A Changed Man
How Florence and a turkey shoot made me a better soul
I, your faithful Lord Wilmington, am a changed man.
I dare say the gasbags in Britain’s House of Commons, which I ruled as speaker with a leisurely and well-manicured hand 300 years ago, wouldn’t recognize me if I trod right over their improperly polished buckled pumps. They were quite fond of saying I had muscles the texture of milk, which also matched my skin color.
While it was true I used face powder liberally and skillfully, their assertion that I was too weak to swing the Parliamentary gavel was a gross exaggeration typical of the loose talk that infected politics then, as it does now. (As my beloved mother, Mary Noel, liked to say, “Loose talk is the least and the worst all in the same breath.”)
No, I deferred the gavel-pounding to my assistant because of the infernal clatter and the possibility of breaking a fingernail. At the time I maintained my tall and willowy figure by gardening and sitting farthest from the dining table, near the bottle of port.
But since arriving here to immerse myself in this fair and aqueous city named for me, I, Lord Spencer Compton, the Earl of Wilmington, have grown vastly in both size and strength. It began with long walks throughout the realm, acquainting myself with peers and commoners alike, as well as with the architecture and the amazingly rich and diverse land that I had given my noble protege Gabriel Johnston to govern.
My Queen Street landlord, Marcus Holmes, took one look at my aforementioned milkiness and convinced me to start surfing and fishing the many beaches in the area. I began wearing short pants without hose for the first time and slowly bronzing my skin to the color of the slightly sweetened tea I’ve grown to prefer.
While Holmes laughed at the sight of my overly tall figure tentatively surfing Wrightsville Beach — “you look like Ichabod Crane on a tongue depressor,” he quipped — I have learned to understand and love this so-called “salt life.”
But it was Florence who completely changed me. No, not a woman (although I now have a female companion for the first time), but the hurricane.
On the blustery day Florence was to arrive, Holmes brought a large chainsaw and placed it in front of me at the dining table. “This will be your companion for a while, Lord Compton,” he said. “Let us acquaint you with it.” (In exchange for shepherding me through my new life, I am teaching him the proper King’s English.) Since he had introduced me to one of my favorite new pastimes — motorcycling — I listened intently to his instructions on how to wield and maintain the powerful Stihl MS-391, which he assured me would make a man of me, “or, if you don’t watch out, a half-a-man.”
The next morning, while the leaden and unexpectedly dry skies announced the vast eye of the hurricane had arrived, we went to work opening the neighborhood streets blocked by the trees we had heard crashing down through that long, wild night.
“Shouldn’t we wait for the city workers to do this, or at least for the storm to depart?” I asked, looking uncertainly at the smoldering, bomblike skies above Fifth and Castle streets.
“That’s not how we roll in Coastal Carolina,” Holmes replied.
“How we proceed,” I corrected him somewhat nervously.
For the next three weeks I chainsawed in the streets, on the sidewalks, in trees, in our yard and those of neighbors and friends. Each night I would drop into bed like someone bludgeoned. Each morning Holmes would bring us to some new family to help. I dragged branches until my arms and legs screamed like the human geese in my old House of Commons.
We walked roofs to clear or patch them. I helped the practically superhuman Allen Walker (Wilmington’s Tom Sawyer of WalkerWorld fame) saw and nail Tennessee timbers onto his father’s Queen Street shop roof, half of which had been ripped away.
I must repeat something I heard more than a few local residents say:
“Hurricane Florence was the best thing to happen to me.” For these people, mostly commoners, insurance settlements and federal disaster relief meant new roofs to replace worn-out ones; it brought new floors and furniture they had only dreamed of purchasing; and inspired home, garage and yard clean-ups that had been put off for years.
But for me, Florence made me a bigger, better person. My milky muscles grew beefy and corded. “So hard a cat couldn’t scratch ’em,” as my landlord crudely but proudly stated. Before I came to Wilmington, I could wear a size 44 silk waistcoat, with brocaded trim. Now I’m wearing a 52-long Levi’s jacket.
“I think you’re ready for a turkey shoot,” Holmes said once the nonstop clean-up finally eased. He knows how much I want to absorb all things Coastal Carolina.
“By all means,” I replied, envisioning an invigorating canter over the countryside, the booming of musketry blending with the cries of beaters flushing the fowl.
“What shall I wear? Hunting shirt? Breeches with spatterdashes?”
“Nope. Just jeans, a sweatshirt and your chainsaw boots.”
We drove north on Route 17 past Hampstead and Holly Ridge, turning west into the deep country just before Jacksonville, the sun setting on this crisp, first Saturday in November.
There was a fire in a barrel and a crowd around it when we pulled up behind the Haws Run Volunteer Rescue Squad near Cow Barn Road. This local rescue squad was born in 1974, I soon learned from proud volunteers. Before that, injured or seriously ill residents who didn’t have kin to take them to the hospital had to call the local funeral home for help and transport.
“But where are the turkeys?” I asked.
“In the freezer,” Holmes replied as my smartly attired ladyfriend quickly befriended some of the girls cavorting around the fire barrel.
“Years ago they had live turkeys you could win,” said Frank Rackley, who, at 73, said he’s “as old as my tongue and a little older than my teeth.” He wore a cast on his hand from a fall while working on a nearby Florence-battered church.
You don’t shoot at turkeys, he explained from a padded bench by the fire, but at paper targets stapled to 12 lighted posts roughly 30 yards away.
For $3 you get a shotgun shell filled with birdshot to fire at your designated target. Every round, the one among the 12 shooters whose target has a pellet hole closest to the crosshairs wins a nice, fat holiday turkey. “But we didn’t bring a shotgun,” I said with a sidelong glance at my new companion, who took the hint. “Why, you don’t expect me to let you use my shotgun to shoot against my son-in-law, do you?” Mr. Rackley said, nodding at the bearded, rafter-scraping-sized Sean Kenny, who held a firearm that looked to be broken in half. Then the gentleman smiled, saying of course I could use his 40-year-old weapon. “But I won’t tell you its secrets.”
I signed up to shoot at target 11 in round one, familiarizing myself with what I learned was a traditional break action single-barrel 12 gauge. I was known as a fair shot at the Kit-Cat Club in London, and I wanted to acquit myself nicely in my first foray into the deep country. Besides, winning a turkey in time for Thanksgiving suddenly sounded rather sporting and delicious.
My pink-slacked, black-turtlenecked and black-booted companion, Lady Je, introduced me to Alexa Parker, a flannel-shirted and beaming 10-year-old who tells me that it’s also her first time at a turkey shoot and her first time firing a shotgun.
“I’m excited!” she exclaimed, holding tightly to the hand of Lady Je, who later shared that the girl had missed a year of school with heart problems and was somehow sure the world was going to end this very night. “I am excited as well, lass,” I responded to Alexa truthfully.
When it was Alexa’s turn, she stepped up boldly and, after being carefully spotted and braced by family friend C.J. Wurm, pulled the trigger. She skipped back to the fire, rubbing her shoulder and reaching for her new friend to tell her all about it.
I strode up, loaded confidently and fired like an old hand. But when the targets were gathered for examination by the exquisitely bearded and eagle-eyed assistant squad Chief Mike Caley, I discovered I hadn’t outshot Alexa, who had managed to lightly pepper her target.
Caley and his shiny calipers, watched over by a halo of shooters, determined the winner of round one was 51-year-old Tom Vaughn. He’s an avid pool shooter who has fought a debilitating bone disease his entire life. These turkey shoots are always a highlight, he told me, because he can limp up to the firing line and compete squarely against all the others with his gleaming, hand-finished shotgun. “He said he was going to win the first turkey of the year,” said his wife, Dawn Marie. (It was the first shoot of the season.) “Now he can go home happy.” A short time later, during round three, Tom Vaughn won again. “First time that’s happened,” he said happily of his two-turkey night.
During the next 10 rounds, which included chili dogs and coffee, I got to know and admire my fellow shooters, the squad members and their families. The man most feared on the firing line was Rick Miller, a grizzled Marine veteran and former helicopter crew chief who reminded me of your popular actor Sam Elliott.
Miller, a gunsmith since he got out of the Corps in 1991, has been a regular at this squad’s shoot for decades, starting back when it was held at the old station up Haws Run Road. “Sometimes there’d be 400 people there,” he said. “One time they went 46 rounds.” Such was the popularity of the once-common fundraisers for volunteer fire departments and rescue squads across the South.
This night there were 50 to 75 people at one of the very few turkey shoots remaining in coastal North Carolina, and the closest to Wilmington.
The lean, rugged and camouflaged C.J. Wurm, who had spotted Alexa, did the same for three other kids, all of them even younger. It’s a crucial experience for the youngsters, he said. “Get them into nature. It’s not video games.” He would tie Miller in one of the later rounds.
“Shoot off!” called out Caley as he looked up from the targets and his calipers on his lighted table. “Awwww!” Wurm exclaimed, certain the dead-eyed gunsmith would win the tie-breaker. But he didn’t. Lady Je, who had never fired a shotgun before, was encouraged by Alexa’s bravery to participate in this adventure.
We would use Wurm’s shotgun after Mr. Rackley went home to rest his Florence fracture. And later, Tom Vaughn volunteered his glistening pump shotgun, with which I narrowly missed winning round 11.
As Holmes drove us back to Wilmington through the starlit countryside, we felt warmed by this fall-and-winter holiday tradition. Lady Je spoke of how touched she was by Alexa, whom she called her “little Christmas angel.”
“What I don’t quite understand,” I said, “is why these souls were so willing to share their weapons with someone from another land, from another time, to compete against them.”
“Because that’s the way we roll in Coastal Carolina,” Holmes answered. I felt no urge to correct his English as I looked out the window.
As I stated earlier, your Lord Wilmington is a changed man. — Spencer Compton b