Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina
December 4, 2001
3am is a lonely time when youre on the road. The loneliness
is mitigated somewhat when you find yourself in a big old ocean
front suite for less than it usually costs to get a tired room in
a tired old travel lodge right on the interstate. One of those places
where you can feel the big trucks driving through your head all
night. Not tonight, baby. Tonight its plush accommodations
with the steady rhythm of the surf singing me to sleep. Except that
I cant sleep. I think I miss the trucks.
Kill Devil Hills is one of the many little towns dotting the Outer
Banks islands of North Carolina. Driving on the main drag through
town it looks like any other highway town with the requisite strip
malls and shiny new self service gas stations and accompanying mini-marts.
But thats on the main drag. Pop over one block east, closer
to the open ocean and you discover salt faded and wind weathered
stores and tiny locally owned restaurants. Most of them are closed
for the winter. Kill Devil Hills depends on summer visitors to nearby
Roanoke and Kitty Hawk for its economic existence. By late October
the temperature drops, the fog rolls in, and the winter mist takes
up residence until March.
Thats how one gets a cheap suite right on the beach for $35.
I have been hearing occasional bursts of laughter from somewhere
outside since midnight. It seems slightly out of place given the
generally barren nature of this stretch of beachfront. I amble out
to my balcony to see if I can find the source. Below and to my left,
on the wooden walkway that takes you from the road up and over the
imposing line of sand dunes sheltering the island from the ocean
are three young men, drinking beer, laughing, hanging out. I think
they are talking rather loudly based on the animated way in which
they move and laugh but the sound is carried away by the wind.
Having nothing better to do I figure I might as well toss on some
shoes and mosey down to see whats afoot.
They are making so much noise, and far enough into a case of Bud,
that they dont notice my approach. They have found a good
spot. From above I had wondered how they could stay out in the cold
and wind for so long. Upon stepping up the walkway I saw they were
at a spot nestled snug against the dune such that the wind coming
off the ocean was whipping off the top of the dune above their heads.
It never really hit them at all. It felt 15 degrees warmer where
they were standing than it did 20 feet in any direction.
Finally noticing that I was strolling their way they rapidly shifted
from body language that broadcast I dont give a damn
to body language that broadcast I dont give a damn AND
I can kick your ass. Which they could. I never have a posse
around when I need one..
It is easy enough to defuse such situations. The best option is
to have a bottle of something, or a six pack of something exotic.
Next, but riskier both in terms of acceptance and legal consequences
is a controlled substance of some sort, preferably a big old hunk
of de ganja (which seems to have an almost universal acceptance).
I I dont do drugs so that is not an option. dont drink
but could easily enough go buy a six pack or a bottle of something
and invite these strangers to partake with me
a 21st century
version of the ancient hunter/gatherer tradition of breaking bread
around a campfire. I could easily enough do this if I did not find
myself well past the hour after which no more alcohol is sold in
Kill Devil Hills. Not that it would really matter that much. The
stores, tired of ringing up overhead for what appears to be a total
of six tourists in the town, closed well before midnight.
Still, I am not out of options. This is North Carolina
country. In Arizona and Montana, you show your contempt for the
federal government, modern day culture and social mores by joining
a militia. In North Carolina you smoke. I am among my people. Earlier,
on my balcony, I heard one of the three whine, Dude, you took
my last smoke
which let me know that I, with my recent
purchase of four ridiculously cheap cartons, had a passport to enter
their clan. I also was able to identify the alpha male of the group,
which would be the guy who skanked the last smoke. Had he not been
the alpha male, the other would not have whined. He would have hurled
the accusation with force and venom. Stealin a mans
last smoke is an act of war in these parts
unless it is done
by the packs alpha male. Then you just whine and take it like
the little prison boy you are.
On my way out the door I shoved a couple of extra packs in my coat
pocket. Which is why I did not fear them as I approached. Well
I didnt fear them. They were all in their early to mid 20s
and wiry and loud and drunk. So, maybe I feared them a little.
I made eye contact with the alpha male as I came up the steps toward
them. One of the others gave me a hostile but mildly uncertain hey.
Gotta a light, I asked alpha.
Gotta a smoke, he replied.
I was in. I debated pulling out one of the extra packs and giving
it to him, but then I would have no power. If I was holding the
smokes, they would most likely put up with me for as long as I wanted.
If I gave them away, I would be lunchmeat. Testosterone is a bitch.
I pulled out my open pack, held it out to him, and nodded at his
compatriots to help themselves if they so desired. The last one
handed the pack back and I took one out. The alpha male made a zippo
appear from nowhere, flipped it open and sparked it with one hand
(proof that he was the coolest among us), cupped it against the
wind and offered it out to me first. Getting to light up first off
some other guys lighter is the universal male posturing sign
The alpha male, who it turns out goes by the name of Dude, as do
the other two, had to be cool to pull off his outfit. He looked
ridiculous. He had donned one of those goofy looking Guatemalan
knit caps, with rainbow colors and big ear flaps and knit ties hanging
off them, a sweatshirt over a sweatshirt over a t-shirt, jeans that
fell halfway down his ass, and big Doc Martens. It was like Pearl
Jam and Linkin Park got together and produced a kid with the sister
of the geek lead singer from the Spin Doctors. The other two Dudes
didnt look quite so silly, which somehow was a sign that they
werent as cool as Dude #1.
All three were surfers. Being a surfer is like being an actor.
To claim it as your primary vocation you do not actually have to
make any money at it. You simply say that it is what you do and
everyone accepts it. In these parts, at this time of year, it is
also code for unemployed. During the summer they get work as lifeguards,
or at the kayak and bike rental shops, as guides for hiking and
sailing excursions. During the winter, they suck it up and work
as little as possible in a restaurant somewhere until they cant
stand it anymore and get themselves fired. Dude #1 and Dude #3 were
currently among the ranks of the unemployed. Dude #2 took a great
deal of abuse because he had entered the management training program
at Kmart. Apparently, no self-respecting surfer even pursues a career
path gig, let alone accepts one.
We hang out and shoot the breeze a bit. They drink and smoke my
cigarettes. I turn down their repeated offers to have a beer, which
makes them quite suspicious at first. Eventually this state devolves
down to guarded hostility. But I have the smokes so they have to
shut up and take it. They lie loud and often about their sexual
conquests, both frequency and duration. If Dude #2 (the sell out
working at Kmart) had, in fact, had sex in the last week as many
times as he claimed and could hold out for as long as he claimed,
he is truly a medical marvel
or he has a valve that is stuck
on the Open position and needs some sort of delicate and expensive
surgery. Dude #3 was not far behind him.
Further proof that Dude #1 is the alpha-male
he never claimed
any conquests and would not talk about any when asked about them
by the other two. This led them to believe (despite their occasional
accusations that he wasnt getting any) that he had nailed
every female in the town, each and every female tourist, the entire
population of nearby Kitty Hawk, and a couple of chicks up in Elizabeth.
They suspected this because he: a.) was way cooler than them; b.)
would confirm or deny nothing; c.) was apparently the only one who
actually ever did get laid; d.) had disappeared entirely for a number
of weekends over the last couple of months, which meant he hadnt
been surfing on those weekends, and that could only be the result
of time spent with a woman. Sex, as far as I could tell, was the
only excused absence from surfing, particularly at this time of
year. The water is cold, the air is cold, the whole experience is
miserable except that the waves from November through February,
fueled by winter storms, are as good as it gets in these parts.
Occasionally, I would attempt a topic that had nothing to do with
surfing, women, or partying. These attempts were met with contempt.
Dudes #2 & #3 would launch into soliloquies on the useless stupidity
of school, politics, politicians, newspapers, national defense,
and the war in Afghanistan. Dude #1, though he said very little,
somehow seemed louder and filled with more braggadocio than the
others even though his comments always came out as calm and rather
terse. Usually they consisted of nothing more than, Fuck school
and the like.
I was getting nowhere. We finished off the pack of smokes we had
been working on (Dude #1 taking the last one) and they seemed relieved
that they could get rid of me. When I pulled out another pack they
were both annoyed and pleased. Id be hanging around some more,
which was bad. They would get to smoke some more, which was good.
Figuring I had nothing to lose at this point, since all attempts
to subtly work my way toward their thoughts on 9/11 had failed,
I went for the jugular.
So, what do you dudes think about whole World Trade Center
Dudes 2-3 wasted no time not giving a damn with such aplomb that
most of us would pay not to give a damn that well. They didnt
care about the attacks, the dead, the wounded, the orphaned, none
of it. Fuck em all.
Dude #1 didnt say a thing. Dude #3, without knowing what
to call it, was a committed nihilist. He had launched into a slurred
monologue about shit happens and we all die and fuck it all, with
Dude #2 nodding along in furious agreement.
Mercifully, Dude #1 cut this off with the observation that they
were out of beer. This carried the implication that the other two
Dudes needed to go back to the van and bring some more up to the
landing. He handed them the keys to his van and they marched off
to do his bidding.
I told him that I noticed he hadnt said anything about the
attacks. He shrugged. I asked him what he thought about the whole
business. He grabbed up another smoke and lit it.
That was some fucked up shit, dude.
Yeah, man. That was some seriously fucked up shit. All those
people, dude. Just going to work, man
I asked him if it scared him. It didnt. No one is going
to decide that the Wright Brothers Museum is a strategic target.
We got nothing to worry about here.
The two subordinate Dudes were trudging up the last steps to the
landing. Dude #1 looked at me and said, It pissed me off.
Made me sad. And really pissed. His colleagues looked a little
confused, not sure what we were talking about and not entirely sure
what it was they were supposed to care enough about to get mad or
What are going to do about that?
when I asked this it never occurred to me that the Dude
intended to do anything about it. It certainly never crossed my
mind that maybe he already had done something. These were not men
of action who would spring to the aid of their countrymen. Or so
I had concluded.
I do stuff.
Dudes 2-3 were now absolutely baffled. Dude #1 showed no signs
of elucidating on this last statement. I probed a bit and got nowhere.
He had resorted to shrugging or shaking his head in something like
disgust and waving me off. I figured I had nothing to lose by pissing
You havent done shit, have you
other than think
about it once or twice you havent done shit.
He didnt get mad. He stared at me, but not the challenging
stare I had seen most of the night. More sad than anything else.
Ive been up there.
Dudes 2-3 could not have been more shocked if he had told them
he was gay. They were a flurry of when and wheres and
whys and what the fucks.
Right after. That weekend. I drove up there. Went the next
Dude, one of the others chimed in, thats
why you got shit canned from the Brewery?
It was both a question and an allegation of betrayal. Dude #1 had
a job bussing tables at a local restaurant/microbrewery. The first
weekend after the attacks, he got in his old piece of crap van on
Friday afternoon and drove non-stop to New Jersey, just across the
river from Manhattan. He found a train over to the island, and walked
down to the World Trade Center. Following good surf punk etiquette
he had not asked for any time off from work or even told his employer
he was not going to be there. He just split.
Having subsequently made that drive I know, assuming traffic doesnt
get hairy, that it takes 9-10 hours to make it from Kill Devil Hills
to Manhattan. I also know that the drive takes you through Norfolk,
DC, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Newark
so traffic always gets
He got back early Monday morning. He told his boss why he had been
gone and apologized (much shock and consternation from the other
Dudes) and asked for time off that coming weekend so he could go
up again. The time off was not granted. Dude went anyway, thus getting
I asked him why he went.
The first time, just to see it. I dont why. Just wanted
to see it. It was
fucked. I was really pissed off at first
you cant stay that way. Too much to do. Too many
people to help
What happened was this: he got as close as he could to the site,
which at that time (September 15th) was not terribly close. The
stench, the dust which still hadnt settled, the smoke from
the fires of the Trade Center
they overwhelmed him. He had
to take a t-shirt and tie it behind his neck and use it as an impromptu
filter. All the way down as he walked to the site the first time
the thing that was the hardest were all the people with pictures
and fliers of people missing.
Dude, it was like wall to wall people on the sidewalks for
miles all holding out these pictures and handing you pieces of paper
and putting posters up in windows and crying and screaming.
Eventually, after soaking it all up he found himself at one of
the Red Cross centers, giving blood. As he was leaving there was
a middle aged woman losing the crowd control battle.
People werent being dicks or anything like that. But
there were so many of them and they all wanted to do something and
they were kind of desperate.
The Dude jumped in and helped her get people organized in a line.
All the while, other folks were coming up with boxes and trash bags
filled with blankets and pillows and canned food and flashlights
and candles. The temporary center was overwhelmed. He started taking
boxes from folks and stacking them up, organizing the chaos of goods
already received as he went.
I kinda accidentally became a volunteer. Nobody got around
to asking me who I was and what I was doing there until Sunday.
He worked all day Saturday and well into the night. Then he walked
back to find a working train station, went back to Jersey and crashed
in his car for a few hours. Sunday morning he trekked back down
to the Red Cross center and went back to work. About midnight he
got back to his car and drove home.
He did the same thing the next weekend, but on that trip he brought
with him all the emergency supplies he could rustle up. Some of
it was his, some from his mother and grandmother. They knew what
he was doing but he didnt tell anyone else
the boss who fired him.
I dont think he believed me. I dont know if I
woulda believed me. Dont really seem the type.
He is still unemployed. He found a couple of weeks of work here
and there helping put boats away for the winter at one of the local
marinas. He hasnt worked too hard finding a more permanent
gig. This past weekend he made his sixth trip (in 10 weeks) to the
World Trade Center. He has managed to work his way deep enough into
the ranks of the volunteers that he spends those weekends now at
St. Pauls Church
Ground Zero for the relief efforts at
I pumped him with questions. He didnt answer much, finally
saying Dude, it isnt the kind of thing you can describe.
You just gotta go there and youll get it.
His friends didnt know what to make of all this. They were
trying to figure out if they should make fun of him or admire him
or leave the whole thing alone. In the end I think they decided
to pretend they hadnt heard it.
I took out the unopened pack of smokes in my coat pocket at handed
them to Dude #1. He nodded. I told him I was going to call it a
night. I was working my way up the coast to New York to go see the
WTC. The other two were quietly slugging away on some fresh Budweisers.
If you make it up there this weekend Ill probably catch
you there. Come up to St. Pauls and ask for Surfer Scott.
Theyll know who youre talking about.