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 Lincoln County I knew as a boy—a world that seemed eternal. There would always be Miss Minnie and JT of Wells Oil Company. And there would always be Mr. Hirsch Wengrow and Dr. Pennington—“Penny Doc”—Mr. Clifford, and Bill Goolsby—neighborhood personalities that would live forever. But time marches on and it takes much with it. So the places and people of childhood in the original world have no choice but to live in memory.

Everything back in childhood engulfed me in an exciting way. Growing up, I saw the world as an immense, far-flung place. (I still do.) Even on a local level, the world loomed big. Augusta seemed like it was 100 miles away, and Atlanta? That seemed like a transcontinental trip. Something about childhood makes places seem farther than they are and things bigger than they are. Case in point, my high school lunchroom seemed as big as an airplane hangar. It seems small now.

Old landmarks don’t just shrink, they disappear too. I still get the feeling something is amiss when I round the curve in Lincolnton where Blackwell’s Store once existed. The old water tower, the one I was afraid to climb and paint “Class of ’67” on, it’s gone.

Growing up, you have no choice but to see the world through the small eyes of a child and for me it made a lasting impact. To this day, the one thing I struggle with is the fleeting nature of people and places. I am always hoping for, always seeking, that old familiarity I had growing up back home in Lincolnton, but I never find it except when I go back home, despite the change that has transpired there. And the city where I now live? Well, it’s hard to grow a sense of place in a city in flux.

But that green radar map, it takes me back in time all right. I wonder whatever happened to old so and so. I try to find him. No luck, or worse, learn that he’s gone for good. A famous writer once wrote “I felt a sudden, terrible disappointment” after going across the country to track down an old friend from the war only to learn he had died. In fact, his old friend had taken his life, piling sad mystery on the lost connection.

A few years ago, I went Christmas shopping at the mall near my house and decided to get a Chic-fil-A sandwich at the food court. After standing in line an eternity, the next problem was finding a place to sit. Couples and families commandeered every table, squeezing this single man out. I walked and walked looking for a place to eat, meanwhile my lunch cooled. Finally, I spotted a fellow sitting alone at a table with a spare chair.

I asked if I could join him and he graciously invited me to have a seat. We sat in silence a bit and then he asked me if I lived close by. “Five minutes,” I said, “but I’m not from here.”

“Neither am I,” he replied.

“Where you from,” I asked.

“Orangeburg, South Carolina,” he replied. Then he said “but that’s not where I grew up. I grew up in Lincolnton, Georgia.”

“So did I!” Immediately we had a bond. For a good while David Lee Norman and I talked about Lincolnton and the people we knew. What’s the chance of two former Red Devil football players sharing lunch in a crowded Columbia mall at Christmas? A website on coincidences and probability gives the odds at 23,000 to one that I’d meet a fellow from my hometown in those circumstances, but it happened.

There’s something about growing up with the sense of place a small town provides that makes the rest of life magical. You are, eternally, star struck.

A few years ago, I went to a unique family reunion, the Rhodes “Fly In” Reunion up near Pistol Creek, not far from Elbert County. Several of my Mom’s cousins taught themselves to fly back in the 1940s, a time when miracles of all sorts were not yet regulated out of existence, and they hold a reunion to celebrate the birthday of a mother long dead. It’s a great event, attended by 300 or so people.

In the early part of the last century, the Rhodes, a hard-working farm family lived in northern Lincoln County beyond Pistol Creek. When World War II swept through the world, military aircraft often flew over their farm. Bobby, the son of John and Eula Rhodes, would stop chopping cotton to watch the planes and dreams of flying filled his head. “I saw one of the planes fly over that bombed and jammed the rudder on the German battleship, Bismarck,” said Bobby. “When I saw a zeppelin, that set me on fire.”

You can trace the Fly In’s true origin back to a 100-year-old tenant shack. In this picturesque cabin, boys destined to become pilots were born in a historic locale. Just three miles away, near the Chennault place, someone robbed the Confederate Gold Train, an event shrouded in mystery ever since, the gold lost in legend. Naturalist William Bartram, whose Travels in Georgia and Florida is a classic of American natural history, explored the area in 1773. Clark Hill Lake, backed up from the Savannah, lies within walking distance of the Rhodes home place. The edge of the lake turns up Indian artifacts, and it’s not unusual to see an osprey share the sky with the airplanes. Nearby is an old slave cemetery. Talk about a sense of place. The setting is rich in history: man’s, nature, and family history.

The Rhodes reunion is a story of family, good Southern food, togetherness, and the nurturing of a sense of place established long ago.

I was talking to Bobby, a reunion organizer, and mentioned that I wanted to write a feature about it. It’s an extraordinary event that takes place in a remote location reminiscent of some Australian Outback post. An air show of sorts takes place as planes of all sorts fly in and land on the grassy strip undulating across gentle swells. Bobby went on to tell me about the interesting people who attend and added that one fellow who comes had been written up in a book about crash landing his jet in Korea.

That revelation stunned me. I knew he could be none other than the ace Phil Colman. My favorite book is Burning The Days by James Salter. Salter, who flew missions with Colman, immortalized him in Burning The Days for his crash landing of an F-86, wheels up, on railroad tracks in Korea. Colman is a double ace with 10 kills to his credit, some in China, and he’s mentioned in Salter’s book more often than anyone, including Robert Redford, Irwin Shaw, and astronaut Ed White, all of whom Salter knew. I had walked right past Colman having no idea he was the legendary pilot I’d read about so many times. It’s truly a magical world when you grow up with a vital yet small sense of place burned into you.

In graduate school at Georgia, I was a ticket agent for Southeastern Stages. I worked with a guy who handled baggage and freight, Keith Strickland, a quiet, shy fellow. Many a night we worked together, saying little. And then I moved to Columbia and forgot him. A few years went by and I was talking to a co-worker about having lived in Athens.

“That’s where the B-52’s are from.”

She went on and on about this band and its recent hits. I checked them out. Imagine my surprise to learn that Keith Strickland was a founding member of the group. The shy, quiet Keith I knew was the animated lead guitarist of “Love Shack” fame. A small world, indeed, and for me, it unleashed a shimmering bit of magic, that of having known a rocker before he was a rocker.

In 2000, I went to the South Carolina Book Festival for a chance to see Mickey Spillane. The tough guy, pulp fiction detective writer of Miller Lite TV commercial fame was making an appearance, and I hoped to glimpse him. At the conference, during a break in the readings, I made my way to the men’s room, which surprisingly was empty. Standing there reading my program to see when and where Spillane was speaking I heard the door open. Suddenly, a man said, “Hey, don’t I know you?”

I turned and there stood Mickey Spillane. “No, Mr. Spillane,” I said, “you don’t know me but I sure know who you are.” It was an astounding coincidence and quite a moment, Spillane and I talking over the divider in a public restroom.

Driving back from Virginia somewhere north of Fayetteville, North Carolina, a car zoomed past me on I-95. Glancing at its tag, as I always do, there it was, “Lincoln County.” I sped up and eased alongside the car hoping to see familiar faces. Disappointment. Total strangers, a man and a woman, she reading, he driving. I found this coincidence startling and though I didn’t know the couple, I knew where they were headed. Home.

Yes, the world seems much smaller when you are older, yet developing an authentic sense of place is impossible in some place where you did not grow up. And so you hang onto what you originally knew, the world of childhood. You move several times in the city, drive here and there, and come into contact with a lot of people—all strangers at first. Nothing extraordinary you think. The world is a mundane place after all. But then, when you least expect it, something startling happens. You come across someone from your hometown. You discover old so and so made it big. And that celebrity writer you were hoping to catch a glance of? Well, he thought he knew you.

Moments like this remind me how magical life is and just how far I’ve come down the road of life from my child’s universe of gargantuan lunchrooms. For me, that road began and ends in Lincoln County—that’s where my enduring sense of place developed. Not all, however, have such a sense.

I interviewed a man over this way for a magazine feature not too long ago. “Where you from,” I asked. “Nowhere,” he replied, “I’m an Army brat. I’ve seen the world.”

I have a dear friend, Noel. Her dad was a Marine fighter pilot, an ace who fought at Guadalcanal. She said she moved so much as a child she got to a point where she didn’t try to make friends. “There was no point,” she said. “We moved all the time, and if we didn’t move, my friends did. Growing up, I always envied people who lived in one place.” As she talked I could hear loneliness dredged up from her youth.

The man I interviewed may have seen the world but I doubt the Weather Channel’s radar affects him like it does me.

A sense of place. We all need it. We all need to feel grounded in one special place. More than 700,000 people live in the metropolitan area surrounding Columbia and sometimes it seems like I know half of them but it’s not home. Home is where the heart is, which means your true home where the people you love most live.

As I write, the Weather Channel’s radar reveals a large storm moving southeast across the length of my native county. Rivulets wash away soil uncovering, perhaps, an arrowhead near my grandmother’s long-burnt home where I wandered fields as a boy. Rain is filling my mother’s fountains, falling onto Buddy Bufford field where I played football, and running into the ponds on my Aunt Vivian’s farm where I fished as a kid. These places are part of who I am. I’m glad I grew up in one place. I‘m glad to have a sense of place that added a bit of magic to my life. And I hope you do too.

###

Tom Poland

Tom Poland, A Southern Writer – Tom Poland is the author of fourteen books, 550 columns, and more than 1,200 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. Among his recent books are Classic Carolina Road Trips From Columbia, Georgialina, A Southland, As We Knew It, Reflections of South Carolina, Vol. II, and South Carolina Country Roads. Swamp Gravy, Georgia’s Official Folk Life Drama, staged his play, Solid Ground.

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 to groups across South Carolina and Georgia. He’s the editor of Shrimp, Collards & Grits, a Lowcountry lifestyle magazine.
Governor McMaster conferred the Order of the Palmetto upon him October 26, 2018 for his impact upon South Carolina through his books and writing because “his work is exceptional to the state.”

Tom earned a BA in Journalism and a Masters in Media at the University of Georgia. He grew up in Lincolnton, Georgia. He lives in Columbia, South Carolina where he writes about Georgialina—his name for eastern Georgia and South Carolina.

Visit Tom's website at www.tompoland.net. Email him at [email protected].

21 Comments
  1. Nice way to start a Sunday, Tom. As usual, you hit a nerve. I, too, was fortunate to grow up in a small southern town in the forties and early fifties – Summerville, South Carolina. Summerville then was a small town, before I-26 made it a suburban town of Charleston. It was known then, and is known today, as “The Flower Town in the Pines”. In the first part of April ’til this day Summerville busts out with an array of bright red and pink and purple nestled in moss draped live oaks. Spectacular – there is nothing like the coming of Spring in Summerville except for maybe the state football championships which Coach McKissick and his crew bring periodically in the Fall. I have always been proud of my small southern hometown. I visited there in the nineties and found a prized possession – a bumper sticker which proclaimed – “Summerville, America’s Hometown.” When it is your hometown, it is also “America’s Hometown.” So true.

  2. Tom, that really hit home.. as they say. I too, went to Greenville S C yesterday to visit my hometown and my Aunt who has remained. I took my daughter down the “long road” – she says so I could see all the places that I remember at Christmas. Pelham Road and Heyward Road were the country and Adams’ homestead for Christmas Eve Gatherings and now are developed beyond recognition.. Augusta Road where I grew up is now a beautifully preserved residential area.. Those were the memories that made my Christmases the best! You described all of the passages that make memories for Christmas magical. Thanks for that wonderful – taking us back!! Merry Christmas – belated but it is still the season!!

  3. Thanks for a great story to get me out of my post-Christmas funk!
    I still live in my “small town” – Savannah. Not so small anymore. It still amazes me when I go somewhere in town and do not recognize one single face. It has changed a lot over the years.
    A few months ago I found my long lost childhood friend, Chris. Chris moved away right after high school and we lost touch. We had not seen each other in over 30 years. She now lives in Raleigh. Coincidentally I was going to Raleigh in a few weeks for a concert. We got together and had an incredible weekend. Chris has an amazing memory and talked about so many things I had long forgotten . It was like getting a piece of my childhood back. We are still in touch thanks to email. Every now and then she will email a memory. When the fair was in town it reminded her of the time we rode the double ferris wheel, got to the top, and everything fell out of our purses. A funny memory that I had forgotten.
    Time marches on, but it is great to reconnect with people and places from our past.
    I love the B52 connection! I’m sure I knew all those famous people too from my years in Athens, I just can’t remember them!

  4. Tom you have stated that strangers tell you life stories. Could it be you are considered “one of us” and not “one of them”. What’s the difference? Anyone that can use their memories to jog ours is one of us and any one that uses us to make a memory is one of them. Born in Savannah I get to go home to a beautiful city and visit my passion–the ocean and salt water rivers.

  5. This article was poignant and lovely and expressed thoughts that my heart has held for a long time. Despite being an Army brat and living around the globe, I always knew where I was from: the South. It was home, a fixed point in a whirling world. Encountering a piece of home somewhere far away, like the chance meeting with the man in the Columbia mall food court, was a heart-soaring experience. I didn’t know I had a Southern accent until a man in North Africa rushed across a hotel lobby because he heard me speak and was desperately glad to connect with someone not just American, but Southern like him.
    Losing familiar touchstones is at best poignant and at worst heartbreaking. Some things are so precious that I wish they could be inviolable to change–at least during my lifetime!
    Thank you for a wonderful article.

  6. Mr. Smith and Beth: You’re being from Savannah and I from “near Charleston” reminds me of a great line which Pat Conroy wrote, “Savannah and Charleston are like two sisters – who love each other, but will always view each other with a jealous eye.” So true and so well put.

  7. I love Charleston too. However I think Savannah has a lot more to offer in certain areas – eccentric characters, great nightlife, Tybee Island, movie filming.
    I am jealous of Charleston’s concerts, shopping and cheap airfare!
    Haven’t read Pat Conroy’s new book yet. I’m reading other things right now and am looking forward to it.

  8. Beth: See there it is – that jealous eye – that’s the comparison that Conroy is referring to. Of course, we of that heaven “south of broad” will say with a typical nose in the air that we never needed to restore, never needed to rebuild. Charleston over the centuries continued always to rebuild itself – it was always too exquisite to ever let go into disrepair like some “sisters” we know. Just finished South of Broad – good but not great, Conroy has written better, but since its about Charleston it is interesting to me. Actually I found Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil be a better read. SO THERE! :)

  9. Tom, great job. I need to pass this on to all my native Athenian friends – makes me want to go home.
    I remember when Athens got a Holiday Inn in the 1960’s – I thought the flashing lights on the sign made us as sophisticated as Los Vegas!
    I remember Keith from high school – a very nice guy.

  10. You are right about the disrepair. However, I don’t know Charleston’s real estate market, but if you’re right that must mean the housing prices have always been “exquisite” In Savannah you could have bought a fabulous home for next to nothing 30 years ago. Alas, I didn’t! I was talking with an old friend of mine recently. He rented a house here on Forsythe Park for $40 a month in the late ’70s. It just recently sold for $1.5 million. Of course we thought he was crazy for living there at the time in that crime infested area.
    I liked Midnight because I enjoyed reading about Savannah and people I knew. I didn’t think it was a very good book and could never understand why it was so popular. I’ve heard South of Broad isn’t great. I think that is why I’m putting off reading it. I’ve loved so many of Conroy’s books.

  11. Absolutely on the same wave length on all accounts. Happy New Year, Beth. Cheers.

  12. What a wonderful story. It just proves that our connection to place is more significant than what we may think. There is something special about growing up where everybody knows your name.

  13. Tom, your articles always move me, but being from Lincoln County, too, this one touches my heart and soul. Keep writing buddy and I’ll keep enjoying your writing.

  14. Beth there are four photos total. I sometime wish we could edit here.

  15. I love your writing Tommy! It does indeed take me back to times long ago, and I never will forget those. Lincolnton is indeed my wonderful sense of place , and my beloved hometown and always will be.Thank you for writing about our hometown so lovingly.

  16. Tommy,
    I throughly enjoy reading your articles. As you know-I am considered an NFL-not from Linclolnton. I have lived in Lincolnton for over 16 years though-so I should be an AFL. Your stories are always so informative just like this one. Since I didn’t grow up in Lincolnton-just reading your story lets me imagine how it was growing up in Lincolnton. I grew up in a large city in Texas-so we didn’t have a chance to know everyone in the town and share in escapades of growing up. Thank you for your enlightining story for it takes us all back to a time when we weren’t scared to play outside at night, didn’t have to lock our doors and the joy of childhood wasn’t spoiled by crime and perverts seeking children. I hope everyone sits back and reminisces their childhood-especially if you grew up in Lincolnton, Georgia!

  17. Thanks for the link to the beautiful photos. Savannah does photograph well doesn’t she? I’ve always loved the Jingle Bells connection. The great thing about pictures is you can look at them without feeling the heat or the bugs. A lot of people (Northerners!) fall in love with Savannah through pictures and movies and then move here and can’t take the heat or the bugs. A friend of mine says “Thank goodness for the bugs. They keep a lot of the Yankees away!”

  18. Love this piece and always love when you write about Lincolnton. I, too, have such a place tucked away in my memory banks. Tho I have been in Lincoln County for nearly 60 years, many of my childhood memories are from a tiny, out-of-the-way section of Greenwood County – Coronaca. We only lived there for a short time, but it created many, many fond memories. There was a small post office, a general store and many homes where the people treated us like family. A railroad track ran through it and often cars were left parked for some time and my brother and I would climb on them and I was only five! A bus even ran from there to Greenwood and we would often take it to town to see a movie at the Carolina theater – now long gone.
    Perhaps it is a sign of our advancing ages that make these memories so appealing! Keep up the good work Tom – you give the UGA School of Journalism a good name! See you soon friend!

  19. Love this piece and always love when you write about Lincolnton. I, too, have such a place tucked away in my memory banks. Tho I have been in Lincoln County for nearly 60 years, many of my childhood memories are from a tiny, out-of-the-way section of Greenwood County – Coronaca. We only lived there for a short time, but it created many, many fond memories. There was a small post office, a general store and many homes where the people treated us like family. A railroad track ran through it and often cars were left parked for some time and my brother and I would climb on them and I was only five! A bus even ran from there to Greenwood and we would often take it to town to see a movie at the Carolina theater – now long gone.
    Perhaps it is a sign of our advancing ages that make these memories so appealing! Keep up the good work Tom – you give the UGA School of Journalism a good name! See you soon friend!
    On a related note, I taught David Lee and he was one great ball player and student.

  20. I have been there but it is called “Chester, SC”. Memories don’t have to be in the same town but this recalls your personal memories that will live on forever in our minds. Susan C from Newberry Shores

Comments are closed.