HAMLET — Earl Bradshaw was born to the ringing of church bells. On Thursday, he’ll celebrate his 102nd birthday to the sizzle of barbecue.
A fixture in Hamlet, Bradshaw remembers history — his personal history coincides so much with that of the town he has lived in most of his life — with a sharpness those a quarter of his age would envy. His hearing may be in decline, but his memory most assuredly is not.
Many of Bradshaw’s memories center on vehicles.
“I have driven everything that has wheels on it — except airplanes,” he says. “Cars. Trucks. Trains.” His friend Charles Alexander, a garrulous 83, jokes that Bradshaw should jump out of an airplane to mark his birthday. Bradshaw scoffs. He has had enough of airplanes.
Cars, though? His first was a black Model T. His latest also is a black Ford that he still drives occasionally.
And trains … Bradshaw worked for the railroads during World War II. He was called up in 1944, toward the war’s end, but the Army released him. His work with the railroads helped move men and materiel, and he was of service to his country there. Bradshaw is a fount of stories about Hamlet’s — and his — past, all rendered with remarkable detail.
• His birth: “My mother said she knew it was Sunday morning because after she heard me cry, she heard the church bells ring.”
• His youth in the Sandhills: “Hamlet, at that time, was the big town (not Rockingham). It had one or two of everything. … You could walk anywhere (in town, but you) couldn’t go barefoot because the place was full of sand spurs.”
Many of the stories are picaresque, featuring Bradshaw:
• Sneaking his friends into the opera house: “Us young’uns would drop through the coal chute, (crawl) through the orchestra pit and take the latch off the door …”
• Playing baseball against west Hamlet’s “Croakers,” then battling them again, off the diamond: “The Croakers, they was tough. … When you got through beating them at a baseball game, there’d be a fight. Sometimes, they’d beat you both times.”
• Or bumfuzzling the high school principal who was sure three boys had climbed out the bathroom windows of the high school to hightail it to Bradshaw’s sweet shop and store. (They had. Bradshaw let them sneak out his back door.)
Some stories log the passing of time:
• A tobacco auction house that became a skating rink that became a sewing room where workers made blue jeans — “overall pants.”
• Redcaps guiding passengers off the trains and toward the dining rooms of local hotels, now all gone.
• A restaurant with a dumbwaiter and a basement full of whisky. During Prohibition in the 1920s, a thirsty fellow could deposit money in the dumbwaiter; when the pulleys brought the cage back up, the whisky would appear.
Bradshaw built and managed a grocery store on King Street. It later became a Tastee Freeze and, after that, “the home of the sausage dog.”
“Until this day,” he says, “I have a lot of people” relishing the idea of a sausage dog.
He has hopes for the future, too.
He’d like to visit Wilmington, New Bern and Monroe — places the railroad took him — “one last time.”
So far, plans for his birthday include a gathering of relatives for a cookout: his two daughters, seven grandchildren, 18 great-grandchildren, two great-great-grandchildren and assorted friends.
At 101-plus, Bradshaw has outlived his wife, two sons-in-law and many others. And though he remembers the past, he doesn’t mourn it.
“He has, of course, outlived (many of) his family and all his friends,” says his daughter Pat Bradshaw Maloney. But “he’s always been a happy person.”
And when you’re happy, “you keep on learning and going.”
Reach Christine Carroll at 910-817-2673.