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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?" 

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