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Lisa Golda Shields

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Old Gus & The Goats Of Ocracoke
By Lisa Golda Shields
Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Rated "PG13" by the Author.

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Once upon a time, a pair of newlyweds were camping in the Outer Banks... This story is about what happened when a storm named Hugo passed through...

This was a vacation for us...camping out on a the island off of Hatteras, years before the kid. We passed through Ocracoke on the way to Sunset Beach one year---and the island sang its siren song to me. I had been looking forward to the ferry to Swan Quarter---but after crossing the island, i found I didn't want to leave. I felt a pang of regret leaving the land spit behind---but I knew I would come back.

Now its not a fancy place...but that doesn't matter. Sea oats, sand pears, and tiny green peeper frogs all over the place. At night, the ghost crabs come out. They are white, errie looking creatures---and a flashlight makes their beady eyes glow...but the sky is hung with every star you could name, and falls like a spangled velvet curtain into the sea.

So we came back, he and I, camping on the beach, with a load of firewood, a tent, and our own version of roughing it.
Fresh brewed coffee from a camp stove---home fries---and filet mignon cooked to medium rare on the grill. The smell carried through the camp ground...and I watched more than one man dump his cup of instant joe in the sand in something like disgust once the coffee smell hit them.

Instant is never real.

Now the weather wasn't exactly behaving...and though the sunsets and sunrises were gorgeous, you could see banks of clouds out there, and you just knew it spelled trouble. The first night we got through okay...but it was misting in the morning, and the nice ranger came around to chat.

You could tell he was looking out for "idjits"...and I suppose tourists have more then their share. He talked to us long enough to make sure we understood about the sand stakes---camping spikes twice the normal size...short pegs don't work for sand.

My guy knew this...and as he was about to leave, he mentioned that a tropical storm was brewing in the Caribbean...wasn't a problem yes---but just so we knew...

What's this one called?" I asked while i scraped a pan with some sand...

"Oh---think they named this one Hugo." he said with a grin.

That night, we ate at one of the local places...and i first heard of crazy old Gus. An old timer---kept to himself since his lady gave up the ghost some ten years before.

Now this restaurant wasn't fancy either...but the shrimp burgers and hush puppies and sweet die for. The waitress was sweet---once she realised we weren't snotty damned tourists like most, and talked to us about the season,
and what it was like to live there when it ended. She was local---and proud of it. Weathering the storms on Ocracoke was sort of a badge of honor.

And Sissy explained that no self respecting local would dream of leaving---unless...well...if it looked like a bad one---
if those weather men were starting to get all up and arms...
they watched Gus real close. If Gus stayed, so did they. The storm would be bushwah. A little exciting maybe---but nothing serious.

But if Gus packed up his goats and headed for the mainland---it was time to move everything upstairs, open the doors, and git. Open the doors? This one threw us. The lady laughed---her eyes dancing.

"Honey---if the storm wants in, you just let it come. And when you come back, your house may be a little wet---and a little sandy---but it's there! Not like those yuppie idjits up in the damned things on stilts...and the water comes fast and high---lifts those puppies right up---and floats them into the BAY!"

We finished our dinner, and went back to the campgrounds. As we pulled in the Ranger informed us thsat Hugo wasn't a tropical storm any more...but a hurricane. Just another friendly warning...and sleep good folks! Oh...and there was a bit of a N'oreaster heading in that night as well.

We went to sleep early....and I woke---to find the tent breathing. BREATHING. The walls would all close in...then puff out...and in again. I woke my guy---"The TENT IS BREATHING."

He popped open one eye, observed the miracle, and muttered "Wind." and was back to sleep in seconds. I stared at his snoring form in disbelief. Was this the difference between men and women? But hey---he had survived a monsoon at a boyscout jamboree in Japan...and Woodstock.
What was an astmatic tent in comparison?

The next morning, he woke before I did. The day was overcast, and misty...but he came back from the ranger's station in a state of high excitement.

"I wonder where we can hang out?" he said gleefully.

"Hang out?"

"Well they're talking about evacuating the island...but this would be amazing to photograph..."

It was one of those moments. You realise you married a crazy person. A nut cake. But rather than engage him in discussion, I made my way to the ranger station.

"I understand the storm is worse?" I said calmly.

"Yes, Ma'am. They're saying the storm surge can be 18 foot here..." the ranger replied.

"And the highest elevation is what? I asked nicely.

"Oh fifteen feet." he said pleasently.

I returned to the tent with speed and determination.
He was taking stock---film...lens...filters....

"Darling...ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR FREAKING MIND?????" guy thought I was a total weinie. Hadn't we followed the news trucks into Atlantic City so he could photograph the aftermath of Gloria?

Well Yes. But Gloria was a belch compared to this Hugo creature...and holding my breath while submerged under killer waves was a skill we city kids never acquired. I made it clear to him that "for better or worse" did carry an exemption for level 5 hurricanes...he grumbled...I stood firm.
We headed into town for lunch, once again looking for a local place.

When we walked in, the crowd got quiet....but I swore I heard the word "goats". When the waitress came over, she was jumpy...

"Any word on Gus?" I asked quietly.

She stared at me.


"The guy with the goats?" I asked.

She looked hard at me for a minute...measuring. Then she lowered her voice.

"He hasn't loaded them yet." she almost whispered."I wanna leave...but...."

I nodded. This was a matter of honor, and pride. To leave before Gus was unthinkable. He was the annointed island oracle...leaving was a matter of being yellow---and the people who lived here all their lives came from people who had thumbed their noses at the sea for centuries. The Outer Banks is also called the Graveyard of the Sea...mostly because the currents, and storms constantly changed the terrain around the island. A perfect channel could turn sand spit overnight---and the smart ones knew it. Even the markers were less than anyone who took the ferry at nightfall could tell you. A misty night was mourned by fog horn...errie enough...but something about the search light scanning the waves...that would make your hackles rise.

And I knew better than to doubt about Gus. He meant something to the Islanders...and their actions could have been as much from respect, as belief. They waited...if the goats did they.

Back at the camp site, the couple from Ohio was once again trying to raise their poor tent. Those six inch pegs meant little under normal conditions...but take the winds that were combing those dunes...and forget it. We didn't speak to them...they had the look of a couple who was trying to figure who's bright idea this had been---not the time to shoot the breeze.

We crested the dune---and met an awesome sight. Flatlanders are awed by the Rockies...because they truly are huge---but land folk think they know what a cloud looks like---until they see one that fills the sky----from one end of the horizon to the other...and it's moving in slow----and falling like a fluffy cascade into the ocean.

The mist on my face felt like small cool wet kisses. I knew Hugo was coming---but it seemed wrong to leave...yet.
Standing on the dune, side by side, tiny people on a small spit of sand, watching the ocean start to roil---watching the waves swirl into each other like wet dervishes...I understood what he wanted to do. He wanted to face this monster...and live to tell the tale. Cojones of the soul maybe. We were already playing chicken---half the beach had vanished...and no---we weren't crazy...but maybe...just maybe we would wait see what Old Gus did. It didn't make us locals...but it beat the hell out of being a damned chicken .#%$ tourist.

That night the tent didn't dripped. Pouring rain the whole night long. The next morning the ranger came.
No if's and or buts----they were closing the campground at five---last ferry would leave for Hatteras at 1:00AM. Get you gone, yankees...time to pack up!

Ohio had already left in disgust. We had heard them all night---each time their ten gave way, soaking them again. Just before dawn, we could hear them stuffing things in their car. GAME OVER.

We spent the day watching the ocean---and it seemed like it had gone each wave couldn't decide where to go---or when. They just bitched slapped each other---then smashed to the shore.

We were amazed to find it near dinner time. Our gear was dried---stiff winds all day---We packed the car, and drove into town for dinner...the Inn was deserted looking...ours was the only car in the lot...but it was half full inside. The locals took advantage of the tourist exodus to have one last peaceful meal. We ate, and listened...and tried to look like we weren't listening. And when we had finished the last shared bite of key lime pie---the door shot open.

A man walked in---slickered. His face was that summer red tan you only get from long exposure. He looked damned serious. And he didn't yell as every pair of eyes in place fell on him. He didn't need to.

"He's packing them up."

And that fast---the restaurant emptied. Gus had decided that Hugo was a mean mother after all. I looked at my guy. Time to go? Almost. The last ferry was at 1:00 AM.

It was just 8:00. Another few hours to watch the insane ocean...and then...outta there. We drove to the beach---and the ghost crabs were out in force...scurrying up the dunes---trying to make the bay end---guided by God knew what instinct. The sound...amazing.....percussion of the waves...
and just as we were about to go---the clouds pulled back for just an instant---and the palest fullest white moon i had ever seen floated like a ghost balloon in the night sky---then vanished.

That was it for me...we made it to the Ferry landing in fifteen minutes. And when we pulled up to the ramp, I saw him. Little guy. I guess I expected Moses. But there was no doubting the respect that they had for the man. His goats were scrufty looking creatures...but they were secured in the flatbed of his pickup. When they loaded, he was placed at the front---and to our shock---they loaded us next. It was sort of like being asked to ride with Elvis---if you understood the islanders.

The ferry over was silent...and the islanders huddled by the rail, wondering what would be waiting them when Hugo was done playing. This was their life...all we had to do was outrun the bastard. They would have to deal with his temper. And I envied them. Yup. And I swore that someday I would come back to this pirate's playground---and spend a winter doing nothing but watching the ocean---and waiting to see who had bigger stones---the next storm---or me.

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