Ocracoke in 1969
From an old postcard: aerial view of Ocracoke, 1969.

By Earle Irwin

“Do you remember when Howard’s Pub was on the opposite side of the road?”

“Howard’s Pub was never on the other side of the road!”

“It was. Remember driving away from endless rains at the campground, turning left into a gravel parking lot, fleeing inside with only trash bags to deflect the downpour? The table tops were backgammon boards and we played until the place closed down for the night.”

“That was some other boyfriend. Do you remember when the post office was downtown?”

“Of course, the building is still called ‘Old Post Office’. I biked there to collect my General Delivery mail the summer that my brother and I camped at the national park campground as long as they allowed campers to stay at that time. Three weeks, I think. And it was free.”
“The campground was never free.”

“Well, I remember that it was. And the showers were out-in-the-open hand pumps. The next summer the park service built plywood partitions around them. You don’t know what torture is until you’ve stood naked and sunburned, hand-pumping ice water onto yourself.”

This conversation is typical of one my husband and I may have on a rainy day in Ocracoke as we pass the time indoors.

This summer as I packed for our annual two-week stay, I reminisced across the many years that I’ve been coming to Ocracoke. My first trip was so long ago that two ferry rides were required to get there from Nags Head. The second trip was the summer that the Bonner Bridge opened. My brother and I lamented one less opportunity to feed bread crusts to the gulls that trailed the ferries across the sound. Although my husband and I did not meet until long after college, we independently made many forays to the island in teenage and young adult years. And those independent memories are often the ones we argue the most, certain that it is the other’s memory that fails.

How does memory work anyway, that we often have such different recall of the very same place? Likely readers of this dispatch will say of the memories that follow, “It wasn’t that way at all.”  Google will bring me the answers to all the mysteries of the universe, and so I consult its oracle.

The Human Memory sheds light on these differences:

Recall or retrieval of memory refers to the subsequent re-accessing of events or information from the past, which have been previously encoded and stored in the brain. In common parlance, it is known as remembering. During recall, the brain “replays” a pattern of neural activity that was originally generated in response to a particular event, echoing the brain’s perception of the real event. In fact, there is no real solid distinction between the act of remembering and the act of thinking. These replays are not quite identical to the original, though–otherwise we would not know the difference between the genuine experience and the memory–but are mixed with an awareness of the current situation. One corollary of this is that memories are not frozen in time, and new information and suggestions may become incorporated into old memories over time. Thus, remembering can be thought of as an act of creative re-imagination.

 When my husband and I play this game of creative reimagining, questions arise. Perhaps readers have the answers.

Was there ever a shack at the end of Lighthouse Road where clam rakes could be rented and put to use in the nearby sound? One of us swears to the memory of clamming there with those provisions.

Was there an art gallery in the Variety Store, in the area where flip flops and BVDS are now sold?

Where was the lunch counter that served fountain Tab? One of us remembers a daily treat there, a fortification before return to the amenity-deprived campground. Was it adjacent to what is now Tradewinds, possibly in the portion that Jason’s now occupies?

What happened to the wind-swept tree that stood north of the campground, on the opposite side of the highway, at the bend in the road? My family took an annual photo there, parking on a sandy pull-off, walking several yards into a glen of yaupons. Curious after a ranger-talk at the visitor center, we gathered yaupon leaves and brewed tea over a campfire.

Once rickety wooden fences, identical to the ones that held back snow drifts during our blizzardy Ohio winters, protruded from the sea-oat covered sand dunes while the skeletons of what we supposed to be pirate ships protruded from the surf. Where did they all go?

Identities of distinct personalities encountered on the island are even foggier memories. Who was the kindly townswoman with a van full of children who pulled my brother and me in our carburetor-flooded Ford Maverick from the water-logged shoulder of Highway 12 using only a cotton clothesline as tow rope? We’d fled the campground for the day, leaving our tent standing in a foot of pooled water as a monsoon raged.

Who was the officer of the law who gave me a ride into the village? The engine of my ancient VW van wouldn’t turn over; my bicycle had a flat tire.  My thumb served as the only other means of viable transport into town. His vehicle stopped and so did my heart when the man in uniform commanded me to get in. As we drove toward town, my mind frantically searched for a memory: is there an Ocracoke village jail?  The officer’s stern words: “Young lady, you probably think because there’s only one road on this island and only ferries at either end, this is a safe place for a girl to hitchhike.” I nodded my confession as he continued, “And basically you’d be right. But we still frown on it.”

We find that our early Ocracoke memories grow foggier the farther we stray from the island and the more months that pass between our visits. Back to the Google oracle to discover the source of this fog:

From ScienceDaily,  January 27, 2014:

How much detail can you reliably recall in your childhood memories? Actually, very little, according to a new study. Writing in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, three UK-based psychologists asked 127 people to recall four of their earliest childhood memories about which they were absolutely certain. They were also asked questions about specific details.

When the results were analyzed, the researchers found that participants were much more likely to remember some sorts of details than others. The ‘what,’ ‘where’ and ‘who’ were commonly remembered. Other details—what the participants were thinking at the time, the weather, or their age, the time of day the event took place, or what they were wearing were even less likely to be recalled…Wells and her colleagues state: “There is no simple relationship between accuracy [of memories] and the details, of any type, that can be recalled.”

The authors conclude that “some confidence can be placed in the recall of the ‘who, where, and what’ of a confidently remembered childhood event; other specific details are, however, less likely to be recalled.” They suggest that what we might think of as detailed childhood memories are in fact our brains non-consciously ‘filling in’ “specific details that have not in fact been remembered.”

This new study gives those in the legal and caring professions a “normative profile” of adult accounts of childhood memories, to help them sort out childhood fact from adult fiction.

And so my spouse and I continue to sort facts from any fictional memories of our long ago Ocracoke experiences:

Who sold us tomatoes and fresh produce? That memory can be agreed upon and confirmed. Owen Gaskill’s deserted produce stand still stands in the family front yard along Lighthouse Road. Nearby his widow Della now sells us fig preserves, another fond memory from produce stand days, from her tiny “Woccocon Gifts” cottage. One of us argues a memory of also buying fish from him, earlier, at a pier on Silver Lake, at the end of what is now Silver Lake Drive. Did that really happen?

Village shops come and go. Wasn’t there once a seashell shop in someone’s front room along Highway 12, perhaps Boyette’s or Oscar’s House? I remember a benevolent proprietor offering a cool glass of water as I browsed for shells after a sweaty bike ride from the campground.

Wasn’t there a chocolate shop on the docks near Captain’s Landing—perhaps a competitor with Candyland on British Cemetery Road, now also a mere memory, but one that’s left visible reminders throughout the present day village?

Wasn’t the best clam chowder on Ocracoke once served in the Island Inn dining room? And who remembers The Pelican, a predecessor of Dajio and a fond memory of a first anniversary celebration?

Wasn’t there a mid-village road paved with concrete slabs that once carried military vehicles across the sand from beach to sound? Like lost roads, so can be our memories.

Memory: How Do We Remember What We Know?

Imagine memory as a massive, multidimensional spider web. This image captures what is…perhaps the most important property of information stored in memory–its interconnectedness. One thought leads to another. It is possible to start at any one point in memory and follow a…labyrinthine path to reach any other point. Information is retrieved by tracing through the network of interconnections to the place where it is stored.

And so we play our memory game, reminiscing our way along the roads and paths of Ocracoke, while awaiting the impressions of other readers to set those memories into concrete slabs.

Earle Irwin

Earle Irwin of Blacksburg, VA, is a writer and semi-retired psychotherapist/clinical nurse specialist. A highlight of her year is the two weeks she and her husband Bob Lineberry spend on Ocracoke Island every May. 

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