Earlier this month, residents of Cape Hatteras — the farthest seaward reach of our state’s Outer Banks — awoke to an unexpected gift from the sea. Bags of Doritos (both the Nacho Cheese and Cool Ranch varieties) had washed ashore by the thousands, a considerable improvement over the sargassum weed, snarled fishing lines, dead gannets and skate eggs that usually fetch up at Cape Point. As in former times, locals prowled the beach, gathering the unlooked-for benefits of someone else’s misfortune.
The “someone” in this case was the Great White Fleet Ltd., a Cincinnati-based shipping company that had lost three tractor-trailer-sized cargo containers from the freighter Courtney L during a nor’easter the week before. The “Dorito tide,” as it was immediately dubbed, moved directly from fact into legend; it’s the sort of thing that stooped elders will no doubt share with their dull-eyed kin one day around the fire, the space heater or whatever a warmer Earth calls for.
Yes, fables are still being made in North Carolina, a fact not likely to surprise cultural archaeologists Roger Kammerer and Tom Painter. Their new book, Forgotten Tales of North Carolina (The History Press, 2006), lays bare some of the weirder stuff reputed to have gone down around our state.
And so we have the story of a Greene County boy, surname Lassiter, who in 1894 was trotted out before a handful of local newspaper editors to prove, once and for all, that his eyes indeed had the word “America” imprinted around each pupil in dark brown. He was born that way, his parents told the men. Or maybe “borned.”
Also recounted is the story of one Ransom Sanders of Pantego in Beaufort County, who sired 40 children by six wives. Sanders, whose body was covered with “thick, long hair,” was said to have eschewed an overcoat even in the bitterest cold — and little wonder.
Natural phenomena abound here. In just one category, aquatic animals, Kammerer and Painter dredge up the following stories: a fish pulled out of the Pamlico River with a “mouth like a hog, feet like an alligator, stripes like a snake and ears covered in downy hair”; gangs of eels coming ashore to maraud a farmer’s pea patch; murderous muskrats attacking Outer Banks residents; an 18-foot-long shark hoisted from the sea near Beaufort — with a half-dozen smaller sharks swelling its belly; and a pair of oysters with false teeth attached to their shells.
Meteorological anomalies include black hail as well as showers of blood, rocks and bugs. There’s also a broad swath of human experience — a man who managed, by twists of lineage, to be his own grandfather; couples who found love well into their 100s; real-life hermits; and a fiddler whose trained monkey once saved him from suicide by hanging.
The authors are said to have gathered their material from newspaper and magazine accounts; state and local archives; and interviews with old, wizened subjects. And while, to our skeptical 21st-century ears, the book’s entries may have an echo of the telephone game about them, it’s hard to read Forgotten Tales without getting the sense that our home state has shed some of its weirdness over time. All the same, it pays to keep your eyes open — unless, of course, it’s raining blood.
The 150-page book is compact enough to tuck into a blazer pocket, making it perfect for church-pew browsing. But with its bite-sized morsels of the bizarre, Forgotten Tales of North Carolina may be most at home in the bathroom, which is not to diminish in any way either its authors’ scholarship or its value to society. On the contrary, that’s where some of us (this writer included) do the bulk of our learning. Now then, where’d I put my false teeth?