Coming Home to the Outer Banks Within
As a 22-year-old, ignorance was bliss when I landed a job at a modest, little 3,000-watt radio station carved into the swamp on the south end of Roanoke Island.
WOBR-FM in Wanchese, also known as Beach 95, just got themselves a new on-air personality in the afternoons.
It was May 15, 1983. I will never forget that date, the day I first moved to the Outer Banks. I came from Ohio and knew nary a soul. It hadn’t even occurred to me that going into the summer season I had no place to live. So I did what any 22-year-old would do in that situation.
I slept on this person’s couch here. I slept on that person’s couch there. I even had a cot set up in the radio station on which I slept occasionally. The overnight guy would wake me just before the office staff would arrive in the morning.
I ate once a day at Mann’s Red and White in Wanchese because the lunch special was only $3.99. For the first three months I lived on the Outer Banks, I was basically homeless. The amazing thing was, I didn’t even realize I was homeless, nor did I care. The only thing that mattered to me was that I was living my dream on the barrier islands of North Carolina.
It is only through the luxury of looking back that I’m able to even put the label of homelessness on myself.
For me, the 1980s was the golden age of the Outer Banks. My family and I had been vacationing on the island since the mid 1970s, well before those OBX car stickers were even a thing.
There were places at that time that have disappeared from the Outer Banks landscape: The Galleon Esplande, the 17-store shopping complex owned by George Crocker that sat on the beach road next to his famous eatery, A Restaurant By George.
There was Waldo Whiskett’s Sandwich Emporium and Ice Cream Surprises. Oh, and traffic lights. There were only two back then – one at the bypass intersection with Colington Road and the other at Kitty Hawk Road.
Even the Beach 95 of my day is now different. The music of that day has been replaced with Classic Rock. It was also a time of lively debate among resident and nonresident property owners. Should there be dredging at Oregon Inlet? What about a building moratorium? Each side of these debates offered compelling arguments.
These are the memories of my early 20s. It was a time and place I now see I took for granted. The time spent on the Outer Banks should have been one of contentment, but it wasn’t.
Eventually, my airtime at the radio station got upgraded to morning drive. My days were now structured differently. Off work and out of the radio station by 11 a.m., I was on the beach by 11:30 most days. I never took time to stop “and smell the roses” and naturally assumed that all my remaining days would be spent in this way.
The ocean was always going to be outside my front door. My best friend was always going to be up the street and my routine would always allow for a daily visit to the Atlantic Ocean.
Before I knew it, I woke up one morning and found myself, along with my now wife and young daughter, 30 miles due east of Columbus, Ohio. I was still getting up at 5 a.m. and to work by 6. But instead of heading to the beach before noon, as I write this, I find myself home hiding from a snowstorm.
Since then, not a single day passes where there isn’t a strong longing of doing another live commercial read on the radio for Waldo Whiskett’s, eating free apps at A Restaurant By George because I was buddies with Chef Terry, or walking among the sea of cars at The Rear View Mirror Car Museum.
Today, stopping in for breakfast at Sam and Omie’s and knowing about everyone in the restaurant is no longer an option. But I will say this. It wasn’t just the places and the experiences that made the Outer Banks so special.
It was the people.
The friendships that formed on that island so many years ago have remained strong. Bonds were created with my radio colleagues and the people who allowed me to crash on their couches when I was homeless – two who became my daughter’s godparents.
Some of us may be spread out across the country now, while others remained and continue to live out their dreams in Dare County. But we are still connected by our shared love of a place. We still see each other when I return for a visit.
Those friends came out in droves to see me appear recently at the OBX Comedy Club. The people of the Outer Banks are salt of the earth kind of people. People who will remain in your corner every day, through thick and thin, and I miss them dearly. But that’s the thing about the Outer Banks, it’s so much more than a physical place. You don’t live there, the Outer Banks lives within you – even if you are now 650 miles away.
I often wonder if native Tarheel Thomas Wolfe is right when he writes, “You can’t go home again” in his book, Look Homeward, Angel.
I wonder if one can ever go home again. I hope so, because I miss living on the Outer Banks. ♦
Greg Smrdel, while his physical body lives in Ohio (for now), his soul will always remain on the Outer Banks.