Monday, June 21, 1999
The first plane flight was shorter than the average distance from first class to coach in a modern jet. But it freed the Wright brothers from a life of fixing bicycles in Dayton. The first flight was also shorter than the height of the Wright Brothers Monument on Kill Devil Hill. That’s where they actually flew—Kitty Hawk only sounds prettier.
The monument is granite, art deco, and wind-blown. Out front, Wilbur and Orville’s heads, in life-size bronze, make them look like studs—there’s no question of one being bright and the other good-looking. This is as far from the truth as sanitized Williamsburg. But it makes a nice picture.
Their bunkhouse is here too, at least in mock-up. And their rebuilt hanger—attached to the bunkhouse and smaller than a single-car garage. Naturally, there’s a museum: with canvas-winged planes; and rangers leading lectures; and kids asking scholarly questions like, “If you were so scared flying that thing that you wet your pants, wouldn’t it show?”
We quickly left the Wright brothers.
Because there were four lighthouses on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, and I was determined to see at least one. We’d managed to miss all their counterparts on the Pacific coast.
The first, at Currituck, involved detouring north, a bit out of our way. But since it had a near-twin just ahead, we figured that would do. Of course, that’s how we missed every lighthouse in Oregon, always saying we’d stop at the next one.
Heading south, we passed through Nag’s Head, now largely interesting for its name: two hundred years ago, at night, its early occupants, mainly pirates, tied lanterns to the manes of horses and slowly walked them along the beach. Sea captains, mistaking the gently-moving lights for safely-anchored boats, would bring their ships in too close and wreck on the shore. After that, it was easy looting.
Bodies Island, the site of the next lighthouse, could have been as lethal. But it turned out to be Bo-die, singular, rhyming with oh. The tower there was built in 1872; it stands one-hundred-and-fifty-six-feet high; and it can be seen for nineteen miles. So said a postcard. We couldn’t check ourselves ’cause the place was closed to tourists—but we could use its lovely gift shop. Inside, were photos from each of the five, decreasingly smaller, windows, planned that way to heighten the perspective. Though in every direction the view was swamp. Dismal Swamp. Explaining why, among spiffier items, the gift shop sold individual-sized packets of bug repellent.
The third lighthouse, at Hatteras, was being moved.
Honest. There were all kinds of earth-moving equipment, and crowds, and camera crews, this being the first week of a three-month operation. The state was so serious about the relocation, they’d even moved the gift shop.
Not that the lighthouse was falling in: it’s just that where it stood, soon wasn’t gonna be there. So the Coast Guard figured they’d better move it while they had the chance. Besides, I think they wanted to see if they could.
And things were going well. They’d already chipped out the stepped, circular base of granite-blocks, and had them all mapped and numbered for reconstruction. Plus, they’d jacked up the two-hundred-and-eight-foot-tower and put it on wheels. Now all they had to do was drag it twenty-five feet a day along a specially-built steel bed.
Standing there, you couldn’t see it move. The press release compared it to trying to track a sunrise. But over three months, the lighthouse would travel slightly inland, and a half-mile southwest, finally returning to near its original configuration with the ocean. Unmentioned was the fact it would probably have to move again in a hundred years. A lesser press release pointed out that the islands along the Outer Banks were rarely stable for that long.
Obviously, we didn’t expect to climb the tower while it was moving—though Disney might have let us. And since there was one more to visit, we weren’t worried. Meanwhile, we distracted ourselves by watching the workers scurry by. And studying the crane as it shifted the huge steel plates that formed the moving bed. And taking pictures like everyone else.
“This is historic,” a man near us explained to the tiny baby strapped to his chest. Predictably, the kid burped. Closer to earth, a little girl tapped at my knee.
“Bet I can guess your dog’s name,” she insisted.
Go away, little girl, I wanted to say. But she guessed right off.
“That’s terrific,” I told her. “Wish I had a prize.”
“I saw her at the other lighthouse,” she quickly confessed. “With your friend.”
“She’s just a lighthouse dog,” the girl’s father smiled. I grinned back—dogs are great for meeting people. Still, another child was less perceptive.
“Did you just have a hat on?” the maybe-eight-year-old asked.
“You must’ve seen my friend,” I explained to the boy. Though Tom’s shorter than I am and has a moustache.
“Are you his father?”
Kids say the rudest things.
(For the record, Tom’s only five years younger than I am.)
The last lighthouse was at Ocracoke, which I couldn’t easily pronounce. I kept saying Okracroke, or Oprahchoke. It was the smallest of the four, only seventy-five feet high, and so unimportant it didn’t even have a gift shop
It didn’t have a keeper’s house either. Well, there was one, but it had been sold, I guess when the state saw a chance to make a few bucks. We also couldn’t go up, because there was no one in charge. Like the others, it had long been automated.
“Damn,” I muttered, and Tom seemed as disappointed. In consolation, the nearby tall grass began singing to us. Spookily. Giant-grasshopper riffs that freaked the dog.
She’d walked with us from the motel. The desk clerk had suggested renting bikes, but the way I saw people driving on the narrow, curvy streets, cycling would be suicide. “Well, make sure you see Howard Street,” the clerk had insisted. “It’s how things used to be.”
So we wandered there. And when we found it, Howard Street was a one-way, one-lane, dirt road bowered by trees. At its entrance a sign read, Drive Real, Real Slow, though frequent pot holes gave you little other choice. We ambled its maybe quarter-mile length as it was growing dark, only once seeing anyone else. Behind the heavy trees were old houses, needing paint and sagging under centuries of use.
Strangely, the dog kept sniffing out cemeteries, right along the road. In years past, it seems, North Carolina law had allowed small family plots. Most were now overgrown, like the yards, but one—the British Cemetery—seemed immaculate. Its name came from four English sailors, buried there.
A sign explained that during World War II the British trawler HMS Bedfordshire had been loaned to the U.S. Coast Guard, to help patrol our waters. On May 11, 1942, it mysteriously disappeared. Rumors had it sunk by a German submarine, but the British sent no final messages. So it took till the war’s end for a captured German sub log to reveal “a trawler had been literally lifted out of the water, by its torpedo blasts.”
All hands were lost the papers reported, and only two bodies ever washed ashore. In the following days, another pair was found, floating, though without name tags. Rather than return them all to England, a tiny plot was donated by a local resident, next to her family graveyard. It’s still maintained by the Coast Guard.
The headstones read Stanley Craig, Thomas Cunningham, and Two Unidentified Sailors. Two additional plaques, set into the ground, memorialize Charles White and Frederick Barnes, believed buried here. Overhead, flies the Union Jack, a new flag donated annually, either by the Queen or the Lord Mayor of Bedfordshire.
Also on a worn plaque is a fragment of verse by Rupert Brooke, reminding me why there are poets: If I should die, think only this of me. That there’s some corner of a foreign field that is forever England.