NCCAT Slideshow + Wrap Up
The last day on the island started early. Before dawn type early. “the notes” hit the beach with the hope of catching some of the incoming swell spotted yesterday afternoon. The hard WNW wind had other ideas as the swell was laid flat. The morning session was productive and created a bit of a shock. The afternoon session was to feature some element or thing we worked on and ready it for a group “publishing.” An informal open mic was set for the post evening session in the main seminar room. With an afternoon trip to the island of Portsmouth, there was not much time for editing or further development. What emerged was “The Gift” posted shortly before the last trip home and a ride on the ferry. It has some holes and some things in need of refining but was a joy to try to work with since fiction has been off the plate for a while. The short emerged from an activity at the seminar in which participants were invited to find an object, ask it some questions and discover the story it had to tell.
The other story of the day was the trip to Portsmouth Island by Austin Boat Tours (click link for more info). Captain Rudy Austin began the boat service in the 1970s and was joined by his brother Donald in the 1990s. Both men have 30 plus years experience with the North Carolina Ferry Service as captains. The Austin family has long-standing ties to the island. After sharing dinner with Donald and walking some of the afternoon with Rudy, one gets the feeling that the passion these men have for their home and Portsmouth is born out of a deeper respect than just a livelihood or knowledge of history. It is a passion. The tour featured a dolphin watch and semi-formal, guided walking-tour. Those that chose to wander off and see for themselves were free to go and those that wished to remain and hear local legend needed only to stay within earshot of either Austin. Either man was willing to answer questions they have no doubt answered a million times. If it was the millionth time you would not have known it since both men were exceedingly patient with us ‘dingbatters’ (island brogue for tourists). If Rudy is the more irascible than Donald is the trouble maker. We were not long on the island before Donald had one of the participants, Sarah-a newly engaged (congrats!) high school English teacher-trying to hunt Nutria (click link for more) with their bare hands. For a better explanation of Nutria you’ll have to take the trip and ask one of the Austins. Basically, they are like rats. Big rats. “the notes” could follow either of these men around all day long and have a blast though it might take an additional two men–an interpreter for Donald’s occasionally thick brogue and ‘we prolly oiughta have us a foirth goiy’ since bail seems like it might be a necessity if you hung out long enough. If bare-handed, giant rat hunting is a possiblity then the door is wide freakin’ open. Truthfully though you are in good, caring and infinitely knowledgable hands on Austin tours and are missing a large part of who and
what Ocracoke is all about if you don’t make it a point to have them show you.
On Portsmouth the island is deserted, the last residents leaving the island in 1971. In 1753 the island village was created by the North Carolina Assembly. By 1770 the village had grown to be one of the largest settlements on the Outer Banks. Sound waters were too shallow for the heavy ships to navigate, so the process of “lightering” was begun on the island. This is the offloading of the heavy boats and distribution of weight to shallow more shoal capable boats for the purpose of ferrying across the goods. From the late 1890s to 1937, the lifesaving station was one of the primary influences in the community.
These were trained, drilled and respected men of the community willing to load into oar powered surf boats and brave storms to save the loss of craft and life. Most rescues were done by the 34 foot Merryman type lifeboat. Built in 1906 in NJ it finally made Portsmouth in 1918. Designed to resemble the boats that local fishermen knew worked, the craft featured watertight air cases and could be crewed by 14 men. Self-righting and self-bailing, the ship became the model for surfboats that would follow. When rescue by boat was not possible, the men rigged an elaborate cannon and rope system to shoot over rescue line and anchor into the sand thereby enabling the escape of victim a single person at a time. The squad was captained by men like Ferdinand G Terrell in 1894 till Elisha G Tillet in 1935. All were tough and well-prepared as well as realistic about their positions as evidenced by the motto, “you have to go out, but you don’t have to come back.” As one such surfman said, “it is hours and weeks upon end of excruciating boredom interrupted occasionally by a few minutes of sheer terror.” Rudy and Donald Austin are men of this ilk; respected, tough, experienced, and smart. Lest you think it all about the sea, the Austins are quick to share tales of locals and the lives they led. These have all the heart and individuality of the Ocracokers one island over. The Austins can even wax nostalgic on the “butt blocks” used on the trim in the church. Captain Rudy Austin’s daughter gave the whole seminar a moment as her father finished his explanation of the wood paneling and trim and the noticeable lean of the whole structure. In this moment we were given the chance to sit quietly in a pew and regard what it must have been like for a family so far out in the 1800s and yet so very much a part of a community, like the Austins and their fellow Ocracokers. Genuine families to be certain.
The last session featured a discussion on writing and our understanding after some practice and thought with the issues presented throughout the week. There was a closing ceremony involving a conch shell and each participant given the chance to share their comments. With such an eclectic crowd, the answers were a diverse lot to say the least but every single one seemed sincere. “the notes” had trouble keeping the sand in the shell but is going to file that one under a logistics-coordinator issue. After serving as a living phallus and morning peep show for the sweet little cleaning lady Gloria-classic shower scene, problems with shells and sand seem small anyway. The open mic featured readings from “the notes,” Amy Thomas and Sarah Cristiani and her “little, gross, ugly egg sack”-a masterpiece. Music was featured by Holly of The Hot Flash and the Kidney Stones (still the coolest name for a band), Julian Cochran and Claire Whitehurst. Afterwards we milled about the main seminar room at the Coast Guard Station and wished the week were not at a close. Try as we might the morning can not be dissuaded from its course so the evening retired and closed the books on the NCCAT Conference: Reading and Writing by the Sea.
The morning featured a checkout procedure which raised some interesting questions. Some of the questions were easy and some were more difficult. I don’t think I have ever been a part of something so creative and it was hard to let go or explain in a profession which demands the use of its professional-ese to justify itself. The type of learning that occured on Ocracoke was both. Molly went from writing and reading her first poem to singing a 12 bar blues tune. That is fostered creativity. There were lessons and methodologies that are immediatley usable in the classroom. And there were lessons that are harder to explain. There was learning which defied the explanations we give like “synthesis” and “interchange” and “reflective practicioning.” Instead, it might be closest in analogy to Robert Pirsig and his Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which is the idea of ‘Quality.’ It is hard to pinpoint specific traits because it is all of them, all of them working together. You can hold up two similar works and insitinctively know the one which has Qulality though maybe you can’t explain why. This is the type of learning which is offered by the NCCAT seminar. It requires only the willingness to become engaged. Indeed, “to roll up your sleeves and dig in” and discover for yourself. This might be the truest form of education for the professional. One of the final questions asked which memory was our favorite. The answer? All of them. Every last one till the tolling of the 8 bells and call for the end of the watch. The story and people who are Ocracoke are no small part and it will all hold a special place in memory.
To everyone that helped make the week so heartfelt, personal, and a success…thank you. To readers of “the notes,” please do yourself a favor and go visit Ocracoke and its residents. You’ll be glad you did.
Check out the Youtube Slideshow below for the photo highlights in chronological order.
Molasses Creek-“Write Myself a Letter”
Jerry Garcia and David Grisman-“Sweet Sunny South”