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Back in our sailing days we used to collect the odd item of nautical descent — a brass signal cannon that fired 10-gauge blanks and put out a satisfactory BANG!, a gimballed brass salon lamp that swung more or less level when the weather got heavy, a big oil painting depicting topsail schooners racing into the dawn. One of our prize finds was a decorative, cast-iron compass rose. Now, a compass rose usually is a handy device printed on nautical charts and showing not just the four key directions but also all the other points of the compass, so you can quickly plot a compass course using a pair of parallel rulers and the rose as a reference. Wikipedia puts it this way: "A compass rose, sometimes called a windrose, is a figure on a compass, map, nautical chart or monument used to display the orientation of the cardinal directions — North, East, South and West — and their intermediate points."

Our cast-iron compass, found while poking through an antiques store on Maryland's Eastern Shore with my college roommate, was entirely for show, the sort of thing you'd hang on your wall. It did not bear the finer points of a compass rose printed on a chart, but if you only wanted to know which way North was, or South, East or West, it was a very helpful thing. We cleaned it up and mounted it on a brick wall on one side of our patio in Raleigh, then later when we built our dream house in the Blue Ridge, we mounted it on a massive beam in the great room, with the rosette angled slightly so that N pointed, more or less, North. In the going-on three years it hung there, only one person noticed why it was oriented the way it was. Maybe everyone else realized it pointed north and thought it not even worth mentioning; only the late Jim "Squirrel" Garrison commented on it.

Then one day in June of 2010, lightning struck the house and burned it to the ground while we were in Greensboro fixing to go to the beach. We found very few things from that fire — the carcass of a .357 magnum pistol, a lump of silver that had once been a set of family silverware and a round rock that I'd picked up somewhere in the yard when the foundation was dug. Never found any trace of many things, including the cast iron compass rose. Well, it was just old stuff, and nobody got hurt. Not at all in the tragedy category, just a pain in the neck for a while until we rebuilt.

A few months ago my old roomie, a lawyer who lives on the Eastern Shore and has spent much of his career putting bad people in jail and serving up Chesapeake Bay crabs to visitors from down South, idly inquired, offhand, whether I'd ever found another compass rose. I had figured I'd never find another like the other, but I think I expressed some interest. But I didn't think any more of it. So the other day, while celebrating a birthday with an extremely advanced age that pretty much puts me solidly in the ranks of geezerdom, Our Man Terry of UPS drove up with an interesting package — flat, and a couple of feet square. Inside lay what I believe to be the exact same model of a compass rose as the one that melted down in the 2010 fire. It now hangs on our kitchen wall, along with something else: A note written in marker on a rectangle of cardboard, prefaced by an old college-era nickname that he and I have applied to each other since, oh, 1966 or so. It read: "Buckflap: Try to not melt down this one. S—."

Buckflap, I will do my best to see this one stays on the wall, unmelted, and pointing north. J—.

Jack Betts

Jack Betts is retired associate editor of The Charlotte Observer.

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