A lot of times—no, every time—I watch the Weather Channel’s radar of the Southeast, my mind goes back to childhood. There, on the green radar map with counties outlined, I look for the land of my youth, Lincoln County.
I know this land so well I can zoom in like Google Earth and see details right there on my TV. I see its homes, stores, and landmarks as I watch a pulsing red, green, and yellow squall line sweep through the county. I see the Homer Legg Bridge and I know whitecaps are kicking up on the windward side. I know rain is washing the dust off the kudzu that covers Mr. Murray Deason’s old storm shelter where my family sought refuge one night.
I see more than the places of my youth nestled in the crook of Clark Hill Lake. I see people. My mind goes back to the Lincoln County I knew as a boy—a world that seemed eternal. There would always be Miss Minnie and JT of Wells Oil Company. And there would always be Mr. Hirsch Wengrow and Dr. Pennington—“Penny Doc”—Mr. Clifford, and Bill Goolsby—neighborhood personalities that would live forever. But time marches on and it takes much with it. So the places and people of childhood in the original world have no choice but to live in memory.
Everything back in childhood engulfed me in an exciting way. Growing up, I saw the world as an immense, far-flung place. (I still do.) Even on a local level, the world loomed big. Augusta seemed like it was 100 miles away, and Atlanta? That seemed like a transcontinental trip. Something about childhood makes places seem farther than they are and things bigger than they are. Case in point, my high school lunchroom seemed as big as an airplane hangar. It seems small now.
Old landmarks don’t just shrink, they disappear too. I still get the feeling something is amiss when I round the curve in Lincolnton where Blackwell’s Store once existed. The old water tower, the one I was afraid to climb and paint “Class of ’67” on, it’s gone.
Growing up, you have no choice but to see the world through the small eyes of a child and for me it made a lasting impact. To this day, the one thing I struggle with is the fleeting nature of people and places. I am always hoping for, always seeking, that old familiarity I had growing up back home in Lincolnton, but I never find it except when I go back home, despite the change that has transpired there. And the city where I now live? Well, it’s hard to grow a sense of place in a city in flux.
But that green radar map, it takes me back in time all right. I wonder whatever happened to old so and so. I try to find him. No luck, or worse, learn that he’s gone for good. A famous writer once wrote “I felt a sudden, terrible disappointment” after going across the country to track down an old friend from the war only to learn he had died. In fact, his old friend had taken his life, piling sad mystery on the lost connection.
A few years ago, I went Christmas shopping at the mall near my house and decided to get a Chic-fil-A sandwich at the food court. After standing in line an eternity, the next problem was finding a place to sit. Couples and families commandeered every table, squeezing this single man out. I walked and walked looking for a place to eat, meanwhile my lunch cooled. Finally, I spotted a fellow sitting alone at a table with a spare chair.
I asked if I could join him and he graciously invited me to have a seat. We sat in silence a bit and then he asked me if I lived close by. “Five minutes,” I said, “but I’m not from here.”
“Neither am I,” he replied.
“Where you from,” I asked.
“Orangeburg, South Carolina,” he replied. Then he said “but that’s not where I grew up. I grew up in Lincolnton, Georgia.”
“So did I!” Immediately we had a bond. For a good while David Lee Norman and I talked about Lincolnton and the people we knew. What’s the chance of two former Red Devil football players sharing lunch in a crowded Columbia mall at Christmas? A website on coincidences and probability gives the odds at 23,000 to one that I’d meet a fellow from my hometown in those circumstances, but it happened.
There’s something about growing up with the sense of place a small town provides that makes the rest of life magical. You are, eternally, star struck.
A few years ago, I went to a unique family reunion, the Rhodes “Fly In” Reunion up near Pistol Creek, not far from Elbert County. Several of my Mom’s cousins taught themselves to fly back in the 1940s, a time when miracles of all sorts were not yet regulated out of existence, and they hold a reunion to celebrate the birthday of a mother long dead. It’s a great event, attended by 300 or so people.
In the early part of the last century, the Rhodes, a hard-working farm family lived in northern Lincoln County beyond Pistol Creek. When World War II swept through the world, military aircraft often flew over their farm. Bobby, the son of John and Eula Rhodes, would stop chopping cotton to watch the planes and dreams of flying filled his head. “I saw one of the planes fly over that bombed and jammed the rudder on the German battleship, Bismarck,” said Bobby. “When I saw a zeppelin, that set me on fire.”
You can trace the Fly In’s true origin back to a 100-year-old tenant shack. In this picturesque cabin, boys destined to become pilots were born in a historic locale. Just three miles away, near the Chennault place, someone robbed the Confederate Gold Train, an event shrouded in mystery ever since, the gold lost in legend. Naturalist William Bartram, whose Travels in Georgia and Florida is a classic of American natural history, explored the area in 1773. Clark Hill Lake, backed up from the Savannah, lies within walking distance of the Rhodes home place. The edge of the lake turns up Indian artifacts, and it’s not unusual to see an osprey share the sky with the airplanes. Nearby is an old slave cemetery. Talk about a sense of place. The setting is rich in history: man’s, nature, and family history.
The Rhodes reunion is a story of family, good Southern food, togetherness, and the nurturing of a sense of place established long ago.
I was talking to Bobby, a reunion organizer, and mentioned that I wanted to write a feature about it. It’s an extraordinary event that takes place in a remote location reminiscent of some Australian Outback post. An air show of sorts takes place as planes of all sorts fly in and land on the grassy strip undulating across gentle swells. Bobby went on to tell me about the interesting people who attend and added that one fellow who comes had been written up in a book about crash landing his jet in Korea.
That revelation stunned me. I knew he could be none other than the ace Phil Colman. My favorite book is Burning The Days by James Salter. Salter, who flew missions with Colman, immortalized him in Burning The Days for his crash landing of an F-86, wheels up, on railroad tracks in Korea. Colman is a double ace with 10 kills to his credit, some in China, and he’s mentioned in Salter’s book more often than anyone, including Robert Redford, Irwin Shaw, and astronaut Ed White, all of whom Salter knew. I had walked right past Colman having no idea he was the legendary pilot I’d read about so many times. It’s truly a magical world when you grow up with a vital yet small sense of place burned into you.
In graduate school at Georgia, I was a ticket agent for Southeastern Stages. I worked with a guy who handled baggage and freight, Keith Strickland, a quiet, shy fellow. Many a night we worked together, saying little. And then I moved to Columbia and forgot him. A few years went by and I was talking to a co-worker about having lived in Athens.
“That’s where the B-52’s are from.”
She went on and on about this band and its recent hits. I checked them out. Imagine my surprise to learn that Keith Strickland was a founding member of the group. The shy, quiet Keith I knew was the animated lead guitarist of “Love Shack” fame. A small world, indeed, and for me, it unleashed a shimmering bit of magic, that of having known a rocker before he was a rocker.
In 2000, I went to the South Carolina Book Festival for a chance to see Mickey Spillane. The tough guy, pulp fiction detective writer of Miller Lite TV commercial fame was making an appearance, and I hoped to glimpse him. At the conference, during a break in the readings, I made my way to the men’s room, which surprisingly was empty. Standing there reading my program to see when and where Spillane was speaking I heard the door open. Suddenly, a man said, “Hey, don’t I know you?”
I turned and there stood Mickey Spillane. “No, Mr. Spillane,” I said, “you don’t know me but I sure know who you are.” It was an astounding coincidence and quite a moment, Spillane and I talking over the divider in a public restroom.
Driving back from Virginia somewhere north of Fayetteville, North Carolina, a car zoomed past me on I-95. Glancing at its tag, as I always do, there it was, “Lincoln County.” I sped up and eased alongside the car hoping to see familiar faces. Disappointment. Total strangers, a man and a woman, she reading, he driving. I found this coincidence startling and though I didn’t know the couple, I knew where they were headed. Home.
Yes, the world seems much smaller when you are older, yet developing an authentic sense of place is impossible in some place where you did not grow up. And so you hang onto what you originally knew, the world of childhood. You move several times in the city, drive here and there, and come into contact with a lot of people—all strangers at first. Nothing extraordinary you think. The world is a mundane place after all. But then, when you least expect it, something startling happens. You come across someone from your hometown. You discover old so and so made it big. And that celebrity writer you were hoping to catch a glance of? Well, he thought he knew you.
Moments like this remind me how magical life is and just how far I’ve come down the road of life from my child’s universe of gargantuan lunchrooms. For me, that road began and ends in Lincoln County—that’s where my enduring sense of place developed. Not all, however, have such a sense.
I interviewed a man over this way for a magazine feature not too long ago. “Where you from,” I asked. “Nowhere,” he replied, “I’m an Army brat. I’ve seen the world.”
I have a dear friend, Noel. Her dad was a Marine fighter pilot, an ace who fought at Guadalcanal. She said she moved so much as a child she got to a point where she didn’t try to make friends. “There was no point,” she said. “We moved all the time, and if we didn’t move, my friends did. Growing up, I always envied people who lived in one place.” As she talked I could hear loneliness dredged up from her youth.
The man I interviewed may have seen the world but I doubt the Weather Channel’s radar affects him like it does me.
A sense of place. We all need it. We all need to feel grounded in one special place. More than 700,000 people live in the metropolitan area surrounding Columbia and sometimes it seems like I know half of them but it’s not home. Home is where the heart is, which means your true home where the people you love most live.
As I write, the Weather Channel’s radar reveals a large storm moving southeast across the length of my native county. Rivulets wash away soil uncovering, perhaps, an arrowhead near my grandmother’s long-burnt home where I wandered fields as a boy. Rain is filling my mother’s fountains, falling onto Buddy Bufford field where I played football, and running into the ponds on my Aunt Vivian’s farm where I fished as a kid. These places are part of who I am. I’m glad I grew up in one place. I‘m glad to have a sense of place that added a bit of magic to my life. And I hope you do too.