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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!