Looking back, they lived like frontiersmen. Looking back, I admire them for doing what they had to do. Find a place to survive. A squirrel-hunting boy who skirted their wooded encampment, I considered them bums. Looking back that seems harsh. Down on their luck some would say. Poor decision-makers others would say. Looking back, I say they were frontiersmen. Modern-day Daniel Boones.
Today, a debris trail of bottomless chamber pots, broken bottles, glass Clorox jugs, and assorted flotsam brings them alive one more time. Untangling the vines and clearing away the pine straw, I uncover artifacts of unusual people. In the lexicon of nomad types we have hoboes, vagrants, and itinerants. And squatters named Tom and Yank. Yank carried himself with a bit of dignity. Tom seemed shy and withdrawn.
I first saw these brothers in Clifford Goolsby’s country store. They wore felt hats and loose, rumpled, brown garments. They looked like the Darling family of the Andy Griffith Show. Yank had a grizzled beard; Tom was clean-shaven. What I remember most shocks me still—the first time I saw a man with a missing arm. That would have been Tom. Despite not wanting to look, I stared at his stump, the shirtsleeve dangling over it. And then later, Bill Goolsby, a character if ever, told me Yank had shot off his brother’s arm in a hunting accident. As Bill recounted the story, I could see the muzzle blast and buckshot tearing into flesh and bone. I winced.
Yank, in penitence, took care of his brother the rest of his life. As I worked at the store pumping gas and bagging groceries, the brothers came and went. “They must live close by,” I thought. Naïve of my own surroundings outside of the goings and comings of squirrels, I didn’t know the ill-fated brother, Tom, shotgun-wielding Yank, and their mom lived close by. And then one cold, October morning, one of those mornings when crystalline shafts of light pierce wooded shadows, my squirrel-hunting adventures led me to their home. I was following a squirrel leaping from pine to pine in graceful arcs. In a pool of morning light I saw their shack. It stood in woods not far from the Augusta Highway. It was made of cardboard. Large sheets of cardboard tacked to strips of wood and set among the trees, shelter nonetheless. I recall it had a tin roof, and indeed, rusting sheets of tin take their place in the debris trail, a string of abandonment reminiscent of a sinking ship’s dying moments.
They long lived there. Doing some math, reckoning, I realize they were living there when Uncle Joe bought the land they were squatting on. Uncle Joe, as good a man as you’ll find, never thought once about evicting them. And so they remained without plumbing and without electricity. I saw what might have been a well, filled-in now, and I saw an old TV thrown into what might have been part of the old manganese mining operation nearby. Others, not the squatters, jettisoned this relic of the days of grainy test patterns. Hard to run a TV without electricity.
As for me, the years piled up. My days of hunting squirrels faded, and fate moved me to another state. A lifetime entire passed before recent forays into the family woods brought Tom, me, and Yank together again. Curious as to their fate, I searched online to learn what became of these squatters. All I could find was the date of Yank’s death, June 6, 1978. His birth date was given as 1910, no month, no day. His real name was Ansle, a noble name of the old days. Perhaps that’s why he seemed a bit dignified despite his position in life. He’s buried, if indeed, this is the Yank I remember, in the cemetery of my church. I just can’t be sure he is one of the two mysterious men who would walk into Goolsby’s grocery store. Goolsby’s. It had to be the source of the debris trail’s many bottles, jars, jugs, and cans, some of which I no doubt stocked.
We cross paths with all sorts. For this Georgia boy, working at a country store and hunting squirrels brought me into contact with frontiersmen. Had I not been so timid, I could have put myself at ease around them and learned much about survival. But that was then, and this is now. They are gone and the squirrel hunter’s a photojournalist. All I can do is walk their debris trail and see what it teaches me about these squatters of the 1950s and 60s, a family who lived like pioneers.