Sunday, March 31, 2013

O'Cockers

 
Cheyenne at the old life saving base at the north end of the island. This is the wilderness I expected to find on Ocracoke.
 
I did not expect to find a full blown yuppie food store on the little island of Ocracoke. But there it was, Zillie's, offering 300 craft beers, mostly bottled but several on draft, with wine, cheeses, salami and even designer soaps...but don't get mommucked or let it make you quamish. It's just the way of the world in the twenty first century.
This island has never claimed to have seceded, like Key West, but unlike the Southernmost City it has a claim to enjoy a separate and distinct culture.
The traditional grocery store on Ocracoke doesn't have a fancy name but it stretches for several aisles and includes everything you might need. I thought it looked weird with its low ceiling and dozens of aisles packed with supplies.
Aha! I thought to myself, it's Bilbo Baggin's pantry and I've landed in a world of Hobbitts.
Similar to Key West Ocracoke acknowledges the outside world and offers a version of most of what is out there. Like Ralph's Pretty Good Grocery Store in Lake Wobegone, if it isn't on the island you probably don't need it. Or at least you don't need it right now!
If you get mommucked by ferry service being closed by weather then you are getting harassed and if you think Key West's island time means something you should study and learn from Ocracoke's style of being laid back. They work like crazy between Memorial Day and Labor Day but winters are long and very quiet. Like Key West you know there are visitors when cyclists ride with helmets and brightly colored joggers appear on the Island's sole bicycle path, between the village and the National Park campground a few miles up the only road.
Ocracoke boasts its own special folk artist with samples of his carvings on display in the National Park visitor headquarters in the village. Frank Fulcher's work reminded me of Key West's own Mario Sanchez.
They also had a pair of snowshoes on display which the military used to walk in the rashes to spray insect killing DDT, during the war years.
I forget her name but she exemplifies the sturdy peasant stock that grew up on this ten square mile island. I was told there are still a few old timers on Ocracoke, where natives are called O'cockers (no sniggers please. It's what they call men and women) who claim to have never left the island. Imagine that, because I can't.
Islanders say they re often mistaken for Australians or residents of southwest England where their peculiar dialect originated.
 
We saw them line up for food at Eduardo's Taco Truck the youth of the island. Whether they were incomers or O'Cockers we couldn't tell as they seemed to suffer from apartness produced quite likely by terminal shyness. The food was good in any event.
The island is full of surprises. My wife found two places that offer the latest massage techniques though we lacked the time for her to indulge herself. She also located two public gyms and a car mechanic neither of which we needed in our all too brief stay. We also enjoyed Eduardo's food truck - twice! Mexican food cooked by an actual Mexican person. Apparently Eduardo is popular enough that he has ordered a new and more luxurious food truck for delivery soon. His food was excellent and inexpensive... Three tacos for nine bucks for instance.
Daily deliveries are made by the UPS guy who drives from Nags Head every day. Grant's impending retirement after 29 years was posted in the grocery store and everyone was invited to leave a message on a t shirt as gift for him. It's that kind of Mayberry town. But I did take the time to taste a few exotic beers at the only place resembling a gathering place for adults.
I think Ocracoke needs a nice Irish pub, like Finnegan's say, with a dark comfy room, preferably with a roaring fireplace a dart board and a pool table and Smithwick's on draft. Of course changing Ocracoke is not what anyone wants, supposedly, and until someone changes the village enough to open a proper pub Zillie's will do fine, with outdoor tables and propane fires and friendly staff.
We sat and listened to the O'Cocker on the right tell stories to the incomers on the left, who were learning to be locals. They discussed the practice of tossing out beer cans from cars. The O'Cocker made the very rational point that getting caught with empties in the bed of the truck garners a severe penalty. Better to ditch the empties roadside. There is a Hardy County Sheriff's substation on the island and the sole deputy lives just across the street. In summer state troopers come to help with the crowds "and we have to behave when they are on the island, " one resident told me with a wink.
We had a date with Philip Howard a descendent of the Howard family that gave its name to Howard Street, a supremely picturesque unpaved winding lane through the middle of the village.
He was quick to point out that he wasn't born in Ocracoke but visited every childhood summer vacation. It sounded idyllic. He walked half a dozen of us around the village for ninety minutes ($12 ) and told stories in the best Ocracoke traditions of story telling.
Some were ghost stories, others were tales of village life, others were brief and fascinating history lessons. We learned about the widow who lived with her coffin in her home for the last seven years of her life and stored her fig preserves and cutlery in it. We heard about Mad Mag haunting island cemeteries, and also the story of the woman buried alive. We stared at her grave in horror, and later at the tombstone of the Green Ghost of Howard Street.
Philip told the story of the Ocracoke sailor drowned at sea in World War Two and whose Mariner's License and the name board of his ship washed up literally at his family's doorstep. They made a golden wooden cross in his memory. The cross is in the Methodist Church next to the school. The story is told at the Park Visitor Center.
Check it out:
The dapper sailor at the bottom right of the picture is one of four British sailors whose bodies are buried on the island from that time. They also have funny headstones in Ocracoke's 80 separate family burial plots, just like they do in the Key West cemetery.
We went to the hemp store and met wild Frank Brown. He's the long time incomer driving the yellow truck plastered with Libertarian slogans. We had a nice debate while my wife got some gloves and I got a shirt. I think I won the debate but Frank is sure he did. Government sucks he said. Not so I said. Finis.
Philip Howard ( a nutter according to Frank Brown because he agrees with my politics...) also told us about the beach jumpers led by actor Douglas Fairbanks. They used guile and noise makers to fool the enemy into believing an invasion was imminent to distract the defenders from the location of he actual invasion. They practiced their craft on the miles of empty Ocracoke beaches.
Ocracoke was a busy place in World War Two defending the coast from submarines and also practicing deceptive invasions. Howard told us where to find the beach jumpers old base.
We took a bead from the monument just outside the village and found abandoned old cement buildings in the dunes. Very evocative.
Kids make field trips to Ocracoke from the busy mainland to get a taste of island life. They get off the chain of daily regimented life for a while and play the way kids were supposed to play.
My wife the teacher heard a little about teaching island style. It seems they got a new young and enthusiastic principal for the all-grades school. Some high schoolers got into a prank that year, something involving hay she believes. The principal suspended the architects of the prank...an action that took the island by storm. Suspended? No student had ever been suspended in Ocracoke. The culprits didn't even understand what "suspension" meant! A dozen kids got suspended that school year, sealing the principal's fate. Not everyone manages to integrate themselves into island life. Especially at this level of intimacy with only 750 year round residents. And their offspring.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Ocracoke

Our introduction to Ocracoke was not promising. The weather was foul, 45 degrees and raining with a wind from hell shaking trees signs and window frames. We drove the splendidly paved thirteen miles from the desolate ferry landing into the village. Our bed and breakfast, the dog friendly Pam's Pelican was immediately on the right opposite the village gas pumps (regular, premium or diesel, pay at the pump) and we parked the car.

The first order of business was to walk Cheyenne after we checked in. This was my first evening in the village so I carried a leash. It was soon made clear to me dogs have the run of Ocracoke and everyone looks out not only for each other but their hounds too. We walked to Howard's Pub where Cheyenne was not allowed outside on the deck so we left. Trip Advisor reviews of Howard's were negative enough we never went back. Hmm, now what?
As silly as it seemed we got back in the car so we had a kennel for Cheyenne and we drove around the village. There wasn't much. Sidewalks? Nah. A town square? Not likely. There was no there there, as Gertrude Stein remarked dismissively of Oakland.
People speak of Key West as "the island." Ocracoke really is an island with two fifteen dollar ferries to mainland North Carolina in addition to the free ferry to Hatteras at the north end. But by the time you reach the Cedar Island and Swan Quarter ferry terminals you have reached the southern end of Ocracoke.
Ocracoke Island measures ten square miles shaped like a comma or a tear drop, long and narrow with a bulge at the southernmost end. The bulge is the portion of the island that is outside the Hatteras National Seashore, the beaches are all part of the national park service. Some of the docks are too. I was forced to wonder what do boaters do if they never reach the kiosk? Of all the signs that litter Ocracoke this was the only one I saw with duff syntax.

The sunshine that greeted us on our second morning was welcome though our future on Ocracoke hung in the balance as we contemplated foul westher and freezing temperatures. Flee south? Maybe... Our first night we had dinner from the only open food truck, Eduardo's, oddly enough Mexican food prepared by one Ocracoke Mexican. We huddled over our room heater and marveled at our good delicious cheap dinner find in so unpromising a village.

Parts of Ocracoke are very dangerous which is surprising as bicycle theft is the only crime reported among residents. Most bicycles are borrowed by drunks trying to get home but occasionally bikes get taken off the island. Locks are recommended in high season. We were in ultra low season and we could have borrowed quite a few unguarded bicycles...

Ocracoke is an out of the way place, free from chain stores and not often crowded except in summer high season. But in times of conflict the Outer Banks have seen many military invasions. Piracy was real here unlike Key West's piratical fantasies and Edward Teach took refuge here before losing his life off the southern tip of Ocracoke. During the unpleasantness between the states Ocracoke saw Confederate occupation followed by Union Occupation to blockade the rebels and secure shipping lanes for Federal shipping.

Nowadays the only invasion is of people and money between Easter and Labor Day. We arrived the week before Easter in foul weather and we got to see the place as it might appear in winter. By the time we left on the first ferry of the day to Cedar Island on Maundy Thursday things were heating up. Pony rides were on offer, rental racks were full of bicycles while stores and restaurants suddenly sprouted "open" signs on the streets.

Speed limits are 20mph on the streets and 25mph on the main road through the village. All this encouragement to slow down seems silly when there are no cars around, but I took the signs as an indicator of summer madness.

I'm not sure but I think this is the Howard live oak, one of the big ones in Ocracoke. Live oaks take hundreds of years to grow to this size, and according to Ocracoke Island Journal there are a few around town that are big enough to be named.

Ocracoke has an eye on it's past even as it builds it's future.

The lanes and alleys of the village remind me of Old Town even though they don't look alike on the surface.

The yards here are large and they remind me of homes and gardens seen anywhere in mainland North Carolina. It's funny but as is often the case maritime communities and hose close to the water don't always reflect an obsession with the sea.

I saw that in Corsica where island residents seem to prefer the agricultural life despite the fact they are surrounded by the sea and only a few of them fish. Fishing is, along with summer tourism, the only industry here and the sea is on every O'Cocker's mind.

Cemeteries on this odd little island are scattered everywhere. There is no central resting place, rather the dead are buried in family plots hither and yon. But children go to the one and only school, grades K through 12. They graduated 9 high schoolers last year, the largest graduating class in living memory.

I saw pictures of the wild ponies of Ocracoke in National Geographic magazine decades ago. Today things are rather sad.


Far from racing in the surf these days the "wild" ponies are sad reminders of what was. Had to be done they say because someone in a car once hit a horse.

Horses aren't the only ones getting hemmed in.

The beaches are long and wild and open.

Cheyenne is on a leash even though it's hard to see in this picture of Hatteras National seashore, Ocracoke edition.

It was a lovely day on the beach with the tide far out. The southern tip of Hatteras is a barely visible dark line on the horizon.

I'd rather not think about this place teeming with people and squealing children on a hot summer afternoon. It was fifty degrees and breezy when I was there. Reality check.