Tuesday, February 28, 2012

No. 97 The smell of salt marshes at the Banks



A salt marsh has an aroma all its own. Throw in the odors of the feral horses, cattle, and sheep, that once populated the Banks, and what you remember is a smell unlike anything else you have ever known; and one you will never forget --- and especially not Mary Willis!

Mary had been born and raised at Diamond City. She left with her family and all the others after the storm of 1899. Arriving at Harkers Island with all the possessions she had left, Mary carved out a life on the south shore of the Island, less than a quarter mile from where I would later grow up. I knew her, but only as an old woman who wore a bonnet and walked with her shoulders leaning sharply forward.

After experiencing that first exodus, Mary was blessed never to need to pull up stakes again. For the next seventy years she remained at or near the very sport where the skiff carrying her family had landed early in the fall of 1899.

At first, she often was drawn to the Landing where she looked across to the southeast, and to where she had spent her childhood. It was less than five miles distant and on clear days in the spring and fall she could still see clearly the hills, and even the marshes that dotted the landscape there. Many of her family and friends, especially the men, often went back to fish or hunt or dig for clams, or just to reminisce. But for Mary such a time never came. She soon was raising a family of her own and may never have had the occasion, or the means, or maybe even the yearning, to go back to a place she knew had changed so dramatically from what she remembered.

Time passed, and old routines gave way to new ones, and none of them ever drew or sent her back to the Banks. Years turned into decades and eventually so much time had passed that she no longer gazed across the water to imagine old sights and sounds.

Then, for some reason never fully explained, when she was in her seventies, Mary went back. Her son, Willie Guion, convinced her one day to climb into his open boat, so that he could carry her again, just one more time, to what had once been Diamond City. It was a calm, almost “slick cam” Summer Day, as the two of them headed off for the half-hour boat ride across the channel and shoals, and into a small cove that was called Bells Island. From there they wound their way westward through a maize of marshes that eventually gave way to Banks Bay, and finally to the “horse pen” that marked the shore of where her home had once stood less than a fifty yards distant.

As the mother and her son moved slowly through the marshes, one more time Mary saw sights, heard sounds, and sensed aromas that she had not known for more than half a century. And as she did, the years came rushing back, and for a moment at least, she was a young girl once again; running on the shore, throwing shells in the wind, and watching horses and cattle make their way through vines and rushes.

It was there that Mary stood up in the slow moving boat and took a deep breath of the salty air that hangs like a mist around the summer marshes. Then, with a broad smile and voice that almost shouted, she turned to her son and asked, “Hon, don’t that horse piss smell good?

[p.s. When my children are coming home after having been away for extended periods, they sometimes mention that they lower the windows in their car as they approach the North River Bridge, just so they can smell the marshes!]

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

No. 96 ... a clam shell all the way to the lighthouse!"

Throwin’ a clam shell was a measure both of skill and of strength.

Skill was involved in making it skip, and the more often the better, either on ‘cam water or on gentle waves. But it took just as much talent to properly throw one for distance as it did to cause it to bounce on a smooth surface. Unless it was released at precisely the right angle it would catch the wind and either bend or fade to one side or the other.

In fact, the latter became a feat in and of itself as we would “chunk ‘em” into the face of gale force winds. Then we would watch intently as they boomeranged back over our heads into the sound, or onto the beach, depending on which way the wind was blowing. We sometimes used scallops for this, but since they were so comparatively light they were much less exciting than the heavier shells.

Nevertheless, the ultimate skill was one of strength and that was most clearly displayed by throwing clam shells long and far. As much as lifting weights or climbing a rope, throwin’ a shell into the far horizon, so far that eyes were squinting to see the splash, was an ultimate test of strength.

It was against this backdrop that my oldest brother, Ralph, listened closely one morning in his Sunday School class. His teacher was explaining to his pupils that God was not just kind and merciful, but was also wise and powerful. To make his lesson both more interesting and more relevant, the instructor offered examples to illustrate the points he was making. When he got to teaching about power the teacher explained that God was not merely supremely strong, He was “omnipotent,” and could could lift or handle anything that the minds of his young students could ever imagine.

Reflecting on what he was being taught, Ralph determined to make an inquiry, the anwer to which he hoped would put the matter in a cpntext that even he could understand. He raised his hand to get the treacher's attention and waited until he got the required nod of approval. Then in thoughtful reverence for the subject being considered, he stood and posed what he assumed to be the one question that could put everything he had learned in a full perspective.

“Does that mean he could he throw a clam shell all the way to the lighthouse?”

Saturday, February 4, 2012

No. 95 The “Old Man of Red Hill”

But the fool on the hill 
Sees the sun going down
And the eyes in his head
See the world spinning round
"The Fool on the Hill" Lennon & McCartney (The Beatles)



Red Hill is the highest spot on Harkers Island. “Hill” might seem a strange name for a location that is less than twenty feet above sea level, but it was the closest thing to a hill that we had. The “red” part of the name came from the way the sands on the shoreline dunes glistened in the evening sun when viewed from the waters to the south of the Island, especially when coming up the channel from Wade’s Shore. In fact, those shining dunes were the landmark we used to stay safely in the deep water between Middle Marsh and the Cockle Shoals.

Red Hill was home to the largest grove of native oak tress on the Island. Rising more than a hundred feet in the air, the mid-day sun shining through the tops of the trees still can create a marvelous light show that is so picturesque and serene as to evoke almost a spiritual setting. In a few places, thick vines at the feet of the tall trees created such a jungle that it was a favorite place for childhood adventures and games. Wild grapes and briar berries were there for the picking. There was even a monkey living among the thickets for a while. No kidding, but how that came to be is another story all together!

The people who lived under those oak trees; the Guthries, Lewises, Yeomanses, and especially the Willises, were what really gave Red Hill its character. Tom Lewis, Stacy Guthrie, Luther Yeomans, and Maxwell and “Tookie” Willis were all larger than life characters, and anyone who remembers them has many tales of them to tell. Except for Maxwell, who helped to start and then ran the local REA, they each left large families with many stories that preserve their legacy.

But it was perhaps the humblest of the people on Red Hill who carved out the largest part of my memories for that special place; one so indelible that it has often been a frame of reference for me in sharing life lessons.

Sometimes, thankfully not very often, when my children would bemoan the things they “didn’t have,” I would reply in wistful frustration, “I wish that just for five minutes I could take you to Boo’s, and let you see how some people had to live!” Then just as fast, I would regain my bearings enough to know that even were they able to see it, they still could not fully grasp the image that colored my mind.

When I was a boy, at the top of Red Hill there was an old wind-bleached and battered shack that was the home of Boo (1883-1971) and his wife Mary Anne (1894-1971). Boo’s real name was Louie Larson Willis, but hardly anyone knew that, as Boo was the only name they had ever heard him called by other than his family. They knew him as “Poppy.” He and Mary Anne (Guthrie), were the parents of three children; a son Johnny “Boo”, and daughters Nita and Fammie Lee. The two girls eventually built homes on the same plot of land that was home to their parents.

Nita’s son, Carl, married my oldest sister, Ella Dee, and since I was so close in age to their son, Jonathan, I often was with him when he made his way to the west’ard to visit his Grandma Nita. But what I remember most was the time we spent next-door to her in and around the home of his great-grandfather, Boo.

If the Island that I knew growing up was two or more generations behind the rest of the world in social and economic changes, then the little world of Boo and Mary Ann harkened back at least another generation further. Their house may once have been painted, but by the time I played hide ‘n seek in his side yard, nothing could be seen but the bare wooden sheathing and the orange lines caused by rusting iron nails. The roof was covered with wooden shingles, and the foundation was an open breeze-way, hardly a foot off the ground, and held up by thinly scattered piers made from pine, poplar, or cedar.

The hand pump on the back porch was the family’s only source of water, and a small wooden shed, no larger than five feet square, was the family’s privy, or “outhouse” in our vernacular. There was a small porch and a stoop by the front and back doors; one had a rusting metal glider, and the other a wooden swing hanging from sisal rope.

Their home had three rooms; a combined kitchen, dining room and sitting room, separated by a thin partition from two small bedrooms at the other end. Their only furnishings, other than the kitchen table and beds, were two wicker chairs in the den and an oil painting depiction of Ben Hur’s chariot race that hung on the wall.

Inside, that part of the clapboard floor boards not covered by cracked linoleum was so worn that it had a shimmer from the thousands of footsteps that had sanded them smooth over more than half a century of shuffling. Staring at the walls you could see beams of sunlight peeking through the cracks that, in the late afternoon, seemed to move and dance as the boards shifted from the movements inside.

The house was heated by a tin heater. On cold mornings it bellowed smoke through a metal flue that stuck out through the wall as it burned the scrap wood that had been scavenged from among the oaks and cedars. It was told that during one especially cold spell when wood alone was unable to keep the house heated, Boo traded off a corner of the land the house sat on for a fifty pound bucket of coal. The home was soon much warmer, but when Mary Anne found out how the fuel had been purchased she ran him into the yard.

My friend and contemporary, Karen Willis (Amspacher) who lived less than a stone’s throw away through the oak grove, has memories of that setting that are just as stark as mine.

 “I remember them both .. Uncle Boo and Aunt Mary Ann ... remember going in that side door off the porch that faced the East'ard and Uncle Boo’s overalls. Their yard was pure white sand and Aunt Mary Ann raked it all the times. You could see the rake tracks in the sand. Her kitchen had curtains under the sink for doors ... Cabinets were just shelves with jelly glasses to drink out of. Don't remember much about the living room except it being small and dark ... That my friends, was Red Hill  ...”

The home was not just at the very top of Red Hill, it was at the vortex of the sharpest curve anywhere on the Island Roads. Coming at the end of relatively long straight stretches — heading either from the Bridge or from Shell Point — the curve caught so many drivers by surprise that it came to be known as “Dead Man’s Curve.” (See No. 23 Some unforgettable lines that may someday be forgotten ...) On more than a dozen occasions Boo and Mary Ann were awakened after midnight to the sound of screeching tires and the collision of metal into the trunk of an oak tree.

Eventually they grew weary of the excitement and frightened that one of the cars might get through the trees and into their home itself. Not willing to move from where both of them had spent almost their entire lives, they instead decided to “pivot” their house on it’s foundation so that it was several feet father from the road, and behind a somewhat bigger and more protective grove of hardwoods.

But to dwell on the primitive and humble circumstances of his surroundings would be to do the couple, especially Boo, a disservice. In all my time with and around him, I never heard the old man, he seemed like the oldest man in the world to me, even hint at anything that could be considered a grievance. On the contrary, he seemed grateful, kind, gentle and patient almost to a fault.

He was smaller, even shorter, than his wife. And if he was the epitome of meekness, Mary Anne could sometimes be entirely the opposite. She had suffered from what was assumed to be epilepsy since her childhood and at times was given to rushes of anger and emotion. Those outbursts were usually directed at her family, and most often at her husband. But her husband seemed never to respond with anything other than submission, as if he accepted that whatever were her problems, they were completely of his doing.

Once while oystering at Middle Marsh one summer afternoon, Boo and his small sailskiff were caught in a violent summer storm that swept in from the west’ard. Knowing he could not outrun the thunder and lightning, he wrapped himself in the sail and laid in the bottom of the boat hoping to weather the wind and rain. But despite his efforts, the lighting hit the mast, splitting it into pieces, and some of the electrical charge streamed into Boo and caused him to lose consciousness for several hours.

It was well after midnight before he was able to regain his senses and his strength and point his skiff back toward Red Hill. When he finally reached his home he was greeted not with joy and relief, but by the angry questions of a wife who seemed more frustrated and hungry than worried about what might have happened. As was always the case, he offered his apologies and promised to head out again as soon as the sun was up the next morning.

Through all that, and the endless frustrations that his life presented, Boo was never heard complaining. He accepted the fits of anger, the drudgery of his work in the water, and the poverty of his surroundings, as his assigned lot in life, and that there was little if anything he could do to change it.

The physical harshness he knew as a waterman showed in Boo’s form and shape, even if not his demeanor. He seemed even older than his years. He bent forward as he walked, and his steps were more a shuffle than a pace. Watching him closely as he sat and told stories, we couldn’t help but notice a steady shake in his hands, and he sometimes struggled to hear and understand our young voices. But still he pressed on and seemed never to change in any way from one occasion to the next.

Once, while sitting on the sun-bleached planks of his small porch, talking to Jonathan, his great-grandson asked if the old man ever thought about dying, and if that thought caused him any worry.

“Oh, no!” he responded with a gentle smile and a beam in his eyes. “Well, of course, I think about it but it don’t worry me none. You see, I figure with what I’ve had to go through and put up with these past sixty years, anywhere’s I go is gonna be a whole lot better than this.”