The South Carolina highway between Conway and Marion, like many roads left for dead by interstates in the south, seems lonely and ignored. Few cars travel the faded asphalt anymore, and the shoulders are loose with gravel and overgrown with weeds. The tar filling the cracks in the pavement looks like varicose veins.

2591840756_7c63203facI noticed the beat up Buick pulled off the highway from a half mile away and slowed to look for signs of trouble. Instead, something I haven’t seen in a long time slowly materialized.

Three women dressed in bright print dresses were fishing from the bridge. Each of them wore a straw hat; their dark skin glistened in the summer humidity. Simple cane poles baited with night crawlers were resting on the bridge railing.

As I drove past them, one of the three pulled her pole out of the creek and displayed a bream about the size of a deck of cards. I knew it would go into the white five gallon bucket they brought along for their catch. This wasn’t a sport to them; these ladies were getting dinner.

Turner South television used to run spots called My South. Famous and not so famous people tell what growing up here meant to them. Seeing old women fishing off a bridge for dinner is part of My South. Sadly, images I considered permanent have disappeared, maybe forever.

Bear Bryant and Slim Pickens are long dead, and no one has come close to replacing either one. Pineapple and Spam sandwiches, baseball cards in bicycle spokes, lightning bugs, and swimming holes have vanished.

When I order tea in a restaurant, I’m asked whether I want it sweet. Isn’t it supposed to be served that way? Old country stores with bologna by the slice and a large slab of self-serve cheese are nearly extinct. I wonder what happened to the old men who used to sit by the wood stove and solve all the world’s problems.

Family reunions and church homecomings now feature store bought fried chicken, desserts from the local grocery store, and pasta salads. And there are countless women raising families who have no idea how to make cathead biscuits or a pone of cornbread.

Don’t get me wrong, the world is a better place today than it was when I was a kid. We live longer, understand more, and relate better to each other. I am happy to log onto the computer and read about things I never would have known about just a decade ago and I’d have a hard time surviving on three television channels.

But progress is like being married to a nymphomaniac. You have to take the good with the bad. For every positive step we’ve made, there are reminders we’ve lost our innocence. For every innovation, we had to sacrifice a treasured memory.

Fishing off a bridge on a sleepy back road sounds like Nirvana. So does sitting on the front porch watching the sun set and fireflies appear. Most of us are probably happy to have the cell phone and the satellite dish available when we get bored and will travel the interstate when time is of the essence. I wonder if we can still have both. Or have we progressed too far?

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Mike Cox

Mike Cox

Mike Cox currently writes a weekly column in South Carolina for the Columbia Star called "It's Not a Criticism, It's an Observation." He is trying to grow old as gracefully as possible without condemning the current generation in charge to doom. Each day this task gets harder as the overwhelming evidence mounts. He currently has two published books; Finding Daddy Cox, and October Saturdays. His columns have won three South Carolina Press Association awards since 2003. Mike has three sons and two grandchildren and lives in Irmo, Sc, just outside of Columbia.

5 Comments
  1. Mike as long as there are some of us that have the memories you have described we will have both. After that??? By the way the ladies fishing from the bridge used to like to see me coming with my fishing pole. I knew how to catch fish and would give them to who ever was on the bridge. This hinged on what we were having for supper. When my Father said “lets have fish for supper”, the ladies had to fend for themself.

  2. “But progress is like being married to a nymphomaniac.” That’s a great way to put it.

  3. Terri Evans

    I miss the sound of screened doors closing as they rattle their way back to the frame.

  4. Melinda Ennis

    As we were sitting around the pool at my mom & dad’s house on a hot summer’s day in the small southern town they live in, my father shook his head as my brother, my husband and I all checked our blackberries. He commented that he glad he was retired before the days when he could be reached anywhere, anytime. As you said so well, progress is a mixed blessing. Those same devices free us from constant presence at an office so we can grocery shop, pick up kids and yes, sit by a pool, while continuing to do work (on non-vacation days).
    Nevertheless, something has been lost forever. The times and memories you evoke are indeed as far away as a distant planet. And I despair that the only kind of fishing my kids would know about is if it was introduced as a new game for the Wii. Virtual play has replaced actual. And we know longer no how to keep our work lives and our leisure times totally seperate. How lovely was it when technology was not always in your face. As my husband and I walked down the lovely beach at St. Simons, his shirt pocket vibrated with a blackberry message from work that he felt compelled to sit in the sand and answer. Perhaps he could not have been walking on the beach if he had not been reachable, but it is no longer acceptable in our workaholic society to be unreachable.

  5. Janet Ward

    Beautiful! My fondest childhood memories are staying with my Grandma Grace at “The Farm,” my grandparents’ 100-plus acres on the marsh just off Amelia Island (which no one thought of as Amelia Island. It was Fernandina. “Beach” was added some time in the 70s by newcomers who assumed that, if it weren’t part of the name, no one would know there was a beach there. Which, frankly, would have been fine with the old-timers.) Fishing off the little dock (I once hooked a shark that completely freaked my sisters and brothers and me out before I forgot to lock the line and it got away, taking the entire leader.) Building mud hotels for the fiddlers, which never seemed to appreciate our efforts. Pulling moss out of the trees for Beauty the Cow (until we discovered the connection between moss and chiggers.)

    At the same time, it was only much later that I realized that, while my childhood was idyllic, despite the fact that we were pretty poor, Fernandina at that time, like virtually every other small Southern town, was a much different place for the black folks. They had a separate, very unequal, high school, and signs marked the “colored” drinking fountains at the Nassau County Courthouse. The town’s biggest laundromat had a sign in huge letters that said, “Whites Only.”

    I realize I am harshing everybody’s mellow here, but it’s something I always think about when I think about my childhood.

    Still, I love people’s specific memories, like Terri’s screen door sound. And I will admit that, since Pillsbury came out with its frozen biscuits, I have never made one from scratch.

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