This is a bright and dusty morning in Seaboard. Pickup trucks stream into a field down off of Peanut Market Road, just south of the intersection with Big Johns Store Road, kicking up dirt.
They park, and one by one, the men and women of this small northeastern North Carolina community swing open their doors, plant their feet on the ground, and tilt their heads back to smile at the sun.
The old joke here is that if the Seaboard Lions Club is holding its annual farm-equipment auction, it’ll rain, sure as the seasons. But today the weather’s good.
During the welcoming announcements, the hosts thank God for the beautiful day. When the national anthem starts, men look at the ground and hold their caps over their hearts with hands that tremble a bit. Little things are precious around here, and if you give a man a green field and a blue sky and a moment to consider this country he plows, you don’t have to wonder what he’s thinking, looking at that ground: He’s thinking it’s a mighty fine day to be alive.
There are 1,000 items, little and large, up for auction in this field. In the small-items side, there’s an old beach cruiser bike, a wagon, and a box of records. On down, in the big-machine section, there’s everything from tractor to combine. Nothing has a price tag on it. But each item is worth something to somebody. The people bowing their heads for the flag will determine the value.
After the anthem, a big man grabs the microphone. A yellow Seaboard Lions cap sits high on his head. The microphone is attached to a single speaker, and any soft gust of wind makes it hard to hear him. The speaker crackles a bit.
“You got out of your bed this morning, and you drove to Seaboard, North Carolina,” he says. “I tip my hat to y’all for that.”
He explains all the good that’ll come from today’s auction. The Boys and Girls Club will get some money; the veterans will, too. There are many kids in town who need glasses, and they’ll get them, thanks to the auction. The Lions Club, internationally, serves the blind. The Lions Club, Seaboard, serves everyone. It’s the only service organization in town. And with 45 members, this is the largest Lions Club chapter in northeastern North Carolina.
The big man with the microphone is proud of that, proud to be the biggest at anything. He’s proud, in general. In fact, if you watch David Burke closely, if you have the energy to follow him all day long, the one thing you’ll notice is that he’s not the slightest bit ashamed of any piece of himself. He has no reason to be. In this big field, in this small town, under these blue-painted skies, his life is full.
And man, if that ain’t a mighty fine way to be.
At 9 a.m. on this sunny first Wednesday in March in this little community just east of Interstate 95 and just south of the Virginia line, Burke looks out across the crowd toward an auctioneer in a cowboy hat.
“Alright, boys,” Burke says. “Sell!”
Only two questions matter after you buy an item at an auction: How much did it cost you? And what will you do with it?
The answer to the first question is obvious. The whole crowd knows what you spent.
The first item up for bid today is an old toolbox. The auctioneer starts at $5. A man raises his hand. Then, this:
“Five-now-ten,” the auctioneer says. “Fi-now-ten. Fi’-and-a-tin. Fi’-an-a-tin-tin. Fi’-an-a-tin-tiiiinn. … Fi’ dolla. Right here.”
The whole day sounds like that: a fast-talking auctioneer and a crackling speaker system and simple, country economics — the more you put in, the better chance you have of getting something out.
A man in a flannel shirt smiles as he walks to the front to present his buyer’s number. Another man in a trailer records that buyer’s number alongside the saw’s item number alongside the price. Those three numbers together constitute a sale.
At an auction like this, almost everything that’s sold does something. It hammers or it plows or, in this case, it saws.
So the answer to the second question is obvious, too. What will a man in a flannel shirt who bought a chain saw for $30 do with the chain saw? He’s going to saw something.
The purchase presents both an opportunity and an obligation. Nothing bought here will sit still; that would be a waste.
A golden pig hangs from a chain around Burke’s neck. The pig wears a crown. Burke is also The King Cooker. It says so right on the side of the cooker he hauls to barbecue contests throughout the state: “The King Cooker — David Burke.”
In just about every barbecue-cooking competition Burke has entered in the past four years, he’s placed in the top five overall. And he’s always in the top three in the showmanship category.
Burke’s personality is so big and powerful, you just about think that if a cloud came along in this field today, he’d be able to sweet-talk the rain into skipping on past.
Burke is 46 years old, which makes him a relatively young member of the Seaboard Lions Club. He joined six years ago because his father-in-law, a local farmer, was a member.
Burke met his wife, Tammy, when he was in his early 20s and hanging around the nearest big town, Murfreesboro, population 2,000. They liked each other right away. Tammy grew up on farmland her family had owned forever and ever; David grew up on farmland his family had owned forever and ever. They’ve been married 24 years now and have two children.
“I think she’s gonna stick,” he says, laughing. “I told her one time that if she was gonna leave me, that’s fine — but I was goin’ with her.”
It takes a special person to be married to Burke.
He’s the plant manager at Flambeau in Roanoke Rapids, a plastics company that makes, among other things, every orange case for every STIHL saw in the country. He’s proud of that. He’s also on the Board of Directors for the Roanoke Valley Chamber of Commerce. He’s also a county planner. He’s also in the Lions Club, which meets every Tuesday. He’s also on the board of directors for the Roanoke Valley Veterans Center.
And he also cooks. Lots. At charity events, at Lions Club functions, for the local college, for anyone who wants him to fire up a pig.
“When people know you know how to cook,” he says, “they’ll let you cook yourself to death.”
You get the feeling he thinks that’d be a good way to go. And if it happened that way, Burke would go with a smile, content and happy with what he put in, not a minute wasted.
“The world goes shoo-shoo-shoo, and you’re gone,” he says. “You gotta have a good time in life. You can look at someone’s gravestone and see the date of birth, 1925, and then 1985 when they died. Those dates are what’s on there. But the most important thing is the dash in the middle. It’s what you do with the dash that counts.”
Around 9:30 p.m. the day before the auction, Burke started his cooker and a few others and filled them with 80 Boston butts — 350 pounds of hog meat — in preparation for today’s lunch.
He went home at about midnight. He was back at 5:15 a.m.
Inside the kitchen, several of the Lions Club wives help prepare the lunch. They have 200 hot dogs and 200 hamburgers to go along with the barbecue.
Outside, around the field of farm equipment, men stand in squares or triangles — most groups include no more than three or four people. One guy talks, and the others listen. Their bodies tell the mood of the conversation. If it’s serious, their heads crane forward; if it’s funny, they tilt back and laugh from the belly. They keep their hands in their coat pockets, and if you listen good, you’ll hear a soft crinkling coming from those pockets, the sound of a receipt or a candy wrapper rolling in between calloused fingers that can’t stay still.
Cotton fields stretch for miles. It’s early March 2011, and cotton is king again. It’s selling for $2.25 a pound, its best price in years.
This part of North Carolina has been peanut country for years. But this season, farmers around Seaboard have turned up their fields for cotton — white, fluffy, and full of promise.
So when the large-item side of the auction begins around lunchtime, many of those farmers bid on machines and equipment for the cotton-growing season, which starts in April.
Few people follow the shifts in commodity prices like E.B. Harris, the auctioneer. Harris is a celebrity in small-town North Carolina, famous for bringing spirit to sales. But he carries a cell phone with him, and throughout the day, he’s connected to the world, following the markets.
This is his third auction this week.
“An auction is an action,” Harris says. “There’s a price in everybody’s mind on every item. If you thought something was worth $1,000, and you buy it for $500, you’re delighted. And that person who sold it might’ve thought he’d only get $200 for it, so he’s delighted, too.”
The Seaboard Lions Club takes about five percent of every item sold, and the rest goes to the seller. The club will raise $18,000 today to divide among the charities it supports. This has been the Lions’ most profitable fund-raiser for nearly half a century — the 50th edition of the auction will take place on the first Wednesday in March 2012. And that auction will be different from the one before it.
“What an item brings today is today’s value,” Harris says, explaining economics from underneath his cowboy hat. “What an item brings tomorrow is tomorrow’s value. What an item brings yesterday is yesterday’s value.”
What the people at the Seaboard Lions Club farm-equipment auction today don’t know is that by late August 2011, cotton will have fallen to about $1 a pound, a more than 50 percent decrease in value in just five months.
Over Thanksgiving last year, Burke went to New York. He took his wife, his daughter, and his daughter’s friend. They rode a train from Rocky Mount up the coast to see the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Burke doesn’t remember the name of their hotel, but he remembers they stayed on the 27th floor, which is about 25 floors above any building in Seaboard. They were a long way from the ground.
They took the subway to the parade. Burke remembers standing on the train, all 6 feet 1 of him in his jeans and a gold pig necklace. Nobody talked to him, and that’s nothing he’s ever known.
But by the end of the trip, he managed to make eye contact with one older woman on the subway.
“She looked at me, and it was like she looked through me,” he says. “I smiled at her. And she said, ‘I know you’re not from here.’ And I said, ‘No, ma’am. I’m not from here. I’m from south of New York.’”
Seaboard is made up of 800 people. Eight hundred people in a county of 20,000, in a state of 10 million, in a country of 312 million, in a world of 7 billion. Seaboard’s people amount to about 300 households, and if you lit every porch light in town with a 75-watt bulb, it would drain about as much power as one good water heater.
The lone traffic light is a blinking yellow light, which is an altogether friendlier signal than the stoplights in cities, as if to say: “You ought to look out here, now. There might be someone comin’.”
Cities stay up late, when the light in the sky is the moon, which is appropriate because the moon revolves around the earth, and the earth, in those places, can seem to revolve around individuals. But the folks in Seaboard and other small towns in these eastern North Carolina flatlands are day creatures. Their lives revolve around the earth, and the earth revolves around the sun. They just hope it comes up. It’s a purer, simpler order, a daily reminder that no matter how much a field of cotton brings this month, each person here is just a small piece of something bigger.
Whether you’re city or country,whether you bow your head during the national anthem or not, only two questions seem to matter after seeing how David Burke and the Seaboard Lions and all the people in this field live: What are you doing? And what are you waiting on?
“Things don’t just happen here,” Burke says. “You’ve got to make ’em happen.”
Three days after the stock market fell 500 points in a single day in August, right as news came that the price of cotton had fallen for a fifth consecutive month, Burke took his cooker to a benefit for a man he’d never met. The man lost his leg in a motorcycle accident with an uninsured driver. The accident happened on July 4. Burke and a few other people from town cooked up 1,300 chickens at the benefit dinner to cover some of the man’s hospital bills. In the middle of a recession, in the middle of nowhere North Carolina, they raised $11,000 in one day.
Two days later, on Sunday, Burke went to church.
Someone was missing from the congregation that day, a 91-year-old local who fell in her home the previous week. The preacher told the crowd that the fall shook her up, more mentally than physically.
So after the Sunday service, Burke put aside everything else he had to do — the Lions, the veterans, the chamber, the planning commission, the cooking, the family — and he went to the woman’s house.
He stayed about an hour with her. They ate lunch and talked, two small-town people spending time together on a Sunday afternoon.
She wanted to know how church went. He told her the service was good, but it took a little longer than usual. There were five baptisms that morning, and that’s a big deal in this dusty little place where people value such things as clean souls and sunshine.
Their church, Galatia Baptist Church, is the biggest church in Northampton County. Burke is proud of that.
One of the last old-school fish houses in Onslow County stands sentry on the White Oak River. Clyde Phillips Seafood Market has served up seafood and stories since 1954 — an icon of the coast, persevering in pink.