Some Things Were Meant to Last

BY Laura Rectenwald

It’s 1956 and another school day has ended at Wrightsville Beach Elementary. For first-graders and best friends Linda Balk Skipper Donna Plunkett Waggett and Jean Thompson Pearce however the day has just begun.

Linda lives on Water Street and gets dropped off at the legendary Newell’s (where Wings is now) for a penny candy while the bus driver continues his route before returning to pick her up and take her home. She’s in a hurry to get ready for an afternoon of fishing with her daddy but it won’t take her long because she’s worn her swimsuit under her school clothes.

Jean walks to her Harbor Island Home on North Channel Drive to play for a while with her three siblings and Donna volunteers for family fishing clamming and just generally “bringing something home for Mama to throw in the pot.”

As usual they’ll meet up later to find sand dollars on the beach play ball (in the open lot where The Landing now stands) play dress up at Linda’s and get a snack at Jean’s — whose mother’s sandwiches have become famous on the island.

Now more than 50 years later the laughter and tears flow as easily as their stories as these WB locals reminisce about the days when life at the beach was “magical.”

It was a simpler quieter Wrightsville Beach back then and the girls now grandmothers to their own water babies owned the place — because they lived here year-round. “We wanted the few tourists that were there to leave so we could have our beach back ” says Donna laughing.

“Now all I own is a boat slip down here ” says Jean.

But they’ll always own their memories many of them made at Wrightsville Beach Elementary where students were hall monitors one teacher taught every subject and cafeteria food was delicious. Donna and Linda were lucky enough to have meal tickets and always looked forward to fish sticks and grits on Friday.

“The food was yummy ” says Jean “but I lived close enough to walk to school — so I had to pack my lunch.”

Some of the differences the women recall about the school in their day as compared to today — they all live locally and still visit occasionally — were the students’ photographs on the walls back then (taken down for fear of water damage due to hurricanes) the dresses and lacy socks that were everyday attire and the little school store that supplied pencils and paper for the students.

“You had to be in the sixth grade to work at the store ” says Linda “and you were cool if you did it.”

Sixth grade in fact was a big year. “We had our first grown-up dance that year called the sock hop. You’d wear your socks to the dance ” says Donna.

As much as the girls loved school they couldn’t wait to play afterwards. “From the drawbridge to the ocean was our playground ” says Jean “and everywhere in between.” By the age of 5 the best friends had learned how to water-ski (even under the drawbridge) swim (they learned at Bible School at Lumina Pavilion) and perhaps most importantly crab.

“We’d go to Newell’s and buy fish heads and chicken bones to crab with ” says Linda. “That’s all you needed — that and a string. We didn’t have crab cages like people use today. Crab traps are not cool crab lines are cool.”

“We’d fish and crab and take them back to Mama ” says Donna.

“I remember making catfish stew right on the sound ” adds Jean. “Those are some of my favorite memories.”

Back then there weren’t fishing licenses and the girls remember catching two spots at a time off the docks and clams seemingly as plentiful as sand on the beach.

“You can’t clam anymore but when I was young it was my favorite thing to do ” says Linda. “My mom worked on Saturdays so Daddy and I would go clamming and eat them for lunch with ketchup. Sometimes we’d even have them for dinner.”

With only two restaurants on the island most families cooked seafood at home during the week.

“We didn’t go to restaurants ” says Donna. “We had the food right outside our front door. We caught it cooked it and ate it. The only time you went to a restaurant was when you wanted a steak on a Friday or Saturday night.”

As quiet and family-friendly as it was the ladies remember that Wrightsville Beach attracted its fair share of movie stars and celebrities including Esther Williams and Michael Landon along with the Big Bands of the time. The bands played night after night at Lumina the landmark of entertainment at Wrightsville Beach for the better part of the 20th century and another cherished memory.

“My brother worked at Lumina ” says Linda. “We would always go up there and visit him if not for the hot dogs then for the ice cream.” Linda loved Lumina so much that when she was 6 years old she took her stroller and baby doll unbeknownst to her parents to get an ice cream cone from Mr. Robinson the owner of Lumina at the time.

Everyone knew that if anything happened to the kids “Stinky” Williams the local police officer would come to the rescue.

“He was the man on the beach ” says Jean.

“Our second dad ” says Linda. “He knew all the kids.”

“Donna and I got into trouble one day jumping rope in the middle of Stone Street ” says Jean “and Stinky ended up carrying me all the way home to Harbor Island.”

The girls were no strangers to a little mischief especially Linda who was known as the mischievous one of the group.

“Yes and Jean was the nurturer ” says Linda.

“That’s why we called her the mother — or Jean Jean the baby machine ” says Donna laughing.

Though the girls all have children and grandchildren of their own they remain close friends in Wilmington and after all these years they’re still fishing crabbing and enjoying all of the splendors of Wrightsville Beach.

“Daddy’s 84 years old and we still go fishing ” says Linda.

“Want to see the gills behind my ears?” says Jean pulling her hair back. “I think the saltwater still runs through our veins.”

“There’s still sand in my shoes ” says Donna.

“And fishing in my blood ” adds Linda.

With a gleam in her eye Jean looks out over the waterway at the boats. “You look out now and see millions of dollars but that’s not what makes you happy here.”

“We know what it’s like to really be happy at Wrightsville Beach ” says Donna. “None of our families had much money but we got to experience the innocence of Wrightsville Beach. It was the happiest time of my life.”

Tears come to Jean’s eyes as she remembers her last visit to her childhood home on Harbor Island. “We went there one day and they had bulldozed it. We grabbed a brick from the chimney — that’s the only piece of that house that we have.”

Donna and Linda’s homes are gone now as well but they have enough memories to last them a lifetime.

Wrightsville Beach Elementary Reunion

Donna Jean and Linda invite anyone who attended Wrightsville Beach Elementary School from 1956-1962 to join them for a reunion in September. Call Donna at (910) 262-8613 or Jean at (910) 681-0270 for more information.