Renaissance Man, Friend, and Family Man
Thunderstorms rumbled through the Midlands April 1 around 4 a.m. and great sheets of rain cleansed the earth. The heavens send rains to wash away the footprints of special people once they cross the great divide, and we lost an unforgettable man around 1 a.m. Samuel Steven Morton, a “renaissance man,” said his loving wife, Myra, left us.
Sam, as we knew him, was a man of many talents and he touched all who crossed his path. If you called this man your friend, you were blessed mightily. If you needed a good laugh to banish worries, you had no worries in the presence of this gentle giant who once was a professional wrestler and ballet dancer.
Wife Myra is right. He was a renaissance man. Consider the paths life took Sam Morton down … sheriff’s deputy, public relations writer at USC’s Medical School, corporate communications writer at Policy Management Systems Corporation where he won a Best of Show Addy in 1999 for the annual report and again in 2005 for the USC School of Medicine annual report. Add the roles of freelance writer, novelist, father, and husband … the list goes on as you will see and includes surprising achievements. Awards are nice but being remembered for all the right things is better.
We all will remember Sam forever. Sam was one of those people who enter a room and immediately brighten it. He was a people person and people loved to be in his presence. He filled a room with energy. To get right down to the point: he was fun to be around. And he had the soul of an artist. If Sam loved anything even remotely approaching his great love for his wife and two children, it was his love for the written word. Words brought Sam and me together, fastening us as glue binds a book, forever friends.
“I want to write,” said this burly, beaming fellow as he took his seat in a writing workshop I held at Midlands Technical College’s Harbison Campus many years ago. And write he did. A 1985 graduate of the Citadel, he earned a BA in English there and a Masters in English from James Madison University. He put them to good use. He wrote four novels and co-authored six anthologies.
He often told others in my presence that I was his mentor and when he did pride surged through me like wind off a white-capping lake, but I did nothing special. Writers are born, not made, and Sam Morton came into this life in Rock Hill April 29, 1963 with “the gift.” He wrote magazine features and brought his brand of word magic to all things he touched. Wit and zest. That’s what Sam brought to any piece of writing. Consider this excerpt from his bio. “His past occupations include a 12-year stint as a robbery/homicide detective for the Richland County Sheriff’s Department in Columbia, SC, a ten-year career as a professional wrestler, and one long week as the blade changer on the potato cutting machine at the Frito Lay plant in Charlotte, NC.” One long week … see what I mean? We feel his pain.
“Sunshine,” Sam’s personal blog, embraced those things dear to him. In his own words, “Sunshine contains reflections on the things I know best: writing, wrestling, policing, and life in general with a wife, two kids, and a dog.”
Sam was a family man, pre-deceased by his parents, Harry Morton and Dorothy Morton. He married Myra Frailey Morton November 29, 1986, and they have two beautiful children, Samuel Alexander “Alexey” and Sasha Nicholayvna “Nikki.” He has a brother, Michael R. Morton, and sister, Cathy M. Dawkins. He left behind a sister-in-law, Marnie, and two brothers-in-law, David Frailey and Dean Frailey. To them and to all his friends, Sam was a gentle giant beloved by many. A big old’ cuddly teddy bear said a friend and one-time colleague.
More Renaissance man documentation. He took great pride in being a “Dance Dad” at Timmerman School. He performed as King Neptune in The Little Mermaid. Daughter Nikki was “the apple of his eye” and Alexey “the pride of his heart.” He loved Myra, his wife, and had known her since high school. And then the years began to accumulate bringing joys and, in time, health issues.
Early April 1 Sam’s broken heart broke hearts across the land. His friends had watched his courageous battle against diabetes and heart disease for twelve years and had seen him prevail every time despite the gravest of situations. Sammy was the comeback kid, always overcoming the odds to cling to this precious thing we call life. He spoiled us with his determination. We had come to expect him to overcome anything, but now he has taken leave of us and we are staggered by his death.
South Carolina keeps losing writers. I get the feeling God is setting up a South Carolina writer’s group up there. I see Sam sitting alongside Pat Conroy, his friend and fellow Citadel graduate, and no doubt talking with the columnist, the late Ken Burger, whose service last fall was held ironically at the Citadel’s Summerall Chapel. Imagine what things this writer’s group will write.
You, the reader, taking in these words, I don’t know if you knew Sam like I did, but the following words come to mind. Colleague, co-author, comedian, Citadel man, caring, compassionate, charmer, and clever. All Cs it so happens. But you can be sure that when it came to his life and the way he lived it, he scored all As. He was a gentleman and a scholar.
And musician. Myra says he played the bass drum in the Citadel band. “He was easily spotted because he was the tallest fellow in the band.” He stood tall in other ways, too, like the way we judge character and a person’s appetite for life itself. No, you didn’t have to look for Samuel Steven Morton.
He must have made a million friends and no matter where he went, he ran into a friend. Just about everybody knew this man who could take down a bad guy wrestler, as the Patriot, and perform a comedic big jump as a ballet dancer for his kids. He lived life to the fullest.
We know he hated to let go. Oh how we will miss this man who came out of the Upstate. We all fell in love with him and his ways.
When many a lesser man would have thrown in the towel, you fought the good battle, my friend. Rest in peace dear beloved Sam, mighty warrior. We’ll not see the likes of you again. The writer, James Salter, wrote, “Life passes into pages if it passes into anything.” Sam, you left us a family and pages too. You left a long wake and much for us to remember and treasure. Each of us is better for having known you.
—Written by Tom Poland per Sam Morton’s wishes
When I hear some determined soul say “wild horses couldn’t pull me away” thoughts race through my mind. First, I think of Muscle Shoals, Alabama. You’d think it’d be Mussel Shoals as mussels and waterways go together, but no, it’s Muscle Shoals. Why do I think of Muscle Shoals? Because that’s where the Rolling Stones recorded their big hit, “Wild Horses.”
Then I think of Chuck Leavell, once with the Allman Brothers Band and now with the Rolling Stones, who once worked at Muscle Shoals as a studio musician. At the tender age of fifteen, he struck out for Muscle Shoals where he began his ascent. His path and mine crossed and so when I hear those two words, “wild horses,” I think of Chuck.
Another thought sends me back to 2010 and a hot August day when I followed men on marsh tackies. They were hunting wild hogs on stalwart horses the Spanish stranded on our Atlantic shore in the 1600s. That was when stunned English explorers, mouths agape, beheld Cherokee and Chickasaw Indians riding small, rugged horses. Abandoned by the Spaniards, feral marsh tackies sought refuge in Lowcountry marshes, where they were captured and domesticated, first by native people, then by European settlers and African slaves. Conquistadors, thank you for gifting us wild horses. Whether left behind by design or here because shipwreck sent them swimming ashore, we’re glad to have them.
Yet another notion pops into my mind, Cumberland Island. Yes, Cumberland Island where another ill-fated Kennedy, John Junior, married. This national seashore is home to wild horses and the majestic ruins of a majestic place with a majestic name, Dungeness. The list of those who built and lived on Cumberland reads like a who’s who of the famous and extraordinary. Among the names are James Oglethorpe, Nathaniel Greene, Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, father of Robert E. Lee, and Thomas M. Carnegie, brother of Andrew Carnegie. It was the Carnegies who built Dungeness. Fire, possibly arson, destroyed the mansion in 1959 and today its ruins send a clear and utterly undeniable message—nothing lasts forever.
When I hear the Stones’ song or when someone says, “You know up on North Carolina’s Outer Banks wild horses run free,” I get another thought. I think of an October day when the sun rained down gold as I rode a tour boat near Fernandina Beach, Florida. We cruised along green marshes and sandy shores of aforementioned Cumberland Island. Sure enough, wild horses grazed along the edge of the maritime forest.
The next day Georgia played Florida. Just before the half in an electric three minutes and change, the Dawgs put away the Gators with a three-touchdown flurry. When the game ended, wild horses couldn’t have dragged the red-and-black throng into the streets, much less the St. Johns River, that lazy river that flows north towards Georgia.
It’s funny how the mind works. Just two words, “wild horses,” take me in several directions. Rock and roll and recording studios, an assignment to cover men hunting wild hogs, ruins and the famous, and a golden Saturday when the football gods smiled on the Dawg Nation. All of it swirls together in the colorful alchemy of the mind and its wondrous capabilities. Pray tell what do “wild horses” drag into your mind?
In the late 1990s, a time that seems ancient, I touched the emperor’s hem. That is I corresponded with a writer whose words revealed a style original and mesmerizing. Somehow, I hoped, might his gift rub onto me? I first read him in Esquire before modern, less genteel ways soiled it. That was in June 1986. His story, “The Captain’s Wife,” told how he fell in love with a friend’s wife but did not pursue her. The story’s subtitle told you all you need know, “Once Upon A Time There Was Honor In Love.”
His style of writing and his life view made me want to read more. And so I found his book, Burning The Days, Recollection in 1997. I had lost my way across the Sea of Life, and his book became my compass. I took his book wherever I traveled. I read it in hotels, at my parents’ home, wherever I ended up. I bought other books of his, and the idea came to me I should get him to sign them. But how?
I contacted a writers’ organization in New York. “Ship the books to us and we’ll send them to him and he can sign them for you.” Some money was involved. I waited and waited. Then day-of-days my books came directly to me from Salter. Now I had his address. I wrote him a thank you letter, not expecting a reply, but he wrote back speaking of the difficulty of getting published. He wrote some more.
Later he sent me a beautiful card, “Blue Nude III,” a 1952 cut and pasted paper print by Henri Matisse. On its back he told me he had just come back from Chamonix, France, where he had been shooting a documentary, largely based on his novel, Solo Faces, for German TV. “Oddly enough,” he wrote, “my biggest sales are in Germany.” He mentioned two new books coming out and something called the Internet. “I’ve never looked myself up on the Internet, must be frightening.” He closed his note, saying, “Am very grateful to you—embarrassing to talk about myself. Sincerely, James Salter.”
In Burning The Days you’ll read about Hemingway, Balzac, Roman Polanski, Irwin Shaw, Leonard Bernstein, and Robert Redford. No name appears more than Phil “Casey” Colman’s, a Georgian, a fighter pilot in Korea alongside Salter. I crossed paths with Colman at a family reunion in Lincoln County, Georgia. Many pilots attended the reunion, Colman among them. He lived in Augusta. He had no idea Salter had become a writer of high merit.
Salter wrote much about Phil “Casey” Colman, who was an ace. Here’s a bit. “It was May when Colman flew what no one except him knew would be his last mission. Colman left that day. He was lighthearted and self-promoting. Day-to-day truth was probably not in him but a higher kind of integrity was, a kind not wasted on trivial matters. He had an infectious spirit. We were unalike. I adored him.”
I handed my book to Colman. “You’re in this book.”
For an hour or more he read the book. He was old and frail and would die a few years later, but I knew exactly who and where he was at the moment. He was back in Korea and his youth had returned as he held an F-100 high above the Yalu River. In Salter’s words, “He and a MIG roared across mud flats wide open, needles crossed, the MIG like a beast of legend fleeing ahead. The controls were unyielding. The ground rushed beneath him. Destiny itself, unrehearsed, shimmered before his eyes.”
Writers, well this one at least, admire writers whose talent takes them to rarified heights. For me three stand out: James Dickey, Harry Crews, and James Salter. All as different as night and day.
Salter’s alone at the top.
People admire actors, athletes, musicians, politicians even—the list goes on. Those who commit their life to the page, flaws and all, seem the most courageous, the ones most likely to send your life in an altogether new direction.
Bitters, A History In Life And Literature
Among the dusty bottles and vase stand three alcoholic potions. I bought the matador-like bottle in Madrid when I traveled by train through hard, brown Spain. Next to it stands an elegant bottle from Italy that contains a liqueur, flavor and strength unknown. A rose and word, “Roma,” are all that’s on the bottle. To its right Angostura Bitters dominates the photograph.
The seals remain intact. Dust proves these potions have yet to be tasted. Of the three, Angostura Bitters is the one I’ve most seen in literature. It dominates there as well. It’s referred to as a botanical and contains herbs, spices and extracts of grasses, roots, leaves and fruits dissolved in alcohol. It’s promoted as “ideal for balancing alcoholic drinks, cleansing the palate and facilitating digestion.”
In 1824, Dr. Johann Siegert, surgeon general for Venezuelan military leader Simón Bolívar, created Bitters from a blend of herbs and spices to cure upset stomachs. Originally called Dr. Siegert’s Aromatic Bitters, it stops heartburn in its tracks, for me at least, but that’s not why I like it. I like it because of its place in literature.
It’s no secret that Hemingway enjoyed a drink or two, and among his favorite additives was Bitters. He liked Angostura Bitters in his gin and tonic, a fine summer drink. Among his favorite drinks when voyaging on his boat, Pilar, was Vermouth Panache, a blend of sweet and dry vermouth with Angostura Bitters. I’ve never tried it and doubt I will but some people will drive you to drink most anything. Hemingway supposedly said, “I drink to make other people more interesting.” Amen to that in this era of clones and drones glued to phones. There’s no conversing with them.
Hemingway concocted a drink he called “Death in the Stream.” He described it as “reviving and refreshing.” Amen to that as well. The drink appears in his posthumous Islands in the Stream while the main character, Thomas Hudson, is out deep-sea fishing. Excerpt—“Where Thomas Hudson lay on the mattress his head was in the shade cast by the platform at the forward end of the flying bridge where the controls were and when Eddy came aft with the tall cold drink made of gin, lime juice, green coconut water, and chipped ice with just enough Angostura bitters to give it a rusty, rose color, he held the drink in the shadow so the ice would not melt while he looked out over the sea.”
You feel like you’re there in the Gulf Stream, don’t you.
Angostura Bitters. Red like varnish, In Islands in the Stream, Hemingway also wrote, “Hudson feels the sharpness of the lime, the aromatic varnishy taste of the Angostura and the gin stiffening the lightness of the ice-cold coconut water.” I read that a bar in Seattle used 45 cases of it to varnish their wood.
It’s essential to the old Fashioned cocktail. The recipe for Angostura Bitters is a closely guarded secret. Its bright yellow cap is a trademark, but what sets apart a bottle of Angostura bitters is the over-sized label. Legend holds that when Siegert’s sons took over the business, they entered the old man’s Bitters in a competition to gain exposure. In the rush to ready Bitters for judging, one brother procured the bottles, while another had labels printed. Somewhere along the line they had a Cool Hand Luke “failure to communicate.” The labels were too big. I suppose you could say the bottles were too small. With time short, they had no choice but to stick the big labels onto small bottles. Angostura Bitters lost the competition, but a judge thought the labels set the product apart from others. Time validates his opinion.
Angostura Bitters, offered by the House of Angostura in Trinidad and Tobago and an indelible part of Hemingway lore.
Time, The Silent Thief
Growing up I could hear the tick of my church’s old Regulator wall clock. I can’t hear it today, but my hearing’s good. All that keeping of time must have silenced the Regulator’s tick and that’s appropriate. Time is fleeting in a silent unnoticed way.
I got caught up in the race and somewhere between 1996 and 2015 time stole not nineteen years but my life. One day it struck me that my daughters were grown. One day it hit me how many people I knew were dead. One day I realized others had gone into shells that swallowed their lives entire. I looked back on the jobs I’d held and how important they were but in the end they amounted to nothing. We waste a lot of time worrying when we should be remembering.
I look a lot now at what was and I do what many will think is a strange thing. On a regular basis I drive up Georgia Highway 79 and park and lean on a steel gate and stare at mom’s old homeplace. All a stranger will see is grass, trees, and an old store converted to a hunting camp. Not me. I see family. Meals. Games with cousins. Cold winter nights around a wood stove. Sinking deep into a cold feather bed. Drawing a bucket of water up from a well. A smokehouse. Penny candy. Outhouse. Crab apples. Bamboo peashooters. Arrowheads, Indian pennies, and more. Come with me one day and I’ll tell you a whole lot more about all I see in that patch of grass and weeds.
Oh. Well, that’s okay. I knew you wouldn’t have the time to join me.
Time. The New Oxford American Dictionary defines time as the “indefinite continued progress of existence and events in the past, present, and future regarded as a whole.” I define it as the stuff memories are made from. However you define it, time always seems to be in short supply but that doesn’t stop people from spending a lot of time writing about time.
In his epic poem, “Looking For The Buckhead Boys,” James Dickey gives us these lines after learning many years later that his old high school teammates are dead from heart attacks, war, and one’s paralyzed, one’s in jail, and others maligned in other ways by the clock. He remembers they lived and writes there are “sunlit pictures in the Book of the Dead to prove it: the 1939 North Fulton High School Annual. O the Book/Of the Dead, and the dead, bright sun on the page/Where the team stands ready to explode/In all directions with Time.”
Explode in all directions is right. People move never to be heard from again. Where, I wonder, is Benjamin Bradford? Where is Jean Gassaway? Where did Tommy Kennedy go? I know where Eddie, Mike, Dawkins, Janis, Sammy, and Peggy are. Gone. Gone forever. Time is fleeting and ruthless.
In “Time,” Pink Floyd gives us this line: “Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day” and this one, “Every year is getting shorter, never seem to find the time.” It’s true. A dull day seems far longer than a day spent adventuring. And it’s true that each year burns up faster than the one before.
Can you hear time? Yes, a newborn baby cries. A young boy’s voice begins to change. Brakes lock and tires squeal just before that awful sound. A siren screams down a highway. A bell tolls in the distance.
Can you see time? Sure. You see it as a tombstone. An abandoned home. A wooden cross in a highway curve. A clear-cut forest. A hearse. A wheelchair ramp.
I see it as an old chair no one sits in anymore. Covered in rust with a bent leg it nonetheless possesses beauty and it’s a fine place to set a favorite book, dried flowers, and hourglass to signify the passing of time. Seems an old soap opera used to open with the saying, “Like sands through an hourglass, these are the days of our lives.”
Time. It’s the most important thing we spend. How do you spend it?
Road Side Stands
Two words say it all. “Delicious simplicity.” No register. Cash and carry. Paper bags to hold jewels polished by the farmer’s hands. A friendly face. Produce that glitters like some pirate’s chest overrun with rubies, emeralds, sapphires, citrine, and gold. From Mother Earth, as all gems are.
The roadside stand. May it never make its last stand. It might be two-by-fours cobbled together with a tin roof. It might be the tailgate of a pickup truck. It might be the overhang of an old store like this one.
Whatever its form, nothing warms my heart like a roadside stand. The steering wheel wakes up and takes control. In I pull. I buy tomatoes. Peaches. A watermelon sounds good. Crooked neck squash? I’ll grill ’em with onions. Cukes? They’ll go with the maters and onions in my salad.
My off-the-grid wanderings cross paths with roadside stands throughout the year. What freshness they hold, but to deliver the goods they must be patient. In winter, they stand empty and stark. Wood frames pale like bleached bones. Abandoned and alone. Early spring, you’ll see folks sprucing up things, getting ready for business. Summer transforms stands blanched by winter and suddenly they radiate color, energy, and the wood seems renewed as if peach, watermelon, and tomato juice soaked in by some supernatural osmosis. Fall brings scuppernongs, pumpkins, and jars of honey, which hold liquefied sun.
Now I know plenty of people are content to get their produce at the big stores, but they miss a treat. When you walk up to a roadside stand you see produce bathed in the very sunlight that nurtured it. In a big store you see it laid out in rows beneath fluorescent light. Plasticized. What a drag.
Progress changed things for some unlucky souls. As many became more citified, as more kids grew up far from farms, voila, fruit and vegetables magically appear. Yep, a lot of people lost touch with what it takes to grow things. What’s behind split-oak baskets of peaches? Hard work, but how the work delights us.
Now don’t be surprised, maybe shocked is the word, if you come across an untended roadside stand. What? Relax. The honor system is alive and well in farm country. Heroes of the soil trust you. Just bag your tomatoes and drop your money in the jar.
Roadside stands grow beautiful memories too. On US 1 in Lexington County, South Carolina, a tractor sits next to a stand chock full of Mother Earth’s jewels. My mind transforms that tractor into the mule that dragged a plow across granddad’s field that grew light green watermelons run over with dark green, zigzagged stripes. Hey, put one in the cooler … Ok it’s icy now. Plunge a butcher knife in. Slice. Here the rift crackle like lightning as you split the melon. The red meat glows, and up drifts a sweet fragrance. Salt please. We eat it on the spot, and saccharine juice dribbles everywhere. Summertime and the living is easy.
Farm to table is a lovely thing, and to me a roadside stand is an extension of fertile fields somewhere over the horizon. Unless you grow your own maters and such, it’s as close to farming as you’ll get. At a roadside stand you won’t warm your hands in sun-baked dirt, and you won’t lean over to pluck some jewel from a furrow nor stretch for a limb. You will, however, satisfy that desire to grow things that’s hardwired into our DNA.
I was telling a woman about the roadside stand you see here. She described an old screen-wire produce stand she had seen of late and then she paused so long I just knew the call had dropped. Then, “I never met a roadside stand I didn’t like.”
Neither have I.
When Dead Chickens Fly
Get Out Of Dodge
I’ve seen a dead chicken fly. I flew too.
While in graduate school at the University of Georgia, I worked as a ticket agent for Southeastern Stages, and it was my best job ever. The camaraderie and joy have yet to be surpassed. Pranksters, we agents played jokes on one another and enjoyed good clean fun … most of the time.
Saturdays, two of us would drive to Church’s Chicken and bring back fried chicken for the gang. With apologies to the Colonel, it was finger-licking good. My chicken finger-licking days, however, would give way to chicken-dodging days for one’s destiny can change overnight.
Near the end of my master’s studies at the University of Georgia, my department chairman summoned me. “I’m going to give you 10 hours’ credit for teaching six months at a college in Columbia, South Carolina.”
Before I could say George W. Church I was in Gamecock Country. Six months? How about four years. Then I took a position writing about nature. About that time, I got remanded to the correctional institution of marriage. When you are young, you are not foolish. You are terminally foolish, but fried chicken offers salvation. Thanks to Church’s chicken I’d pull off a jailbreak and make my way into writing where each day is good, none of this better or worse nonsense.
I never like being married. Made me feel like half a person, in prison no less. Like my growth was stunted. Like a serf or vassal. Formal education teaches us much but life teaches us more, a lot more. I watched others marry and divorce. Saw deception and disillusion. Witnessed the struggles, the draining of personality, the strain of splitting assets, the breaking of hearts, the breaking of families. Those who settled in? I noticed how veteran married couples seemed, well, I’ll just say it. Boring as hell. No spark. No zest. They don’t even talk in restaurants. Just sit and eat and eat and sit.
Marriage? A big thumbs down. Outside of family, I know of few good marriages and I try not to hang out with people with their ankles chained together. The borderless country of Matrimony? I threw my passport in a ditch. Writing gave me a companion for life, not for better or worse, but better, always.
Suffering gives a writer empathy they say. Makes a writer sensitive and thus a better writer … they say. Well, I say I ought to be the world’s best writer. I sense all right. Sense when to rhyme words. An alluring responsible woman? “Beautiful and dutiful.” A crotchety old man, “Crude and lewd.” When some minion says “my Mrs. the wife,” I sense strife, knife, as in the back, and life, as in a prison sentence. When some numbskull says “me and the spouse,” douse, as in ruining joy, grouse, not the game bird, and house, as in arrest, come to mind. “Matrimony?” Acrimony, alimony, testimony, baloney, and phony. But like so many other hapless young men, I fell victim to vows. I wed, which rhymes with dead, bled, and dread. I myself tied the knot in a hangman’s noose. Yep, I signed up to become a beat-down hangdog daddy pushing a grocery cart behind a wide four-letter word that rhymes with strife.
Things went downhill in a hurry. I should have never left my bus-station buddies but thank God my craving for Church’s Chicken followed me to Carolina. And that, my friend, brings me to the day a dead chicken sprang me out of jail.
My wife ordered me, ol’ hangdog daddy, to the grocery store solo, which meant for once I could appreciate the pretty women sure to be shopping. (No mean stares or pinches.) My instructions were to procure bread, a gallon of milk, and Dr. Scholl’s heavy-duty corn remover. Gathering up my courage, I squeezed out eight life-changing words. “Do you want some Church’s chicken for dinner?”
Off I go to Big Star, my mind on chicken. I got milk. Got bread. Ah, a six-pack of Pearl beer would go well with hot fried chicken. Out the door I went. I picked up a box of chicken and headed home.
I placed the bread, milk, and beer on the counter. The warden comes to inventory things. “Where’s the corn remover?” (Corns must hurt like hell. Don’t know. I never crammed a wedge of cheese into a matchbox.)
“Ah, crap, I’ll go back.”
“Well, you got beer, didn’t you. You got beer! Didn’t you! Didn’t you!” Her nostrils flared, her face reddened and twisted into a murderous visage, and I paled, knowing at once why men on safari fear cape buffaloes. In a spleen-splitting nanosecond of rage, she catapulted my box of Church’s fried chicken at my face. At my face.
Folks, you don’t forget moments when time stands still. Moments when nerve endings crackle and fire up the instinct for survival. Like some rocket-tracking camera, my eyes locked onto that spinning blue-and-white box hurdling at me. Though it was approaching escape velocity I could read “Just Like Home” and “Dig In.” Dig in hell. That’s when I ducked.
I looked up to see a breast fly out, then a leg, the other leg, then the other breast, all glistening in battered golden-fried-chicken splendor. The wings cut loose and lo and behold a jalapeno pepper shot free. A headless chicken trailed by a fluffy brown biscuit zoomed over, like one of those stadium flyovers. In horror I turned to see this featherless flight splat against fake pine paneling. Rivers of grease dribbled down the wood and all that glorious chicken hit the floor. Kersplat. Chicken carnage. In one of those miracles science can’t fathom, the jalapeno pepper landed square on the biscuit.
“Well, damn, look at that,” I said.
Then to myself, “I am outta here faster than a bat out of Hell.” And I was.
It took a day or so to flee for good, but soon I rented an apartment, took my dog, pick-up truck, and TV with me and commenced to sleep on a brand new sofa bed from Rhodes Furniture. I had nothing but I had everything.
My first night in my new home? You guessed it. I enjoyed a fine meal of Church’s liberating fried chicken, washed down by Pearl beer.
And that flying wall-splattering dead chicken? Well, I don’t know if the soon-to-be-ex chowed or not. Probably. Carnivores eat their kills. But let me tell you, it was the best fried chicken I never ate. It gave this old hangdog daddy his life back, and for that I thank you, George W. Church. I thank you to this day. I thank you every day. God bless you and your jalapeno peppers. Like them, I too knew just where to land—in a place all my own, a place called bachelorhood.
For The Birds
Note: This essay appears in State of the Heart, South Carolina Writers on the Places They Love (Vol. 1), Aida Rogers, University of South Carolina Press.
For three summers running in the 1960s, I spent two weeks at my aunt’s home in Summerville. Daily trips to Folly Beach made my heart beat wildly. All that openness, sun, sea, and stretches of beach created a horizon like no other. I could see for miles.
When I went back home to eastern Georgia’s forests and hills, the world closed in on me, and a longing for salt, sand, and spray consumed me. The surf kept calling in the whelk shell I held to my ear. Nothing’s worse than growing up landlocked once you’ve had a taste of the sea.
Rural outposts grow big dreams in country boys and my dream was to live on the coast. Fate, however, had something else in mind – something beyond the coast –beautiful islands in a beautiful refuge called Cape Romain.
In 1978, I applied for a job as a scriptwriter and cinematographer for natural history films. Three finalists had to write a 15-minute script on the eastern brown pelican. My script, The Magnificent Pelican, cryptic wordplay involving my initials TMP, landed me the job, and for a deliciously brief time, I worked on the wild islands of Cape Romain Wildlife Refuge.
Even a sorry photographer knows the best light is at dawn. Up at 2 a.m., I would race the sun to the coast, the light falling in my wake on haunted, green swamps and oaks dripping with Spanish moss. The stars told me I was moving deeper into the land of blackwater rivers and white sands, so deep my journey would take me to the jumping-off place, a landing at McClellanville.
McClellanvile, the quaint fishing village that welcomed Hugo ashore in 1989, sits just off Highway 17. Like a sea breeze, 17 blows through a land of tradition and awe. Where else do you see black women weaving sweetgrass baskets along green highway shoulders, come across a majestic name like Awendaw, or discover a wild refuge?
My first crossing was one to remember. In predawn darkness, we put out in a Boston Whaler manned by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service boatman Herbert Manigault. The Whaler’s engine hummed as we made our way through the estuary and breakwater to one of the last wild islands, Bull Island. About 300 yards from the marshy side, Herbert killed the engine. The unceasing sound of 10,000 Dewalt drills piercing steel crossed the water – mosquitoes by the millions.
I didn’t care. I felt as if I were about to step onto the shores of Africa. And I felt this way for three summers in Cape Romain, a refuge that wraps barrier islands and salt marsh habitats around twenty-two miles of Atlantic coast. The refuge holds 35,267 acres of beach and sand dunes, salt marsh, maritime forests, tidal creeks, fresh and brackish water impoundments and 31,000 acres of open water. Nature rules. It is an ideal place to film wildlife for a simple reason: Man has yet to ruin it.
Beautiful creatures and beautiful topography ennoble the refuge. Orange-billed oystercatchers and white egrets seem to vibrate against green spartina. Chocolate pluff mud that hints of sulfur counterbalances gritty beaches. Creeks are blue arteries that loop, double back, and nourish the green-gold spartina. The sea-ravaged maritime forest, however, leaves you breathless.
Every time I approached Bull Island, D-Day came to mind. Rootballs of live oaks, loblolly pine, and cabbage palmetto litter the beach like the Czech hedgehogs and log ramps Germans planted on Omaha Beach. It looks like a battle scene, and the truth is it’s a battle the trees lost.
The Atlantic’s unrepentant tides undercut the trees’ roots. Toppled trees, their sun-bleached limbs white as marble, lie strewn about, monuments to the moon and its tides. Stripped of foliage and bark and smoothed by sand and sea, the trees are about the end of things. Even death is beautiful in the islands.
We’d put ashore onto a wide low-slung panorama of sand, birds, noise, and heat. My mind made great leaps. A perfect overture, America’s “A Horse With No Name” played in my head. On the first part of the journey I was looking at all the life. There were plants and birds … There was sand … And the sky with no clouds. The heat was hot and the ground was dry. But the air was full of sound.
Full of sound is right. Clamoring shorebirds swirl overhead, dropping bombs that necessitate wearing long sleeves and caps. (Never look straight up when you’re in a rookery.)
The cup of life overflows here. The islands, pristine, sun splashed, and desolate, truly are for the birds because desolation is where the business of raising fledglings best takes place. In these Darwinian oases where survival of the fittest has long played out, I was an intruder, a spectator, a capturer of images.
Though sandpipers, plovers, oystercatchers, ruddy turnstones, laughing gulls, and scores of feathered species live here, my trips to Cape Romain involved pelicans, sand dunes, and sea turtles. They were the stars in waiting on a soundstage designed by nature.
Imagine clouds of birds flying over a mosaic of straw-stick nests filled with eggs and purple dollops. That’s what a pelican colony looks like. Amid this clamorous collage, I trained my Arriflex on fledgling pelicans, featherless, brownish-purple blobs. A rookery of jiggling fledglings is a dizzying thing and a bit unnerving. Many die and the sun-ripened smell overpowers you. But I liked the little rascals. I knew they were overcoming a hard time.
DDT’s runoff from farm fields into rivers and then the sea put a hurt on the eastern brown pelican and other bird species. Plankton absorbed DDT, menhaden ate plankton, and pelicans ate menhaden in a game of food chain dominoes that weakened their eggs’ calcium content. Thin and easily crushed, the flawed eggs put the pelican on the endangered species list in the early 1970s. DDT’s ban and recovery efforts saved the pelicans. That was part of the story I was to tell.
Other birds played supporting roles. Least terns deserve at least a mention because they shared nesting space with the pelicans. A scrape in the sand just above the waterline – that’s where least terns nest. Their eggs, tan with brown specks, look just like sand. They’re near invisible. Not once did I crush an egg.
Today, least terns here and there colonize the graveled rooftops of buildings, commentary on how we’ve destroyed nesting habitat and another reason I love Cape Romain. Its feathery alchemy transforms sand scrapes into the seashore’s grand aviary.
It was hot as Hell. There was no shade, just sun, sand, sky, and sea. The ancients believed the world consisted of fire, earth, air, and water. Their elements fit Cape Romain’s islands. There the sun bears down on eggs destined to fill the sky in a great cycle of feathers, feeding, and seashore birdsong. And those sandy scrapes my feet avoided? They’re remnants of ancient mountains, long washed into the Atlantic and heaped into isles.
Life’s basics abound here. It’s the perfect place for man not to build things. In all my time there, the tallest man-made structure on the island belonged to me: my tripod. I was ocean-locked, an astounding turnaround from my days of youth, on a mission to tell the pelicans’ story, but the birds never shared my delight. As stars are wont to do, they ignored me.
Sand dunes are more than mounds of sand. They’re barriers to the sea and vital habitat to sea turtles and other species.
Filming nesting seaturtles demanded that we arrive late and stay late on the island, sometimes to 3 in the morning. We’d patrol the beach in a battered jeep – dropped there by a helicopter – looking for the telltale scrape marks that betrayed a female loggerhead turtle’s crawl to the dune line.
One night we patrolled until 2:30 a.m. No turtles. Herbert returned us to the landing in pre-dawn darkness. As people slept on the mainland, we moved through the night unseen, like nighthawks. Faint light filled the sky, an accretion from Charleston and its suburbs. It seemed otherworldly.
On another trip, we were to put out for a night of turtle filming. It was late August and the nesting season would soon end. We were down to perhaps our final try. As we made our way into McClellanville, forks of lightning slashed the sky. We were advised not to head out. Common sense prevailed. We returned to Columbia.
The next day, breaking news. A family had been caught in the storms near McClellanville the evening before and lightning had struck their mast. The yacht had burned and the family had to abandon ship. We heard sharks ate them, something I never could confirm.
Our last chance came a week later. We hoped to find a turtle in the process of nesting, a sure thing. A turtle deep into nesting is, in a sense, paralyzed. She will not move once her eggs begin to fall – as poachers know all too well.
We set out around 9 p.m. beneath a full moon. Palmetto fronds splintered the moonshadowed ground into slivers of white, black, and silver. The marsh grasses and water shone silvery white. We patrolled a snow-white beach beneath luminous stars and a dazzling moon, a beautiful evening for luminaries such as nesting turtles.
We made two patrols. Nothing. Restless, we walked up and down the beach. Herbert, well aware this was our last dance, cautioned us. “She’ll pause at the surf line and look around. She’ll go back to sea if she spots you.”
Close to midnight, we got out of the jeep again and walked north scanning the milky surf, which rushed in flirting with our feet, before melting away. Nothing. For a long time the surf fell endlessly upon itself in a wavering line of gleaming water. Then a break, a concentrated area of darkness thirty yards up, interrupted the glowing foam.
A log had floated ashore. I nudged it with my foot and seafaring foxfire, pale green light, like the aurora borealis, shimmered down the log’s length, an image I’ll never forget.
We kept patrolling. Around 2 a.m. we spotted a scrape running up to the dune line. Herbert circled behind the dune line to see how far along the nesting process might be. Soon he ran back, breathless, but with good news. She was on the nest. At last the elusive turtle egg-laying scene would go under the lights.
We walked up to a massive dune where a turtle was dropping slimy ping-pong ball-like eggs into a hole. This was no ordinary dune. It was the dune. A turtle comes back to lay eggs where she hatched. No one knows how they accomplish this miraculous navigation.
Covered with barnacles and shells, this turtle weighed about 300 pounds. She smelled earthy, organic, a smell hinting of salt and sulfur. Tears oozed from her eyes.
We watched her finish, cover the eggs with her flippers, dig another hole, and cover it to confuse the masked bandits of the night – raccoons. Then she crawled into the surf and disappeared beneath the dark, cresting Atlantic. Her babies would incubate in sun-warmed sand, nature’s hatchery. Someday the few hatchlings that survived would return and begin the cycle anew.
I fell in love with the islands and their pelicans, sand dunes, and sea turtles. Cape Romain and its wild islands never failed to give me the feeling I was deep in the tropics. A sense of mystery and awe gripped me there and it never let go. It was a world I could only dream about as a boy. It was an adventure. It inspired me to write a novel. It was unpredictable and dangerous. That flash of cobalt blue amid the sea oats. An indigo bunting? That slab of mud that just fell off the bank was not mud; it was a bull gator curious to check me out.
I was last at Cape Romain in August 1983. Stepping into Herbert’s Whaler for the last time, a wind ghosting over sun-struck salt marsh kissed me goodbye. I was about to change careers. I wouldn’t be back.
A year later Don Henley’s “Boys Of Summer” hit the airwaves. Something about that song takes me back to Cape Romain every time I hear it. When I do, I see clouds of feathers, glistening sands, rippling marshes, nesting turtles, luminous logs, and beautiful desolation. “Nobody on the beach, I feel it in the air. The summer’s out of reach.” Yes, out of reach. No more island hopping for me.
Now and then friends tell me they’re going to Myrtle Beach. Their voices exude elation. “Can’t wait to see the beach,” they tell me. And off they go. The real beach, I know, is something they’ll never see. They won’t know, as I do, what the coast looked like in the beginning.
In 2007 I came tantalizingly close to Cape Romain. A friend and I drove down for an oyster roast at a farm overlooking an Awendaw estuary. It was a brisk Saturday early in March. Belted Galloway cattle dotted the pastures. The cows’ saddle oxford hides of black and white had everyone’s attention, everyone’s except mine. I stared at the estuary. Somewhere out there were my islands, and March meant the pelicans would soon begin nesting.
For a few moments I was back. I stood there remembering my days and nights on the islands. I remembered crowning moments from my film years: my first bald eagle wheeling overhead. Spotting the rare swallow-tailed kite. Seeing a painted bunting clinging to a sea oats stalk. Watching an osprey plunge into the estuary and emerge with a silvery fish in its talons.
I was back where dolphins run in and out of the estuary and loggerhead turtles crawl duneward to lay eggs. There in that sun-blasted, silver-moon islandscape, I captured images on film. There in that sea-level garden of sand, sea, and sun, I captured memories too as I tried to tell a story about a place that’s truly for the birds, a place far from my Georgia home, a place beyond the coast.
Note: I found the pot you see at my Mom’s old homeplace, which burned in 1964. I took that pot and gave it to Mom. It provided tangible evidence of a place and time when she and her family lived through the Great Depression. An empty pot. Fitting
The Great Depression’s Long Shadow
“We were so poor, mama would bleach the coffee grounds and serve ’em as grits the next morning.” The Great Depression was no joking matter to the people who experienced it.
I’m too young to remember those dark days, but I’ve heard about them from my Mom and others. The Great Depression left several generations with indelible memories.
One Georgia woman remembers how her family made a stepladder into a Christmas tree. They wrapped tissue paper around the ladder and placed candles upon the steps. They could only light them now and then or they’d burn up before Christmas day. She has no memory of any toys come Christmas, just homemade gloves and scarves. Things that helped them weather the winter.
Back then people had no money to buy dishes so companies gave away “depression glass.” There was, however, plenty of heartbreak to go around. Said one man, “My daddy was the strongest man I know, but the Depression brought him to his knees.”
People who endured the Depression learned lifelong lessons. Granddad Walker told me something I never forgot. “It doesn’t matter how much money you make,” he said, “what matters is how much you keep.”
Yes, what you managed to hang on to mattered, but it was near impossible. The boll weevil’s devastation greased the way for the Great Depression. Many farmers abandoned their land. Banks took it, if they hadn’t failed.
People went hungry. It makes one dredge up Scarlett O’Hara’s infamous lines, a reference to how Union troops marched through Georgia scorching anything remotely resembling food. “As God is my witness, they’re not going to lick me. I’m going to live through this and when it’s all over, I’ll never be hungry again. No, nor any of my folk. If I have to lie, steal, cheat, or kill. As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again.”
During the Depression, a biscuit was a banquet come Sundays. Some good came from the misery though.
My late Aunt Evelyn remembers how people stuck together and made do … “We didn’t eat eggs; we bartered them for things we didn’t have. It was a time when everybody had dresses made from bolts of cloth provided by the WPA so everybody looked alike.” She remembers wearing dresses made from flour sacks that she had to wash over and over to get the numbers and printing out.
Aunt Evelyn and Mom remember working hard as children. “On Saturdays,” Aunt Evelyn said, “we’d dig up white dirt (kaolin) and whitewash the fireplaces and chimneys, and brush the yards with bresh brooms to clean up behind the chickens.”
She remembers how neighbors helped each other. “We shared a good garden with those whose garden failed. Daddy would kill a beef every year. He’d put it in a wagon and take it to the neighbors and share part of it. When they killed a beef they did the same thing. So everyone had some beef that way.”
How the times have changed. We live in a throwaway society now. People throw away things today that Depression-era sufferers would consider treasure. Granddad Poland had a saying, “Keep something seven years, and you’ll find another use for it.” That philosophy trickled down to Dad who kept things ranging from heaps of tangled metal, broken equipment, and lumber scraps to PVC pipe. Someday, he’d need it.
In the summer of 1936, James Agee, a writer, and Walker Evans, a photographer, set out on assignment for Fortune magazine. Their mission was to document the lives of Southern sharecroppers. An American classic arose from the dust and poverty of the mid ’30s, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The book’s title comes from a passage in “Ecclesiasticus.” “Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us.”
Evans and Agee painted an unforgettable portrait of human dignity and the American soul under grueling conditions. You’ll not forget Evans’ images of gaunt faces, mistrusting eyes, and families huddled in bare shacks in the Depression-era Deep South. Agee’s reporting with literary passages etches indelible ruts across the soul of anyone with a trace of compassion. He gave us a poetic look at poverty.
Agee and Evans were to spend eight weeks during the summer of 1936 working and living among three white sharecropping families deep in desperate poverty. The families didn’t want these better-dressed, well-fed strangers among their midst. The men, however, respectful of these plain folk and in a strange way finding them noble, nonetheless made themselves a home among them. When their work was done, they told one family, the Tengles, it was time for to leave for good.
Elizabeth Tengle recalls that moment. “They said they was leaving and wouldn’t be back. Every one of us cried. They were so good to us, you know. They told us not to cry. And Ruth told them, she said, “Yore going to leave and ain’t never gonna come back?”
I wonder what the ghosts of front-line Depression-era folks would think today. On every corner they see a fast-food restaurant. They see well-fed people so overweight they struggle to get out of their cars. They see people wearing a dazzling array of clothes holding strange contraptions things to their ears talking to themselves. What might these phantoms think of us? I think I know; I bet you do too.
Life hammered a realistic outlook into the psyche of the people who came from the Depression. They clung to what worked and they passed their proven beliefs and knowledge on. Some survivors’ children hold those same virtues today. They’re not about self-indulgence and the immediate gratification material things offer. And that’s a lesson we all could benefit from, if only we stop long enough to reflect and absorb it.
As surely as fire tempers steel, hard times shape people’s character. Though the Depression’s long in our rear-view mirrors, we owe these people belated respect. They received no bailouts. They simply picked up and survived.
The Grandest Slate Of All
Rocks preserve our feelings, record important things, and tell others that someone dear once walked this green earth. To the dismay of some, rocks commemorate unjust wars but they’ve also elucidated and educated us. Teachers wrote on slate blackboards and students wrote on slate tablets in the famed little one-room red schoolhouse when penmanship mattered.
Rocks give us a way to express emotions. I see boulders spray painted with teen puppy love sentiments, football logos, and graffiti, but tombstones and monuments catch my eye the most, and more often than not they’re slabs of hard, heavy, dense blue granite, with letters, numerals, and art incised into them.
Among my favorite tombstones are those near Durham, North Carolina, where Fabius Page erected a cemetery for his beloved mules and horses. “Maud, Brown Mule, Very Gentle 1906-1939.” “Lulu, Bay Mule, Very Sweet.”
God bless Fabius Page for leaving us his chapel in the woods. I suppose his granite tombstones came from Mount Airy, which boasts the world’s largest open-face quarry. Here in Georgialina we can thank Elberton, Georgia, and Winnsboro, South Carolina, for the copious amounts of blue granite we see wherever we go. I’m no geologist but I can visualize massive veins of granite running from Elberton beneath Clarks Hill Lake, coursing beneath Abbeville, below Lake Greenwood, and on to Winnsboro where blue granite achieved fame as “The Silk of the Trade.” Love that. Referring to rock as silk. What imagery.
Some seven years or so ago I trespassed into an abandoned quarry. Towering walls of granite surrounded me. A million suns sparkled all around me yet I found myself in a massive mausoleum. I shouted “Hello” and my voice reverberated off rock walls as a thousand hellos answered back. From such a place came the granite I’ve seen as fence posts, mailboxes, homes, memorials, and more than once a front yard where a small cemetery sat by the highway. There lives an enterprising fellow who will sell you a tombstone for dear old grandma.
My father bought his own mausoleum, two chambers, one for him and one for Mom. They sleep forever now side by side. They sleep and dream blue granite dreams. I stand by them when I am at my church and I talk to them. Through the dense blue particles of mica, feldspar, and quartz, through this igneous rock, once molten, my words make it to them and I know they hear their first-born again.
Thanks to tombstones and monuments, blue granite ascends from the bowels of Earth to form the grandest slate of all. When Earth finally dies, when some apocalypse scorches all and the ice caps melt and the seas evaporate, granite markers will still stand and should some supreme alien species come here they’ll know a literate, cultured civilization once existed on this charred, blackened globe.
Granite’s memory, how indelible. I will forever remember James Agee’s words in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, for there he described a cemetery in “Shady Grove, Alabama, 1936.” On the back of a headstone he saw the likeness of a six-year-old girl. From its front, he read nineteen words a young mother and father had engraved into that stone that you, too, will recall forever henceforth.
“We can’t have all things in life that please us. Our little girl, Jo Ann, has gone to Jesus.”
I’ve not seen Jo Ann’s stone but I like to think it’s blue granite, blue indeed, bluer than blue, blue as my father’s eyes, blue as his mausoleum catching and holding the Georgia light day after day until night drops and takes it away only to gleam anew as the sun ascends yet again.
Lost In Amethyst Country
Another world entire hides along lesser-traveled roads.
Do yourself a favor. Look for it.
The day after Christmas I drove to Tignall, Georgia, to explore places I’d not seen and find Jackson Crossroads Amethyst Mine. I didn’t go on a whim. My Granddad Walker, just fourteen, was plowing a field when the mule reared up. “Heave-ho, mule.” Up shot an amethyst cluster. I think that cluster was in the vein that runs through Jackson Crossroads for Granddad’s plow and Jackson Crossroads are in the same neck of the woods, as the older set would say.
And Tignall? When a girl Mom’s social life involved events in Tignall. Memories and amethyst were about to lead me to an old home place, church, and homestead but I’d never make it to the mine.
Up Highway 79 I drove turning left onto Delhi Road, a strange name that’s also a walled city in India. Delhi Road runs southeast to Tignall, a town for which nothing explains its name. Along Delhi I saw a self-made tribute to country stores you see here and there. A fellow plasters old Nehi, Royal Crown Cola, and Gulf Oil signs all over a black clapboard structure and from afar you think, “Ah, an old country store.”
What I saw next pulled me over to a grassy shoulder drenched by two days’ rains. A home of the old days sat amid fallen trees. Like fiddlesticks, five large oaks had fallen in different directions as if divine intervention had spared the spider-web-covered home, and it was divine for an old pew on the porch gave the old house a Sunday come to meeting air.
Walking toward the pew I spied a doll of the old days, made from rubber, with the left leg missing. Amputated. A grieving iron bed leaned over the doll’s feet. Fallen leaves the color of dried blood spilt around the doll cementing the effect. I’d stumbled onto a murder.
Peering through a window I saw an old fireplace yesteryear’s folks whitewashed with kaolin come Saturdays. To the right, a tattered blue recliner offered a comfy spot for the owner’s ghost to sit and reflect. Broken windowpanes and stringy spider webs spoke of desolation. Despite spiders, suspicions of ghosts, and a murdered doll, the scene from the highway served up beauty and a vivid reminder that we sojourners leave homes, beds, dolls, and other memorials in our wake. As I said, another world entire, an ancient one, hides along lesser-traveled roads. Seek it.
I motored into Tignall to find the Jackson Crossroads Amethyst Mine. In the post office the lady in charge answered my question. “I’m not from around here.” Across the street I spotted a one-legged old timer in an electric scooter. “That fellow will know where the mine is.”
Wearing camouflage and smoking a cancer stick, he sounded as if a rasp had grated his vocal chords after which he gargled a slurry of moonshine and gravel. “Take a left at the light. Go to the end and turn ????.”
Turn? Turn where?
This fellow’s not long for this world I thought. Eight miles later I turned left when I should have turned right. I spent the next hour looking for the mine. A lady in a convenience store set me straight, being local and not from Delhi, India. I found my way and set out on a red clay road marred by potholes, gullies, ridges, and wallows. I should have been in a Jeep.
I passed a granite marker high upon an embankment but just ahead the granddaddy of mud holes lay before me, an orange lake. I turned around and stopped at the old granite marker to salvage something from my dirt road defeat. Climbing the steep embankment I read the words inscribed on the tall and narrow stone marker.
1742 — 1814
These words were inscribed across the marker’s beveled top.
1730 — 1804
I imagined the log home that might’ve stood where woods reigned. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, woods to woods. As I descended the embankment, rain-slickened leaves sent my feet flying and I landed flat on my back. “Ooooomph.” The wind left me as the camera and tripod went one way, I the other. No one but birds and the ghosts of Sarah and John witnessed my fall. I felt as old as Methuselah.
On my meandering, aimless return to civilization the back roads presented another gift, Friendship Baptist Church. I passed it, turned around, and drove onto its grassed-over lane past its tombstone-like marker. 1831. Times are you step onto sacred ground. You feel it. No one needed to tell me the church was dormant. I fell in love with this bleached out old woman of a church.
Upon a knoll she sat, regal in her antiquity, on piers of mud-colored bricks.
Locked double doors like worn mahogany looked out upon the graveyard. High above the doors remnants of a massive hornet’s nest clung to the right side eave. Then I saw it. It. A sarcophagus with one side fallen away.
Morbid curiosity has long plagued me. I’ve long wanted to peer inside a grave and see the skull, bones, perchance a gold ring on some bony spindle outshining its brethren. I walked over and quietly placed my tripod and camera on the ground. Closer still … I saw a round white object. Closer still. Flint rocks covered any chance to see bones. I knelt, in reverence and to see better. As I did, a cottontail rabbit bolted from the tomb scaring the hell out of me. “Damn,” I said aloud. This resting place of a woman who died in 1865 had sent my heartbeat from 50 beats a minute to 106.
In all my cemetery explorations I have never seen so many broken and toppled tombstones. Two stood proud still. Although he sleeps his memory doth live and cheering comforts to his mourners give He followed virtue as his truest guide Lived as a Christian as a Christian died … And another … Thy form alone is all, thank God that the grave is given for we know thy soul the better part is safe yes, safe in heaven
To the right front of the church a wrought iron fence surrounds a stone coffin. A cemetery tree, a thick cedar with bark shredding into ribbons, stands over the plot. Toward sundown the sun turned the wrought iron shadows into comb-like teeth and western light made it hard to tell cedar roots from fallen limbs. Life and death at a glance but what struck me most was a window unlike the rest. Its venetian blinds, broken and mangled, cascaded in an arc within a window whose panes bear bullet holes. We live in such a graceless age.
Friendship Baptist Church. I had taken so many random roads to come by it I had no idea where I was. I was lost in amethyst country, but I drove on blind, knowing I’d find my way. And I did. Close to Anthony Shoals I realized I was near my Granddad Walker’s old home place.
In my heart, I had come full circle. As I drove by Mom’s childhood home, I realized just how this part of Georgia has avoided the modern blight that ruins all it touches. Some will say this land is backwards. That it’s poor, a wasteland, no place to live but I disagree. It’s rich because of what it does not have. No cheesy strip malls. No dollar stores. Not even much as gas stations go. Just old homes, old churches, and one cottontail rabbit that about gave me a heart attack. Thanks to that startling moment and my amethyst country ramble, I came away feeling more alive than ever, like I’d seen something real, something folks in modern monotony miss.
Ruth’s Flower Shop
Outside the artful placing of lilies, camellias, daffodils, and azaleas in vases, I never tried floral arranging. Thought about it but Clint Eastwood said, “A man’s got to know his limits.” As close as I got to professional flower arranging was a college job at Carolyn’s Flowers in Athens, Georgia. I watched floral artists perform their magic using gladiolas, various blooms, baby’s breath, thin green wire, and green foam called Oasis. Wire and Oasis let flowers defy gravity. They used soft green tape too. You had to look hard to see it, green as a blade of grass and supple.
I drove a white van for Carolyn and delivered gravity-defying magic as birthday bouquets and Valentine’s Day bud vases. Coca Cola crates held bud vases in that old van and not once did a vase topple. (When’s the last time you saw a wooden Coke crate?) As I ferried flowers around the Classic City, I often thought about Mom. She loved flowers and more than once expressed her desire to open a flower shop. She never did.
Nonetheless flowers surrounded me growing up. Mom grew lilies, gardenias, daffodils, azaleas, roses, and camellias and these made their way into our home as beautiful arrangements. Mom had a gift for flower arranging, and how I wish she had run her own flower shop. It would have been good for her, but she never did because of a rough time she went through as a young mother. A physician of the mind told her to never work again, that she couldn’t handle the stress. At the age of three I spent four months in the hospital and it was just too much for her. She never held a job again, though being a homemaker meant work. Lots of work. And then the years piled up and Mom was no more.
When my sisters and I began going through her possessions we came across her vases. I brought some home and spring through summer I put daffodils, lilies, azaleas, and gardenias in Mom’s deep blue vases, so blue they’re almost black. Let sunlight strike them though and the blue flames up like indigo afire.
On my Southern sojourns I see abandonment. When I saw this old shop my mind went back to my Georgia home. I knew this shop had long sent forth happiness as blooms and blossoms for weddings, birthdays, and anniversaries. Funeral arrangements delivered a different sentiment. “So long, loved one.”
Though death claimed this old flower shop a long time ago, the moment I saw it I knew I’d write about Mom’s longing to own a flower shop. In my mind and heart this place was hers.
Ruth’s Flower Shop is no more, but I’m certain older members of the Trenton, South Carolina community recall its lovely creations just as I recall my mother’s arrangements. They brought beauty and sweetness to my childhood.
How I wish I had known this shop existed. I would have taken Mom to see it in its glory days. This shop night have moved her to action despite that physician’s bad advice. A little push might have helped. Mom might have realized her dream after all and what a difference that could have made. You see, her name was Ruth, and sometimes seeing is believing.
A Certain Fragrance
She wanted a writing lesson. “How do I write great description?”
“Never forget the sense of smell,” I told her. “Never.”
She wrote my words in a small blue pad, underscoring them. I told her that just a trace of a fragrance awakens memories long asleep. How well I know. Sometimes on summer evenings I walk a nearby trail about suppertime. The trail runs by many a home. I walk it to catch kitchen fragrances riding the air. Chicken frying turns me into a twelve-year-old boy ready to ditch his bike and rush inside to dine like a southern prince. Bacon restores my memory of the “breakfast suppers” we often had on Sunday nights. What joys those meals were but how these walks through others’ kitchens hurt. A homesick feeling takes over. My boyhood days of coming in from Georgia woods to smell a home-cooked meal are forever gone.
Well, at least flowers keep on keeping on. A few days back I posted photographs of gardenias on Facebook. Forty-seven women commented, only two men. Women understand the power of a fragrance, and one woman phrased it in a beautiful way. The first time this explorer-artist woman met an insightful but bold man he told her, “You smell just like a woman is supposed to smell.”
“I never forgot it,” she said. “It was one of the better compliments I’ve ever received.” She added this. “I have loved flowers all my life and they love me. I wear the scent.”
I knew a woman once who wore the scent of flowers, albeit perfume. “You smell like fresh-cut flowers,” I told her. Told her more than once. It pleased her, and I wanted to please her. She told me the name of her mesmerizing perfume but I’ve long forgotten it, perchance Norell, but what does it matter. What mattered was how this young woman would walk into a room and fill it with floral hints and bouquets, a redolence like air swirling around gardenia corsages and wedding bouquets. I was young, easily impressed, and quite taken, but that was then and this is now and things change. Flowers outperform perfume, and other memories of that time are not so pleasant. In my mind, memory and fragrance intertwine like some love-struck honeysuckle male clutching his tea olive woman, each holding the other for worse. Certain fragrances remind us that yes, we were young and reckless once but we did not shy away from a life at full throttle.
Fragrances … they hold memories. It may seem strange to you but drying laundry, sweetened by fabric softener, resurrects memories of growing up as well. That clean smell speaks to me … it reminds me of the comforts of home life.
Fragrances hold youth. Whenever I inhale the lemony-green celery-like fragrance of mown grass, I am running beneath Friday night lights.
Sometimes a fragrance turns my head. A woman walks by and she and her perfume breathe new life into a long-forgotten memory. I see people who are no more. Gone from this flower-perfumed world they are. Gone for good. And so there’s a down side to fragrances. To me all funeral homes smell the same. A blend of flowers, parlor room mold, and old upholstery wrap me in heavy air and heavy memories. I remember, too, the time I crushed a fingertip and the salty rubbery smell of first aid medical tape. To this day when I smell that tape, I see the blood and broken bones and wince.
One more thing that’s positive and indisputable. When a certain fragrance co-occurs with one of life’s key moments you never forget it. Columbia native Kary B. Mullis received the Nobel Prize for his invention of the polymerase chain reaction, a quick way to copy DNA billions of times. In his Nobel lecture, he recalled the night he worked out the details for this momentous breakthrough. “I was driving up a long and winding road in Mendocino County, California heading for my weekend cabin … the California buckeyes poked heavy blossoms out into Highway 128. The pink and white stalks hanging down into my headlights looked cold, but they were loaded with warmed oils that dominated the dimension of smell. It seemed to be the night of the buckeyes, but something else was stirring.”
Something else, indeed.
“Never forget the sense of smell.” It’s good advice for writers who want to convey emotions and it’s a time machine for those who find themselves looking backwards, an emotional return to the past. And the only ticket required? Just a trace of a certain fragrance. That’s all you need.
This story comes from The Last Sunday Drive—Vanishing Southland, out fall 2019.
Sunday drives carried us past junkyards, past James Dickey’s “parking lot of the dead,” into no man’s land. There they were, wrecks by the score open to the sun and open to my little boy eyes. Wrecks that scared me, that fascinated me with all their colors and randomly parked carcasses, parked seemingly forever. People died in some of the wreckage. Did I know any children left to grieve their parents, seemingly forever? No, but the day came when I knew a girl who left grieving parents behind.
Junkyards. So many cars, so many trucks, so much mangled steel. Junkyards scared me because of my first contact with a wreck. When I was seven, a speeding car lost control in a curve about a mile from home killing a local girl. It so happens I rode the school bus with this dark-haired beauty. It so happens the wreck was in a schoolmate’s driveway. In a case of morbid curiosity, Dad drove me to the scene. Speechless people stood and stared. Shattered glass glittered and littered the road like sequins. The careening car had gashed open the ground and car parts lay scattered like the bones of a luckless dog. As everyone stared, I picked up a round, black knob with one word in white set into it, “Heater.” I slipped it into my pocket. Why? I still do not know. Days later, the brutality that knob participated in got to me. I threw it as hard as I could into the pines, never to be seen again. Thus, did it escape the junkyard.
All these years later, I asked my friend, Eddie Drinkard, if he remembered the accident. I knew he would. “I will never forget it, may have blocked some of it out. It was at night but not late. I think her name was Lucinda Marie. The car hit the culvert at our driveway. I remember her brother coming. I took him into the house to use the phone. Not much talking between us. A few days later, her father put up a white wooden cross where my brother and I would wait for the bus. Don’t think he ever quite got over it.” I remember that cross. Each time the bus stopped at Eddie’s, I stared at it. I know the car responsible for that cross must have ended up in a junkyard. How could it not.
And then many years passed and I began to see junkyards, iron bone yards of abandonment, as a museum. Among the peeling paint, missing hoods and doors, cracked windshields, shattered headlights, and strewn hubcaps, I’d spot old Fords and Chevies, chrome-shining beauties once upon a time become queens ravaged by time, gravity, and sunlight. I’d spot a car with huge fins, a prehistoric shark sent to devour Volkswagon Beetles crushed at the intersection of bad luck and destiny. I spotted wrecks no mortal could live through, a junkyard’s dark side.
For better or worse, junkyards became a necessity, and junkyards are where some ill-fated Sunday drives ended, but you can’t see car morgues liked you once did. Lady Bird Johnson’s Highway Beautification Act required that screens conceal junkyards. More than that, some simply vanished, relocated to parts unknown, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I find strange beauty in the multicolored crushed, twisted, smashed cars and trucks I stumble across. For one thing, they keep the past alive. Seeing the old Plymouths reminds me of Dad’s devotion to Chrysler products and King Richard. I’m sure many a classic ’57 Chevy has been cannibalized and reassembled as a restored beauty. And how many shade tree mechanics found cheap parts in the chain link kingdom where tires dry rot. For many a fellow, a trip to a junkyard was like mining for gold.
No, you just don’t see junkyards like you used to. Back in the day, though, we’d pass an old junkyard and all heads would turn in its direction, drawn by some unknown force. No one said a word, but I know what we were thinking. “How many people died in all those rusting trucks and cars?” Blood and rust, they’re twins, you know. On we drove with many a question lingering in my mind. Junkyards. Strange places.
Today, from the comfort of my writing studio, up rises an image of junkyards as the old folks home for cars and trucks. Their best days done, they find themselves heaped together in this final resting place, forced to be roommates. If each wreck could speak it would recall its favorite trips, its favorite place to park, beneath a chinaberry, perhaps, and the people it ferried across Mother Earth’s face. Perhaps, too, it would reveal its fate … blown engine, head-on collision, obsolescence, or a cancer called rust.
Dickey’s “parking lot of the dead” was Steve Goodman’s “graveyards of rusted automobiles” in the “The City of New Orleans.” As for me, all the colors, collisions, and ghosts make for a morgue of sorts, and I see an end for some synchronized with their car’s demise. Others will ride off into the sunset like some hero in an old Western. Either way, all road lead to junkyards. Just ask Janisse Ray. She knows all too well that wrecking yards will never empty, and she’s right.
RIP, Faithful Ones
I had to see it. I heard it was up North Carolina way, and with the aid of my son-in-law’s Garmin GPS I found it, the resting place of mules and horses. To see this poignant cemetery is to see how urban encroachment chews up farmland. To see it is to witness a changing Southland. Granite tombstones stand in a ridge of woods overlooking I-540. To their back sits a large apartment complex. Farmland no more. Mules and horses no more. A man who loved and appreciated the hardworking animals that kept his farm and his life going buried them with dignity. Well, that was a ways back before combustible engines put mules and horses out to pasture for good.
Mr. Fabius H. Page possibly is buried on this ridge as well. At least the coordinates for his grave will take you there. That’s how we found this wooded graveyard for faithful farm animals. We parked and walked up a wooded ridge. Then we began to see the stones.
“Lulu, Bay Mule, Very Swift, 1902, Age 28”
“Bessie, Driving Mare, Brown, White Face, 4 White Feet, 1903 – 1937”
You’ll find eight other graves here, the resting place of Fab Page’s beloved farm animals. Back then locals knew the man who buried his animals with dignity as Fab. It’s said that Fab’s will stated that his family could not sell the land the cemetery is on. He intended it to be a perpetual memorial and so far it is. It’s not far from the Research Triangle Park. You can stand on this wooded ridge, close your eyes, and imagine what Page’s farm might have looked like. Perhaps a sweep of green pastures stood where the apartment complex and all its cars sit. Over there, perhaps, stood a handsome barn. As for I-540 with all its speeding traffic, we know this. It used to be a dirt road. Every Fourth of July locals would host a horse race there. Now it’s the site of traffic jams and accidents.
You can stand on that ridge with your eyes closed and imagine cattle lowing. You have to concentrate hard, however, to block out the commercial air flights roaring low overhead. You can imagine rows of corn standing green in the sun, but that takes focus too. Asphalt and buildings dominate the land. Wholesale change has arrived full force.
I had a reporter for the Athens Banner Herald, Wayne Ford, write something I hold dear. “Tom Poland is an inquisitive man who keeps an eye out for extravagant chunks of nature, disappearing cultures, and people who are salt of the earth. Change is what Poland touches upon frequently.” Indeed I do and this mule and horse cemetery represents change in a way I have not seen. If you drive the land as much as I do you will see junk yards filled with twisted, crushed, rusting vehicles. You will see, too, forsaken tractors overtaken by vines and weeds here and there. I suppose these are cemeteries too, but none have gravestones like Fab Page’s mules and horses. The close as I have come to such a magnificent place are the handmade monuments at the graves of dogs and cats that were beloved members of the family.
I have no doubt these faithful beasts of burden were members of Fab Page’s family, and it touches me that he erected monuments to them. I hope no one or nothing ever disturbs this resting place. As much as anything it is a memorial to a South the likes of which we will never see again. Each day the land surrounding us dies a little but we fail to take notice.
Thank you, Fab Page. Long may your faithful ones RIP.
On its way to a confluence with that Georgia river entire, the Altamaha, the Ocmulgee River flows through a place I’ve been to five times. The first time I crashed through Macon’s city limits was high school when I went to state in the 440, a track event I washed out, a loser. The second time I went to play Mount De Sales in football. I remember it well. Scored a 70-yard touchdown. The third time I interviewed an attorney, David Higdon, for a book project. The fourth time I went with my family to get legal counsel for my terminally ill Dad from that same attorney, a path that led to disillusionment. The fifth time was cheerier though it had a blue moment. I visited the graves of Greg Allman, Duane Allman, and Berry Oakley the afternoon before spending time with Chuck Leavell of the Rolling Stones, once with the Allman Brothers.
Well, that’s stepping in high cotton as Dad would say, and it’s among my better memories of Macon, but when I reflect on Macon, I think of the Ocmulgee River, the legendary but defunct Capricorn Records, and that long touchdown run. Mostly, though, I think of the Allman Brothers. For me, the Allman Brothers are Macon, Georgia, though they were born in Nashville and honed their sound in Florida, “Yankee South,” as a friend puts it.
Notes strung together with care make memories. How well I remember listening to the Allman Brother’s At Fillmore East in the musty basement of a brick home outside Athens, Georgia. I cranked up “Whipping Post” on a big set of wooden JBL speakers. I hear it as I write these very words. Played “Not My Cross To Bear,” too, and now I hear Greg’s growling delivery.
In the early 1980s a gal named Linda and I saw the Allman Brothers in concert at Columbia, South Carolina’s Township Theater. I watched Greg stand at his Hammond B-3 organ and I must have dreamed it but through the haze I see “Cher” on the drum kit. Had to be a dream. Cher and Greg had long been divorced, but divorce doesn’t kill you. Motorcycles do.
The Devil has a name and it’s Motorcycle. You know, a lot of fellows and gals love riding motorcycles. Not me. I learned way back in ’71 and ’72 that motorcycles kill people. “Duane Allman Nov, 20, 1946 Oct. 29, 1971.”And Berry Oakley’s tombstone, “Our Brother B.O. Raymond Berry Oakley, II, Born in Chicago Apr. 4, 1948, Set Free: Nov. 11, 1972. And The Road Runs On Forever.” I don’t ride because of Duane and Berry. You know that sad motorcycle-setting-free Macon story.
I had long wanted to see Duane and Berry’s graves, side by side they are, and then Greg joined his brother and bandmates. Thanks to a visit with Chuck Leavell I finally got my chance. The afternoon of January 14 I drove through the big iron gates of Rose Hill Cemetery, a place of eternal sleep that overlooks the Ocmulgee River. Robert Clark was with me. The sun was dropping. After wandering about, we stopped to get a sense of where Greg’s grave might be. Looking out the passenger window I saw a large mushroom, red with white spots lying in the grass. It was plastic. The Allman Brothers’ logo contains a large red-and-white spotted mushroom, you should know. We found some directions on a door. We drove downhill, made a right turn and soon came to the Allmans’ resting place. Uphill we walked to where a fellow was finishing up a day of laying bricks in what looked like a small stage. The plot, I’d learn, is being expanded and secrecy shrouds its purpose. No one in the know says much but they forgot to tell a brickmason to be quiet.
“Why are you laying bricks, making a stage,” I asked.
“No, Greg had a lot of children and he wants them to be buried here,” he said. Well, all right now. How much of that is true I just don’t know. I stood there looking through the wrought iron at all the stuffed animals on Greg’s grave, so many I couldn’t tell if he had a headstone. People have left all manner of guitar picks, mushrooms, coins, and rocks on Greg’s fence. A railroad track runs within view of this resting place of three band members. I thought of Sarah Jones, the Columbia native, who was killed by a train during the making of Midnight Rider.
I stared at Greg’s grave as “Multicolored Lady” played in my head. Chuck’s piano stayed with me as I held onto the dead man’s wrought iron. Once again Macon made me blue. Several of my teammates from that Mount de Sale football game are dead. The coaches are dead. Dad is dead. The Macon attorney is dead. The Allman brothers are dead. Poor Sarah whose sun went down while it was yet day is no more.
I like to reflect on things that don’t turn out as I hoped. Now and then I look in James Dickey’s “book of the dead,” my high school annual. On page 35 there it is, words typed in a Roman font, proof of one shining Macon moment. We beat Mount de Sales 13 to zero in 1966, and fifty-three years later I’m still running and remembering Blue Macon.
I will go back. We all need a place that makes us remember things we’d rather forget. For me it is that musical, melancholy city down by the Ocmulgee, that place where brown water runs by a blue town on its voyage to a green, salty sea.
An Honest-To-Goodness Fly Swatter
In Sunday drives’ heyday, air conditioning was gaining momentum but you’d be hard pressed to find air-conditioned stores and homes in rural areas. Oh, you might see a window unit or two but central air was rare. Breezes whirled through windows and screen doors on sultry summer days. Inevitably, flies found their way insides and made themselves at home in the kitchen. It was there, at the hands of my grandmothers, that they met their maker.
Remember honest-to-goodness fly swatters made of screen-wire? My grandmothers wielded those instruments of doom with an Olympic fencer’s skill. How many times did I watch those ladies pull off a trifecta: dispatching three flies with one swat.
My grandmothers didn’t need bug sprays. Nor did they have new-fangled bug zappers. No, they walked around with a screen wire fly swatter in hand. While talking to me their eyes would dart about and a smooth backhanded “swat” sent Mr. Fly to the that great compost pile in the sky. Those ladies had fighter pilot reflexes. They even clobbered flies buzzing in the air.
My grandmothers relied on the real deal. They would have disputed the New Oxford American Dictionary’s definition of “fly swatter” as “an implement used for swatting insects, typically a square of plastic mesh attached to a wire handle.”
Plastic mesh? Please. Screen-wire swatters struck with deadly force and were far more effective than today’s plastic swatters, which flies evade with ease. You see, the little critters detect changes in air pressure and a clunky plastic swatter says, “Here I come” as its thick plastic mesh hurls a wave of air that tips the fly off. “I’m outta here” and off he buzzes. A thin mesh of screen-wire, however, arrives swiftly and silently with no shock wave, converting the fly to a countertop’s version of road kill possum.
Screen wire swatters swat plastic swatters, (say that seven times) but you will be hard pressed to find a genuine screen wire swatter today. All you’ll find are plastic ones. Go online, however, and you can find honest-to-goodness screen wire flyswatters. I suggest you get a few. Someday you will need them.
No visit to my grandmothers’ home was complete without watching those Southern ladies reach for an old-fashioned screen wire flyswatter. Both had radar. A flick of the wrist and a bloody stain marked the spot of the fly’s demise. But now we have plastic swatters not worth a hoot. Flies live to drop specks yet again.
Know what else was good about screen-wire flyswatters? The vanquished fly stuck to the screen where a shake over a toilet bowl buried the critter at sea. When a plastic swatter scores a kill over a slow, dimwitted fly, the departed remains where right it was, albeit wider, thinner, bloodier, and best of all, dead. But now you have to scrape up the mess.
One more thing … Flies and kids make a bad combination. Kids have an annoying habit of standing in an open door, neither going in nor out. This will sound familiar to you baby boomers. “Close the door, you’re letting flies in.” Let ’em in we did and when the flies flew inside, my grandmothers were armed and ready. The war commenced.
The days of smashing flies are behind us. Air conditioning made life more tolerable but it robbed us of color, character, and conflict. The war against flies required screen wire swatters and cotton puffs stuffed in window screen holes. Despite such patchwork measures, pesky, nasty, greasy flies managed to invade the house. It was there that they encountered the original No Fly Zone, and if chaps, as we were called back in my day, got out of line, well, the swatter was good medicine for us too.
A Song For Miss Johnnie
—“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.”