Ocracoke did not get official street names until 1999. Street signs appeared in 2005. For most of Ocracoke’s history islanders simply used landmarks or residents’ names to designate particular streets, or to give directions.

In the early 1980s a generous island widow, Myrtle Doolittle, donated a parcel of land to her beloved Methodist minister and his wife who were being transferred to a congregation on the mainland. I was asked to design a small compact house they could use as a vacation get-away. A local carpenter and various friends volunteered to build the cottage.

One afternoon, as I was digging a hole for one of the house’s pilings, I cut through an underground telephone cable.

For years local resident Randall Mathews was the island’s one and only telephone repairman. It was common practice to simply call Randall about any telephone problems or issues, and he would promptly make the repair. However, shortly before this incident the telephone company had established a company-wide 800 number to call for all customer repair issues.

I called the number and quickly realized the service representative was not from eastern North Carolina, and had never heard of Ocracoke. I discovered she was located in Kansas. The conversation went something like this:

Me: Hello, I am calling to report a severed telephone cable.

Her: Yes sir, can you tell me where you are located?

Me: Ocracoke Island, North Carolina.

Her: And where exactly is the severed cable?

Me: Well, it is about halfway between Myrtle Doolittle’s house and the new cottage we are building for the Methodist minister.

Her: Sir, can you please give me the street address?

Me: I am sorry, but we don’t have street addresses.

Her: You don’t have street addresses? How will I know where to send the repairman?

Me: Randall will know where this is.

Her: Who is Randall?

Me: Randall is our telephone repairman.

Her: But I still need to know what to tell him

Me: Please tell Randall to go behind Myrtle’s house, and walk toward the road where Mrs. Padgett lives. He will see the lot where we are building a small cottage for the Methodist minister. Actually, I found a concrete turtle on Myrtle’s porch steps. I carried it over to the construction site and set it down so it is pointing directly at the hole I was digging when I cut the telephone cable. He will have no problem finding the severed cable if he just looks for the concrete turtle.

Her: (There was a lengthy silece before she replied.) Uhh,…OK….I’ll pass this message on to the repairman. Thank you very much.

Several days later I saw Randall at the Post Office. “Did you get the telephone cable repaired,” I asked him.

“Oh my gosh,” he said, “that woman in Kansas was so befuddled. All she could say was that some man called to say that ‘Myrtle Somebody’ had a turtle that was stuck in concrete and that somehow the turtle had cut a telephone cable. I think she thought you might have been calling from an insane asylum.”

We had a good laugh, and Randall told me he had found the severed cable and made the repair.

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“Dear Sir: A 16 oz. BOTTLE CONTAINING NOTE, DATED 12 OCTOBER. 1956 was FOUND ON THE WINDBLOWN SANDS OF OCRACOKE,,ISLAND. SOUTH OF HATTERAS & EAST OF THE U.S. MAINLAND. IT WAS FOUND 14 OCTOBER 1957. Where WAS IT CAST FROM? PLEASE DROP ME A LINE…..BEST REGARDS. Bill Askren, General Delivery, Ocracoke, N.C.”

QSL Card Front

QSL Card Back

This was my first substantial clue towards discovering more about the life of Bill Askren, eccentric and mildly reclusive resident of Ocracoke Island in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

I’m not certain when I first laid eyes on Bill Askren, but I couldn’t have been more than twelve years old.

At that time Bill was about forty years old, tall and balding. He had driven an old car to the island, parked it on a sand hill, and lived in it. Later he moved into a small building on present-day Ocean View Road. He lived a simple, uncomplicated life. Whether he had accumulated some savings or relied on family money for basic needs, no one knew, but he also received monthly checks that often piled up in the Post Office. Islanders recall hearing that he had left a well-paying job at Martin-Marietta in the Washington, D.C. area.

Bill Askren stayed to himself mostly, and wandered island paths alone, clad in a short-sleeved white shirt, khaki pants, and inexpensive flip-flops.

Every summer Bill Askren seemed to become more eccentric. He camped out in an abandoned building near where the Pony Island Restaurant is today. He planted a vegetable garden nearby, and enclosed it within a crude wooden fence. In those days there was a community dump at the end of Sunset Drive, a one-lane concrete road built by the Navy during World War II. Bill frequented the dump nearly every day. Some islanders thought he was scavenging for food, but others realized he was simply gathering compost for his ever-more-luxurious garden.

Bill Askren

Bill stopped shaving, and ignored the island barber. As years passed, Bill’s red hair and beard grew longer and longer. He walked the island paths mostly after dark. Some islanders said he claimed to be a prophet. Younger children were fascinated by him, but also frightened. Like Scout and Dill in ”To Kill a Mockingbird,” they’d sneak up to Bill’s compound, then run away when he caught sight of them. Today, with the perspective of adults, they will tell you that Bill played the role of the idiosyncratic outsider, but he always added a wry smile to demonstrate that he was not to be feared.

Teenage boys soon learned that Bill Askren was quite an interesting character, with lessons to teach. He was intelligent and creative, if a bit quirky. He was a ham radio operator, and made contact with amateur radio enthusiasts throughout the world. He was also a tinkerer. To this day, a number of islanders will tell you about the crystal radios Bill Askren built and imbedded in cigar boxes and conch shells.

By the early 1960s Bill Askren had moved to California. But he stayed in touch with at least one islander, writing long, rambling letters laced with cosmic and metaphysical themes.

As time passed, Bill Askren’s connection with Ocracoke waned. Eventually, his pen-pal died. By the mid-1980s no one knew where Bill was, or how to contact him. His early life, career, family of origin, current whereabouts…all was lost. He simply disappeared…faded away like the diaphanous spirit he was.

All attempts to learn more about Bill Askren led to dead ends. Until 2014, that is….when I discovered the post card. It was published in “QST,” the official journal of ARRL [American Radio Relay League], the national association for amateur radio.

James Boothe, a ham radio operator, tells his story: “The year was 1956 and I was a young sailor aboard the destroyer USS Fred T. Berry DDE858. We were steaming back from a Mediterranean cruise and were about in the middle of the Atlantic, on our way back to Newport, Rhode Island. I got the position report from the charthouse and added it to a note that I wrote describing the ship and some particulars of myself, stuffed it in a bottle and heaved it over the side. One year after its launching, Bill Askren, W3EYB/4 was out beachcombing and found my bottle. He sent me one of his QSL cards [a post card confirming reception of a message by an amateur radio operator; QSL is code for “I acknowledge receipt of your message”], which showed a map of Ocracoke, and inked in a pirate’s X on the map side and described how he found it on the letter side. So that’s how I got my first QSL card.”

Discovering the post card confirmed the spelling of Bill’s surname, and provided a middle initial. His ham radio call sign prefix “W3” meant he had registered in Delaware, Maryland, DC, or Pennsylvania. Oral tradition that he hailed from the D.C. area was correct.

A quick Internet search led me to a page about a William B. Askren, born January 6, 1917, died April 7, 1999, and buried in Riverside National Cemetery in Riverside, California.

I immediately sent an email to the three individuals who had left brief messages on the web page. Within hours I heard from a cousin. My hunch was correct. William B. Askren who is buried in Riverside California turned out to be the same Bill Askren who had lived on Ocracoke.

William Bernard Askren (“Red” to his family and childhood friends) was born in Harrison County, Indiana, to John William Askren (1893-1939) and Elcye Glenna Eckart Askren (1894-1987). His father was employed as a school teacher, and later as a lawyer for the FBI. The family moved to Washington, D.C. in the 1930s. Before the decade ended, Bill’s father died of complications from surgery. As the oldest of four siblings, Bill helped care for the family. His youngest sister, Ethelda, was just six years old.

John & Bill Askren

An inveterate tinkerer, Bill built his own camera when he was a young man. The following self-portrait survives.

Bill Askren Self Portrait

On September 4, 1946 Bill enlisted in the US Army. At the time of his enlistment he was twenty-nine years old, single, had no dependents, had completed four years of high school education, and had worked as an airplane mechanic and repairman. He served until May, 1947 as a private, first class.

How Bill Askren first learned of Ocracoke, or why he chose to move here, is still a mystery. He remained on the island about six or more years.

In the 1960s he moved to California to be closer to his family.

For more than three decades Bill stayed in California, spreading his message of peace, simple living, and healthy living. He biked most places he wanted to go, and as on the island, he continued wearing white, short-sleeved shirts, and simple flip-flops. His bicycle was usually adorned with placards communicating his musings.

Bill Askren

Islanders continue to remember Bill Askren as an eccentric and colorful character, a hippie before there were hippies, one who understood the importance of healthful vegetables and a genuine connection to the land.

Bill Askren

Rest in Peace, Bill!

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Just a few hours before my father’s funeral in March of 2002 I received this message from Captain Rob Temple who was unable to attend: “Lawton’s life spanned a period of dramatic changes not only of a global nature but also, and particularly, changes on Ocracoke…. But through it all, Lawton could always be counted on for a wink and a grin and usually an amusing story about the old days. New acquaintances (including myself back in the 70s) were not strangers to him for long.”

Lawton Howard
Lawton Howard

A few days ago as I was sorting through my parents’ remaining papers I came across the following story by part-time resident Warner Passanisi which illustrates Capt. Rob’s observations:

Back around 1997 I decided to go clamming for my first time. I borrowed a couple of beautiful clam rakes from Philip and went with Rudy Austin to Portsmouth Island. The weather was perfect and by the end of a good few hours I had a couple of full buckets of clams. Rudy was right on time at 4 pm and we headed home. Walking back along Howard Street I detoured to return the rakes. As I put the rakes back in the shed, Lawton approached quietly. This was about the second time I had ever spoken with him.

“Hey Warner, where have you been?” he asked.

“I’ve been clamming for the first time, over on Portsmouth. Thanks for the use of your rakes; they were great. I came home with two full buckets,” I replied, holding one of the full buckets.

Lawton asked, “Well, what are you gonna do with those clams?”

I replied, “Well, I’m gonna throw them in a big pot of boiling water, wait until they start opening, and then make some clam chowder.”

“Oh, you don’t wanna do that!” exclaimed Lawton.

Taken aback, I asked, “What do you mean? That’s the only way to cook clams that I know of.”

Lawton proceeded to explain, “Well on Ocracoke we cook them different. We shuck the clams right out of the shell and then boil the meat till it’s tender. It’s an old family tradition. Here, let me show you how to do it. Go and fetch that knife for me in there.”

“Well, I’ve never heard of that,” I stated, surprised. I put the bucket of clams down, and went into the shed to fetch the knife that I had to reach for carefully.

I came out of the shed and gave the knife to Lawton. He opened it up like a pro, and said, “Here, this is what you do.” He reached into my bucket, pulled out a clam and put his strong knife to the minute space between the two shell halves. He said, “What you’ve got to do is carefully pry open the shells to get at the meat….” But he stopped in mid-sentence, as the shells were pried apart to reveal nothing inside.

“Heck, there’s nothing inside here. Let’s try another one,” he said as he casually discarded the open halves over his shoulder and leaned down to pick another clam from the top of the bucket.

“Here you go. You’ve got to get the knife in carefully so you don’t cut yourself. You could get a nasty infection with a clam-schuck cut he recounted.

But again, as the knife got through the opening, it revealed nothing inside.

“Well, I never…another empty clam. Let’s try one more; there couldn’t be three like that,” he said.

So Lawton plunged his hand down into the middle of the bucket and pulled out another clam. “This time we’ll be lucky.”

However, I was amazed when the shells opened to reveal absolutely nothing again.

Lawton stated coldly, “Well, I don’t believe it, Buck*, but you’ve got a bucket full o’ blanks! You may as well throw the rest away,” he continued.

I said dejected, “No, I’ll take them back and show my wife. Thanks for your help anyway, Lawton.” And I proceeded to shuffle off down the lane. Not only had I not known how to cook clams properly, but I had caught a bunch of empty shells.

About a dozen steps on, Lawton called me back.

Lawton then began to tell me a story. He said, “Don’t always believe everything you see or everything you are told.” He started smiling as he told me that when I had gone into the shed to fetch his knife he had scattered a small number of empty clam shells that he had just discarded onto the top of the bucket, having first closed the shells. He had then palmed the empty clam each time he had dipped into the bucket. He even managed to palm one from the top when he plunged into the middle without me spotting. We had a good laugh.

The next few times I saw Lawton he always called to me, “Hey Blank!”

*Buck is an Ocracoke form of address meaning pal or friend.

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