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Long Ago: Community Entry #2

“There are certainly times when my own everyday life seems to retreat so the life of the story can take me over. That is why a writer often needs space and time, so that he or she can abandon ordinary life and “live” with the characters.” –Margaret Mahy

The solace of the Montana woods fuels the muse...

As you may know, I am spending the month of January in the dormancy of winter, working on a book. And, like last year at this time, I am offering my blog to you. Last year we looked into our Breaking Points and found community and grace in grief and vulnerability. This year we are looking into our past, and finding the weaving of community that stitches us to our present. I will be posting these pieces at These Here Hills. Their authors will be happy to receive and respond to your comments.

The “Long Ago: Community” series is also a contest. The winner will receive a scholarship to one of my upcoming Haven writing retreats in Montana. So breathe deeply into a cherished memory of yesterday and today and share with us here. We all seek community somehow. Let us know how community finds its way back to you. Here is the blog post I wrote about this subject. Please enjoy this lovely piece by Donna Jones Koppelman who blogs here. yrs. Laura

LONG AGO: COMMUNITY on the Outer Banks, by Donna Jones Koppelman

As a child, our family spent a great deal of time on the Outer Banks.  The house was in Buxton, near the Cape Hatteras lighthouse, and we spent glorious summer days exploring the beach.  At that time, the area had only a small number of vacationers, and we would often go days without seeing others on the beach.  We had each other and the sea for companionship, and it was splendid.

For excitement, my siblings and I would walk up to the local tackle shop and admire the fishing lures.  Every so often, the man at the register would say the magic words, “Tell your daddy there’s action at the pier.”  We would run back to the cottage, give Dad the news, and then beg to come along.

Some days, we could see schools of fish, thick and dark in the water, and we’d pull the fish in one after another. Other days, a school of particularly large fish hung out by the pier to tempt us.  Often, one lucky fisherman or woman had caught something particularly large or unique.

Yes, sir, if there was action forty years ago on the Outer Banks, it was most likely on a pier.  Even if the fish weren’t biting, the pier acted as a gathering spot, a news center, and a social hub.

I don’t know if elderly people liked this particular pier or the population drifted toward the older and wiser set, but I remember my dad was always the young whippersnapper.  All the fishermen knew him by name, and he knew theirs.  But more importantly, they knew each other by their catches.  “Big Fred here caught the biggest shark anybody’s ever landed,” “One time Walter caught a marlin with a Rolex watch in his belly” and “Your daddy can clean a bluefish quicker and cleaner than a man twice his age.”  I knew which old woman had been hungry enough to stew an octopus, which men fished from their boats when the wind changed, who fed his cat fresh fish every night,  and where all their children had moved off to.

I learned a lot about life from these folks.  When I asked to pet a particularly charming  fish swimming around in a cooler, I was told, “Back off my supper, kid, this ain’t no damn aquarium.”   For the first time, I saw people who fished to eat, not for the sport of it.  And they all seemed pretty happy and content with that life.   I learned about sun damage long before anyone else talked about it.  These folks looked way older than their actual ages due to the lines and patterns of wrinkles that covered their faces and the backs of their hands,but I liked how it showed the world all they had seen and done.

These salty old men taught me how to read the sky for storms, how the wind direction affected the tide and the odds of catching certain kinds of fish.  They recalled in vivid detail the damages of every major hurricane of their lives, and described the year they got the ‘light lines’.    I learned that on a pier on the Outer Banks, a girl was treated no differently than a boy.

Back in my traditional southern hometown, I would have been told to stand back at a safe distance.  But here amongst these men and women, I baited slippery hooks and grabbed wriggly fish off a line because I didn’t want to admit that I didn’t know how.

But that community also valued safety.  They scolded my dad when they heard he had gone flounder gigging alone.  “Son, respect the water.”   They reminded him to “Straighten up those kids while you can”  and  “Make sure your kids know how to work.  If a man knows how to work, he can do anything.”   Old Fred used to say to me, “Do your sums and master that primer.”  I always agreed, but I had no idea he spoke of math and reading.

Every time we came to the pier, there was big news of some kind.  Mostly, it had to do with who had caught what in our absence, but often local politics and gossip crept into the conversations.  I realized that tourism had another side to it. Houses were springing up all over the place.  “Bigger than any fool needs,” they said.  I came to appreciate the simplicity of their living.  They might fish for hours, but when it came time to go home, they took what they needed for their dinner.  Then they shared the rest. That’s how they approached the picturesque coastlines of the Outer Banks, too.  “They can come and look all they want,” one woman used to say, “but don’t cover up our pretty beach with a house that sits empty most of the year.”

Once, after a hurricane, the piergoers stood around quietly until the regular crowd had gathered.  No one so much as opened a tackle box until they saw that everyone was okay.   Then they finally relaxed and resumed the usual joking and chatter.  They all agreed they had much to clean up and repair after the storm, but they had to eat, didn’t they?  But I knew they just needed to lay their eyes on their friends.  Even as a youngster, I saw how much they meant to each other.

One day I watched a woman give away some fresh fish.  “Go ahead,” she had insisted. “I have what I need for tonight.”

Even though I only saw them in the summertime, that community set the standard for me.  As an adult, when my husband and I searched for a place to raise our children,  we looked for a community like that pier on the Outer Banks, and we found it.  When my fourth baby was born, neighbors and friends brought us dinner for forty-four nights in a row.  And you know, I have brought them all dinner, too. Never have I caught that dinner on a hook, but I learned from those people on the pier the importance of sharing with my community.

Recently, I visited the pier closest to our home on the Outer Banks.  It is our favorite summer hang-out. The ten cent boiled shrimp, the cold beer specials, and the nightly beach band make it the perfect evening destination.   We sit at tables and eat together, catching up on the local politics and news that another house is coming up “bigger than any fool needs”.  Most of us don’t fish for our supper, we nod at the waitress to bring us the special.  Some of us know each other by name, and some of us know each other by the beer we drink, the food we favor, or the band that brings us out.  But it’s still a community.  We scans the crowd after a big storm to make sure all the familiar faces are there.  We still teach each other’s children things as they scamper around the deck.  “Don’t eat the tail of the shrimp. Pinch it off, like that.”  And “Respect the water, son.”   We talk about Hurricane Isabel and more recently, Hurricanes Irene and Sandy.

“We take care of each other around here,” someone always says.  “We look in on our neighbors.”

Because that’s what a good community does, and I am extraordinarily blessed to be a part of it.

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