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For 50 years, Howard Wilkinson has been covering the campaigns, personalities, scandals, and business of politics on a local, state and national level. He's interviewed mayors, council members, county commissioners, governors, senators, and representatives. With so many years covering so many politicians, there must be stories to tell, right?

My Life On The Beach With Big Daddy

carolina beach postcard
Wikimedia Commons
A Carolina Beach postcard, circa 1930-45.

If you lived for a time in a place known as "Pleasure Island,'' you might think that would be a pretty good place to hang your hat.

Well, I did. And it wasn't.

I'm an Ohio boy through and through, born and bred. I've only spent a little over one year of my life living outside the Buckeye State, and that was a stint in North Carolina when I worked for a time for the newspaper in Wilmington in 1976-77.

I lived on Pleasure Island, which was a strip of sandy real estate that sat between the Atlantic Ocean and the Cape Fear River. (Yes, that Cape Fear of cinematic fame).

There were two beach towns on the Atlantic side of Pleasure Island – one to the north, Carolina Beach; and another to the south, Kure Beach.

I lived in Carolina Beach, which was about 15 miles south of my job in Wilmington. In those days, to get to Pleasure Island you had to cross a rickety one-lane bridge over the inlet that separated the ocean and the river. The bridge had no side rails.  

The bridge was fine most of the time, but I remember one night, in a massive sub-tropical thunderstorm, that I came within inches of driving my beat-up 1969 Mercury Cougar off the bridge and into the murky waters below.

And that would have been the end of me.

You would be reading someone else's Tales from the Trail right now.

I haven't been back to Carolina Beach since 1988. (I was there on Sept. 16, 1988, the night the Reds' Tom Browning pitched a perfect game at Riverfront Stadium.) I am told that, these days, Carolina Beach is on the rebound, with lots of new vacation rental properties, a revived and lively boardwalk for the tourists, and newly built condos along the Atlantic shore.

carolina beach
Credit Gerry Broome / AP
Carolina Beach in 2005. At the time, residents feared Carolina Beach was trading its blue-collar history to become a high-priced resort destination like Myrtle Beach.

But when I was there, Carolina Beach was something of a hot mess.

It was clearly a run-down, second-rate tourist destination for those who couldn't afford the pricier vacation homes up north on the Outer Banks. But even then, you could tell Carolina Beach had seen better days, and it was full of people convinced (rightly so, it seems) that the good times were coming again.

For me, though, it was just a cheap place to live while making very little money as a newspaper reporter in a small southern city.

I ended up in an apartment building – I don't know if it is still there or not – that was about a block away from the boardwalk (which was a wreck in those days) and a short walk to the beach.

carolina beach boardwalk
Credit Mike Burton / Flickr Creative Commons
Flickr Creative Commons
Carolina Beach boardwalk, much improved, in 2010.

Having grown up in Dayton and gone to college in Athens, living on the ocean was not something I had ever thought possible. The closest I had ever come to that was in a previous job in Painesville, Ohio, on the shores of Lake Erie.

But, here I was, 24 years old, spending a lonesome Christmas day on the beach in 65-degree weather.

That apartment building I had landed in was owned by a character known in town as Big Daddy. He was, in fact, very big – probably about 6-feet, 4-inches tall and tipping the Toledos at 350 pounds, at least.

Imagine Jabba the Hut with huge, bushy eyebrows and chain-smoking cigarettes one after another. I don't think he had to use more than one match per day to light all his smokes.

That was Big Daddy.

But the apartment building was not the only thing Big Daddy owned on the beach.

On the ground floor of the apartment building was a honky-tonk bar that reeked of stale beer and had a perpetual haze of blue cigarette smoke hanging over the pool tables.

That belonged to Big Daddy too. 

So, too, did a diner a few blocks away that operated whenever the New Hanover County health department allowed them to; and, on the boardwalk, where most of the businesses were closed and boarded up in those days, a somewhat rickety old porn theater.

This was Big Daddy's Kingdom.

Working for Big Daddy in the bar was Kelly, an aspiring Loretta Lynn, who waited tables and took her turn on a makeshift stage, belting out country tunes.

I lived on the second floor of the apartment building, which I believe had four or five stories. You walked up stairs on the right-hand side of the building and down to my apartment, which was the very last one on the left-hand side.

Kelly was my next-door neighbor and she had two very nasty Doberman pinschers. (I know, Dobermans can be very nice pets, but these two were just plain mean.)

She had a habit of leaving the Dobermans chained outside of her apartment on the railing of the walkway, making it impossible for me to get out of my apartment without passing these snarling monstrosities, barking their fool heads off, with (very sharp) teeth bared.

I had two choices.

If she was home, I could yell at her at the top of my lungs: Kelly!!! GET THESE HELL-HOUNDS INSIDE SO I CAN GET OUT!!!

If she was home, she'd come out and bring them inside, apologizing and telling me, Honey, they don't really bite.

If she wasn’t home, I had a baseball bat next to the front door. I would scoot up as close to the building as a I could, swinging the bat back and forth, until I cleared a path to escape.

I did this every day for over a year.

I didn't spend a lot of time in the bar, but when I did, it was because Kelly had told me she'd be singing that night and wanted me there as a reasonably sober shill to get the crowd going for her performance.

On most weekends, Carolina Beach was taken over by Marines on leave from Camp Lejeune, a little over an hour away.

Big Daddy also benefitted from their presence, as they consumed many of the products that he sold in the bar.

Then, being of a belligerent frame of mind, he had a stroke of genius.

He set up a boxing ring in the bar and invited every off-duty cop on the island to come and take on the Marines, one on one.

Half the town would show up to watch a cop and a Marine pound the living daylights out of each other, until one of them dropped to the canvas, unconscious. Then, two more climbed in the ring.

I could not say, but I believe there was considerable gambling going on over these impromptu boxing matches.

And then poor Kelly had to follow this with her Loretta Lynn imitation.

I would stay for her set, then I would grab my baseball bat, head upstairs and go to bed.

Life in Big Daddy World was entirely unpredictable.

I was asleep one night when I was awoken by the sound of fire engines screaming by. I could tell they were headed in the direction of the boardwalk.

I got dressed quickly and ran outside. Kelly was there, holding the dogs back.

She shouted at me: The porn theater is on fire! It's burning to the ground!

At that point, the theater had been closed for the past few months; there really wasn't much of a market for a porn theater in a little southern beach town. And most everyone in town wished it would go away, because they wanted to appeal to the tourist families, not little old men in gray overcoats.

I ran down the street and around the corner. There was already a crowd watching the firefighters put out the fire which had, indeed, burnt the building beyond recognition.

I began talking to a few of the locals. A couple of them said they had seem some huge, shadowy figure running out of the building just as a fire was starting, carrying a stack of film cans.

"Did you tell the cops?" I asked. No way; I don't want to get mixed up in this.

I called in a short story to the newspaper in Wilmington.

The next morning, I ran into Big Daddy as I was getting ready to leave for Wilmington.

"Too bad about the theater," I said.

Big Daddy lit one Chesterfield cigarette off another and gave me a knowing look.

"Yeah, boy," Big Daddy said. "Real shame. Can't replace a building like that."

This story first appeared on Aug. 24, 2018.

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  Read more "Tales from the Trail" here. 

Howard Wilkinson is in his 50th year of covering politics on the local, state and national levels.