When was it? Was it the same day we tied the kite to the rail at the end of the pier. We did that because we were too lazy to pull in a thousand feet of kite string when the little dot of colored paper was still flying so gracefully out over the ocean. We walked the length of the fishing pier back to the beach in time to see it dive into the sea.
Speaking of the pier, though, it was not the day we watched a guy fishing from that very railing at the end where it extended into the sea. It wasn’t that we were much into sitting and watching people stand on a pier smoking and cursing with their heavy ocean fishing rods, but this guy was pulling in a big one. It soon revealed itself as a hammerhead shark—18 feet someone said.
With the East Carolina setting and all, you might expect a Nicholas Sparks novel to enter our scene now. Not yet. Maybe not at all. There is no coherent reality here.
The shark was too much for the man to land, so it was catch and release by cutting the line that day. When we’d recovered from the shock of the gruesome creature, Steve B was still chuckling under his breath and shaking his head, “Some monster, huh.”
I replied, pointing up the beach at the swimmers, “We were just swimming in there, fer cryin’ out loud.”
Steve reminded me that he had been using Uncle John’s snorkel. “A fish that big won’t come close to shore where we were. The biggest shark I spotted in between the shore and that shelf where it gets shallow again was two feet at most.”
“That’s comforting,” I muttered in reply, “with teeth just two inches. At most.”
But this story isn’t about my fond memories of swimming with sharks. Well, maybe it is but not quite that literally. Sharks are merely one part of the incoherent unreality of Wrightsville Beach in 1969.
By the way, I mentioned Uncle John. None of us were related to him, or each other. We called him uncle because he was a little bit older and a whole bunch wiser. Older and wiser enough to give us reason to trust his judgment, but young and foolish enough to be one of us. Does that make any sense? Doesn’t matter, there’s no coherent reality (or plot) in these reminiscences.
If it wasn’t the day of the shark or the kite, it was yet another outing to the beach of unreality. Steve B, Uncle John, the other Steve, Roger, Carol and others were there. I had just returned from a few days AWOL. Have you ever gone AWOL? Mine wouldn’t face the serious consequences of a military absence without leave, but it was not approved and I had been warned. I had told Larry, our VISTA supervisor at the Rose Hill Community Action Council, of my plan to be away for a few days around the Fourth of July. He responded with the warning. “The new volunteers are arriving. We need everyone on hand to bring them on board so they’re ready to replace you guys now that your year is nearly over.”
I got back from Billings and my sister’s wedding just in time for another outing to Wrightsville Beach. Did we really spend that much time shirking our work and running off to the beach that July? I don’t think so, but with no coherent reality to check it against, I don’t know. Because this outing was, as I said, after the Fourth of July AWOL. It was also before July twentieth, another day at the beach. I know that date for real, if incoherently, because Uncle John looked at the time and realized we were running late. We left the beach in a hectic rush. He had that VW Bug up to 90 mph at times as we raced to his place in Currie where eight or ten of us managed to gather in that little three room house in time to watch Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. All of us crowded around a nine inch TV screen, yelling at each other to get out of the way.
OK, I warned you about incoherence, right? So, don’t blame me. We were about to talk about my lucky day, after AWOL and before the moon, and how I ruined it for myself.
If you’ve ever been AWOL in some circumstance, were there repercussions? Did you face some kind of discipline? I got off easy—another lucky day. Nothing was said after I returned. Of course, the assignment to teach one of the new recruits how to drive may have been the sentence imposed. Martha was a nice person and I was glad to help. We drove up and down the narrow lanes of a cemetery at less than five miles per. She remained too nervous behind the wheel to drive real streets. We couldn’t break through that anxiety. And driving the farm to market roads of our rural project was needed to do the job.
Oh my, we had a little coherent reality digression there, sorry about that. I had to sneak that in here to note that I got to know Martha well enough to remember her name but there were no sparks, just brief friendship, attempting to drive, and real world coherence.
There was no coherent reality at Wrightsville Beach. Driving the highway from Hampstead to Wilmington in 1969 was proof enough that Martha was absolutely correct. The reality is too frightening.
Let’s get back to the beach and the day I intended to tell about a thousand words ago. It was a glorious summer day with a few wispy clouds drifting overhead on the ocean breeze. It was comfortably warm but not hot enough to bring the big crowds to the shore. That afternoon there were sparks and I don’t mean that Carolina author Nicholas whom I mentioned earlier. He wasn’t a thing yet, anyway. There were sparks, potential for something unknown drifting around on the summer breeze. Oh yes, but there was no coherent reality at Wrightsville Beach in 1969. I would be leaving for another real world in a few weeks. The girl in the fantastic purple two-piece bathing suit—or was it the fantastic girl in the purple two-piece. No coherent… You get my drift—anyway, she had arrived while I was away without leave. It’s possible that she had not departed coherent reality that day. It is possible she hoped to learn about the work of volunteers with Rose Hill Community Action. Perhaps she saw me as an experienced person who knew things. I only know what I saw. And what I saw prompted a desire to learn if there were more to her than the wonders that the purple bikini showed off so well. As if that weren’t enough, I wanted to learn about her, what made her tick, so to speak; make her feel good about being there. Except that we were at Wrightsville Beach and no coherent reality.
We walked on the beach. We talked about ourselves and VISTA. We watched the waves breaking over the submerged sandbar shelf a hundred yards off shore. I lusted. We walked and came to a little platform. We climbed on top, no more than six feet above the sand, and stretched out in the sun. We were talking about this and that when suddenly she said, “Let’s get down. I don’t like heights.” We got down and I avoided uttering my thought that the platform was not high at all. A phobia just is, so we walked along in the wet sand where waves take their last lap.
You may have noticed that I have not mentioned a name, which I quickly did with Martha the nice non-driver. I’d say the name if only I could remember. But hey, I remember the swimsuit. I remember that she came from New Jersey or Pennsylvania; might’ve been New York. OK, never mind. I remember she’d been working as a secretary when she felt the call to enlist in the War on Poverty. And, I recall bits and blurry pieces of that evening.
As the sunny day faded into starlit night, we all, the whole bunch of us, gathered on the upper deck at the Upper Deck Beach Club. Out on the deck, not inside the bar of that name. There we had a bite and a beer and several more beers. There was no coherent reality to that night. All I know is that I was drunk at the time I noticed she was gone. We’d been talking and joking around not long before then. I was still trying to figure out how to make a first move that wouldn’t be rejected. Even where there was neither coherent reality nor sobriety I was reticent with fear of rejection.
When I noticed that she’d been gone from the deck a long time and heard someone say she left, I believe I may have had yet another beer. Now, I must say in my defense that I have not been seriously intoxicated very many times in my life. That was one of those times.
Steve B was at least as plastered as I. Uncle John, older and wiser, took us to Currie, where we had left my project provided car. We were in no shape to drive on to Clinton, so Uncle John fed us Alka-Seltzer to ease the anticipated hangovers and we crashed on his floor.
The next day was still incoherent, but reality intruded. I recalled the previous night, how I got stinking drunk and she went away. Boy howdy, did I ever make a mess of that possibility. I was thinking that if I had kept my act together I might have convinced Larry to send me out to check in on her at her final training location. But, no.
I never saw her again. That made me feel even worse about it and not only because the sparks had died away. I was left with a nagging question. Did our groups’ drunken stupidity cause her to give up and go back home? Was I responsible for the loss of a good VISTA volunteer? An incident in the place for escape from reality’s demands may in reality have consequences as it coheres. Then again, there still is no coherent reality about my Wrightsville Beach of 1969.