The Ocracoke Water Tank Caper….or…That’s No Swimmin’ Hole – A Dingbatter’s Tale
By Michael Mincher
When I was in college I was fortunate enough to have discovered Ocracoke Island through a roommate. His family owned a small Bed and Breakfast on Ocracoke and he would let me come and live there and help around the B & B, and we would teach sailing, kayaking, and windsurfing lessons to our guests. I spent two summers in the salt, sand, and sun of Ocracoke Island. I was fascinated with the culture and history of the small fishing village turned tourist Mecca. I was also fortunate enough to have the opportunity to work with and for Nat Jackson for a period of time. Since he was one of Ocracoke’s most colorful characters, I heard much island lore and was afforded what I feel was an inside look at the island’s culture that many dingbatters are not privy to.
That was my connection to some of the local boys. We worked together, (hard I might add as we matched each other shovel-full for shovel-full of gravel, sand and concrete). We spent that second summer underneath Corky’s Harborside Motel leveling and raising it. Honestly, the cool sand and shade beneath that building was a reprieve from the baking sun and green-heads that summer. Nat Jackson would say, “That green-head bit me so hard, I think he had a cigar in his mouth!” Nonetheless, I tried to fit in, and if I couldn’t BE one of the local boys, at least I could be with them. On one particular Friday night in the Summer of 1993 (best I can remember), another dingbatter, two local boys who shall remain nameless (that reason will become more apparent shortly) and I got a case of cheap beer and headed to the schoolyard gazebo to see what we could stir up and get into.
The night started out innocently enough. We were boys drinking beer on Friday night. But we were boys….and bored boys at that. So at some point we climbed up on the roof of the school which was fairly uneventful. From there we could see the radio antenna at the firehouse so we decided to climb that. Something must have been running in our blood that night that wanted to reach for the sky; I don’t know. Anyway, the antenna proved, at least, to be a little more exciting. It was safe, I reckon; we weren’t looking to do any harm or anything; we were just looking for stuff to do. When out of nowhere, one of the locals said, “I know how to get on top of that water tower.”
I should probably add an aside, here, saying that I had passed up a chance to climb a water tower when I was younger, the same water tower my father and his brothers had climbed when they were boys. So there was some latent need inside me to achieve this great literal and figurative pinnacle of achievements. I was IN! So there we were, standing at the base of this, what was it? 220 ft? water tower with the bottom rung of the ladder about 20 feet in the air. There was no fence around it or anything. It was kind of inviting, actually. So helping my partners in crime, we scaled the National Park Service fence to “borrow” their ladder which we could see hanging on the side of a building. Within half an hour there we were, the remnants of a case of warm Pabst Blue Ribbon in hand, sitting on top of the Ocracoke Island Water Tower!
As another aside here, Ocracoke should really build a platform up there and charge $5 a head to go and take a look. It is really a spectacular view. Shrimp boats on the water, the sound of merriment pouring off of screened porches, the twinkle of distant lights at Hatteras, and the shape of the lights of the houses and atop the masts of the residents of Silver Lake. It was an experience of a lifetime and to this day I am grateful for that. But then….. someone reached over and opened the hatch on the top of the water tower. Yes, just an old hinged hatch with no lock or anything, with a ladder dropping down into the deep dark abyss. About as fast as that, our clothes were off and we were swimming 220 ft. in the air in the Ocracoke Water Supply.
There was never a thought of whether what we were doing was right or wrong; it was simply that once the first of us dove inside and the laughter started echoing around the inside of that chamber, each of our presences became compulsory. Maybe a little scary, but what I remember most was how much chlorine was in there! It smelled like a public pool anyway. That was really it. A couple of laps, some laughter, just a really high, dark swimmin’ hole. So we climbed out, finished our warm beer and climbed down. We returned the ladder and headed out to Howard’s Pub.
I’m pretty sure, in retrospect, that was our biggest mistake. Straight to the bar where, who knows…but I only embellish this point saying that Donna the Buffalo was playing. I don’t actually remember who was playing; what I do remember is that if we’d have had the right to remain silent…..we wouldn’t have had the ability. “Loose lips sink ships” and all those aphorisms come to mind since I’m pretty sure everyone in Howard’s Pub that night found out what we had just done.
Honestly, it never occurred to me that what we had done was wrong. Well, I was wrong about that. Approximately a week later, after work, sitting in my favorite spot at the bar at Howard’s Pub next to the wait station so I could hassle the waitresses (insert shameless plug for early 1990’s Howard’s Pub waitresses here, woo hoo!), the phone at the bar rang and it got handed to me. Dramatic music, duh duh duh! It was Gene Jackson…1) Nat’s Nephew and 2) Chief? Sheriff? Only? Police Officer back then. Gene asked, “Michael, could you come over here and talk to me a minute?” I couldn’t exactly say no and couldn’t exactly say I couldn’t make it as I climbed off my barstool and walked the 150 yards across the road to his office. “Michael, did you do something that started out funny and kind of got out of hand?”
I imagine he tried me first because he knew how much information he would have gotten out of my, now, partners in crime. Not exactly the shining moment in the display of intelligence of a graduating senior from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington’s Business Program, I said……..”Yeah.”
My idiotic self told the whole story. I remember Gene going over the details with me saying how he would hate to have to climb up there and get fingerprints. I wish I would have called him on that one, but I didn’t. So the jig was up. I had just confessed. He sent me on my way. I thought it was over; the town, however, did not. Another week went by and Wayne Self and I were on our way home from work and Gene pulled up next to us in his cruiser. We said our hellos and Gene asked me if I was ready to “do this thing.” With saddened face, I said, “I guess; let me go home and take a shower and I’ll be down there.” So that is what I did. I went to the house, got cleaned up, grabbed a book and rode my bicycle down to the jail, locked my bike out front, and went inside to get arrested. I must say that, if you are going to get arrested, that is a pretty cool way to do it. I mean, where was I going to go; the next ferry didn’t leave for an hour.
The other guys had already been there and gotten bonded out. They charged us with Class I Felony Contamination of the Water Supply. I mean full terrorist charges, good Lord! Nat Jackson made an appeal to the magistrate on my behalf that I be released on my own recognizance, but Ocracoke was having none of that. Wayne Self actually put up his home as collateral to get me out. I should say that that was on the promise of me returning and standing trial, as summer was coming to a close and it was time for me to go attend my last semester at UNCW. The boys and I got a lawyer. I think one of us got a different lawyer; some of those details are a little foggy.
The long and the short of it is that the lawyer said, “Boys, I don’t really think you are guilty of Contamination of the Water Supply, but I think you are guilty of Disorderly Conduct” (a misdemeanor). We accepted that and pleaded to whatever the punishment was…a $250 fine and 40 hours of community service. The guys had not been very happy with me as the only evidence that the prosecution had was my confession. Apparently Gene never climbed up there to get fingerprints. I had considered standing trial and citing youthful exuberance and the fact that We Did Not Contaminate the Water Supply. There had been some talk of urination, but let me make this clear right now…We Drank That Water Too! C’mon! So, nonetheless, we all pleaded no contest to Disorderly Conduct. The guys even paid my fine for me, if I remember correctly, since I left the courtroom to go back and graduate from college. My partners in crime had to serve out their community service at the base of the water tower working for the Ocracoke Sanitary District, a return to the scene of the crime, so to speak.
I returned in January after I graduated, and in between crawling underneath the Variety Store to pour new footers working with Calvin Wilkerson, I did my 40 hours community service painting the inside of the jail. I would like to formally apologize to my partners in crime for my confession then, and for bringing it up again now. I only left their names out since I did not the first time. Philip Howard felt that enough time had gone by and wanted the story preserved. I just want to thank my youthful friends for one of the most memorable nights of my life.
Oh, back at the time there was some talk of t-shirts being made and maybe there was even a cardboard sign made by the wise-cracking waitresses of Howard’s Pub that said, “Ocracoke Swim Team, We Tower Above the Rest!”