Veteran author John Hirchak will be the first to tell you his new book, “Legends Of Old Wilmington And Cape Fear” came very close to becoming a myth. He also is well-aware admitting that his work nearly failed to exist sounds very commonplace. But the fact of the matter is, it’s the truth.
On March 4th, 2009, just as Hirchak felt ready to assemble the mounds of ideas and notes piled in his office for the work, his step-daughter, Lindsay Marie Miller, sadly passed away. Her death made Hirchak physically and emotionally unable to create life through the art of storytelling. And it was then compounded by the death of his high-school best friend, Mark Thomas Feeley, and the unrelenting heartache on the drive to New York City for the funeral. It all prompted Hirchak to realize every moment that passes is gone—never to be recaptured again. If Hirchak was ever going to proceed—not just with the book but partaking in life as a whole without wasting what little time is given to us—the time was then.
“Legends Of Old Wilmington and Cape Fear” was published this year; however, it’s not a simple read geared toward proving or disproving the fantastical lore that floods Wilmington. Sure, each page gives clarity about tales and legends, but it delves much deeper. It tells of infamous pirates like Blackbeard (who really wasn’t all that infamous) and the sly Calico Jack Rackham. Topsy the famous elephant, who escaped from the circus, also stomps through a few pages. Readers will get a kick out of the reaction Wilmingtonians had to such characters; one resident identied the elephant as a varmint that liked to shove collard greens up her rear end. Explosive train wrecks, fervently fought battles, and the folklore of Revolutionary and Civil War heroes—who haunt the taverns they once gathered—are explained. Hirchak’s book offers a very palatable slice of universal emotion by painting each fabled character as they are all too often forgotten to be: human.
Hirchak makes it clear legends are not just about the events that trickle down with passages of time. Legends are about the people, the emotions, and the surviving connections we have with them. It’s easy to only feel their relativity once understanding them in their true light.
“When you look at the small pieces of historic events, we find little gems that make up the bigger events,” Hirchak says. “Insignificant moments—those pieces—are made up of real people that do real things. People are people. For Wilmington itself, I think that we’ve been witness to a lot of history—directly or indirectly. Maybe we don’t have the strongest ties to some of the most important events of the biggest wars. Maybe Paul Revere didn’t ride these streets, but we do have important ties to these events through our individuals.”
Hirchak writes about these figures for readers to find joy in relating to. He hopes folks pick up the book for more than merely “debunking” popular dramatic lore. In all honesty, he wants readers to ignore any inaccuracies altogether that they’ve heard of or previously read about the legends. To him, it’s not important. He revels in the the pure humanity of these epic beings.
On some level, it’s their boldness that should be legendary. Hirchak admits the deeper he researched his book—the longer he lingered in museums, fact-checked and combed over old newspaper articles—the more he felt a strong sense to defend the people he was writing about against those who merely seek to disprove their lives.
“I guess part of my problem,” Hirchak admits, “is that in the rush to disprove something, there’s so little time given to finding out what really happened.”
As an example, he refers to the legend of Mary Slocumb’s ride to Moores Creek National Battlefield in 1776. “Years ago researchers debunked Mary Slocumb’s ride,” Hirchak reports. “This implies the whole story is a lie. It seems like at some point someone should have asked if there was any remnant of truth to the whole story.”
As it turns out, there is. Hirchak found Mary’s retelling of her story in a Mount Olive newspaper. In the article, Mary was 76; her memory was foggy. She simply confused Moores Creek with the lesser known battlefield of Rockfish.
“In 1781 the Battle of Rockfish was fought 10 miles from Moores Creek,” Hirchak edifies. “Everyone latched onto Mary’s heroic ride on Moores Creek (a national battlefield) instead of Rockfish (good luck finding this battlefield). Does this mistake on her part make what she did any less heroic? I don’t want to pretend I am a historian, because I am not; however, heroic myth tends to be rooted in some factual events. I think it’s important to keep this in mind when trying to figure out what may have happened in any legend.”
Quite simply, Hirchak takes the the passions of the people centered inside the legend and places them at the forefront. “These people I’m talking about are legends in their own right,” he proclaims. “These people had the opportunity to do things in life none of us will ever see in our own lifetime. And now they’re no more. Looking back on what they did achieve while they were here…”
Hirchak’s voice trails off, no doubt as her remembers Lindsey and Marl, as he considers all they accomplished in the short amount of time they were around.
“They deserve the larger-than-life legends that surround them,” he concludes. “I hope readers of my book will take away the same feeling.”
“Legends of Old Wilmington and Cape Fear” can be purchased at the Fort Fisher Historic Museum (1610 S. Fort Fisher Blvd.) and Two Sisters Bookery (318 Nutt St.). Hirchak will be signing copies of his work on August 9th from noon until 2 p.m. at The Black Cat Shoppe (8 Market Street) and at Costco (5351 Gingerwood Dr.) on August 24th from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.
Legends of Old Wilmington and Cape Fear
By John Hirchak
Reading and signing:
Aug. 9th, noon
The Black Cat Shoppe
8 Market St.
Aug. 24th, 2 p.m.
Costco, 5351 Gingerwood Dr.