Not quite a year ago thunderstorms shook the South Carolina Midlands. For those who mark calendars, they rumbled through April Fool’s Day around 4 a.m. Later that morning my friend, Dianne, sent me a text. “We lost Sam last night.” Rains had come to wash away a man’s last earthly footprints.
Said his loving wife, Myra, “a renaissance man left us.” I knew what she meant. Samuel Steven Morton and I traveled a bit of road. I first met Sam officially when he worked as a detective. A neighbor, a huge man with serious issues, was harassing a friend and me. One afternoon he stuck a loaded gun to my chest. I invited him into my living room, a ploy that disarmed him, you could say. “Is that gun loaded, Nick,” I asked.
“Sure,” he said, as he took a round from the chamber.
One winter day he tried to hit me in the head with a fire poker when I stepped out my front door. I dodged it and, again, invited him in. I backed up to my fireplace where my poker rested. Come at me again and I would have knocked him into his grave. For reasons unclear, he spared me harassment from that day on. Later he turned terrorist, calling my friend a dozen times or more from midnight on, every night. He cursed and hurled vulgar insults. On this went—for two years.
We met at a restaurant in Columbia’s St. Andrews section to talk about the crazy neighbor. Despite the gravity of things, we laughed. It took a while but Detective Sam succeeded where all others had failed, or worse, ignored us. The harassment stopped. An inkling that Sam was one of a kind hit me. I liked him immensely. Our paths would cross again.
I’ll turn back the calendar 24 years. “I want to write,” said this burly fellow as he took a seat in my writing class. He succeeded. He wrote four novels and co-authored six anthologies. A 1985 Citadel graduate, he earned a BA in English there, later a Masters in English from James Madison University, dead giveaways of his ambition. He plunged into writing.
If Sam loved anything even remotely approaching his great love for his family, it was his love for the written word. Language brought Sam and me together, fastening us as glue binds a book. We appear in the original volume of State of the Heart—SC Writers on the Places They Love. His friend, Pat Conroy, wrote its foreword.
Sam often said I was his mentor, but I did nothing special. Writers are born, not made, and Sam burst into this world in Rock Hill April 29, 1963 carrying the gift. He brought his word magic to all things he wrote. Consider this self-written 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.” See?
Sam’s blog, “Sunshine,” embraced things dear. “Sunshine contains reflections on the things I know best: writing, wrestling, policing, and life in general with a wife, two kids, and a dog.” 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, had known her since high school. And then, as it happens with us all, life lulls us into complacency. Time passes. For Sam, the years accumulated bringing joys, successes and in time, health issues.
I learned of his heart problems in 2004. Others and I watched his courageous fight against diabetes and heart disease over twelve years. With great relief we saw him conquer one grave situation after another. The comeback kid always beat the odds, but deep inside we knew it could not continue. April 1, 2016 Sam’s broken heart shattered spirits across South Carolina. We expected him to overcome anything, but he took leave of us and his death staggered us. His determination had spoiled us.
He touched all who crossed his path. If he was your friend, you were blessed. If you needed a laugh, you had no worries in the presence of this gentle giant. He was a renaissance man. Consider the paths he trod … deputy, wrestler, public relations writer. Add freelancer, novelist, father, and husband … the list goes on.
I hear there’s a big book signing planned in Heaven, and I believe it. The last two years have been hard on South Carolina readers. God seems to be establishing a writer’s colony up there. Sam sits alongside Pat Conroy, his friend and fellow Citadel graduate, and no doubt Sam talks with the columnist, Ken Burger, whose service was held at the Citadel’s Summerall Chapel. Dot Jackson’s there, her woman’s voice echoes off mountains. Imagine what this writer’s group will write.
Sam Morton lives on in my Memories Hall of Fame. I remember how he brightened a room when he entered it. I recall how people loved to be in his presence. He was fun to be around. He must have made a million friends. Just about everybody knew this man, who as the Patriot, could take down a bad guy yet perform a comedic jump as a ballet dancer for his kids. He possessed range. He lived life wide open and I know he hated to let go. We all hated it. We miss this man who came out of the Upstate.
Now and then in a reflective moment, I see Sam in my classes. His eyes sparkle, and he sits upright, a habit from his Citadel days. He listens; he takes notes. “I want to write,” says this burly, beaming fellow, and write he did. Words and a zest for life bonded Sam and me. I created a character, Detective Morton, in my novel Forbidden Island in his honor. That was ten years ago. Detective Morton lives on but Sammy has left the room. Why people like Sam have to leave us at the age of 56 baffles me. But then there’s a lot I don’t know in this world of ours, but I do know one thing, and I know it for sure. I’ll not see the likes of him again.