Some of us remember where we were the first time we saw Star Wars. George Lucas’ epic story from that galaxy far away lit up the summer of 1977 in a way that few cultural phenomenon are capable, and in spite, or maybe because of, a few plot twists which would have made both Shakespeare and Freud proud — such as the main character discovering that his father is a monster who amputates his children’s limbs and that the object of his lust is his sister — the simultaneously glittering and grungy threads of that tale wove themselves immediately and pervasively into the tapestry of the American experience. I watched the film five times that summer. But I digress.
The first time I saw it was at King’s Giant Plaza, a modest strip mall off West Stone Drive in Kingsport, TN. I believe the shopping center is still there, though they must call it something else since King’s Department Store and Giant Grocery both succumbed to the economic chaos of the final quarter of the twentieth century and slipped into oblivion. I will always remember that little cluster of businesses for two reasons: my introduction to Star Wars and the glorious happenstance of later picking up a copy of Farmstead Magazine from the rack in the drug store at that mall. Farmstead was a delightful, though short-lived, publication devoted to gardening, small-scale farming, and homesteading. The issue I found included a piece written by Paul Birdsall of Maine about making loose hay with his Suffolk draft horses. My life was never the same after I read that article. But I digress. Again.
As much as I enjoyed my exposure to both sides of the force, it was a bittersweet moment for this hillbilly. The problem was a girl. Or rather the absence of one. Her name was Beverly. It still is. She should have been with me when Luke met Obi Wan, but she was not. Instead, she was at Myrtle beach with her father, brother and two sisters playing out an annual ritual which was supposed to represent “quality family time” with the man who had abandoned Beverly’s mother and their four children several years earlier. Bev did not want to go on the beach trip, but “Dad” had threatened not to make the “trek” (drips with irony, doesn’t it) unless she went along. Her siblings wanted the free trip, and the manipulative so-and-so took her away from me for a week.
Beverly was gone, and just like the guy whose feet were too big for his bed, nothing seemed to fit. No, wait! That’s someone else’s story. She and I had known each other for several months, but our “relationship” had begun only a few weeks before the “family beach vacation” when we had gone with friends to see Smokey and the Bandit at — wait for it — King’s Giant Plaza. Come to think about it, maybe I have three reasons for always remembering that little strip mall.
If anything, Smokey had an even larger impact on American culture that summer than did Star Wars. In those days, “everybody” had a citizen’s band radio in their pickup truck, and Burt and Sally’s mindless, high-speed romp across the south touched a collective nerve. Watching that movie was not a “date” for Beverly and me, but the next night was. So was pretty much every night after that. By the time for her family beach trip, our love was strong, our connection was powerful, and we were making plans that involved happily ever after. I did not want her to leave. She did not want to go. None of that made a difference. In a demonstration of her character, Beverly put her brother and sisters’ interests ahead of her own. I loved her even more for doing that, but it made for arguably the longest week of my life. At least while she was gone I could watch Star Wars. So I did. Twice.
Soon after she returned, we were making wedding plans. We had not a single thought about waiting some culturally appropriate length of time. We had no interest in a fancy or expensive do that would make headlines on the society page of the Kingsport Times. We wanted our friends, family and the other members of our church family to join us in celebrating our mutual commitment. We planned the event for September 10. It was only a few weeks away. A compressed time frame for even a basic wedding, and we had much to do. One of the items that kept coming up was a honeymoon destination.
Since I was a North Carolina native, I had some awareness of a semi-mystical place known as “The Outer Banks.” I’d always wanted to go there, but the few family vacations I had experienced involved visiting relatives so that my paternal progenitor did not have to spring for motel accommodation. Unfortunately, I had no uncle on the Outer Banks. Beverly and I were free to visit any place that would fit within our modest budget. The Outer Banks seemed perfect, and on the afternoon of our wedding, we left East Tennessee and headed toward the Atlantic Ocean.
We spent one night in the bridal suite at the Regency Hyatt in Winston Salem, NC, and the next day we drove to Kitty Hawk. One of my favorite memories of that trip is shooting a 110 photo of my new bride with her arm around the bust of Wilbur Wright.
While we were visiting the Wright Brothers Memorial, I started asking folks we met about a good place on the Banks to eat local seafood. Several establishments were suggested, but the one that came up most often and with the strongest endorsement was called Captain Ben’s at some place called Ocracoke. I am a lover of most foods with an aquatic source, and as we drifted in a leisurely manner south/southwest along the Outer Banks, Captain Ben’s came up again and again. We spent time in a few spots playing in the surf. We stopped at historical markers. We climbed the Hatteras Lighthouse. You could do that in those days, and it was, of course, still in its original location.
As we left Hatteras, I realized that the day was long spent, and that we needed to hurry if we were to eat at the famous place. We had learned that reaching Ocracoke involved a ferry ride, so we scuttled along and caught a departing boat without major wait. The ferry ride was delightful, and after our brief drive along Ocracoke Island, Captain Ben’s was one of the first businesses we saw on the outskirts of the village. I was thrilled to find the modest, white-painted block building with a faded sign. I vaguely remember some trappings of seafaring life affixed to the front. Maybe a fishing net and some crab pots. The inside had nothing to distinguish it from hundreds of other roadside mom and pop restaurants other than the thrilling aroma of fish frying in cottonseed oil. I went weak kneed as soon as we opened the door.
In spite of my wobbly walk, I managed to get us to one of several open tables, and we sat down. The waitress brought us water and a couple of single sheet menus. I was ready to order as soon as she left, but I waited politely for my beautiful wife to peruse those luscious saltwater options. She was still reading intently when the waitress returned. I don’t remember exactly what I ordered, but it included fried oysters and soft shell crab. When our girl turned to Beverly, she never looked up from the menu as she said, “I’ll have fried chicken.” I nearly fell off my chair. It was the only time in all these years that I seriously considered the possibility that I might have made a mistake.
I had not, by the way. The only problem was that Beverly had been underexposed to aquatic cuisine. At her house, “seafood” meant Mrs. Gordon’s fish sticks. She had no background for appreciating the delights of Neptune’s larder. After being around me for a while, her palate affected a serious and permanent recalibration. She gets as excited as I do about the possibility of great seafood. Almost. All she needed was judicious exposure.
I had a second surprise on that night so long ago. In those days, at that time of year, the ferry boats did not run at night. By the time we finished our meal, and I was in no particular hurry to end that experience, we were stuck on Ocracoke. We were making this trip in the manner we would make nearly every adventure of our lives: general planning, but no rigid itinerary. Staying on Ocracoke did not mean missing a reservation made somewhere else. We were young and and tough, and we could have slept in the car if necessary, but we found a room in a cheap motel — long gone now, of course — and we enjoyed our first night in the “quaint little drinking village with a fishing problem.”
We were up and out before dawn so we could watch the sunrise over water and see the wild ponies which at that time roamed the island freely. We discovered that Ocracoke is a magical place where the rest of the world fades by several degrees. We loved the unhurried pace and having to pay strict attention to what local folks were saying. I’ve always been interested in language and accents and colloquial speech patterns, but this was unlike anything in my experience. Our couple of days on the island made us lifelong fans.
Still, though, quite a few years slipped by before we made a second visit. By then, most of our six children were in tow, and all of them eventually made that ferry trip at least a couple of times. Some of them caught the Ocracoke infection and have since returned on their own. Others found it uninspiring. That’s their loss. Beverly and I are still under the spell, and now that our nest is several years empty, we have vowed to visit Ocracoke regularly.
As I write about the history of our first exposure, our bus is parked beside The Topless Oyster. This outstanding seafood restaurant sits on the site of the long-defunct Captain Ben’s. We met the owners a year ago, and part of our current Ocracoke joy is both eating and playing music at TTO. The fact that it occupies such a significant historical location makes our being here that much better.
We love Ocracoke’s people, its beaches, its pace, the intense music scene. I’m finally attempting to learn to surf fish with the help of friends we met last October who come here every fall to catch flounder and drum and blues. The weather is just the right mix of chilly evenings and glorious sunny days. Since we’ve come to this place and time from one of the busiest summers of our life — a time of gutting the bus we live in so we could reskin it and build back enough basic amenity for this trip — being here with no particular schedule provides us a delightful and much-needed restoration.
Thanks to all who bothered to read this far. I’ll follow this lengthy intro with some photos and travelog. Stay tuned for the next couple of weeks as we proceed with no particular agenda or itinerary. Be well and productive, and may the force be with you.