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I was awakened by the sound of Grandmom's frantic voice.  She was in a panic and very upset.  "My blessed, how in the world am I going to get my clothes dry?" were the words that blasted into my upstairs bedroom window from the yard below.  It was Monday morning, washday, and Grandmom's desperate attempt to finish that weekly chore had suddenly come to an abrupt stop.  This was before the days of drying clothes indoors in an appliance which has almost brought about the extinction of what Grandmom could not believe was missing.   "My clothesline is gone.  Whatever will I do?" were the next words that penetrated the peaceful silence of my bedroom. 

My grandmother was a creature of habit.  You could set your watch by her activities.  There was a time for everything.  A time to rise each morning; a time to fix breakfast; a time to eat breakfast; a time to wash breakfast dishes; a time to go to the cistern and ladle a bucket of water and bring it in the kitchen; a time to straighten the house; a time to fix the beds; a time to comb her white, waist length hair, plait it, and roll it into a bun on the back of her head; a time to run across the road to visit with her sister, Kate; a time to return home and fix dinner; a time to eat dinner; a time to wash dinner dishes; a time to sit quietly and read the Bible; a time to rock on the piazza; a time to run across the road for another visit with Kate, this time on her front porch where passers-by would always stop and chat before continuing their journey either up or down the road; a time to return home and fix supper; a time to eat supper; a time to wash supper dishes; a time to swing on the piazza and unwind from a long day of staying on time; a time to go inside out of the night air and mosquitoes; a time to entertain company from the village who would pop in and either spin some yarns of times gone by or catch her up on the local gossip; and a time to go to bed.  Those were her daily activities, Monday through Saturday.  Sunday was a day of rest.  Stir into that her weekly activities, washday on Monday being one example, and one can see how important it was for her to finish that task if she were to accomplish her daily routine.  A missing clothesline could throw her schedule off for the entire week.  And when Grandmom's schedule was off, everyone else got to share her misery.

I rolled over in bed, put my pillow over my head in an attempt to drown out any further announcements she might broadcast to the neighborhood and pretended to be asleep.  I had worried all weekend about what had happened to her clothesline, but I never could get the nerve to confess my sin to her. I decided to fake an illness hoping that would distract her from asking me any questions about the missing line. If I had only asked her permission to use it, but I knew she would say no. Without that clothesline I would have been only an observer, not a participant, of Friday night's adventure at the landing.  Although being an observer was fun, it held none of the excitement of participation.   

Grandmom was not the only creature of habit on Hatteras Island. So was I.  Now that I think of it, what choice did I have?  It was not only a hereditary thing but an environmental one as well. She had been performing her routine for more than 50 years before I started spending the summers with her, Pop Pop, and Sister.  Although my presence had to play some role in upsetting her customary activities, I quickly learned that life was much sweeter when I adapted my activities so as not to interfere with her customs.   Therefore events important to this 13-year-old grandson had to be scheduled at times so as not to interfere with Grandmom's routine.  Thus her habits precipitated mine. 

One of my habits was to go to the landing on Friday evening shortly after supper and stay until just before Grandmom's bedtime at 9 o'clock, not a minute later. The landing was a local name for the village harbor, including the fish houses, an ice plant, and docks.   Prior to the early 1950s, the harbor was nothing more than the widest portion of a creek that transected a portion of saltmarsh on the western side of the village, and its mouth emptied into Pamlico Sound. 



My absence from home during Grandmom's customary after-supper swing on the piazza followed by her entertaining company in the sitting room did not in any way upset the status quo. She could not retire for the night, however, unless everyone who was supposed to be home was there.  So as not to upset Grandmom, whom I dearly loved, I always returned home from the landing on Friday nights just before her bedtime, even if Ralph was reeling in a big one.

The landing at Hatteras was my Sea World.  It was a world of sights, actions, sounds, marine organisms, and odors that were unique and genuine, no facades or staged productions to deceive one into believing that he was seeing something authentic.  There was always some kind of activity going on that was either educational or entertaining. Never were any two days alike. The best part was that it did not cost a cent and you did not have to worry about staying near an adult who would protect you from being accosted by a stranger or from getting lost in a sea of people.  There were no shuttles, no large parking lots, no standing in line for the next attraction, and no ride in congested traffic to an unfamiliar bed in a strange hotel room at the end of the day.  When all else failed to keep me entertained when spending the summer at Grandmom's house, I would go to the landing.

On the eastern side of the creek where its mouth opened into Pamlico Sound sat several fish houses and an ice plant in which the island's only generator for making electricity had been located for many years.  Years before this service was extended to the homes of the village, the electricity was used exclusively for supplying power to a refrigeration unit for ice production.  Years before the ice plant, large blocks of ice were covered by straw for insulation and imported from the mainland in the hull of locally owned freight boats.  This important necessity ensured the freshness of seafood, the island's main source of revenue.  A number of wharfs extended into the harbor from each of these simplistic but functional structures on the creek bank.  It was here that local boat captains tied their vessels to either unload their catch of the day or temporarily stack supplies from the mainland, which were promptly distributed to local merchants.  Likewise, it was a place that eagerly awaited fresh seafood was loaded for transportation to markets on the mainland across the sound.  It was a hub of activity everyday of the week except Sunday. 

Mornings saw an assembly of activities as fishermen returned from their pound nets in the sound.  While I sat on the docks and looked at the western horizon, an excitement would flood my soul as small specks of white grew into open, inboard-motor fish boats loaded to the washboards with spots, croakers, mullets, hogfish, trout, and many other commercial and noncommercial species. In my pre-teen years, Pop Pop was always on one of those boats. 

He fished as a vocation until he was 65 years old.  It was at this age that the local doctor told him that he must retire from fishing after he fainted one day at the end of his walk home from fishing.  The doctor was called to the house to attend to him, and he diagnosed his condition as a heart attack.  His only treatment was this advice:  "Mr. Clifford," he said, "if you continue to fish, it will kill you."  That day Pop Pop stopped fishing, an occupation he dearly loved. 

The next week he took a job in one of the fish houses, culling fish, weighing them, and packing them between layers of ice in wooden boxes that, when filled, weighed more than 100 pounds.  He arranged those heavy containers filled with their culinary delights against the back wall of the fish house into rows whose columns often extended as high as his shoulders. Often times, when there was enough seafood to fill one of the local freight boats, which would transport it to the mainland for sale, he would single-handedly load the cargo into the vessel.  The work was more strenuous than fishing, but to his way of thinking, he was following doctor's orders.  He continued doing this line of work until he was almost 80 years old.  Near bedtime on a cool October evening, his first indisputable heart attack took his life.  He was 93.

It was at the docks that I learned of the unbelievable variety of organisms that thrive in the sound --- fish, crabs, shrimp, turtles, and shellfish. It was also at the docks that I learned by example the joy of sharing.  If any of the ladies in the village desired any of the sound's gifts for dinner or supper, all she had to do was to show up for a gratis supply when the fishermen arrived at the docks to sell their catch.  The generosity of the fishermen reinforced an important lesson that I was taught in Sunday school ---it is more blessed to give than to receive.

Afternoons at the landing were quieter than the mornings. Usually the chores of preparing the fish for market were over.  The fishermen were scattered along the shoreside, mending their nets for another day.  The elderly men gathered in small groups along the docks, whiling away the time by whittling a piece of juniper into a pile of shavings or by spinning yarns of the past.  They passed on a rich cultural heritage to the loitering youth. 

Floating over the surface of the creek were hundreds of scrap fish that could not be sold.  The practice of the fishermen was to dump them overboard. It was a scavenger's delight. These dead fish also provided the stimulus for more exciting entertainment that usually arrived near sunset.

The local boys and, on rare occasions, some of the local girls took advantage of the lazy afternoon for a swim.  The fish floating on the surface of the creek were never a deterrent to them for an afternoon dip. I wanted to join them, but Grandmom told me not to swim "in that nasty water," so I obeyed her.  Frequent trips to the beach to swim in the cleaner ocean satisfied my need to jump overboard anyway.  I was content just to sit and to be entertained by the antics of the local adolescents as they splashed around in the fishy smelling water of the creek.  Diving from atop tall pilings and turning flips in the air, which, more often than not, resulted in either landing on one's back or stomach, was for me more fun to watch and certainly less painful than to participate.  The one time I did get permission to take an afternoon plunge, I became ill with a throat infection that lasted most of the summer.  I learned my lesson and never swam there again. 

Late in the afternoons when the noise of the daily activities at the docks subsided and when fish had been floating on the surface for most of the day, one could see the dorsal fins of sharks breaking the surface beyond the mouth of the creek in the sound.  The meal awaiting them in the creek was the magnet that ultimately drew them inside the harbor.  What a sight it was! What the crabs and other scavengers did not eat during the day, the sharks finished at night. By the next morning, the harbor was cleared of all evidence of floating organic debris --a wonderful lesson of how a small population of people and nature can live in harmony. Sand sharks more than 9 feet long sometimes caused the water to churn as they fed on what was left of the day's scraps. I always hurried to finish supper, so that I could return to the landing for the shark encounter.

It was always a certainty that the evening was going to be exciting when Ralph showed up at the docks with his rod and reel.  He was a local man of medium stature who became one of the first surf-fishing guides when tourists eventually discovered Hatteras.  Armed with a heavy-duty rod and reel with a strong line, a 9-foot wire leader, and a No. 10/0 hook, he caught stingrays and sharks as a pastime.  I never saw Marlin Perkins or Stan Brock on Mutual of Omaha's “Wild Kingdom” perform captures anywhere in the world that were more exciting than some I witnessed by Ralph after sunset on the piers in front of the fish houses located on Hatteras harbor. 

One breezy night after baiting his hook with two large fish and casting his line overboard, he decided to take a smoke while waiting for a fish to strike.  The fish house located on the shoreside of the dock provided the only shield from the wind for him to light his cigarette.  He released the brake on his reel and walked to the fish house, allowing the line to fall on the surface of the dock. No sooner had he put a cigarette in his mouth when the line began to escape from his reel, creating a high-pitch whine.  Something had taken his bait.  In a panic, he dropped his cigarette and flipped the lever that engaged the reel's braking mechanism.  Instantly, he felt a tremendous tug on his rod.  He was thrown off balance, landing on his buttocks in an upright sitting position. He held the rod for dear life. He was dragged 50 feet, the length of the pier, as his backside picked up every available splinter in its path.  I was certain that he was going to be pulled overboard by whatever was on the end of his line. By the time he reached the end of the pier, he had gained the presence of mind to release the reel's brake.  He stopped just short of being pulled into the shark-infested, briny deep of the creek. Like the true champion sportsman he was, he managed to stand, to brace himself against a large piling, and to re-engage the brake.  He fought the monster at the other end of the line for more than an hour. 

At no point during the fight did Ralph complain of the splinters and bruises that he had acquired on his unexpected and potentially dangerous trip to the end of the pier.  The first clue as to what was on Ralph's line came when the unidentified animal quit swimming and settled to the bottom of the creek about 75 yards from the end of the pier.  No matter how hard Ralph pulled on the rod, the critter would not budge.  It stubbornly remained there for 15 minutes before resuming its fight.

"I think I have a big stingray," Ralph said.  He was right. 

It was the largest stingray I had ever seen.  It must have measured four feet from the tip of one wing to the other.  No sooner was the flapping monster raised from the water and placed on the dock with her belly side up, than she started giving birth to six babies.  When they emerged from the slit at the base of her tail, they slid from their mother's belly with the fluid that came with them on to the pier.  This was the first time I witnessed a live birth.  They were perfectly developed miniature stingrays.  I wanted to throw them overboard, but Ralph said, "No.  There are enough of them out there already."  An ecological lesson I learned at the landing that night, but did not realize until years later when the island became inundated with tourists, was that one sportsman has very little impact on the balance of nature.  It is when there are many irresponsible ones that nature has difficulty coping.

It seemed to take an awfully long time for the stingray to die.  Each time I thought she had finally expired, she would vigorously flap her wings against her belly and the dock. With his knife, Ralph removed her tail, which bore two barbs.  He carefully removed the barbs -- his trophy of the night's encounter.  I could not wait to get home and tell Grandmom, Pop Pop, and Sister about what I had seen.

It is difficult to describe the compulsion that was born in me that night.  I had to catch a shark or stingray of my own.  As I made plans to appease this urge, I realized that there were several obstacles in my way.  I did not have the strength to fight an animal the size of that stingray that sent Ralph flying to the edge of the pier, nor did I think I could land a shark the size of the ones that I had seen in the harbor.  I certainly did not want to be pulled overboard.  Even if I had the strength, I did not own a rod and reel.  For days the craving to catch a shark continued to haunt me.  Then a brilliant idea struck me one day while I was strolling from the outdoor toilet back to the house past Grandmom's clothesline.  That clothesline was just what I needed to catch a shark.  I could borrow it and replace it Friday night when I returned.  Grandmom would never miss it, since she only used the clothesline on Mondays.

I am not sure why but Friday evenings around dusk was when most of the local kids showed up at the docks.  Many of them would take bets from the others that they could swim across the creek among the feeding sharks and return alive.  With the bets made, several boys would strip naked, dive from the highest piling on the ice plant dock and swim to the other side of the creek.  Dorsal fins and white butts cutting the surface of the water were a regular Friday night happening.  To my knowledge, no one was ever hurt by a shark and no shark was ever hurt by a swimmer.  It was the non-swimming boys fishing on the piers who affected the shark population.

I removed the clothesline before supper, so as not to waste anytime afterwards getting to the landing.  I managed to find a stainless steel leader, a large swivel, and a hook that measured about 3 inches from its eye to the curve of the hook.  This was all I needed to land my prize. 

My heart was pounding when I approached the dock that night.  I grew even more excited when one of my friends announced, "The sharks are already feeding in the creek."  Quickly I assembled my fishing gear.  With the guidance of an experienced buddy, we attached the hook to the leader, the leader to the swivel, and the swivel to Grandmom's clothesline.  I baited the hook with two scrap fish that I asked one of the fishermen to give me that morning.  I had kept the bait in a cool spot beneath one of the docks so it would be as fresh as possible that night.  Since I knew I would never be able to control the clothesline with a large shark or stingray on it, I tied the end of it to a slender piling at the end of the pier.  Since the piling was only 4 or 5 inches in diameter, I figured it would flex relieving some of the tension in the line much like Ralph's rod did the night he caught the large stingray.  This arrangement solved my concern about being pulled overboard when the big one struck. 

I twirled the baited hook and leader above my head much like a cowboy does a lasso.  When the bait gained enough momentum, I let go, sending it and the trailing clothesline towards the middle of the creek.  Half of the line uncoiled as it pursued the bait.  The plan was to let the animal, when it took the bait, run with it until the supply of line on the pier was exhausted.  I reasoned that the tension in the line tugging against the flexing piling would eventually wear it down.  Once it was drained of energy, it would be easy to pull the animal to the dock.  To haul the prize on the dock was then just a simple matter of using a gaff from inside one of the unlocked fish houses, hooking the weary critter in the jaw or gills, and with the help of my buddy, lifting him up and on the pier. The clothesline would be returned and Grandmom would never know the versatility of her Monday morning necessity. What could be simpler?

It wasn't five minutes before the line began to move.  Something was playing with my bait.  I could hardly breathe.  Then, in a flash, the line on the dock began to uncoil at an alarming rate.  The tension in the line caused the piling to flex forward.  The symphony of night sounds was interrupted by a loud popping sound that reminded me of the snapping of a bullwhip.   Instantaneously, my unbelieving eyes saw the line being effortlessly snapped. After a few decreasing oscillations, the piling returned to its resting place while Grandmom's clothesline took off into the sound.  I could not believe what had happened.  How was I to know that the old No. 3 cotton crab line that she used for a clothesline was suffering from dry rot? 
 
I had no money to replace the clothesline.  In my childish frame of mind, I decided to just lay low and maybe the whole unfortunate event would just go away.  I decided to stay in bed the following Monday morning and pretend to be sick.  Just as I planned, my phony sickness distracted Grandmom from asking me about the missing clothesline. She solved her problem that morning by spreading her weekly wash on some yaupon and myrtle bushes growing near the edge of the yard.  She used to dry her clothes in that manner before she ever had the convenience of a line.  When Pop Pop arrived home, she sent him back down the road to the store for a new clothesline.  

It was so much better than the old one.  I caught a shark that measured 9 feet in length the following Friday night, and I remembered to return the line before Monday morning so Grandmom would not discover it missing when she went to hang out her weekly wash.






        

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