Sentimental Journey Along Highway 25

Gulf Dealer 2

I was making my way from Greenville to Lincolnton one Saturday afternoon. I had to take a back road, a blessing. The light was bad at 3:45 p.m. but I had to photograph this old store on Highway 25 between Ware Shoals and Greenwood. I don’t know who owns it but I thank this kindred spirit for reminding us of days gone by.

On its right side are reminders of days past, including an icon of the South: the revered RC Cola Moonpie combination, the workingman’s lunch. One ad is real but the others are painted onto the boards. Coca Cola has given us memorable images, and this pretty woman on a diving board doesn’t diminish that legacy. Red Man Chewing Tobacco, no doubt, gives politically correct, ultra-sensitive kneejerk types a jolt. Well, get over it. Move on …

The front pairs Lucky Strike cigarettes with that old classic drink, Orange Crush. Lucky Strike came out in 1871 and took its name from the era’s gold prospectors. Peer through the windows into the past. Not too much to see in the shadows but vines have invaded the place. Nature reclaims all she can, including quaint reminders of the last century.

For some of us, country stores bring to mind memories such as pouring peanuts into a Coke bottle. As I say in my talks, “I can’t see my grandchildren many years from now moaning and groaning, ‘Man, they just don’t make stores like Walmart anymore.’ ” You can’t miss what you never had.

The store’s left side has ads that portray the soft drinks Seven Up, Coca Cola, and Pepsi. Note, I didn’t say “sodas.” That bit of Northern nomenclature grates on my nerves. Down here some of use “Coke” to indicate we’re going to get a drink. “Hey, pull over to that store and let’s get a coke.” My Granddad Poland called Cokes “dopes,” and I’ve written that Coca Cola did indeed contain cocaine when it was in its infancy, shall we say its baby bottle stages.

Don’t you know that old Gulf Dealer sign comforted many a driver watching the needle hover over E. Easy to imagine an old wood-paneled Ford Wagon pulling in. Gulf Oil came to be in 1901. Red Man tobacco in 1904. Crush came out in 1911, and Moon Pies came out in 1917. Coca Cola, introduced in 1886, is the second oldest man in the room, second to Lucky Strike. These products bring to mind my grandparents’ heyday. If only they could have seen how stores would evolve, for what strikes me here is what you don’t see. No asphalt parking lot out back. Just a field of sheep sorrel and woods. Neither do you see mercury vapor lights. No rack for shopping carts. Paper, not plastic, bags worked just fine.

I am rambling on but some of you know of what I write. We’re circling the drain, as younger generations get all excited about the latest app on their phone. Yes, times change. The Gulf Oil sign rusts and vines invade the store. No greeter stood in the door, beneath which a stack of bricks served as steps. You had to open the door yourself. No automatic opening to welcome a swarm of flies winging its way through a fan’s downburst, which messes up your hair, ladies.

What you see here is destined for a place called “Obscurity.” But for now it’s here and it brings to mind an email a lady sent me about today’s kids.

“They miss so much with their faces glued to smart phones and such. Do they ever take notice of the world around them?” No, I doubt they do, and nary a one, I’d wager, realize that the old store would be much more authentic with a rusty tin roof, but, you know, I do love those red shingles.

The Beauty Of Old Bridges

File this column under “Progress.” I guess. I remain a skeptic of much that is new and better and that includes the new bridges going up across Georgialina. Better is not always beautiful. On both sides of the Savannah you’ll see detour markers. Somebody found a big pot of gold evidently because old bridges have been razed to make way for new ones. Bridge rehabitation they call it. Bridge replacement too.

Going, gone, gone are the old rusty steel truss bridges. Up go the wide concrete bridges. The old bridges? Destroyed and removed. That hasn’t always been the case. If you know where to look, you can find old bridges and when you do, see if you don’t find them elegantly beautiful.

In my explorations of back roads I come across their remains. Ghostly, overtaken by woods and vines, they stand alone. No traffic, save a solitary fellow with a camera. The beauty of old bridges should not be lost so easily. The next time you’re driving down Highway 378 from McCormick toward Saluda look to your left as you cross Hard Labor Creek. Through the trees an old bridge materializes like a spirit. Surreal but real, it hosts a deer hunter’s hut-like stand where old cars and trucks once sped. Hard Labor Creek runs on as if nothing has changed, but it has. Icons fall like leaves.


The ghostly remains of the old Hard Labor Creek Bridge.


Some cling to existence. If you take Highway 283 out of Plum Branch toward Edgefield you’ll see Key Road to your right. Take it and you will cross an old steel truss bridge over Stevens Creek. Just pass it is a turn off to the right that takes you to another old bridge. Here you can walk out on yet another steel truss bridge and see the Key Road Bridge. Two old steel bridges side by side, twins. One’s for cars, and one’s for couples, bikers, and hikers. At one end of the “walking” bridge is Edgefield County; at the other, McCormick County. The view provides one of those scenes Hollywood would love for one of its old movies.


Highway 181 bridge to nowhere.


Yes, old bridges are still with us but on life support. When I see a forsaken bridge clinging to life I conjure up images of classic old cars and trucks. Think about the people, long gone, who depended on those bridges to get from one place to another.

Here’s another old one … Highway 181 crosses a free-running stretch of the Savannah River just below Lake Hartwell. You can see this old steel truss bridge jutting just over the state line into South Carolina. The authorities spared it. As I wrote in my back roads book, South Carolina Country Roads, “Neither you nor I will ever cross that bridge again. Its South Carolina terminus has been cut away. It hangs over the river, a dropping off point if ever there were one. A wide concrete bridge, which seems to be the trend, now, has replaced it. Barriers prevent you from driving onto the old bridge. Drive across this bridge and you essentially walk the plank with a plunge into the Savannah River your fate.” Beside it runs one the new spans that quite simply lacks character. Think of a parking lot.


A familiar sight these days.


We lost our covered bridges long ago. Now we’re losing the old steel truss bridges. Sure, they are narrow and creaky but that’s a blessing. Build a wider bridge and man can get his big trucks into places like undisturbed islands. Let those big trucks in and watch how things change, and not always for the better.

A few photographs say more than I can about the need to leave some old bridges standing. Let them watch their new counterparts shoulder man’s burdens. Hang onto a bit of the past; hang on to the beauty of old bridges.



Squatters Debris Trail 2

Part of the debris trail

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.

Squatters Pot

A cooking pot, not a chamber pot

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.

Squatters Homesite

Here stood their shack of cardboard

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.

The Wall That Heals Comes To Camden

A black eighteen-wheeler will soon roll into town with an escort. On the trailer’s front end are the words “The War and the Wall,” on its back end, “The Wall That Heals.” Along the wall’s route, those words and much more cause adults and kids to stand at attention.

“Kids need something to stand up for and this (wall) is part of it because everybody gives their life for something sooner or later.” So said a veteran on-camera as he stood before The Wall That Heals, the wall that will be in Camden May 3 to May 6. You can stand before it, too, in Camden, the only South Carolina venue on the 2018 Tour schedule.

The Wall honors the more than three million Americans who served in the U.S. Armed Forces in the Vietnam War. It bears the names of the more than 58,000 men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice. It gives veterans, families and the Camden community a chance to honor lost loved ones and friends.

According to the following Camden servicemen died in Vietnam: PFC Michael Lynn Christmas, SP4 John Larry Jeffers, PFC Jerry Whitaker, and SGT Daniel Williams III. (Note: Sometimes names don’t appear under the cities you think they do.) The names on The Wall That Heals, listed alphabetically by day of casualty, replicate names on The Wall in Washington, D.C. Beginning at the center/apex, the names start on the East Wall (right-hand side) working their way out to the end of that wing, picking up again at the far end of the West Wall (left-hand side) and working their way back in to the center/apex. The beginning and ending of the conflict join at the center, signifying an epoch in American history.

American Legion Post #17, with support from the City of Camden, Kershaw County government, Historic Camden, Kershaw County School District, VFW, Marine Corps League and Navy League is hosting the wall. It stands 375 feet long, stands 7.5 feet high, and educational exhibits accompany it, providing a 24-hour, multi-day experience and education on the history of the Vietnam era for local schools and organizations. The exhibit includes The Wall That Heals and a mobile Education Center comprised of digital displays of photos of service members whose names are on The Wall; letters and memorabilia representative of items left at The Wall in D.C.; a map of Vietnam and a chronological overview of the Vietnam War. The exhibits tell the story of the Vietnam War, The Wall, and the era surrounding the conflict, and are designed to put American experiences in Vietnam in a historical and cultural context.

With its deep Revolutionary War experience, Camden is no stranger to war. How fitting that this wall honor veterans and their families for three days in a city noted for its wartime history. See The Wall That Heals at 222 Broad Street, Historic Camden, in Camden From Thursday, May 3 to Sunday, May 6.

See it 24 hours a day and see the educational exhibit housed in the eighteen-wheeler’s trailer. Cases built into its sides allow the trailer to serve as a mobile Education Center. It tells the story of the Vietnam War, The Wall, and a divisive era in American history. Stand together in Camden. Stand together in front of the Wall That Heals and remember the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice.

Leaving Your Mark

Initial Tree

This old survivor continues to make its stand, a living memorial.

Of all the trees down South, beeches and white birches gets picked on the most. The love sick, the egotistical, the passerby, and all manner of folk love to carve sentiments into the trees’ vulnerable white bark. Arboreal graffiti I call it. The temptation’s just too much. People feel compelled to leave their mark. I’ve yet to do that, though if I have I don’t recall it.

In my sojourns across Georgialina I’ve come across beeches and birches with many a name, initials, and whatnot carved into them. I suppose if a tree can have tattoos, then many a beech and birch do. Tattooed trees. Some are lightly scarred. Others heavily. I recall a tree standing near the path to Badwell Cemetery covered with carvings. Seems if a tree is isolated … somewhere in obscurity, the more likely it is to provide a canvas for knife-wielding folk. A bit of privacy is essential to do your work. Of course, trees aren’t the only place people leave their mark. Sit at a railroad crossing and watch the cars roll by … lots of graffiti … often quite clever. People leaving their mark.

Back in March, my brother-in-law, Joe, and I were checking out some aquatic plants growing in the family pond. Or beaver pond. Or mine hole, which it is. Manganese. We walked the edge of the water and as we did I asked Joe if the old birch tree still stood, the one with initials in it.

“Sure,” he said and he led me to it. Yep, it’s still there although the years and elements have split its top. Even so, it has a new tree growing up from one of its roots, a shoot destined to go under the knife in decades to come. I hadn’t seen the tree many a year. Somehow on my walks to the pond, I never made it to the eastern edge where the tree has long stood.


From a knife, not a pen, bark instead of paper, Dad’s handwriting reaches out over 15 years.

When I saw it, I got a shock. Somewhere down the line, my dad carved his initials, “JMP,” into the tree. Seeing those initials meant more than you can imagine. You see, Dad died back in 2003. Come this November 15, it will have been fifteen years since he left us.

As far as I’m concerned this birch with his initials (and my niece’s) amounts to a monument. My dad’s clothes are gone, many of his tools are too, and his house is nothing like the comfortable place he called home. Much of what he left as reminders of his time here just doesn’t exist anymore.

Aunt Vivian once said that just before a funeral God sends a storm to wash away the departed’s footprints. Initials carved in a birch, however, endure, and seeing them brought my father to life again, if only for a moment. Yes, he succumbed to the temptation to leave his mark, but I’m glad he did. As I studied his work, I stood where he had stood, where storms long ago washed away his footprints. For that brief moment, a tree connected Dad and me one more time.

Pat’s Last Book


Early Light on the Saluda —From Reflections of South Carolina, Vol. 2, USC Press


Clearing away the receipts, envelopes, and documents that cover my desk I came across my own business card with a woman’s name, Pat, and phone number on the back. It’s no “call me sometime” story.

I met Pat seven years ago. With no family in town Pat gathered with others at a neighborhood restaurant some evenings for conversation to keep loneliness at bay. For those who work all day only to face an evening alone, 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. are the loneliest hours of the day.


Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, one of American art’s most recognizable paintings, portrays a couple and a man sitting at an all-night diner. Whenever I see Nighthawks, I think of lonely people I’ve met and Pat comes to mind. She always seemed a bit melancholy.

Pat talked quietly. She kept to herself. She had a sad demeanor. It so happened she was a fan of books and writers. I spoke to her whenever I ran into her. She’d smile and light up when discussing a book she enjoyed.

She started reading my work and never failed to say nice things. How we love people who make us feel better about ourselves. Pat became my ambassador and bumping into her was always enjoyable. She told others about my work and one spring she introduced me to an out-of-work English teacher who wanted to write a book.

Spring 2014 came and went and summer arrived. Wednesday nights at Bonefish draws a lot of so-called regulars. I’d always see Pat there talking to her friends. June passed into July and one Wednesday night Pat was not at the local Bonefish as was her habit. A friend came over. “Did you hear about Pat?”

Pat had been out with friends one night when she picked up her cell phone and asked, “What is this thing? What does it do?” Everybody laughed … Pat was making a joke. When they realized she was serious alarm set in. Later, after some more out-of-character comments and behavior, they got her to a doctor.

Pat had brain cancer.

She moved to Rock Hill to live with one of her daughters and it was there that she had brain surgery. Time passed and it was hard for us to get reports about her. A friend wrote her name and cell number on the back of my business card, the one I’m looking at now. “Call her,” she said. “Pat would love to hear from you.”

I called her several times to get what I hoped was a good progress report but all I got was her “leave-a-message” recording. Summer gave way to fall and one day I got an email from a mutual friend. “Tom, would you mind signing your new book (Reflections of South Carolina, Vol. II) and bringing it to Bonefish so all Pat’s friends can write get well wishes in it? I’ll get it to her daughter in Rock Hill.”

I signed the book and wrote a personal note of encouragement. So did her friends. Her daughter gave it to her mother. Time passed and we heard nothing. We called and left messages hoping someone would call back and let us know how things were going. Nothing.

More time passed.

I was working one afternoon when my phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number and I decided to let it roll into voicemail since telemarketers call all the time. At the last second something told me to pick up the phone. It was Pat.

Her speech was labored and she was crying. Among the broken phrases and pauses I made out a few words … “Thank you … for … the beautiful book … I’m sorry … I have … a hard time … talking.” And then she broke down and sobbed and amid all the crying the phone went dead. I told Pat’s friends that I had heard from her but then a lot more time passed.

December 9 I got a message from Pat’s other daughter who had driven cross-state to see her mom. “Pat is my mom and I am visiting her. The book means so much to her. Thank you for thinking of her. She loves it. She is not doing well at all. This is so sad.”

Pat died December 15. She was 68. I had forgotten or never knew that she was a native of North Carolina. Later I learned that Pat kept my book close by to the end. I want to think that it was, perhaps, her last book.

Eighteen days later on December 27 I received another message from her daughter. “We looked at the book together the night before she got too sick to respond … tears. Thanks for being a great friend to her.”

People contact me all the time about my books. Most just want a signed book to give as a gift. I hear, too, from people who are curious. Most want to know how long it took to write it or where the idea came from. Some ask “why did you do this?”

Yes, why. It’s just something to do I suppose. I couldn’t know it but life surprised me with a good reason, though unintended. Giving a friend a way to see the beauty that surrounds her as life ended much too soon.

The Sad Ballad Of Moses Corley

We all cross paths with a person we can’t forget. It can be a chance encounter or a day-to-day type thing. And that person doesn’t have to be a celebrity, wealthy, or powerful. A simple man can stay with you all your life. And so, a man by the beautiful name of Moses Corley lingers in my mind. If every life is a song, then Moses’s life was a sad, sad ballad.

Moses was old school, you could say. An Uncle Tom others might add. He worked as the janitor in the library of a small college where I once taught. He loved his job. Said it was the best job he ever had. Hoped to retire there.

He always referred to me as “Mr. Tom” and peppered his speech with “Yes sirs” and “No sirs.” It was a habit I couldn’t get him to break. It was ingrained, a way of life. He’d laugh at my jokes and slap his knees and his infectious laugh was unforgettable. That was long ago … 1977.

Even now I can see him sweeping the lab in the library basement where I taught. His snow-white Afro was stately and a cataract gave him an owlish gaze. His left eye, white as milk glass, stared into space. When he looked at you, he was there and yet he wasn’t. But he was memorable for his sweet nature, a prince of a man. He had a wife with diabetes and he talked about her constantly. He doted on her. She was his sun, moon, and stars. She was bedridden, had lost a leg, and her chief joy in life was watching TV.

Back then I taught Education 155, Audio Visual Methods, for aspiring elementary education teachers. The days of the computer were light years away and the technology was embarrassingly simple. One method I taught was how to make colored overhead transparencies. Like I said, embarrassingly simple. My students use colored acetate to give their transparencies impact. They’d cut out shapes and the acetate would cling to the transparency thanks to static electricity. At the end of the day, colored scraps of acetate littered the carpeted floor like some image from a kaleidoscope knocked askew. It was a mess, but a colorful mess.

One day just before the Christmas break a few students were working late when Moses came in to clean the lab. I noticed how closely he watched one student work on a food group presentation: red apples, yellow bananas, oranges, and so forth. She’d cut the shapes out and stick them onto the clear transparency. He watched her position the acetate and after a while he began to clean up the scraps.

Each day, Moses had done just that: clean up the scraps and trash them. So when I noticed Moses was picking up scraps of acetate and carefully placing them in a box, I was curious.

“Moses,” I said, “what are you going to do with those?”

“Mr. Tom, my wife’s got one leg and has the diabetes. All she can do is lie in bed and watch TV. I promised her I’d give her a color TV some day. I’m gonna make her one for Christmas. I’ll take these home and stick ’em on the TV and she can see in color!” The excitement in his voice was something. He’d figured a way to make good on a promise to his beloved wife. A special Christmas gift. It was such a sweet thing.

Not long after that, Moses asked me a favor. Could he borrow $10?

”Sure,” I said, and handed him a ten. He asked other faculty members too but one ratted him out. A new janitor took his place. He’d been fired. A few months later I got my first writing position and left the college and began working downtown. I assumed Moses was working somewhere else too. I tried to find him but had no luck. He stayed with me though. I couldn’t forget him.

A few years went by. One cold, windy November day I ventured out for lunch at a small Italian restaurant. As I walked past the bus station, I saw a pair of legs sticking out of a green dumpster just beyond a dieseling Greyhound. Out popped Moses Corley, bedraggled, and in need of a haircut. Seeing him was a joy, tempered by the obvious fact that he was in dire straits.

“Moses, it’s me, Tom!”

Slowly he walked over. He couldn’t look me in the eye. He began to talk. He had lost his home and his wife had died. That infectious laugh had died too. His spirit was broken. I gave him some money and offered some useless advice on jobs. We talked a bit and parted ways. He had no phone, no address, a refugee exiled to the streets because he had asked the wrong person for a lousy $10. I never saw him again.

I drove past a group of homeless people once, a self-important woman alongside for the ride. “You’d think those men would get a job,” she said. “Any job.” In a way she was right, but I knew too that for some there is that high-water mark. That job that is the best you’ll ever have and if you lose it … well life can sure go downhill.

I know other Moses Corleys are out there, homeless, hungry, and heartbroken. I’m sure the Moses I knew left this green earth long ago to join his wife. And I know they are together again, up there, watching the biggest, most colorful flat screen TV ever imagined. It’s warm, food’s on the table, and there’s no need to borrow money and even if you did no one would care.

Memories of Bonneau

This story first appeared in Shrimp, Collards, & Grits magazine.

For a Georgia boy whose hunting resume read “Squirrels Only,” I was stepping in high cotton. I had never shot a deer. The boss of bosses, John Cullar, also a Georgian, believed with all his heart that writers need to experience what they write about. I refer to a time eons ago when I worked as a scriptwriter for what’s now the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.

The place of high cotton, Bonneau Ferry Plantation (We writers abridged it to “Bonneau”), exuded natural, cultural, and architectural splendor, a classic remnant of the old South. An old plantation once known as Prioli, it sat on the Cooper River’s eastern branch. The original plantation stretched 14 miles along the river and flaunted 1,300 acres of rice fields and 8,000 acres of forestlands. The sprawling site harbored a wealth of cultural resources, including an 18th-century plantation house and ruins. One such ruin is Strawberry Chapel; a chapel of ease built around 1700—the last remaining building of Childsburg, a bustling town until the Civil War came along. To see it is to imagine the ruins of Rome in a small and sad way.

All this beauty, wildness, and culture found a permanent home. The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources acquired Bonneau Ferry in 2005. Back when Westvaco owned Bonneau, it put on the dog for the media, the centerpiece of which was an autumn deer hunt. Hook and bullet columnists, photographers, feature writers, filmmakers, and wildlife department head honchos coveted this annual fete. Me? I was sent to get an education.

We departed Columbia around three on an October afternoon when sunlight pours down like golden honey and shadows fall blue across the road. Arriving a bit after five, we entered the plantation through twin ranks of live oaks drenched with Spanish moss, the quintessential South. Black gentlemen wearing tuxedos greeted us with silver trays laden with cocktails and cigars. Out back, men shot clay pigeons along the banks of the Cooper, shells ejecting as discharges reverberated across ricefields. The sun dropped fast. The air had a chill to it. Hearts filled with joie de vivre. For a moment, men lived a dream.

Our host, Westvaco’s Coy Johnston, a University of Georgia forestry graduate, welcomed us and laid out some rules for the morning hunt. “It’s advisable,” he said, “to harvest (kill) smaller bucks with unattractive racks.” Culling produced bucks with magnificent racks. Still, I had never killed a deer and that evening I considered that weighty act. “Somewhere in those deep, green woods,” I thought, “an animal may be living its last night because I am summoned here.”

With butterflies in my stomach, I made the rounds, shaking hands. The fragrance of fine cigars drifted throughout the well-appointed house. That and the camaraderie of outdoorsmen and writers evoked the kind of life Ernest Hemingway must have lived. Two words came to me. “Rugged opulence.” Many years later, a chance encounter with a fellow who had been there that night stirred up a memory. “You could open any cabinet in the house,” he said, “and it would be full of all kinds of brands of liquor, cigarettes, and cigars.”

For dinner we had sumptuous steaks as big as cedar planks. After dinner, billiards, poker, adult beverages, blue smoke, and wild stories filled the long evening. Aside from raconteurs, I find most men boring, and not one woman was there to talk to, a colossal disappointment. I retired around 1:30 in the morning, knowing I had to rise at 4:30 for breakfast before being driven to a deer stand.

Breakfast was a feast of eggs, bacon, steak, grits, biscuits, and steaming coffee. Black cooks in white aprons brandished cast iron skillets as big as snowshoes. We boarded a pickup full of real hunters and the truck dropped me off at my stand, which looked like the Tower of Babel. Up I went, pulling a borrowed and empty 30.06 behind me. Years later, I realized I never saw the driver. He could have been the Grim Reaper for all I know.

Loading my rifle, I reminded myself that I was given no choice but to hunt. Well, I didn’t have to shoot a deer I said to myself. “Didn’t see a damn thing.” That’d be my story. Still, I wondered if I could pull the trigger. I recalled that a writer long ago penned some powerful words, “A man needs to know if he can kill something or somebody.”

The east lightened. A flock of wild turkeys passed near my stand and after an interlude of birdsong a patch of trees and brush seemed to move, a grey-brown drawn-out illusion. I thought my eyes were fooling me, but, no, it was real. Materializing like a spirit, a buck with a small, asymmetrical rack came down the trail. On he came, closer and closer. The gun was in my hand, my finger on the safety. I had a decision to make. Should I shoot this animal? The rules said, “Yes, you must.”

I raised the barrel and clicked the safety off. One shot to the heart dispatched the animal fast and with mercy. Back at the plantation house I watched two men hang the deer from an oak and dress it precisely, like surgeons.

That was in another lifetime. So much has changed since then, and I, for certain, have changed. The mind, however, never lets us forget some things. Bonneau memories. They come to me whenever I see oaks dressed out in resurrection ferns and Spanish moss. They come to me now and then when I smell bacon and coffee on an early fall morn. They come to me when I see a chain hanging from an oak. Bonneau. It was the only time I hunted deer, but I left that place carrying something. A glimpse of what I knew were glory days down South, the days of bourbon, gallantry, good food, and one other thing—the knowledge that, yes, I was capable of handing out death. Once, at least.

Lost Beauty, Lost Romance

Watson Mill Bridge 2

Georgia’s Watson Mill Bridge

I never saw a covered bridge until I saw The Bridges Of Madison County. That was on the silver screen, though, and my qualification for membership in the “I’ve Seen A Real Covered Bridge Club” remained on hold. That changed suddenly, with a bit of a surprise.

Authentic covered bridges in these parts are rare, but back in February 2007, I came across the real deal: a covered bridge in northern Greenville County, South Carolina. I was there for the filming of George Clooney’s Leatherheads and had some time to kill. I was riding around checking out the countryside. It was late afternoon, that time of day when sunlight comes in so low everything is gold and lustrous and winter’s blue light fades but driving is hard. A bit blinded as I rounded a curve, I got a shock as my eyes adjusted. I saw the bridge I see on a daily basis. Campbell’s Covered Bridge, the bridge in a Robert Clark photograph, which I framed and hung in my home. Suddenly, I was a member of the “I’ve Seen A Real Covered Bridge Club.”

I walked into the old bridge, struck by its narrow width. Beneath the wooden flooring, Beaverdam Creek ran cold and swift, singing to the rocks. Everything was peaceful, the air chilled. I stayed a while trying to envision the many years before when traffic rolled through and no one gave a second thought to the bridge’s uniqueness … nor could they predict what a survivor it would be.

Poland_Campbells Covered_Bridge2 copy

Campbell’s Covered Bridge, worth the drive

The bridge made for a nice spot for couples to linger back in the day, I thought. I walked out from the bridge as darkness closed in, just as a young couple drove up. They looked at me as if I didn’t belong there, and I didn’t. I was an interloper from the future. I was glad to see the old bridge still pulled on romantic souls needing a spot all their own. Glad to see covered bridge romance was not yet lost. Meryl and Clint would agree.

The covered bridge, for certain, is a relict from another era and a lot of book-reading, movie-going women associate it with the The Bridges of Madison County. Robert James Waller wrote the novel on which the movie is based. The movie was set in Madison County, Iowa, which had 19 covered bridges at one time. Only six remain today, all on the National Register of Historic Places. Clint Eastwood directed the film which he and Meryl Streep starred in, but you know that.

This delightful covered bridge sits near the small town of Gowensville. It’s South Carolina’s last remaining authentic covered bridge. Greenville County owns the bridge and closed it to traffic in the early 1980s. It joined the National Register of Historic Places July 1, 2009. South Carolina has 15 covered bridges, but only one is authentic, the one near Gowensville, built in 1909. The rest didn’t come along for 75 years and most are part of public attractions and pedestrian walkways, not an earlier generation’s way to get their buggy or Model T across a swift running creek. Had things not changed so much, maybe The Bridges of South Carolina might have been a movie, and maybe you might have met your special love in winter shadows over a swift, cold creek.

Blue Bird’s Fabled Yellow Bus

Bus Perspective

Blue Bird and IC buses stand ready for another day of school.


I look on school buses with fond memories. Rode one most of my public school days. Even in predawn darkness you didn’t have to see one to know it was coming. It’s a sound familiar to anyone who’s stood by the road waiting for a ride to school. The gears shift, puffs of oily smoke shoot out, and the engine growls with a sort of metal clashing, rising then flattening. Here it comes, lights flashing, stop sign swinging out.

The yellow school bus: it rolls along in many people’s memories of school. I went to school on one. I went to play football games on one, and my Dad was the school bus driver much of my life. My very first published article was a small piece in the paper back home on school bus safety. School buses and I have a fond association. Can’t see one without going back to my school days. I rode the bus all my life to school and it was only in my senior year that I drove a car to school. I have more memories of the bus than I do my first set of wheels and well I should. The school bus was an extension of school itself. Get in trouble on the bus and you could find yourself in the principal’s office.

I never got into any trouble on the bus for a simple reason: Dad was the bus driver. Whereas today’s buses come equipped with video cameras, my bus came equipped with an alert set of parental eyes. I dared not misbehave. That didn’t stop a lot of mischief from taking place in its products though. Bullying, spitball wars, holding hands with girls, and shouting insults at people through windows that maddeningly would only half open frequently took place.

I’ll never forget an incident Dad experienced. At the far end of his route he had to turn his bus around in the yard of a house sitting on rocks. It looked like a place Ernest T. Bass might have called home. It was the first day of school and as Dad pulled up, a man and his wife were chunking rocks underneath the house from opposite sides. Big white flint rocks. Their boy was hiding beneath the house. Finally, one of the rocks connected and a scruffy kid shot out like a rabbit. His dad grabbed him by the seat of the pants, tossed him onto the bus and shouted, “Shut the door!”

This first grader who had no desire to go to school ran to the back of the bus and sulked. About four miles later the kid crept up to the front of the bus and took a seat behind Dad. All seemed well but the kid was studying how Dad opened and closed the door. When the moment was right, he jumped up and pulled the handle back intent on leaping out the moving bus. Dad caught him by the back of his pants in the nick of time. As he pulled the boy toward him the kid slapped Dad in the face so hard he saw stars. Dad stopped the bus and gave the kid a spanking, something that would probably get him arrested. Many years later, when that kid was a grown man, he and Dad crossed paths. “Mr. John, you was the making of me,” he said. So, all turned out well.

Every bus smelled the same, a semi-sweet fragrance that hinted of wax crayons, a bit of leather, banana sandwiches, books and ink, and a strange trace of metal.

Many school buses in this part of the country come from a company headquartered in Fort Valley, Georgia, the Blue Bird Corporation. Albert L. Luce was a Ford Motor Company franchised dealer in Fort Valley and Perry, Georgia. Responding to a customer request in 1927, Luce and his dealership designed and built a bus body with structural enhancements superior to those on the market at the time, notably angle iron roof bows and all-metal construction (it had a canvas roof). Back then, most school bus bodies in North America were made mostly from wood.

The Great Depression was hurting Luce’s car and truck sales at his Ford dealerships, so he sold them. Luce, a visionary, saw a brighter future in school buses. With two brothers, he founded a bus manufacturing company. The trend in education to move from one-room schools to larger consolidated schools literally paved the way for Luce’s buses. And the name Blue Bird? He took it from the color of a demonstrator bus in 1932. In 1939, Blue Bird engineers developed the familiar yellow color we see today, a color especially formulated for school buses. The color, officially known in Canada and the U.S. as National School Bus Glossy Yellow, lets kids more easily see black lettering in the semi-darkness of early morning.

In 1948, Luce saw a design for a flat front bus at an auto show in Paris, France. Two years later Blue Bird Body Company introduced their own transit style design, which evolved into the Blue Bird All American, a design that gained widespread acceptance for school buses in North America.

The Blue Bird Corporation provides an enduring symbol of American values and virtues. It stands for something. (As the old saying goes, “if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.”) Founded in 1927 under Christian principles, Blue Bird Corporation promotes the same values and ideals instilled in its workforce over 80 years ago. An original sign from Blue Bird’s founders reading, “God is our Refuge & Strength,” still hangs in the corporate headquarters, and a full-time chaplain conducts nondenominational services during business hours for any employee wishing to join.

I know a few city slickers who never rode a school bus. As far as I’m concerned their education is a less complete than mine. The jostling, often-uncomfortable ride on a school bus was as much a part of school as were textbooks and teachers. The bus driver had as much power as a teacher, and young kids often looked up to the older kid who wore a white belt and helmet serving as a so-called safety guard.

Used famously as a strategy in desegregation, the school bus has seen its share of history. It was a noisy, hot ride in summers without the luxury of air conditioning, and in the winter it was drafty and cold. Despite its shortcomings, it unfailingly carried kids to school and lives on in our memories even as many a retired bus is converted into campers, church buses, and motor homes.

To this day I can see “rabbit frost” spewing from winter’s frozen ground as I wait for the bus. And here it comes, all yellow, gears shifting, engine growling, lights flashing, and stop sign swinging out. In about 10 minutes and four more stops or so, I’ll be in school. At day’s end, a long line of buses will be waiting to take kids home, pulling off from in front of the school one by one. Yet another day of riding the bus will soon be done.