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By Tom Poland:
I’m burnin’, I’m burnin’, I’m burnin’ for you —Blue Oyster Cult
Against a backdrop of clinking glasses and Motown’s “Baby Love,” TVs around the bar flashed breaking news—an airliner had crashed. The conversation shifted from football rivalries to death and friends who had recently crossed the Great Divide. That led to insurers’ euphemistic “final expenses.”
That’s right. I chose a five-dollar word for saying what 50-cent “forgotten” says, for I come to exalt that legendary offspring of a female horse and donkey. The left-behind mule helped build the South and did so quietly without polluting the air. Then the combustion engine came along, and abandonment became the mule’s fate. It had already been condemned to death in many a story for it’s been said no Southern story is complete without a dead mule…
banished to the forgotten
All burned houses look alike, a jumble of ashes, blackened metal, and charred wood. If you know the house that burned, however, you see ghosts. Just before Thanksgiving, my sister called—Grandmother’s home had burned to the ground. A flood of memories washed over me, like a time-lapse film where clouds stream overhead, dreamy and surreal.
Ironic that it burned two days before Thanksgiving…
new neighbor from the west
First sighting, a hazy afternoon near the Georgia-South Carolina border. Driving east on Highway 221 toward Clarks Hill Dam, I spotted a gaunt, leggy, yellow dog loping along the left shoulder. As I approached this wild canine, it darted across the road right in front of me, looking back as if to say, “That was easy.”
“That’s a coyote,” I thought. I had seen one before. Well, maybe. I live on the edge of the largest forest in a city’s limits in the eastern United States. Lots of wildlife around these parts. Deer, bald eagles, and omnipresent opossums. Raccoons, of course. Running a trail here, I spotted a tawny dog…
passion for preservation
An Unsung Historian Makes A Difference
If “Big Sky Bill” leads you to believe Bill Fitzpatrick hails from Montana, you’re wrong. Bill was born in Poughkeepsie, New York, but has spent most of his life in the South. After earning an MBA from the University of South Carolina in 1978, Bill chose to stay in South Carolina. He lives in Taylors. So what’s behind the Big Sky connection? He likes Big Sky Ski Resort in Montana because of the great ski weeks he and his daughter have had there near Bozeman.
Every Job You’ve Had, What Did It Teach You?
A Friday evening. In a restaurant where soft music and hard drinks make good neighbors, the regular crowd shuffled in as Billy Joel famously wrote. People took their seats at the bar and each person’s week took center stage. A woman lamented that we spend a third of our life working, prompting Mr. Wise Guy to pipe up. “I should have been born rich instead of so good looking.” That tired line didn’t fit. Still, we knew what he meant…
tallulah falls gorge, ga
When the first cool morning of October serves notice that summer heat really is gone, I recall family trips to Highlands, Cashiers, and Brevard, North Carolina. Seeing mountain forests cloaked in reds, yellows, and oranges, enjoying a breakfast of ham, grits, and redeye gravy, and taking in the wondrous sights of the mountains were fall rites during my youth. To this day, you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn’t love fall and its cavalcade of colors more than I do. It’s part of my heritage.
each a time capsule
In Part I, we learned that life’s concerns three-quarters of a century ago were not that different from today’s interests. What strikes me most about these letters is how differently people communicate today. We send emails with the click of a mouse and they arrive in seconds. People back in 1944 put a lot more effort into their letters. And they were patient. They waited and waited and waited to hear from loved ones and a walk to the mailbox was a suspenseful time. Envelope and parchment held hopes and dreams and more. At times receiving a letter was a crushing experience. We’ve all heard about “Dear John” letters.
the deceased speak
“Letters to and from the front lines were a lifeline for service men and women fighting in World War II. Few things mattered more to those serving abroad than getting letters from home, ‘mail was indispensable,’ one infantryman remembered. ‘It motivated us. We couldn’t have won the war without it.’ The mail, whenever it arrived, also helped reassure the worried families of servicemen back home.” – “The War, Letters & Diaries,” PBS
We were on a mission and there we stood at the dead end of a long Lowcountry road in searing heat. Anonymous Mysterious Florida Woman, Robert Clark, and yours truly were waiting on a ferry. Standing too long in a roasting September sun can evaporate resolve, but not ours. September no doubt pilfered some July heat. These days, it’s as hot as the hinges of … well, you know, and especially so where the continent runs into the sea, but the heat be damned. We were about to cross the Intracoastal Waterway and set foot on primitive South Island.
loved by all who knew her
My daughters’ last grandparent died last week. The call came in at 7:45 in the morning August 24. My daughter, Becky, delivered the sad news. “Daddy, grandmom died.”
Katherine Crane, “Kitty,” Ross had passed away August 23 near Athens. She was 91.
For many, losing your last surviving grandparent is a prelude to your parents’ departure to the Great Beyond. Call it training. The death of pets and grandparents paves the path to that sad day when we sit by the graveside and bid a parent farewell. That’s the route life carved out for others and me …
When I was twelve, my first regular job was working in Dad’s saw shop on Saturdays. Back then the shop was a tin building with no insulation. Summers broiled its tin. Winters chilled its concrete floor. Neither heat nor cold stopped pulpwooders from bringing their dead and dying chainsaws to Dad’s shop where he and Bobby Cooper revived them. Before they could work miracles with vices, screwdrivers, and wrenches, it fell upon me to remove the gummy black pine resin from covers protecting the saw’s inner workings. They couldn’t work on the saws until I cleaned and dismantled them…
My house is starting to look like Mom’s. Here’s the painting the late Jim Harrison signed for her. Here’s my portrait as a young man that long hung in what we called the “Christmas room.” Over there on the sofa is a shimmering gold, green, and red throw I gave her for Christmas before illness plagued her. By the TV console is her end table and blue china lamp. Beneath the lamp stands a beautiful milky white vase with a pair of partridges painted upon it, and by it are matching blue porcelain music boxes.
a bit of nostalgia
One usually arrives early and sits patiently. Others file in slowly, leaning on walkers. Some carry oxygen tanks. Many come in wheelchairs, a rolling procession that looks like a car race just as the caution flag comes out. Some amble in using canes and the newer style walking sticks, the kind you can stand on its own. One or two, perhaps, walk in unaided as they have done all their life. What is their secret?
They live in homes that generally lean on nature for their names. Words like leaf, forest, oak, pine, woods, laurel, spring…
Real Food, Done Real Good
I went down to the crossroads, got down on my knees, and prayed. Thanks for such great food, that is. Robert Johnson, King of the Delta Blues Singers, went down to the crossroads, to deal with the devil who shot up from the ground to confront him. Me? I went down to the crossroads where wicked chickens lay deviled eggs.
The crossroads? SC Highways 185 and 284, respectively known as the Due West Highway and Trail Road. Locals refer to it as Saylors Crossroads…
sweating the sermon
On March 22, I journeyed across Georgialina to Washington, Georgia, to speak to the Kiwanis Club. Prior to speaking, Mr. Steve Blackmon gave me a tour of seven historic homes that had something unique in common. All had been moved in total or in part to their current location. Expect a column on that soon.
Steve reads my columns and he knows that I often write about things that are no more, and so he gave me six unique gifts: vintage handheld fans that had been used long ago in my hometown. You just don’t see fans in church anymore…
A boyhood year spent paralyzed and getting scalded in a kettle of boiling water must do strange things to the mind. Harry must have considered himself a freak. In fact, he would devote his career to writing about freaks. Maybe you’ve heard of Harry Eugene Crews. He came into this world June 7, 1935 in Alma, Georgia and he left it March 28, 2012 in Gainesville, Florida. This son of an indigent sharecropper in Bacon County ascended to writer in residence at the University of Florida. That’s more than remarkable. Were Crews alive, he’d be approaching his 81st year.
life’s good in the midnight garden
Savannah has a strong heritage when it comes to books, authors, and writers. Published in 1994 by Random House, John Berendt’s Midnight In The Garden of Good and Evil shone a strong light on Savannah in the mid to late 1980s.
The book centered loosely around internationally known antiques dealer Jim Williams’s shooting of male hustler Danny Hansford in May 1981. It covered the four murder trials that took place over a span of eight years. Though Williams was acquitted when the dust settled, readers for the most part took great joy in the book’s characters drawn from every level of society…
Part One left us in the Edgefield General Store, a place with something for everyone, an old fashioned soda fountain, gourmet items, and the talented services of Maine the florist. It was there, near the front door, where two fellows out of Barnwell ambled in claiming they had found a pot made by Dave the Slave. Nancy Gilliam referred them to Old Edgefield Pottery around the corner. Off they went, would-be art peddlers, seeking fame and fortune.
I’m making my way to Edgefield to attend Edgefield Camellia Club’s annual Camellia Tea. As soon as I take Exit 18 onto Highway 19, everything changes. I-20’s bland corridor of cars, trucks, and tedium gives way to thick, green cedar groves, sprawling pine-edged fields, stately avenues of oaks, an abandoned home or two, historic plantations, horses, and a curious collection of what appears to be forsaken 18-wheelers in a powerline right-of-way.
My goal is a leisurely one. Saunter around Edgefield a bit and take photos and make mental notes…
It’s so damn hot, I can’t stand it. My fine seersucker suit is all soaking wet. —The Devil, Don Henley’s “The Garden of Allah.”
Back on January 23 at 11:00 a.m. snowflakes fluttered from a cold, sunny sky. The startling blend of blue and white brought a Southern legend to mind. How nice it’d be to don a puckered, blue-and-white cotton suit and sashay out into a steaming Dog Day afternoon. Times were a Southern gentleman worth his salt would not be without a seersucker suit. Drifts of dust pile up from years worn and gone and the Grim Reaper’s relentless harvest takes its toll…
beautifully preserved the past
Like dogs with a penchant for roaming, they chained themselves to a wall. Tethered to brick walls above the ground with a brush and bucket of paint in their hands, these daring artists had a mission. Paint an advertisement onto the side of a building. They called themselves wall dogs and some claimed they worked like dogs. I suspect they loved their work and I am certain wall dogs’ ghost signs make our world more mysterious, more beautiful.
You’ve seen ghost signs, an old-fashioned advertisement painted onto a rough and unforgiving canvas, a brick wall…
a clark & poland special
Robert Clark and I were on the road running down a story, a story about land, a farmhouse, and tomatoes, a story of war, old ways, and survivors of sorts. On a hot, humid July morning we abandoned I-20 for Longs Pond Road and after a back road or two arrived at a farmhouse near the community of Boiling Springs. Two big blackjack oaks stood out front. Out back, a handsome, clapboard smokehouse looked lonely, its fellow outbuildings long-fallen comrades…
Hillsborough, NC Could Have Been Talladega. It makes for a good story. Back in the early 1950s men in Hillsborough, North Carolina, could see stockcar races for free. Why buy a ticket when you had a free seat in the air. All they had to do was shimmy up a tree edging a fence at the second turn and they had a grand view of the .9-mile dirt oval. That plan carried a bit of risk but all was fine as long as the drivers didn’t spin out. Then the inevitable happened.
lake city’s gift
Writer’s Journal, Tuesday, April 28 — The mission? Check out a town transforming itself. The destination? Lake City, a town first known as Graham’s Crossroads. To get there, I take a back road as soon and as far as I can, Highway 521. Therein lies a tale of men and soil and transition and transformation.
Once upon a time, many a cigarette shot out of the earth here. And then a shadow fell over this land that grew bright leaf…
walking among ghosts
Saturday, March 28, the day before we laid Mom to rest, was busy. People bringing food, funeral service details, and other matters kept us on the go. Later, as things settled down, I felt the need to spend time alone and the best place to do that was in Double Branches on Aunt Vivian’s farm. It was a beautiful day, the sky a deep blue. As I drove to Double Branches, wonderful childhood memories returned. As a boy, I spent many a day there fishing in the ponds, exploring the pastures and woods, riding an old mule, and playing baseball with childhood friends Jabe, Joe Boy, and Sweetie Boy.
It’s been called the best country store in South Carolina. You can buy Virginia cured hams there, and you can buy gas, diesel, propane, shotgun shells, wrenches, and frying pans. Why you can even buy hog heads for headcheese, red hash, fig jam, hoop cheese, Blenheim’s Ginger Ale, and cheap wine there. As country stores in this part of the South go, it’s famous. Its fame, in fact, earned it a spot in the esteemed Southern magazine, Garden & Gun. So, if you have a hankering to see a genuine survivor, an honest-to-goodness country store, get in your car and drive US 521 to Salters, South Carolina…
The first time I heard the phrase, “the Information Age,” I wasn’t sure what it meant. The best I could figure it meant an explosion in knowledge was on the way. That, it so happens, was true. Two weeks ago I came across this strange unpronounceable word, “paraskevidekatriaphobia.” I googled it and found an online dictionary that pronounces it. It has nine or ten syllables. I gave up trying to determine just how many but it’s a lot. (Read on if you want to know the word’s meaning.) For sure we have easier ways to learn things now, but “the Information Age,” to me means something else. People don’t talk on the phone much anymore. Maybe we are entering the Antisocial Age.
Clearing away the receipts, letters, and documents that cover my desk I came across my own business card with a woman’s name, Pat, and phone number on the back. It brought back a lot of memories. It’s not what you think. It’s a true story that goes back a ways.
I met Pat seven years ago. With no family in town, Pat, like many others, gathered with others at a neighborhood pub some evenings for conservation, a way to keep loneliness at bay. (For those who work all day only to face an evening alone, 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. are the loneliest hours of the day. Meeting others provides a balm.)
reflections of the south
HIGHWAY 501 SC: April. Somewhere near Aynor. Having wrapped up a photo shoot in old Ocean Drive, we drive homeward through wind-driven coastal plain silt. Though dust devils obscure 501, a shimmering red and green mirage breaks through. But it’s no mirage. It’s remembrance. Winds subside, sands drop, and Dean’s Produce emerges next to a cornfield mown to beard-like stubble. Dean’s stand of glinting tin and yellow pine glows with honey, but the incandescent red and green jams gleam like St. Elmo’s fire.
First came the cars. Then the summer vacation stormed America in the late 1940s, becoming an institution that drove more car sales and vacation rentals. And it did something else. It fired up the imagination of people stuck on the road to “there.” Dreamers galore created roadside attractions to tap into the coins rolling down the road. All these years later, all across the United States, in the middle of lackluster nowhere, you’ll come across these wayside-hijacking places. Once upon a time, their spectacles gave America’s highways a bit of character, a rest stop kids refused to let their parents pass.
photo of the week
While men slumber, daring men trawl off the coast. Through dusk, midnight, into dawn their boats dance upon waves, major and minor. But what if a rogue wave or something gone awry scuttled an ill-fated trawler long ago. Does this surreal daybreak reveal that ghostly trawler? Could it be some phantom or mirage, a Fata Morgana?
Look again. It is there absolutely true and believable. High tide has tempted captain intrepid to sift for crustaceans close to shore. To his west, a colossal curl of wind-borne gravity-stricken saltwater topples and the greatest white noise—falling surf—reveals Earth’s great exhaling.
what might yours say?
Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful, lest you let other people spend it for you. — Carl Sandburg
In my explorations along back roads, deep woods, and left-behind places, I come across forgotten graveyards. Their tombstones, like tragic figures in some sad drama, long ago surrendered to weathering. Stones cut from rocks softer than granite appear to melt. Their epitaphs, devoid of sharp edges, a bit chalky, and softened by time and the elements prove difficult to decipher, their words illegible…
grandma's weapon of choice
The New Oxford American Dictionary defines “fly swatter” as “an implement used for swatting insects, typically a square of plastic mesh attached to a wire handle.” Really? I beg to differ. An honest-to-goodness fly swatter is made of screen-wire. Remember those? Both my grandmothers wielded those instruments of doom with an Olympic fencer’s skill. They were pros. How many times did I watch those ladies pull off a trifecta: dispatching three flies with one swat.
black sheep bootlegger
In the riverbed between Edgefield County, South Carolina, and Lincoln County, Georgia, a copper still sleeps in the ooze gluing two states together. That still, the last vestige of a moonshiner’s art, belonged to my grandfather. How it ended in the Savannah River is a tale of brotherly salvation.
Every family—if it will admit it—shuns some relative from its past. Mine is no exception…