Just as you are leaving Elizabeth City on Hwy 17 north, there is a road that goes back to the right just before you cross the Knobbs Creek Bridge. You may not even really notice this road today but it use to be the only way you could get back into Foreman’s Mill. As you crossed the small single lane bridge and approached the gate to the mill, you would notice this little one room shack right outside the gate. You might even mistake it for a guard shack, a place where you would have to check in before you were allowed inside the mill. This was the place he called home.
His name was Ike. I’m not sure when we came to know his name. He was just always there. He was one of those people that just blended into the landscape of my youth. Ike’s world was colorless. It was obvious the boards that made up his shack had never seen a paint brush and the wood had long since given up it’s natural golden color, giving in to the years of rain and sun. His clothes had also given up. The threadbare material of his pants and jacket almost seem to be a continuous shade of beige even though you could see a hint of blue in them. Even his bicycle was a uniform rust color from one end to the other. We would see him all the time, collecting coke and pepsi bottles beside the road to turn in for cash.
A friend of mine invited me to come with him to Ike’s one day. Well, it wasn’t really an invitation. It was more like, “Hey, come with me… we need to go do something.” I was surprised to find myself standing right outside of Ike’s home. We knocked on the door and he opened the door and stepped out. I could see over his shoulder that it was a most meager existence. A table, a chair and a cot was all that I could make out over his shoulder. I was standing a little bit off to the side so I didn’t hear a lot of the conversation. Then I saw my friend hand Ike something, he turned and waved and we left. Come to find out he had given Ike some money. Nothing really that big… just a couple of bucks. My friend had been doing that for quite a while. I made the comment; “You know he is just going to use that to buy alcohol, don’t you?” To which my friend replied; “Well if he does, I feel like anyone that lives a life that hard deserves it.” I didn’t say another word.
As the holidays approached that year, I thought about that incident a lot. I wanted to do something. So my friend and I decided that we would get Ike a Christmas tree. He had never had one before and had always wanted one. So we got a little tree and put some very simple ornaments and some garland on it and took it back to Ike’s. He wasn’t there so we left it sitting by his door. We never saw his reaction to it but I have always hoped that he liked it.
After I grew up and went away to college, I heard that Ike had died. That someone had hit him one day when he was riding his bicycle into town. I imagine he was making his usual trip.. gathering bottles for cash. While Ike didn’t live a big life… and there is no doubt in my mind that it was a tough one too… I am glad I got to at least meet him… and yet, I am sorry that I didn’t get to know him.