By Della Gaskill
Edited by Pat Garber
Della Gaskill, 74 years old, describes what it was like to grow up on Ocracoke Island in a family of fishermen and hunting guides. The following is excerpted from a book she is presently working on.
My daddy was a fisherman and my uncle and my grandfather fished with him also. They did long haul fishing and they caught lots of fish. A lot of times, he would take me, and I would watch them. My sister would go once and a while, but she didn’t like it as much as I did.
The main thing my daddy would let me do is steer his boat. And I loved that. I would always get in the boat with my dad. My uncle had a boat and they would have this long net, I don’t know how many yards the net was, but it was a huge thing. They would have one end of the staff that the net was connected to on one boat and then they had the other end on the other boat. They would haul the channel in back of Ocracoke Island, and they would bring those two ends of the net together. When they would get it together the boats would be tighter and the nets would be together. Then the men would get overboard after they had pulled it together and there was all those fish and sharks and sting rays and all kinds of fish that was in those nets. Sometimes when they’d get them out of the nets and put them in one of the boats that they had (cause they had an extra boat just to put the fish in), the boat would be loaded and sometimes the boat would just about sink they would catch so many fish. But they got so little pay for them in them days. They might have got a cent and a half for one kind a fish and they may got half a cent for another kind. Like for a spot or a hogfish they might get half a cent. And that was their living. They made a little bit at it but it wasn’t a lot of money but it was still good to have that to do.
Sometimes Daddy and Uncie and Papa caught a big sea turtle in their nets and they would bring it home for us to eat. What I’d give to have some of it today, but you can’t eat it anymore. They won’t let you kill sea turtles today or eat them either.
In the winter time Daddy, Uncie, and Papa would go scalloping. They would have gallon jars and they would open the scallops and put the scallops in the jars and sell them by the gallon. And I would always help them open the scallops. I loved to open scallops. It was something I loved to do and I always helped them whenever they caught any. So that was another means of a little bit of money too.
In the fall of the year, October and November, Uncie and Daddy and Papa would also take out fishing parties in the boat and also on the beach. Them days my uncle had a big commando vehicle which he took to the beach to fish and Daddy and Papa would go with them. They would catch a lot of drum which is very good to eat, drum fish are the best. They stayed at our house and Mama cooked for them and I helped her. I also waited the tables. She cooked clam chowder and oyster stew and clam and oyster fritters. They weren’t much for frying individual clams or oysters, but she made them into cakes, real thin cakes. She also made cole slaw because the fishermen loved her cole slaw. Also corn bread and sometimes baked fish with potatoes and onions. They loved it because they didn’t get that kind of cooking anywhere else.
They became good friends of my family. Mama would pack a lunch for them so they wouldn’t have to come in for lunch. Mama made pimento cheese. It was the best pimento cheese I have ever ate. I wish I knew how she made it.
One time when I was twelve or so I went out fishing with Daddy and my sister Elizabeth and a lot of others and I caught 27 fish, bluefish and mackerel mostly. I was seasick but I didn’t quit because I kept catching fish. The rest of them wasn’t catching any but I just kept catching them even though I was sick.
Years back my grandfather and my daddy and my uncle had a camp down below and they took out hunters and they all stayed in the camp. The building it wern’t that big but they had a stove down there and they could keep warm and cook. The people would come from all over the country. They couldn’t bring a vehicle over here then. They come on the mail boat, the Aleta. That was before Frazier Peele put a couple boats together and made it big enough so he could carry a couple cars down from Hatteras and land them on the beach. That sand was soft when they got the cars off and a lot of times they would get stuck in the sand. The freight boat, before Frazier Peele’s ferry, brought one or two cars from Washington, but the hunters, they usually came over on the mail boat.
My daddy and uncle and the hunters would stay down there all week. They had to walk down there before my uncle got a vehicle and it was a long way. They carried enough blankets and pillows and stuff to use while they was staying down there. I don’t know if they had any beds, they most likely slept on the floor. Daddy and them took the hunters out to Clark’s Reef, which is where his blinds were located. There was a lot of camps down there people from the island had. That’s what they had to do in the wintertime to keep them going.
They did a lot of things to help us to grow up and have a good life growing up in the home and making a living for their family. But their main work was fishing.
Look for Della’s book, to be published later this year, in Outer Banks shops, and visit her in her own shop on Lighthouse Road in Ocracoke.