Since the mid-1960s pirate history and the early American colonies have fascinated me. A few people were instrumental in spurring my interest in the two subjects. I never tired of them and that interest is as strong today, if not stronger, as it ever was.
Because of their connection to Colonial America, I suppose, I developed a special appreciation for antiques. And that interest led me at a young age to a person – one of the great storytellers that I got to know – who helped develop my love of Pirate lore and helped to shape my perspective on Blackbeard. The storytellers brought the myths and mysteries to life in my childhood. I was not even aware of how influential these stories were at the time, but clearly they had a profound effect on the way I thought about pirates and early American history.
This person of influence was a really nice, well-educated lady named Zelma Mattocks Merrell. She ran an antique business in Swansboro, although she didn’t seem to have regular store hours. Mrs. Merrell, who owned Mattocks House Antiques, was truly a great storyteller and I never got tired of listening. At age 12, those stories of pirate legends and early settlers all helped fuel my obsession with pirates and antiques.
It took awhile for me to get to know her because the shop on Front Street in Swansboro always seemed to be closed. Still, I was always fascinated as I walked by and I always made an effort to get the best possible look at the old bottles and outlines of strange looking trunks and furniture through the window.
I finally met Mrs. Merrell when I summoned the courage to knock on the door and ask when if the store was open. The lady said, “No,” it was not open, “And it won’t be opening any time soon.” Then she added, “Besides the place needs a lot of work, cleaning and rearranging so I’m not opening until that’s done.” Even though the sound of that was somewhat disappointing, it in no way weakened my enthusiasm or changed my curiosity about the closed shop of great mysteries. It just added to the obsession.
On the ride back home in the back seat of my parents 1954 Chevrolet, I was still thinking about what Mrs. Merrell said, when suddenly there was my first “Einstein Moment.” The idea became clear. I’ll go ask the lady if she would hire me to do some odd jobs in her shop, since she did say the place needed cleaning and rearranging. Besides, I considered myself to be the perfect employee to work for Mrs. Merrell. So the next time my mother bought groceries at Webb’s Grocery Store, I walked across the street, to apply for my first job.
Mrs. Merrell came to the door and said in kind of a grumpy tone, “I told you I’m closed and have no idea when I will be open again.” I said, “Yes ma’am, I remember, but was wondering, since you said the place needed some cleaning and rearranging of the antiques, would you like to hire me part time to help do that? I’d be glad to come work for you and do some of that stuff for you on a Saturday.”
After a long nervous silence, she said, “You must really want to go in that old shop.” “How much do you charge?” she asked. I didn’t want to ask too much and miss my golden moment, so I said 40 cents an hour. Then another long pause followed by a slight hint of a laugh, she said, “Well OK then, can you be here at 10 o’clock Saturday morning?” I said, “Can you hold on just 5 minutes? My mama is in the grocery store across the street and I’ll be right back.” I took off running since there was no traffic and was high-stepping it a straight shot to Webb’s Grocery to tell my mama about my possible new career that was about to unfold. I said, “Mama, I got a job, I got a job, I got a job …” and probably repeated that about eight more times while standing on the front of Mama’s shopping cart. She said, “I’m busy buying groceries now, but I’ll come with you to talk to Mrs. Merrell after I pay for everything.
So in what seemed like two or three hours, the two of them were having a somewhat humorous chat and things were looking good. The following Saturday, as was agreed, my mother would drop me off at 10 a.m. and would pick me up at 2:30 p.m. So by 8 o’clock that Saturday morning, I got polished up with my favorite blue jeans, my Popeye shirt and my freshly washed converse shoes and I was ready for my first public job.
Starting my first job made me feel a foot taller knowing I’d be doing something other than picking up tobacco leaves and even though the duties were strict about being careful and not bump into or break anything, I was still enjoying the moment.
My job tasks were to polish brass and silver trays, clean tables and pots. Earning 40 cents an hour was a real icing on the cake because I was getting paid to do what I enjoyed. Not only would I have money to buy candy at Mr. Riggs’ candy store, but the work environment itself put me in the midst of all kinds of old clocks, 18th century rope beds, English pottery, handmade furniture, stone jugs and mysterious boxes, cabinets and Civil War relics around her shop.
But most important, she was a very sharp lady and knew a lot about local history and Outer Banks legends. While I worked, polishing silver, copper and brass, she sat in an old Windsor rocker and watched me work and always had a story to go with certain pieces I had asked her about. Her best story was about a large sword she had once owned that was supposedly captured during the arrest of a suspected pirate near South Carolina. I asked if I could see it, but she said she had sold it to an out-of-state collector about five years before. While she was doing the research on the sword to validate its authenticity, she struck up a deal with a collector and he made her an offer, which after thinking it over, she decided to accept, though it sounded like she had some regrets about that sale. Not knowing any better, I just had to ask how much she got for it and with some reluctance she said $400. As for me with my 40 cents an hour, that may have well been $40,000 back in the mid-1960s.
Being in that antique shop while listening to stories was almost like going back in time. One story was of the train tracks and the locomotive that once came through the town bringing logs. All of it gave me a much better a perspective of the way things were. She also told about an event of long before her time that she had heard about through her grandfather. There was a year when Swansboro had two winters, back-to-back, and the ice and debris changed a lot of the coastline, which must have been the year without a summer.
While doing my chores and carrying antiques from the upstairs down to the living room and into the back yard to be washed off with the garden hose, I did a lot of antique mental shopping as I worked. At the end of my Saturday work time, I would negotiate on certain things I was interested in, rather than accept the hourly wage. In fact, I was convinced I came out better by trading than buying. There was no real hard work there other than maybe carrying those 3-foot brass table tops out into her back yard for rinsing off after the cleaner was applied.
I did manage to convince my mother to drop me off many more times on Saturday mornings for the 3-4 hours of work, since I was not old enough to drive. My obsession with antiques got me my first job, which wasn’t picking up tobacco leaves. The best part of the job was listening to stories about pirates and colonial living.
I’m grateful I was able to get to know Mrs. Merrell and hear all of her stories. At the time I was working for her, she was the best storyteller I ever knew.
Freddie Velez lives in Stella.