From Uncle T: Long but worth reading)
The Greatest Childhood Adventure
As the summer of 1948 began, the prospects of our family spending any time at our beach house at Caffeys Inlet looked dim. An abrupt change occurred in our lives when it was found our daddy was in a terminal condition and would spend his remaining few months in a hospital.
Caffeys Inlet in those days was a small group of homes surrounding the Caffeys Inlet Coast Guard Station. The homes were originally built by the men stationed there and were constructed primarily of wood that had washed up on the beach. Through the years, as families moved and the number of men stationed there decreased, the homes were sold. The primary value of a house was the right to occupy the land, as most of them were in a poor state of repair. In 1947 my daddy purchased one of these houses with the intent to make extensive repairs and renovations the following year. In prior years we had rented a home there from an owner who lived in Rocky Mount.
There was an interesting and unstated legal status of the houses at Caffeys. It was understood the land was owned by a gun club to the north and the land under the houses was rented to the home owner for twenty five cents a year. And no additional houses or out structures could be built. No one could remember the last time anyone paid the twenty five cents. From time to time conversation took place about the length of the rental agreement and whether or not anyone could purchase the land. These conversations usually ended with the understanding that it was best to leave it alone.
We were living in Rocky Mount in a home purchased by our daddy toward the end of World War Two. It was a big house, situated on the corner of Madison and Rose Streets and typical of the large homes built in the late eighteen eighties when Rocky Mount experienced a major growth period, caused by the coming of the railroad. Our home was close to the street, with a small front yard, a sidewalk, a median of grass and then the street. In the median giant sycamore trees were spaced about fifteen feet a part. These trees provided cool shade during the hot summer months and a lot of fallen leaves during the fall. The home faced Madison Street, with a front porch that continued around to the Rose Street side, where it became the entranceway to a side door from the porte-cochere, built to accommodate a horse and carriage. Downstairs had a den, living room, dining room, large kitchen, breakfast room, a bedroom and a bathroom. The upstairs had three bedrooms, two sleeping porches and one bathroom. I never understood why two of the rooms were referred to as sleeping porches, as they were like the other bedrooms, except not heated.
There were five or six boys in our little group of friends, ranging in age from eleven to fourteen. I was thirteen and my brother Bill was fourteen. It was a Monday and we had gotten together for our early morning meeting, to decide what to do. We were meeting in our upstairs sleeping porch at the far end of the house and felt at ease with the privacy of the place, as we talked about what we could or should do. Baseball was a favorite early morning activity, even though none of us was really good at baseball. Whenever a large group got together to play and two boys were designate to choose up sides, participants from our little group were always chosen last.
One of our friends was short and a little over weight for his height. He had a great sense of humor and was eager to put a funny slant on just about anything that happened. His father was an engineer with the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad and his mother stayed at home. Another was about the same size, and the youngest of the group. He wore think glasses and was considered unconventional and hard headed. His father had worked for the railroad prior to his death and his mother was a nurse. The other member of the group that morning lived around the corner about a block away and his mother and father were divorced and his mother worked as a waitress in one of the busiest cafes in town. He had a bad temper buy could really throw a baseball. And then there was brother Bill, who was pretty good at anything he tried to do. He was better built than the rest of us and already on his way through puberty, which sometimes got in our way, when we wanted to talk about baseball and he wanted to talk about girls. I was the smallest and thinnest and tried to overcompensate for that by constantly seeking the position of leadership. It rarely worked. Our mother had just begun to work and we were entering our first summer without her being at home and we were to spend the summer in Rocky Mount.
As we talked that morning the discussion turned to going to the beach and the beach suggested was Caffeys Inlet. Our friends had never been there, but had heard our stories of the place and how much fun we had. The more we talked, the more excited and less realistic our thoughts and comments became until it was decided we would go. We all agreed we should approach the planning of going to the beach as a camping trip, just like the Boy Scouts. In fact the training obtained in the Scouts, in planning for camping trips and jamborees, helped a great deal as we put our thoughts together. The excitement grew as we talked about walking on the beach, boating, crabbing and fishing and being on our own. This was going to be the experience of our childhood.
Several families from Rocky Mount were usually in residence at Caffeys, from time to time, during the summer, and we cold always count on at least one of them being there. We knew our prospects for going looked good when we checked around and found out all three families were there. Their presence should soften the shock our parents would have, when we talked to them about letting us spend some time there, on our own.
We talked about the best approach to take, to get permission from our parents, to go this one hundred and sixty mile trip alone, using only our thumbs. That’s right, we were going to hitch hike to the beach! The excitement of the planning caused our level of confidence to rise to such a height that it did not occur to a one of us that there was anything wrong with a group of young boys hitch hiking to the beach, even though none of us had ever so much as hitch hiked across town. Reality began to set in as one after the other called his mother to tell her of our plans and asked to please let him go. And one after the other was told, well to put it mildly, ‘No!!’ (Each mother was sure those wild Thomas boys were behind yet another crazy idea, and this one capped the stack.)
Undaunted by their lack of success, and still on our emotional high, Bill and I called mother to tell her of our plans and ask if we could go. Her reaction was typical of her approach to raising children. She asked adult questions to be sure this was what we wanted to do. She inquired about how long we were going to be there, who was going to cook and what would we eat, as well as other good questions about things we had not considered. She remembered we had not left a frying pan when we closed the house the last time there. After satisfying herself about the prospects of the success of our plan she agreed we could go.
Mother would not allow us to take the big suit case, so we settled on an old Army duffel bag and an old weekend bag. To save space and to reduce the number of items, we each took our sleeping bag, rolled as tightly as possible and pushed it in the duffel bag. Other items included a couple of bathing suits each, three changes of clothes, a few cans of food and a frying pan.
Mother was employed by the church, about six blocks away, so we rode our bicycles there to get money for the trip. She wrote two checks, one for five dollars traveling money and the other was a blank check, for the purchase of food and supplies, made out to the general store in Duck. We cashed the check for five dollars at the neighborhood store on our way home to get our bags.
Since Bill and I had never hitched hiked before, we had to rely on the stories told to us by our older brother, Ben. He had done a good bit of hitch hitching and told us some scary stories about his experiences. Bill and I talked about all of that and devised our own plan. The plan was for me to get in the back seat of the car when it stopped and Bill would get in the front seat. I carried with me a metal handle that had broken off our vacuum cleaner. It was about eight inches long and heavily weighted on one end. It was placed just under the zipper of the smaller bag I carried and was to act as a black jack, should we run into any trouble on the way. If anyone got out of line, I was the hit him on the head and knock him out and Bill would take over driving the car. Bill had never driven a car before, but we thought since he was bigger and older he would he would be able to drive with greater skills than I. Of course I had never hit anyone over the head with a black jack type object before either, but had seen it in the movies many times and felt I knew how.
The moment of truth arrived, we had to make the final effort to leave or face questions from our friends on why we were still in town. We picked up our bags to walk the one block to highway, US 64 to begin our journey and I immediately realized they weighed too much. Bill would surely understand he would have to carry the heavier of the two. He was older and much stronger than I, a point I made to him many times during the trip.
Although Bill was only eleven months older, at that stage in our lives, he was about three years my senior, physically. I had not begun my growth spurt, and was probably five feet, three inches tall and maybe weighed ninety pounds. This combined with my white blond hair and glasses, gave me the appearance of a ten year old, especially beside my much larger, more mature appearing brother.
So there we were, two young boys, standing on the side of the road with an old Army duffel bag and a weekend bag, facing the traveling public with all the confidence in the world, born of ignorance.
Geologically, Rocky Mount is on the fall line, where the Coastal Plains and Piedmont Plateau meet. Archaeologist would tell you it is where the softer, sedimentary rock of the Coastal Plains meets the harder, metamorphic rock of the Piedmont and where this occurs in a river bed, there is either a falls or a rapids. From a topographical point of view it is, to its west, the beginning of the rolling hills, which anticipate the Piedmont Plateau. East of Rocky Mount the land begins to flatten and by the time you are east of Tarboro the only hills are in association with river formations, and the several river bluffs created eons ago. Bill and I knew all about this from the conversations between our parents over the years and remembered it because of our interests.
The major route east of Rocky Mount was US 64, a national highway proudly hailed by all North Carolinians as the road from Manteo to Murphy. It literarily connected a very elongated and diverse state.
As we made our way through this flat sandy land we enjoyed the different sounding names we heard and saw. In spite of the prevalence of agriculture, there was an abundance of wooded areas and a sense that you were always near water of some sort. So many creeks with swamp in their names; the frequency of pocosins (a shallow place or swamp easily holding water) and how the people got around in those areas in what my father called Cashie Carts, carts with two wheels, made of wooden spokes, six feet in diameter and drawn by mules; the numerous Carolina Bays, geological anomalies, the cause of which is still unknown; little towns and crossroads, each having a story; and strange and different names like, Bear Grass, Buckleberry Pocosin, Queen Anne Creek, Flat Swamp Creek, Perquimans River, Rabbit Corner, Chantilly, Sligo, Pasquotank, Coinjock and Great Dismal Swamp, to name a few.
We were in our element, feeling smarter than anyone who would pick us up, and ready, willing and able to tell them all we knew about anything.
Our first ride took us to Tarboro, about sixteen miles east of Rocky Mount. As was my practice when we made this trip as a family, I computed the mileage in my head, comparing it to the total mileage and as we rode by the Town Commons thought to myself we were ten percent of the way to the beach. The driver of the car let us out in front of the Edgecombe County Courthouse, near the middle of town. We went into the courthouse for some water and proudly told as many people as we saw who we were and where we were going. We just thought everybody would be interested. Our father was a lawyer and spent a good bit of time in the Registrar of Deeds Office in Tarboro, the county seat of Edgecombe County. He was well known in the courthouse and many of the people we saw there asked about the state of his health.
We left the courthouse and walked several blocks, to a place just outside of town, on the east side of the Tar River Bridge. We thought this would be the best place to hitch a ride, but when several people offered us rides to Rich Square, we realized it would be best to move to a place beyond that intersection.
A farmer gave us a ride to the Conetoe intersection, about eight miles outside of Tarboro. He let us out in the middle of nowhere and the passing traffic was not interested in slowing down to pick up two little boys hitch hiking. The next time a car stopped to pick us up, we asked the driver where or how far he was going. We were beginning to learn something about hitch hiking.
You can learn hitch hiking real fast. You start talking about where you are going and how far you have come and then you ask the driver where he’s going, to get an idea of exactly where he plans to let you out. Then, after you have accepted the ride and sufficient time has passed for him to know how special you are, in as indirect a way as you can, you tell the driver how heavy your bags are, and how you had to carry them across a recent town when someone let you out on the wrong side of town, and how tired it made you. In most cases this causes a driver, who was going to let you out on the west side of a town, for instance, to be incline to take you to the east side of that town, where you really need to be. This ploy worked pretty well for two little boys with two heavy bags.
A traveling salesman on his way to Plymouth from Raleigh stopped. This ride would get us to Williamston, where US 64 intersects with US 17. He would continue east on US 64 to Plymouth, while our route was to take US 17 to Elizabeth City and the US 158 the rest of the trip. When we got to Williamston we were forty percent of the way.
We were lucky the next ride took us to Edenton. The driver of the car was a real nice man who seemed truly interested in what we were doing and all the things we told him about the area. We completely relaxed with him and started talking before we got over the Roanoke River, east of town. We talked constantly, so proud of our freedom and the knowledge we had of the country, the crops growing, the weather, historical points of interests, how long it took to get to the beach and how fast our daddy drove when he drove us on this trip. We just felt like he ought to know how smart and well informed we were. We talked about where we were going and how remote it was; that people referred to it as the ‘jumping off place’, as though it was the end of the world.
As we approached Windsor we told him about a giant pecan tree growing in the yard of the former sheriff. Even though a block out of the way, he was interested enough to ride by it and stop. It was so large the three of us together could not put our arms together around it.
As we were leaving Windsor, right before returning to the main road and passing over the Cashie River, we pointed out Neidelman’s Grove. Our daddy had told the story of how a salesman from the north, named Neidelman, came to the Windsor area sometimes in the early nineteen hundreds and while there raped a young black girl. (I’m not sure we knew what rape was in those days, but we remembered the story.) The town folks were so incensed, they broke into the jail and took the man to that grove of oak trees and castrated him. The sheriff was so upset at what had happened he set the man free without a trial. From that day forward the area was known as Neidelman’s Grove.
The first impressive geological event was the Chowan River. Having lived in Rocky Mount all my life, I was accustomed to the Tar River, which skirts around the northern part of the city, as it makes its serpentine way east and south to the Pamlico Sound. It is less than fifty yards at its widest point and bright orange-muddy all the time. I can still remember the disbelief I had the first time we road over the Chowan River Bridge in the summer of 1942 and was told it was a river. It was hard to believe a river could be so wide and its waters so clear. And then there was the uniqueness of the cypress trees of various heights, which dotted its shore line, accentuating its beauty. The Chowan River Bridge was about two miles long and as you looked to your right going east, there was water all the way to the horizon, where the river flowed into and became the Albermarle Sound. I had never seen so much water in a river.
We used the heavy bag ploy as we approached Edenton, telling our driver about a place called the Triangle Café near the eastside of town and suggested it would be a great place for us to catch a ride. He was accommodating and took us there.
Edenton was the half way point of tour journey and we had made good time, but with too many rides. After about an hour and a half waiting for a ride, our pride in being half way began to diminish and we were beginning to question our decision to go to the beach. Maybe we should have stayed home. At one point, Bill and I talked about one of us going to the other side of the highway and trying to catch a ride back home. Whoever stopped the first car, the other would run to the other side of the road and jump in. But how could we ever face our circle of friends if we did that?
I do not recall what we were wearing or how we actually looked, but at that age Bill and I gave little attention to appearances, preferring to be comfortable and a little clean. There were the days before peer pressure or Madison Avenue and we were still under the influence of the minimalist philosophy, born during the depression and nurtured during World War Two. Very probably our blond hair was not combed and we were each wearing a cotton short sleeve shirt, with short khaki pants. We may have even been bare footed. Standing beside the road with your thumb in the air was not fun. It was the excitement of a car stopping and that first few minute with a stranger that was fun and it had been too long since we had experienced that. I do recall we got real tired of people passing us by and not even acknowledging we were there.
Finally, we were picked up and this time got a ride all the way to Elizabeth City. The driver was another nice man who was in the Coast Guard, on his way from Edenton to Norfolk. We continued what amounted to a travelogue, as we made our way through this beautiful country, with water always close by.
We had looked forward to going through downtown Hertford, which even through the eyes of a young boy, was a sleeping looking and restful place I thought would e a wonderful place to retire. It seemed as though it was eleven o’clock in the morning there, all the time. As we left Hertford the road snaked its way along the banks of the Perquimans River and we pointed out to the driver the place where the lyrics of Carolina Moon had been written.
We entered Elizabeth City from the west and passed Corinth Baptist Church, one of the prettiest churches on the trip, its beauty enhanced by the tranquil urban location. We passed through the downtown area, always an enjoyable experience riding over those uneven streets paved with bricks and hearing the unique sound made by our tires. Our driver had gone several blocks out of his way to Norfolk to take us to the bridge over the Pasquotank River, on the east side of town.
So far some interesting people had given us rides. Some asked, in a round about way, if we were running away from home. Some asked about our ages. I told them I was fourteen and Bill said he was fifteen, which made for interesting conversation, since we were only eleven months and four days apart. Some even said they either knew or had heard of our daddy. All were really surprised that parents of two young boys would allow them to undertake this trip alone. Except for the delays in being picked up, we were having a great time experiencing the joy of our independence and freedom.
For whatever the reason, we talked a lot to the people who picked us up. There was no prescribed or agreed to line of conversation, but it was usually something like this: We would tell them who we were, where we were from and where we were going. That through the years our family had made the trip to the beach many times, so many times in fact, that we knew a lot of people along the way. If we were to get a little worried about the person who picked us up, our plan was to make up a name of someone in the next town and say our mother had called ahead and they were expecting us to sop by and say hello. Another plan was to have a conversation between us, about a friend of the family in the next town who did not exist, and ask the other if he thought we should stop for the night.