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Fire on the Beach: Recovering the Lost Story of Richard Etheridge and the Pea Island Lifesavers Paperback – August 22, 2002

ISBN-13: 978-0195154849 ISBN-10: 0195154843 Edition: 0th

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Fire on the Beach is a wonderful book on a forgotten piece of history: The story of an all-black unit of the U.S. Life-Saving Service on North Carolina's "beautiful and unforgiving" Outer Banks. Stationed on Pea Island, near the hazardous "Graveyard of the Atlantic," the men of the segregated Station 17 showed that African Americans were just as capable as their white peers when it came to saving the lives of sailors and passengers whose ships foundered on deadly shoals. Their leader was Richard Etheridge, an inspiring figure born into slavery. He fought during the Civil War and later entered the LSS. Much of the book is a reconstruction of his life, and Civil War buffs will appreciate the extensive treatment given to his military service.

Yet Fire on the Beach is not a mere biography. It's a fascinating portrait of 19th-century Outer Banks culture, long before these isolated little towns became tourist destinations. Authors David Wright and David Zoby, for instance, describe "wreckers" whose main occupation--a surprisingly profitable one--was combing the beach for the detritus of shipwrecks. The town of Nags Head apparently derives its odd name from this weird heritage: "Many claim that the name Nags Head originated in an era when malicious wreckers would tie a lantern around an old horse's neck and lead it up and down the dunes. From the sea, the rising and falling light would give the impression of a ship safely moored in a harbor, taunting unsuspecting ship captains to sail to their destructions." Even without these manmade deceptions, the seas off the coast of North Carolina were plenty treacherous, giving Etheridge and his men lots of rescue work. Race is a necessary and fundamental theme of the book, and Etheridge knew he would have to defy white skeptics by proving his abilities over and over: "There was no room for error. The continuation of the black station could be compromised by any slipup, no matter how slight. Misjudgment or poor performance could result in his or one of his crewmen's dismissal. Inadequacies, no matter how slight, could lead to the reinstatement of a white keeper and crew. They had to excel if they were to maintain their station." Fire on the Beach ultimately rises above the parochialism of race: It is a gripping story about "a man among the men" and his harrowing exploits. When Wright and Zoby describe Etheridge's role in saving the crew of the schooner E.S. Newman in hurricane conditions, the skin color of Etheridge and his men does not matter at all. Fans of The Perfect Storm and Isaac's Storm--books that mix thrilling sea stories with calamitous weather--are sure to enjoy Fire on the Beach. --John Miller --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Etheridge, a slave from the Outer Banks of North Carolina, fought in the Civil War before returning to Pea Island to head the first all-black Life-Saving Service unit, the forerunner of the modern Coast Guard. Wright, assistant professor of English at the University of Illinois, and Zoby, who teaches at Caspar College, readily admit they know little about Etheridge himself; though literate, he apparently confined his writing to terse entries in his logbook. So they construct this account of his adventures from his troops' movements in the war and the subsequent development of the Life-Saving Service, whose "surfmen" were important role models since shipwrecks and rescues were pivotal in North Banks culture. Just as black soldiers had to work twice as hard as whites to prove their worth, so Etheridge's rescue unit held itself to extraordinary standards. Yet while the authors studied public records and interviewed locals about this fascinating history, they never hit their stride. In particular, several narrative sequences entitled "The Life of a Surfman" are unconvincingly personal. A straightforward history of Outer Banks black culture or a historical novel would have worked better than this turgid, speculative hybrid, which leans too often on tragic shipwrecks for drama. Details of battle strategy, storm movements and the rescue stations' geography are difficult to follow for lack of maps. Simple diagrams of the two major pieces of rescue technology the Lyle gun and the surfboat would also have been helpful. Still, African-American, Civil War and naval history enthusiasts will find this of interest.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 335 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press (August 22, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195154843
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195154849
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.1 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #306,483 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By ADAM D DUNBAR on January 6, 2002
Format: Hardcover
I am admittedly not a history buff. I do however treasure the three years I was lucky enough to live on North Carolina's Outer Banks. "Fire on the Beach" was recommended to me & now I would like to pass that gift on to anyone who reads these reviews. This book tells a fantastic tale of a man & a period of time that are both truly inspiring. It does not read like a "historical text", but more like a well plotted out novel. If you have any interest in Post Civil War South, Turn of the century maritime history, North Carolina's Outer Banks, or the US Coast Guard, do not pass this book up!
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By "schief9" on November 14, 2001
Format: Hardcover
David Zoby and David Wright take us through the breathtaking life journey of former slave Richard Etheridge in the late 1800's. Unlike many other historical accounts, Zoby and Wright reveal an intricately woven tale that flows brilliantly through the Civil War, the Reconstruction and on through the formation of the U.S. Live-Saving Service. This is a compelling story about a man who retains his dignity and integrity during a time when black people had no voice. The hardships endured by those early lifesavers that willingly put their lives at risk to save the victims of shipwrecks are memorably expressed in the detailed descriptions of the land and the power of the sea. I now have this compelling urge to visit the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By The RAWSISTAZ Reviewers on September 17, 2001
Format: Hardcover
I have been a resident of North Carolina for over 12 years and had never heard of Richard Etheridge and the Pea Island Life Savers. The book Fire On The Beach by authors David Wright and David Zoby is a very important history lesson not just for those of us living in North Carolina but also for people living all over the world.
Richard Etheridge began life as a slave in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, he was property of the Etheridge family and was considered a part of the family. At the age of 21 Richard, without asking the permission of his owners, joined the army and became a Union soldier. Richard was proud to be fighting to try to end slavery. He was prepared to fight to the death to make life better for himself and those around him. While in the Army, Etheridge and other Black soldiers were known as the "African Brigade." These men fought valiently and after the war they all went back home to some of the same problems and issues they had before the war.
The Outer Banks of North Carolina had always been a problem for ships;they often ran aground on the North Carolina shores. As a result, in 1874, life saving stations were opened all over the Outer Banks. Initially most of the crews were checkered or made up of Black and White men. The Lifesavers of the Outer Banks had a troubled history of haphazardly run patrols, poorly trained lifesavers, and stations that were run erracticly. Many lifesavers got positions because of who they knew and were related to. The Lifesavers of the Outer Banks were in desparate need of an image change.
In February 1880, that image changed radically, Richard Etheridge was named keeper of Pea Island Station 17, and what made it even more special is that he had an all Black crew.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on October 2, 2002
Format: Hardcover
This history of the Pea Island Lifesavers is beautifully written so that the story captivates from start to finish. In fact, I wasn't sure that this was my kind of book, but the early, vivid description of the dangerous coast and the duties of the men who walked the Outer Banks looking for shipwrecks hour after hour convinced me that I had to read the whole book. Clearly well researched, this book taught me a great deal about the Civil War and U.S. maritime history but, more importantly, explored the humanity in our country's history. It takes saavy authors to recognize that the real beginning of the Pea Island Lifesaving Station begins not with its inception but with the lives of the men, namely Richard Etheridge, who served there. Because of the emphasis on people and place, the book reads quite like a novel and, therefore, can be appreciated by a wide audience. Fire on the Beach deserves to be read, for it demonstrates that history must be revealed and retold with all its contradictions, complications, and individuals.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on August 4, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Not only does this book recapture an important moment lost in history, but recreates it for us through a sea-faring adventure of the highest order.
This is a fantastic books for those interested in the southern history like, April 1865, or nautical adventure stories like, In The Heart of the Sea.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Anthony J. Sacco on September 22, 2003
Format: Paperback
Faced with several days of enforced inactivity as Hurricane Isabel bore down upon Baltimore, what I needed was a good book with which to pass the hours. There on my shelf was Fire on the Beach, purchased several months ago but set aside for just such a circumstance. As the wind howled around my apartment and rain slashed at my windows, I settled in to read.
Authors Wright and Zoby have written a thrilling account about the American Life Saving Service (ALSS), predecessor to the U.S. Coast Guard. Their focus is on the life of Richard Etheridge, born into slavery, a soldier in the Union Army during the Civil War, and later, leader of a courageous crew of lifesavers at Pea Island's Station 17 on the Outer Banks.
Richard Etheridge, probably the son of a white "Banker," raised and educated as part of his family, obtained his freedom fighting with the North Carolina Colored Volunteers (NCCV), under infamous Colonel Edward A. Wild. After the war, the scandel-ridden ALSS was reorganized and Etheridge was appointed Keeper of the station at Pea Island; the only black man to command a station up to that point. Etheridge was, indeed, a "man among men," risking his life time and again, driving his 6-member crew of surfmen to rescue sailors and passengers off unfortunate ships driven ashore by storms at least as furious as the one threatening Maryland on this day.
Here is a tale of daring exploits during an obscure time in American history; of courageous men of color fighting steep breakers and raging surf over shallow shoals while saving stranded survivors of doomed vessels before the deadly sea could claim them.
A fascinating account. Some might say it's black history. But it's more than that. It's about raw courage; about bravery against a treacherous enemy - the sea at its worst.
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