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Tuesday, November 10, 2015

No. 17 "Mullet fishing, an old man, and World War I"

No. 17 "Mullet fishing, an old man, and World War I"


As I have grown older, there is one recollection of my “mulleting days” that has grown both starker and more wistful in my memory. There was a member of our crew who was at the other end from me when it came to experience. He was old, too old to work for himself. About the only thing he still could offer was to share with me in jumping overboard with the forward staff and pulling on it until the ends were joined. His name was Luther Willis, and he must have been at least seventy years old by the time that we spent a few weeks together as part of Calvin and Neal’s mulleting crew. What I learned from Luther, or more appropriately what I did “not” take the time to learn, has been seared into my psyche as I have thought back on those mornings that we huddled and strained together to pull a cotton net along the sandy bottom of Core Sound.

No matter how hot summer days may be, it is always at least a little chilling to get waist deep in water before the sun has time to warm the morning air. When Luther and I climbed out of the skiff together, holding a wooden staff that he would grab at the top and I at the bottom, we always shivered as we stooped below the waterline. Then, while Calvin and Neal remained in the boat and ran out the net, we would talk about how cold the water was, wonder why the boat was making such a wide turn, or marvel at the beauty of the sun rising over the Banks. Then we would strain together as he reminded me to keep the lead line on the bottom and asked me if I had noticed anything jumping the net. Soon, after just a few minutes of jerking and pulling, he would lose the little energy his old body had left to spend, and would begin to stumble as we headed for the other end of the circle. Then, and several times every morning, he would exclaim to me, almost apologetically, “I just ain’t been the ‘saaaaame’ since France!” Not only that, as he offered his regrets, he would gasp for air at least once in each sentence he uttered. In fact, he hardly ever spoke more than a few words without seeming to struggle for his breath.

As I think back, I must have realized that in referring to “France” he was talking about having been a “dough-boy” who fought in Europe during World War I. I assume I might have known that the cause for his breathing issues would have been exposure to the poison gases that were used by both sides in the trenches of “no-man’s-land.” But what puzzles me now, what bothers me almost to no end, is why in all those hours I spent with him, alone, and with little else to occupy our time, why I never asked him to tell me anything about what his war experience had been like.

I have spent my entire adult life enthralled by the past and by stories. I majored in history at both the undergraduate and graduate levels in college. I have poured through countless books, documents and letters trying to understand, and even write about, how things used to be, and how they affect us even now. But for some reason, I never took advantage of what has proved to have been a once in a lifetime opportunity --- to talk privately and intimately to someone who was on the very cusp of the one event that history has concluded to have been the mid-wife to the turmoil of the entire last century.

Not that this tired and unsophisticated old man would himself have offered any profound insights into the causes or consequences of the “War to End all Wars.” That is not what I feel deprived of. Rather, I lament that I could have had him tell me what it was like to have been drafted into a  European War when he had never before left Carteret County. He could have outlined the experience of training for a few weeks and then being herded on board a transport ship for the long ocean crossing. He would have explained the feeling of arriving on the continent and seeing the beautiful “City of Lights” that Paris remained despite the fighting that was less than a hundred miles away.

He might have told of finally learning that his unit was being sent to the front, and of witnessing the devastation that years of scorched earth fighting had wrought on eastern France. How could he have avoided being terrified at the sight of wounded, dead and dying soldiers as he made his way forward to the trenches? He would have explained how he himself became a victim of the mustard gas that permeated the air on both sides of the battlefield. Why was he not wearing the protective gear that is so often seen in pictures of the front? Or, were the fumes so thick that even the protective masks issued by the army could not completely protect him? How was he treated after he was wounded? How long after that was he allowed to come home? What was it like to get back to Harkers Island and to his family?

Those are just some of the thousands of questions that might have been asked, but, at least by me, never were. I assume that he never would have mentioned “France” if he was unwilling to talk about it. Just by raising the subject, he gave me the opportunity to pursue my interests in any direction I wanted. But that is the point, at that time in my life I must not have had any interest beyond catching some fish, making some money, and enjoying my life as a young teenager on Harkers Island. I wish I had it to do over.

Posted by The Education of an Island Boy at 1:31 PM Saturday, March 26, 2011

Saturday, September 12, 2015

No. 131 "There's twelve months in a year ..."

Ole' Pa (Charlie Hancock)
The northeast winds of the last few days have reminded me that fall was the best (most profitable) time of the year for the proggers who worked the waters around Harkers Island. Long-hauling, sink-netting, floundering and roe mullets combined to allow local fishermen to make up for the leaner months that had culminated in the dog-days of August.

When the bigger shares were paid out, usually on Saturdays, it was tempting for some crewmen who worked with Ole' Pa to splurge just a little and spend money on things they had been obliged to pass up in the preceding weeks and months. Observing that, and understanding that the sparser times would someday come again, my grandfather would dispense some advice along with the paper money that he handed out to his crew.


"Remember now," he would warn them as he grudgingly let go of their pay, "There's twelve months in a year, and you've got to eat in every one of 'em."

Sunday, May 24, 2015

No. 130 "The handsomest man who ever lived!"


In the 20s, 30s, & 40s, Mormon missionaries roamed the paths and shoreline of Harkers Island freely, spending their time at the homes of the various Latter-day families. By then a second generation of members was reaching its adolescence including several dozen young "Mormon girls" who couldn't help but notice the handsome young visitors from the west. Not only did they speak with a "funny accent," but those young elders were always dressed in store-bought suits, with clean shaven faces and well trimmed hair.

One afternoon, hearing her daughters and their friends talk about the two elders who then were serving at the Island, Gertie Willis decided to chime in on the conversation. Specifically she had noticed that each of the young girls had chosen a recent visiting missionary to label as the " handsomest man she had ever seen! "

After each of the girls had described in detail their choice and why he was chosen, Gertie decided to end the conversation with her own definitive choice of the handsomest man she had ever seen.

"Every afternoon, just before supper I look towards the Landing, and  eventually I see a tired, often wet and sandy fisherman walking this way, usually with his worn out pants rolled up to below the knee, and smelling like fish. But even from a distance, and especially when he grabs me by the shoulders and kisses my forehead, your daddy, Telford Willis, is the handsomest man who ever lived!"

Saturday, May 23, 2015

No. 129 "Little Rungs for Little Legs"



When Leah and Tiffany were very small, even before kindergarten age, they used to pretend that  the upstairs of Tommy's shed was a playhouse. The only problem for them was that the steps up to the loft were twelve inches apart, and their little legs had trouble trying to make the climb. Seeing what was happening, and how hard it was for the little girls, Tommy carefully added an extra rung between the standard ones, cutting the height of each step to only six inches -- and accessible even for tiny little legs and feet.

Now, almost three decades since either Leah or Tiffany have climbed those stairs, the extra rungs are still there, and actually make it quite tedious for longer legs and bigger feet to make the climb. When I asked Tommy why, after all these years, he had not removed the inserts that were no longer needed his response was simple. 

"Every time I walk up those stairs," he said, "I am reminded of the little feet that used to step on them."

Sunday, January 18, 2015

No. 128 "The Path to the Landing"

I can still see in my mind the big black hearse that carried Ole’ Pa’s body up the path to the Landing on a warm Indian Summer’s afternoon in late September of 1957. It had large letters on the side showing the name of the funeral home that sent it, but I was too young to read them, and I knew that what really mattered was what was carried inside of it.

It was a dirt path; actually as much shell as dirt, and it was dissected by a long row of jointed grass that was able to survive and even thrive between the tire tracks on either side. It was no more than two hundred feet from the paved road to Ole' Pas' house where his body was to lay until his burial the next morning. Our house was at the edge of the road, and then there was the home of my Uncle Louie, whom everyone called Big Buddy, and finally the big white house that Ole' Pa had built for Aggie, my grandmother and his first wife, when finally they moved from the Banks in December of 1900.

There was hardly a bend in that path then and now, although it wasn't really strait – shifting just a little from due south to the southeast as it approached the shore – but not enough to notice unless you were trying to look from one end of it to the other. And it inclined down just a little, no more than a foot, as it approached the old house and the shoreline where it ended. But it dipped just enough to give little boys like me a boost when we were running or riding our bike and wanted to go real fast. At the corner between our house and Big Buddy's there was a small oak tree, one we would later call "Denny's tree" after my nephew fell from one of the limbs and broke an arm while trying to retrieve a baseball lodged in a bough, but that would be a few years later. And there was another larger oak about midway down the path that shaded both Big Buddy's side porch on the west'ard side, and Tom Martin Guthrie's side porch on the east'ard. A few yards further, and just inside Big Buddy's fence, was a persimmon tree that hung over the path and that late every summer covered it with fruit so that you couldn't walk barefooted to the Landing without having a hot and juicy persimmon squashed between your toes.

Then, just where Big Buddy's fence ended, and Ole' Pa's place began, there was the tall oak tree that had been the main landmark of the site since long before Ole' Pa even thought about building right beside it. My daddy used to tell me that he had heard that when Ole' Pa's house was being built, the workers would shade under its branches while they rested from their labors. Now, more than half a century later it still dominated the landscape so that the silver maples that ran almost from its roots to the shoreline were dwarfed by its stature.

That giant old oak, and the big white house that sat just to it's southwest had marked a gathering place for more than three generations of Hancocks and their relatives, especially the Willises, Guthries and Moores. Together, within sight of both the oak and the roof of Ole' Pa's house they had established a neighborhood of homes and families that was so closely connected by blood and the everyday routines of life that most of us didn't even bother to acknowledge what our blood relation really was. All of us, especially the young ones, just knew that somehow we were kin to everyone else, and that what affected one of us mattered to all of us. And for as long as anyone living could remember, nothing and no one else mattered more than Ole’ Pa.