Commander Sherman was a retired Coast Guard officer, having spent a distinguished career as a “Coastie” working his way up from the enlisted ranks to become a fine officer. I never knew him while he was on active duty, but remember him for as far back as my memory takes me. And this story is a bit different than the others since Sherman (as he liked to be called) was an Outer Banker born and raised in Nags Head. Right out of high school he joined the Coast Guard, only to come back home when his duty was done. But he still spent winter months in Florida; he enjoyed the Fort Pierce area where he spent quite a few years of his career.
Sherman owned rental cottages between his residence and the ocean on property next door to our summer cottage. It was a great arrangement; his clientele was mostly repeat customers annually who often had children my age and the age of my older brother and sister. It made for great fun and we always looked forward to seeing the friends return the following year.
I remember when my dad was still with us the two of them loved to sit in the late afternoon on his patio in Adirondack chairs and discuss the state of the world and country. They were both rock-ribbed conservatives, one a Republican and one a Democrat (that was quite common in the ‘50s) and when they were finished they realized they had so much more in agreement than not.
But the impact that Sherman had on me only came after my dad passed. I remember that first summer when we came back to the beach. As we drove in, he looked at us with a sad expression and said, “Hey, Jimmy, come on over this afternoon after you get unpacked. I’ve got something I want to talk with you about.”
Later, when I saw him sitting on his patio having his late afternoon “nip”, Mom told me to go over and talk with him. As I got close, he motioned me to the big Adirondack beside his.
“You know, Son”, he began, “the chair you’re sitting in is where your dad always sat when we had our afternoon chats. I loved them and I loved your dad, he was a fine man. So, I think it’s only fitting that you sit there whenever you come over, instead of that bench where you used to sit.
“Now I know you miss your dad, Son. But at least you knew him well and what he stood for; and that will live on in you. So that is your task as you grow into a man. Try and live your life with the same gusto and honor as your father. What he tried to instill in you is what’s so important as you learn and grow.
“Now I’ve got a little business proposition for you.”
With that, Sherman began discussing his fishing business. He had a thriving little business, more of a good hobby actually, where once or twice a week with a crew of men and a few boys, he put his fishing nets out late afternoon in the ocean, anchoring them at each end with beach anchors and a third anchor about a half mile out to sea in the middle. Just think of a pyramid figure as you visualize the angled nets and the shoreline as the third line. The nets stayed in place overnight, allowing fish to swim in but not out, and by the wee hours of the morning he usually had a full catch. There would be Ocean View spot, blues, croaker, Spanish mackerel, mullet and even a few flounder. Sometimes a shark even found his way into the nets which was always bad news because of the damage they could cause.
He wanted to know if I’d like to help with the hard work of getting the fish ready for market in the morning. It meant getting up early, being ready to jump on his beach truck at 5 a.m. sharp just before nets were hauled in, and making sure the nets were spread wide on the beach. Then the fun began, actually quite tedious, of picking and sorting the fish by type in bushel baskets. It took a dedicated work crew to get it done and time was of the essence. If not picked and loaded for later icing by 7:30, the fish would spoil in the heat of the rising sun.
I jumped on the opportunity. It taught me at a tender age the importance of being responsible and doing what you promised and being willing to work hard even if you did get a few quills in your hand from time to time. And it brought satisfaction when the job was completed, knowing you had a few bucks in your pocket and all the fish you wanted to take home.
Now Mom, an Outer Banker by birth herself, could cook a mean fish. And we enjoyed fresh fish cooked with bacon for breakfast on many a morning at the beach and with grits and cornbread, yummy was the word.
I helped out with the fishing for a number of years and Sherman and I became closer as time went on. He was my beach counselor, the wise older man who had been lots of places and had seen lots of things, both good and bad, and he was a hero for helping to guide my development understanding right from wrong. He warned me that along the way I would make mistakes, but the measure of the man is found in what he learned from those mistakes and not repeating them.
Nearing high school graduation, a number of years later, Sherman had a stroke which left him partially paralyzed. And while he couldn’t physically handle the rigors of continuing his fishing operation, he still had his smile, his wit and his good sense which I absorbed whenever I could in visits with him. His death a few years later left an empty spot in my heart, but I am every grateful to God for bringing him into my life at a time when I needed a wonderful man like him.
He wasn’t a big churchgoing man, but he had a strong belief in a mighty God, and I suspect he is looking down and watching what we do while he enjoys some fried fish or even his favorite, crabs with spaghetti. I’m sure an angel is preparing it just the way he likes it.