No Man on Ocracoke

by Ralph Maloney

When I wrap my hand around the label of a weighted bat I swing every morning for the exercise, my index finger and thumb don’t quite touch. They form a tight C, or perhaps a Q from which the squiggle has defected. That is exactly the shape of the harbor at Ocracoke, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. It was dredged into a perfect circle by the Navy in World War II to accommodate antisubmarine vessels. The harbor is called Silver Lake, although it is patently neither, but the Outer Banks is public relations country, a land of euphemism and overstatement where a harbor is a lake and a dune a mountain and nobody carps.

For starters, a public relations man told me, and meant it, that Hatteras Island, the next north of Ocracoke Island, was Land’s End, the easternmost reach of the United States. It is not, and by some five hundred miles. Hatteras, indeed, seems on the map about a hundred miles west of Manhattan. In one of the innumerable brochures advertising the Outer Banks, I read that Pamlico Sound, separating Ocracoke and Hatteras from the Carolina mainland, is the largest sound ("forming a channel between the mainland and an island” — Webster) in the world. It may well be, but once the child or the tourist in us has been lied to or misled, it doesn’t listen anymore. Hence I suspect that the beachcomber Edward Teach became the fearsome pirate Blackboard with a good deal of help from Outer Banks press agents. Armed with this sort of suspicion I learned that the great dune, topped by a memorial to the Wright Brothers and commemorating the first powered flight, is not even suspected to be the dune the Brothers first flew from.

With the customary lament over artificial folklore read into the record, let me say that the Outer Banks is a sure bet to survive its ecstatic press. The water is deep sea and absolutely without taint. Swimming beyond the surf, I found it necessary to drink small mouthfuls, it was that pure. The ocean beach at Ocracoke is eighteen miles long and splendidly duned — Amagansett comes to mind, and Truro. The surf-fishing is like surf-fishing everywhere, expensive and futile, but a good workout and a fine way for nervous people to sunbathe. In the inlets and channels and out near the Gulf Stream, there are more kinds of fish than I dreamed existed, and I have worked commercial boats. Included in one day’s catch was a cobia, a streamlined toughie that weighed twenty pounds and fought as if every plunge and turn were for his wife’s honor or his child’s life. At one point he came clear of the water and danced on his tail, he was so mad. When he had been gaffed aboard and clubbed repeatedly, his eye was just as baleful as Sonny Liston’s before the fall, and I was glad we lived in different neighborhoods. The great catch of the season, pure serendipity, was made by Fat Tony, who spent most of October with me on Ocracoke. He was surf casting with a sea trout lure through a school of flashing mullet, and beached a bath mat flounder thick as The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. More about Tony and the flounder later. Let us simply establish here that Ocracoke will survive its press agents.

One reason it will survive is sunset. Thick clouds pile five miles high over Pamlico Sound late every afternoon. Then the sun burns down behind the clouds, turning them orange or purple or both, and it is difficult for three hours to be sure you are sober or awake. There is a theory that says certain segments of land are sacred or profane, and in terms of this theory, the Outer Banks, and Ocracoke Island especially, are enchanted, graced. There are presences all about. Our language is not equipped to describe many of the awarenesses we have, and one is reduced to saying the joint is haunted.

It is. Fat Tony and I took a Joad-Jukes shack on the sound, remote from everything. We are both city kids, and unaccustomed to such thoroughgoing isolation, we quarreled. I told Tony to go away and he went away, leaving me in an old house in an unending hot wind. Everything banged. The wind seethed permanently in the live oaks at the door, and when I woke up in the middle of the night, it took an effort of will to go back to sleep. It was the kind of horror-picture spooky fright that is delicious if you are not alone. But I was alone except for those feet going up and down the stairs all night.

Historically the Outer Banks is spooky country. Sir Walter Raleigh established a colony on Roanoke Island, which now links the Banks to the mainland. The colony disappeared. When the relief ship arrived in 1591, no trace of the settlers was discovered but the word croatan carved on a tree. Scholars have since learned that croatan in Mattamuskeet means “no Indian women allowed,” and count the absolute eradication of the colony as the first Red backlash. The brochures want us to be happy, and they say, with no evidence, that the people of the Lost Colony were absorbed by Indian tribes on Hatteras and Ocracoke. I hope so. The first white child born in America, Virginia Dare, was born on Roanoke and disappeared with the colony. I became fond of her from her picture on wine bottles, and I want to believe she survived.

After Fat Tony had been gone a week, I decided my housing situation, while colorful, was too lonely and frightening. I walked around perfectly circular Silver Lake to the motels near the ferry slip and learned that a room with an efficiency kitchen would cost from $45 to $100 a week, and this a month after Labor Day. I walked right back around the harbor to my shack. At those prices I would simply have to be braver.

So much for the housing on Ocracoke. Food was a problem, too, as it is everywhere south of Baltimore. Kitchen work is beneath Southern whites, and Southern Negroes can’t cook. (I took Tony’s bath mat flounder to a local restaurant and tipped the chef to prepare it for all of us — owner, staff, customers, me. He broiled it, which was fine, then poured a can of cold mushrooms on it to show that this was a class operation.) Scrambled eggs and bacon are impossible to bitch, and I ate breakfast twice a day, but soon I went into withdrawal for garlic and did my own cooking, which made my loneliness infinitely greater.

Ocracoke Island is in Hyde County, which is dry. No part of North Carolina can be described as sopping, and when they vote themselves dry clown there, they mean it. Before I went to Ocracoke, I knew there was no legal whiskey, and I took along a moderate supply. I would certainly have taken more with me, but I assumed I would be able to find The Man on Ocracoke who sold whiskey without a license.

There is no Man on Ocracoke. It is, in fact, a marvelous territory for an enterprising young bootlegger. I drank some of the scuppernong wine that I had purchased in, of all places, Scuppernong, North Carolina, as a curiosity, a brown and tasty wine made from wild grapes with skin as tough as Wallace Beery. I am sure the wine press makes cubes of old automobiles in the offseason.

Some seventy miles north to Kill Devil Hills, where the Wright Brothers probably were first airborne, there is a liquor store, and a friend of mine named Alice owns the Sea Ranch. After the bare bones of the shack, which actually had a privy, the air-conditioned and laundered fastness of Alice’s ranch was somehow unmanning, like being kissed by your nurse. On my way back to Ocracoke I learned there are wild horses on the Banks: mustangs with an apparent strain of palomino which once numbered thousands and now are a herd of forty with a fence around them (like a graveyard) to keep the people out. I also discovered there are some seventy camping grounds on the ocean and sound sides of Ocracoke alone, each equipped with water and brown table-and-bench facilities I associate with Robert Moses. The horses are truly wild in the unridable way that cats are wild; I went in with them, but you can’t get too close or they will bite you. The birdlife on the islands is preposterous. I bought a paperback on local birds and had frequent and frantic reference to it. Fat Tony does not know birds, but he looked several times in the book out of curiosity, and once when we had stopped to picnic on the Pamlico Sound side of Hatteras Island, he said calmly, “That looks like a rufous-sided towhee.” I looked, and bejays, it was a rufous-sided towhee. I gave him the bird book wrapped in the blue tie with avocets on it that the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds sells for $3. As always, where there is abundant birdlife there are those hardies who migrate heavily armed to defend themselves against stupid Canada geese and those rabid teal and an occasional savage swan. Oddly enough the hardies make nice company, and I visited duck blinds miles out in the Atlantic, standing in a foot of water, and I drank their bourbon, always bourbon, and

I fondled the splendid and alien guns. Between Bodie Island to the north and Hatteras is a stupendous bridge. The islands are so undeveloped and the bridge so grand that it is rather like joining potatoes with a bracelet. Between Hatteras Island and Ocracoke is the world’s champion ferry. It weaves twenty miles across Hatteras Inlet, around big nun buoys and sandbars, the exquisite sea spraying the cars and the people standing out of them, taking pictures of one another. The ferry is free. That is to say, it costs no money to take this irremediable boat ride, and while I was working on some stories, Fat Tony rode it back and forth so many times the management once refused to carry him on suspicion he was running rum.

Well, now, this trip from Alice’s Sea Ranch to the shack at Ocracoke became a sweet routine. During the week, I lived in a kind of woolblanket harshness in the shack and the spooky beauty of Ocracoke, and on weekends Tony drove us north to live in the whoopee luxury of Alice’s motel. (Tony was chauffeur not in the hired-out sense but because he is an excellent driver, so I let him drive.) Mondays I would point Tony south, and we’d tool down the Banks, swimming and fishing at spots that had become favorites. It was a marvelous fall.

There is another ferry to Ocracoke from the mainland south of the island. It costs $9 one way for two people, and the best that can be said of it is that it departs a few miles north of a town called Lola. Its passengers are, in the main, elderly, and come to Ocracoke to see what’s left of the mustangs and to look at the Coast Guard station and to send postcards to anybody they can think of who is still alive. They go look at some of the wrecks on the beach (there are so very many that the area is called the Graveyard of Ships, but please remember this is PR country), and then they drive onto the ferry and go away.

On each ferry from the mainland there is usually a Jeep or a Land Rover with six or so ten-foot surfing rods standing tall from the front bumper. Or sometimes it is a car called a camper, a pickup truck with bunks over the driver’s cab and living space in the rear. The camper has rods on its front bumper too. These vehicles all seem to be operated by jolly graybeards, who drive their Jeeps and Rovers and campers as far out on the Atlantic wetlands as the tide allows, which is sometimes several miles, and he goes out after stripers and blues, and she makes sandwiches and friends. I like them.

There is a man in Ocracoke by the name of Sam Jones. He is rich enough to buy Marrakesh, but he uses his money to erect enormous houses with octagonal towers all over town. Just as a guess, I’d say he has two hundred empty rooms in a town of five hundred people. While I was trying to arrange an introduction to Mr. Jones, Fat Tony rang his bell and told him he was me. Sam didn’t take to Tony and ate shrimp slowly in a ruffled formal shirt and told Tony only that the two hundred rooms were “for family use.” He owns the rubber cancellation stamp from the first airmail flight in America, from Ocracoke to Kill Devil Hills, and is otherwise interesting, but I can’t go see him and explain that the immense chap who interviewed him was not me. He’d go get a bowl of shrimp and eat until I went away.

On the next trip to Alice’s ranch somebody stole our rods and tackle. The gear belonged to Tony. We always left it on the beach so other guests at the ranch could fool around surf-fishing. I went out to catch dinner (or fool around surf-fishing), and everything was gone, and I looked at the sky and the water and saw that it was November. I will not labor the connection between the theft and the coming of winter because I don’t understand it. It is, fortunately, not my business to understand things but to say them, and so I will say that the loss of the rods and the change of season were directly related, and ask you to accept. If you accept it and are otherwise good, I shall take you all down to the Outer Banks next fall, and if we find the cat who took Tony’s rods, we will stomp him.