A Topsail Lifetime

Writer Randall Kenan on measuring the years in trips to a North Carolina island

Photo: Gary Hovland

“My daddy was so cross-eyed, he could stand on Wednesday and see Monday and Sunday at the same time.”

I overheard this from a man on the now-destroyed Scotch Bonnet pier on North Carolina’s Topsail Island while fishing with my mother one afternoon. My mother continued pier fishing well into her early eighties and excelled at it. She was some type of fish whisperer, for she and her son-in-law would go down to the piers at all times of day or night when word came to shore that the fish were running. Croakers, mackerel, pompano—our freezers would be stuffed for the year. Catch and release was never a thing for my family.

Growing up, I lived roughly thirty miles from the shore. Topsail and Surf City were the closest points of access. Going to the beach was not exactly vacation, but summer vacation meant a lot of sea and sand between your toes.

Photo: Pender County Tourism/Karen Wiles

Surf City Pier from afar.

I first visited Topsail Island when I was about three years old, taken by my great-aunt and great-uncle. I vaguely remember it, but they have told me that my reaction to the crashing waves was an honest and obvious one: They freaked me out. I hollered and cried. This response amused them, and they quickly took me back to the mainland. I returned with more of a sense of wonder than fear when I was in kindergarten. Mrs. Ford, our teacher, arranged a bus trip during the last days of the school year. I still own some of the shells I collected then. Beachcombing gives me great pleasure even now, but the thing that really sticks out in my imagination from that visit is the bridge.

The tall, steel-truss, swing-span bridge was a dramatic sight for a young lad who had never seen such a high structure, nor one that moved (it moved!) to allow boats—with tall sails and high decks—to glide through along the Intracoastal Waterway. The old bridge was painted an arresting aquatic color, and though I find the new modern fixed replacement dramatic in its sixty-five-foot height and sweeping curves, it cannot replace the charm of the original. 

That visit during my sixth year on the planet was in 1968; thus the beaches were segregated, after a fashion (how do you segregate the Atlantic Ocean, which laps against North America and the western coast of Africa?). As I remember it, black folk were confined to two piers. The rest were, perforce, off-limits. Though the bathroom and shower facilities were subpar, I warrant the fried shrimp, fried flounder and mullet, coleslaw, hush puppies, and hot dogs were just as good, if not better.

Nowadays when I visit, my nephew and I can go anywhichaway our desire leads us. We can walk the entire length of the island, which at twenty-six miles is quite long. On one of our recent visits, an eagle-eyed surfing instructor called to alert us to a bull shark bearing down upon us. The speed with which we exited the water would have made Charlie Chaplin chuckle. Every time I visit, I’m reminded of what I first learned all those decades ago: that Topsail Island and its environs are controlled by some strange Southern magic, the laws of which only the Atlantic understands.

>Looking for more Southern getaways? See our favorite classic summer weekends.