On Dec. 17, 2003, thousands of aviation enthusiasts, elected officials, North Carolina citizens and tourists braved a cold, heavy rain in Kitty Hawk to witness a long-awaited attempt to recreate the Wright brothers’ famous first flight. Though the replica of their flyer stayed aloft for only seconds, the flight and the year-long celebration it capped were considered grand successes. The Centennial of Flight observance offered North Carolina a chance to revel proudly in the accomplishments of two of its favorite sons. The party was no less animated in Ohio, where Orville and Wilbur were born and did much of their pre-flight research. For years, Ohio has been locked with North Carolina in a spirited tug-of-war over bragging rights to the brothers’ historic achievement. Like their Tar Heel counterparts, citizens of the Buckeye State organized a year of exhibits and festivities, culminating in a stupendous, star-studded air show.
But now that the celebrations are over, the century-old quarrel epitomized in dueling license-plate mottos (“First in Flight” in North Carolina and “Birthplace of Aviation” in Ohio) goes on. No evidence turned up during the centennial year to settle the dispute, so we can expect this rivalry–mainly friendly but fueled also by competition for tourist dollars–to go on and on.
I say it’s time for North Carolina to put this argument to rest. Ohio has a pretty good claim, after all. It is where the brothers were born, grew up and did most of their work, even if they recognized that our coastline offered better flying conditions. Wouldn’t we be better off refocusing state pride on a less disputed, if less noble, claim to fame, one that comes ready-made with an annual holiday? Let’s forget those bicycle mechanics and throw in our lot with a more intriguing band: Blackbeard and his fellow rogues of the high seas. This is one area in which we’ve got Ohio and most other states beat all to hell.
I was as taken as the next girl by Johnny Depp’s swashbuckling charms in the recent hit movie, Pirates of the Caribbean. But my fascination with pirates far predates the revival of popular interest that the movie has prompted. Maybe Captain Hook (as interpreted by Disney) made a particularly fearsome impression on me when I was a kid. Or maybe it was the toy pirate ship my older brother played with in the tub. Loud splashes indicating an artillery assault often punctuated his bath time; sometimes I’d peek in and see the Jolly Roger disappearing below the surface of the water after a particularly vicious attack.
Whatever its origins, my pirate-mania blossomed when I moved to North Carolina and discovered this state’s rich lore of maritime treachery and romance. By the end of my first trip to Ocracoke, I was hooked. I gladly braved the most vicious mosquitoes I’d ever encountered to hear a ranger’s campfire tales of the Ocracoke Inlet battle that took the life of Blackbeard, whose real name was probably Edward Teach. Teach’s fashion sense alone was enough to merit admiration: Only a piratical genius would have thought to insert burning fuses under his hat brim or into his long, braided beard to create the living image of a demon from hell–reportedly his most effective raiding technique.
Before boarding the ferry, I cleaned out the gift shop’s collection of pirate tales and even succumbed at the cash register to a souvenir eye patch. My family soon tired of hearing me read the stories aloud by flashlight, but I was just getting started. In the months and years to come, I consumed coastal history and legends as voraciously and gleefully as a parched buccaneer quaffing a tankard of looted rum.
Blackbeard–whose reign of terror, surprisingly, lasted only 18 months–dominates Tar Heel pirate stories. But he was just one of many daring and colorful outlaws who favored our coast with their presence during the late 17th and early 18th centuries. And favor it was: With a still struggling economy, North Carolina citizens and leaders were not too high-minded to appreciate the benefits they reaped, in the form of discounted, tariff-free goods, when the free-living “brethren of the coast,” as the pirates called themselves, came to visit. In turn, buccaneers like Blackbeard, Charles Vane and Stede Bonnet (the so-called “gentleman pirate”) highly esteemed the North Carolina coast because its many coves and inlets offered excellent hiding places, and enforcement of trade regulations was halfhearted at best. Its strategic location between the thriving ports of Charleston and Philadelphia didn’t hurt, either.
Of course, the brethren’s roguery wasn’t all romantic, as literature and Hollywood would suggest. These seafaring outlaws perpetrated real misdeeds. They were thieves who freely plundered captive ships’ cargoes and often took the ships for their own flotillas. But as it turns out, the savagery often attributed to pirates of the Golden Age is as exaggerated as the romance. For example, despite Blackbeard’s murderous reputation–and though he wasn’t above lopping off the occasional finger for the sake of an especially handsome ring–there’s no evidence that he killed anyone before his final, fatal battle on Nov. 22, 1718. During that fierce fight, the famed pirate received several pistol shots and numerous cuts from his enemies’ swords before literally losing his head at the hands of a British naval officer.
After learning as much as I could about my adopted state’s villainous, adventurous past, I was naturally delighted to hear about national Talk Like a Pirate Day, which falls each year on Sept. 19. It began several years ago when two fellows from Oregon, of all places, noticed a distinctly piratical ring to the grunts of exertion and frustration they made playing racquetball. Soon they were carried away with the pure silliness of talking like pirates, which entails using phrases like “Avast, me hearties!” and knowing the subtle difference between “Arrr!” and “Arrrgh!” The newly converted scurvy dogs thought it would do the rest of the country good to join in the fun.
Since then, thanks largely to publicity from humorist Dave Barry, Talk Like A Pirate Day has taken off. It has its own website ( www.talklikeapirate.com) has been featured in major media outlets (including National Public Radio, two years running) and has spawned low-key but enthusiastic celebrations all around the world.
But for some inexplicable reason, this jolly holiday has yet to be embraced by the state that has as strong a claim to pirate heritage as any–North Carolina. If not quite warranting status as a state holiday–and I think there’s a strong case for that–isn’t it at least a great excuse for a day-long party from Manteo to Murphy?
So here’s my proposal: Let Ohio have the Wright Brothers. That’s an argument we’re just never going to win. But who is going to dare–in fact, who is going to want–to challenge North Carolina’s supremacy as pirate capital of the United States? And if someone does, we can claim as our own Blackbeard, who, after marrying a planter’s daughter, even spent a few months impersonating a respectable citizen in Bath. Blackbeard–the fiercest pirate of them all! The credentials don’t get much better than that.
By thunder, let’s turn the energy that for years has gone into the rivalry with Ohio and the creativity that went into planning the Centennial of Flight toward this new, more festive challenge. Let’s give it all we’ve got and make the ghosts of Stede Bonnet, Edward Teach and their cronies–who still haunt our shores, by some accounts–proud. All together now, ye bilge rats: Arrrr!