THERE IS A trusted saying on our remote Outer Banks of North Carolina that we who live there are all frail children of the moody Mother Sea, that she watches over and controls our every destiny. Shapes us as she carves out sandbars. Puts us in raging waves or calm, sunny waters. Makes fools out of us now and then, and isn't beyond having a good laugh herself. However, in her behalf, the old people claim she takes a long and careful time before making up her mind on how to dispose of us. She'll beckon us mysteriously when she's ready and not a tide before. There is also steadfast belief from Kill Devil Hills clear to Hatteras village and Ocracoke Island that she talks to us constantly and often we don't listen.
I do believe that now, although I didn't pay it much attention in March 1899, when my various voyages began. The Mother Sea was having a good laugh for herself during that trying period.
In the chill, gray dawn of a Tuesday, in the midmonth, sun reddening but not yet mounting the horizon, I stood at the dew-coated rail on the quivering stern of the steamer Neuse, looking south down Croatan Sound, which lies between Roanoke Island, of Lost Colony fame, and the flat, marshy Carolina mainland. Below my feet, glassy bubbles and white froth boiled out from the railway ferry as she throbbed steadily toward the Pasquotank River and Elizabeth City, North Carolina, where a train would be waiting to carry me on to Norfolk, across the Virginia border.
A knowledgeable but plotting girl once told me my face smacked poetically of sun on Irish bogs and Land's End winters. I can't at all vouch for that, but I can tell you how I looked that Tuesday otherwise. I was clad in a sturdy brown wool jacket, good knickers, black stockings without holes in them, and a seaman's blue wool cap (courtesy of surfman Mark Jennette), and by my legs rested a tubby canvas bag containing clothes, a pair of rubber boots, writing paper, a towel, and a bar of soap. So far as I knew, I was well equipped for what lay ahead but not so well off for what lay behind.
Way down the sound I could still make out the little boat's sails but could no longer see the comforting, hunched forms of Keeper Filene Midgett and surfman Jabez Tillett. Already they were beating away in the sharpie, and in late afternoon would arrive at Chicky Dock, on the Pamlico Sound. The Outer Banks, a string of small islands with low dunes and hammocks, bent oaks and scrub holly, flank the sounds, with a watching and listening and talking Atlantic Ocean on the other side, to east. Without doubt, Filene and Jabez would be safely to home at Heron Head Lifesaving Station, which Keeper Midgett commanded, well before supper of wild pig or Mattamuskeet deer or roast ruddy duck, over which to talk about the event of the morning: my great departure.
Home, I couldn't help but think. With people they knew. Places they knew. Standing there, I shivered, I remember, and it wasn't from any icy wind. Disgraceful tears, once more (and I was certainly glad that the men in the sharpie hadn't seen them), had stopped. I'd resolutely fought them back, but somehow my throat kept on crowding. Only ten minutes before, when the Neuse pulled away from the dock at Skyco, Filene and Jabez had let the sharpie drift on out into the channel, then waved a last farewell before hauling sail up.
Never would they know just how close I'd come to yelling, "Take me with you."
A few minutes later, with three miles of brown water already separating the sailboat from the high-stacked white steamer, I thought very hard about turning myself around in Elizabeth City, swallowing my pride as I was gulping the gummy throat lumps, admit I was scared right down to my high-top shoes. Go home and unpack my seabag and wait in the small shingle house near Heron Head for brother Reuben to return from his voyages in the Caribbean.
I also distinctly recall hoping I'd see that sharpie come smartly about and race after the Neuse, finally catching it in Lizzie City, big Cousin Filene shouting up, "I been thinkin', Ben. You ought to wait to next year, when you're fourteen. Come on down an' git in this boat with us..."
It didn't happen, of course.
Then I tried to imagine what they were saying to each other and later found out I wasn't the width of six hairs off.
Filene: "I do deceive that boy may be tougher'n John O'Neal. Didn't leak nary a tear. Jus' stood there manly an' said good-bye. For sure, he is tougher'n Reuben. Why, the night his mama died, if he cried I didn't see it. He jus' took off south on that pony o' his."
Well, I cried plentysome.
Filene: "But a dozen times this week I felt like tellin' Ben he shouldn't go. Too quick after his mama died. Too soon to git his feet wet. He should stay with us up to the station, or up to the Odens or Farrows or Gillikins, an' they all thought about offerin'..."
I would have refused and they all knew it. I'd talked too bragging much about going out to sea; dug my own foolish pit, so to speak.
Filene: "Thirteen's a mite young to go to open sea, but Ben could always rightfully tell us that his brother had done it no older'n that. Others on the Banks afore him."
Jabez: "That is true, Cap'n. I did myself." Jabez often took a big spit of Ashe's best plug after he said something profound and undoubtedly did this time.
Filene: "As I do recall, Reuben was not a month over thirteen when he went off to Norfolk. I remember that Rachel, God rest her soul, was beside herself."
Jabez: "That she was. I don't think it happened more'n a year after John O'Neal capsized."
Filene: "About then. But I think John O'Neal, God rest his heroic soul, too, would have been right proud today that he had a boy who'd buried his dead an' faced the wind."
Jabez: "Right proud." And then a six-to-eight-foot spit.
In truth, I wasn't facing the wind, and the region between my chin and forehead must have looked like a wrung-out mop.
I stayed by the rail until the peak of canvas vanished behind the first sun rays and then made my way toward the bow, pausing outside the lounging and dining saloon. It was richly carpeted in red, everything clean and shining. Forward were two long tables with snowy cloths, silver-colored cream pitchers, and thin little rose vases, minus roses because it wasn't summer as yet.
Other passengers were already eating breakfast. The coffee smelled good, as did the frying pork belly. So, carrying my seabag inside, placing it down where I could watch it-Filene had warned of thieves north of Kitty Hawk-I advanced on one table and sat down at the far end, away from other diners. Looking around that saloon, I'd never seen such splendor.
In a moment, a tall, elderly waiter in a starched white SS Neuse jacket with brass buttons on it placed a glass of water in front of me and said pleasantly, "Mornin'. We got some nice Smithfield ham today. Or some Philadelphy scrapple. Virginia trout. Grits 'n' gravy."
From strain, my voice cracked when I answered. "Reckon I'll have some oatmeal, please." More and more, my vocal cords were doing that of late, the usual plague of change of life.
Almost without thinking of it, I touched my pants pocket to see if the odd change was still there; let my hand slip stealthily to my breastbone to feel the fourteen dollars, my entire fund, bound tightly and hanging on a whistle lanyard, an idea of Filene's. It was safely there.
I'd seen these steam railway ferries many times as they plied the sounds and had boarded this same vessel once, just recently, when delivering Teetoncey, the British shipwreck survivor who'd lost her parents and was headed back for London, England. But I'd never been a passenger myself and had no idea what they charged for breakfast. Oatmeal shouldn't be more than a few ...