landing there were boards; pieces of wood of different sizes, shapes and kinds. It was obvious that they had accumulated rather than been put there. They were usually at least six feet, making them long enough to be used in sliding boats up onto the shore. Placed side by side and end to end, they could make a runway atop the soft sea sand that enabled enough strong arms, legs and backs to pull a boat from the water and onto the dry land.

It was supposed that all of it was scrap lumber that had either washed-up as driftwood on the beach at the Banks, or been salvaged from some abandoned building or porch before it was scattered or burned. In every direction, from Shell Point to Red Hill, it was always there as community property to be used until it had either rotted or floated away.

One summer morning my friend Alton and I were playing along the shore by the home of my Aunt "Big Sister" and her husband, Earl. Uncle Earl was home that morning and he was working at the landing and trying to organize or dispose of the debris that had accumulated there after a long summer of sou'westers blowing off the Banks.

As so often was the case, he soon engaged us in helping to gather and move the cans and bottles and the tattered nets and lines that marred his otherwise pristine shoreline. Unlike so many others, he always was generous in handing out nickels, dimes, and even quarters after we had "lent him a hand," so we were happy, even anxious, to help him that morning.

My Uncle, Earl C. Davis, the husband
of my Aunt Lillian, "Big  Sister"
Earl was an extraordinary man in more ways than one. Sharing his pocket change with neighborhood boys was among the least of his special traits. He was both a college-educated and a self-made man whose interests extended far beyond the boundaries of the little Island he was born and raised on. He loved his home and its people for what it was, but unlike many others, he dreamed about what the Island might someday be. Beginning when he himself was a small boy and continuing to the very end of his life, he was engaged with both head and heart (and hands) in one project or another to make his Island home a better place for him and others.

From the Island's first phone lines, to an electric cooperative, to a movie theater, and community water system, Earl Davis' hand prints are even more indelible than are his signatures. And the latter can can be found on every important document in the Island's modern history. Perhaps most importantly of all, he subdivided and then offered for sale his family's inherited property in such a way that even the Island's poorest and humblest families could buy a "piece of land" to call their own. Several generations of Islanders now live in homes with deeds that include the phrase "Earl Davis Subdivision" somewhere in the legal description.

But all of that was far from our minds that summer morning as Alton and I worked beside him arm-in-arm moving, hauling, and piling the clutter that had amassed along his shoreline. When finally we finished, just as expected, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a quarter for each of us; enough to make us the richest boys on the Island for the next few days.

But, before we left, he pointed to a pile of boards the we had stacked on the far eastern corner of his land, off the shore and up on his grassy yard that stretched over a hundred feet to his sprawling screened-in porch. This pile was markedly different from the others that lined the landing shore, and not just because the boards were neatly stacked. Most of them looked enough alike to suggest that they had come from the same place and for the same reason. They were similar in width and length and all were at least a full inch thick. They were bleached a silver-gray color by the salt and sun but it was clear that they were still sturdy and strong, and could be used for things far more substantial than as a runway for boats on the shore.

Handing out two hammers and a handful of iron nails, he explained that these boards were not the pine, juniper, poplar or cypress that were more likely to be found. These were "solid oak" and were "hardwood;" so hard in fact that he had a little challenge for us. He would pay us an extra dime for every nail we could drive all the way to its head into any of those boards.

Having grown-up around carpenters and learned to hammer at nails before we could remember, we were eager to take him up on his offer and were confident that within another few minutes we would have more than doubled our bounty for the morning. So, grabbing his hammers and several of the nails, we bent over the pile and started flailing away. Ten minutes later we were still flailing with dozens of bent nails strewn by our side; but not a single one showing its head pressed against the lumber. Standing beside us, Uncle Earl was laughing, and the harder we swung the hammers, the harder he laughed.

Finally, he interrupted, and taking one last nail that he had held between his fingers, he searched and found a grain-mark in the solid oak and gently tapped the nail until it had set far enough that he could offer a final pounding blow that finished the task.

We were as astounded as we were disappointed, but not for very long. Before we could even beg for for another chance, he pulled two dimes out of his pocket and sent us on our way. The lesson we learned that day about hardened wood and iron nails lasted a whole lot longer that the money we hurried to show-off to our friends. And the man who was our teacher remains an inspiration to anyone on the Island who ever has wondered, "what if?" 

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

No. 107 Harkers Island "Professionals" Part 3 "Raymond Guthrie"

One of the men whom people on the Island looked to was Raymond Guthrie (b. 1916) He lived almost directly across the road from our house and I knew him well. For years he ran a little store that was known  simply as "Raymond's Store" even after he had passed it on to others. But he was best known, especially in our neighborhood, as our community “lawyer,” despite the fact that he had never studied for even a day in a school of law. So, obviously he was not an attorney in a technical sense, but without so much as a high school diploma he was the one people looked to when they needed to make their case in the form of a letter.

Raymond Guthrie, the Island's "Lawyer"
When did people go to Raymond for help? When a catalog order from Sears-Roebuck didn't show up or arrived already broken; when an outstanding bill came from a lender who threatened collection; when a appeal was needed to a congressman for a son or husband who served in the military and wanted a transfer closer to home, or when someone needed to complete an application to work for at the military base in Cherry Point or on the ferry that left from Cedar Island. For these and a hundred other scenarios, Raymond Guthrie could prepare a letter to plead your case - and usually for a fee of five dollars or less.

Raymond never married. He shared a home with his parents and a brother, Charlie Callis (b. 1914). After the passing of their parents the brothers grew increasingly eccentric and became the subject of gossip. They seldom ventured far from our neighborhood, leaving only in their fishing boat to go sink-netting at and around Cape Lookout. But they, especially Raymond, had a cosmopolitan interest that was evidenced by the piles of magazines and newspapers that crowded his living room floor and tables. And he would tell us stories of calling telephone information, a toll free call then, to distant parts of the world just so he could say "I spoke to someone last night in New Zealand, Portugal, or Kenya!" Charlie Callis, who had served in the army during World War II, would sometime disappear for weeks at a time, only to return home and announce that he had been back to Scotland visiting war-time friends.

Eventually, their home, once immaculately kept, became a haven for feral cats and other animals. He even had a pig that grew so large that it could no longer stand on its own. Eventually, in a case that drew national attention -- yes national -- the two were blackmailed for the return of one of their favorite cats ("Cry Baby"), with a ransom demand of more than a thousand dollars. Happily for Raymond, and for the cat, their pet was returned without any injury and the perpetrator was arrested.
Charlie Callas Guthrie while serving in WWII

But now, two decades after both brothers have passed and their house completely renovated, Raymond is remembered mostly as an advocate and attorney who could write and say things on paper in away that his friends could appreciate, and that others would understand.

In more ways than one, the Island that I knew as a boy was a web of shared skills and talents that more than substituted for the lack of trained professionals. In a very real sense, because of people like Charlie Nelson, Maxwell Willis and Raymond Guthrie, Harkers Island was a “barter economy” when it came to professional services. There were many other men and women who had special talents that were known and utilized by their families, their neighborhood and by the whole Island.

The professional offices of Beaufort and Morehead were much farther away than the actual distance that could be shown on a map. Even if they had been closer, most Islanders could not have afforded their services. But because we had each other, that distance and price didn’t matter quite as much.

No. 106 Harkers Island "Professionals" Part 2 "Maxwell Willis"

A man of many talents was Maxwell Willis, (b. 1912) He had the mind of an accountant, the skills of an electrician, the mathematics of a technician, and the vision of a civil engineer. With little formal education, but a lifetime of knowledge taken from hundreds of books that he read and studied, he played a central part in many of the changes that allowed the Island to emerge from traditional ways as it adopted the advances of the twentieth century.

Maxwell Willis, Harkers Island's Rennaissance Man"
He started out as a clerk with a local cooperative, the Harkers Island EMC, when it brought electricity to the Island in 1939. But he quickly advanced to the rank of director. He handled finances, including funding from several government sources, billing, payroll, and facility maintenance costs. But more importantly, he oversaw construction, repairs and planning for an enterprise that eventually was valued well in excess of a million dollars.

Long before the age of electronic “gadgets,” Maxwell was the ultimate gadgeteer. He was the first on the Island to have the latest phonograph, radio, and television equipment. His large library of books and manuals influenced not just what he knew, but how he wrote and communicated that knowledge to others. He was equally adept and comfortable when discussing electrical engineering with government scientists as when explaining construction basics to a newly hired lineman.

Like other “Renaissance Men” he was eclectic in his interests. He was a lover of art,  music and movies. His affection for animals and birds all but defined him to his closest friends. His place atop Red Hill was something of a menagerie that included even a monkey that delighted and fascinated Island children as it swung from the vines and limbs of the oak trees.

Beyond his professional responsibilities, because of his engineering and architectural skills he was a resource for anyone who needed to know how to make or fix something. Part architect, part electrician, and several more parts engineer, Maxwell could make plans and then see them become a reality. Carpenters, plumbers and masons all sought him out when tackling a new or difficult project and his approval was a sure sign that a plan was ready to be implemented.

Next: Part 3: "Raymond Guthrie"

No. 105 Harkers Island "Professionals" Part 1 "Charlie Nelson"

Separated from the mainland, and most of its legal and economic institutions, as the Island was in the mid-1900s, there was little need for full-time professionals who hung a shingle to announce their special skills. But there were among us men of special talents who could fill that void on any occasion that might call for an ability, skill or talent beyond those needed in the routines of daily living.

One of those “specialists” who was frequently called on was Charlie Nelson (b. 1894), a self-taught land surveyor. Very early in his life he assumed as his life's work a responsibility to legitimize the Island’s parcels and boundaries, many of which before him were based mostly on oral agreements and hand-shakes. His hand-made drawings on the maps he created were the works of a master, and his artful lettering and numbers had the look of calligraphy.

He was often seen walking up and down the Island, carrying a bundle of his equipment that included a tripod, a compass, notebooks, and a surveyor's chain.

His was not an easy task, and not because of simmering disagreements over where one lot ended and another began. Instead, his main challenge stemmed from the fact that the Island's shoreline runs a few degrees off from what was assumed to be due east and west. The land lines were drawn perpendicular to that same shoreline so that when charted on a grid, they were hardly ever at the right angles that had been assumed.

Even today, many local deed plots have the appearance of trapezoids and parallelograms rather than the shapes of planned rectangles or squares. And most of them still reference an initial survey that displays the name of Charlie Nelson, Esq. In spite of the challenges of the layout and topography involved, the old maps stamped with his seal remain artistic achievements as much as legal documents.

The same handwriting and descriptive skills that served him as a surveyor also led family and friends to call on him for preparing wills, deeds, and other personal legal documents. It was standard practice for any business agreement on the Island to conclude with the statement, "Let's go see Charlie Nelson and make it legal!"

Next: Part 2 "Maxwell Willis"

Saturday, June 2, 2012

No. 104 "Never Again!" Daddy's job in Petersburg, VA

My father, Charlie Hancock, standing by
a sign announcing his charter business.

Not long after they were married, my father accepted the invitation of his father-in-law to become part of his dredge boat crew that was then working near Petersburg, VA.  Perhaps he had grown anxious about the responsibility of supporting a family by working the water. Or maybe he was allured by the thought of having a steady income, a sirens song that called more than one fisherman’s son from the Island to a mainland job.

Daddy's initial commitment required that he be gone for six weeks, but that might not have seemed so very long to someone who had his whole life still ahead of him. So off he went, leaving Mama, who was expecting their second child, and his son, Ralph, who was still less than a year old.

When he returned home after the first six weeks of his new career it became apparent that his mind had changed as to his interest in a dredging career. If his mind was not already made up, his decision was driven home for him when, as he greeted his family, Ralph ran from his grasp to the arms of Mama’s uncle, Telford. At that very moment he made a vow never again to allow that his children would prefer some other man over him.

So it was that almost immediately he announced that he had changed his mind about working on a dredge boat, or more specifically, about doing anything that took him away from his home and family after sundown. The rest of his life he would boast, or lament – depending on the occasion, that his first trip away from his family was also his last, and that if he had it to do over, he would have skipped that one as well!

Monday, May 21, 2012

No. 103 The Tragic Story of Abram Lewis

Anytime we saw his red push cart coming down the road we ran as if to hide. He had never done anything to anybody that we knew of, but there was something scary and strange about the way he looked and moved, and our reflex action, whenever we caught sight of him coming, was to get far away, or at least out of  his path.

His name was Abram Lewis, and when I think back on my own reactions to him I am ashamed. And the older I get, the more ashamed I am. Abram suffered from a severe form of cerebral palsy that left him almost totally disabled. He could not speak, only to grunt and moan. He couldn't walk either and he moved around on an old Western Flyer cart that was worn and weather-beaten. He steered with one outstretched hand while he pushed his cart along with a leg that extended over one side. The foot that he used for pushing was usually covered only with a sock that had been worn through so badly that the bare skin of his toes was always visible.

He wore old clothes that fit poorly and that were often both tattered and torn. They always appeared soiled, or at best unkempt. His face had a bearded stubble that accented a ruddy complexion, and his deep dark eyes evidenced a sadness that still haunts me when I remember his staring into mine.

Abram was one of several children born to a family that was very poor by today's standards. But on the Harkers Island of my youth his family was no more impoverished than most of their neighbors. So it was not poverty alone that caused him to be treated the way he was. Rather Abram's decrepit appearance was caused by a lack of sensitivity and even compassion. In retrospect, there was so little of both that it could be said that his life was less a life than a mere existence. And the latter was entirely lacking of the human dignity that might have been expected and ought to have been demanded.

In my memory, because of his handicaps and illness, Abram was seen and treated not with mercy but with begrudging pity and frequently with overt derision. Even some people in his own extended family seemed to feel as if he were a burden to be endured and nothing more. Some teenagers would mock and jeer him, and even those that were not the perpetrators were guilty of allowing others to make their fun, and even laughing as the scenes played out. Most grownups simply ignored him; a response that was hardly more laudable than the pranks of their children. Smaller children just ran away, as much because of what we had been told as because of anything we might actually have seen.

It would be comforting to think that Abram Lewis was the only person I knew who was victimized by his time and condition, but there were others whose situation differed only in the degree of their disability. Very few of them had the benefit of the special treatment they needed to make their lives more comfortable and bearable. I can't accept that this benign neglect was entirely because of a lack of love or concern or even of resources. It was, I presume, much more attributable to a lack of any awareness of what should and could be done.

Abram's story had a happy ending of sorts. When he was forty years old he was placed in a state maintained training school, almost a hundred miles away in Kinston. There, he finally got the attention, therapy, and even the compassion he had been denied during those first long formative years. Gladly for him, we eventually learned that Abram's disability did not extend to his mental capacities. In fact, he had been fully aware of the life he had been compelled to live. And those of us who had either mistreated or ignored him came to understand that the victim of our neglect had not been so oblivious to our behavior as we might have hoped. Knowing that he had been aware of the indignity of his condition, as well as our apparent lack of caring compassion, has been a lasting shame to me and many others — if only because of what and how we passively witnessed.

Abram lived for another thirty years in Kinston at the facility that had saved him from the indignity he had known as a child and man in the place where he was born. Friends and family who visited him there brought back stories of someone who would have been unrecognizable to most of those who once had belittled him. Thankfully, one of the ways that the Island, and the world of today is far better than the one I knew as a boy is in how we treat and interact with people like Abram Lewis.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

No. 102 From Courthouse Square in Beaufort to Eisenhower Auditorium in State College

Joel Hancock Law Firm
One of my own father's earliest memories was of traveling in a sail skiff to Beaufort with his father in 1914 to see and hear the politician and statesman, William Jennings Bryan. Bryan was serving as Secretary of State in the first Wilson administration and was traveling the country to shore up support for a war that had divided the country. He had twice been a candidate for President and would later earn more lasting fame as a central character and prosecutor of John Scopes in the famous (infamous) "monkey trial" in 1925.
William Jennings Bryan
"The Great Communicator"

Bryan was widely considered to be the greatest orator of his time. He must have been something special to have left such a lasting impression on a five-year-old boy who was still a year away from starting the first grade. Until his death in 2002 at just short of his ninety-third birthday, my father would speak of that experience with both pride and clarity. He would describe the setting, the excitement in the crowd, sitting atop his father's shoulders, and even the storm-tossed sailboat ride home late that evening. But what most impressed me, his tenth and last child, was his vivid recollection of what he heard said that day on the steps of the new courthouse that had recently been erected just two blocks from the docks of the bustling Beaufort harbor.
Charlie Hancock, my grandfather

"Deny a child and education," he often repeated, "and you might as well cut off his arms and legs!" And to add credence to his assertion he would add, "That's what William Jennings Bryan said when he came to Beaufort in 1914."

Though my father's own education would conclude in the seventh grade of Harkers Island School less than a decade later, he was a firm believer in the value of an education, and he did his best to make sure that his children had opportunities that he had not. He served on the local school board for a time and took a then unpopular stand in advocating consolidating the Island's high school with Smyrna to increase opportunities for local children.

And, largely because of his esteem for Bryan, he held a deep admiration for the legal profession. He viewed both judges and attorneys as the consummate professionals, and the title "lawyer" was one he venerated and respected. I think that when he himself served as a local tax-lister and registrar he may have imagined in at least a small way that he was fulfilling a role as part of the legal profession.
My father holding and reading to my son, Joel Jr.,
in his favorite easy chair

The memory of those moments and images came rushing through my mind as I watched his grandson, my son Joel, walk across the stage to accept a degree and the title of "Juris Doctor" and "Attorney at Law." I was sitting in a group that included Joel's son, my grandson, Calvin. In my imagination, I could see my father, both as a little boy on my grandfather's shoulders and as an aging old man bouncing his own grandson on his knee. I could feel for and with him a sense of honor and pride that this grandson was now entitled to wear the mantle and robe of the same profession as had the immortal Bryan.

For a few minutes, I was part of something that was as impossible to deny as it is difficult to explain. There I was sitting in an auditorium six hundred miles from the only home I have ever known, but I was smack dab in the middle of a gathering that somehow included not just my son (Joel) and grandson (Calvin), but also my father (Charlie William) and my grandfather (Charlie). And just as amazingly, there was even a special seat for the "the Great Commoner" himself, William Jennings Bryan, as he too shared in the pride of an event that he helped to inspire almost a century earlier.