December 04, 2007

Joyce on Someone's Mind

The current (December 2007) issue of India Today Travel Plus has this essay I wrote. I called it "Joyce on Someone's Mind", but it's in print under "Doing Nothing in Ocracoke." Never mind.

Your thoughts, as always, welcome.


I look again for a butterfly, but this time there isn't one. Eighteen years since I first took this ferry, and my abiding memory of that trip remains the lone butterfly, fluttering along as the ferry slowly chugged past -- too slowly -- out in the middle of Pamlico Sound.

The ferry takes three hours to cross from Cedar Island, on the North Carolina coast, to the southernmost point of the southernmost of the state's "Outer Bank" islands, Ocracoke. Further north is Kitty Hawk, where Wilbur and Orville Wright -- drawn by the sand, the flatness and the winds -- first showed that man could fly. Like a thin garland, the Outer Banks hang southwards from there, forming and protecting Pamlico Sound from the vast Atlantic. Halfway across the Sound, you can see no land in any direction. What would a butterfly be doing out here, and how did it get here anyway? I suppose I shall take such questions to my grave. Nevertheless, on this second crossing, the only winged accompanists are the usual hungry gulls battling the wind, the wake of the boat filling their feathered breasts with hope of fishy treats.

Oh yes it's windy, and bone-chilling cold. I've been wandering the deck of the "Carteret" since we left Cedar Island, and now I understand why there's nobody else doing the same. Other passengers are instead huddled in one of the ferry's cabins, or sitting in their cars reading or sleeping. One is too tall for his pickup's bench seat, so as he lolls and dozes, his bare feet are jammed up against the windshield.

In the upstairs cabin is a map of the sandbar-like Outer Banks, with what looks like a thick grey beard hugging their Atlantic coast. Up close, I find it's actually a list of names: "Hornet", "Emulous", "Helen H Benedict", "Lilivaira", "Tinto", "Francisco Bellagamba", "Nuestra Signora de Solidad" and many more. Dozens, maybe hundreds, of names of ships wrecked over the years along these shores. "The Graveyard of the Atlantic", they call it. Not the most reassuring label, not quite the list you want to stumble on when you are yourself in a ferry laden with cars in these waters, but never mind. It isn't the wind that has just sent a shiver down my spine.

We dock carefully in Ocracoke. First stop for me, naturally after that map, is a place where the dead from a shipwreck are buried. But this was no ordinary wreck (though is there such a thing?). This was HMT Bedfordshire, once an Arctic fish trawler, later armed and loaned by the Royal Navy to the US Navy to patrol American shores during the Big One. Torpedoed offshore by a German U-boat in May 1942, the Bedfordshire sank quickly, drowning its entire crew of 37. Only four bodies were ever found, only two of those identified: Stanley R Craig and T Cunningham. Those four bodies lie underfoot at the British Cemetery in Ocracoke.

And on a simple plaque erected on this bit of Carolina soil are Rupert Brooke's famous words that always leave me unaccountably melancholy:
    If I should die think only this of me, that there is some corner of a foreign field that is forever England.
My usual reaction to old cemeteries: sadness, but greater curiosity. Who would have thought that a roiling European war would see one tiny theatre of operations off faraway Ocracoke Island? Apparently the Queen herself sends a replacement British flag to fly here, every year. Yes, that Queen. Forever England. Must be getting time for this year's flag, for the one I'm looking at looks just that bit ragged.

Yet the more interesting cemetery -- for a while I thought they were the same -- is an adjacent private enclosure. Of course I can't breach the locked gate, but standing at the fence I can see most of the graves, and what interesting graves they are. It's the Wahab family, buried here going back to Job Wahab and his wife Eliza, both born in the early years of the 19th Century. Their graves are routine enough. Their sons, on the other hand ...

For one thing, their three sons Job Jr, Jonathan and Warren all died in September 1842 -- the 4th, 11th and 14th, respectively. What dread disease struck down three young brothers within ten days? Yes, Jonathan was just 16 when he died. His brothers, on the other hand ...

According to their graves, Job Jr was born in March 1855, Warren in September that year. That is, within six months of each other, which itself raises some delicate biological questions. Also, both birth dates are 13 years after they died, which raises some more delicate biological questions.

I swear this is true. I rub and blink my eyes, try to remember how much alcohol I have consumed in recent days, peer close and long at the stones. Am I somehow reading them wrong? But no. "Job B Wahab, Born March 3 1855, Died September 4 1842". "Warren O Wahab, Born September 10 1855, Died September 14 1842". Chiseled clearly into fine marble, this curious impossibility.

What happened here, exactly a century before a German sub fired a torpedo at HMT Bedfordshire?

Before I caught the ferry this morning, I breakfasted -- cereal and grapefruit halves with an exquisitely-placed sliced strawberry -- at my B&B in Beaufort, south of Cedar Island. A vacationing couple joined me with their own halves and slices. The man is a linguist at Michigan State University. When he heard I was going to Ocracoke, he said -- by way of passing on useful tourist tips -- I must listen for the local accent. The thinking is that it's a relic of England, because yet another shipwreck left some sailors from that country marooned on Ocracoke and their descendants never lost what's now called the Ocracoke brogue. These particular island folk call themselves "hoi-toiders", says my breakfast companion, which of course is how they pronounce "high tiders."

Different from us hoi-polloi, I should have said. Only, I think of it several hours later.

My next meal is lunch, and it's at the Pony Island restaurant on Ocracoke. The table alongside has the only other guests, a foursome. Are they hoi-toiders? I pretend to be reading my book, but actually I'm eavesdropping as best I can. Are they hoi-toiders? Well, one of the couples has a definite Scots-tinged accent. It so stands out that if I hadn't been alert to the brogue, I would have thought they were foreigners.

I finish just as Pony Island is closing for the afternoon. Young woman who served me, she's mopping the floor. The toilet, where I want to go, is across the damp section she's working on. I'm about to step on it when she notices and nearly lunges to stop me.

"This stuff I'm using, it's bloody slippery!" she exclaims. (I'm still listening for the brogue: did she say "bluidy"?) She looks at the boots I'm wearing and shakes her head sadly. "My shoes, they won't slip. But those ..." (Did she say "thai won't slip"?)

Then she stretches out her hand, grabs mine firmly and escorts me across the wet patch, all the way to the door of the toilet.

"Thanks," I say, feeling oddly like a debutante at a dance.

Brogue, cemetery and small kindness: the island of Ocracoke certainly doesn't disappoint.

Yet that it does not is also because this is far from tourist season. For Ocracoke is clearly one powerful tourist magnet. Stores sell the usual kitsch: jewellery, ornaments, T-shirts, peculiarly-named ice-creams, suncatchers, gag gifts. Of course I bought armloads of the stuff -- I'm no reluctant tourist. But it doesn't escape my attention that the great majority of stores are closed and I am pretty much the only tourist about -- this being windy bone-chilling March, after all, not the height of summer.

In the off-season, or at any rate today, Ocracoke has an appealing flyblown quality, a slightly decrepit air. A sense almost of resignation to its inevitable summer fate of crowds and cars, a time to repair and reflect on the season to come. Yes, I'm grateful I'm here when the tourists aren't. But something else about the town as it is today calls out to me. I've breathed in this air before, with just as fond memories: the Sewri shore in Bombay on a Sunday afternoon, a long walk through the outskirts of Gangtok on another Sunday morning. I remember even watching it take shape on screen in a '80s Hollywood film, "Racing The Moon", set in small-town California just before the war.

Maybe it's something about an off-peak time -- Sunday, March -- for an otherwise busy spot. There's a certain quality of laziness, a sense of time elongated, sounds muted, life in sated siesta. Waiting, waiting for nothing in particular. So here in Ocracoke, I drive past a team of good-natured workers, hardhats and all. They are remodeling a building. They seem suspiciously sluggish.

Past them and out of town, I spend the rest of the afternoon driving slowly up the length of the island. The long sand dunes, grass like wispy hair, graceful sandpipers, the silence -- they grow on me in a way I would not earlier have believed. The island is so narrow that often I can see the sea on both sides: calm Pamlico Sound to the west; pounding Atlantic winter waves to the east. Stretches of Highway 12 are arrow-straight for miles. My mind wanders back to another highway like that from some weeks earlier, in Mississippi. Painted on the surface of the road there, several times in the 40 miles I drove it, was the outline of a small aircraft. Meaning, small planes might just use this highway as a runway to land on, drivers please note.

Thanks for the warning, I remember thinking. But how am I supposed to realize, before the fact, that a plane is about to touch down on my head? And what do I do if I see one: brake sharply? Speed up? Swerve to the side and stop? Wave cheerily to the pilot?

Anyway, Ocracoke is the next time artwork on the road surface catches my eye. On the other side, thus upside down for me, I see, first, "YOU!". Then "LOVE". Then "I". Then "JOYCE".

"Joyce I love you!", font size 3985.

I believe Joyce is in a small plane, reading this message as she swoops in for an unscheduled landing on Highway 12.

No, I made that up. But as I drive along, I begin noticing something else: tire tracks that curve across the road. Made by vehicles making U-turns, a long series of these tracks over several miles.

I don't know if it is my frame of mind at this point on my travels, or if it is the austere loveliness of Ocracoke, or if it is the chilly but gorgeous day. But after a while, these curving tracks take on a shy beauty of their own. After a while, I see them as forlorn locks of hair, strewn across the road.

Joyce's hair, no doubt.


Anil P said...

You hear the silence when stillness beckons. A road that runs long usually runs straight, its monotony broken by tyre-marks making a U-turn!

But then isn't monotony supposed to still time?

Wonderfully written piece, Dilip.

tunnellj said...

There is a book you might enjoy that was 'fiction' but follows Job Wahab and his family and what killed his children was an outbreak of diptheria (according to the book). It's called "Children of the Sea" by James R. Nichols. Thought you migh enjoy... Of course, the dates are switched on a few of the headstones on Ocracoke -- just a mistake that apparently happened a lot.

Unknown said...

Hi -- stumbled on this post while looking for information about the Wahab children. I was at Ocracoke this weekend and saw the graves. I stumped by the dates myself, until I looked very closely, compared them to other engravings and realized those 5s are 3s (or at least some of them are). I believe one kid was born in 1833 and the other in 1835.

Unknown said...

Oh, and I have photos of the gravestones. If you're curious, I can let you know when I post them.

Dilip D'Souza said...

mlillard, thanks! I also heard from an Ocracoke resident about those dates, a lovely story. If you leave me an email address here, I will forward it. And I'd love to see the photos.