Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Currituck Joe

This description of Currituck Sound and the  story of Currituck Joe was written by Thomas S. Collier and published in 1886 in the Overland Monthly, a magazine "devoted to the development of the country." Collier met Currituck Joe at the market in Norfolk, VA where Joe was selling ducks from the Currituck Sound in North Carolina. Collier was invited to visit Currituck and shoot his own ducks with Joe as his guide. A couple of years later, Collier visited Currituck on business and stayed a week to hunt with Joe. He arranged to return the next December. The following is the story of Collier's second visit to Currituck.

The coast of North Carolina is not an inviting one. From their earliest acquaintance with it, sailors have shunned Cape Hatteras, and many a foreboding shake of the head accompanies the words with which they speak of that stormy point. The loom of its sinister clouds is the signal to put close reefs in the topsails, and the skipper whose vessel has drifted too near its desolate shore paces his deck, with keen eyes scanning the western horizon, all through the long and storm-filled hours of the night.
The winds have a different tone when they surge along the waves that roll foam-crowned and furious against its shifting sand dunes. There is an exaltation, a victorious shouting, in their rush, that seems to tell of a supreme sovereignty.

North of Hatteras, and running southward from the border of Virginia, is Currituck Sound, a respectable sheet of water, separated from the ocean by a narrow belt of sand, such as defends the entire seaboard of North Carolina. This immense sea bar —for it can be called nothing else—is not an inviting place of residence, and when the heavy northeast gales come roaring down the coast, there is a wildness and gloom pervading it that is anything but cheerful. Wrecks are frequent during the winter and early spring, when the great gales are most prevalent, and then the men at the government life-saving stations have wet and stormy work to do. The sullen boom of a gun will bring them forth to meet the rush and sting of chilling sleet, when night's darkness lies so heavy on the earth that sight is impossible.

Then suddenly there will shine out the ghastly glow of a signal light — its red glare showing some fated vessel, washed by the incoming rollers, each of which drives her farther up among the breakers that beat her with such fierce persistence. The treacherous sands part from before her, but close across the way she has come, in a heavy and impassable mass. Then spars give way, and plank after plank is riven from the hull, and long before the gray light of morning dawns, the vessel and her crew have passed away from the busy struggle filling the world.

How slowly the light comes on such mornings, when straining eyes and eager hands are waiting to help those so near by and yet so far away from help! And if the time drags wearily with men who stand ready to succor, how much more slowly must it pass for those who watch, while the night about is full of the triumph songs of wreck and death. The life-saving stations have taken some of the terror from the storm-beaten coast, but this service is a thing of late years. There was a time when it was unknown, and then the vessel that came driving in on the sands, often was broken up before a knowledge of her peril reached friendly souls and hands.

The first day of the next December found me in Norfolk, on my way to Currituck, and I reached Joe's hut one evening, just as the sun sunk in a glory of amber and pink that made the Sound look like a vast sheet of dormant flame. Joe was away, but the door was open, and having stowed my traps, and some boxes I had brought for him, I threw a lot of driftwood on the smoldering embers, and soon had a glowing fire lighting the rudely furnished room, in whose corners the gathering twilight had made deep shadows.

Joe came in shortly after the fire had got well underway, and gave me a cordial greeting and a very favorable report as to the prospects for a good two weeks' sport. We were out early the next morning, and for five days had excellent weather and fine shooting; but the morning of the sixth day brought a change. The sky was covered with a thin gray vapor, and the sun shone in this like a great red ball. Gradually the grayness grew deeper, and the vapor thickened to vast masses of cloud. Then the sun changed its hue to a dull yellow, and slowly faded out from sight, and as it disappeared, the low moaning in the air grew wonderfully intense.

"Ther'll be a hard blow," Joe had said in the early morning; and after eating our breakfast, we strolled over toward the seaward beach.

Joe's hut was sheltered by a collection of sand dunes, among which its low roof rose like a sharper point. It stood midway between the ocean and the Sound, and a short walk was all that was needed to reach either. When we came to the beach, the waves were rolling up its changing sands, with a regular monotony that seemed utterly devoid of fierceness; but soon a wild, sobbing murmur sounded across the wide eastern expanse, and they grew more restless, and began to toss little foam-crowned crests against each other. The day during its first part was a changing dreariness. The somber hue of the sky, and the storm-sounds in the air, deepened, and the great waves darkened, as the gloom above them assumed a density that soon was sadly oppressive. Occasional puffs ruffled the waters, and these quickly grew heavier and more frequent.

Then Joe, who had clambered to the top of a sand dune, cried, "There she comes," and hastening to his side, I saw what seemed a huge wall of white foam rushing shoreward.

Then some sharply driven rain-drops struck hard on our faces, and with a roar, the first great gust of the gale surged past us, and the loam-crowned waves rolled thundering up the beach.

We found shelter in a low shed made of wreck drift, and there watched the sea. It was a grand and a wild sight, that tumult of water with the wind surging over it, and there was a fascination in it that must be felt to be known. As we stood watching this tempest-painted picture, a man came swiftly down the beach, the wind driving him before it. He made for our shelter, and as soon as he could regain the speech that the gale had deprived him of, said:

"There's a schooner trying to draw off shore above us, but I don't think she can weather the point yonder."

Joe sprang toward the beach.

"We must have the boat ready," he said.

There were several men in the shed, and one asked: "Do you know the vessel?"

"Yes, it is Mark Ward's schooner. I know her by the yellow square on her quarter."

I noticed that the men turned their glances toward Joe, and that his face grew peculiarly hard and white; but it was only for a moment, and then it assumed the old look, only a strength and firmness came to the eyes that made them burn with a strange brilliancy. He seemed more erect, too, as he grasped a line that hung against the wall of the shed, and there was a tone of command in his voice, as he said: "Come boys, we have no time to lose," and went out, and down the beach, battling with the wind that almost took him off his feet.

We followed, and soon reached a low building, in which the men who were Joe's companions, and he, kept a small but serviceable life-boat. It was where a short point jutted out just inside of a larger headland, and formed a shallow, partially protected bay. The wind was from the northeast, and as this point reached out toward the southward, it had a narrow belt of comparatively smooth water bordering its leeward face. The boat was run close to this, and the men, lying down under the lee of the sand dunes, watched the vessel to the northward, as she made desperate fight for an offing.

"She can't reach out beyond the point," said one, "for she can't carry sail enough."

The schooner was under short canvas, having close reefs in all her sails; and still the wind seemed to bury her in spray, as it drove her down toward the sand. To spread more sail was impossible, as that already set was strained to its utmost capacity, and a larger surface would bring upon it more power than it could bear.

"No, sir, she can't reach out beyond the point," said the eldest man of the group, "and it shoals fearfully there. I don't think there is much chance for either vessel or crew."

Again the men turned toward Joe, with the strange look I had before noticed, but he made no sign.

All this time the schooner had been drawing nearer, driven on by the cruel gale, and signals for help were now flung out, showing that her crew had given up all hope of reaching the open water beyond the point.

Joe, seeing this, removed his waterproof suit, and stepped into the boat. A coil of small line lay in the stern, its end run through a fair-leader. This end he passed to the men on shore, and then sat down and grasped an oar. As he did so, his companions seized the boat, and gave her a shove clear into the water, three of them springing in with Joe. Then, with strong, steady strokes, they bent to their work, and the boat shot forward, just as a loud, despairing hail came sounding in on the wind.

We looked seaward, and saw that the schooner had grounded, and was lying broadside to the waves, which were rolling on board of her in huge masses. Their force was terrific, and they soon drove her stern around, each blow making her masts tremble like reeds. This new position was an easier one for the vessel, but the men said that she would not last long, as the seas were growing, and the wind still kept rising. We saw her men clinging to the rigging, but our main interest was centered in the boat, which was making slow progress out toward her. It was a hard battle, and a desperate one, for the waves came rolling in, heavy and foam-crowned, and the wind roared along, tossing their curling crests far up the sand.

But Joe and his companions were stout and fearless, and had often been in similar positions, and slowly they neared the grounded craft. Often, however, it looked as though they would be flung back, and at other times we lost sight of the boat, and thought her swamped. Then she would appear once more, and keep on toward her goal. The schooner made a lee of smooth water, and after a half hour of work that seemed more than human, the boat ran into this, and we sent her a cheer of hope; but it was too soon, for the next instant a huge wave swept around the vessel's bow, and coming over her side, caught the life-boat and flung it in on the deck.

We saw some struggling forms, but could distinguish nothing, for the sprays were driving between the masts, enveloping the men as in a mist; we also saw that they were getting the small line clear, and soon a signal told us to haul it ashore. We did so, bringing a stout tow-line, which we could see the men make fast to the schooner's mainmast as soon as we had the end secured to a heavy spike sunk in the sand. Then we saw them working at the life-boat, and in a little time she was launched, and a limp form passed carefully into her.

The men then pulled slowly toward the shore by the line, a dangerous undertaking, as the wind made the now heavily loaded boat surge fearfully, and the waves bore down on her as though they would sweep her from sight. But she battled on, and in a short time, though it seemed ages to us, reached the smoother water under the lee of the smaller point, and was soon drawn well up on the beach.

We gathered round the boat, and I was shocked to see, lying in the stern sheets, the pale, still face of Currituck Joe. A ghastly cut on his head was oozing blood, and there was the unmistakable sign of death's nearness about him, which sent a chill to my heart. The presence of life even now was only discernible by a slight twitching of the lips, the evidence, as I knew, of intense suffering.

"Flung against her mast," said one of the boat's crew, in answer to an inquiry. "I knew he would give his life away for some one, but didn't think it would be for Mark Ward."

A stout man was standing near by, looking at Joe's white face with tear-wet eyes. His breast was heaving, showing that his heart was throbbing fiercely, and when he heard the words, he said, "I'm sorry, boys; I wish it was me lying there, instead of Joe."

Though curious to know the meaning of these, to me, strange words, I felt that Joe should be attended to, and had him carried to his home.

"Can you get a doctor?" I questioned.

"There's none on the Bar, and no one on the mainland would cross the Sound today," was the answer.

But Joe was already passing beyond the need of any man's care. As I bent over him, where he lay in his rude bunk, his eyes unclosed, and a look of intelligence came into them.

"Is he safe?" he whispered.

"Yes," I answered.

"Then it's all right. Tell him I say it's all right."

His hand tightened its clasp on mine, as I said I would attend to his wish. Then a bright smile lit up the brown face, and gleamed in the eyes, driving from them the sorrow I had seen there, and the next moment this sorrow had faded in the glory of a grander life.

The storm was raging fearfully, the wind shaking the rude hut with a force that seemed equal to its destruction; but it stood firm, and I watched by the dead, sorrowing for the loss of a true friend.

The men had returned to the beach, to gather the wreckage that might drift ashore, and it was late when the man who seemed to take the lead, now that Joe was gone, looked in.

I told him that his comrade was at rest, and asked him to send for a coffin.

"That can't be done till the morning," he said, "and I might as well help you watch. I'll tell the boys, for they're mighty anxious. It's a sad day for us, sir, for Joe was the best man on the beach. I'll be back soon," and he went away.

He returned in a short time, and after getting the fire in order, he prepared some supper, of which we partook, and then sat down by the glowing blaze, for the wind was raw and chill, and sent its currents through every crack and crevice.

"What is it that links Joe's past to the life of the schooner's skipper?" I asked.

"They were neighbors and schoolmates over beyond the Sound," answered the man, "and both likely young fellows when the war came. Joe had begun studying law, and Ward went to sea with his father, the captain of a coaster. Well, they both enlisted, and Joe was taken prisoner. Ward knew of this, and came home wounded. It is said that Joe and he were both after the same girl, but the story is that she favored Joe. Well, when Ward reached home, he gave out that Joe was dead, and then made up to the girl. She mourned for Joe six months or more, but you know a young nature will throw off grief, and Ward was very attentive, and sympathetic, and consoling, and the result was that she promised to have him.

"He hurried up the wedding, saying that he wanted to get back to his regiment, for his wound was about well, and so they were married. The next week Joe got back, having been exchanged; and when he found that he had lost the girl, he give right up, and come over here, and he has lived on the Bar ever since.

"Ward said that he truly thought Joe was dead, but the folks all think that he trumped up the yarn just to get the girl; in fact, they know it, but they keep still for the woman's sake, as she is nice and a good neighbor.

"As for Joe, he had set his heart on her so that the loss just broke him all up, and he never went back to his old home again. He has lived on the Bar ever since, carrying his fish and game across to a landin' to sell, and now and then running up to Norfolk. He never met Ward, who went coasting again as soon as the war was over, until he saw him today.

"We didn't think he would go off to help, but Joe was true grit. He has saved lots of people, and it does seem too bad that he should meet his death while rescuing the man who blasted his life."

But so it was; and two days after that we buried him in a grave made among the sand dunes, in whose company he had passed so many lonely years. It was his wish that no stone nor sign should mark the place, and we held his wish sacred.

"Let the winds sing free above me, and the sun shine across the place," he had said, when talking of this time, in the days when we had thought it a long way off; and there, with the surf-roar sounding over his unmarked grave, Currituck Joe sleeps in peace; the sorrow that wrecked his life and love forgotten.

[Taken from The Overland Monthly. Devoted To The Development Of The Country. July 1886.This publication can be gound in Google Books.]

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