Podunk Pete and his Goose Creek Island adventure

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 16, 2011

Editor’s note: This is a chapter from the book “Podunk: Scattershot Rambles to America’s Back 40 in a Dilapidated Delta 88” by “Podunk Pete” — Peter Zimmerman. Zimmerman was a reporter at the Post from back in the mid-1980s for several years.
By Peter Zimmerman
For The Salisbury Post
History shows that small, isolated communities, such as the people of remote islands, are prone to be hostile to strangers…. – Mark Twain, “A Curious Pleasure Excursion”
“Hoo-AH! Drunk!” thundered Mitchie Ray Midgett, of Goose Creek Island, N.C., puffing on a Honduran cigar and draining yet another triple Dickel whiskey. He looked like Franz Hals’ painting of the Jolly Toper, only clad in mismatched fatigues and ball cap.
“We’ll give you a picture, we’ll give you a show, before you leave,” he promised me. “Ain’t nobody gonna bother you. All you gotta do is holler.
“I’m gonna take care of you.”
I had just presented him with a hindquarter — what the islanders call a half-gallon — as well as an enormous German knife which I had picked up at a yard sale that seemed perfect for cutting watermelons and I’m not sure what else. Evidently the bribe worked — Mitchie Ray would be covering my back for the next four or five days.
We had met through a mutual friend, Gene Price, publisher of the Goldsboro News-Argus, who has kept a one-room fishing “camp” on the island for many years.
I had just arrived at Goose Creek Island after a 10-day detour down the eastern shores of Maryland and Virginia, stopping in Annapolis at the grave of Admiral Arleigh “31-Knot” Burke, spending a day or two in the crabbing communities of Crisfield and Hoopersville, and rapping with Dickey “Rambling Man” Betts’ third cousin O’Day, whom I happened to meet at a convenience store in Elizabeth City in the wee, wee hours.
Goose Creek Island, separated from the mainland by a mile-long concrete bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway, juts out into the Pamlico Sound, which is actually an estuary fed by the Pamlico and Neuse rivers. As late as the early 19th century, a wooden ferry was the only way to get to Goose Creek. As the pelicans fly, it lies some 35 miles due east, “inside” of the Outer Banks. There are two towns, Lowland and Hobucken, with a total of about 700 residents.
According to the Census, Goose Creek Island is 99 percent white and one part “part-Hispanic.” There used to be a sign at the old ferry landing, “Nigger, don’t let the sun set on your heels.” These days, a few blacks commute to work in the island’s several seafood processing plants.
At any rate, Gene Price told me that I could probably find Mitchie Ray in the late afternoon, hanging out at Zool Ireland’s crab packing plant, where the fishermen meet to drink and talk — and more than occasionally razz each other.
By the time I pulled into Zool’s driveway, I felt dirty, frazzled, and generally plum tuckered out. It was with some degree of trepidation that I opened the door where the men of Goose Creek Island had convened and were sitting around a Formica table, each with his own giant bottle of whiskey or vodka. On the island, they drink their booze neat. Ice is for wimps.
There was a handful of reasons why I was nervous.
First of all, Gene Price was no longer around to smooth things over like he was the first time I visited the island 15 years prior.
Secondly, the sun was setting, and I didn’t have a place to stay. The nearest motel was 25 miles away, in Bayboro, the Pamlico County seat. I decided to take my chances. If necessary, I could always sleep in my truck; it wouldn’t be the first time.
Third, it’s hard to understand what they’re saying, particularly the older generation. They speak with a Middle English “hoi toide” brogue — sounds like they’ve got marbles in their mouths — handed down from their ancestors, many of whom survived shipwrecks off the N.C. coast, decided that they liked the area and put down roots; we’re talking early 1700s, back in the days of marauding pirates and privateers. (Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales is a prime example of Middle English, which spans the 11th to 15th centuries.)
Fourth, the islanders are notoriously suspicious of outsiders. Prior to the trip, I had read in one guidebook that on Goose Creek Island it can take “a while — sometimes years [italics mine] — for newcomers to gain social acceptance.” They’ve been burned before both by Fish & Wildlife, for poaching, and the DEA, for dope smuggling. (“The boy’s alright,” Mitchie Ray said while I was out back, taking a leak, with my tape recorder rolling inside. “He’d better be,” replied Gail Popperwill, another attendee.)
Last but not least, I’m just about the worst imaginable kind of “dingbatter,” their word for a non-native or recreational boater — and a college-educated Yankee from New York to boot.
Hell, they probably couldn’t understand me, either.
Before crossing the concrete bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway that separates the island from the mainland, I stopped at the Coast Guard station and asked Robert Brady if he had any advice about getting along with the islanders. Play it straight, he said. They might not be educated, but they’re smart, and “they know when you’re not being upfront.” As befitting the state motto, namely, to be rather than to seem….
Zool: What are you doing here, Porky?
Marc “Porky” Ross: I’m doin’ any gol-damned thing I want to.
Zool: Are you sure?
Porky: That’s right.
Zool: You want me to kick your ass, don’t you?
Porky: If you want to kick it, I’d rather have it kicked by nobody but you. All you gotta do is stand up and promise you won’t hurt me.
Zool (turning to me): I tell you what, you’ve been fed something tonight…
Mitchie Ray: He wanted a story, didn’t he?
Porky: I’ll drink his likker… I’ll have me a few more of these triple Dickels, and if you’re wantin’ to go to my house to stay, man, I got four bedrooms… Now that’s a lie, I only got three, but I can pull one out.
Gail: You’re welcome to the camper if you want.
Benny Ireland (Zool’s brother): I tell you one damn thing, I wouldn’t go with him [Porky]….
It was a good thing that Gene had called ahead. Everyone at Zool’s treated me like a king.
By sundown, we were all good and sloshed.
That first night — at least for half the night — I ended up sleeping in Gail Popperwill’s mother Audrey’s vacant trailer. Not long after I drifted off to sleep there was a knock on the door. It was Porky.
Apparently Mrs. Popperwill was worried what the neighbors of this close-knit community might think of a stranger sleeping in her trailer (she lived in the adjacent house).
So I ended up going over to Porky’s, where we binged on “hog meat” and strawberries. Porky had to work the next day so he took a nap while I stayed up doing laundry; his daughter got up early to work on the computer.
• • •
Thus, he lives for the river, from the river, by the river and on the river, a life as semi-aquatic as the bank-vole’s, as buoyant on the water as the tufted duck’s and up and down the river, though further than, the kingfisher’s.– H.J. Massingham
As a boy, Mitchie Ray would often stay up all night pulling net and roasting salt mullets on the beach. He dropped out of school in the eighth grade to become a fulltime waterman, following in his father’s footsteps. In island speak, he’s a progger, in the John Barth sense of anyone who picks and pokes about, scrounging and scavenging and doing whatever’s necessary to make a living. Depending on the season, that means a combination of crabbing, fishing, trapping, and hunting. For instance, over the past three years he has bagged some 25,000 pounds’ worth of snapping turtle, which gets shipped up north and made into soup at fancy restaurants such as Hausner’s in Baltimore and New York’s 21 Club.
Islanders agree that no one knows the island’s 70 miles of shoreline better than Mitchie Ray, known as the Snake Doctor, because he puts cottonmouths out of their misery, using a metal pipe or whatever’s handy. He knows how to navigate his 17-foot Atlantic skiff through the many canals, ditches, creeks, and guts, somehow avoiding the same snags and stumps where others have torn out their engines.
In the words of Zool’s son Ivan, “Mitchie Ray’s got sense, but it’s not book, you know? As far as catching fish, catching shrimp, catching crab, you ain’t gonna find many around here that’ll beat him.” And that’s not even counting hunting duck and deer, or trapping muskrat, otter, and nutria, a giant water rat of South American origin.
He and his partner Arthur E. “Scooter” Leary, whose hands look like they’ve been soaked in diesel and dredged in sand, went their separate ways when Scooter rededicated his life to Christ and swore off all those triple Dickels.
Now in his sixties, Mitchie Ray has left the island only twice in his life, once (unsuccessfully) shrimping in Florida, the other time on a family vacation in the mountains of North Carolina, where he missed the boats, as it were.
• • •
He was an old boating-man, crazy on the subject of boats, and was always either in, or on, or by the water. He must have been born in a boat, and probably he will die in one, some day, while taking a last outing.– Guy de Maupassant
His ancestors are the “mighty Midgetts of Chicamacomico,” legendary lighthouse keepers who have earned more Gold Lifesaving Medals of Honor — comparable in that line of work to a Nobel Prize or Grammy — than any other family. The area off Cape Hatteras is among the most treacherous shorelines in the world. Between 1526 and 1939, more than 300 vessels were “totally lost,” claiming 800 lives, according to David Stick’s definitive Graveyard of the Atlantic; the appendix, listing all the wrecks, takes up no fewer than 14 single-lined pages.
For his part, Mitchie Ray prefers the comparatively gentler waters of the Sound, tramping around the marshlands, and tooling around the island in his black 1987 3/4-ton 4WD Chevy, a 30-30 Winchester mounted in the rear window. While driving around he dips Peachey tobacco, for which he uses a giant can of Hanover Blue Lake Cut Green Beans as a spittoon. He’s unapologetically “redneck” — not in the pejorative, Jeff Foxworthy sense of putting peanuts in his Coke and getting into fights he doesn’t have to, but rather, someone who works outside all day and literally gets a red neck, much the same as the historical Scottish red-shanks, who were too poor to afford long pants.
For four days straight, he certainly made good on his promise to show me around these watery boondocks, where even the graveyards are often submerged. We visited a giant shell mound left by Indians, a former lighthouse now crumbled into the surf, and a Civil War cemetery deep in the woods where the horse flies, yellow jackets, and mosquitoes had a field day with me. We hiked around the marsh a bit — also buggy. I noticed that Mitchie Ray didn’t even bother brushing them away. And we dropped in on Bert Robinson, in his seventies, who sleeps in the same room in which he was born. (“Thank God for the mosquitoes,” Bert told me, winking, “they repel the tourists.”)
Of course, Mitchie Ray still managed to get a little work done, heading out at the crack of dawn (with no breakfast), hauling up 700 crab pots and a thousand yards of gillnet. Meanwhile, I lay on the deck, badly hung over, taking pictures of the gulls soaring overhead.
I had a fun time with him and the other islanders. There was only one close call. While we were shooting pool, a notorious sucker-puncher named Raymond (who happens to be Ivan’s uncle) started giving me the hairy eyeball, possibly on account of my Yankee accent. Fortunately I happened to be hanging out with Chris Ballance, whose biceps are larger than my hamstrings.
By the end of my trip, I’d had more than my fill of triple Dickels.
• • •
To read more of “Podunk” or to order the book, go to www.podunkthebook.com.
Peter Zimmerman’s first boo, “Tennessee Music: Its People and Places,” came out in 1998. He grew up in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., earned his B.A. in Ancient Greek Civilization at Vassar College. He has worked as a journalist and travel book editor.