Currituck County Tales and Legends
Most of the stories my mother told me either concerned people that I did not know or ones that had died before I was born. This is one of the rare tales that was told to Lizzie by a man still living when I was a child. He was a good man and not likely to make up a lie just to suit a story. His name is familiar to many students of Currituck County, but I think I will call him “Mr. Dix”.
Contributed by Robert Etheridge
America in the 1930's was a land in the midst of a great financial depression. Life savings were wiped out; farms that had been in the same family for generations were lost, and men who thought their hardest labors were over were forced back into backbreaking tasks.
Armies of men roamed the land searching for jobs. When they could not find work many were forced to beg. And, regrettably, some turned to crime. In large cities “Hoovervilles” made of cardboard and sheet metal were constructed. In rural areas men slept out in the open under an old blanket if they were fortunate enough to have found one.
A few of these unfortunates found their way into Currituck and quickly found that the people there were also in bad straits. One such man found his way into Mr. Dix's store in Harbinger one day. Mr. Dix remembered that the man was dark-haired with a little mustache and spoke with a foreign accent. When told that there was no work there, he looked sullen, turned and walked out. Mr. Dix assumed that the man was a wondering refugee from one of the northern cities, probably New York. They had been seen in the area before.
The summer that year was a dry one. Brush lying around was like tinder and several small fires had broken out, but were quickly extinguished. That night as Mr. Dix locked up his store and his gas pumps, he thought that he smelled smoke. As he started to get into his automobile, he saw that there was indeed a large fire not more than a hundred feet off the road and almost directly behind his store. Embers from the fire were flying high in the air and coming down—some in the direction of his store.
Concerned and angry and feeling that his store was in danger, he slammed his car door and started walking toward the fire, which was in a slight depression. As he walked, his path was clearly illuminated by the brightness of the blaze.
When he got nearer, he saw that three men were walking around the fire. Every so often one or more would rush off a little way and gather more twigs and brush that they then threw on the flames. Nearer yet, he could vaguely hear the men talking, but could not make out what they were saying or even if they were speaking English. He was able to get a pretty good look at the men even though the heat of the flames distorted their images. He thought that one of the men was the man that had been in his store earlier. The second man was a short, stocky baldheaded man and the third a small thin man. “What in the devil are they doing with a fire like that on a warm summer night? If they are trying to keep snakes and bugs away they don't need a blaze like that!” These thoughts raced through his mind as he neared the scene. He called out loudly, “Hey, you men!”
What happened next is something Mr. Dix would carry to his grave. Suddenly, where just a second before there was a blazing bonfire, there was now absolute darkness. There was no moon that night and this was in the days before rural electrification was widespread. And yet the smell of the smoke still lingered in the air. He stumbled forward for several more feet, but could not see. He was sure that he was near where the fire had been, but there were no embers, no men, and no sign. Mr. Dix's eyes gradually acclimated to the sudden darkness and he was able to see dimly around the surrounding area. He stood for several minutes looking in all directions before walking back up to his car.
And now he saw it again! The bonfire was blazing as before and the men were walking around even more quickly. The embers were now larger and were almost reaching his store before they flickered out. Mr. Dix was no coward and decided to try again. This time he walked swiftly, but quietly toward the fire. The men were practically running now and throwing larger amounts of tinder on the fire, which rose higher and higher. He said not a word, but when he reached the same place that he had been before, once again the fire and the men disappeared!
Mr. Dix waited an even longer time before heading back to his automobile. As before, as soon as he put his hand on the door of the car, the bonfire blazed up again! He thought seriously about trying to drive down there and surprise the men, but because he knew the topography of the land he decided against it. “No”, he said to himself. “Those are not ordinary men dancing around that fire. It's time I got on home!”
Mr. Dix slept little that night and was up very early the next morning. He made some coffee and oatmeal as was his habit and then quickly drove back to his store. He was relieved to see that the store was intact and undamaged. He parked his car beside the store in its usual place and walked again down the incline to where the fire had been. There was no evidence that a fire had ever been there. There were no ashes, no charred branches and no footprints other that those left by Mr. Dix the night before.
He opened the store for business and waited for the usual clientele to arrive. When he described the stranger from the day before, no one had seen him. No one had noticed a glow in the night sky. No one had noticed a thing out of the ordinary except Mr. Dix.
Like most people of his generation, Mr. Dix believed in omens and signs. He fully believed that the meaning of the things that he had seen that night would be made clear before long and was prepared for some sort of bad news to follow. But it never did. The significance of his vision was not explained, although years later, when World War Two was raging he ventured that what he had seen was a sign of the coming of that great conflagration that ignited the entire world in its flames.