by Petty Officer 2nd Class Nate Littlejohn
On a sunny April afternoon, in a town where the Pantego Creek meets the Pungo River, just northwest of the Pamlico Sound in North Carolina’s Inner Banks region, a 70-year-old man on an old-fashioned bicycle glides down a dirt lane, lined with humble homes. He wears a gritty, somehow gentle expression on his tan, weathered face, despite his missing left eye and lack of an upper left jawbone. He proudly tows behind him a wagon with a beautiful wooden replica of a Coast Guard cutter he built himself from scratch.
The town is Belhaven, North Carolina, an inviting and popular port of call for recreational boaters traveling along the Atlantic Coast. The self-proclaimed “Birthplace of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway,” Belhaven is a place where most folks offer a warm, welcoming wave whether they know you or not. You’d likely have to search all day though, to find a local there who doesn’t know Jimmy Courson. In roles he may not fully understand – both as an inspiring, older brother and a source of comfort for a friend experiencing unimaginable loss and grief, Jimmy’s determination, resilience and passion have a tremendous impact on the lives of those around him.
A unique, detail-oriented man with a deep-rooted devotion to creating art, inspired by the rich maritime culture that surrounded him his entire life, Jimmy has called Belhaven home since his family moved there during the late 1940s. He’s well-known today for his tireless fervor for building model boats, often intricate replicas of Coast Guard ships known as cutters.
Jimmy attended John A. Wilkinson public school until his 8th grade year, but because of complications at birth that resulted in his learning disability, he attended a special-needs class for the next three years. When he wasn’t in school, he was busy building his model boats.
“The earliest I recall Jimmy building model ships was when he was about 13,” said Reid Courson, Jimmy’s younger brother. “It became obvious early on he favored the Coast Guard crafts. This had a lot to do with the fact that it was not uncommon in those days for one of the 95-foot Coast Guard cutters to stop at the docks in Belhaven.”
It wasn’t just the cutters passing through that inspired Jimmy – he was influenced by the seagoing military service of his family, his community, the Eastern North Carolina region and beyond.
Jimmy’s father, James, served in the Navy from 1919 to 1945. His uncle, Clyde Farrow, retired from the Coast Guard as the last attending officer at the buoy tender station in Washington, North Carolina. There was also an active Coast Guard Station in Belhaven in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
James had an old shed in the backyard, a few hand tools and usually some scrap lumber suitable for making small boats. Reid said many neighborhood kids would make crude boats they could pull in the shallow water on the shores of the Pungo River. Jimmy took his model building to a higher level by following the design of existing Coast Guard vessels, replicating the operating parts from whatever hardware he could find.
“He really came up with some interesting improvisations, trying to duplicate the mechanics and outfitting of everything from Coast Guard cutters and buoy tenders to shrimp boats and barges,” said Reid.
Up until his late 50s, Jimmy rode his bicycle from Belhaven to Swan Quarter, about 28 miles, took the ferry to Ocracoke, and visited with Coast Guard personnel at the station there. He continued on to the Hatteras Inlet Ferry and stayed at Midgett’s Motel in Hatteras Village. It wasn’t uncommon for him to tow a model boat weighing 10-30 pounds behind him on a wagon.
Other Coast Guard stations visited by Jimmy over the years included Fort Macon, Oak Island and Morehead. He was declared an honorary Coast Guardsman on more than one occasion, and has a collection of Coast Guard covers and pins. He has several photo albums in his home documenting his unique relationship with the Coast Guard over the years. About 13 years ago, his visits to Coast Guard stations tapered off as he began to experience health issues.
In 2002, Jimmy told Reid he had been experiencing some bleeding from his gums.
“I immediately took him to a dentist who sent us to an oral surgeon,” said Reid. “A biopsy revealed cancerous activity in Jimmy’s oral cavity. Follow-up visits to specialists resulted in extensive surgery followed by radiation. This treatment failed, and the following surgery took his left eye, his upper left jawbone, and the entire roof of his mouth, which had to be rebuilt with flesh from his back. Recovery from this second surgery was slow and difficult. Jimmy could no longer smell, eat or speak normally. The extensive radiation resulted in the loss of all his teeth and created an opening in the roof of his mouth. When I was told he would lose an eye in the last surgery, I was very anxious concerning whether he would be able to continue his first love and favorite pastime of constructing models. But with enough time, he returned to the shop. Bit by bit he returned to his work, and today, he’s as full-time as ever.”
These days it is difficult to make out everything Jimmy is saying, but he enthusiastically describes almost any model in his collection if asked politely at the right place at the right time.
Though he’s now 70, Jimmy still gets around on his bike, riding across town to spend time on Belhaven’s waterfront.
That’s how David Friedrich met Jimmy for the first time. A recreational boater who stopped in Belhaven during a voyage along the Atlantic Coast, Friedrich’s first encounter with Jimmy occurred during an especially difficult time in Friedrich’s life, having recently experienced the death of his son, who was killed in the war in Iraq.
Friedrich said Jimmy was slowly towing a red wagon carrying a large model of a tug boat pushing a barge when they met. “His bike was nice and shiny, the wagon had impressive pneumatic tires and the thick, six-foot model had been accurately constructed by this fine craftsman who just happened to be lacking a portion of the left side of his face and head,” recalled Friedrich. “He came up on the porch and sat in the chair to my right. I glanced up and said, ‘Hi. How ya doing?’ He replied by starting to hum a song. He hummed for ten more minutes or so, then moseyed over to his bike and gently left.”
The impact on Friedrich was tremendous. He went on to write about it in a log he kept during the voyage.
“I am reminded many times of the fellow I met in Belhaven, North Carolina,” wrote Friedrich. “He suffered a tremendous event which made the left side of his face look like something had scooped out about half of it. But he had somehow recreated his life, which involved building beautiful models of boats and parading them around his little, friendly and accepting town.”
Friedrich moved to Belhaven in 2007. His relationship with Jimmy continues to play an important role in grieving and healing.
“Like Jimmy, a tremendous event scooped out a large chunk of my spirit and soul,” related Friedrich. “Jimmy is part of what inspired me to move to Belhaven. Moving here has been a part of my effort to recover from the loss of my son and recreate my life. Jimmy inspires me through his actions. Every day, he demonstrates a valuable life lesson – to have something to do and to get busy doing it.”
Jimmy has reached countless people through his art and his determination. Perhaps nobody realizes first-hand what he has been able to overcome more than his own brother.
“I can’t count the times some acquaintance from Belhaven will comment to me ‘Jimmy’s tough isn’t he?’” said Reid. “I always agree. Nobody knows better than I the frustrations, handicaps and obstacles my brother has overcome to be as independent and productive as he is. Mild mental handicap since birth, poor coordination in both hands, and now, loss of an eye and hearing. Yet, he presses on with the greatest patience and perseverance I’ve ever seen in anyone. Of course I’m inspired by my brother. My complaining and whining over insignificant things has been silenced many times as I pondered his positive attitude, inexhaustible patience and determination to try and finish something in the face of his mental and physical handicaps. If it’s about character, my brother continually puts me to shame.”