by Deborah Fries
We cannot rely on memory to reconstruct lost places. Memories become spare and skeletal or diffuse and impressionistic, even monochromatic. Decades after my childhood ended, my father would often remind me of a favorite but flawed memory. "I can still see that day down at Buxton," he'd recall, "and you in your little pink bathing suit, walking away from me on the beach until you disappeared."
The bathing suit was orange plaid, I’d remind him, not pink. But because our earliest summer trips to North Carolina’s Outer Banks were documented in black and white, photographic evidence remained open to interpretation. We had stacks of black and white, spiral-bound photo books that captured us in the surf or mugging for the camera in sea oats, taking a ferry ride, and holding up fish in a colorless world.
But I do have a Kodacolor memory of that particular day in 1957. “Today you are going to see the sun rise over the Atlantic,” he promised. I was ten, forced to rise at four a.m. to go surf fishing with my father at Cape Point—a place where salt spray slapped out of opposing currents, a place that jutted so far into the Atlantic you feared a wrong step in the water would pull you into a maelstrom.
In my own memory of that day, we rented a rusty orange Jeep with deflated tires, ate bologna sandwiches before sunrise, then I explored the beach while he fished. I remember climbing over shipwrecks, bending close to inspect a motionless herring gull, then the long hike away from him, headed north, up the endless beach. I recall the deep blue above and around me, ribs of the wrecks, but not the sunrise.
It was the best kind of day we spent together: not talking, savoring parallel experiences in the outdoors. That was the day I discovered an empty diving suit, and walked over it, feeling softly for bones with my bare feet, and found nothing but my own delicious fear and anticipation. It was a day of gathering up skate and whelk egg cases and a live horse clam. When I had gone far out of his view, I found a fly-covered porpoise and decided to turn back.
My father, who’d grown up on a Pennsylvania dairy farm, fell in love with the Banks when the Army sent him there in the early Forties. It was an assignment that changed the course of his life. Part of his era’s homeland security, he was sent there to map a shoreline vulnerable to enemy entry. As he worked, he witnessed the running of wild ponies in marshy scrub and learned the difference between eagles and osprey. He surveyed an undeveloped, inviting landscape that demonstrated the impact of dune stabilization work begun by the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps in the Thirties. Sound-side revegitation had taken hold, protected from overwash by the new ocean-side dunes that the government had grown with sand fencing and transplanted grasses. It was a place ripe for an invasion: if not Germans, then tourists.
One night after work, he stopped to help two women with a flat tire and met my mother, a Tidewater native who took the barrier island across the Sound from her home for granted. My father could not take something so wild and spectacular for granted. He returned to the Outer Banks for decades after the war, vacationing from his sales job with his young family. It was a place of open windows and unlocked doors, where he could escape his war wounds, a place where what mattered was which bait to use for bluefish, and whether to go to Jeanette’s Pier or rent a boat at Oregon Inlet and bottom-fish for flounder.
At first, we stayed in isolated, rented cottages in Nags Head, and fell asleep and woke to the sound of the ocean. We had no air conditioning or television or pool or radio or telephone in those early beach days. We lived in a castaway world of the senses, where skin was burned and sun tan oils perfumed us as we slept on sandy sheets. We measured time by the tide and the position of the sun. I knew the effortless freedom of waking early, slipping into a bathing suit, running out of the cottage and down to the beach while my parents slept. I walked the tide line to find the morning’s washed-up gifts; stepped carefully between jellyfish the size of dinner plates; dug for escaping mole crabs and wiggling coquinas in hand-made tidal pools. I was swept away by latency’s passions: shell-collecting, book-reading, drawing mermaids and big-finned sand sharks.
One summer, maybe 1953 after Barbara, maybe 1954 after Carol, we arrived in the flooded-out aftermath of a hurricane. My mother wore my father’s pajamas over her bathing suit to protect her from mosquitoes throughout our stay. I have no photo of her lifting her arms in the wind as she hung beach towels to dry at that cottage in the middle of nowhere, but I do have saved images. My personal RAM still retains images and sounds and even smells: blue pajama arms flapping in 30-mile winds; the gritty slide of an Adirondak chair across sandy porch; the smells of my parents’ cigarettes and salt spray that enveloped me in the dark; the flicker of strangers’ flashlights scattering fiddler crabs. Left too in this memory stick are less pleasant images: my mother dropping a wiggling, floured blue crab into an iron skillet of bubbling Crisco; the huge, stiff silhouettes of inverted marlins hanging in the sunset on the docks at Oregon Inlet; the darkness of being rolled in the surf, caught in the undertow.
Using my memories and my father’s snapshots, I can reconstruct fragments of personal and factual history of those early beach days. But the most evocative, yet undocumented, quality of that first post-war decade on the Outer Banks was its emptiness: miles of beaches without cottages or people; little or nothing built between the Albemarle Sound and Route 12; a skeletal collection of retail venues. We drove 400 miles, most of it on 2-lane roads, to be swallowed up by sand and water and sun.
The uncomplicated black and white beachscape that my father photographed in the Fifties was changing, as were we, by the end of the decade. We moved our annual pilgrimage up the shore to Kill Devil Hills and began to stay in a 2-bedroom cottage at The Cavalier, a motel complex that has remained in place for more than 50 years as development has infilled around it. In 1958, we started taking color photos and my sister was born. I began to think more about boys than starfish. In the Sixties, we spent languid afternoons by the pool at The Cavalier listening to Johnny Mathis and languid evenings by the pool swimming in green light to Johnny Mathis. We fell asleep to the sound of the air conditioner instead of the ocean. The beach became a backdrop for reading and radio listening, managing hair and sun hats, tanning, renting umbrellas and plotting social experiments with lifeguards. Even the expanded world of the motel was no longer enough. We wanted retail experiences and restaurants. We wanted to drive up and down the beach, looking for things to do.
Today there is plenty to do on the Outer Banks. Much of which—state parks, wildlife refuges, museums, fishing villages, lighthouses and shipwrecks—involves attractions that emphasize the indigenous beauty or historic significance of the pre-developed Banks. But even with all the planners and conservationists and good intentions, and all the local and state and federal agencies guiding development, the upper end of the beach—the Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills area where we vacationed for decades—is built out beyond further development.
Presented with the current reality of a built-out barrier island, what is the value of retrieving pre-development images, beyond our lament for a lost landscape?
Like all antiques, old images demand that we reconcile our then with our now. In John Sayles’ film, Sunshine State, Angela Bassett’s character, Desiree Perry, comes home to find African American owners of a fictional Florida beachfront community about to be displaced by aggressive developers. Returning to her mother’s modest beach house after decades of estrangement, she stops for a moment as she unpacks to listen to the pounding surf. “I still love that sound,” she tells her new husband, as if surprised to find a part of herself, something primal and integral, that she’d forgotten.
Memories of undeveloped places help us identify core values in ourselves, and the democratic ideal of making those places available to our progeny. When we conjure up unspoiled landscapes, we reaffirm our ties to nature and are reminded of the experiences we can still seek out in protected spaces. It was my memories of North Carolina’s Outer Banks in the Fifties that drove me to find a similar shoreline to share with my daughter in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin in the Eighties. And for a few summers, Lake Michigan was her endless ocean, and the beach at Hika Bay her wild, untamed shore.
Beyond sentimentality and self-indulgence, these backward glances at a naïve landscape awaken—or reawaken—the conservationist within us. They create a baseline aesthetic against which to compare growth, and remind us with a visceral awareness of what is valuable in our own communities as well as in the places we visit.
And they suggest a cautionary reminder of the mutability of the built world: if all that growth has occurred in only 50 years, in one person’s lifetime, how significant is that manmade imprint in the scope of earth time?
Unlike a booming desert city that spreads and spreads without constraints, development on the Outer Banks exists in spite of dramatic constraints: shipwrecking weather, a shifting and eroding footprint, strained infrastructure. You don’t have to be a geomorphologist to recognize that when the islands of Dare County reach an average summer daily population of 225,000, development has created a city floating on a sand spit.
You don’t have to be a meteorologist to predict that an area that has experienced the landfall of a storm on the average of every four years since 1886 is hanging out there, every bit as exposed as Homestead, Florida to the vicissitudes of weather. Upon the recent tenth anniversary of Hurricane Andrew, with the loss of 43 lives and $30 billion in damage the most expensive natural disaster in U.S. history, a local official sadly noted that the Homestead area now offers the largest remaining tracts of developable—re-developable—shoreline property in the state.
The photos of evolving development haunt us. We look back at black and white aerials used by the Beach Erosion Board in the Thirties and we are humbled by the vulnerability of an uninhabited landscape given over entirely to nature. We revisit our family photos from the Fifties and recognize the rise of our hold on the shifting sands of what could be made real and present. We see oblique aerials from 2000 and are awed by the confidence to build out against the unmitigated unknown.
In the unprintable images of memory, I can still see that day down at Buxton, my father in his wet terry-cloth polo shirt, waist-deep in foam, casting into the dark blue surf, growing smaller each time I looked back over my shoulder as I walked up the beach. Then gone.
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