“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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My German-speaking maternal grandfather, Joszef Guth, immigrated to the United States from Hungary in 1912. He was 21 years old and had trained as a butcher in his native land. When the captain of the wooden ship on which he was traveling learned of my grandfather’s trade the captain offered him employment on the voyage. As grandpop always told it, “der butcher var drunk; he don’t showed up!”

In New York City grandpop was reunited with his childhood sweetheart Julianna Pohlmueller who had arrived the year before. After they married they traveled to Allentown, Pennsylvania, where Joszef’s fellow-apprentice Louie Laszlo had recently settled. It was there that grandpop established his first business. In addition to maintaining a retail butcher shop, grandpop (now known as Joseph Guth) made home deliveries from his horse-drawn wagon.

Joseph Guth, Butcher
Joseph Guth, Butcher

Joseph and Julianna eventually had three children, Joseph, Jr., Helena, and Kunigunde, my mother.

By the time my mother was old enough to help in the family business grandpop routinely sent her out into the immediate neighborhood to deliver cuts of meat to customers. On one memorable occasion my mother was dispatched to a wealthy neighbor who invited her into her home. When my mother stepped onto the thick and richly colored oriental rug she was enthralled. She had never seen such luxury and beauty. Right then she decided that one day she would own such a rug.

Eventually my grandparents moved to Philadelphia. It was there, when my mother was nineteen years old, that she met and married my father, Lawton Howard, a native of Ocracoke Island. He had left home when he was just sixteen years old, and, like so many of his island peers, secured a job with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, working on dredges and tugboats on the Delaware River.

After my dad’s retirement in 1966 my parents moved back to Ocracoke where they immersed themselves in the community and enjoyed fishing from my dad’s hand-built wooden skiff. Around 1977 my dad purchased a new outboard motor for his boat.

In that same year Sam Jones, wealthy entrepreneur and businessman, died. Sam, a native of Swan Quarter, North Carolina, had married Mary Ruth Kelly, daughter of Capt. George Gregory Howard of Ocracoke Island. Sam was the owner of Berkley Machine Works in Norfolk, Virginia. On the shore of Lake Lawson, Virginia Beach, he built a 14,500 sq’ 30-room brick mansion, which housed much of his art collection, including paintings, Victorian antiques, Art Deco furnishings, Persian rugs, rare books, and custom-built furniture. Sam also built several large structures on Ocracoke, including the present-day Castle Bed and Breakfast and Berkley Manor. These were furnished with valuable antiques and numerous Persian rugs.

After Sam’s death his family offered many of his island furnishings for sale. Interested buyers were invited to tour Berkley Castle to view the items. When my mother learned that Persian rugs were for sale she immediately decided she wanted to see them. After all, she thought, her husband had just bought an expensive outboard motor; maybe she would splurge and get a Persian rug. When she arrived at the Castle in her signature cotton house dress (with two large patch pockets) Sam’s son-in-law dutifully led her from room to room to peruse the rugs although he was convinced she was an extremely unlikely buyer. At the end of the tour my mother asked to return to one of the upper rooms. She pointed to the 10’ X 12’ “Hunting Scene Rug” there, and inquired, “How much is that one?” On being told the price was $1,000 she reached into her pocket, retrieved $500 cash, handed it to Sam’s son-in-law, and announced that she would be back momentarily with the remainder of the money.

The hunting scene rug design is an ancient weaving style originally produced for royalty and nobility. It is no ordinary rug, but an exquisite piece of art that tells a story. For several years the rug graced my parents’ modest island living room, but, because my mother found the fringes difficult to keep straight and tidy, she eventually gifted it to me. When I restored my grandparents’ 150-year-old, 1,100 sq’ Ocracoke cottage I placed the rug in my living room.

On Friday morning, September 6, 2019, as Hurricane Dorian was churning the waters of the Atlantic Ocean off our coast and whipping up winds near 100 mph, a neighbor sent me a text: “The tide is coming up in our yard!” I opened my front door and looked down the lane directly across from my house. In a matter of minutes tidewater came rushing down the lane. It looked like a small river. Almost as quickly, rushing water came from the right and the left. As water rose ever higher on my fence I sensed the coming catastrophe. When the tide breached the top points of my picket fence I knew it would be only a matter of seconds. Water cascaded onto my porch. I shut the door and used towels to help keep the tide from pouring under the door. It didn’t help. Water flowed into my first floor and bubbled up between the old floor boards

I stepped back onto the Persian rug. It was floating.

The tidewater receded almost as quickly as it came in. But the damage was done. Insulation under my floors and in my walls was soaking wet. Several of my electric outlets were submerged. My washer, dryer, and refrigerator were destroyed.

I looked at my Persian rug, wondering if it could ever be salvaged. It was saturated with sea water, and it began to smell after just a couple of days. But it was too heavy to carry out of the house. Even four strong men were unable to lift it. After several days I developed a plan. We were able to fold the rug into a manageable size, about 32” wide. I tied it up and cinched a sturdy strap around the bundle. To that I tied a strong length of rope which I attached to my pickup truck which was in the lane directly across from my front door. With a little bit of amateur engineering skill we were able to pull the rug onto the porch and manipulate it over the railing so it could dry out.

That is where the rug stayed for about a week. My living room floor now had a chance to dry out, but I still despaired about saving the rug. How could I rinse it, clean it, and dry it? I didn’t have the space, the equipment, or the expertise to clean and restore this beautiful Persian rug. And I didn’t have any way to transport the rug to a professional cleaner. I didn’t even know where I could take it, and Ocracoke is almost three hours by ferry just to the mainland. Besides, both of my vehicles had been flooded.

That’s when Heather and Hilman Hicks, and their daughter Abby, showed up. They are frequent visitors to Ocracoke. They love island history, have participated in our Ghost and History Walking Tours of the village, and have purchased several items from our craft gallery, Village Craftsmen. They were on the island as volunteers with the faith-based group Samaritan’s Purse. When they saw and heard the story of the Persian rug…its rarity, its beauty, its provenance…they decided they had to help.

With the assistance of Samaritan’s Purse volunteer, Curt Wall, and other helpers, Heather and Hilman were able to wrestle the now almost dry rug off the porch, and into the bed of their waiting pickup truck. From there it was transported to the ferry line where an islander in another pickup agreed to take it onto the boat. In Swan Quarter, where Curt had left his vehicle, the Persian rug was transferred to his pickup truck for the ride to Pettyjohn’s Professional Rug Care in Wake Forest, North Carolina.

Below are several photos of the rug-cleaning process:

Not quite two weeks later Heather and Hilman (above) brought the rug back…dryer, cleaner, brighter, and lighter than it had been in decades.

Hunting Scene Persian Rug
Hunting Scene Persian Rug

According to Katie Pettyjohn Reuther, the rug “lost [about] 90 pounds (of sand and shells) while it was on vacation!” Petyjohn’s workers said they had never seen a rug with fragments of oyster shells embedded in the fabric.

Heartfelt thanks are in order to Heather and Hilman Hicks, Curt Wall, all of the other volunteers with Samaritan’s Purse, and the fine folks at Pettyjohn’s for their skill and professional handling of my hunting scene Persian rug which once again graces my living room floor.

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