"I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man."

Thomas Jefferson
Sept. 23, 1800

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

B Is For....Brunswick County

Brunswick County North Carolina is a lot of things, but most important to me she is my home, and I love her.

I never intended to come here, and yet this is the place I was dreaming about as long as I can remember. I always wanted to live somewhere warm (or at least warmer than Pennsylvania) and near the beach and the sea. I told everyone who cared to listen all the way through high school and college that I was moving to the beach as soon as I could. By late high school, the state of North Carolina was looking good to me after a few summer vacations at Atlantic Beach. People mostly smiled and humored me when  I told them this, but I think my parents had an inkling that I was serious and one particular girl believed in me whole-heartedly. This girl ended up going to college with me at Penn State and after we graduated and worked a summer to save up some funds, we picked the city of Wilmington off a map as a likely place to look for jobs and off we went to seek our fortunes together in the sunny south. Let me just say that there is nothing more encouraging than having a person believe in you with all her heart. Lisa shared my crazy dream, shared our adventure and became my wife and best friend and the mother of a wonderful boy. I can't imagine what my life would have been without her.

Anyhow, we crazy kids ended up at the Green Tree Inn on Wilmington's Market Street and used this fine motel as home base while we looked for jobs. As luck would have it, I found one in Brunswick County, as a greens keeper at the Gauntlet Golf Club in St. James Plantation. I loved that it was called "plantation," I mean, how very SOUTHERN! This was 1993, and St. James was a much different place than it is now. It's a bit of a metaphor for the growth in the whole county since then, I guess. At that time, St. James consisted of one golf course with a club house, pool and tennis courts. It had homes only on the front nine and some at the back of the property where it ran along the intracoastal waterway. It was a huge piece of property, but very little of it was being used. Today, St. James is a town in it's own right and includes four golf courses, three pools, lots of tennis courts, a huge marina and a population nearing 2000 people. The county has grown in much the same way.

We lived in Wilmington that first year, before moving to the Town of Long Beach in Brunswick County after our apartment lease was up. Long Beach at that time shared the island called Oak Island with two other small towns. It was heaven, still is if you ask me. But it was a particularly wonderful place for us at that time because it, and the rest of the county, had not been "discovered" yet. After renting a year, we bought a brand new home within walking distance of the beach. Yes, at the ripe old age of 25 I had achieved my dream of a house at the beach. While my friends back home longed to be able to finance a condo, I could sit on my front porch and listen to the ocean. We actually got woken up by a tug boat once. How cool is that? 

After buying that house, working on the golf course was no longer a viable option and I got a new job working for a beer distributor. Eventually I worked my way up to salesman and then supervisor responsible for Brunswick County, and that is when I truly got to know all this place had to offer. Brunswick County is really big, over 1,000 square miles, and it encompasses everything from beaches to swamp to timberland to farms. Much of it is beautiful, but in vastly different ways. In the winter we can watch the sun set into the ocean because our beaches face south rather than east. In the fall there are huge fields of fluffy white cotton in the western areas of the county. There are swamps here that are so dense and mucky that they are seldom seen by human eyes.  On the river sits an old white plantation house that has served as a movie set, while everywhere there are old, disused tobacco sheds that are gorgeous in their dilapidation. We have some of the most beautifully manicured golf courses you'll ever see and some of our beaches are inaccessible except by boat and so are basically left as wild as they ever were. The Cape Fear River meets the Atlantic Ocean a couple miles from my doorstep.

We share this county with all sorts of animals as well. This island alone is home to deer and foxes and the odd coyote. Wild boar live just across the bridge. Alligators peer out of our waters and sometimes end up in our driveways or eat our dogs. Sea turtles lay their eggs on our beaches and we sometimes get to watch the hatchlings making their mad dash for the sea. Bald eagles and ospreys grace the sky over this place and our marshes are full of herons and egrets. Pelicans and sea gulls patrol the coast and sandpipers run up and down the strand. You don't need to be particularly observant to enjoy the wildlife around here, but if you do pay some attention, you will be greatly rewarded.

The best, most interesting part of this county, though, is the people. We are far from the only ones to have come here from afar, in fact it seems the transplants outnumber the locals sometimes. But this county hasn't attracted your normal lot of retirees and carpetbaggers. I share the county with a retired four-star general and a former deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control. An astonishing number of retired FBI and intelligence community agents call this place home. Our local airport is run by a man who once crewed Air Force One. A guy down my street played guitar for Johnny Rivers and has a gold record for Secret Agent Man hanging in his living room. We have retirees living in half million dollar McMansions just a half hour's drive from a town called Crusoe Island that no one who doesn't live there visits because you may not ever leave. Brunswick County is home to several distinct accents, a few of which it took me years to learn how to understand. I've met some of the smartest people I've ever known here and had co-workers convinced that getting married in a Catholic church meant that I'd be wearing a big hooded robe and breaking a wineglass at the end of the ceremony. We have a thriving Hispanic community, a Thai Buddhist Wat and a little Vietnamese lady who cooks up the best burger you've ever eaten in a lunch counter-type restaurant full of velvet paintings and tiny Buddhas. We have a church on every corner and sweepstakes gambling room in every strip mall. We have a thriving local theatre community and a planetarium and people selling live chickens on the side of the road out of the back of a pick-up truck. Our schools struggle to graduate over 70% of the students, but the local high school has an aquaculture program that raises flounders behind the football field.

Brunswick County is a strange, strange place. My wife sometimes says she feels like she is living a William Faulkner novel. But we have found our happy place, somewhere we feel comfortable and happy and are glad to be raising a child here. I jokingly call this the Land of Misfit Toys. Well, half jokingly. I never fit in well growing up but I do here. Misfits need a home, too, and this one fits me just perfect.

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