By Lou Ann Houman
I remember a spectacular morning, fog rising, loons calling, an occasional splash in an otherwise peaceful morning. I took photos of everything. We pulled close to a small island to photograph it when from behind the island came a silent gliding kayak with two folks aboard. In the mist all we could see were the dark shadows of the paddlers against the rising sun. I took several photos, but within minutes the sun burst out from behind the mist and the magic was gone.
My Uncle told me photography is a metaphor for life. You think you know what is in front of you or where you are going, and then something new comes into your life, unexpectedly…good or bad.
I am thinking of my Uncle today as I rise early to photograph the flags on Ocracoke Island. It is July 4th and the day is brilliant, the sky is the color of sapphires tossed up into the air. I hop on my bike and head down Howard Street stopping at Chris and Betty’s house. Their wind blown flag hangs from an old live oak tree. I stop to chat about the day ahead…the parade, the fireworks, a big day on a small island.
I stop next at the harbor where Rob’s schooner is decked with flags high up on the mast, and the lines are decorated as well. I lie on the dock to get some good shots. I like this photographer role that I am playing.
I continue around the harbor and photograph small flags in gardens, around the fish house, on porch posts and on small watercrafts bobbing in the water.
I circle around when I hear the sound of fireworks across the water and see the patterns and sparkles in the sky. I think it is a preview of the evening’s activities. In what must have been a nanosecond, I realize I am wrong as a huge explosion shakes the entire island. The sky fills with an enormous white cloud that contrasts with the tossed up sapphires. I am in such a state of disbelief that I forget my camera is in my hand. Then I begin the photographs. I catch the cloud, the fire, the rescue helicopters. I catch the day.
Folks come out of cottages and small hotel rooms. No one can stop looking. The sirens begin. Helicopters come from Greenville and Chapel Hill to carry off the dead and injured. Hatteras sends in reinforcements although the fire trucks and ambulances must come a distance and be transported by the one waiting ferry. All the other ferries have discontinued service.
Everything stops. We are in slow motion and a dark veil wraps itself around the island and ties itself into a knot. Word spreads from neighbor to neighbor. No islanders were injured when the fireworks truck exploded, but all the folks from the pyrotechnics crew are involved. Four die. One will live but will need therapy the rest of his life. He is 31.
I do not need to be told that everything is canceled. I know from within my heart. This small village goes into mourning. Our volunteer rescue workers are the heroes as they rise to the occasion, keeping the island safe and secure from fires in the brush and caring for the injured.
A group of us gather for a potluck on this evening feeling the need to be together. We grill out, we talk, we whisper, but on this night we do not laugh heartily. We are hollow inside.
Before the night is over, Sundae brings out her traditional cake decorated like a flag with blueberries and strawberries for the stars and stripes. We gather in the kitchen and sing “The Star Spangled Banner” holding hands.
I think about my Uncle, he is right. We go in search of one thing and another event takes its place.
I take my bike and ride the dark lanes home. The village is quiet on this July 4th night. Empty. I know that sleep will not come easily to this island out to sea.