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Sunday, October 5, 2014

No. 125 "Who we were, Who we are & Why it still matters?" The Diamond City Reunion August 2014



On August 16-17, 2014 a reunion was held at the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum and Heritage Center at Harkers Island of the descendants of those who once had lived at Shackleford Banks on and around the community of Diamond City. I was asked to offer some keynote remarks at a Sunday afternoon assembly of all the attendees. My assignment was to conclude the gathering and hopefully, bring into focus the reasoning behind remembering a place that had all but ceased to exist one hundred and fifteen years earlier. Time and circumstances did not allow for me to make the comments that I had prepared as had been planned. Because I had given much thought to what might have been appropriate, I offer my conclusions here and in this format for others who might be or have been interested.

Sunday August 17, 2014 - Diamond City Reunion Gathering

"Who we were, Who we are, Why it matters?"

Prior to setting out to write "Huckleberry Finn" and what was to become, in the opinion of many, the Great American Novel, Mark Twain mentioned some of the thoughts and emotions that came to his memory.

Welcoming sign in Hannibal, MO
"All the summer world was bright and fresh, and sun rose upon a tranquil world, and beamed down like a benediction. The fountains of my great deep are broken up, and I have rained my reminiscences for four and twenty hours.
"The old life has swept before me like a panorama; the old days have trooped by in their old glory, again; the old faces have looked out of the mists of the past; old footsteps have sounded in my listening ears; old hands have clasped mine, old voices have greeted me, and the songs I loved ages and ages ago have come wailing down the centuries!" __ Mark Twain
The truck carrying the Joad Family


These thoughts stand in stark contrast to those spoken by Tom Joad in John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath." As his family looked behind them at the homes and farms they were leaving forever in the dust bowl of Depression era Oklahoma, Tom asked himself,

How can we live without our lives? How will we know it's us without our past?" John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

One of the many horses that still graze on Shackleford Banks
As much as I enjoy and have affection for the places and things we have seen or visited these last two days; the marshes, the dunes and the yaupons, and the horses and the birds that are still there, I am reminded that it was, it still is, the people who once lived there that mattered most - then and now.

Some of you have seen the video montage that was on display in the museum hall this weekend. As I observed the faces of those who stood and watched I noticed their amusement when they saw the old schoolhouse or the wooden bridge. I saw their interest when they noticed old faces that look so much like newer faces we still know. But I have been most aware of their genuine excitement when, if only for eight seconds, they caught a glimpse of a face belonging to someone they loved!

Self is great thing,my Mama used to tell me, and it is in those pictures of our loved ones that we can clearly see ourselves.

Seeing and remembering people of old photos on display
And as we talk about them, show their pictures, tell their stories, its not just them that we are honoring and remembering. Ultimately, it is more for us than for them, because in them we are reminded that we too are important. Even in the face of all that we see and hear and learn about the great and wonderful, and sometimes terrible world that we live in, our ancestors remind us that we really do matter because someday our children and grandchildren will tell stories and show pictures of us. And when they do they will smile and laugh and sometimes maybe even cry - with gladness or sadness, or both?

What binds us to them is not their distinct or amusing accents, or their maritime professions, or even their talents and instincts. What truly binds us is to them is that they loved one another, and a sense that some of that same love still lives in us.

If my grandchildren someday reunite to remember Susan [my wife] and me, along with their parents, aunts, uncles and cousins, it will not be because of my profession or my distinctive accent. It will be because they will remember the love they have felt when they were with us.

In the words of the Apostle Paul in 13th chapter of 1st Corinthians, prophecies shall fail, tongues shall cease, and knowledge shall vanish away, but Christ like love will never fail.

* * *

Much more than for my children and grandchildren, mine was a generation that grew up surrounded by our past. There was no real need to have a celebration, a reunion or even a bulletin board of pictures and charts.  We were surrounded by it and by them, our common past and heritage, everywhere and all the time. It stared us in our faces and we could not ignore it, even if we had wanted to. The only way to "get away from it" was to "run away from it" and very few of us wanted to do either.

It was somewhat like the old baseball games for which the results never were reported or recorded - there was no need to because everybody had been at the game when it was played.

Every day we were confronted with expressions like:

The original Harkers Island Bridge
Take this to Ole' Pa's house, find him on Aunt Gracies porch, or go play games in Rennies field.
Somebody is broke down there at the end of Ferry Dock Road.
He rode his bike all the way to Shell Point.
We were swimming on and off of Dankys dock, and played baseball on Johnsons cow pasture.
We walked and played games on the Old Road and pulled tin cans in the middle of the New Road.
Every time we went to the Landing we looked across to Bells Island, Whale Creek Bay, Wades Shore, Sam Windsors Lump, the Horse Pen, or Whitehursts Island. Every time we crossed the bridge we noticed the lump of cedar trees on the very edge of what we called Browns Island, or stared in the other direction at the vines of Harkers Point.

But it wasnt just places or things that had names with a story.

Billie Hancock, the fastest man on the Banks
A tall man was longer than Lonzo Lewis.
A heavy man was bigger than Bull Hunter.
Someone else might be smarter than Charlie Nelson, or could oar faster than Luther Willis, or told more lies that Lying Willie, or throw a baseball harder than Moe Willis, or play and sing like the Rose crowd, or loved loon more than Loch, or could run faster than Billie Hancock.
And the ultimate question I was asked when it appeared that I was succumbing to the peer pressure that was just as much an issue then as it is now, was this - If Jonathan [my nephew but was five years older and my most often role model] jumped off the Lighthouse, would that mean you had to jump off the lighthouse?

Many, if not most of us were called by two names because everyone was named after someone else. You couldnt just say that something happened or belonged to Mary. You had to be more specific.


Was it Mary Ann, Mary Francis, Mary Catherine, or even Norman’s Mary, Weldon's Mary, Tommy Lewis's Mary, or Iddy's Mary.  There was also Luther's Mary, who when she was married became William's Mary, and who had a son called Mary's Michael. He lived almost next door to Elsie Mae's Johnny William, who was not be confused with Johnny Lane, Johnny Wayne, Johnny Michael, Johnny Manley ' the son of Johnny Boo, or Johnny Vann - the son of Alena's Johnny.

If mama sent me to get something from Ollie, she had to be more specific - was it Big Ollie or Little Ollie?

* * *

Everyone was part of a crowd that meant more than a last name.  You could be part of more than one crowd, depending on your mama and daddy. I was one Charlie Hancock's crowd during the week, but on Sunday I was part of the Bertha Willis's crowd.

In a hundred ways every day I was reminded of who I was and what our crowd had been. Knowing those things made me feel that I was part of something special and something that mattered. It gave me a reason to do my best to avoid bringing shame or pain to the others who shared that name and feeling with me, and who were a part of my crowd.

If I could propose a remedy to the sadness, the neurosis, and the discouragement that appears to be so prevalent in younger generations of the same people who once seemed so contented with their lives, my first suggestion might be to make them part not of a gang that shares nothing but a lack of connections to anything other than themselves and their cravings, but instead a part of a crowd that is defined and even edified by their connections to their own heritage and what they mean to each other, and what others have meant, and still mean to them.

Be careful and dont get hurt my Mama would remind me whenever I left our house. But with my father it was a little different. Remember who you are, he would remind me with more than a little bit of a plea and a caution about the possible consequences whenever I set out for anything away from our family and neighborhood. With all due respect to my mother, my fathers warning was the one that kept, and still keeps, ringing in my mind. Trying to avoid bringing shame on him, on our crowd, was and is something that has constantly reminded me to consider long and hard the consequences of my life decisions - big and small.

The prodigal son of the New Testament reaches an epiphany when he came to himself as he was reminded of what he had left. (New Testament Luke: 15:17)

We all go through a stage when we want to "fly," and sometimes even fly away, but there usually comes a time when we are reminded, either gladly or sadly, of what and where and who we came from. There comes a time when, like the prodigal mentioned by Luke, we come to ourselves.

Most of us hunger for real roots and foundations.  Over the years, when decoy carvers are asked why the started (or started back) practicing the art of carving, they mention their father, their grandfather, or their uncle, and conclude, Im just doing what I saw them do.

The Harkers Island Display at the Museum
It might be said that the grand purpose of this museum (Core Sound Waterfowl Museum and Heritage Center, Harkers Island), and of events like the "Diamond City Reunion" that are at the heart of the museums mission, is to remind us that we have roots, solid roots, that have withstood storms equal to any we are facing today.

When the "crowds" left the Banks they assembled in their new found communities as families. Reports of census takers for the next fifty years give the appearance of having been sorted by some key field in the census-takers handbook. Instead they are merely listing the names in the order they found them, one extended family, or more especially one crowd," following directly after another.

This practice was evident not just on the rolls of the ten years census lists. For several generations Promise Landers were first called The Crowd from the Banks, by their Morehead City neighbors. Folks from Salter Path even today are lumped together as that crowd of Salter Pathers. Over the years I have been reminded more than once that I am one of that "crowd from Harkers Island." Standing before you today please know that I have never been ashamed that you are my crowd, and I hope that you and yours will never be anything but proud of our shared heritage - and that those who shaped that heritage, both living and deceased, might always be proud of us.

Most of us cannot live right beside each other like once was the norm, but space doesn't mean the same thing now that it did to my mother, who when she married my father in 1928 and moved to where I grew up [near the mid-point of the Island, Hancock Landing] would sometimes walk out to the road and look towards the West'ard, toward Red Hill, and she would cry with homesickness. It's not the physical space that separates us now. Rather it is the emotional space that we have allowed to creep into our lives and our relationships.

* * *

Charlie Hancock, my grandfather, with some of his older grandsons
My grandfather, Charlie Hancock, moved from the Banks on Christmas day of 1900. Fifty-seven years later he died and was brought to lay in state in his own living room on the shore and facing the Banks he had left more than half a century earlier. My father along with my aunts and uncles took pains to make sure that his grandchildren understood and appreciated my grandfather's legacy.

And so now, fifty-seven years after his passing, and on this special occasion, I offer a goodbye to him that I was too young and immature even to think of on that occasion. Goodbye Ole Pa, Goodbye again. I hope that you can be proud of me and mine and that we are still your crowd. 

All of us gathered here for this reunion have an Ole' Pa and/or an Ole' Ma. And one of the very best ways that we can honor them is in the lives we live here and now today.

* * *

The Old Testament ends with the words from Heaven recorded by the hands of Malachi, an Old Testament prophet.

Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD: And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse. Old Testament Malachi 4:5-6

As I have grown older, and hopefully in understanding and in wisdom, I appreciate better what the Prophet Malachi was trying to say. To feel that we have been removed from the hearts of our fathers or our children would truly be a curse!  And just as profoundly, to be turned once again to our fathers and to our children can truly be a blessing.

And so my friends of the Diamond City crowd. Goodbye and Godspeed. Thanks for being a part of our past, our present, and hopefully of our shared future.

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