Rolltop Mantra of the Outer Banks*

Mark Richard**

Creepy but tranquil in North Carolina

On my first trip down to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, in 1966 or so, when the dentist we were with had to let air out of his tires to drive to our cottage, we visited Jockey's Ridge, the tallest sand dune on the East Coast. Seasonal winds sometimes sculpt its crest to over 100 feet. I remember someone saying that Satan is buried beneath it. The dentist's children and I took pieces of cardboard and sledded down the gentle oceanside slopes, where people now pay a lot of money to hang-glide; kite-flying is still free. I remember standing on the dune's crest and looking down on its sheer soundside back, looking down at the sand flooding through the windows of the abandoned houses where Jockey's Ridge migrated into Albemarle Sound as if in the hopes of filling it. The whole of the Outer Banks is shifting ever westward, the sea levels continuing their post-Ice Age flood. The changes only seem recent to us, passing newly sea-stranded cottages on stilts in Kitty Hawk as the ocean erodes the beach beneath them. A freshly condemned cottage begins a slow topple, like a horse buckling to its knees. If you could time-lapse the natural nautical clock, you would see the whole of the Outer Banks, the mons of woods, the limbs of sand, the rump of Jockey's Ridge, turning away from the ocean like an unhappy lover rolling over beneath a blanket of development. Or maybe it really is God's Plan, and Satan really is buried beneath Jockey's Ridge, and the prevailing winds are merely making his resurrection more expedient by whisking the mountain of sand off his grave.

I had a math teacher once. Let's call her Miss Satan, because she was so evil and is probably still alive, for we all know that you can't kill evil. I was the precocious little seventh-grader bumped up into her sophomore algebra class, and she smelled a cheat. In defining finite and infinite numbers, she said, by definition, finite items are numbers assigned to things that can be counted. For instance, is the number of grains of sand in Jockey's Ridge finite or infinite? I was the little shit who not only raised his hand but propped up one arm with the other in my eagerness, grunting Me Me. When called upon, I said the number of grains of sand in Jockey's Ridge was infinite. Miss Satan smiled evilly and said No, if you could count them, you would find that there is a finite number of grains of sand in Jockey's Ridge. No, I said, that's incorrect. First of all, I patiently explained, the ocean is constantly throwing up fresh sand that dries and is blown onto the dune by the wind at the same time the same wind is carrying sand into Albemarle Sound. Secondly, I said, even as I noticed Miss Satan's tail twitching irritably beneath her dress and the smiling face beginning to purple, secondly, the number of grains of sand in Jockey's Ridge would have to be considered infinite by her very own definition of being able to count them; if the grains cannot be counted, there is no finite answer, hence no finite number. But if you could count them, she said, as little bats swarmed out of her mouth and steam seeped out of her ears, you would eventually reach a number, a finite number, so you're wrong, she said sulfurically. Then you go fucking count them, I unwisely countered, and was sent home from school for two days at a time when my father was having his first affair and was looking for someone upon whom to vent his guilt. I nicknamed his backhands "flying tigers" after his college mascot, Mike the Tiger, whose tiny head ornamented the LSU class ring worn on the hand delivering the often unexpected blow. The next home football game I sat with the pep band, warming the mouthpiece to my trombone in my cupped hand, sharpening a Hate Stare into the back of Miss Satan's head as she sat in the rough board bleachers of our small-town football field. I psychically projected all kinds of terrible things upon Miss Satan when suddenly she reached up to her face with both hands to try to hold back the stringy torrents of black crimson blood that gushed with each beat of a heart I had no idea she possessed. Our team doctor rushed over from the bench and packed her nose with cotton before the county ambulance that was always parked in the end zone and manned by the guys from the Gulf station drove her to the hospital. I was shaky with my newfound powers and promised immediately to use them responsibly in the future. But I broke the promise the very next morning, turning my new powers on my father as a flying tiger sprang from his bedroom ceiling. Although they didn't stop the tiger, it pounced a lot less often after that.

Nearly forty years after that first visit, I've come to the Outer Banks with my wife and two sons to meet a circuit-riding Episcopal priest, retired, pastoring pastorless country churches in the tobacco Piedmont of North Carolina. His name is Ben, and I know him from childhood: he took over our church when our minister ran away with the organist, an old story. Ben was a fighter pilot before entering the ministry; he tells me, that day at the Oregon Inlet marina, that he had always known he wanted two careers, one in the military and one in the ministry. Ben's general philosophy, he says, is People are generally doing the best they can.

Ben and I are waiting for a Wanchese charter boat to take us through the inlet to the ocean buoy beyond which we will spread my father's ashes. We talk about my father and his famous anger. Ben says he may have inadvertently angered my father when my father appeared one afternoon at one of Ben's little parishes with his next wife-to-be and insisted Ben marry them on the spot. Unprepared, but willing, Ben cast around for a witness and was only able to enlist a handy black janitor. Ben said my father fumed and didn't call him for years.

I tell Ben how I had adopted the Rolltop Mantra to defuse my father's anger after the Aquarium Incident. The thermostat on my father's beloved aquarium went on the fritz and my father kept turning the heater up and up until the neon tetras and black mollies and guppies leaped out of the hot tank landing in little gummy blobs on the dining-room floor. While cleaning out the aquarium in the kitchen sink, my father saw a much smaller boy give me a thorough whupping in the back yard. Tapping on the window with his class ring, he summoned me inside. My father shook some water off his fingers, landed a flying tiger, then went back to rinsing the aquarium. I learned that whenever my father summoned me, especially to stand next to his rolltop desk, where a hundred cigarette butts smoldered in a large glass ashtray, I could recage the tiger simply by reciting "I am very disappointed in myself."

I ask Ben about his own sons, one of whom spent a longish time on the Outer Banks, living in a moldy surfers' swamp deteriorating into the primeval Nags Head woods. After years of twisting hemp at a hammock shop and surfing, the son decided to re-enter the world and is now a successful federal prosecutor. It's another old story, the way the Outer Banks take hold of some of us during what is supposed to be a summer job and transform our lives. For me, I had come to a point at my private coat-and-tie college where it was best not to go back for a while. To cover my exit, I interned with a small newspaper in Virginia Beach during spring semester. I don't remember a lot of the articles I wrote, just the beauty pageant where I didn't behave well and a terrifying ride in a Blue Angels F4 that permanently burst some blood vessels in my left eye. I wrecked my car several times, an overpowered Mercury Montego MX. I do remember the last article I wrote: the circus had come to town, and I spent the day watching the wranglers use the elephants to hoist the tent poles and canvas. Later, I saw a guy bathing out of a bucket, and I thought That's the life for me! even as I faced another college-boy summer in the local paper mill.

But then I got The Call. My two best friends, David and Steve, were camped in a World War II army tent pitched in a five-dollar-a-night campground on Roanoke Island. Bug-bit, down to their last twenty, living on peanut-butter-and-honey sandwiches, sleeping in the sweltering tent at night stitched up against the black swarms of tiger mosquitoes, bruising each other with sleeping-bag punches thrown in the dark over snoring. Every day they would go down to Wanchese to get on a scallop boat, having heard you could make as much money in one week on a scallop boat as you could all summer in the paper mill in our hometown. And they had believed it. When they discovered the depth of the deception, they called me, collect, them snickering, broke, bug-eaten and wild-eyed hungry beneath the campground pay-phone streetlight, and sold me the same story, and I believed it.

No one will lead you down a slippery path faster than your best friends. They knew how much I hated the idea of working graveyard shifts in the paper mill where our fathers were white-collar management, and where the blue-collar labor enjoyed assigning us double shifts unloading pulpwood off river barges, breaking up logjams on the conveyors with long-handled picks more effectively used to fend off the thigh-sized water moccasins that came slithering along with the cargo.

I drove down to Roanoke Island, stopping for gas at the country store where a man kept a bear in a cage out back. One summer, with a bladder full of eighty-nine-cents-a-six-pack A&P beer, I'd stumbled behind the store after finding the men's room occupied and had a pretty good torrent going into a stand of bamboo when the bear came charging within inches of me, the cage bars hidden in the thicker stalks of cane. When my friends in the car wondered what had taken me so long and why had I pissed all over my pants and shoes, I just shook my head and told them to drive.

Currituck County, your last step before crossing the sound on into Dare County, is still full of black bears, they say, especially up and down the Alligator River. I knew a man one night who set out to kill the bear that was destroying his vineyard, and like in a fable he fell asleep around midnight with his shotgun across his lap. He woke up hearing grunting and thrashing paws ripping clusters of grapes, and he smelled the smell of bear, strong, he said. He stood up, and the bears stood up, one by one around him, five of them, checking out the interloper. Later I tasted the man's wine, and he was right: nothing to kill a bear over.

I had about two hundred dollars when I found David and Steve in their campground, and they took the money and bought some Rebel Yell bourbon and a cheap motel room. The next morning we used what was left to rent a Nags Head beach cottage that the week before had been scheduled for bulldozing. The two hundred dollars wasn't really mine to spend; I was supposed to have given it to the lady in whose basement I'd been living in Virginia Beach, but while she had been away I had let some surfer friends and their girlfriends stay in the house and some things had gotten messed up, so I had left without saying goodbye.

Here is how the Wanchese scallop boats assembled their crews. You work for free getting the trawler ready to go fishing, changing over gear, painting, re-rigging, building dredges, and then after the tons of ice are shoveled into the hold, the captain says You, you, and you. If you've worked hard, maybe you and about ten other guys will get on. This didn't sound like a good idea to me, but by this time all the paper-mill jobs had been filled. What seemed more sensible was to approach a man who had caught us asleep in some Cottages we had broken into the previous spring in Kill Devil Hills and ask him for a job. Instead of calling the police, he had put us to work opening his restaurant, painting, scraping oven grease, nailing in new screens, and shoveling tons of sand out of the parking lot. He didn't pay us but said we had done a good job. This idea was vetoed by my friends. Besides, they said, remember on the last day we were working for the man and you realized it was Easter Sunday and excused yourself and hitchhiked to church? He's not going to hire you, they said, he thinks you're some kind of weirdo. Okay, I said.

So we started working for free, and pretty soon we were down to peanut-butter-and-honey sandwiches. We got on the phone and called another friend of ours collect. and told him about all the money you could make working on a scallop boat in one week, and a couple of days later, our friend Ricky arrived. Ricky had some money his aunt had given him, so we took that and bought some Rebel Yell bourbon and set up the tent behind our cottage and then lit it on fire. Later on that night we took the charred wooden tent poles and beat one another with them, yelling Kung Fu! accidentally knocking Ricky unconscious. We dragged him into a spare room and fed a lawn sprinkler from a realty office next door in through the window and turned it on full blast so that Ricky could wake up.

Finally, the most notoriously violent Wanchese captain of all, with a single name known from Mexico to Rhode Island, a large burly man with an enormous black beard that crept all the way up to his shocking blue eyes, tapped two of us to join his crew. Ricky and I went.

During World War II, German U-boats sleeked up and down the Outer Banks, unchallenged in the early days, sometimes sinking ships at the rate of one a day - oily smoke on the horizon and the bodies of seamen washing up onto the beaches to be found by schoolchildren. From the decks of scallop boats, we often dredged up the cargo Churchill fretted after. On one trip we pulled up hundreds of helmets, the webbing rotted out, and we wore them until one came up with the top part of a skull affixed to the inside, and we heaved them all overboard. We looked for old torpedoes in the nets and dredges as we swung them aboard. People were still talking about the live torpedo that slid out of the scallop boat Snoopy's nets, killing eight of the twelve crew members aboard. Once, miles over the horizon from shore, we pulled up several ossified motorcycles that seemed chiseled out of cheap concrete.

As a cub reporter in Virginia Beach, I had interviewed the Navy diver who explored the first U-boat sunk in U.S. waters in the war, U-85, just off Bodie Light. It had been a messy kill. An old WWI destroyer, pressed into homeland-security duty, caught the sub on the surface one night trying to put men ashore, or so the diver believed. The destroyer punched holes in the U-boat's conning tower with its three-inch gun, then raked its deck with machine-gun fire. No one is certain if the U-boat was submerging or sinking stem-first into the April waters. German sailors abandoned ship and began calling for help. Fearing a trap and perhaps feeling a rage, the destroyer depth-charged everything, settling the U-boat in a hundred feet of icy water, its dead blue crew retrieved, all internally ruptured.

The old Navy diver told me that on his first daylight descent to the U-boat the first thing he saw, painted on the conning tower, was a wild boar with a red rose in its mouth. He said the way the sun struck it, it was a beautiful sight underwater that he would never forget. In the sub's compartments he found bodies and thousands of U.S. dollars floating around like large confetti. Of the twenty-nine bodies recovered, four were in civilian clothes, and souvenir hunters aboard the recovery vessel found American social-security cards and driver's licenses in the pockets. The U-boat crew members were secretly buried in their underwear in numbered graves in the National Cemetery just north in Hampton, Virginia. To the south, on Ocracoke Island, four British sailors, U-boat victims, are buried in a small cemetery where every year a fresh Union Jack arrives punctually from the Queen.

Hundreds of shipwrecks litter the ocean floor off the Outer Banks, most stranded and beaten to pieces on Diamond Shoals off Cape Hatteras, where the cold Labrador Current collides with the warm waters of the Gulf Stream on their way to take the chill off the Swedish reindeer cowboy's winter above the Arctic Circle. From the dredgings, I collected smooth river-stone ballast, imagining the English streams from which it had originated until there was just too much of it and I tossed it over the side. The smaller items were more interesting, the handmade bottles and the clay trading pipes, some long-stemmed sorts remarkably intact and functional as we found out off watch, in the forepeak packed to the brim with Roanoke Island homegrown. Foolishly, I let the other winchman on my watch use my best pipe once. A sudden turn in the rudder sent the holder pitching over; the pipe fell to the floor and shattered; my curse at losing the pipe was matched by the curse coming from the bunk below - he hadn't gotten his hit yet.

My father tried to find me in our condemned cottage a couple of times when I was out at sea. Once, he found Ricky, lounging in the living room, covered in flies and reading Edgar Allan Poe, bong nearby, Ricky oblivious to the incessant buzzing and crawling. We had caught a three-foot lobster and let it rot under the front porch. My father never told me he'd been there, seen the way we were living. He told Ricky to tell me that he dropped by but Ricky "forgot." 

Here is a Ricky Illustration. One night, getting ready to go to the dance pavilion, David, Steve, and I accidentally took some pills we found and woke up several hours later when Ricky came in and announced, "Hey, somebody stole my car !" Somebody stole your car? "Yeah," he said, kind of crazy eyed, "that guy right over there!" He pointed to a little stilted cottage diagonally across the beach road where a friendly dope dealer lived. We kicked open the dope dealer's door and put him by the throat against the wall. "Where's Ricky's car?" we demanded. When he could take a breath, the dope dealer said just a little while earlier he had picked up Ricky, walking along the side of the road from the dance pavilion. Evidently, Ricky had experienced another of his infamous blackouts at the dance pavilion, wandered out the beach exit instead of the road entrance, and, unable to find his car in the wrong parking lot, had been walking up and down the beach road disoriented until the dope dealer recognized him and offered Ricky, a good customer, a ride home. Is that true? we demanded. The dope dealer pointed out that if he'd stolen Ricky's car, why wasn't it parked under his cottage? In fact, the dope dealer was pretty sure the car was still in the parking lot of the dance pavilion. We turned to Ricky for his side of the story. Ricky suddenly stared down at his bare feet and exclaimed, pointing, "Hey, somebody stole my shoes!"

It was probably a good thing that Ricky returned to college at the end of the summer to complete his business degree and become a captain of industry. Everyone seemed to be returning to school except Steve and me. We'd made a lot of money and had spent every penny. There was no college money - a moot point, since my college had invited me not to return that semester. The first mate on the scallop trawler I crewed was a guy named Art. He and his best friend were looking for an extra hand to take an old wooden subchaser down the Intracoastal that fall, en route to the Caribbean. I had just read Thomas McGuane's Ninety-Two in the Shade and wanted to see the Florida Keys.

I drove up to Southhampton County to sell it to my father as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to cruise the Caribbean, much like the time he had spent smoke-jumping in Idaho. My father listened patiently, sipping from his green goldfish bowl of ice and Rebel Yell bourbon. Finally, he said he would make a deal with me; he would give me his blessing if I promised to finish college the next year, on the condition that he would no longer have to foot any part of my tuition. I jumped at the bargain. Driving down to Nags Head later, I caught the hook in my father's proposition. I was still smarting from my mother's parting comment to me. When she had finished my summer's worth of laundry, boiled and line-dried, especially the sheets and trousers, she'd said to me, "We don't live like this."

Some bad things happened between Steve and me that fall, mainly having to do with a seventeen-year-old girl. It seemed the brightness of the Outer Banks dimmed just after Labor Day. The people who could leave, did. The wrecks remained. There were a lot of burglaries in the cottages around us, and people should have suspected us but didn't. A girl punched out all the windows in the nearby realty office one night after she'd drunk about a quart of vodka alone. The glass had opened her arms from her wrists to her elbows, and the doctors said the only thing holding the flesh together was all the bracelets she liked to wear. She was almost bled out, sitting in the dark in her rocking chair, when I found her. She had called out weakly to me in greeting as I just happened to walk by from a depressing evening at the nearly empty dance pavilion. You could smell all the blood. She had been a popular girl all summer, and her parents came and got her and took her away - to a mental hospital, I think.

Steve went out on steel hulls, and I took a couple of trips on the wooden shrimp boats down in Core Sound. We rafted alongside a local boat one night, a real horn-callused barefoot fisherman from Wanchese who invited us to his galley table overflowing with cucumbers, fish, fresh biscuits, tomatoes, okra, corn, and he thanked God for the plentiful harvest. Later that night I had the wheel of the little shrimper, an old one, wheelhouse on the stem. The night was moonless and cloudless under a canopy of stars so dense it made me claustrophobic. I was homesick and unwilling to go home, undone by a young girl and pretty much broke. I remember realizing that this evening was the beginning of an eclipse of something in my heart and that things would stay dark for a long time. On my last trip north the captain and mate shot up vodka after they finished off the heroin they'd brought. A guy tried to knock me overboard one night after arguing about a rain hat. We were boarded by the Coast Guard at gunpoint and forced in to Cape May, where we decided to go out on the town, everyone putting on his best wear: black pants, black T-shirts with motorcycle logos and skulls, wallets chained to belts, hobnailed boots. The crew popping pills and snapping open dangerous-looking knives - bucks, martial arts, and the first stiletto I had ever seen and which I subsequently stole. About ten of us walked the bad streets adjacent to the docks at Cape May, a scythe up the street of black and trouble, except for the one element that was me: slicked-back long greasy hair, scraggly beard, sure, but wearing the only clean clothes I could find in the bottom of my duffel, the irrelevant college clothes: the pristine white corduroy slacks, baggy with the weight I'd shed on deck, and the baby-blue Izod alligator shirt, tight with new muscle, purple variety-store flip-flops clopping around my feet. And still I swaggered with the rest of them, looking exactly like what I was, some assholish seafaring preppie impostor.

I was thinking about the girl down on the Outer Banks, the seventeen-year-old, and I slipped away from my crewmates to call her from a pay phone, charging the call to my parents' number. It must have been two or even four in the morning. I didn't realize the operator would call my parents' house to get authorization to bill the call-to their number. The operator woke my parents up, and my father answered the phone and gave his permission, thinking I was calling collect, and then waited for me to come on the line. My mother said that my father sat at his rolltop desk in the dark for a long time holding the old black receiver to his ear, waiting to hear my voice before finally hanging up and getting back into bed where she said she could hear him not sleeping until it was time for him to get up and go to work at the paper mill.

One day a storm brought me home to find that they had bulldozed all the shacks around us; the power and water to ours had been cut, but I continued to sleep there. I hot-wired the current and found the water main. The same storm brought Steve home early, and we tried some false hilarity for a while: the storm had washed thousands of pounds of green bananas and broken crates up onto the beach. With the salvaged lumber we built a new front porch and steps to our place, placating for a while the guy who owned it when he found us squatting. But by Thanksgiving we'd gone our separate ways, and by Christmas I was in Marathon Key watching smugglers unload bales of pot one night at a public wharf under the direction of a deputy sheriff. My buddy Art and his best friend, caught up in a disagreement concerning Art sleeping with the best friend's wife, had let their subchaser sink at a dock far short of the Caribbean. In our southernmost misadventures we spent a night in Cuban custody along with other fishing-boat crews trying to ransom refugees out of Mariel when Castro temporarily opened the port. We'd refused to take the convicts the authorities loaded onto our boats; they weren't on the list of relatives the Miami nationals had given us when we'd left Marathon Key. It was either relent or remain in jail, and so we relented, locking ourselves in the wheelhouse on our return with a .22 rifle and a revolver, keeping a wary eye on the dozens of prison-pale men who lounged on our decks. In that jail, I swore that if ever given the chance, I would go home, embrace my folks, go back to school. But given the chance, I headed for the Outer Banks instead.

To Steve's credit, he and a buddy had swung through Key West on their way back from a dive in the Dry Tortugas at the height of shrimping season, with hundreds of trawlers working out of Stock Island and the Singleton docks. The very first stranger they stopped and asked knew me, a guy I'd met from New Bern, North Carolina, who was running a stolen-bicycle operation from a boat he and a cohort were painting, hundreds of bikes stacked in the hold. I'd met the New Bern guy when he'd tried to steal my tandem bicycle, which I'd left unchained in front of Sloppy Joe's. The bicycle thieves were later found murdered in their bunks. I was glad to see Steve, and when I drifted north I found him living in a trailer on the canal in Wanchese, his yard littered with busted and ongoing business transactions, surfboards, outboard motors, dead cars, a Harker's Island rig, and a homemade houseboat that was slowly sinking at the dock despite the array of car-battery-powered bilges Steve had rigged to keep it afloat.

Steve and I adopted a restaurant in South Nags Head as an office from which to work our scams, Steve having recently started going out with a waitress there. We had taken on the names of Sven and Sven, dreaming up business ventures over home-style platters and free draft beer: taxis for drunks, boat painting. The people in charge of the boat railway where Steve had hoisted a prison warden's boat, the hull of which he'd been hired to scrape and repaint, notified him that his time had run out, so we ran down there and slapped on anti-fouling paint literally as the railway owners slid the boat back into the water. I applied a wavy waterline from a rowboat. The warden, a kind man, came down to check our progress one day. Mark and Stephen, he said; one was stoned and the other was a prophet. At that time I didn't know which was which. The warden liked us until we took his boat out all day when the Spanish mackerel were running, and in the afternoon when we came back with hundreds of dollars' worth of fish, there was the warden on the dock with a flock of lost children he was trying to shepherd from errant paths. They'd been waiting for us for hours. Those were terrible faces on those children. 

I took one last trip with the notorious captain, this time earning the right to step aboard just as his trawler was about to leave the dock. I'd learned enough so that I was actually able to run the winches and read the lorans and make repairs. With the money, I fulfilled my promise to my father, and returned to my little college where Robert E. Lee had been president after The War. I showed up in a battered truck and beard, wild girlfriend only temporarily in tow. I made two short films that I think are autobiographical, violating film-school policy that cameras were not to leave the little Virginia town limits. I took the best camera down to Rodanthe both times. The first film was about a guy whose wild girlfriend leaves him and he decides not to stalk her. The second was about a lonely plane spotter, binoculars up to an empty sky, living in a tent in the dunes during World War II. One night something crawls out of the surf, disembowels him on the beach, and then slips back beneath the waves. My film professor really liked them both. I watch them now and realize how empty and bleak and beautiful the seascape was back then, enhanced by the grainy black-and-white film, the foam, the birds, the sand, all shades of gray in the monochromatic winter light.

Last summer, twenty-five years later, I took my wife and two sons down to Ocracoke. There are still a few unspoiled places south of Whalebone Junction, along Highway 12, but you have to squint to see them. There are still plenty of opportunities left to make it worse. The places on Ocracoke where we all used to play naked are run over by SUVs and other four-wheel-drive vehicles. The week we were on the Outer Banks, the Park Service said in the newspaper they counted 983 vehicles on the beaches just between Ramp 49 at Frisco and Ramp 43 north of Cape Hatteras, what the locals generally refer to as Cape Point. The DUIs and rowdy doughnut spinners are becoming more than an annoyance; there are dangerous near-misses and races and overturned trucks on the beaches now. The tides barely have time to smooth the sands over; sea turtles especially are vulnerable when their nests of buried eggs are splattered by all-terrain tires.

Beyond the sewage and the sprawl today, the light and the noise, there are also the unseen introductions of new arrivals to the New World; offshore divers report the presence of the poisonous lionfish on the wrecks, a Pacific Ocean native that has found its way here, possibly from someone's dumping of his tiresome aquarium into a creek. And this week Navy divers have successfully lifted the 120-ton turret of the ironclad U.S.S. Monitor from the seafloor sixteen miles off Hatteras. There was an old Union gunboat burnt to the waterline and sunk at the wharf in my hometown. When the paper mill wanted to deepen the turn in the river for the pulpwood barges, a dredge scoop was towed up from the Albemarle to dredge up the old black timbers. As kids, we gathered on the banks to watch, hating the rotten timbers, hoping the dirty black sand was full of Yankee bones.

The day we take the ferry to Ocracoke there are nine ferries running, and the wait is still an hour and a half to board. In the car next to ours is a Czech couple, or so my wife, a keen-eyed journalist, tells me. The couple works at one of the restaurants in Nags Head - no way they'll make it back for the dinner shift. Years ago the restaurants and stores employed college kids, mostly from the Carolinas and Virginia. My favorite seafood restaurant boasted Home Style Meals Served By Barefoot Co-Eds! and the place was always packed; platters delivered to your table by red-and-white checkered blouses knotted above the midriff atop short cutoff shorts and bare bronze legs. Now there's a foreign exchange of talent and a website; your orders are liable to be yelled and change counted out in Polish, Romanian, French, and Dutch. The Czech couple drives a bored-out-sounding late-seventies Buick coupe. They stand with the other tourists at the bow of the ferry and take each other's images, him wielding an old Russian box camera, her with a neat new digital. A female deckhand on the ferry says her grandmother claims to have traveled between Hatteras Island and Ocracoke Island on a homemade bridge of grapevines. When I ask her about Teach's Hole, Blackbeard's old haunt, she says she's a lifelong native of Hatteras, that she really doesn't know that much about Ocracoke, a short span of grape to the south.

We visit the Teach's Hole Blackbeard Exhibit and Pirate Specialty Shop, where my sons choose their weapons, a large red plastic sword and a slingshot. Nearby, Blackbeard, a notoriously violent captain with a single name known from the West Indies to England, a large burly man with an enormous black beard that crept all the way up to his shocking blue eyes, experienced a very disappointing day. Shortly after celebrating his fourteenth wedding, this time to a sixteen-year-old girl, he woke up one morning to find two English sloops rounding Teach's Hole. Blackbeard had enjoyed a cozy relationship with the governor of North Carolina, with whom he divvied up his prizes. Unfortunately, many of the prizes originated in Virginia, whose governor commissioned the two little Royal sloops. In fierce hand-to-hand combat, Blackbeard took five pistol shots and twenty-five saber slices before falling dead on the deck of his Adventure. The Royal commander, young Lieutenant Robert Maynard, severed Blackbeard's head and hoisted it on his mizzenmast. Onlookers reported that Blackbeard's headless body swam three laps around his ship before slipping away on the tide.

The little town of Ocracoke is crowded with us turns: kites, crabs, and ice cream. I look at the docks where I tied up twenty-five years ago in little wooden-hulled trawlers with fresh shrimp and cold beer on ice in our holds (the island was dry back then). There'd be a party, some locals, some backpacking hippies, always a girl with a guitar.

We stay too long on the perfect beach where a few years earlier as newlyweds my wife and I had spent a naked afternoon. Our sons are sandy and asleep in the back of our van, waiting at midnight for the last ferry. My wife gets out and counts cars to see if we'll make it on, all the while taking an anthropological sampling of the other vehicles. The Cubans are dancing; the Marylanders are watching a sci-fi movie on DVD in their minivan; and Virginia prep boys take sand wedges out of their trunks and practice golf swings on the dunes. We board third from last. Her favorite part of our Outer Banks trip is standing in the balmy breeze above the ferry's flat foaming bow as the captain above and behind us picks out the brilliant red and green channel markers with a spotlight in the thick humid dark. Eerie and tranquil, creepy yet peaceful, is how she describes it.

The morning of tending to my father's final business, I go into the ocean alone at dawn, just when the convenience-store posters say not to, reminding people about the two fatal shark attacks of last year that happened just north and south of where I enter the water. AVOID SWIMMING ALONE AT DUSK OR DAWN IN A RISING TIDE. I make it out past the double sandbar, feeling a rip current so strong at one spot that it's like my legs are tangled in sheets. The waves are confused but insistent. They keep coming - their nature, their job. I swim and then try to make it in without dislocating either of my two new hips. My surgeon would not approve of this. I was born with bent hips that precluded contact sports and military service. A puny, bookish youth, I realize the years at sea are an attempt at some sort of compensation, validation. Thus has my worldview been shaped, always looking down so as not to trip. I stagger up onto the beach, find my towel, and wonder if that noise I heard was a sonic boom from Ocean Naval Air Station to the north or something else. With several pounds of titanium hip and femur in my body, I'm cognizant of lightning. I'm the first off the beach when thunder rumbles. When I lived in Virginia Beach, a beautiful black-haired girl who rented boardwalk bikes and always wore a long one-piece bathing suit was split open down her chest when lightning found the zipper there.

And like Sam McGee happily sitting in the flames of the wrecked barge Alice May, I think about cremation, as I can never be too hot, though going to hell, as I am learning, is not a compulsory thing to do. We never seem to think about death other than as observers, and in my mind I really don't want some funeral director handing my sons a box of ash and molars and a shovelful of scorched titanium parts.

My father hated the beach, had "sand issues," couldn't swim, and, like me, was actually terrified of water. At age four, I fell into a chocolate creek in East Texas. My father stood beside me, fishing. I wasn't pushed; I was just the type of child who accelerated the odds of inevitable mishap. I stood beside water, therefore I fell in. My father, unable to swim, saved my life by lying prone on the dock and reaching around frantically in the water until he found my shirttail. I was landed - drowned - and resuscitated by a doctor's wife who later bathed me in a sink and tweaked my erection to stanch my crying. Freud said storytelling is unconscious desire to summon fears in order to be able to exorcise them.

My own son Roman accelerates odds of inevitable mishap by sheer proximity to slick floors, wobbly chairs, sharpened pencils, hot stoves. I imagine him in these Outer Banks being sucked out by the notorious undertow, which has almost drowned all of my friends at some time during the last forty years. Stupidly surfing a big onshore hurricane break years ago, I got tumbled and spiked on my left shoulder, splitting the scapula in two. The doctor said it takes at least seven hundred pounds of pressure to split a scapula. Lucky it wasn't my neck, he said. But what are you going to do? Not go back into the ocean, ever? Freud said the most important day in a man's life is the day his father dies. For now, I would suggest it's the day your first son is born. I was my father's only son, his first born.

On the day of the ashes, I quote Ben, loosely, a favorite collect that he used in services thirty years ago: "Come Holy Spirit come, come as a wind and cleanse, come as a fire and burn; convict, convert, consecrate our lives for our great good and Thy greater glory." Ben says he doesn't remember where it comes from. Have I ever thought of the ministry? he asks. Yes, I have, one clear clean winter in Tennessee, I lined things up to enter the seminary and was talked out of it by a visiting bishop from Britain. Ben seems surprised at this. Yes, I tell him, the bishop said that as a writer, if I really had The Call, I would reach more people with my work. Ben says the bishop must have thought I was a good writer. Or else he was Satan, I said. I ask Ben if they would have let someone like me into the seminary, and he says when he went through he girded himself for what he had been told was the toughest interview in the whole process. He said his interviewer mainly wanted to talk about airplanes. When Ben asked him shouldn't they be talking about more serious matters, the interviewer said the main purpose of the interview was to comb for messiahs and homosexuals, and he could tell Ben was neither.

On the way out to where we're going to attend to my father, Ben and I spot a white disk, like a communion wafer, and the disk hovers over the south end of the beach before slipping westward. Maybe it was one of those banners pulled behind an airplane advertising reggae and fish tacos; maybe it was something else. I can't tell and neither can Ben, with his Air Force eyes. The captain of the Captain Duke asks if we've brought a camera or flowers. We've brought neither. I have a tape with one of my father's favorite songs on it - a song about Lake Charles, the place of both our births-but the mate says the tape deck is still chewing up the last tape they put in a while back.

Ben, in full vestment, begins when our captain, a Wanchese native and part-time preacher himself, cuts the engines after pushing us into the wind. The words come hard for Ben at the commending of the ashes; he knew my father as well as anyone could know him. Ben puts his hand on my shoulder to steady himself as we drift a little, side to side, during the gospel. He pets my shoulder twice at the place in. . the service where I am supposed to do what I do, lean over the rail and pour out the last mortal remains. I wonder about the particle density of the remains, the way they seem to stream straight to the bottom, only the finer specks leaving a ribbon of beige pollenlike dust on the surface that clings to the boat's waterline.

The rest is the ride in, my sister grieving over the paucity of good memories, me reciting the Rolltop Mantra at the thought of allowing the twenty-year estrangement between my father and me, except for the last two weeks of his lucid life, when he shooed every one out of his hospital room when I arrived, telling me to pull up a chair to hear his confession. We order fresh grouper sandwiches in the South Nags Head restaurant where once I was Sven and where my father went looking for news of me. "He's at rest and where he wants to be," Ben says after I'm quiet for a while.

The bottom of the ocean is dark and cold and roamed by Pleistocene fish that science has forgotten. One night Steve and I were culling through what had emptied from the tailbag - scallops, fish, ballast stones, sand - and something jumped up and ran to the rail, and I'm glad someone else saw it. It looked like a hairless monkey with webbing between its arms and body. It hopped up on the rail and turned its head to us and hissed like a cat through cartilage-looking teeth. It had been a strange trip already. A submarine, spooked by our fathoms of cable strung behind us, had surfaced in a football field of foam the previous night; the ocean erupted beside us and from deep below you could see this pulsing yellow light that signaled Everything Must Yield. The submarine leapt up like a fish, snorting foam, and its bow wave nearly rolled us. We'd been taking little white pills that flapped shrouds in the edges of the deck lights already. The boiled-looking furless monkey hissed at us on the rail again before diving overboard. No one would have believed us if we had told about the monkey thing, but there was a guy on board who said he had seen worse. He couldn't talk about it without tears welling up in his eyes. That's the kind of thing you find at the bottom of the ocean, where my father wanted to be. 

In the following days I take my older boy, Roman, down to Wanchese. Wanchese was the bad Indian, my fifth-grade history teacher used to say, the one who turned against the colonists after they kidnapped him and the good Indian Manteo and took them to London. Returning to the New World, Sir Walter Raleigh's men repaid Chief Wingi-na's kindness of feeding the starving colonists by shooting him in the buttocks and then severing his head. Wanchese defected back to his own people. Manteo was named Lord of Roanoke.

Not much has changed in Wanchese: the derelict cars, broken marine gear, old culling boxes rotting in the marsh; the fish houses, the old trailer on the canal where Steve and I lived. My son Roman notices how many stop signs have been knocked off their corners. Grocery-store accounts are still kept in spiral-bound notebooks. I ask about the notorious captain who first hired me twenty-five years ago. Someone says they don't know, maybe Alaska, maybe South America, maybe "sumwarz up norf." 

I take Roman to the South Nags Head restaurant. It's been flooded a couple of times by hurricanes, an old picture of Steve and me long gone from the wall. I still know some of the women we knew back then who are still there now. They've married commercial fishermen once or twice, raising teenagers now; they say that Roman looks so much like me I must have spit him out of my mouth.

Across the beach road is the old pier where Steve and I used to shoot pool at three in the morning, wobbly eight-ball as winter swells rocked the place. We meet a low-end crowd, drunk tattooed sailors with pitbull puppies. From the tip of the pier we watch a lethargic waterspout beginning to slip from a foamy bottom of cumulus crossing the beach, but it's pulled out to sea after only a halfhearted quarter-drop down. The bait man says the Outer Banks is going to hell. Did I hear they're bringing in an Outback Steakhouse? When they bring in an Olive Garden, I'm out of here, he says.

The water is gentle by the pier today and we wear ourselves out on the Boogie Board, then fill a glass bottle with only tiny purple shells, a gift for Roman's grandmother. We drink strawberry milk and drive north along the beach road. I point out the cottage where his mother and I stayed six years ago, the kind of old shuttered place they're now tearing down to build the eight-bedroom models. There's a tiny bedroom in the back with a broken-shouldered double bed in which he was conceived, beneath an old reproduction of Winslow Homer's Hurricane.

What is an apostrophe? Roman asks. He's five years old, and he mimics me by walking with his back bent a little forward, with the view of his feet that affords. So far at the beach this week, he has found a watch, a piece of rare coral, a Smith & Wesson tactical knife, and, in the ruined inner court of a washed-over sandcastle, a shark-tooth fossil.

I'm often flummoxed by his simple questions. I work through an unsatisfactory explanation of possessive mechanics and contractions. Finally I tell him it's usually a little speck that means something's missing

The evening veil is on the Atlantic to the east even as Pamlico Sound to the west is still lit like a lake of fire. As we drive north to supper, we pass an old outdoor pay phone I spent many a midnight leaning into trying to make something right with someone miles away on the mainland. I realize something new about the Outer Banks. It's not about the development or the seascape laid waste or even the invasion of sneering Connecticut Yankees; the rich, like the poor, will always be with us. It's not that this week of attending to my father's business has made the whole place seem more fraught. The Outer Banks is a place where only God knows how close I came to what could have been, and only His grace saved me from it. It's the lesson of Shadrach in the oven: sometimes God saves us through the fire, sometimes He saves us from the fire, and sometimes He saves us not at all.

I doubt I'll be bringing us back here anytime soon.

*05/2003 Harper's Magazine.

**Mark Richard lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two sons. His short story "All The Trimmings" appeared in the December 2002 issue of Harpers Magazine

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Last updated: Sunday, April 22, 2012