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Number of posts: 217
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By Tom Poland:
We love our cars. Just hop in, turn the key, and off we go wherever and whenever we want. Contrast that to mass transit. You go by its schedule and you have little choice as to whom you sit near. It can be, and often is, a less-than-stellar experience.
An email came across my desk last week where a writer described the difficult time she had riding a bus from Columbia to Washington D.C. and back, a 27-hour journey. It involved rude people, an oversexed couple, and ultimately an arrest.
I could relate to her adventure, having ridden a Greyhound from Columbia to Charleston, West Virginia, eons ago. My memories of buses and bus stations, however, come from being on the other side of the ticket window. And what memories they are.
A writer is only as good as his material, and now and then something profound falls into his lap. For close to two years now I’ve been working on a book for the University of South Carolina Press. Early chapters of the book concern the blues …
Frank Beacham, a journalist originally from Honea Path, South Carolina, wrote a penetrating chronicle called “Charlie’s Place.” The story originally appears in his book, Whitewash: A Journey through Music, Mayhem and Murder (available at http://www.booklocker.com/books/939.html). Frank and I exchanged emails, and he granted me permission to excerpt his account of Charlie’s Place and the Chitlin’ Circuit. It’s a story that’s Old South, and it brought back my childhood in several telling ways.
A piece of junk mail from Belk came my way last week promoting a Father’s Day sale. On the cover was a tabletop version of the classic Wurlitzer. For $169.99 you can buy one, plug it in, dock your iPod in it, and behold, you have the iJuke. Rock on.
This marriage of the latest music technology with the classic Wurlitzer set me to thinking. Music and music technology sure have changed. I was just 15 when music technology impressed me the first time. My cousin showed me his car, a used Mercedes. The fact that it was a Mercedes didn’t impress me. No, what impressed me was the fact that his car had a record player in it. It sat in the dash where a floating turntable played 45 RPMs. How it played jouncing along a washboard dirt lane baffles me to this day. I suspect that player scratched many a record.
It was like cutting through steel. I had to get out my electric Black & Decker scissors to cut through the hard clear plastic that entrapped brand new remote-controlled helicopters for my grandsons from North Carolina. That plastic is as tough a substance as I’ve come across, a sort of flexible clear steel. As I cut the helicopters free, I thought, “Man, we had nothing like these when I was a boy.”
And then I went back to the days when toys encased in hard, clear plastic didn’t exist. I went back to the days when we made toys.
As a kid, nothing thrilled me more
In a way, the journey was done for many fine two-lane highways June 29, 1956. That’s the day President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act, the Interstate Act. Eisenhower, a general to the end, envisioned highways, his “broad ribbons,” laden with tanks and troops, and South Carolina got its share.
Fifty-three years, five interstates, and 757 freeway miles later, a grid of steel, cement, and asphalt makes it possible to cross South Carolina and see little of anything other than interchanges, bridges, concrete barriers, and orange safety barrels. Don’t despair. The real South Carolina is still out there. You can find the state’s true face along forgotten byways and back roads. Among those less-traveled routes rolls U.S. 76, once upon a time a cross-state thoroughfare.
Author’s Note: I met Jordan Anderson a little over three years ago. In an era when many young men seem unsure of themselves and wander about with no career or education goals, it’s refreshing to see a young man with clear goals. It’s interesting to note also how NASCAR finds its drivers and future stars today now that the days of dirt lanes and bootleg liquor are long behind us.
In case you haven’t caught up with racer/student Jordan Anderson lately, you’ve got some catching up to do. But that’s not likely to happen on the racetrack where he has a habit of winning or finishing high. Nor is it likely to happen in a college classroom where he’s already established an educational innovation. This young man sets his sights high, and the college classroom is no exception.
Now what’s this title about? I know that’s what you’re thinking. Maybe I didn’t set it up right. Maybe it’s a foul play on words. Oh, my bad. “My bad.” How I hate that expression. With origins in a hip street culture that thinks it’s oh so clever, sayings like that get bandied about by people who should know better. Not long ago I heard Meredith Vieira say “my bad” regarding some blunder she made on the “Today Show.” It would have made my old sixth-grade English teacher, Helen Turner, pull out her hair.
Few things shock the eyes like the quintessential “in-love” couple. I’m talking about an aged, well-heeled gentleman with an extremely young woman on his arm. Extremely young. Their age difference runs into the 50s or more. Thankfully, we run across such a sight just now and then. He, teetering along, proud of his high-heeled possession. She, paying oh so much attention to him. Doting. It all seems, well, it seems fake …
For Southerners, it’s been a snowy winter. A few December flakes teased us, just hominy snow, no accumulation, but then a February blanket of white cloaked the land. And many of us watched the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver, British Columbia, where it snows most nights.
Against that splendid wintry backdrop in a place called Whistler, I saw a Georgian (the far away version) die …
Curious, I wondered how many athletes have died participating in the Olympics. Turns out 18 have. Seven died in action; eleven in an act of terrorism.
1945. The guns fell silent. World War Two had ended. Many GIs and other servicemen returned home and with them came the legend of Kilroy. I was young but I remember hearing my folks and others talk about the ever-present Kilroy. He was here, there, everywhere. A cultural phenomenon, Kilroy became the U.S. super-GI who always got there first, no matter where GIs went.
I’m sure a lot of the veterans back home remember their good friend, Kilroy. He was everywhere, quite a mover. Symbolizing the spirit of the American fighting man who went anywhere in the world to defend freedom, Kilroy went first. Always.
No, the title of this piece has nothing to do with punk rock groups. Quite by accident I stumbled across the Science Channel last night. There it was, a doomsday asteroid in high-definition hurling toward Earth, a catastrophe like no other. Far away in space, this menacing, pockmarked mass of nickel and iron, said the narrator, would end life as we know it someday, that is, if science could not find a way to deflect it.
Some of the best minds in science then discussed what might deflect it and what would fail miserably. All this science took me back to elementary school and Mrs. Freeman’s classes … I remember quite clearly how the curriculum turned on a dime in 1958 …
I was standing by my window/On a cold and cloudy day/When I saw that hearse come rolling/For to carry my mother away. Ruth Ada Habershon wrote the lyrics for that classic gospel song and whenever I see a funeral procession with its hearse leading cars with headlights on, I know someone has gone to “a better home awaiting in the sky.” It’s some soul’s last journey, and I pull over and wait for the procession to pass.
In this hectic world where we rush about fretting about trivial matters, seeing drivers pull over to show their respect to the dearly departed always touches me. Stopping for funerals is an old, Southern tradition, a custom worth preserving, a custom that says a lot about who we are as a people.
My childhood days unfolded in a remarkable manner. They were as simple as a hammer. My family and I were, in a way, cut off from civilization. Woods surrounded our home out in the country, and we had a rudimentary phone: a party line that rarely rang.
The Information Age had yet to materialize and in those uncomplicated days, we had no Weather Channel to tell us days in advance that snow was coming. It either came or it didn’t, and most of time, living in eastern Georgia and far from the mountains as we did, it didn’t. But when it did, well, it provided joy like no other weather can.
Magical mornings. My parents would wake me up. “Look out the window.”
Along with algebra and Latin, we studied woodworking and welding in shop in Lincolnton, Georgia. Mr. John Hawkins, our shop teacher, was jovial and full of facts, and many of his students wore blue corduroy jackets with gold letters, FFA, stitched onto them. One day he told his future farmers something remarkable: if they saw a hawk flying over one of their future fields, the hawk would be there the next day at the same time.
Not wearing a blue corduroy jacket, I didn’t give the hawk business much thought. I forgot my teacher’s words until many years later when I worked as a cinematographer and scriptwriter for natural history films, but Mr. Hawkins was right. All wild things, guided by the unerring rhythms of life, move with deliberation.
Remember the first TV you saw? I do. A small, boxy TV that had a pink, metal cabinet. It just caught two stations ’cause that’s all there were back then. For a long time, we caught the two stations through a rickety antenna strapped to the chimney: Augusta’s WRDW 12 and WJBF 6. TV was pretty simple back then. No color to adjust and just three knob functions: on, off, and channel changer—a clunky, clicking knob as big as your hand.
We’ve come a long ways since then what with color, UHF, cable, satellite, digital TV, high definition, and now Blu-Ray. No more test patterns on all night but no more “Star Spangled Banner” either as stations signed off.
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 […]
Life, Liberty, & Lore
One night talking to a stranger over beers in a tavern so far South it’s not Southern at all, he asked me where I lived.
“Columbia, South Carolina,” I replied.
“Went through basic training there,” he said. “Fort Jackson. It’s the hottest place I’ve been. Hell on Earth.”
The guy had street cred. He lived in Florida’s belly, close to Orlando. He wasn’t far from the truth either. Heat rains down on Fort Jackson, and mugginess steams up from ancient sands. Too far from the Atlantic to catch sea breezes and too flat to enjoy alpine air, Columbia bakes.
Almost cut my hair. It happened just the other day … but I didn’t and I wonder why. These lyrics (and I know you can hear the melody) launch the song by the same name written and sung by David Crosby. A protest song of sorts, it arose to fame in the 1960s, a time when things changed in a hurry. To many, it’s a song about freedom, personal freedom as in the simple act of growing your hair long, and it’s not just symbolic. Young men in North Korea today cannot grow their hair longer than two inches. Imagine that. A lot of folks recall the days of long hair and revolution as an exhilarating, liberating time. Growing your hair long was a sign you were hip, with it, and the longer the better as the musical “Hair’s” lyrics boasted. “Give me a head with hair/Long beautiful hair/Shining, gleaming/Streaming, […]
It was a treat like no other. The whole family would pile into the car and head to the drive-in. Soon Hollywood idols flickered across the silver screen, shooting stars pierced the night, and the aroma of grilled hot dogs and buttered popcorn filled the air. There was nothing like a little movie magic while sitting in your ’56 Plymouth or ’57 Chevy. The drive-in, where Milk Duds reigned supreme, hosted classic movies like East of Eden, Some Like It Hot, Vertigo, Ben Hur, Dr. Zhivago, Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, and goofy horror classics likeThe Blob. David Lean’s Dr. Zhivago holds a place dear in my heart and it wasn’t Lara that thrilled me. Teenagers who borrowed dad’s car found the drive-in an ideal place for dates. At the evenings’ end, corny cartoons warned patrons to replace the speaker to its rack before driving off. Still, many a teen drove off taking a speaker with him, or worse. […]
With Christmas just around the corner, what better time than now to remember the Wish Book. What child didn’t love that book come Christmas. A child’s favorite pages ended up torn and dog-eared, with special toys circled. Dreaming of things Santa might bring, the Wish Book represented many a child’s hope for a big Christmas. Adults saw great temptations and things needed to make life more practical. The Wish Book had it all. It had flimsy paper, was thick as a big city phone book, and served as a mirror of the times. Of course, I’m writing about the Sears, Roebuck catalog. Has anyone seen one lately? No way, unless you stumbled upon one in an attic. The company stopped producing the catalogue in 1993 in response to retailing trends. It marked the end of an era. Georgia writer Harry Crews remembers the catalogue and in a way the catalogue […]
Got wanderlust? Want to visit a cozy Southern city? Slake your desire to travel in Spartanburg, South Carolina, for this Piedmont city nestled against worn ancient mountains reinvented itself. How fitting that Spartanburg’s BMW plant built James Bond’s “Golden Eye” Z3 roadster. As the Germans say, “die Wiedergeburt.”
Yes, Europe has discovered Spartanburg, and so should you. Walk its streetscapes and see how The Renaissance Project reshaped the city’s personality.
Like a sea breeze, Highway 17 blows through a Lowcountry land of plenty. Trailing calabash fragrances, it leaves North Carolina to plunge through rice country, court the sea, cross a modern marvel, and teach us something about nature.
Like the land it journeys, it’s changed. Old plantations became historic sites. Seventeen leads to pretty places aplenty, and that’s good enough for me. Hitch a ride, then, and let’s travel the Ocean Highway.
The Last Old-Growth Bottomland Forest Lives In South Carolina To travel back in time you need only enter a cypress-vaulted cathedral called Congaree Swamp National Park. Here, South Carolina’s last virgin forest stands as tall as any temperate deciduous forest the world over. As civilizations rose and fell, Congaree’s trees have grown outward and upward, some for 800 years, silently pushing their leaves toward the sun. Reflected, refracted, and filtered to a shimmering green, light resonates among the boughs of one of Earth’s highest canopies. Ninety protected tree species—half the number Europe boasts—bequeath their green, carbon-dioxide-inhaling ways to us where world-record trees take their place among California’s redwoods and Yosemite’s sequoias as arboreal legends. Three-hundred-year-old loblolly pines, exceeding 15 feet in circumference and 150 feet tall, tower above a sky-devouring canopy. Before the saws and dams, 24 million acres of lofty bottomland beauty carpeted the East Coast. Congaree Swamp—the one […]
Memories Of A Brotherhood
Not long after the column ran, I received an email from folks I have long known. Their email read in part … “Sometime ago you mentioned that our Lincoln County Historical Park lacked a tenant house. That touched us and inspired us to search for an available tenant house that could be moved there and restored. We found one.
The South is losing a part of its past. Tenant homes: those stately little shacks that provide a glimpse of a vanquished culture. I used to see them everywhere. Elegant little houses resting on rock piles watching over fields like sentinels. Now they are rare, although a backroads drive into farm country still turns one up now and then.
Called saltbox houses, catslides, and pole cabins, they long stood with grace and character in pastures and fields. In their heyday, a sea of cotton surrounded tenant homes come summer. And then change arrived.
A Heavy Sigh For Covered Bridges I remember talk about covered bridges and how pretty they were but I never saw one and I wasn’t sure what they meant by a covered bridge. Covered with what? Snow? Yes, that would be beautiful except it seldom snowed back in Lincoln County. A bridge with a tarp over it? That didn’t sound pretty. The closest thing to a covered bridge to me back in Lincoln County in the 1950s was the Homer Legg Bridge crossing Clark Hill Lake into Columbia County. It had a latticework of steel that knocked out the AM stations in Augusta. That bridge, to me, qualified as a covered bridge … so I thought. Through the years, I continued to hear about covered bridges but never saw an authentic one until Clint Eastwood directed and starred with Meryl Streep in The Bridges Of Madison County. That was on […]
Let The Journey Be Your Destination
You’re on the interstate driving coastward near some no-name place blessed nonetheless by an estuary. Ahead to the left, a flash of white drops into the brine, then climbs, a fish in its talons. A bald eagle! Just then a dieseling eighteen-wheeler parks on your bumper and the rare moment vanishes in a lane shift. The eagle, says legend, is the only animal that can look into the sun, but you’re watching the grill of a Peterbilt. The moment is lost. Nor can you smell tidal backwaters or study endangered wood storks feeding on mudflats when you’re barreling down the interstate, a truck in hot pursuit.
Frost was right. Take the road less traveled. There are roads over here in Palmetto land that go nowhere near big cities. And that’s not bad.
There’s something about being a writer that leads people to confide in me. Think about that a moment. Why tell a writer, a person who uses life itself as raw material, your deepest secrets. But tell me they do, and sometimes their secrets break my heart.
Through my writing and classes I teach, I have come across at least ten women who confided in me just how much they hated their father. They had reason, so they say. Several told me how hard life was with an alcoholic father. Others talked about how abusive their dads were, and some just felt that their father never gave them all they expected, but maybe they expected too much.
That’ll Learn You A standing joke down South … “We were so poor, mama would bleach the coffee grounds and serve ’em as grits the next morning.” Out West, people joked about birds flying backwards during dust storms so they wouldn’t get sand in their eyes. The Dust Bowl and Great Depression were no joking matter to the people who survived them. Affirmation of misery aplenty is out there. A fourth-grade classroom: A teacher worries about a girl in ragged clothes. “You look pale. Go home and get something to eat.” Little girl: “I can’t. It’s my sister’s turn to eat today.” The Oklahoma Panhandle: Static electricity wreaks havoc on the ignition systems of cars. Motorists desperately trying to drive through black, swirling clouds thick with dust go nowhere. That’s the beautiful-ugly thing about the laws of physics. They’re relentlessly consistent. Swirling dust particles, colliding constantly, get all charged up—just […]
It’s 50 days until Christmas, and my mind goes back seven years ago to a June day in Valdosta, Georgia, a hazy Wednesday. I was driving through the slash pines across South Georgia flatlands to Valdosta to interview Bob Clyatt. A defense lawyer, Bob represented employers and insurers. He was on the opposite side of injured workers. I met Bob, a gracious man, my recorder began to run, and a beautiful story unfolded. “I was taking a deposition from an injured worker in Albany,” said Bob, “and the deposition dragged on a long time. I didn’t know his daughter was sitting in the lobby. All of a sudden, the door burst open and here comes his little girl. She was the same age as my youngest child.” It was around Christmas time and Bob noticed that the little girl had dirty clothes and looked like a pitiful ragamuffin. “She ran […]
I had a dog once, Brit. I came out of a bad marriage with nothing but that dog and she was the best thing that happened to me back then. I left with a fortune you could say. She was a Pekingese, grayish-tan, fiercely loyal, and she’d fight a mountain lion for me. In her ninth year, something far worse that a lion confronted her: a baffling disease. I took her to several vets, none could help her, and things kept going downhill. Her final two days were spent in an oxygen tent at a clinic. Dr. Morrison, a tall lanky veterinarian put his hand on my shoulder one summer morning in 1985. “Son, you really love that dog don’t you.” “Yes sir, I do.” “That’s why you’re going to let her go.” And I did. I said the long goodbye and was utterly lost. It was one of the […]
What if you knew you had six months to live? It’s a question I pose to students in a course I teach, “Memoir, Your Life Story.” What might you write about your time in this world? Think about that.
My course is offered in a community college’s evening program. Students range in age from their 30s on into their early 70s. Quite often, many older students have spent a lifetime at some job they couldn’t stand. They’re hungry to learn something new. Restless to leave some mark on the world, they seek a creative outlet. The end of the road is coming and they are on fire to make sense of their life. Writing seems to be the path to take.
And then there’s the other end of the road. I teach students at the University of South Carolina’s School of Mass Communications and Information, (an unnecessary mouthful of words. “Journalism” works so much better.)
It seems we’ve made it through another hurricane season unscathed here in South Carolina. Growing up in landlocked Lincoln County, Georgia, I never worried about hurricanes. I left that to folks on the coast who boarded up windows and checked evacuation routes come the season of wind. Sure, a hurricane might have slung a squall line and some thunderstorms my way, but hurricanes were not to be feared. If anything, downpours from a hurricane’s rain bands brought welcome relief to a long, hot summer. The Southeast lies in the sub-tropics, and along with our alluring Sunbelt days and ways, mint juleps, and mild winters comes a price for coastal dwellers: the tariff comes barreling across the Atlantic from West Africa. Nothing like a hurricane to make meteorologists across the Southeast giddy. At last they have real weather to report. You can’t grow up in the Southeast and not hear the […]
February 12, 2007. 7 a.m. I am standing in a cold, windblown cow pasture with George Clooney, just off Highway 414 near Tigerville, South Carolina. I’m wearing a 1920’s era topcoat, three-piece suit, suspenders, and ancient shoes complete with spats. Topping it all off is a Bowlers hat, favored by Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, and Charlie Chaplain. But the Bowler is not funny. It is hard, heavy, and wearing it all day hurts. It feels like a tightening band of steel, and I will wear it an average of eleven hours a day five straight days come rain, wind, cold, or sun making a film called Leatherheads.
I am an “extra” or as Hollywood puts it a “background artist.”
I have long told my writing students that you never know what an assignment will lead to. While writing a feature on South Carolina’s love affair with the movie industry, I interviewed a casting director, a winsome blonde. A friend of a friend, I knew she would be recruiting the extras for George Clooney’s Leatherheads. “I’ve always wondered,” I mused, “what it’s like to be in a movie.”
I appreciate the education I got in Lincoln County, Georgia. I had good teachers, but being interested in Journalism, I especially remember four teachers: Helen Turner, Lib Estes who taught me as a substitute teacher, Alice Albea, and June Kelly. I look homeward a lot these days, and I find myself recalling what these teachers taught me.
I was hopeless at first. I knew nothing. Helen Turner taught me the difference between a verb and a noun. That’s how lost I was. She introduced me to diagramming sentences and that opened my eyes to the fact that language has architecture. Her reading labs taught me to read quickly but thoroughly with comprehension.
Alice Albea once worked as correspondent for the Augusta Herald and had real-world journalism experience but her true love was literature. Her classes late in the day in a stuffy classroom nonetheless held my attention. She introduced me to Southern writers and that was the beginning of my awareness that the South is the breadbasket of great writers in this country.
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