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Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Tales from the Upper Deck

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Chapter One: How it started  

The slivers of sky visible through the palm fronds surrounding Wrightsville Beach’s historic Carolina Temple Island Inn glow pink as the steamy September day turns to evening. The inn’s wooden back porch is quiet except for the creaking of a rocking chair, the thrum of cicadas and the stories traded by the four men occupying the wicker chairs.

Jack Lane, Steve Wright, Norman Akel and Jim Farrior are now in their 70s, reuniting a half century after turning a former storage room on Lumina Pavilion’s upper deck into a carefree establishment where revelers partied uninhibited in the shadow of the legendary Lumina Pavilion.

“But the Upper Deck, in its waning years, overshadowed the Lumina,” Lane said with a smile.

When Wright, Akel and Farrior were growing up on Wrightsville Beach, Lumina Pavilion, with its 25,000-square-foot dance hall, was still the premier attraction of the island’s south end. Lane said he “immigrated” to Wrightsville Beach from inland a few years later, although when Wright asked where he grew up, Lane answered, “I’m still working on that.”

Wrightsville Beach was vastly different back then, the friends agreed. Only a handful of children lived on the island year round.

“From Newells to Crystal Pier during the wintertime I doubt there were 10 houses who had lights on,” Akel said.

Harbor Island was not a part of Wrightsville Beach, so there was a bit of a rivalry between the Harbor Island kids and the Wrightsville Beach kids, Akel added.

“On Halloween, we’d try to bomb them out with eggs,” he said.

In retaliation, the Harbor Island kids dragged a toppled palm tree into the middle of Lumina Avenue and hid nearby to see how drivers would react.

“They waited for two hours, and nobody came by,” Akel said, laughing. “They just gave up and left.”

When Lane’s family moved to the beach, Akel would ride his bike from the north end of the beach, which at the time was Johnnie Mercer’s Pier, to the south end where Jack lived. The teens bonded over games like kick the can and pranks like “rolling” the Hanover Seaside Club with toilet paper.

“We had no TV, no computers, so we had to entertain ourselves,” Lane said.

Kicking a tomato can around the south end of Wrightsville Beach, a camaraderie was born between Lane, Akel, Wright and Farrior that would, several years later, help transform a bar on the east side of Lumina Pavilion into an iconic establishment in its own right. Lane took over management of the Upper Deck in 1961 and hired Akel and Wright as bartenders. Farrior was never a bartender, but he said he spent many nights there.

The Upper Deck became wildly popular, despite competing for patrons with the downtown bars like the World-Famous Spot, the Wits End and the Palm Room. Lane said it was due mainly to the cohesiveness of his staff, which was a mix of college students, lifeguards and a few men from the U.S. Army Air Force Base at the New Hanover County Airport, now Wilmington International Airport.

“But Jack, you were one of the main reasons that thing ran the way it did,” Akel pointed out.

“No, y’all were!” Lane protested.

“Listen to what I’m saying,” Akel went on. “You had a good crew, there’s no doubt, but you were the one who was initiating all that and I’ll tell you, it was a good working environment.”

“Everybody wanted to work there,” Wright added. “If you were a bartender at the Upper Deck, I won’t say you were a celebrity, but you were known by everybody.”

There was camaraderie between the staff and the patrons, too, because everyone generally knew one another.

“If I had one word to describe it, it would be ‘home,’” Farrior said.

Those Upper Deck experiences — winter nights spent huddled in front of the bars’ indoor fireplace or summer evenings spent shagging on the outer deck as beach music blared from the juke box — were so central to the social network of a certain generation, Lane said his former patrons invited him to their high school class reunions.

“I said, ‘Why am I getting an invitation to your class reunion?’ And she said, ‘You don’t remember me, but I remember you, and I met my husband at the Upper Deck. You created the fun we had our senior year of high school.’”

“So I went,” Lane went on, “as Mr. Upper Deck.”

Read Chapter 2

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