While making face-to-face small talk — a pastime that seems lost in an information age of texts, emails and tweets — with one of the folks with whom I work at Cherry Point, the subject of summer came up. Specifically, we made small talk of summers in Eastern North Carolina Down East on Harkers Island from where my coworker hails.
The lazy — or so they seemed — summers of our youth hold special memories for most of us. So our small talk centered on special summer memories half a century ago, memories still vivid because of their importance. Growing up on Harkers Island and the Rose Bros. Boat Works became our small talk du jour.
I’m from “off,” as anyone is not from Harkers Island, although the friendliness of the island’s residents means there are few strangers, “save for possibly a Yankee from ‘off’ like you,” my coworker quips with a twinkle in his eye.
And being a Yankee from “off,” growing up near big city Cleveland, Ohio, my childhood memories are landlocked and void of salt air, ocean breezes and the lexicon, sights and sound of boat building. So my coworker’s treasure chest of childhood memories, so different from those of my own, holds great interest for me.
A 1985 column about Harkers Island by staff writer Charles Hillinger from, of all places, the Los Angeles Times, quotes then 80-year-old Harkers Islander Lloyd Willis who described Harkers Island boats, including those built at the Rose Bros. Boat Works: “You can spot a Harkers Island boat easy,” said Willis, “by the design, by the flare bows, by the style of craftsmanship.”
In 1985, Willis had been a boat maker for 66 years, ever since he was 14. “Haven’t quit yet,” Hillinger quoted Willis as saying nearly 30 years ago.
I imagine Lloyd Willis must still be building boats. But he does so now for an even mightier purpose: for the trip across the endless sea to the Great Beyond.
Just like Lloyd Willis builds them, my Down East coworker remembers James Rose and his brother Earl — the Rose Bros. — building boats without plans. He remembers James and Earl using string to form and visualize the distinctive Harkers Island flare of the bow. LA Times writer Hillinger quoted Lloyd Willis’ son, then 44-year-old Captain Billy Willis, in his 1985 column: “No one here uses blueprints or elaborate plans to build the boats. It’s all in our heads. We’re born with this talent.”
Computers? Fancy drafting equipment? Industrial machinery? Plastic? No. The Rose Bros. boats were built without blueprints by the eyes of generational wooden boat builders. They used innate talent. Months of experienced hand work. Love of the craft. Simple tools.
My coworker remembers the brothers’ “old-fashioned” folding wooden rulers used so much that their friction locks were worn smooth. The rulers would fall open without an extra hand to hold and measure. He remembers the brothers using adjustable squares pivoting at a wing nut to calculate cutting and laying angles of the juniper and pine planks used to build the boats.
At the approving sway of the salt marsh grass and screech of sea gulls, a simple ramp from the Rose Bros. warehouse launched the boats into Core Sound.
The brothers’ deaths, a couple of years apart from each other, spelled the end of the Rose Bros. Boat Works on Harkers Island, but not the end of their influence. Memories of their extraordinary skills subsist, and of simpler times when worn, folding, wooden tools ruled the day.
Far better than instant messaging can ever hope to, summertime small talk vividly recalls treasures found by a young boy on Harkers Island half a century ago. But it also can point us toward our ultimate rendezvous with Captains Lloyd Willis and James and Earl Rose — and other Harkers Islander boat builders like them — and to our certain adventure across the endless sea to the Great Beyond.
Barry Fetzer is a columnist for the Havelock News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.