MEET THE NEIGHBORS: Exploring a lifelong friendship between Marge Paliotti and Elma Boyle by Carol Overstreet, LOL contributor T
There’s always been a particular dynamic on Topsail Island, one which includes a hodgepodge of local agricultural types, (fishermen and farmers), the military, businessmen, and of course tourists. Folks who never would have met seemingly cross paths; thus the culmination of diversity and class has made our little island unique and tolerant.
Being a Navy brat and growing up in one of the old WWII barracks on Topsail, in the ’50s and ’60s, has given me a certain perspective. I appreciate the struggle the early settlers who came to the island endured. Their new way of life changed them personally and dynamically. Everyone was kind of finding their feet—testing what worked and what didn’t. Then there were others who came to the island to see first hand the offering from such a particular way of life. Not many of stayed around;it was (and still is) difficult to make a living four months out of the year.
But some did make it. It took lots of perseverance, determination and tenacity. I guess it all comes down to priorities. Two of the women on the island are still around today.
Marge Paliotti, one of the early pioneers of Surf City, came here in the early ’50s. Originally from New York—and she still has the accent after all these years, though flavored with an occasional y’all—Marge met her husband Joe, who settled here in the early 1940s. He ran the officer’s club at Camp Davis and liked it here—saw the opportunity for a good life. But war got in the way for a while and then in 1951 his new bride joined her husband on the barrier island where he’d once been stationed. The couple was back and forth across the continents as Joe traveled with the military. They made homes in Brussels, Germany and other places worldwide until they finally settled back “home.”
“The first time I came here, when I got off the bus in Holly Ridge, I couldn’t believe it,” Marge says. “I was used to the big city. Boy, was I surprised—sort of shocked. I had never seen a place so desolate.”
Marge remembers seeing very little development. Nowadays she fights to keep her home, as condos and giant houses rise all around her modest digs. Back in the ’60s, there were many more sand dunes and empty lots where cactus and sand spurs grew. The local kids played ball, tag, and learned how to side step the stickers. It was a Neverland of sorts for the children of Topsail—lots of freedom and use of the imagination. Marge had her hands full with her own pack. One day she met another new mother, while they watched their children dart and dash among the dunes. The woman was a military wife, as well. He name was Elma Boyle, and she spoke with a thick German accent. Marge could hardly understand her, but they became fast friends and have been bond-building ever since.
In the ’60s they both volunteered as Red Cross Gray Ladies at the Naval Hospital in Camp Lejeune. Marge worked in pediatrics and Elma in the psychiatric ward. In 1980 Marge and her husband Joe opened up The Pirates Den in Surf City (Topsail)—one of the most popular restaurants on the island, known for its authentic Italian cuisine (and, yes, they make the best Italian food there is). The place was a popular gathering spot for over two decades until it burned during a storm.
Elma worked at the Den alongside Marge all those years—the loss was nearly as devastating. They’ve been through thick and thin, lost assets in storms and hurricanes and even loves ones in life’s storms.
Elma’s father worked in the textile business in Germany, and before the war was transferred to Africa to one of the company’s offices. She lived there for several years until 1939 when war broke out. At the time her family was called back to Germany. She remembers vividly her next-door neighbors in Berlin, especially the little girl who wore the arm band on her sleeve. Elma used to sneak to her home to play; the little girl was treated quite poorly in school. Fortunately, the mother and child escaped Nazi Germany.
Elma also remembers the bombs dropped near the end of the war and of the Christmas she spent in the basement of her home. After the war, when Berlin was divided into the east and west, Elma says food was scarce.
“The Russians were trying to starve us out so that we would go with the East,” she tells. “We would take trains into the Russian zone to farms where we could get potatoes. Damn Russians would take the potatoes away from us on the train ride back. Sometimes we would walk into the woods and gather mushrooms to make soup; sometimes we ate out of trashcans.”
The Berlin Airlift was welcomed by her family. Americans dropped food for the starving people of Germany. “Sometimes the Russians would steal that, too,” she details.
In 1950 Elma had another opportunity to encounter Americans, only this time it would be up, close and personal. She came by ship to the States in a move with her aunt and uncle to live Orlando, Florida. She worked for them cleaning apartments. “It was hard work,” she says. In 1953 she met her first husband who was in the Marine Corps and stationed at Camp Lejuene. It led her to Topsail, and as the story goes, the rest is history.
Over 60 years, Elma has made lifelong friends that have lived through war and peace, love and loss—especially including Marge. Though both women are widows now, their fond memories of the good times at Topsail and each other’s presence is comforting. Other than the occasional cruise to Cozumel and or the Caribbean, the ladies enjoy a good game of Bingo—which they drive to the base to play often—and dinners are a big deal among their extended families. They both have cultivated reputations as no-nonsense people—then, of course, there is no need for façade or pretense in lives so rich and well-lived. LOL