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Many intriguing images come to mind when I think of Hatteras --
shipwrecks are among them. And when I think of shipwrecks, I think of
treasures lying just offshore on the continental shelf of the Atlantic
Ocean. Many times as a young boy while sitting on the beach
at the surf’s edge and gazing at the ocean, I tried to
imagine what the space occupied by the ocean would look like if the
water were removed. I imagined myself walking among the
hundreds of wrecks, collecting gold and jewels that had been lying for
centuries in this Graveyard of the Atlantic.
It was also as a young boy while spending summers with my grandparents
at Hatteras that I discovered that the ocean did not have sole
possession of all the nearby treasures. Hatteras village had
its share also. For me a memorable encounter with such
valuables was no farther away than across the sandy road from my
grandparent’s home. One lazy summer morning when I was only
10 years old, I unexpectedly became owner of two priceless treasures
while visiting Uncle Luther. On that same day, Uncle Luther showed me a
prized treasure that belonged to him. He kept it on the upper
shelf of the closet in his kitchen. As far as Uncle Luther
was concerned, it was an artifact, much like the Mona Lisa -- a value
could not be placed on it. Although he had been offered
sizable sums of money, he resisted repeated offers. The day
Uncle Luther died, it was still on the top shelf in the kitchen closet,
where it had been kept since Tom gave it to him in 1937.
Uncle Luther was not my uncle. It was the custom in our
neighborhood at Hatteras for the children to address the men as
“uncle” and the women as
“aunt.” I considered Uncle Luther to be
my real uncle and Aunt Ellen, his wife, to be my real aunt.
They were exceptionally kind to me, and I seized every opportunity to
be in their company. When Grandmom would not let me go
anywhere else, she would let me go across the road to visit them.
Grandmom was always concerned that something would happen to me while I
was her responsibility during my summer stay with her, but she knew
that I was as safe with them as I would be at home with her.
For a short while after her marriage in 1949, their daughter, Libby,
and her husband lived with Uncle Luther and Aunt Ellen.
During that time, Ted, their first grandson was born. He was
the cutest child. I have always enjoyed tending to children,
so going to Uncle Luther’s to baby-sit Ted had a two-fold
reward. I satisfied a short-lived paternal instinct by
baby-sitting an adorable kid, and it was a chance to learn some
Hatteras history firsthand while visiting Uncle Luther in his
During this particular summer on weekday mornings around 9:30 when I
did not go swimming at the beach or exploring at the landing, I was
granted permission to go across the road to visit Aunt Ellen and Uncle
Luther. To get there, I walked down the path from our house
to the road, often times dodging mud fiddlers that invaded it from the
nearby marsh. I crossed the narrow road with its deep sand
ruts, and trudged barefoot to the back of their house through a sandy
yard, which was covered in dotted patches of pennyworts.
Three steps at the end of a short walkway led up to the cement back
porch. The porch, which extended the entire width of the house, was
actually the top of a cistern into which rainwater from the roof was
collected and stored. Fresh water was a limited resource in
Hatteras in those days, and everyone practiced water
Across the porch from the steps was the backdoor that led into the
kitchen. The door was covered with many layers of paint, the
most recent one being a light green color. The lower half of
the door was solid with the upper frame portion covered with a
screen. The screen was painted white, and some of its holes
were obstructed with dried paint.
I was tall enough to peer through the screen netting into the kitchen
where each morning 9-month-old Ted splashed about in the kitchen sink
during his morning bath. Grandmom told me not to "track up
their house," so without going inside, I greeted Ted’s mom,
backed away from the door, walked across the porch, and sat down in a
swing that was suspended on long chains attached to the high porch
It was a wonderful old swing covered with many coats of the same light
green paint that was on the backdoor. Because the chains were
long, each oscillation of the swing swiped a long arc giving its
occupants a delightful ride. The falling sensation on the downward
portion of the arc was as exhilarating as the swing’s climb
was thrilling on the upper portion.
When Ted was powdered and diapered, his mom carried him outside and
placed him beside me in the swing. For the next half-hour, he
and I experienced the alternating exhilaration and thrill of the
swing’s motion while his mom, Libby, enjoyed some time to
herself. When it was time for Ted’s morning nap,
Libby came out on the porch and retrieved him from the swing.
She thanked me for entertaining him and took him inside. I
told Ted to have a nice nap and that I would see him tomorrow.
Before leaving the porch that was bathed with a cool, gentle
southwesterly breeze, I could not resist a couple more swings. On the
last upward arc, I slid from the seat, letting the inertia of my body
carry me through the air halfway across the porch. For a
moment after leaving the swing and before landing on the hard floor, I
was as free as an osprey riding the wind currents in the rich, blue,
morning Hatteras sky.
Uncle Luther had two outbuildings behind his house. In one he
stored an inexhaustible supply of hunting, clamming, and fishing
gear. In the other, he kept his car. This garage
had a small room attached to the side, which overlooked a small ditch.
Uncle Luther used this room as his woodworking shop. A bank of windows
in the room faced the southeast overlooking the waterway.
Beyond was a tranquil saltmarsh filled with needlerush. The
open windows caught the southerly summer breeze, creating a cool
inviting environment in which Uncle Luther carved birds and built
birdhouses. I always found him working there after Ted was taken inside
for his morning nap.
"Morning, Uncle Luther," I said as I stood in the doorway that led from
the garage into the shop.
"Hey, son, come on in and have a seat," he said with his usual
He motioned for me to sit near him on an old church bench next to the
I took pleasure in watching Uncle Luther work. He had a
variety of tools, and I was amazed at how proficient he was in using
them. I often thought to myself that someday I was going to
carve birds and build birdhouses just like Uncle Luther. But
what I enjoyed most when I visited him were our
conversations. He, like my grandfather, loved to talk about
the old times, and I loved to listen. All I had to do was ask
the right questions and the adventures of the past would begin.
"Uncle Luther, will you tell me about the time you used to work at the
Gooseville Gun Club?"
"Sure, son. What do you want to know?"
"I want to know about that millionaire who came here and built it," I
said leaning back against the pew.
"You mean Mr. Albert Lyon?" he said as he looked up from the cypress
block that was to become another of the many sea gulls that he carved,
painted, and sold to tourists.
"Yes sir. How did he know about Hatt’ras?"
"Ol’ Man Lyon first came to Hatt’ras with Rex
Beach, a sportsman and writer, on Beach’s
houseboat. She was a fine boat fully equipped for
hunting. Had everything on her a hunter would need for
killing wild fowl. Ol’ man Lyon enjoyed hunting
here so much that he bought from one of my brothers, a tract of land
that stretched from the southern end of the village all the way to
Hatt’ras Inlet. In 1927, the Gooseville Gun Club was
completed and another of my brothers, Ernest, was hired as the
Uncle Luther looked up from his carving and out the window toward his
brother Ernest’s home that could be seen on the south side of
"I thought you were the caretaker," I said, a bit confused about Uncle
Luther’s relationship with the club.
"Oh, I was," he quickly replied. "Ernest was only there for a few years
before he died. Died of a brain tumor. Ol’ man Lyon
hired me right after that."
Uncle Luther paused forcing his knife deep into the cypress block
beginning the formation of the gull’s neck and head.
With a bit of mist in his eye, he added, "Ernest thought so much of
Ol’ man Lyon that he named his youngest son, Bert, after him."
Even at my young age, I sensed Uncle Luther’s pain as he
spoke of his deceased brother. I slightly changed the subject
by asking, "How did Mr. Lyon get to be so rich?"
"Why son, he invented the bumper of the automobile," he replied with
pride. "Not only invented it but manufactured 'um too."
"Gosh, he must have been real rich," I thought out loud.
"He was. You should have seen the guns he owned.
Why, he had all kinds of guns at the club. He had several old
Army guns. Automatics. One type of gun there had
"Three barrels?" I questioned.
"Yes sir, three barrels. If you put one bullet in
her, she shot just one. If you put two bullets in her,
she’d shoot two. And if you wanted to shoot three
bullets at one time, then you loaded all three barrels. Why,
one of his hunting buddies even had a gun with a solid gold trigger."
"Daggon’, he must have been rich, too," I exclaimed.
"I 'magine so," Uncle Luther said as the cypress gull’s head
began to take shape.
"Where ‘bouts did they hunt?" I asked.
"Mostly out on the reef in the sound. They done some hunting
on the land, but mostly on the reef. I’ve set out
many of a boatload of decoys on the reef. They killed geese,
ducks, and brant. The ducks and brant was so plentiful that
when they came up out of the marsh, it looked like a cloud was
rising. And on a calm night, boys, they made so much racket
that you couldn’t sleep."
"Why ain’t they thick like that today?" I wanted to know.
"The grass they liked to eat got some kind of a disease. As
the grass died out, so did the fowl. And thousands of the
birds was killed during World War II. What I mean is, when
ships and submarines were destroyed and sunk just offshore here, they
was a lot of oil that got in the water. Many times I saw
hundreds of birds die from their feathers being gummed up in the
oil. Sometimes we’d go along the shoreside and
shoot them to keep them from suffering. Things never did get
right after that."
Uncle Luther paused for a moment, while staring at the gull he was
carving. He gently shook his head from left to right while
tightly pressing his lips over his teeth. His body language
relayed to me his love of what Hatteras was and how he regretted that
it would never be that way again.
He got up and walked over to a corner of his shop that was filled with
a small pile of decoys. "These here cedar decoys is the kind
I was talking about," he said as he reached down and picked one up. He
passed it to me. "These here is all that is left from the old
"She is a beauty," I said as I turned the wooden duck around examining
it carefully. I put the bird close to my nose and sniffed its
crisp clean cedar odor. GOOSEVILLE GUN CLUB was branded on its
bottom. I felt as if I were holding a treasure as valuable as
any that the nearby sea had to offer.
"Would you like to have it?" Uncle Luther asked.
I could not believe my ears. "Would I like to have
it? Why, you bet!" I shouted.
With my next breath I said, "I know exactly what I am going to do with
it. It is going to go on a shelf in my bedroom."
Then I made a promise, "Uncle Luther, I’ll keep this
"You do that, son," was his reply as he patted my head as if to say
Then he said, "Come to think of it, I made a similar vow to a good
friend of mine ...Tom Angell."
"Oh, yeah, I heard Mama talking about him. She said that when
she was a little girl growing up here at Hatt’ras that
everyone loved to go to Tom’s house to eat his homemade ice
cream and chocolate cake. Wasn’t he the only
colored man that ever lived on Hatt’ras?" I asked.
"He sure was," replied Uncle Luther.
"So how did you and Tom get to be friends?" I inquired.
"We worked together at the Gooseville Gun Club. Tom was the
cook. Tom and me, we took a lot of pride in making sure everybody had a
good visit when Ol’ Man Lyon and his friends came down here
from Detroit to go hunting and fishing. Tom, he sure cooked some good
meals. Tom and me got to be real good friends. They
won’t nothing that one of us would not do for the other."
"If Tom was the only colored man ever to live down here, where did he
come from?" I questioned.
"It seems that this feller named Nelson Angell and his wife moved here
from Boston to run the Oliver Reef Lighthouse. It was located
in Pamlico Sound about five miles from the harbor here at
Hatt’ras. While on a trip to New Bern in 1869, Mrs. Angell
saw this little 7-year-old colored boy named Tom Vine wandering
aimlessly up and down the streets. She thought he looked
neglected so she found his mother and asked her if she could adopt
him. His mother agreed. The Angells brought him to
Hatt’ras and trained him to be their servant."
Uncle Luther continued shaping the gull’s head from the
cypress block as he spoke.
"Tom was a faithful servant to the Angells. He also gained the respect
of the people of Hattras. Everyone had only good things to
say about him. One day, Tom asked Mrs. Angell if he could
change his last name to Angell. She agreed, saying it would
be all right so long as he didn’t disgrace the family
name. Ol’ man Angell’s death was followed
shortly by Mrs. Angell’s passing away in 1911. She gave Tom a
life estate in her Hatt’ras home, which she had designed and
built. Until his death, 26 years later, Tom kept the house
just like Mrs. Angell left it."
Uncle Luther reached in his pocket and pulled out a plug of Apple
chewing tobacco. He used his carving knife to cut a piece
from the plug, and he placed it in his mouth. After several
chews, he continued.
"Tom enjoyed music. He had an organ and a banjo. He
tried to play ‘em but he won’t very good at it."
"Mama said he had a beautiful voice," I interjected. "She
said when he sang in church it sounded to her like the angels
themselves were singing there." We both kind of chuckled at
the irony of the statement I had made.
Uncle Luther continued, "It seems that this Swede on the Diamond Shoals
Lightship had this violin. He brought it ashore several times and
played it at dances they held out on the beach. Tom thought
it had the most beautiful sound and he asked if he could buy
it. The Swede refused to sell it to Tom and later he sold it
to a feller named, Iris Willis, one of the boys from down here."
Uncle Luther stood up from his seat, stepped over to nearest of the
shop’s open windows. He leaned through the window, spit a
stream of brown tobacco juice into the ditch below, and wiped his mouth
on his right sleeve. Upon returning to his seat, he held the
wingless body of the sea gull he was carving at arm’s length
and at eye level. He eyed the cypress bird first from its
side and then from its front. When he was satisfied that its
head and neck were proportional to its body, he placed the bird on the
table in front of him.
"All that’s left to do is the wings," he said.
"Why didn’t the Swede sell the violin to Tom?" I questioned.
"I don’t know," replied Uncle Luther, "but Tom finally did
get it. It seems that Iris Willis got into some trouble with
the law for mommocking a horse. He needed some money so he
could leave Hatt’ras to keep from getting arrested, so he
sold the violin to Tom."
Uncle Luther picked up a thin scrap of cypress lying near his foot on
the floor. "This will work," he said as his knife began to
shape a pair of wings.
"Could Tom play the violin?" I inquired.
"No, but others did when he carried it out to Ellsworth
Ballance’s pavilion on the beach where they had square
dances. She was played so much that her pegs wore slam
out. Tom had to order some new ones for her from Sears and
Roebuck. That violin had the most beautiful tone. A
lot of people around here remarked about that," said Uncle Luther as a
piece of shaving from the cypress scrap that he was carving flew into
my lap. "Hey, those wood shavings have a mind of they own,
don’t they?" Uncle Luther said with a laugh.
After a couple of chuckles, he continued, "When Tom was taken sick just
before he died, Dr. Kenfield went to Tom’s house to doctor
him. While he was there, he noticed the violin lying on Mrs.
Angell’s old sideboard. Dr. Kenfield picked it up
to examine it and noticed a date inside it. He told Tom that
it must be over 100 years old. No one around here had ever
noticed a date in her before."
"What was the date in it?" I asked excitedly.
"I don’t know that. I never paid any attention to it,"
replied Uncle Luther.
He finished the first wing and held it next to the right side of the
wingless gull’s body. With a nail that was lying on
the bench in front of him, he scratched on the gull where the wing was
to be fastened. Then he cut a shallow groove in the body
where the base of the wing would be inserted and glued.
As he began carving the left wing, he resumed his story.
"Tom sent for me when he knew he was going to die. He said he
wanted me to see after him on his deathbed and to make sure that all
his bills was paid. The day before his death, he got out the
violin and told me to take it home. He said that back a long
time ago, he remembered me telling him that I’d love to have
a violin like his. He said, 'Now you have one and I want you
to take good care of it.' "
Suddenly Uncle Luther stopped talking and carving.
He focused his attention on a greenhead fly had landed on his
arm. Just as the fly was about to deliver a painful bite,
Uncle Luther lobbed with his hand the fatal blow that sent the green
fly tumbling to the floor of the shop. No sooner had it
landed than Uncle Luther squashed it under the worn, crepe-rubber sole
of his right, blue, canvas slip-on shoe.
"Do you still have the violin?" I eagerly wanted to know.
"I sure do. Let me finish up this wing, and I’ll
show her to you."
My heart started thumping from the anticipation of getting to see the
old violin. I could not recall ever having seen anything that
was more than 100 years old.
After Uncle Luther applied glue to the wings and inserted them in the
grooves on the side of the gull’s body, he led me from the
shop and into his kitchen. He opened the door of a closet
where Aunt Ellen kept brooms, mops, an ironing board, and other
domestic paraphernalia. He reached above his head for the
violin that was on a high shelf in the closet.
As he carefully passed it to me, he said, "I think the world of this
old violin. I told Tom when he gave her to me that I would
keep her for the rest of my life, and so far I have. I
don’t know what she is worth since she is so old and all, but
she is priceless to me because a dear friend gave her to me."
A decade later, as a college student, I asked Uncle Luther to let me
see the violin again. It was still on the top shelf of the
closet in the kitchen. I glanced through the fancy-cut
openings on the face of the violin looking for the date that Dr.
Kenfield had seen a few weeks before Tom died in 1937. I
could not believe what I saw. Dr. Kenfield was
right. The violin WAS more than 100 years old. If
what I was reading was not a hoax, it was more like 200 years
old! The last two digits of the date were difficult to read,
but the first two numbers, 1 and 7, were very clear. There
was also written in faded ink a person’s name, a town, and a
country. My heart began to pound much like it did
the first time I saw the violin. Time has erased from my
memory the person’s name but Cremona, Italy, was the town and
country. I scribbled all the information that I saw on a
piece of paper that I found in my wallet.
Upon my return to college, I went directly to the library hoping to
shed some light on the origin of the violin. I did not have
to look far. I discovered the name to be that of an
apprentice to Antonio Stradovari. He lived in Cremona, Italy, at the
same time as the date inscribed in the violin.
The next time I saw Uncle Luther, I told him about my discovery, but he
was not impressed with what I had learned. Stradovarius meant
nothing to him. What was important to him was that someone
who cared very deeply for him had honored him by giving him the
responsibility of his most prized possession. Uncle Luther honored that
friendship by assuming the responsibility until the day he died of
caring for a violin that he could not play.
I understand how Uncle Luther felt, for I too have been honored with
the ownership of two treasures. A cherished friend gave both of them to
me. One is a valuable duck decoy from the Gooseville Gun Club that
resides in a prominent place in my home. The other is the sea gull that
Uncle Luther carved the morning he showed me the violin.