Fire on the Beach : Recovering the Lost Story of Richard Etheridge and the Pea Island Lifesavers
FROM THE CIVIL WAR TO THE TURN OF THE CENTURY, THIS IS THE TRUE-LIFE STORY OF THE ORIGINAL COAST GUARD AND ONE CREW OF AFRICAN-AMERICAN HEROES WHO FOUGHT STORMS AND SAVED LIVES OFF NORTH CAROLINA'S OUTER BANKS.
Fire on the Beach recovers a lost gem of American history. It tells the story of the U.S. Life-Saving Service, formed in 1871 to assure the safe passage of American and international shipping and to save lives and salvage cargo. A century ago, the adventures of the now-forgotten "surfmen" who, in crews of seven, bore the brunt of this dangerous but vital duty filled the pages of popular reading material, from Harper's to the Baltimore Sun and New York Herald. Station 17, located on the desolate beaches of Pea Island, North Carolina, housed one such unit, and Richard Etheridge -- the only black man to lead a lifesaving crew -- was its captain.
A former slave and Civil War veteran, Etheridge recruited and trained a crew of African- Americans, forming the only all-black station in the nation. Although civilian attitudes toward Etheridge and his men ranged from curiosity to outrage, they figured among the most courageous surfmen in the service, performing many daring rescues. From 1880 to the closing of the station in 1947, the Pea Island crew saved scores of men, women, and children who, under other circumstances, would have considered the hands of those reaching out to help them to be of the wrong race. In 1896, when the three-masted schooner E. S. Newman beached during a hurricane, Etheridge and his men accomplished one of the most daring rescues in the annals of the Life-Saving Service. The violent conditions had rendered their equipment useless. Undaunted, the surfmen swam out to the wreck, making nine trips in all, and saved the entire crew. This incredible feat went unrecognized until 1996, when the Coast Guard posthumously awarded the crew the Gold Life-Saving Medal.
The authors depict the lives of Etheridge and his crew against the backdrop of late-nineteenth-century America -- the horrors of the Civil War, the hopefulness of Reconstruction, and the long slide toward Plessy v. Ferguson that followed. Full of exploits and heroics, Fire on the Beach, like the movie Glory, illustrates yet another example of the little-known but outstanding contributions of a remarkable group of African-Americans to our country's history.
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January 10, 2002
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Excerpt from Fire on the Beach by David Wright
Regan Reilly sighed for the hundredth time as she looked down at her mother, Nora, a brand-new patient in Manhattan's Hospital for Special Surgery. "And to think I bought you that dopey crocheted rug you tripped on," she said.
"You only bought it. I caught my heel in it," the well-known mystery writer said wanly. "It wasn't your fault I was wearing those idiotic stilts."
Nora attempted to shift her body, which was anchored by a heavy plaster cast that reached from her toes to her thigh.
"I'll leave you two to assess the blame for the broken leg," Luke Reilly, owner of three funeral homes, husband and father, observed as he hoisted his long, lean body from the low bedside armchair. "I've got a funeral to go to, a dentist's appointment, and then, since our Christmas plans are somewhat altered, I guess I'd better see about buying a tree."
He bent over and kissed his wife. "Look at it this way: you may not be gazing at the Pacific Ocean, but you've got a good view of the East River." He and Nora and their only child, thirty-one-year-old Regan, had been planning to spend the Christmas holiday on Maui.
"You're a scream," Nora told him. "Dare we hope you'll arrive home with a tree that isn't your usual Charlie Brown special "
"That's not nice," Luke protested.
"But it's true." Nora dismissed the subject. "Luke, you look exhausted. Can't you skip Goodloe's funeral Austin can take care of everything."
Austin Grady was Luke's right-hand man. He had handled hundreds of funerals on his own, but the one today was different. The deceased, Cuthbert Boniface Goodloe, had left the bulk of his estate to the Seed-Plant-Bloom-and-Blossom Society of the Garden State of New Jersey. His disgruntled nephew and partial namesake, Cuthbert Boniface Dingle, known as C.B., was obviously bitter about his meager inheritance. After viewing hours yesterday afternoon, C.B. had sneaked back to the casket where Luke had found him stuffing rotted bits of house plants in the sleeves of the pin-striped designer suit the fastidious Goodloe had chosen as his last outfit.