The First Installment of a Short Story
Ira Hopkin quit school when he was fourteen years old. But in 1940 that was not an uncommon practice for the youth of fishing and farming communities in the southeast coastal areas of Northern Carolina. Then, males that age knew most of what was needed to be proficient in their families’ trades. In that day and time, boys in rural communities were self-disciplined, hard-working contributors to their families’ well being, generally speaking.
This was doubly true for Ira. Nothing derogatory could be said about young Hopkin’s work ethic, that’s for sure. Of the seven Hopkin children, Ira, the middle child, was probably the most diligent at the tasks he was asked to perform by either of his parents.
Albeit, being the only boy among six girls, the mores of the day allowed him little in the way of competition.
Even before quitting school, Ira was up at dawn with his father to begin the chores. And then, after the school bus deposited him at the top of the long winding dirt path to his home, Ira scurried to either join his father in the fields or to be with him at the sound where the skiff and dory were moored and where Henry Hopkin often sat designing fishing nets and seines for himself and other local fishermen.
Already Ira had learned that craft from his father and even at his young years considered himself a master seine maker. Henry did not argue the fact. “The boy is a quick learner,” the elder Hopkin often remarked.
After having learned to read, write and cipher, Ira had lost interest in school. The last couple of years he found it tedious and boring, though the teacher’s monthly report indicated he was passing all subjects with flying colors.
Still, Ira carried a yearning to leave school. He would rather have been fishing in the ocean, flounder gigging in the sound or shrimping in sloughs. But he dare not mention this to his parents. He knew his good grades and the promise of a high school diploma was a source of pride to them. He’d watched his father nod his head as he perused the grade card from school.
The gleam in his mother’s eye was undeniable too, as Mae stood alongside her husband reading the comments from the teacher. Everything was above average, everything indicated that Ira had the potential to be special.
Like so many, the Hopkins believed education was the only way to become successful and therefore, a better person. But Ira knew too that his father found joy spending the long days on the water with him. It was different there–on the ocean where the sense of accomplishment was more powerful–much more powerful than the grade card from school.
There, on the water, the two shared a feeling of determination as they pulled on the net, or reeled in a big mackerel. They toiled together, sharing sweat and groans of exertion, then laughter when a task was completed.
It took both of them to do the tasks and once the fish were in the boat, there was the satisfaction of knowing there would be enough money to purchase things needed–even a few things wanted. But the greatest sense of fulfillment came from the fishing experience itself and being part of the ocean. It offered an acknowledgement of the presence of the surrounding power and was God-like. Nothing could compare.
Henry knew that saltwater ran in his son’s veins, as it did his. The farming, working the land and growing food, was just a means to an end. He suspected his son felt that way too.
As always, Ira and his father made sure the farming chores were completed–that the corn, beans and squash were planted and harvested. Those were the foods that got them through the winter.
There was an unspoken bond between them, the men, using their brute strength, enduring the weather, nurturing their crops, sweating in the sun–while the women nurtured them and provided in their own ways for the family.
They were a family, each helping to make life as good as possible, each with their own foibles and personalities–different, but one.
However, things were changing in the Hopkin household. Subtly at first, Ira suspected that the girls really didn’t notice, but his mother did. He saw it in her eyes, in her expressions.
Henry Hopkin just didn’t seem to have the stamina he once did. He tired more easily and ate less. Ira had noticed the bagginess of his father's trousers and the diminishing strength in his arms.
Because of his father’s declining health, by the spring of 1939 Ira was doing most of the planting. It had to be done, but then as soon as he could, he readied the dory for fishing. Fishing was the best, according to Ira. He and his father agreed on that. Even Mae commented on the light in her “boys'” eyes when they readied for a fishing trip. “You always get your strength back when you know you’re going fishing,” she had commented on more than one occasion. And when spring rolled around, Mae watched them repair any faults with the boats and busy themselves with mending any tears in the net.
With the spring came the running of the blue fish. They would be heading north from Florida, following pop-eye mullet and menhaden, as those smaller fish migrated north too.
Ira could not remember a time when he did not help his father with fishing in some way. The two went together, his father and the ocean. He could not imagine one without the other. Both represented a world different than the one in the house they lived in. Was it because there, on the ocean, it was a man’s world? He wasn’t sure. But Ira knew he loved being on the water–the world where he breathed a different air. Oh, his mother and the girls would help salt the fish and pack them in barrels to be sold to the markets. But they couldn’t know or understand what it was like to be on the ocean.
His six sisters were like other young girls of their time, they did the cleaning and cooking, mending and tending. They stayed home or near it, and rarely ventured to the docks and were never on the water.
The two oldest had found beaus and married. Lilly now lived in Fayetteville with her husband Ralph, and Clara had gone to Richlands with her husband Harold.
Eighteen-year-old Olivia, teased often for being boyfriend-less, was valedictorian of her class at Topsail School in nearby Hampstead and had applied for scholarships to attend the college in Wilmington. After graduation she would be moving there to live with Aunt Inez.
Soon, Ira would be the oldest of the Hopkin children at home. The thought warmed him, as he’d never liked being teased and bossed about by the older girls who always referred to him as baby brother. Perhaps that was why he’d always chosen to do things outside, particularly in one of the boats–far away from the girl’s chiding. There he could be alone, be his own man, his own person. There, his sisters held no knowledge or interest. Ira liked his older sisters. Yes, he even loved them, but for whatever reason, he knew he would not miss them terribly.
On the other hand, his younger sisters looked up to him, one or more was always asking for him to ride them on his shoulders or to push them in the tire swing in the yard.
Vera and Theda, were eleven and nine, respectively. They were starting to get a little big for him to carry around, but he did it nevertheless, just to hear them giggle and brag about their big strong brother.
Little Gale, only five, and light as a feather, was the apple of his eye. She was the shy one and rarely joined in the banter between him and the other sisters, rarely played with her doll and seemed to prefer digging in the soft spongy marsh where the hermit crabs lived.
The hem of her dress was muddy so often that Mae Hopkin eventually let her wear only her underpants outside to play. Of course, she was teased by the other sisters and as a result, Gale kept her distance. Suspecting that some of that shyness was feigned due to fear of ridicule. Ira felt he shared a kindred spirit with the child.
Often when either was being teased by a sibling, the two would share a knowing look. It was like they shared a secret, an unspoken one–somewhat like the bond he had with his father.
On days when Ira and Henry took to the water, Gale was the only one who would follow them down to the dock and watch as they motored the dory around the stand of water oaks and out of sight.
Every once in a while, Henry Hopkin would gather his daughter to pull her into the skiff and take her for a ride. Ira usually steered while Gale sat on her father’s lap. Above the roar of the outboard, Ira could hear very little that his father and sister said. But he did observe the tenderness of little Gale’s hand reaching back to caress her father’s face as he spoke softly into her ear.
If the ocean was too rough for fishing, Henry would take his daughter out to fish in the sound. But they did not venture out through the inlet with Gale though she begged and begged. Mae was adamant about not taking such a young girl into the ocean. And Henry abided by his wife’s wishes.
Still, in the evenings when Henry and Ira returned from a long day of working on the water, Gale would be waiting, waving as the outboard sputtered and as the boat was guided to its mooring.
She was the only sister to watch as father and son unloaded crates of seafood. She watched as Ira stood before the dockside table cleaning the fish, deftly settling the long thin knife beneath the pectoral fin before slicing the head off, then piercing the flesh just before the pelvic fin and dragging the knife back to let the guts spill out. As he had learned from Henry, Ira described each organ and explained their use in the body of the fish before sweeping the innards away into the water.
“Is that right, Daddy?” Gale always turned to ask her father if Ira was correct in his descriptions. Henry would nod as he stood silently next to his son, allowing the relationship between the two siblings to grow.
Gale was mesmerized by it all. It was at her age that Ira had begun going out with his father to gather shellfish in the sound and troll for blues in the Atlantic. Realizing how young a five year old really was, Ira was astounded that his father had let him go out beyond the inlet.
Part of Issue 19: