04/20/2019
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  • 11:39 am Bladen County Headlines 35 Years Ago
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By Jefferson Weaver

Got a message the other night from a long-lost friend, and I was reminded of matters of mice and men–Mercury outboards.

I think Robert Burns’ poem, “Ode to a Mouse”, should be carved into the deck of every boat. Maybe not the entire poem, but specifically the lines –

“The best laid schemes of mice and men
Go often askew,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!”

It all started as we were finishing off a particularly grueling period at college. I won’t bore you with the details, but Joe, Millie, Bob and myself had not enjoyed the college experience to its fullest that particular semester. We had each dealt with more than a few challenges that likely would send a modern college kid into a corner to suck on his thumb. We opted instead to go fishing on a little spit of land called Goat Island.

Now, I didn’t know at the time that Goat Island wasn’t actually Goat Island. My marine navigation skills weren’t great, and I had found goat droppings on the island, so I called it Goat Island. The real Goat Island was across the Intracoastal Waterway, and hadn’t seen a goat in years, but that is neither here nor there. This particular island is also not to be confused with the other Goat Island, in Brunswick County. I understand the goat population there is falling as well, in part due to a coyote invasion, but the impact of one invasive species on another invasive species which happens to be extremely popular with another invasive species is a column for another day.

I had an aluminum johnboat with a small outboard that was sufficient for our expedition. My boat will be referred to here simply as the AC, since this is a family paper and I don’t like mentioning the name of one of the central characters in the book of Revelation. Let’s just say my boat was largely unholy, and will likely be floating around on the fiery lake, allowing demons to torment unsaved sinners cast into that fetid pool after Judgment Day. She lived up to that name, believe me.

Anyway, we piled all the essentials—namely fishing gear, food, sleeping bags, and a potentially illegal quantity of (I am now ashamed to say) beer into the bow of the AC on the Friday after school was out, and headed down the waterway. Bob was still at work, but we would return later for him.

Or such were the aforementioned plans involving rodents and semi-rednecks.

I wasn’t exactly Captain Cook of the Seven Seas, but I was fairly comfortable with my boating skills by that point. I also knew a lot of the sloughs in the area of what I thought was Goat Island, or at least I thought I did.

Leaving Millie to start getting our camp in order, Joe and I went out to explore a bit. We still had a half-hour or more before Bob would be waiting for us at the dock, so we decided to find out what was on the other side of the big island (the real Goat Island) across the channel from our own little island.

I remember too well how Joe said he thought there were some good oyster beds in that particular slough, and we should check it out.

Always up for an adventure, I cranked the tiller hard a’starboard (I turned the boat right, in non-nautical terms) and we rolled up the slough toward a maze of weeds, sandy spits, islands, and (ominously) a classic old Hatteras that had long since been abandoned and left in a place no 30-foot Hatteras Yacht was ever meant to go. Her name started with the letters “IN” across the half-submerged stern. I have often wondered, as I contemplated the name of my own worthy craft, if that Hatteras was originally christened Infierno, and was originally captained by a fellow named Dante. Perhaps we just missed the banner that read “Abandon all hope ye who enter here,” but there was little time for reflection, as things went very bad, very quickly.

The sun was just behind the sandy islands when we turned the AC around, having polished the prop repeatedly with sandbars. It was about time to go get Bob, and we were a little worried about Millie being on the island all alone. A gentle, loving soul, born thirty years too late, Millie would have made an excellent hippie, and she often seemed a bit too soft-hearted and naïve not to be under the protection of her two big brothers.

As we came back into the main slough, I noticed the full-moon tide was sucking the AC a little harder toward the waterway. No big deal—I figured it would actually help us. I gave the tiller a little tap to port (again, non-nautically, I turned a little to the left) and Joe and I were thrown forward as the boat stuttered to a stop, and the motor began spinning wildly.

Now, I had heard of shear pins in outboard motors, and I was confident enough in my mechanical ability that I figured I could change a shear pin should my deep-sea clipper ever need one. Ergo, I innocently bought a half-dozen such pins and kept them, liberally greased, in the toolbox strapped to the side of the pilot house (the back seat of my boat).

Smiling in satisfaction, I announced to Joe that it was no problem—we had undoubtedly broken a shear pin, but I had a replacement. He looked skeptical (Joe was far saltier than I was) but agreed we had to try.

Then we discovered that not only was it not a broken shear pin, but that particular model of Mercury outboard didn’t have a shear pin. Joe went over the side into the waist-deep water and tilted the motor up to inspect it. The prop spun freely.

So here we were, with the sun setting rapidly, the tide falling, the mosquitoes coming to life, a friend waiting at the dock and a young woman stranded on a desert island without even a goat for company. I had no lights on the boat, either. The derelict Hatteras groaned as she settled, and I am pretty sure I saw a satanic minion sharpening a pitchfork on the aft deck.

I asked Joe what he thought would be a good plan. He took a draw off his cigarette, eyed the motor, then the water, and shrugged.

“I think unrestrained panic might be in order,” he said.

Obviously we survived the ordeal, but it was close a few times. Joe and I took turns swimming and pulling the boat. We managed to get to the Waterway just in time for the evening run of commercial fishing boats, all of which had larger tenders than our floating coffin.

We actually surfed on the wake of one of the Hieronymous Brothers’ shrimpers for a few hundred feet before a very disgusted fellow fisherman scooted over and cast us a line. He dragged us back to the dock, then went back for Millie, who was pretty much in love with her rescuer by the time they returned.

Flash forward thirty years, and through the wonder of social networking, Millie and I end up playing catch-up online a while back. We chatted a few minutes about marriages, cars, kids, careers, and other such things, and then one or the other of us mentioned Goat Island.

We laughed—nay, we howled—over that misadventure, how we were all going to go change the world, and all that other stuff kids who think they are grown are going to do. I was still smiling an hour later, thinking of an island with no goats, motors without shear pins, and how friends can make even the most disaster-ridden misadventures memories worth re-telling time and again.

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