Touched By Hiroshima

I’ve never set foot in Japan, but Japan has touched me in ways obvious and ways hard to explain. The obvious is easy. I drive a Honda. I take photographs with a Canon T51 Rebel. Japan Victor Company built one of my flatscreens. Sony manufactured my home sound system. My Vortex binoculars came from Japan. I talk on Panasonic telephones.

I own so many Japanese products, I might as well move into a rice-paper house, take off my shoes, wear a kimono, grab chopsticks and live off Japan’s four food groups: fish and rice, rice and fish, fish and fish, and rice and rice. I should play that 1980’s one-hit wonder by The Vapors, “Turning Japanese,” (I really think so).

The rest is weightier. A ways back my Japanese musings took over me when I heard about Chrysler’s bankruptcy. Chrysler sits at the intersection of two key memories—a boyhood discovery and a 1956 Plymouth, turquoise and white, with large, yet delicate, fins. It’s the first car I remember Dad buying, not that long after World War II. Dad bought American-made Chrysler cars all his life.

We who buy Japanese cars drove a few nails in Chrysler’s coffin, but don’t blame us. Japanese cars last, and they embody the phoenix-like rise of a country demolished by us in a way like no other but resuscitated by us as well. From a nuclear funeral pyre, Japan rose to give us dependable cars, radios, TVs, telephones, and more. The vanquished enemy came roaring back.

Rising Sun Flag

The other memory goes back to childhood. Rambling through closets I discovered silk flags, relics of Dad’s time in Japan. Unfolding them, a rising sun with rays afire burst off the alabaster silk. Japan—Land of the Rising Sun.

The Imperial Japanese Navy flew those flags. So did the Japanese Army. Those flags of a brilliant sun were the last sights many warriors on both sides saw. I made parachutes of those silk flags, tying a rock to them, hurling them up, and watching them drift back to Georgia soil, incandescent with Southern light.

Somewhere in my boyhood those flags disappeared. I’d love to have one framed with an inscription. “Liberated and brought to the United States by Master Sergeant John M. Poland Jr.” With Japan’s surrender August 14, 1945, Allied Occupation Forces banned the Rising Sun flags. Maybe that’s how Dad came by them. Confiscated by the victors.

Dad journeyed to Japan on a troop carrier in Operation Downfall, the Allied plan to invade Japan. After steaming out of Seattle, somewhere along the way, two atom bombs brought Japan to its knees, and some 200,000 servicemen, would-be invaders, my father among them, occupied Japan instead. There was no combat, but there was a price to pay. And so, my thoughts drift to Hiroshima a lot these days. My father served in U.S. Army Ordnance and he spent time in Yokohama but he also went to Hiroshima just after the Enola Gay dropped “Little Boy.” And he went to Nagasaki.

Hiroshima Damage

There in the land of geishas, he might as well have been walking on the surface of the sun. He was at most 20. The things he must have seen as he tread Hiroshima and Nagasaki’s toxic soil. Skinless people. Men with stripes burnt onto their skin. When the brilliant flash hit them, the nuclear burst stenciled stripes on men and dress patterns onto women. Dad never talked about things like that, but he saw that and worse.

He returned to Georgia with evidence of his Hiroshima days: flags, photos, and later something malignant. The photos reveal block after block of charred rubble with steel beams drooping like melted candles. Nuclear detritus. Total destruction. The next time you drive past a bush-hogged cornfield, imagine it burnt to a cinder. That’s what Hiroshima looked like, a charred, mown cornfield, where not even one ant survived.

At ground zero the heat reached millions of degrees. Vaporized people left shadows etched into rock … perhaps that’s why censors placed rectangles black as midnight upon some of Dad’s photos. Why generate sympathy for the enemy. By the end of 1945, radiation and burns raised the total dead to 140,000.

Those photos told me Hell had been unleashed on Hiroshima. It didn’t come as a surprise to those in the know. Awaiting the bomb’s first test, Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb, held onto a post to steady himself as the seconds ticked down … “3, 2, 1, Now!” A brilliant burst of light and a deep growling roar shook the earth, staggering Oppenheimer—“I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds” … words from the “Song of God,” a treasured Sanskrit Hindu scripture.

“I am become death, yes.” My father’s illness—which proved terrible beyond description—first showed itself in a common way. Choking, he gets up from the table and goes outside. He chokes on tea. In time, he fears eating. He loses weight. Month by month it worsens.

In April 2002, doctors at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston diagnosed Dad with esophageal cancer. In July 2002, they removed Dad’s tumor, esophagus, and larynx in a lengthy operation—12 hours—that resulted in a stoma and stomach resection so he could eat on his own, though he really never did.

In the many days during Dad’s never-realized recovery, we took slow walks with him to the tenth floor visitor’s room. We’d creep down the corridor, dragging the IV tree behind him. We’d stand before windows and look over the city with its white steeples and green live oaks. W could pick out pelicans soaring near the bridges, bridges no longer in existence.

In the months to come, Dad’s cancer returned. He had another operation at MUSC and we crossed our fingers and prayed with all our strength. Again, the cancer returned. Dad elected to undergo chemotherapy but it took a terrible toll on him and near the end he made a choice: no more chemo. As the disease progressed and he watched his body waste away, Dad took his suffering in stride. Each day he would pray “Thank you God for my family and thank you for another day of life.” Dad passed away from esophageal cancer on November 15, 2003, at 6:57 in the evening.

Now and then waiting for a traffic light to change, I think about the Hondas, Nissans, and Toyotas around me. I know that many of those cars are now made in the United States. I know, too, that many are not. I wonder about the Japanese autoworkers who make them and what life was like for their parents. Many had okasans and otousans who experienced atomic warfare like no one else has.

The bombs, they said, saved lives in the long run. The truth is many U.S. soldiers would die down the road from radiation’s long-term effects. That’s what Dad faced as his troop carrier set out of Seattle through 30-foot swells, water cresting over the prow. Men seasick. Sick down the road in fatal ways.

For the Japanese came a flash of light, fire and wind blast, and fire again, a towering mushroom cloud, black rain, people with their arm skin and fingernails sliding onto the ground, silhouettes of people burned into granite. How did the survivors carry on with their world changed forever after so many loved ones vanished into the air without a trace. I can only hope they found shelter in utter and complete insanity.

For U.S. servicemen, it was Hell and Heaven, the end of war but a headful of horrors to carry the rest of their life. Burdened with this weight, U.S. servicemen performed their duty, then returned home across the Pacific to begin life anew. Appreciating life like few of us ever will, these Atomic Veterans came home to do good. Many started families. Some bought two-tone Plymouths with big fins. Some returned with keepsakes of where they had been, flags, photographs, and things they didn’t talk about. Touched by Hiroshima, some returned with things they didn’t know they had.

It took “Little Boy” 57 seconds to fall over Hiroshima, and for some American soldiers like my father, the damage took 57 years to reveal itself. Damage that made dying American GIs victims, too, of World War II … the long run turned upside down.

The Japanese committed atrocities but I don’t recall dad ever saying he hated the Japanese. Not once. He never saw combat, but he saw Hiroshima. And he saw Nagasaki. He always owned Chrysler products, but near the end of his life, he bought a pickup made by Mazda, a company that got its start in Hiroshima of all places. After such a long, long journey, Dad had come full circle.

That Marvelous Miracle

looking at the rain

Photograph by Robert C. Clark

A birthday party at Johns Island. A cloudburst sends adults scurrying for cover. Not this brave five-year-old. The rain stops him in his tracks whereupon he invites the drops to trickle down his face.

In the midst of the rain the sun breaks out and the devil beats his wife just as life beats the kid out of us. Kids, little puddle stompers, love playing in the rain. Adults don’t.

It takes a raindrop fifteen minutes to grow big enough to fall to earth. Adults grow up and run from raindrops prompting an innocent seven-year-old to ask his mom, “When do big people start to hate the rain?”

Yes, when? Some adults walk in the rain. Others just get wet. Which one are you?

If there’s a roof over your head when it rains, pray that it’s tin. If you get caught in the rain, pray that a child lives in you. Embrace the marvelous miracle. Life sounds, feels, smells, and looks different in the rain. Be a kid now and then. Find rising joy in falling water. Walk in the rain. It’s not against the law, and when all’s said and done you may see another miracle—one shimmering with primary colors.

The Christmas Gift That Keeps On Giving

Christmas Day brings good times with family and food, and, yes, it’s a day of giving, but how many gifts, among the many, do you remember?

Not many I bet. Well, some gifts stand tall in memory. I’d think country boys remember their first shotgun, and little girls remember that special doll, and some got a new car forChristmas. It was in the driveway with a huge bow on it, delivered during the night by the Jolly One.

What’s your special gift? You’d never guess mine in a hundred tries. It was a wooden desk with a thick green glass top. It didn’t have a pullout shelf for a keyboard because the personal computer was decades away.

Mom and Dad gave me that Christmas desk in 1961. Solid wood. Simple and beautiful. It came with a small gooseneck lamp, with a flexible neck and a forest green, metal shade. I had to be careful adjusting it, or the metal shade would burn me. I did English papers at that desk and read many a book there. That’s when a small flame began to flicker.Might, I, too, write a book someday?

When antiquing arrived, Mom gave that desk a copper green patina, streaked a bit so it seemed old. That paint must have robbed the desk of its magic because football consumed me for four years. Then off to college I went where other desks came into my life. Many classroom desks … then the work years came and I sat at an old military surplus desk in a government job. Ugly and made from metal it was cold to the touch in winter. During a corporate stint I sat in a cube farm with a modular shelf serving as a desk. It seemed fake.

Writing Desk 6Other cube farms waited down the road but eventually I achieved escape velocity. The desk I work at now—I’m at it this very moment—is a fine desk. Cherry, with two-tone colors, natural and black. I’ve written six books at this desk, which sits east to west. Working, I face the sunny South with the North to my back. I sit at the junction of Imagination and All Things Possible.

Pine Desk 1I have another desk I love, a teacher’s desk made of beautiful pine. Wrote my first film script at that desk. At a time that wasn’t the best, I found great comfort at that desk. I’d lift the top, sit down to write, and forget a sorry decision I’d made.

Some people associate desks with work, and sometimes a good change in job status. “Well, my desk is waiting. Off to the coal mine I go.” Or, “Did you hear old Roger got a desk job?”

I see desks as magical depots that send me to wonderful places. That first desk, the one I saw that cold winter morning by the Christmas tree, set me on a path that continues to give me wonderful experiences. I’ve shot down the Chattooga’s cold whitewater, stood chest deep in blackwater swamps, explored wild islands, flown over Carolina bays, and explored the back roads of the red clay and Palmetto states. I’ve seen my work produced on stage, in films, books, and many a magazine, and I’ve met wonderful people, the salt of the earth, artists, musicians, celebrities, and just plain good folk. 

That first desk? I have no idea what became of the best Christmas gift I received. I hope another soul discovered its magic, but I know this. It changed my life and it keeps giving me great memories. Without doubt, other adventures lie ahead in 2019, and if there’s such a thing as a deskologist, an expert who tracks book’s ancestors, that first desk will be declared the grand patriarch of their clan. It’s where everything began.


Pretty Place

Pretty Place at Camp Greenville

Symmes Chapel

A new day. Sunrise at Symmes Chapel. Locals call it Pretty Place. The open-air chapel tops Standing Stone Mountain in northern Greenville County near the North Carolina line. Not far away, Caesars Head juts o’er the land. Close by is Cleveland, South Carolina. Straight ahead? A peerless view of the Blue Ridge Escarpment and below? A 2,000-foot drop to the floor of Jones Gap valley.

Inscribed just above the cross is a line from Psalms 121:1. “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills ….” Lift up your eyes to the dawning of another day on planet Earth.

Symmes Chapel, part of YMCA Camp Greenville, looks out over Jones Gap State Park. Its unbridled majesty draws photographers like hummingbirds to nectar.

The start of a new life. More than 100 couples tie the knot here each year. Fred Symmes donated far more than a chapel to the YMCA. He donated memories and grand vistas, oft described by visitors as “breathtaking,” “an indescribable feeling,” and “a perfect 10.”

US 276 will take you to Symmes Chapel. Call the camp office at 864.836.3291, Ext. 0 before visiting.

“Because we’re going to the chapel, and we’re gonna get …”  —The Dixie Cups, April 1964

Grandma’s Petunias

Vintage petunias. I had forgotten them, those flowers grandma loved. Surely I saw them in youth. As I sort through my mental album I think I recall them. Pale colors, pastel petals of white and pink, possibly lavender, and a delicate softness. Seems Grandmother Walker grew them on her porch, a wide, columned porch destined to burn. There, on that doomed veranda, they grew in pots, over-spilling, upside down, their blooms a bit like inverted antebellum skirts. In the flowers’ throats, dark veins converged, a floral case of perspective.

How long ago did I forget about those old timey petunias. A lot of time passed, then suddenly I couldn’t escape them. A woman down Florida way spotted them in my photograph of a country store along old US 1. “Did you notice the old timey petunias by the store’s steps?”

I brought up the photo and there they were, a cluster of ten or so, frozen by the shutter, flowers dancing in an old Disney cartoon classic. For some reason, all faced away from the sun, gazing at their own shadows. And then I discovered vintage petunias a week ago at an old homeplace. Discovered them in person in a large field adjacent to the ruins of an old tenant home.

Just this week I worked on a story about a woman who loved trains and the trainman who visited this woman who waved at the trains said this: “I walked through Miss Johnnies’ fragrant purple old timey petunias; the perennial kind our southern grandmothers grew in their yards.”

Yep, that would be correct.

Old fashioned petunias, what I refer to as Grandma’s petunias are still out there, straight from childhood. This hardy, aromatic heirloom flower hints of old home places, and indeed that’s where I stumbled upon them. Think of them as vintage flowers. I recall my late Mom talking about old-fashioned petunias and a flower that has a beautiful name, delphinium, oh, and plumbago too. Finally, I saw old petunias in person and this time recognized them for what they are, vintage flowers.

That hot afternoon in the big field, I leaned over and breathed in their scent. I can best describe it as a green spicy peppery fragrance, similar to something you might cook with. It didn’t overpower me and I liked that. I had to work to gather in its incense. Modern hybrids, alas, seem fragrance free.

So, what happens to these old flowers when the people who planted them are no more? They keep on keeping on. Perched atop long stalks, they reseed themselves. And reseed themselves. Things change. Homes burn. Homes suffering abandonment decay. People die, but the flowers keep on keeping on. Old homeplaces and forgotten cemeteries still harbor these flowers. Deprived of someone to water them, fertilize them, and keep harmful insects away, they get by on their own.

I say it’s time we planted more petunias, the kind grandma loved. You could say grandmothers bequeathed the parents of modern petunias to us. Old-fashioned petunias possess a heritage. They’ll be here when you and I will not.

Mama’s Coke Bottle


58 Coke Bottle

It Wasn’t Plastic

The year was 1958. On a cutting board beside a white enamel sink, Mom pounded fresh red cube steak with a green Coca Cola bottle, tenderizing a tough cut of meat. On other days she used that bottle capped with a perforated top to sprinkle water across white cotton shirts. As she ironed, the crisp fragrance of steaming cotton filled the kitchen. And you can bet your bottom dollar that Coke bottle wasn’t going to end up in a stream, lake, or the sea.

I am weary of plastic. It has been a good thing in many ways. Today’s plastic-lightened cars get better gas mileage, but plastic, the double-edged sword, cuts two ways. I am weary of plastic grocery bags, plastic water bottles, and plastic soft drink bottles. Enough is enough.

I would love to see glass resurgent. Those colleagues of Mom’s Coke bottle? They carried a deposit. Seems it ran from 2¢ a bottle to a nickel. We boys would scour the roadsides picking up bottles. Entrepreneurs we were. You didn’t see soft drink bottles along the roads when I was a boy. That would have been like seeing money out by the highways.

Back then we drank from thick, strong glass bottles that we found uses for. I hammered a nail into a board with a Coke bottle once.

Back before steam irons and plastic bottles, Coca Cola bottles had a place in the laundry room. You could even buy an aluminum sprinkler with a cork that fit snugly in the bottle. Those days are gone with the wind, the winds of change.

I am plain worn out by plastic. I go into swamps and even there I can’t escape it. In blackwater swamps I see plastic water bottles floating along. The only wild places where I escape plastic bags and bottles are Carolina bays.

I was about to photograph a whitewater river a few years back. Looking through the viewfinder there it was: one of those bright orange water cooler jugs lodged against a rock.

How many times do you see a red gas can along the road where it flew out of a pickup. If they were made of heavy gauge metal like they once were that would not happen. Bring back metal, too. I see plastic grocery bags up in trees all the time. Enough is enough.

You probably recycle. I faithfully recycle plastic, aluminum, too, anything I can, but as my friend, Lee Brockington of Hobcaw Barony, observed. “Recycling is no longer enough.”

We need to get rid of the stuff, but until that happens just quit buying the junk. I keep a permanent water bottle handy. I fill it up whenever I go afield or do yard work.

I don’t care what the plastic association folks and lobbyists say, our own two eyes tell us plastic is a menace. Seaturtles swathed in plastic netting … pelicans ensnared in plastic bags … all that has created the need to police beaches and waterways. All roads led to Rome and all waterways lead to the sea and that’s where plastic ends up.

The year is 2018. Sixty years later we’re encased in plastic. I am fine with plastic in phones, computers, and car interiors. But when you give people plastic forks, spoons, and plastic drink straws, too many people toss them away. Man has yet to develop a pesticide that kills litterbugs.

We got rid of pop-tops on aluminum beverage cans. Now we need to severely lessen our use of plastic. Use a water bottle that is uniquely yours. Buy the permanent grocery bags and use tem. (I miss the heavy-duty paper bags … found a lot of uses for them.)

One more thing. Stand a classic Coca Cola bottle beside one of today’s flimsy plastic water bottles. The difference you see carries a name: art. Art that you, nature, and I will appreciate.

A Day With The Chicks

Edgefield Square copy

Where We Started—The Edgefield Square

Adventures And Adventurers Are Still Out There

It was brutally hot and humid. My starched white cotton shirt clung to me like saran wrap. Not the best day for going afield but that was the plan. Ten adventurous women and I set out beneath a searing sun to explore western South Carolina. All would go well except for one little thing.

This adventure really began April 17 in North Augusta at Sweetwater Baptist Church when I gave a talk to the Chicks That Click. These women are serious about photography and they’re good. Not long after I presented the stories and images in South Carolina Country Roads, Carol Grady asked if I would lead the group on an expedition. I said I would and Cherrie Alexander began emailing me about what it would take to make this adventure a reality. Soon we had a plan in place.

Monday, June 25, we convened at the Park and Ride at Exit 5 off I-20. Cherrie arrived driving a black Ford Transit van, Built For People, Places, & Things, and we loaded our gear and piled in. Down Highway 25 we went. That Ford tagline proved true. Over the next ten hours we’d encounter people, places, and things.

Our first stop? The Edgefield Square where morning light bathed red crepe myrtles in a golden glow. The women fanned out photographing buildings, especially the side-by-side Carolina Moon Distillery and Edgefield Baptist Association. What juxtaposition! They turned their cameras on Strom Thurmond’s statue, the Courthouse, and Confederate monument as well.

Chicks At Kiln 2

Groundhog Kiln—Edgefield

As we departed Edgefield proper we stopped at a kiln near the intersection of Highways 430 and 25. The Dr. Arthur and Esther Goldberg Groundhog Kiln, built in 2011, carries on the local pottery tradition. A wood-burning kiln, it’s much like those used here 200 years ago. There the women photographed a strange ceramic skull and other things.

Two Chicks At Chain Gang

Chain Gang Camp

We headed down Highway 25 anew and Pam Cook told us we had just passed the old Chain Gang Camp. We turned around, parked, and checked it out. We waded through Queen Anne’s lace and knee-high, sometimes waist-high grass, to photograph the main building, built in the 1930s with granite commandeered from the old Edgefield jail. Research indicates the area around the building had been a burial ground before the camp came to be. It’s been used as a burial site as late as the 1990s, with most graves unmarked and overgrown. Holly Bartley came across the grave of Freddie Williams. I could find nothing about Williams.

Chain Gang Knife

If only this knife could talk

An old butcher knife lay in a window sporting rust-speckled bars, the crossbars hotel brand of hospitality. That ominous touch seemed right. An austere metal cot in a room with cracked green plaster must have accommodated some exhausted souls. Holly photographed a stout metal ring fastened to the floor, apparently a way to chain the gang inside the old camp building. As for the building itself, its step-like façade dredged up a Clint Eastwood western, like some way station in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.

Break Time

Chicks Take A Break

Next stop? Price’s Grist Mill. After calming a few dogs that rushed the van, we checked out the mill. A classic old truck sits beneath its shed. Chicks set about photographing the power shaft that transferred falling water’s energy from the millrace joining Stevens Creek. Close by, a serene grassy area looked much like a park. Several photographed a table made from an old millstone and an old tractor shrouded in vines and mystery. Talk has it that that tractor killed John Price, bringing the mill to a close.

Prices Pick-up Truck

A Photogenic Truck at Price’s Grist Mill

The heat asserted itself. It was only going to get hotter. As we made ready to leave, a lawman pulled in. After a few minutes of friendly talk, we headed into McCormick for lunch at Michelle’s. We brought our cameras in from the heat and the back room of Michelle’s looked like a camera shop for Nikon and Canon fans. Upon leaving we spotted the friendly lawman again, and I told him were heading to Badwell Cemetery if he wanted to join us. He laughed but declined.

Badwell Chicks

Badwell Cemetery … Beautiful & Isolated

Badwell Cemetery is beautiful, peaceful; the French Huguenot Petigru/Pettigrew family rests here. Old stones and graves prove photogenic; the chicks clicked. Later we went into Mt. Carmel, what seems a ghost town.

Cabin Bamboo 1

Emerald Forest and Old Community Center—Mt. Carmel

The sleepy town shows signs of awakening. One home was getting a facelift. One sight captured a lot of clicks: a hymn board hanging from a collapsing church’s wall. A chick wondered … which hymns? “Amazing Grace?”

Hymn Board

Out Front Stands An Old Rugged Cross

On our way back, we visited the French Huguenot Memorial, Strom Thurmond’s grave, and made a daring but uneventful drive through Murphy Village.

Tom & Chicks

The Chicks That Click

The Chicks That Click hung in there though the heat and humidity. I admire Cherrie Alexander, Holly Bartley, Pamela Cook, Nancy Bufford Daigrepont, Vickie Delrie, Carol Ratliff Elliott, Billie Ellis, Carol Grady, Judy Herron Holmes, and Diana Rees. These intrepid women are adventurers. They saw and photographed each other, places, and things. They survived the heat and never once complained. Heroines, they are.

But what about that little problem we had? Well, among the things we encountered were hordes of chiggers that made easy prey of us. Chiggers work in secrecy and it wasn’t until a day or so later that problems surfaced. I believe we picked them up in the high grasses of the old chain gang camp. As one chick put it, “The Chicks That Click went into the woods with Tom Poland and came back as the Chicks That Itch. Well, at least we laughed about it.

Three Chicks 1

Lots of Clicks

We came, we saw, we photographed … a sandy lane winding through pines to a distant monument, old graveyards, abandoned places, closed businesses, and an encounter with the law. Nancy Daigrepont alluded, “The dusty roads less traveled … overgrown and dilapidated … … vines creeping into every crevice … the haunted spirits watching … may he rest in peace … closed on Monday … They called the law and the law came, (Bobby Fuller Four?), and this: I would love to road trip with you and the Chicks again!”

Carol Grady said, “On Monday, June 25, 2018, ten adventuresome Chicks gathered with their fearless leader, Tom Poland. A veteran at traveling the back roads of South Carolina, the Chicks were ready to follow Tom as though he was king of the chicken coop. He did not disappoint. From town squares, haunted graveyards, a ‘price’ less grist mill, chain gang camp, and churches with tiny bits of information still hanging to their broken structure, we saw it all. Towards Mt. Carmel, a ghost town with beautiful homes that nobody seems to occupy. The conversation on the way to our destinations was lively and filled with stories of the past. A lesson in history and a caution to remember the past—for the future.”

Said Billie Ellis, “Wonderful time had by all. A little heat, and a lot of chiggers can’t stop the chicks. Count me in again.”

Count me in too but next trip I’ll pack along a chigger repellent, an old home remedy or some proven spray. We’re itching to have another adventure, but the chiggers won’t be joining us next time.

A Song For Miss Johnnie

Night Train copy

—“I hear the train a’coming, rolling round the bend”

—“Look a-yonder comin’, comin’ down that railroad track, it’s the Orange Blossom Special, bringing my baby back” … Two songs the man in black sang. Two trains, similar names, and a story.

Oh sing that train song, Ronnie, … sing it through the year. Blow that horn, blow it for her to hear. Strum your guitar, strum it hard, cause Miss Johnnie someday soon is gonna meet the Lord …

And now I turn the clock back to long-gone days in the red clay state and one Ronnie Myers. My abiding memory of Ronnie is hearing him sing and play guitar in his high school band, the Comets. Ronnie strummed a red electric guitar if memory serves me right. The Comets? Well, they came to age during the British Invasion, and for a while I thought Lincolnton, Georgia, had an answer to the Beatles. Ronnie and the Comets played in the old Spires pool hall located between Charles Ware’s Hardware and East Beauty Shop—all no more. Nothing lasts forever, and that goes for railroad men and their devoted fans.

Ronnie and me? We parted the usual way. We graduated and moved on. Then some fifty years later, we crossed paths. He, too, lived in South Carolina and he had done something I envied: worked as a trainman. “Tell me some train stories, Ronnie; tell me some please.”

Among them is this lonely happy, happy lonely tale of what some folks call an old maid.

Who doesn’t need something to look forward to, something that gives life a cadence, rhythm. For Miss Johnnie O’Bryant trains did just that. The clacking of the rails must have been music to her. She lived in a small four-room house just west of Auburn, Georgia, about 100 yards from the railroad tracks that parallel Highway 29. “We could see her house really well from our train,” said Ronnie. “She lived all alone except for her cats.”

Miss Johnnie loved the railroad men and their conveyances of steel. She could hear the train a’coming, coming round the bend. By day, she waved a hankie; by night, a flashlight. “We all looked for her,” said Ronnie. “Even in the wee hours we would see her flashlight waving from her window. We always blew the whistle when we passed.”

Miss Johnnie lived in lean circumstances, so the men learned. At Christmas, the trainmen, conductors, and engineers would chip in some money and an old conductor friend of hers, Ben Powell, would drive to Auburn to deliver it. “Practically all 100 or so railroad men from Abbeville would contribute about $20 each,” said Ronnie.

An appreciative Miss Johnnie wrote letters to the men and they would put her letters on the bulletin board in the crew room at the Abbeville depot. She wrote about everyday life. Her flowers and vegetable garden, her cats, the frogs in the little spring close to her yard. (She didn’t have running water.) “She even had names for certain frogs,” said Ronnie. “She talked a lot about her favorite radio announcer, Ludlow Porch, whom she listened to religiously every day.”

Unfamiliar with Ludlow (Bobby Crawford Hanson)? Well, he was one of Lewis Grizzard’s stepbrothers. Ludlow, a humorist and radio talk-show host, always ended his show with, “Whatever else you do today, you find somebody to be nice to.”

Ronnie certainly did. “Occasionally I would be called to cover an outlying job and I would drive my personal car to other towns to work a switcher (an engine and crew that work local businesses). “One summer day I had gotten off work in Lawrenceville and driving home I decided to stop by Miss Johnnie’s and introduce myself. I wanted to meet the lady who always waved at us.”

Ronnie walked through Miss Johnnies’ fragrant purple old timey petunias; the perennial kind our southern grandmothers grew in their yards. He knocked on her screen door and waited. He waited some more and then her visage materialized through the screen. “It startled me at first. She had a serious, cautious look so I immediately told her my name and that I worked on the railroad and had been wanting to meet her.”

A smile crossed Miss Johnnie’s face and she invited Ronnie into her front room. “We had a chat about her cats and how dry the summer was.” She told Ronnie one of her cats was sick because it had eaten too many lizards. She told him she had loved trains and always lived near the tracks since she was a girl. And then music—that balm of the soul—entered the picture.

“Through the open bedroom door I saw an acoustic guitar on her bed,” said Ronnie. “I see you play guitar.” Miss Johnnie said she played a little bit and Ronnie said he did too. “Matter of fact I have mine out in the car.” You could say a mini-concert took place.

Miss Johnnie had an old Sears & Roebuck Silvertone guitar. “They were really good quality guitars back in the day before they started manufacturing cheap department store toy guitars and passing them off as real guitars,” said Ronnie. “Miss Johnnie played the guitar pretty well. She sang the old tune, ‘On Top of Old Smoky … all covered with snow, I lost my true lover for courtin’ too slow.’ ”

Ronnie couldn’t help but feel this “old widow” was thinking of an old boyfriend while singing. Maybe so. “An old railroad friend who lived near her told me she, a sister, and her mother had lived in that same old house as long as he could remember and that Miss Johnnie had taken care of them until they both died.”

After some music, Ronnie left Miss Johnnie’s with vegetables from her garden and a bag of dried apples she had placed on tin in that hot Georgia summer sun. “I left with a good feeling and a song in my heart,” said Ronnie. A few months later in his Atlanta motel room, a melody popped into his head. And then the words came …


Miss Johnnie O’Bryant lived by our tracks, she always waved, and we waved back

On a midnight train, we’d see her light, and she’d hear our horn blow

I stopped by one summer day; her flowers smelled sweet in a strange purple haze

This lady loved trains like her flowers loved dew

She lived all her life in this small Georgia town reading her Bible and tilling the ground

When she leaves this world, full of sorrow and pain, when she goes to heaven, she’ll go on a train

She said I could have married a long time ago, I could have said yes, but always said no

I’d rather live all alone just to hear those old trains and their big engines moan


We who ride these rails every day, sure miss our families in so many ways, but just a wave in the passing, a how do you do, sure eases our sadness, it’s the least she could do

She lived all her life in this small Georgia town, reading her Bible and tilling the ground

When she leaves this world full of sorrow and pain, when she goes to Heaven she’ll go on a train

When Johnnie sees Jesus, she’ll be on a train


Ronnie saw Miss Johnnie one more time. He stopped by, sang her song to her, and gave her the lyrics. And then those trains rolled on and so did time. Lots of time. The day came when they moved Miss Johnnie to a nursing home in downtown Winder. Fate was kind, however. The home sat just across Highway 29 from the tracks. Said Ronnie, “From then until I left the railroad, when we came through Winder, no matter what time of day or night, I’d blow our horn loud and long because I knew she’d be listening.”

Oh sing that train song, Ronnie, … sing it through the year. Blow that horn, blow it loud for her to hear. Strum your guitar, strum it hard, cause Miss Johnnie, she’s wandered off to meet the Lord …

In 2005, many years after he left the railroad Ronnie learned Miss Johnnie O’Bryant had passed away. She rests in a cemetery in Winder. “I hope to go by her grave someday,” said Ronnie.

Well, at least her home and petunias stand across from the tracks. Right? Well, no. “I heard her little four-room house was torn down and an appliance store was built at that location,” said Ronnie, “but to us older railroad guys, Miss Johnnie O’Bryant will always be there.”

Yes, she will.

People pass on but their presence remains. A fragrance, a song, why even a sound brings them back. “Hey, buddy, do you hear that horn? Look a-yonder comin,’ comin’ down that railroad track. Hey, look a-yonder comin,’ comin’ down that railroad track, it’s Ronnie and the trainmen bringin’ Miss Johnnie back.”

Saluda River Dawn


October 15th image River

Photograph by Robert C. Clark

Outside of sportsmen, photographers, and naturalists, few witness the dawning of a river morning. For photographers, it’s a sublime-yet-fleeting moment to capture the start of another day, and what a day. As fog gathers over a swirling Saluda River, dawn’s early light spreads a golden patina over waters that have made their way from the cold depths of Dreher Shoals Dam.

Few will behold this daybreak pageantry.

As people get ready for work, as others take in the news, as others sleep, the Saluda gleams beneath spokes of light. The founding editor of South Carolina Wildlife, John Culler, wrote a simple truth long ago. “The most delicious time in all creation is just before sunup.” Indeed it is. How many Saluda River dawns have you missed?

Indian Fields Trumpeter



William Bowman at p#120EC9D copy

Presenting Mr. William Bowman.

Some faces say little. Others volumes. Mr. Bowman’s grizzled face lectures us on life and its never-ending difficulties. I look into his eyes and see seven Ph.Ds.

Mr. Bowman blows the horn at Indian Fields Methodist Campground near St. George where folks live in wooden “tents” for a week and worship in the tabernacle. Standing amid the ninety-nine tents surrounding the tabernacle, Mr. Bowman sounds his notes as the lengthy trumpet rests across a comrade’s shoulder. People gathered beneath blue October skies socialize until the pewter and brass horn summons them to service.

And the children? When Bowman’s notes sound quiet time at eleven in the evening they know their day is done.

Mr. Bowman has long blown the holy trumpet but his tenure pales in comparison to his Uncle Shell who last blew the horn at the tender age of 103. Till that day, Uncle Shell had sounded the trumpet for seventy-five years.

You should hear it. You should see it. Bowman applies his weathered face to the brass mouthpiece and his notes lift people from their chair. Brother, sound that mighty trumpet like no other, but you know and I know your eyes say it all.