Ocracoke native Charlie Morris O’Neal was born October 21, 1921.  He died March 27, 2005.  His family asked me to deliver the eulogy at the Ocracoke United Methodist Church for his funeral on March 31, 2005.

Several readers have asked me to publish my words.  I am happy for one more opportunity to share Charlie’s story for family & friends of Ocracoke.

(Lawton, Jessie, Fowler, & Evin, & Charlie (far right)


Lorena, Lisa, Bill, Aaron, Evin, and Liam….thank you for asking me to share stories of Charlie this afternoon. I count it as an honor.

Charlie Morris O’Neal was born on Ocracoke Island October 21, 1921 to Maggie and Charlie Minor O’Neal. They lived in the house directly behind the present-day Anchorage Inn.

Ocracoke’s midwife was busy that October 21. Just three doors down the lane Fowler O’Neal was born the same day. Charlie and Fowler had a running debate their entire lives about who was older. Details of the day had grown fuzzy over time and the truth seems to have eluded everyone, so the controversy was never resolved. However, I was visiting with Lorena last evening and she told me she was certain Charlie was older.

“How do you know?” I asked her. Lorena’s reply was quick. “Charlie’s mama was never late,” she answered.

As a young boy Charlie loved to run. He’d practice running up and down the sandy lanes. He and Fowler were constantly in competition to see who could run faster. When Charlie was 11 or 12 years old a track star from NC State University was visiting Ocracoke. Charlie challenged him to a race. And Charlie won! From that day on, whenever Fowler claimed to be a faster runner, Charlie would just listen and smile….for he knew he could beat a college track star. (Charlie did admit, however, that Fowler was a better swimmer.)

Charlie had an older brother, born about 10 years earlier, but he died in infancy. As a result Charlie was raised as an only child.

Last summer I visited Charlie and he told me stories about games the children enjoyed on the island years ago. They played Annie Over the House, King Stick, Spittle Spittle Spat & Cat. Cat was a colonial game much like baseball that survived on Ocracoke until the mid twentieth century. The children had no bat, so they used a board. Instead of tagging a player out, they would throw the ball at a runner and hit him. Charlie once made his own baseball from an old leather shoe that Miss Lot gave him.

When he was 17 years old Charlie’s father died. Charlie tried his hand at fishing for a while, but a half cent per pound of fish was just not enough money to support him and his mama.

Charlie’s uncle, Willy O’Neal, was working in Philadelphia at the time, and he offered to get Charlie a job with the US Army Corps of Engineers on the dredges and tugboats on the Delaware River. Charlie borrowed $5 and headed for Philadelphia.

Charlie said he went up north to find his fortune. He didn’t find a fortune, he told folks, but he did find indoor plumbing. Charlie allowed as how that was just as good as a fortune, maybe even better.

Before Charlie left Ocracoke Jones Williams admonished him to always save a little bit of money. Charlie took the advice to heart and regularly bought treasury bonds. Jones had one of the few safes on the island, so Charlie sent the bonds back home to him for safe keeping Eventually Charlie saved up enough money to buy his first car. He paid one hundred dollars for it.

In 1957 Charlie married Lorena Ballance. Charlie and Lorena were both born on Ocracoke, and knew each other, but interestingly never dated until they both had moved to Delaware. They had one daughter, Lisa. In 1982 Charlie & Lorena welcomed their son-in-law, Bill, into the family.

Several friends attest that, as a young man, Charlie was known as quite a good dancer. Surprisingly, Lorena didn’t know this about Charlie! It was only in later years that she learned that Charlie was “light on his feet.” Whenever acquaintances would comment on his dancing Charlie would just listen and smile.

Charlie Morris never had the advantage of much formal schooling, but he knew the value of education. And so it was that he encouraged Lisa to go away to college and get her degree.

Charlie always enjoyed reading. As a young boy he would buy 10 cent westerns which, after reading, he would trade with other boys. He made it a habit to read the newspaper daily and in later years often checked out books from the library.

The advice he took pride in sharing with young people was, “Always watch the news or read the paper every day.”

While working in Philadelphia Charlie had opportunity to take advantage of the city’s many cultural offerings. He enjoyed the old vaudeville routines, and regularly went to shows featuring Tommy Dorsey, Roy Acuff and other stars of the day. It is said that he would stand in line for hours just to hear Frank Sinatra. If no one else was interested in accompanying him Charlie would go by himself. He even learned to appreciate opera while up north.

After many years working in Pennsylvania Charlie retired in the early 1960’s. He returned home to Ocracoke and embarked on a second career with the North Carolina Ferry Division. I’m told that he would bring recordings of opera down to the ferry office and play them for Christine and Sharon. They couldn’t figure out why Charlie enjoyed that kind of music and they would tease him because he couldn’t even speak Italian. Charlie countered by pretending to understand the language and “explaining” the lyrics to the girls. He would make up elaborate story lines and entertain Christine and Sharon with his fanciful tales.

.Charlie’s third career was meeting with “the boys” on the benches at the lifeguard beach. If Charlie arrived late someone would say “Slide over boys and make room for Charlie.”

Later on they’d meet at the base docks to watch the sunset. The boys would entertain each other by telling jokes & tall tales, catching up on island news, sharing recipes, and reminiscing about their younger days when they lived and worked in Philadelphia. Sadly, many of the boys have died.

Charlie’s fourth career was undoubtedly his most rewarding — playing with his three grandsons, Aaron, Evin, & Liam. To them he was affectionately known as Pop Pop.

Charlie was an enthusiastic baseball fan. He had even acquired a couple of Atlanta Braves memorabilia – an autographed baseball, and a bat that had been cracked in play. He carried these down to the base docks one evening to show to Fowler, Lawton, Bill, and the rest of the boys. “They weren’t interested,” he said. “They looked at them and then just went back to talking about mulleting.”

Whenever possible Charlie would make time to share interesting stories. He liked stories that would provoke comments and he particularly liked to “stir the pot,” albeit in a quiet way. He would practice his story over and over in order to “get it just right” so he could “get ’em going.”

Charlie enjoyed cooking now & then, and would occasionally exchange recipes with my dad. As with my dad, he took pride in his clam chowder. And he was always in search of a hotter hot sauce. Along with other old-time O’cockers, Charlie enjoyed those special dinners of fresh fish, I’sh taters, and collards at Bill Gaskill’s workshed.

Charlie always liked to laugh & share a good joke. He had an impish smile & a mischievous twinkle in his eye. To his credit he never took himself too seriously.

Aaron, Evin, and Liam, your grandfather was proud of you. You are the next generation of islanders, and the keepers of our traditions. Charlie Morris (and much of old Ocracoke) will live on as family & friends continue to share his stories & pass them on to future generations.

During the last few days of Charlie’s life he told his family and the hospital nurses, “I have lived a good life, I have accomplished everything I have set out to do, and I am not afraid to die. Don’t worry about me.”

Now all the boys will have to slide over on the bench and make room….Charlie
is coming to join you.

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There has been quite a bit of construction taking place on Ocracoke this winter.  Sometimes folks shudder to think about new building, but it’s not all intrusive.  Consider the following.

Last August Hurricane Alex came so unexpectedly, and brought with it so much tide water (it was the most tide Ocracoke had seen in sixty years) that many islanders have been working to raise their homes and businesses to protect them from future storms.

Three homes on Howard Street are currently in the process of being raised.  Others in the village have also been raised.  In addition, several island businesses are under new ownership and/or are being remodeled or moved.  At least one business is currently for sale, a timely opportunity, perhaps, for one of our readers to relocate to Ocracoke.  Read on for more information.

The former home of Lela Howard, now owned by her nephew, Wilson Garrish and his wife, Martha, is in the beginning stages of a major restoration project.   It sits across the street, and a couple of house down, from Village Craftsmen.

Lela Howard Home
Lela's Home
The house has been jacked up and footings poured.  A crew is now on the island laying the new brick piers.

A few doors west and on the other side of the street sits one of the oldest homes on the island, the Eliza Howard & Benjamin Gaskins house.

Eliza & Benjamin Gaskins Home
Virginia Howard Home
A few years ago this home was restored by Betty Schotten, but several inches of water poured in during Alex.  It is now raised several feet and waiting for new brick piers.

Closer to Highway 12 is a small cottage owned by Van O’Neal.  This home also had water during the hurricane.  It has been raised and the new brick piers are almost completed.

Van O’Neal Cottage

As many readers already know, I had raised my grandparents’ home before the storm so the rising water never came near enough to be of concern.

Homer & Aliph Howard Home

There are other construction and renovation projects throughout the village.  The James Henry Garrish home, formerly the Blue Door Antique Shop on Lighthouse Road, will again become a private residence.  The owners, Michael & Paula Schramell, have moved their antique shop a few doors up the road, next to the Island Inn, and plan to make the former building their new home.  Not surprisingly, the first step was to raise the house several feet.

James Henry Garrish Home (The Blue Door)

Another classic home “down point” near the lighthouse, the Ollie & Theodore Mutro home, has been raised after hurricane Alex. Dale Styron Mutro and his father, Anthony have also remodeled most of the interior of this house.

Ollie Styron & Theodore Mutro Home

Carol & Warren Ritchie, owners of The Beach House Bed & Breakfast on Highway 12 are undertaking a major remodeling project.  A consequence of adding additional rooms to the rear of the building is a modified roof line.  They decided to remove the entire original roof, so for several days at least, the  Beach House is a flat box covered with sheets of rubber.

Walter & Armeda O’Neal Home (Beach House B & B)

Several readers have asked about the Boyette House motel.  Owner Jon Wynn closed the motel last fall, and a crew of workers has been busy all winter remodeling the building as condominiums.  I understand Jon already has a growing list of potential buyers.

The Boyette House Motel

Many people familiar with Ocracoke may have heard that the popular Fig Tree Deli is now closed.  Darlene Styron, owner of The Sweet Tooth, formerly located on Silver Lake, will be moving her business to Highway 12 in the building that used to be home to the Fig Tree Deli.  To everyone’s delight, she will be adding deli sandwiches to her selections of confections and ice cream.  The building sports a new color & look, has been completely remodeled inside, and is now more visible from the road.  Be sure to stop by on your next visit.

Sweet Tooth (formerly Fig Tree Deli)

Changes are underway for Teach’s Hole, Ocracoke’s premiere pirate shop.  George & Mickey will soon be moving from their location on the Back Road (near the Fire House & Coffee Shop) to their newly acquired property on Highway 12, across from the Variety Store.  Their spacious two-story building will include office and storage space upstairs as well as an efficiency apartment for employees.  Their will be ample parking also.

Teach’s Hole

In other news, Video Dave, and his wife Laura, report that their business, Eleven Eleven, is for sale.  Their video store is located in Spencer’s Market on Highway 12 and has been in business over 3 years.  Dave & Laura are proud of their large customer base (both locals and visitors), and are offering training, inventory, electronic equipment & fixtures for sale.  Dave says the price is negotiable, and he would like to hear from serious inquirers.  He has asked me to help spread the word.  You can contact Dave directly by clicking here.  He’ll be happy to give you more information and answer any questions you might have.

Eleven Eleven Video Store

Change is sometimes threatening.  At times it means progress; at other times it can mean losing a valuable part of a community’s heritage.  I take heart that more than half of the building projects I’ve described are designed to protect or restore historic island homes.  The Boyette House project and the Sweet Tooth are both remodeled businesses rather than new construction.  Teach’s Hole, though a new building, will house a popular existing business, and will be set well back from the road.  The sale of Eleven Eleven will simply be a change of ownership.

Ocracoke, like nearly every place else, changes — sometimes gradually, sometimes quickly.  Through it all, we seem to manage to maintain a valuable sense of community, and even a growing awareness of the importance of our unique island heritage.

Many islanders are working to see that it stays that way.

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Michael Judge in his recent book, The Dance of Time, has this to say about February:

“Although mighty Orion still commands the southern sky, Leo who now springs in from the north, threatens his reign;  below Leo’s haunches, gentle Virgo peeps above the eastern horizon.  Directly overhead stand Castor and Pollux, the Gemini twins.  These sons of beautiful Leda, whom Zeus ravaged in the form of a swan, were thought by the ancients to stand guard over mortal adventurers during this cold and dangerous time of the year.  Greek sailors looked up to them for protection as they fought the choppy waves, and Roman cavalrymen often finished oaths by swearing, ‘by Gemini,’ which American sailors later turned into ‘by Jimminy.'”

On Ocracoke, a variation of  this expression, “Dey Jimminy Criminy” [pronounced ‘Jeeminy Croiminy’] has survived the centuries, and even the recent onslaught of television and tourists.

While “Jimminy” (sometimes spelled “gemony,” “geeminy,” “jimini,” or “jiminy”) apparently comes from Gemini, “criminy,” according to Random House (“The Mavens’ Word of the Day” at www.randomhouse.com) is “one of those mild, old-fashioned euphemisms for ‘Christ,’ like crikey, cracky, cripes….,” etc.

Random House adds that “criminy” (sometimes spelled “crimini” or “crimeny”) is listed in the Oxford English Dictionary as “a vulgar exclamation of astonishment: now somewhat archaic.”

Criminy seems to have been in use since at least 1700.  At some point the combined expression, “Jiminy Criminy,” became a euphemism for “Jesus Christ,” that forbidden expression of astonishment, anger, or frustration proscribed by the third commandment.

I imagine you might still hear the phrase “Jimminy Criminy” in a few small towns in America, but probably only on Ocracoke will you hear it spoken frequently, melodramatically, and with that distinctive island brogue, as in “Dey Jeeminy Croiminy, younguns, this February it’s the coldest it’s ever been!”

On your next visit to the island, listen for this and other expressions and words that help define our unique island community.


 

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