Monday, October 31, 2016

The Kindness of Strangers

Hurricane Matthew delayed for two days our departure for our almost-annual mid-October vacation in Emerald Isle,North Carolina.  Our destination is on the west end of the Bogue Banks barrier island in Carteret County, NC – also known as the South Outer Banks or SOBX on the official oval decal.  We make the drive down there in two days stopping midway in Pocomoke  City, Maryland, a town with everything that Mars and I want for such an overnight – a Holiday inn Express with a nice shower, comfortable bed and warm breakfast; a downtown historic area and nature trail to stretch our legs; and a restaurant overlooking the Pocomoke River with a dizzying variety of the “Old Line State’s” official dessert, the nine-layer Smith Island cake.  (This time we chose Oreo.) 

Our travel route is through the Delmarva Peninsula, getting off major highways after crossing the Delaware Memorial Bridge and taking U.S. Route 13 through “The First State”, Maryland, Virginia into North Carolina then picking up U.S. 17 for the rest of the trip.  Three decades ago when we first began this sojourn these “highways” were plain old two lane roads running through rural towns with small houses, double wide trailers, the occasional really big white house, and farmland growing cotton, soy beans and (in the 80s and early 90s) tobacco. Nowadays many of these byways have either been widened to four lanes or have multi-lane bypasses around them.  This year our progress through New Jersey was slowed down by rain that was slightly less than torrential – but otherwise it was an uneventful trip to Pocomoke City.

Day two of our journey, as usual, found us in Ahoskie, NC around 12 noon.  We began visiting SOBX in the later 1980s – and on that first trip, and everyone since  (except for last year when it was closed) we lunched at O’Connor’s Restaurant – an outwardly nondescript local eatery with an all-you-can-eat lunch buffet, bottomless pitchers of “tea” (which from this point southward in our travels mean iced and sweet), and Eastern North Carolina barbecue. 

We did not know it when we first came to the Tarheel State but down there barbecue equals pulled pork cooked in either a red sauce of ketchup, vinegar, and pepper,  (Piedmont or Western Style) or vinegar, pepper and no tomato (Eastern Style).  Piedmont style uses only the pork shoulder whereas Eastern is said to use "every part of the hog except the squeal".  We became more familiar with this staple of Carolina cuisine at several other dining establishments on that first sojourn and enjoyably continue that tradition.

The restaurant was always pretty much full.  Mr. O’Connor manned the cash only register and greeted pretty much everyone by name – blue collar, white collar, black, white, retired seniors, lunch hour workers.  He was older than us when we started eating there and seemed even more elderly during our 2014 visit when, after we explained our history as customers, he told us he was in the process of selling the business.  During our earlier years we had noticed a young adult male involved in the daily operations.  Then one year we noticed his photo located front and center on the building’s only real wall – windows, waitress station and cash-out area being the other sides.  It remained there every year since. We assumed that he would have been the next owner-operator.  This October the place was re-opened as “Carolina BBQ and Chicken”.  And the ambiance and menu was close enough to O’Connor’s to work for us.

After she took our order – barbeque platter with slaw and hush puppies for $4.95 – the waitress (apparently having detected our blatantly non-Carolinian accents) asked, “Where y’all folks heading?”  We explained where and what our route was.  “I don’t think you can get there,” she told us.  “The roads are flooded.  Better plan on spending the night in town.”

 “Where is the best place to stay?” I asked – partially to keep the conversation going, partially because I wanted to know our options, and partially because I knew I wasn’t going to like the answer.

She paused.  “The Ahoskie Inn I guess,” she replied as if she were saying “Bates Motel”.  “Oh, and we have a 7:00 curfew tonight.”

Mars and I decided that a night in Ahoskie would not be our Plan B.  Or probably even C or D.

When the waitress came back with our food she said, “You might want to talk to that guy over there – indicating a work clothes clad fifty-something having lunch with a casually dressed similarly aged man and (we presumed) his mother.”

“You shouldn’t have any problems, except for a place where 17 is washed out – but the D.O.T. has away around it”, he told us.  “My daughter drove from here to Morehead City [adjacent to our destination, same route to get there] yesterday to get back to work.”

(click to enlarge)

Mars and I thanked him, and our collective state of anxiety lowered.  As we paid our bill at the register he walked up to us to tell us, with great paternal pride, about his daughter’s pharmaceutical work at the Hospital in Morehead.  He gave us her name, in case we bumped into her, and wished us a safe trip.

Then, a couple of miles out of town on Route 13 we came upon a set of unguarded road closure barriers with enough of an opening for a large vehicle to slip through.  Ours is small, a PT Cruiser, so we drove between barricades to see how bad the problem was.  The road ahead was underwater – damn!  But vehicles of the mid-sized truck and SUV variety were, one by one, plowing their way through the 50 yard long puddle – umm?  We watched a few and Mars said that we should try it also.  So we did.  I couldn’t tell how far up the car the water was – Mars said halfway up the tires – but we kept moving, downshifting our manual transmission from 3rd to 2nd gear and came out the other side.

 Sigh of relief!  Another exhale a few minutes later when our car was still running smoothly and braking without a problem. 

 Several more miles down the back road highway there was another unmanned roadblock – behind which was another washout, this one (even without the benefit of other trailblazers to show us) was clearly deeper than the roof of our tiny, red automobile.

 “I saw a guy working on his porch back a little ways”, said Mars.  “We’ll stop and ask directions.”

He turned out to be disconnecting his generator now that power had been restored to his home.  We told him our problem – and he had the solution.  He started to give directions for a way around the flooding, “Go backup the road a couple of miles to Route 305..”, when Mars said let me get some paper to write this down.  While she ran to the car he mentioned that there was a 7:00 curfew.

 Pencil and paper in hand, he began again with directions to “go around the elbow” – “305 left, 4 ½ miles left Charles Taylor Road turns into Republican Road, about 5 miles.  Stay on Republican, 2nd intersection 308 left – until 17 south.”  We thanked him and headed off with hope in our hearts and faith in his words.  Thirty minutes later we came to the flooded spot on Route 17 with the D.O.T. workaround.  We drove through with a guarded sense of comfort – and did not come upon any issues for the rest of our trip.  As we drove along Mars asked “What was that Tennessee Williams line about the kindness of strangers?”  

When we reached Emerald Isle our condo was fine, and all of the barrier island and immediately surrounding area was fine. But farther inland on the next day, and the subsequent ones, things just got worse as water flowed from the non-absorbing lands into the rivers which then began overflowing, and overflowing, and overflowing.  We turned to the Weather Channel, which suddenly had become all North Carolina flood news all the time and quickly realized that now that we were here, we could not get back up north if we wanted to.  It took about a week for rivers to stops cresting and roads to start clearing.  Meanwhile lots of people who definitely could not afford to, lost what little they had.


At Emerald Isle we quickly fell into our usual routine:  a half-mile walk each morning to the wine and convenience store at the nearby trailer park to pick up the News and Observer newspaper from the machine out front; a morning barefoot one hour walk on the beach; golf at the nearby Silver Creek course some afternoons; al fresco reading either on our ocean-facing deck or in the condo’s ocean front gazebo; one meal out each day (dinner on the days we golfed, lunch on the others); junk cable television (which we do not have it at home – Project Runway, Say Yes to the Dress, etc.): and our annual reunion with one of Mars’ BFFs from high school who now lives in Apex, NC.  at a restaurant equidistant between her home and our rental. (Interestingly the third member of this Twelfth-grade Trio now lives in Albuquerque, NM – our other annual travel destination.)

But not everything followed that script. 


One afternoon around 4:00 as we were sitting in the gazebo, each deep into respective books – “The Rainmaker” by John Grisham (Mars) and “Inner Circle” by T.C. Boyle (me) – we were jolted back to reality by deep male North Carolinian voice booming out “So you two are readers!”

We acknowledged our guilt.  “Well so am I.  Y’all mind if I sit down?”  He joined us just about every afternoon for the rest of our stay.  We also saw him several mornings driving his red pickup truck on his way to breakfast at Hardees while we were returning from our daily newspaper walk.

His name was Billy.  He quickly told us that, in addition to an avid consumer of books, he was 78 years old and (with his 72 year old wife) owned an oceanfront condo on the other side of the same building that we were in.  Billy was big, like a former football player, and made solid eye contact with one or the other of us while we were talking.  He also had a speech pattern where he periodically deepened his voice and spoke louder in the middle of a word or phrase – as in the name of his inland hometown Clay-TON.  He was born there and never lived more than 3 miles from his original home.  Clay-TON is a cotton-farming town with, when Billy was growing up there, a shirt factory at each end of town.  “Then the factories went somewhere else.”  I pointed to the horizon out beyond the adjacent Atlantic Ocean and he nodded.

Without our asking or any prompting Billy told us his finances – this was his third condo on the barrier island having sold each of the first two at a profit that allowed him to upgrade ultimately to this two bedroom one. He gave us all the numbers.  His wife says she would like more rooms for when their son’s family visits – but at his age he doesn’t feel like fixing up another place.  Billy says they’ll just rent another condo for the overflow when that happens. We did meet his wife one time as they were heading off somewhere.

“North Carolina is a ‘battle GROUND state’”, and Billy, who says he is a moderate Democrat that opposes North Carolina’s anti-LGBT HB2 law is a Trump supporter.  “He says he is going to bring back those factories.”  He said as he swung his right arms towards the ocean as if scooping the jobs back from Europe.

Billy was a plant researcher at North Carolina State University specializing in azaleas, rhododendrons, and similar plants who retired for five years and then went back on a part time basis.  One of the perks of the job was an unusual yellow azalea, which he has at his Clay-TON home.  People stop by to see the bush.  He hopes that his pension and social security will support his wife after he passes on.  “Oh, and then there’s the farm.”

Billy actually died once already in the Operating Room during a heart stent procedure that cut an artery.  “I was looking down at the doctors working at the table.  But I didn’t see myself lying there.”  The surgeon told him about it after he was saved.  He is the first person that Mars and I met in person who has experienced that.

On our last full day in Emerald Isle we went for both a morning and an afternoon walk on the beach  – barefoot in shorts and tee shirts.  Billy dropped by to say good bye and say he hoped to see us again next year – “If I’m STILL here.” When we left for home around 8:00 am the next morning the cold air had moved in and the temperature was in the low fifties.  Because it wasn’t yet lunchtime when we arrived in Ahoskie we fueled up at the town’s Duck Gas Station and drove on to within 5 minutes of the Virginia border at our new favorite barbecue spot that we discovered on last year’s trip back – Doris and Roger’s Kitchen in Gates, NC.  (At least we think its Gates – town lines are a little vague on these country roads with nothing but pine trees and swamps as landmarks.) 

Along the way back we had spotted several camo-clad, orange-hatted hunters pulled off the to side of the road.  There were a couple more on lunch break at the “Kitchen” and another group of them eating breakfast at the Holiday in Express in Pocomoke City, MD the next morning – one of them wolfing down an overflowing plate of biscuits, sausage gravy, and handfuls of bacon.

 Mars and I were eating our more modest meal.  We both were wearing our pale gray hoodie sweatshirts with the red logo of the alternative public radio station at which we volunteer.  The female half of a couple sitting nearby looked over at us and slowly said 

We explained what it was, and its affiliation with the college.

“Those are very nice looking sweaters,” she told us.

 I wasn’t all that enthusiastic about ending our vacation, but this unexpected compliment from someone we had never met reminded me of one of the things that Mars and I enjoy doing as part of our every-day retirement life at home – and made that day’s ride more tolerable.

What was that Tennessee Williams line about the kindness of strangers?




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