Edited excerpt of oral history recorded by Susan West for Cape Hatteras National Seashore’s “Ethnohistorical Description of the Eight Villages Adjoining Cape Hatteras National Seashore,” 2005, IAI Inc. with B. Garrity-Blake, lead ethnographer/writer. Map drawn by B. Garrity-Blake. Margaret Willis excerpt published as part of “Sound Stories,” Our State Magazine, Sept 2011.
The old people of Hatteras Island said you could smell a storm. My granddad would look at the sky and say ‘We’re going to get something bad, something’s coming, you can smell it in the air.”
The ’44 storm struck around the first of September. We were sitting on the porch and the sun was shining real pretty and the sea tide was coming up fast. We were kicking our feet in the tide from the porch. All of a sudden it started blowing the rain in. I guess the wind shifted. My dad sent us in the house upstairs with my mom. That tide, the sound tide, started coming. It got so bad that the waves were breaking on the back of our house and spattering in the upstairs window. We had them boarded up and it was coming through the cracks.
The tide came on in. My dad wanted to open the windows and doors and mama wouldn’t let him. She was scared. She didn’t want him to and that caused our house to float off the blocks. It busted out the windows. The water was to my dad’s neck downstairs in the hallway, up to the fifth step of our stairs. He had a big tool chest made out of wood. They had two boxes sitting on top of that, and a big ham that they had cooked so we would have it. As heavy as that chest was, the water turned it over. It washed the furniture out. The doors come open and the windows and the tide washed everything out the house.
We was upstairs, me and my brothers. My brother J.S. was toddling along - I can still see them fat little legs – singing, “Pistol packing mama, lay that pistol down.” Ronald Stowe’s party boat went through our yard. Big old boats had come loose. Looking out the window you couldn’t see anything but water. I thought we had washed in the sound. If one of them boats would have hit the house, it would have killed us. I guess the Lord was watching over us.
It seemed every September the tide would come in the house. All you did was wash the mud out and scrub the floors. My mom used to cry. She would get linoleum down and put curtains up and here would come a hurricane and it all rolled up in a knot, mud and all. Then they started painting the floors with light oak or dark oak floor paint. All you had to do was wipe out the mud.
My brother Larry was born just after the ’44 storm. He had spina bifida. The night he was born he was kicking just like any other little baby. He had a little place on his back about the size of a marble. But within a month’s time he didn’t kick no more and he was paralyzed from the waist down.
We carried him to Duke’s Hospital. We had to go across Pamlico Sound to Englehard on the Hadico. It was a freight boat. From Englehard we took some kind of a bus to Raleigh. Then we walked from there to the medical center.
They told mama that they couldn’t do anything for him. They said he wouldn’t live more than two or three years, and that she should put him in a home. He lived ten years, and wouldn’t have lived that long if my mom hadn’t taken such good care of him.
He was just our life then. We spent all our time playing with him. I would sit and rock him until my arms ached, just so he could sit up. He learned everything we learned in school. He was real happy and he was smart. His spine was pulled apart. He had part of it grow on the outside. The Methodist church here in Hatteras used to buy his alcohol and gauze pads to go on his back. They made all of his gowns and things that he wore when he was little. He wore diapers until he died.
My father’s family was from just outside Raleigh, North Carolina. My dad was in the CC camp down here when he met my mom. She was 25 and he was only 18, but he told her he was 25. Two years after they got married and I was born my grandma wrote him a letter and asked him how it felt to be a father at age 20. He had scratched over it and tried to put down 27. Mama asked him, “How old are you Mr. Layne?” He said, “I was afraid you wouldn’t marry me if I told you I was younger.”
Just before my father left they elected him Sheriff of Dare County. I don’t know what happened. I think he just woke up one day and found out he couldn’t handle it, four babies, one an invalid, and he was young. That’s what I try to tell myself anyway. I remember the morning he left. My mama asked him if he was going to bring my brother some potatoes home for lunch. He said he hoped to. We heard that my father just threw his gun, holster and all, overboard on the way to Englehard on the Hadico. That’s how he left.
My grandfather took us in. It had to be hard - four kids, as old as he was. But I never heard him complain. He used to clam all day long in the sound near Ocracoke Inlet. He would tote them clams on his back up the road.
I was married and my young’uns were little before I ever seen my father again. He came back with his wife and his family. That was first time knowing that I had other brothers and sisters. I didn’t see them again until he died about five years ago and his oldest son kept me informed. They’ve been coming down, back and forth. They’re the sweetest brothers and sisters that anybody could have. I love them dearly.
We’ve had a lot of hard times. But true love has outweighed it all.