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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.

Monday, May 14, 2012

No. 101 "Do you want me to build her for fishing or to go fast? "

Uncle Teff (Telford Willis) in front of his net house at the Landing.

My Uncle Teff (Telford Willis) had scrimped and saved for most of his adult life to get enough money for the boat of his dreams. He had worked with fishing crews since before he could remember, and had owned several small boats including a sailskiff. But now he was gonna have built the boat he had dreamed of and planned for during all those years of working for and with others.

Not only that, his new boat, "The Francis," named after his oldest daughter, was being built by Brady Lewis, the boat builder from the East'ard who was already a legend both on and off the Island. He had come to see Brady early one morning to tell him of yet another idea he had conjured up about tweaking "The Francis" even as it was being built; perhaps something he had seen on another boat, or even something he figured out while riding in someone else's on his way back and forth to the Banks.

Brady had built enough boats that he had seen or heard, and even tried, just about everything that could be imagined when it came to what was being called the Harkers Island "flare bow" boat. Vessels built by him already lined the shoreline from Red Hill to Shell Point. But the master carpenter had actually become a little frustrated at having to make changes, even small ones, in the design of something he felt he already had perfected. Eventually, Brady dropped the block plane that he was using to shape one of the juniper planks, and looked my Uncle Teff squarely in the eye to to make sure he had his attention.

"Listen Teff," he asked with a plaintiff voice that suggested he had about reached the end of his patience, "what's it gonna be? Do you want me to build her for fishing or to go fast? You can't have it both ways!"

The old boat builder had posed a question that by then was at the heart of a quandary besetting a new generation of Island fishermen; a group that had moved beyond the subsistence “working the water” that had been their sole concern just a few years earlier. Of course they still needed to make a living in their boats, it was basically all they had for supporting their families, but by the late 1930's there had developed among many of them a love for "going fast." And the craft they looked to for that, and even for racing, were the same boats that were used primarily for hauling nets, trawls, and that day's catch.

Uncle Teff was one of those who had fallen head-over-heels for the fast boat craze, and he was determined that his new boat would never be left in the wake of other boats when hurrying along the shore.

Engine-powered boats by that time had all but replaced the sailing vessels that had been used on Core Sound for two centuries. Making use of the advantages that the new motors offered, some fisherman had built large "trawlers" with masts, boons and cabins that included bunks for sleeping. Even more of the locals opted for smaller "open boats" that were less than twenty-five feet long. They usually had an engine salvaged from an older car. It was placed somewhere to the aft of the boat's center and fitted with a straight metal shaft, without a transmission, that fed through a water-tight alley to an underwater propeller. With a skeg in front and a rudder behind it, that propeller, or "wheel" as most of them called it, could shove the smaller boats to speeds upward of forty miles per hour.

Uncle Teff with two visiting Mormon Elders standing
by his net spreads at the Landing
Some devoted speed boaters would spend hours sanding the sides and bottom of their boats hoping to make them smoother, and thus faster, by reducing the drag caused by a rougher surface. One particularly dedicated boater claimed to have given his boat such a smooth finish that it was impossible for it to sit still in the water -- continually rocking back and forth to find a balance. He said that when he pulled it up on the shore to work on the motor he was obliged to anchor it so as to keep it from sliding back into the sound.

Speed could be important when chasing schools of fish, hurrying to the dock with a perishable cargo, or getting to a channel before the tide went out completely. But it soon came to be most valued in racing against other boats. Whole groups of boaters would race whenever and wherever they were headed in the same direction. Almost every day in summer, or any other time when the weather allowed, boats could be seen and heard racing down the Island channel. Especially on Saturdays the same boats would race across the strait that led to Beaufort for the weekend shopping in town. Even when no trips were planned, Saturday mornings were race days at the Landing. The sounds of rushing motors could be heard all along the shore and swells from the speeding boats would create an almost constant flow of waves washing up along the sandy beach.

Every summer, on the 4th of July, late that afternoon and after everyone had returned from the horse penning at Diamond City of that morning, almost the entire Island population would gather at the shore of Academy field for races that would last until dark. The day's winner was awarded a small cup as a memento, but the greatest prize was the reputation earned as "having the fastest boat on the Island."

All of this in some form or another was churning in the mind of my uncle Teff as he pondered his response to Brady Lewis's ultimatum about how he wanted "The Francis" to be fashioned by the greatest boat craftsmen the Island would ever know.

But it was with only a moment's hesitation that he made his decision and blurted out his emphatic response.

"You make her go fast, and I'll fish her the best I can!"