Southern Life

Something about summer burns its way into our memory, and it’s not the summer sun either. Summer just seems to be a time for remembering and taking account of things. Remembering things like special life moments, friends, those no longer with us, and moments when some crystallizing event turned memory photographic. Times when you still see the past as clearly as a crackling yellow-blue lightning bolt. For me, and you, too, I bet, there’s that one summer you keep going back to.

We all have a summer that stands out from the rest if we think about it. The other day I asked a friend if any of her summers were special. She was quick to say, “No.” She paused and a shadow crossed her face. “Yes,” she said, “the day daddy told us he was leaving and never coming back.”

And he didn’t.

I spend a lot of time looking backwards these days. Maybe you do too. I think a lot about the people I knew back then more so than those I know today. Sometimes life really does seem like a journey … we’re all just passing through. Friends come and go … places come and go … the only constant is self. Maybe you feel that way too. In the journey that has been my life I keep going back to the one summer that stands out above the rest, the summer of 1967.

It was my last summer of being free and irresponsible. I had graduated from high school and college was four months away. It was, in a real way, my last summer to be what I had always been, a nobody, but you can’t be a nobody all your life.

College and a whole new world awaited me that fall. I worked that summer in Washington, Georgia, at the Almar Rainwear plant, trying to make money to spend in Athens. I carpooled to the plant with Dawkins Holloway, a fellow graduate. We worked in shipping, packing boxes of bright yellow plastic rain suits destined for points I can’t recall. The suits, heat-sealed together, I do remember, would come apart as soon as you put them on. We stole a few.

My plans to room at Georgia with Dawkins that fall came apart too. He married Peggy Culbertson and that sent me to college with random roommates my freshman year, a year that should have been fun but wasn’t.

That summer stands out for other reasons. People were talking a lot about a place called Vietnam. A native son of Lincolnton and friend, whom I played football with, Stanley Scott, had been killed on August 12. The war had seemed far away until Stanley died. We had to wait all summer it seemed for his funeral. I remember the mournful trumpet solo at his service. And then a member of my church, Benny Nelson, got shot up bad in Nam, a burst from a machine gun. He was never the same and died falling from a tree stand while deer hunting.

I had been accepted at the University of Georgia, but the truth is I felt anything but safe. The war seemed closer than ever, and the new life awaiting me was one big question mark. I felt a sort of dread that summer, harboring a sort of emotional seasickness or homesickness. Leaving home for a long time was something I wasn’t good at. I’d never done that. I could not describe the feeling I harbored that summer but it was there, a troubling presence that never took leave.

And then late one afternoon, Mike Bentley, Dawkins Holloway, Charles Lewis (We called him “Zewis”), and I were down at the lake at that little side road opposite Elijah Clark State Park listening to a radio blaring from a car with wide-opened doors. Across the water was South Carolina, a place I knew little about except that you could cross the bridge and buy a beer over there and nobody cared. We skipped rocks across the water.

As we looked for flat rocks and talked much about nothing, a song came over the radio, a haunting dirge-like melody that captured the isolation, uncertainty, and fear within me. From the first mournful organ note of Procol Harum’s, “A Whiter Shade Of Pale” Mike, Dawkins, Charles, and I shut up and walked toward the radio.

The melancholy music and the mysterious lyrics mesmerize me to this day. “We skipped the light fandango,
turned cartwheels ’cross the floor,
I was feeling kinda seasick,
but the crowd called out for more,
The room was humming harder
as the ceiling flew away …”

The non-sensible lyrics to this day of that requiem-like song dredge up that afternoon by the lake. One interpretation for “a whiter shade of pale” was a reference to death, literally turning whiter as in a corpse. It was, in a way, prophetic.

Dawkins is gone. Car wreck. Mike is gone. Heart attack. Charles is gone. Car wreck. I, alone, live to hold onto that moment. The dice roll and some lose. Some survive. Life goes on.

The summer of 1967 would be known as the summer of love, but that didn’t apply to me. I didn’t know anything about hippies, flower power, hashish, and I didn’t protest anything. I just think of that summer as my last spurt of youthful abandon. After it, life was never the same. Life wouldn’t change dramatically, but a series of small changes and new directions, step by step by misstep, accumulated and in the long run made for dramatic change. Marriage. Children. Divorce … and then the tragedy repeats.

Music surely made that summer memorable. Earlier in June, just a few days after I had graduated from high school, an afternoon occurred that lives in me still. Like a surreal scene from an old movie, sepia-toned with splashes of color here and there, a wavering scratch line running its length, that afternoon plays in my mind. I was working on my first car, a 1961 Corvair, a white four-door car that ran some days and some days didn’t. On this day it didn’t. Hearing a car slow down on the Augusta Highway, I turned from the rear engine compartment where I was working, and down the driveway came two angels: Cheryl Stewart and Margaret Harper, two of the most beautiful girls I remember from my youth. Dashing from the car, Cheryl held an album; Margaret shouted, “You have got to hear this now.”

The album they held would change everything. We played it all afternoon. The British Invasion had turned American music on its ear, but “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” was about to change the world. The Beatles, weary of live performances, abandoned the stage for the studio and this masterpiece, the brainchild of Paul McCartney produced by George Martin, came out of the Abbey Road Studios to storm the world.

Clothes, value shifts, hairstyles, the way albums would be recorded, the drug culture, protests, all of that seemed to burst across the sky when “Sergeant Pepper” hit the airways. My Mom remarked that just when I was to go to college and look my best in preppy clothes, the era of long hair, bell-bottoms, and Navy-issue work shirts and tie-dyed T-shirts took over. Suddenly, you didn’t wear shoes; you wore sandals made from truck tires. But you can’t wear stuff like that forever. Thus began for me that summer, a long road of searching for an identity. You can’t be a nobody all your life.

For me and for many others, music, the loss of innocence, and pivotal life changes all came together that summer. I was forced to meet and adapt to people I had not grown up with, people who had always been and would always be different from me.

In life we come across moments we just can’t forget; we can’t exactly say why those moments matter but they do. Deep inside, we sense that we took a step in a new direction, that of becoming who you would ultimately be in those moments. For me, it was the summer of 1967. War, death, music, youth, the loss of friends, self-identity, and more bubbled and boiled in a broth where somehow the person I was to be was cooking up. It just took a lot of time to make sense of it all.

I’m sure that you, too, can point to one summer as more memorable, more meaningful than any other. Where were you when that one unforgettable summer put its stamp on you? And what did it make of you?

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Tom Poland

Tom Poland, A Southern Writer – Tom Poland is the author of twelve books and more than 1,000 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. Tom grew up in Lincoln County, Georgia, where four wonderful English teachers gave him a love for language. People first came to know Tom’s work in South Carolina Wildlife magazine, where he wrote features and served as managing editor.Tom’s written over 1,000 columns and features and seven traditionally published books. Among his recent books are Classic Carolina Road Trips From Columbia, Georgialina, A Southland, As We Knew It, and his and Robert Clark’s latest volume of Reflections of South Carolina. Swamp Gravy, Georgia’s Official Folk Life Drama, staged his play, Solid Ground in 2011 and 2012.He writes a weekly column for newspapers and journals in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture and speaks often to groups across South Carolina and Georgia.Tom earned a BA in Journalism and a Masters in Media at the University of Georgia. He lives in Columbia, South Carolina where he writes about Georgialina—his name for eastern Georgia and South Carolina. Visit my website at www.tompoland.net Email me at [email protected]