Karen Curran : Memoir: May 2021

Southern Legitimacy Statement: My parents grew up West Virginia hillbillies, but moved to Pennsylvania (for my dad’s job), where I was born. In North Carolina since age six, for sixty years now, I’ve hailed from the South—North Carolina, Georgia, and currently, Tennessee.

When I first came south, I never expected to talk like the store clerks who asked, “How can Ah hep ya?” But by my teens, when I met folks from other parts of the country, they were quick to tease me about my southern accent. That’s when I realized I had changed. I felt comfortable talking like a southerner. I felt at home. I had become a lover of slow drawls, country drives, and cry-yourself-to-sleep music.

Naked in New Bern

I was busy applying sunscreen when Kim squealed, “Oh, gross!” Looking up, I saw the Marine on a nearby towel wiggle his hips while pushing his skimpy swimsuit down closer to his privates. “I hate wienie-hugging suits!” Kim whispered loudly to the other girls.  

Rosemary, Beth, and Kim burst into laughter, but I was so embarrassed I dropped the bottle of lotion. I could feel my skin blush a deep red, even without help from the sun, because certainly the man had overheard.  

“Girls!” I shook my head in disapproval and tried not to look at the Marine lying only feet away. I had a habit of saying Bible verses to myself whenever I got into a difficult or uncomfortable situation. Whatever is pure, whatever is lovely…think about such things. The vision of that swimsuit definitely wasn’t pure and I needed to get it out of my virgin mind. The man flashed a grin, obviously liking our reactions, and Rosemary, Beth, and Kim laughed even harder.  

Maybe we should go. I was surprised that my young charges didn’t seem at all upset by what we were seeing.

Atlantic Beach was crowded that Thursday in ‘75, mostly with Marines from the Marine Corps Air Station in Havelock, North Carolina. The short haircuts gave them away. Their bodies cast shadows on us as the men took unnecessary detours by our blanket, drawn like a magnet to four bikini-clad bodies.

“Don’t look at people on this beach,” Beth warned.

“Why not?” I said.

“You just don’t look at people here. It’s not safe,” Beth said. “Gosh, you’re naïve!” 

I was twenty and, having just completed my junior year in college, was the summer youth director of the New Bern church that Beth, Rosemary, and Kim attended. Beth was eighteen and had graduated from high school the month before; younger, but worldly wise, far beyond her years.

Naïve? I was a bit taken back, being, after all, the older of the group, the one in charge, the leader responsible for giving instructions. I had no idea what Beth was talking about, but uneasily shrugged off her comment.

*****

As I lay on the quilt soaking up sun, my thoughts strayed to something that had happened six days earlier. Mr. and Mrs. Adcock, who were letting me live in their basement apartment for the summer, had gone out of town, leaving their two daughters and me alone at their riverfront home. The daughters, Kathy and Susan, were home from college for the summer, but I stayed so busy at church, I’d spent little time with them.  

After working late that Friday evening, I ate a hotdog at Hardee’s, then stopped by the grocery store for milk, juice, and cereal. Back at the Adcock’s River Bend home, I found the driveway and street lined with cars. I parked a block away and walked uneasily toward the house. There was loud music and laughter coming from the main floor and as I got closer to my basement entrance, my heart began to beat faster. I wasn’t sure what to do—go to my room, go upstairs and join the party, or leave.  

I had to be careful that summer. Being on the church staff was a big responsibility. I knew I was a role model for many of the young people and certainly didn’t want to lead them astray by participating in a wild party. I needed to show the kids in the youth group they could have a good time without beer and sex. I’ll just stay in my room, I decided as I eased open the sliding glass door. Good. They’re all upstairs.

I walked through the basement den I shared with the Adcocks and into the private bathroom that adjoined my bedroom. I was stunned to see all the lights in my bedroom and bathroom turned on, with doors standing open, and fresh hand towels by the sink. The Adcock sisters obviously were including my rooms in their party venue. I quickly shut and locked the outer bedroom and bathroom doors. Seconds later, footsteps pounded down the stairs and someone twisted the knob on my bedroom door.

“Let’s try this other room,” a boy’s muffled voice said. I heard a nervous giggle before the door to the bedroom across the hall slammed shut. Oh my gosh, a boy and girl just went into that room. Not good! What should I do? I was almost in a panic. Where can I go? Mister Donut? A movie? I can’t be here with this kind of thing going on! And I really need to get this milk and juice in the refrigerator.

Someone twisted the knob on my door and, finding it locked, began to pound on the door so hard I thought it would break.  

“Hey, who’s in there?” a boy’s voice shouted.

“Me… Karen.” I was so scared my throat was tight and my voice barely squeaked out. What if this guy is able to get into my bedroom?

“Who?”

“Karen.”

“Who’s with you?”

“No one.”

“Open the door.”

“No!” No way I’m opening this door to some guy I don’t know!

“Why not?”

“I don’t want to,” I said, as I stared at my fingers. They had turned white from gripping the bedpost so tightly.

“You want a beer?”

“No. Thanks.”  

The boy quit calling through the door and I prayed he had gone away.

I must have spent an hour sitting on my bed unsure of what to do. Finally, I stretched out and tried to read the leader’s guide for the Bible lesson I had to teach on Sunday. I was afraid to get undressed because people kept knocking on my door and I was sure they would find some way to get in. I flinched at the curse words that filled the air every time the kids tried to open the bathroom door.  

My three days of training for the summer had taught me about leading Bible studies and worship, but had not prepared me for this. I had no idea what to do when standing at what felt like the gates of Sodom or Gomorrah. After another hour, around 9:00, I turned off my light and lay there, stiff, nervous, and fully clothed. My milk and juice would just have to spoil. There was no way I was going to the kitchen; there was also no way I was going to sleep.  

What do Kathy and Susan think of me locking myself in? I fretted. Do they even know I’m here? But what would they think if I was out there partying with them? I don’t want to do anything to cause someone to stumble. Besides, I’m not a party person; I never go to parties. My mind raced through Bible verses, desperately seeking guidance. I know I’m not supposed to act like most of the people in this world, because I’ve been transformed by Christ. Can I still be friends with Kathy and Susan when they live like this?

“Let’s go skinny dipping!” someone yelled.

I jumped off my bed and peeked around the edge of my curtain just in time to see a crowd of shining bottoms rush toward the river. “How can they?”I whispered, backing away from the window. “What kind of girls are these? No…no. I’m judging them and that’s wrong. Judge not, that you be not judged. I’m a sinner, too. But running around naked? With a bunch of boys?”

I had never been around such behavior, not even at college. Of course, I attended a small Baptist college. Longing for the safety of my parents’ home in Raleigh, I kept my door locked the rest of that very long night.

*****

I was jarred back to the present when I felt sand being kicked onto my foot and sat up to see yet another Marine staring at us so intently he almost stepped on our blanket as he passed by.

“Anyone want to walk to the fort?” I asked the girls. I wanted to get all of us away from the ogling eyes.

“No. It’s too far,” Kim said, and Rosemary agreed.

“I’ll go,” said Beth.

I was uneasy about leaving the two girls behind, but reminded myself they were eighteen and were used to coming to the beach without adult supervision.

The one-mile walk from the public beach to Fort Macon State Park was along a stretch of sand that was quiet and deserted. Beth and I were comfortable enough with each other that we didn’t need to talk and I began to relax, walking and breathing in rhythm with the waves lapping the shore. It was a hot day so when we entered the fort, we welcomed the relief the cool, damp rooms gave from the blistering sun.  

“Gee, it’s foggy in here,” said Beth. And it was. It had rained earlier in the day and a thin cloud of moisture still hung in the air. I wondered what ghosts we might encounter.

We thought we had the structure to ourselves until we walked through a door and came face-to-face with an angel. His white clothes, shoulder-length gold hair, and bronze skin glowed in the steamy room. He seemed older than us, but then how do you estimate the age of an angel? His polo shirt and tennis shorts accentuated hard, perfectly shaped muscles. I briefly thought of something from Song of Solomon about legs like alabaster columns set upon bases of gold. His blue eyes appeared to see right through me, or at least one of them did; his other eye was looking in a different direction.  

Would an angel have a crazy eye? I wondered.

“Hello!” he said, his voice deep.

“My God,” Beth said under her breath, and then stood there, mouth hanging open, staring at the vision in white.

“Hi!” I said, as I broke into a sweat. Close your mouth, Beth.

“Where are you girls from?”

“Beth is from New Bern. I’m from Raleigh, but working in New Bern for the summer. How about you?” Close your mouth, Beth, I willed at her again. My heart was about to pound out of my chest.

“Fort Lauderdale.”

“You like it there?” I struggled to keep my gaze focused on the man’s face.  “I…I’ve never been to Fort Lauderdale.”

“Yeah, it’s great. A lot of fun, especially if you’re single.” We stood in silence for a minute and finally the man said, “Well, you girls have a good time. Bye.”

Beth managed to close her mouth enough to say, “Bye,” but as soon as he left the room, she said, “My God, did you see his body?”

“I saw it. I saw it,” I whispered.

“He looked like a Greek god!”

“You told me not to look at people,” I said accusingly.

“I know,” said Beth, “but I don’t usually run into Apollo.”

“I thought you were going to drool,” I said. “You wouldn’t close your mouth!”

“Oh, he didn’t notice. All he did was look at you and your big bazookas.”  

“He looked at you, too,” I said while checking my swimsuit top. “He had a wandering eye, though. Made it sorta hard to tell who he was looking at.”

“What a place to meet—in this steam bath. But he’s too good-looking, in spite of his eye. He’s probably had sex with so many people he’s got some kind of disease.”

“Beth!” 

“A walking germ,” she said.

“I don’t believe you!” 

Beth shrugged.

We walked through the remaining musty rooms in the fort and then started back down the beach to where Rosemary and Kim were sunbathing. I meditated on the image of the angel we had seen while, in the distance, I could see a lone guy walking toward us. He wasn’t a Greek god or a Marine, just a hippie, with long dark hair and red, knee-length shorts. I squinted at the man; something seemed odd but I couldn’t make it out, being a bit nearsighted. When he got closer, I saw he was staring at me. I also saw that he had pulled up one leg of his shorts and was dangling a pink thing between his legs.  

I gasped to realize he was exposing himself. I wanted to grab Beth and run back towards the fort, or into the water, or anywhere to get away, but the nerves that allow my brain to tell my legs what to do didn’t seem to be working. My feet kept going forward, step-by-step. I looked down and began to study the sand in front of me as if I needed to choose a particular spot for each foot. And I began to pray, Lord, Your Word tells me that I shouldn’t be afraid of anything, that You are with me. Please protect us. Please, Lord.

As the man passed mere inches away, I could sense his eyes boring into me. The heat from his body was so palpable it almost burned. I wanted more than anything to not be there, but to be far, far away from the terror that had seized my heart.  

Please, God, let him keep walking away from us. Please. Oh, God, help!

The moments seemed like an eternity, but when it appeared we were safe, I began to breathe again. “B…Beth, did you…did you see that?”

“See what?”

I didn’t answer, hoping to just let it go, but Beth grabbed my arm, pulling me to a stop. “What’s wrong? You’re white as a sheet.”

I looked back to be sure the man was still walking towards the fort. “That…that guy. He…exposed himself….”

Beth let out a deep sigh and shook her head in disgust. “I told you never to look at people on this beach.”  

I had no words.  

We walked on, and suddenly, Beth began to giggle. “Your face! You should see your face!”

I wasn’t laughing. I was still shaking and looking over my shoulder all the way to the bathhouse area to be sure we weren’t being followed. When we reached Kim and Rosemary, I said, “Let’s go, girls.”

“But we just got here!” A typical teen exaggeration, since we had arrived two hours earlier. They sounded disappointed and I felt a familiar tug at my heart, reminding me of my usual habit of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. I shook it off, though; the afternoon had been far too upsetting.  

“It’s time to go,” I said brusquely. “Get the blanket, please.”

I walked on toward the parking lot then looked back in time to see the three girls shake out our quilt upwind of the Speedo-clad Marine. He jumped up so quickly his swimsuit got twisted and not even the dusting of sand could cover what was revealed. I had seen more flesh that day than I had ever hoped to see and it had reached the point of being ridiculous. Sure, all kinds of Bible verses could have been applied to the situation but for once, I simply put my head back and laughed out loud.