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Tom Carlson taught creative nonfiction and American literature for thirty-two years at the University of Memphis. He has published academic and freelance writing in the United States, Canada, and Europe. His book on Romanian poet laureate Nichita Stanescu won the Walter R. Smith Award, and his articles on the Elvis phenomenon received the George Whatley Award for best popular culture commentary.
Copyright (c) 2005 by the University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.
It was the heart of the Great Depression, and for Ernal Foster it had turned into fish-or-cut-bait time. He'd decided to fish-which was appropriate since that's what he did for a living out of tiny Hatteras Village on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Ernal Foster, age twenty-five, had few prospects, $800 to his name, and an idea. He talked about his idea obsessively with his younger brother, Bill, and now he was going to see if it worked. Like almost everyone else in Hatteras Village, the Foster family made its living commercial fishing. The waters of the vast Albemarle and Pamlico sounds separating the Banks from the mainland teemed with spot, menhaden, croaker, sea trout, flounder, and many other species. When the weather was good, you could leave the sound and head out the inlets to the ocean, where you could set your nets just offshore. Even haul seining off the beaches helped to pay the bills. All of it was honest, backbreaking, mind-numbing, and often dangerous work.
When Ernal was a kid and had time off from helping his father fish, he'd sometimes borrow a boat and ferry customers from the mainland across the sound and out to the Atlantic beaches. In the afternoons he'd bring them back. Sometimes he and a friend would offer to take some of the beach passengers out fishing in the boat. They always had takers. Other times, Ernal would be sitting with his brother Bill and friends along the docks and they would see the fancy private sportfishing boats coming up from Miami or down from Montauk or Ocean City. The boats were sleek and shiny, and their owners often tan and dashing and full of exotic stories and bravado. These men were here because they knew what the boys knew: that the inshore waters off the Outer Banks were alive with fish-bull redfish, slammer bluefish, mackerel, and countless bottom fish (jacks, tautog, sea bass, shark)-around the numerous wrecks. And further offshore, some twenty miles or so out, near the warm waters of the Gulf Stream, there were dolphin, tuna, wahoo, king mackerel, and then some really big gamefish, including the king of the pelagics-the blue marlin. They hadn't heard of anyone catching one yet, but they were there, as sure as the tides.
In addition to the visiting yachtsmen, other fishermen sometimes made their way down the Outer Banks to Hatteras Village by hitching rides on the mail boat or in jalopies with half-deflated tires so they could drive on the soft beach sand. They would try to get the commercial fishermen in the village to take them out gamefishing, but, more often than not, the locals chose not to give up a good day's commercial haul.
Here's where Ernal Foster's idea came in. Like many great ideas it was quite simple: what if you built a boat first and foremost for sportfishing and you made a living taking parties out for gamefish? Oh, you could convert the boat for commercial fishing if you had to, but the point was to get people to come down to Hatteras Village (even if there were no road and no bridge out to Hatteras Island) and pay you to take them out fishing for fun. Was it possible to make a living at it? Skeptics among the village elders were legion, but Ernal was willing to bet his stake on it. Ernal gathered up the wood-mostly juniper-cured it himself, and took it around to four boatyards before one down in Marshallberg agreed to build it exactly the way he wanted it. In April 1937, the Albatross was in the water. It cost $805. Ernal took it home to Hatteras Village. His mother was so upset at her son's harebrained scheme she wouldn't even go look at the boat he had spent his last dime on. The first summer, Ernal and Bill made four fishing trips, $25 a trip, all day. The next few years weren't much better. Then the war came, and Ernal and Bill were in the service. Then they were back home and back in the charter fishing business. And then their luck changed.
I first encountered the Albatross fleet in 1984 when I was vacationing on the Outer Banks with my family. We were headed to Ocracoke Island, just a ferry ride across the narrow inlet from Hatteras Village. We had stopped at the Hatteras Harbor Marina for lunch, and there, a stone's throw from our table, was the picket fence of aluminum outriggers angling up from the line of sleek fishing boats rimming the marina. Except at one spot: here six red-and-white-striped cane poles snaked up arthritically amid the orderly aluminum fence. I walked over toward the barber-pole outriggers to a tiny portion of the marina that said "Foster's Quay," probably less than a hundred feet long. There side by side in three slips sat the Albatross , the Albatross II , and the Albatross III , white hulled with aqua trim and very nearly triplets. They were graceful and bygone and beautiful with their high, flared bows, their open, no-frills cabins, each with bench seats and brass-and-wood-spoked wheels. Behind the cabins were wood-slatted fighting chairs and distinctive, rounded sterns. Except for the rounded sterns, they reminded me of the boats I'd grown up with on the Jersey Shore in the 1950s.
The Albatross fleet stayed firmly moored in my mind over the years. Fifteen years later I found myself booking a summer charter from my home in Memphis. I'd just finished teaching summer school at the university, and I was ready for a break. Since I often switched from academic to freelance writing in the summer, I thought I might do a story on Ernie Foster and his boats, and there seemed ample reason. Ernie's father, Ernal, had taken that chance in 1937, and the result was a thriving, multimillion-dollar charter fishing industry on the Outer Banks. Anyone who knew acknowledged that Ernal had started the whole thing. And the string of "firsts" for the fleet was impressive too. Ernal and Bill caught the first blue marlin for a paying customer off the Outer Banks. They also caught the first white marlin and the first sailfish, and recorded the first "Grand Slam": a blue marlin, a white marlin, and a sailfish, all in the same day. And then they caught the world-record marlin, and Hatteras Village was suddenly known as the "Billfish Capital of the World." It still is. The first tarpon, the first striped bass on a rod and reel (they had been harvested commercially only up until that point). The first catch-and-release marlin on the East Coast, the first woman to catch a marlin. And on and on. And then their luck changed again.
In the more than five years I spent traveling back and forth to Hatteras Village, however, the story grew into something more than a fishing story. It became a larger, more complex narrative of family and community, of fierce independence and communal strength, of love and loss. The Albatross fleet was struggling now to compete with the myriad larger, faster boats underwritten by big corporations as tax write-offs and captained by off-islanders. Captain Ernie wasn't getting any younger, and his children turned their backs on the business and left Hatteras Island for opportunities on the mainland. Hatteras Village in general was threatened by an exodus of its young. And then there were the developers. Huge, twenty-room McMansions were going up on the Atlantic beaches east of town and on the sound side as well. One of the last untouched fishing villages along the North Carolina coast now had a line of ragged, nonindigenous palm trees planted along the road in its very center, an advertisement for Hatteras-by-the-Sea, a new condo complex with all the amenities. And, at the northern edge of town, Slash Creek was going up along a pristine estuary. Developers and politicians were in bed together on Slash Creek. The town was angry. The developer said publicly, "F-- 'em! If I want to build a miniature golf course and have fireworks and giant clowns with flames shooting out their asses, I will!" So the battle was joined. A family's traditions and a community's identity in one corner and rough-and-tumble American Progress in the other-if Hatteras Blues was about triumphant beginnings, it was also going to be about tragic endings.
And, I discovered, it was not going to be a dispassionate account. Soon enough, the Foster family and the people of Hatteras Village stopped being subjects of a story and turned into humans who touched me deeply and compromised me journalistically. I had grown up with people like them on the Jersey Shore, had served them meals and coffee and listened to their stories for years at my family's boardwalk restaurant on Manasquan Beach. The Fosters and their friends reanimated a part of my past, but more than that, their imminent loss, the elegiac note that sounded in the background of their lives, was a note I was hearing myself. I gradually realized that I had been drawn deeply into this story because of my own impending loss. My lovely wife of more than three decades was dying of a slow, degenerative disease. I was the primary caregiver, had been for years, and it was finally exacting a toll. In hindsight, one of the reasons I began this writing project was as a kind of professional distraction. But the story didn't distract me at all. If anything, it directed me; it walked up to me and took my hand and showed me precisely what I should not neglect. It turned out to be a lesson for me, this story I was witnessing, in how to prepare for absence and loss, and then how to grieve with some measure of grace and dignity. No wonder I had been drawn to it, to these people. I have tried to keep my presence in the story to a minimum, but I am in it because it would be dishonest to pass myself off as an objective, disinterested observer. I wasn't. The story of these people unexpectedly but indelibly became my story. I believe too that the story of the Foster family and the people of Hatteras Village is, in many ways, the story of us all.