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H. O. Golden: a man's work

by David Cecelski. "Listening to History," News & Observer. Published 6/12/2005. Copyrighted.
Reprinted with permission.

I visited Hildred "H.O." Golden at his home in the remote fishing village of Stumpy Point, on the far edge of Pamlico Sound. He has been a commercial fisherman all his life and, by reputation, one of the finest. Now 81, he is part of the last generation of Carolina watermen who grew up building their own boats, making their own nets, and raising or catching pretty much everything that their families put on the dinner table. A soft-spoken, fastidious man, deeply devoted to his church and community, he is known for his uncompromisingly high standards of conduct on and off the water. We talked all day about his childhood years and the remarkable way that he built his first fishing boat, and then he sent me home with some mighty salty oysters.

In H. O. Golden's words:
"I grew up in Sealevel until I was 17 years old. It was just a small fishing community. It had several stores and a big oyster shucking place, steam house, one of the biggest on the coast. Women shucked the oysters and the men handled the shells. They'd steam about four carloads at a time, which is about 20 bushels to a car, and pull them out of the steam chest and throw them up on the tables, where the women could get to them. That was a big operation in those days.

The shell piles, I never saw such big piles in my life. They looked like mountains. In the summertime, the old sailboats would come and load them up and bring them different places and sell them to the farmers. Put them on their farms for lime. They'd bring them raw, but the farmer would grind them up. All the oysters were caught by sailboats! Old flat-bottomed sharpies, two-mast boats, most of them.

When my dad was coming along, there was no power in boats. It was all sailboats. They had a rough life. Core Sound was shallow. In the wintertime, the cold weather would run the fish to deeper water, so they worked around the mouth of Neuse River and Long Bay, the north side of the county.

They were away from home, and with sailboats it was too far from home to come back every night. Most of the time, they'd spend a week. They had camps around on the edges of the place, but if they were away from the camp, night come, they just went up a creek somewhere and got out, took their sail, made them a tent and cooked on wood fires.

I went a many a night with them. Daddy would go off sometimes two weeks at a time. I imagine I was probably 7 or 8 years old the first time. We camped right on the boat. You start young, and most all of the other kids would be doing the same thing. A boy was doing a man's work.

'Course now, I wasn't worth as much then as I was later on. A kid that age, you're going to fall down to sleep anywhere. I'd get under the bow of the skiff, throw my head back and fall to sleep. After we got ready to set the net around the fish, my dad would call me and I'd get up and I'd help push the net out.

We were mostly catching mullets; sometimes other fish, but mostly mullets. They were a night fish. The way we found the fish, we listened for them in the water. You could hear them. They'd be jumping, flouncing, in the water. We pushed the net out with oars mostly and just made a circle, and we had a kerosene lantern and we'd raise that lantern up and bang it. That would scare them and they would go into the net.

Instead of sitting around shooting the breeze, talking, telling tales, in them days, you told your tales while you were working. If you were off on a fish trip, when you weren't fishing, when the weather was bad, instead of sitting around loafing, you were making corks or you were making wooden net needles. Didn't have plastic corks then. Didn't have plastic.

Same thing at home. If somebody came to visit, they didn't sit there and twiddle their fingers. They'd sit there and tie net. All the nets we used were knit in the home. When the womenfolks weren't cooking or cleaning, they'd be tying net. There was something to do all the time.

I enjoyed being out on the water. I guess it's the way I was raised. Sometimes during the day, when we didn't have fish to clean, we'd get out in the marsh or woods wherever we happened to be tied up. We'd get around, do different things. I remember we'd go catch little black ducks in the marsh. We'd put them in a paper box and kill flies and feed the flies to the little ducks. Things like that were entertaining to a kid.

After the war, I came home and started building a boat to go to work with, a 42-foot boat. Like a lot of boys back then, I followed more or less right into what my father did. And I guess I thought I could do most anything with tools.

I had a landing barge, one of these government landing barges that the ramp lowered down. I had a neighbor over here and I got him to go with me. We went through Croatan Sound, up Alligator River, and right up the head of Mill Tail Creek, about seven miles in the woods, and found a patch of juniper.

I had a crosscut saw. Didn't have chain saws then. We cut them trees, and I rigged a snatch-block up another tree over the creek and run the pull lines back in there through that snatch block. I started the boat up and run down the creek, pulled the logs right in the creek.

Then I lowered the ramp down and I had block and tackle, so I could pull them right up that ramp, load the boat. Must have had 20, 25 trees. I had her full.

Coming back, we made out fine until we got down here this side of Marshes lighthouse. The wind shifted that evening. Blowwwwed. The bark from the trees had got the bilge pump stopped up and I couldn't get to it to clear it out because of those logs. We had a time getting in the bay, but we made it.

There was a little sawmill down here at Engelhard, right on the creek. I knew the fellow that run it, Mr. Long. I went down there and unloaded them, and he sawed the lumber and dressed it. I loaded it on the barge and went to Sealevel and I built the first trawler I had. Then I took the motor out of the barge, put it in her. That was the Tradewinds.

I've been known to do foolish things all my life. But without borrowing money, that's the only way I could do it. I wanted to do it myself, and I never did want to borrow any money. I was just different, I guess."

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