Mr. Wheeler opened the side cargo door of the North American furniture van parked in front of 110 Gull Harbor Drive. Kimberly bounced on her toes at the top of the driveway, her tiny fists quivering against her chin, watching his every move. He hooked the off-load ramp into place then disappeared into the van. In a moment he reappeared at the top of the ramp holding a red tricycle high over his head. “Well, lookie what I found here, Kimberly”
“Oh Mr. Wheeler, you have my bike! You have my bike!”
Knowing how a move could affect a child, he had made a production of loading her tricycle last. “Now see right here is where I’m putting your bike, and when you see me in a few days, it will be the first thing I get out of the truck.”
I had been transferred from Alameda, California to Morehead City, North Carolina. Every North American van we passed on the five day cross country trek triggered a peep from the back seat, “Do you think that’s Mr. Wheeler, and he has my bike?” You have no idea how many vans North American owns.
We had bought a spec-house, in a new development on Bogue Sound. Other than ours, there was one other occupied house and one empty one. It was only 8a.m. but the rising summer sun and North Carolina humidity would soon overcome us. You could rub your thumb and two fingers together and feel the air. The odors wafting from Bogue Sound at low tide settled over us in what would become a new twice-a-day experience. Mr. Wheeler and his local pick-up crew arrived early, and made quick work of offloading our household goods. We waved goodbye as his van pulled away shortly after noon.
Early in the process of setting up the new house I needed a hardware store. I checked with our only neighbor, Tom.
“Well, if you want a real hardware store, you are probably going to have to go to Beaufort. I don’t think there’s anything in Morehead that will help. “It’s easy to find, can’t miss it. It’s right on the main street.” Then he added, “By the way, Dick, that’s pronounced Bow’-furt (long o). In South Carolina it is Byou’-furt. Folks will know you’re not from here if y’all get that wrong.” He laughed and waved me on.
The highway into Morehead City was lined with ice cream parlors, beach souvenir shops, insurance offices, sundries, and dress shops—most in single story buildings that looked more like homes than retail shops. Set back twenty yards from the road, they were painted blue-grey with porches that held white painted rocking chairs that invited you to “sit a spell afore y’all move on. Thanks for commin’ by.”
The dominant feature of Morehead’s business district is a single railroad track that runs like a boulevard the full length of the main street. The intersections with crossing streets were sparsely landscaped with a few bushes plopped into jagged red lava stones in a vain attempt to distract you from the depressing view of a rusted railroad track running down the middle of your main street atop a mound of grey stone chips.
I crossed over the bridge to Beaufort. Tom was right. The hardware store was obvious. I parked directly in front; I was the only car. When I got to the front door, I knew why. A grey cardboard sign scotch-taped to the door had neatly blocked out red crayon letters, “BLUES ARE RUNNING–BE BACK TOMORROW” It was the middle of the afternoon on a regular weekday—the owner had gone fishing.
Of course, there was a certain quaintness to a town with family restaurants named Sanitary Fish Market, and Cap’n Bills where cute Southern waitresses, with charming accents, kept your hush-puppy basket filled, and left you with a cheery “N’ya’ll come back and see us again, ya hear.”
It was a town with people grounded enough to shut down their business because the “blues are runnin’”, and who saw nothing strange about a railroad track in the middle of main street. It was a town with three and a half hour Sunday church services. A town whose men celebrated Thanksgiving by sitting in duck blinds from the break of dawn, while the women prepared the traditional family dinner that the men were often late for, or even missed.
The permanent population of 8000 seemed content to let Morehead remain a summer respite for the people from Raleigh, New Bern, and the North. During the season, vacationers nearly tripled the population, and when they went home the locals fell back to their parochial roots of fishermen, farmers, and small businessmen.
They were always friendly, and openly expressed their appreciation of the Coast Guard. But, Carol and I soon discovered that if we couldn’t talk about basketball, the bible, or tobacco, (maybe even in that order), any extended conversations would be limited. As one lady expressed it, “We just lo-o-ve having y’all here, but you do know that y’all never be one of us, right?”
Kimberly did not react well to my first rescue call. When Carol told Kimberly, “Kim, daddy will not be home for awhile, maybe a few days. He had to take the Chilula to try to find a man lost at sea.” Kim’s response was crying, gasping-never-ending crying. When we were at Alameda, I had come home from work at the end of the day just like any other dad. Carol tried everything to console her.
“Just think, Kimberly, how happy that man is going to be. He’s probably been scared all night. He’ll be so glad to see daddy’s big Coast Guard ship coming toward him to save him.”
Through gulping, shoulder heaving sobs, Kimberly’s angry response was, “Why didn’t the man just take a flashlight!”
We enrolled Kimberly in nursery school which helped some, but she needed companionship at home too. A dog. That should do it. A nice little beagle that could grow with her— Disaster!
She and the young pup, which we called Sailor, never hit it off. He scratched and nibbled at her; she poked and jabbed at him. When she wanted to go out to play, she begged for us to keep the dog inside, when she played inside, the dog had to go out. We often found one of them under her bed, and the other on top. This was not working. It was worse. One of them was going to have to go. We gave Sailor away to a nice family (any one that would take him) and we had peace again. The second dog was a loving black cocker spaniel who became a member of the family for fifteen years.
One evening, while I was reading the newspaper waiting for Carol to announce dinner, I leaned up from my recliner and yelled to Carol in the kitchen, “Hey, Babe, did you see this article on the front page? They’re going to cut the ribbon for the opening of the new A & P tomorrow. The high school band is going to play in the parking lot. Do you want to go?” Carol leaned back from the stove and peeked into the den.
“Reeeely? Are you kidding me?”
“Oh, my God, Carol, I felt an honest tinge of excitement there!” I put the paper in my lap and just stared ahead for a half-minute. “I feel like I’m in an episode of ‘Mayberry, RFD.”