Sunday, October 16, 2016

Sweet Daddy Grace

When I was growing up in a small South Carolina town, my father was the local law. He started out as a flat foot and ended up as the Chief of Police. I was proud of him. In fact, I learned a lot about criminology from my dad, things he had learned while at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia and others he picked up along the way.

Once he told me that burglars invariably do two things once they have broken into a home. They use the toilet and they look in the fridge. I can’t remember if he said they ate anything, but apparently knowing the habits of a thief helped what substituted for CSI back in the day.

Another thing I learned from Daddy served to make me aware of people who came through our town as opposed to the more permanent ones that lived out their entire lives many times in the same house they were born in.

Every now and then, Daddy would come home for lunch (we called the mid-day meal dinner in those days) and say that the Gypsies had arrived and were set up on the edge of town out on Highway 301. They were traveling people with dark skin and traditionally lived by seasonal work, itinerant trade, and fortune-telling, of course. Mama loved getting her fortune told, but others in town shied away from the Gypsies for fear of being hoodwinked or “gypped.”

There was a remarkable man who claimed to be a traveling evangelist whose name I can never forget because it tickled me. Sweet Daddy Grace. When Sweet Daddy came to town it was a big deal including an entourage following behind his long black Cadillac limo. His advance team came several days ahead intent on getting folks excited about Sweet Daddy’s upcoming visit, so by the time the great man rolled into town in his limo, he owned the flock of people waiting to welcome him.

Sweet Daddy was the founder and first bishop of the predominantly African-American denomination called the United House of Prayer For All People. He was also a contemporary of Father Divine and Noble Drew Ali. At the revivals Daddy Grace begged for donations to further his ministry and the people shelled out even when it meant less food on their table. His followers lined up to hail him because they needed to believe in him.

He came to town, cleaned them out and left. A few remained loyal to him while others recognized him for what he was: a huckster who found a way to defraud poor people into thinking he was their last, best hope.

The Flim Flam Men were a bit different but not much. They used dishonest behavior in order to take money or property from whoever appeared to be a good mark. They told the mark what he needed to hear whether it was the truth or not. Daddy was always on the lookout for Flim Flam Men when they came through our town. He was a modern day Con Artist cheating or tricking people by gaining their confidence and in the end exploiting it for his own gain.

I don’t remember Snake Oil Salesmen while I was growing up although when I think of the slight of hand carnival barkers I have to wonder. According to Webster, a Snake Oil Salesman is someone who knowingly sells fraudulent goods or who is a fraud, quack, or charlatan. I have a picture in my head (probably from a movie) of a man standing on the flatbed part of a truck or wagon selling snake oil he claims will cure everything from constipation to consumption. In my head I see people digging deep in their pockets for money to buy the liniment which was likely made up of turpentine and red pepper.

People back in the Forties, Fifties and Sixties and people today are not so different. We all want to believe in hope, in expectations that this year, the next few years can bring about good changes for everyone. It’s a need we share.

So when Sweet Daddy Grace comes into your living room via television and promises you a bright new future, will you believe him? Will you buy into whatever he promises because of your need to dream the dream? Or will you listen to his words critically and sensibly before hanging your hopes and your future on someone else’s ambitions?

It’s up to you. It’s always been up to you.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

I Pray to Erma

“Cappy is a good student but she talks too much.”
My sixth grade teacher was psychic. Her first six-week report was:
“Cappy has an unusual way of expressing herself both written and orally. This is excellent.”
Woo Hoo!
However, her comments during the rest of the year were: “I wish Cappy would not talk so much in class,” which translates to: “Cappy needs to put a lid on it.”
I write this today because if you are a teacher reading this post, I hope you will never underestimate your students. I don’t say this to place a bigger burden on you, but it can make all the difference in the world in how a student turns out.
My ninth grade English teacher asked me to stay after class one day. I figured I was once again about to get the now familiar lecture that I talked too much. On the contrary, she told me to give serious thought to majoring in either journalism or English when I went to college. Alas, instead of heeding her advice, I went along with the same major all my friends chose — Elementary Education.
I was 35 years old before I went back to college and studied nothing but English and Journalism. Only then did I take writing (and myself) seriously.
I try not to think about all the years I wasted. You see, I love to write. It is the most fun I ever have and I feel incomplete when I am not sitting at my computer typing words.
Several years ago, I attended the Erma Bombeck Writers Workshop in Dayton, Ohio. As a humor writer, I was in very good company. Humorists from all over the country were there as well, all of them hoping to become more skilled at making people laugh.
This is what I learned: Humor writing cannot be taught. Basic techniques can be learned and implemented but in order to write funny, one must first possess good comedic timing and a liberated sense of humor.
The first writer’s conference I ever attended was in La Jolla, California in 1975. Was I inspired? You cannot imagine. The following piece is what I wrote after returning home.

Dear Erma Bombeck,
Thank you for saving me a lot of money I’d have blown on Prozac, cheap wine and a shrink session. Lord knows, I can't afford to be institutionalized.
You may wonder how you came to be involved in my personal plight. It all began at a writer’s conference in La Jolla. (Actually, it started in ninth grade when Miss Dibble corrected my misspelling of the word subtle, then casually remarked, "Cappy, you have a flair for writing." But that's another story.)
Armed to the hilt with six sharp pencils, I enrolled at the workshop because I thought I was a rare flower ready to unfold. Miss Dibble done tole me so! I tore into class with the fever pitch of a politician running for re-election. I wasn’t brilliant, but by cracky I had passion.
I hung onto every word I heard. My enthusiasm, dangerously close to fanaticism, ballooned with each scratch of my sharpened pencil. By the end of the workshop, I could hardly wait to plant my fat fingers on a keyboard.
As though possessed, I raced to the corner office supply and bought one of everything. I admit to having a silly grin and a devil-may-care kind of madness about me that day. By nightfall, I was dizzy with hundreds of creative ideas for building better mousetraps or manuscripts, as the case may be. Between flashes of pure genius and subsequent fantasies of winning the Pulitzer, sleep eluded me. I ask you Erma, could you have slept?
Before the sun came up the next morning my tush was planted squarely in front of my computer and I was itching to get words on paper.
However, for four hours, nothing happened. By noon, my fingers hovered frozen in an arc over the keyboard. Before long, my hands and legs were numb so I slid to the floor and curled into a fetal position. I looked down and saw that my feet were the color of blueberries.
Eventually, I crawled to the kitchen where I dumped a bowl of sugar into a quart of Gatorade and bolted it down, determined to get my golden words on paper before arthritis set in.
Boosted by the sugar rush, I once again squared off in front of my keyboard to await the flow of genius I was certain would fly from my now tingling fingertips.
An hour later, it became painfully obvious that a warm-up was needed.
So I typed the alphabet four times and then banged out the names of everyone in my family including the two looney cousins nobody wanted to claim. I needed no brainiac to convince me that I was Stuck City’s newest resident. The contempt I felt for that big mouth Miss Dibble at that moment might well have resulted in a lifetime prison sentence.
I sat cross-legged in the middle of the floor searching the bookshelf above for self-help. Erma, your book, "At Wit's End," jumped right out at me. As soon as my fingers touched the cover, I felt a warm tide of relaxation flow through my frozen body.
After reading the chapter entitled, What's a Nice Girl Like Me Doing in a Dump Like This? I took the gun away from my temple.
The chapter, I Want to be More Than Just Another Pretty Face made me shred the shrink’s phone number and unload the b.b. gun. I felt like marching out of Stuck City to my home base of Manickville while laughing all the way.
For over a week, I have shuffled around the house with copy paper in one hand and a worn copy of your book in the other. I giggle from time to time recalling a funny line. (It takes such a little bit to make me happy.)
So I thank you, dear woman as does my family. Before the month is over, I could be released from mandatory therapy. I can hardly wait to remove that annoying little alarm bracelet that goes off every time I step outside. With any luck I’ll soon get back to writing because you, Erma Bombeck, have convinced me that laughter is indeed the best medicine!

Monday, September 12, 2016

The Little Town with a Big Heart

What Does It Take to Make a Hero?
It takes a village.

As we reflect on another anniversary of 9/11, who among us will not be sadly reminded of that day and of the firefighters who fought and earned the title of hero?
Following 9/11, Senior Citizen Dee Matthews, a New Yorker and former DuBois, Pennsylvania resident, visited her neighborhood firehouse where seven of its members had died that fateful day. Struck by the fact that the firehouse was shattered in more ways than one, Matthews prayed with the firefighters and later resolved to bring light back into NYC Engine Company 84 and Ladder 34.
Matthews called on two close friends in DuBois, Pennsylvania, Pat Stewart and Judy Hand to help her. With an anguished voice, Matthews said, “The firefighters are in mourning; they’re devastated. I know my hometown well enough to know they wouldn’t want those guys to suffer more than they already have.”
Her friends responded, “Let’s adopt them.”
On that day, via the telephone, bonded by three hundred miles of fiber optics and fueled with a commitment and love of country, three senior women gave birth to Operation: Adopted Heroes.
Coming up with a name for the project was easy, but could they find the support needed to make a difference? The three women would soon discover that their small community was as heartbroken as so many others throughout the country. The town jumped right in and became part of Operation: Adopted Heroes.
It takes a village.
Matthews’ two friends did not flinch when the opportunity to help was presented to them. Embracing the last audible words of Todd Beamer, 9/11 victim on board Flight 93, they adopted it as their mission statement. “Let’s roll,” they told the town, and the town heard them.
Pat and Judy knocked on doors asking for donations for the families of the firefighters who had lost their lives and they were rewarded by open-hearted generosity. Each of the seven families received sixteen hundred dollars raised by these two women.
It takes a village.
When she had visited the firehouse, Dee Matthews noted that chairs were past the point of comfort, so funds were solicited from individuals as well as local DuBois businesses to provide fourteen new solid oak chairs. Paint and other supplies were also bought to rehabilitate the firehouse in hopes of lifting the spirits of the men still grieving the loss of their co-workers.
A local grocery store was asked to contribute food. “The families,” said Pat, ” have children with big appetites. They need nourishment.” Enough groceries were donated to provide many nutritious meals for the families and firefighters.
High school band students boxed up the supplies to be delivered in a trailer packed with the new chairs and other items. “Operation Adopted Heroes: We will never forget” was painted on the side of that trailer.
It takes a village.
“We will never forget” were not empty words. Dubois, Pennsylvania folks support their commitment even today by remaining in close contact with their adopted heroes and the families of the fallen.
When the 2001 Christmas holiday approached, Matthews, Stewart and Hand discussed what they might do to fill in a few of the blanks for the families. “This will be such a sad Christmas for them,” Judy said. “We need to let them know we’re still thinking of them.”
They appealed once more to their friends and neighbors and again the response was, “Let’s roll!”
After phoning all of the widows to determine what the fifteen children liked, disliked, needed or wanted for Christmas, they gathered toys and clothes contributed by folks eager to help. Once again, local high school students wrapped the gifts to be taken to the families before Christmas.
A group of seniors in town made cotton throws for each of the widows, hand embroidered with the victim’s name on each one. Quilts, made by the Chat and Sew Quilters Club were donated for the firehouse cots; fruit baskets and hams were given by a local grocery store.
Stewart and Hand, accompanied by DuBois firefighters, were met by the FDNY group at the George Washington Bridge and upon arrival at the firehouse were met by Dee Matthews and her mother. Together they hand-delivered the gifts to the firehouse and to the families of their adopted heroes.
They could have sent them by UPS but they didn’t; they drove three hundred miles to present the gifts in person. They showed up because that’s what heroes deserve.
Twenty-four adopted heroes of NYC Engine Company 84 and Ladder 34 were later honored at a DuBois community parade complete with fire trucks (of course), banners, balloons and cheering crowds on both sides of the parade route streets. The senior women responsible for the project headed up the parade holding a huge banner.
It takes a village.
Captain Luongo and Captain Depew of Ladder Company No. 84 both spoke:
“It’s one thing to put stuff in a box and send it, but you people came to our little house and we had a day together. Family tradition is part of the reason firefighters go above and beyond,” Captain Depew said. “What you did helped us work through a difficult period. Knowing we had your support made it a little easier. You will always be welcome at our house.”
Three truly remarkable senior women found it intolerable to do nothing when faced with our national grief and sadness. Because of an ongoing commitment to a firehouse three hundred miles away, a small community was transformed from  a small community into the little town with a big heart making heroes of them all.
Sometimes it takes a village.
Author’s Note:
Dee Matthews died recently but she showed us all that even one person can make a difference.

Sackcloth and Ashes

“To every thing there is a season. A time to be born, and a time to die; A time to kill, and a time to heal; A time to weep, and a time to laugh; A time to mourn, and a time to dance; A time to love, and a time to hate; A time of war, and a time of peace.”

On the second September Sunday morning of 2016, Americans turned off alarm clocks, got out of bed, put on the coffee and maybe got dressed for church.

At some point, we may glance at a calendar and remember where we were when terrorists attacked our country. We will experience, just as we did for all the previous years of remembering, a sickening feeling in our bellies; fear, helplessness and unbridled anger. It has been a very long fifteen years.

9-11 made such a profound change, whether needed or not, in our lives. We saw everything differently. We know now that nothing can ever be the same. How then, have we dealt with the effects of 9-11 over the last fifteen-years?

This is my story.

After the attack in 2001 someone asked me, “How can you even think about writing humor after everything that’s happened?” Actually, I hadn’t had one creative thought since the attacks. Fortunately for me (and my editor), I tucked away six upcoming columns during an August streak of manic productivity. I was not alone; many of my writer friends struggled with the same affliction. Some said it was writer’s block. I called it writer’s paralysis.

Mystery writer Ed McBain reported that he expected to throw away most of what he had been able to get down on paper since that dreadful day. His admission provided me with a better understanding of the national grief that attacked us all at that time.

National grief is some of us have experienced. I was only a baby when Pearl Harbor was attacked, a young mother when JFK was assassinated and middle-aged at the time of the shuttle explosion. As saddened as Americans were during those times, nothing can ever compare to the magnitude of national grief, the sackcloth and ashes worn by Americans because of September 11, 2001.

Maya Angelou said, “Now is the time for thinking Americans to think.” We did that. We ran the gamut of emotion from shock and disbelief to vengeful hatred. Who among us was not touched by the incredible burden placed on a newly elected President? He told us to go out into the world and live courageously. He said we should pick up the pieces and continue to go to our jobs, to school and to church. We should hold our heads up high, he said, and be thankful that there were not more victims when evil struck.

As appalled and saddened as I was following the tragedy, my heart knew it would be unhealthy to wallow in grief, to remain out of touch with everything except sadness, but knowing something doesn’t make it happen. CNN’s constant coverage of America’s New War offered no comfort. It frightened me; it made me cry harder.

It took time, but eventually I came to realize that laughter was long overdue, that laughter, in the midst of my mourning, had gone missing in my life. I needed to put grins back on your faces as well as my own because I owed it to the innocent souls who died on September 11, 2001.

So, once again as another anniversary of our nation’s tragedy brings up so many emotions, I will ask myself this question: Is it possible that laughter is the medicine that can help heal our brokenhearted country? Maybe. Maybe not. But I think perhaps it is worth considering.

So this is what I propose: I will do my part but you have to do yours. I will sit at my keyboard day after day and week after week writing good humor and sometimes not so good, but always with the sincere hope that you, my readers, will keep looking on the bright side of things so that your smiles and laughter will once again light up our world.

Laughter can be the second shot heard around the world, but it is up to us.

Friday, April 29, 2016

My Heroes Grew Up To Be Cowboys

Cowboys like smoky old pool rooms, clear mountain mornings, little warm puppies, children, and girls of the night. Them that don't know him won't like him and them that do won't know how to take him. ~ verse from "Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys"

I’ve been thinking a lot about cowboy movie heroes. I remember going to the movies every Saturday and with only one trip to the bathroom, staying there until Mama or Daddy picked me up.
A Saturday matinee cost ten cents for kids under twelve, a candy bar was a nickel and a bag of popcorn, a dime. I showed up every Saturday unless I had chicken pox, measles or mumps. My folks loved it because the show started at noon and lasted until 5 o’clock. The matinees my brother and I usually attended featured cowboy stars like Rocky Lane, The Durango Kid, Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, The Lone Ranger and Tonto, Johnny Mack Brown, Rex Allen, Lash LaRue and Tom Mix.

My hometown of Orangeburg, South Carolina boasted two movie theaters, the Carolina and the Edisto. For a mere 10 cents, we saw a newsreel, cartoons, a chapter from a serial, a short subject with Laurel and Hardy, sometimes a documentary, and then, best of all, the feature.

I was allowed to spend an entire quarter so I bought a Tootsie Roll since it could last me until I went to college. I bought candy, a large bag of popcorn, a large Coke and that took care of my quarter.

After finding a seat, I settled in for an afternoon of magic. I watched Movietone News and that fool rooster crowing his head off, and then footage of the President or the war or something current. A glimpse of the latest Paris fashion was shown and maybe a candid visit with Betty Grable, Bette Davis or Errol Flynn. During most of the newsreel portion, however, I talked and giggled with my friends.

Then it was Looney Toons: Donald Duck and Tweety Bird. After cartoons came a comedy featuring Ma and Pa Kettle or The Three Stooges, and then it was time for a continuing serial like Buck Rogers (my brothers fave) or the one I liked best, Blondie. (With the exception of Bubblehead Blondie, there was a serious lack of serial heroines although much later in the century TV soap operas would make up for the deficit.)

In cowboy movies, the good guys always prevailed and got the girl; the bad guys always got caught. After the gunfights were over, our hero stood next to the bar in a cowboy saloon drinking sarsaparilla with his sidekick, someone like Smiley Burnett who talked funny.

My brother and his friends booed and hissed if and when a cowboy kissed someone other than his mother or his horse.

Every now and then a cowboy gave a live performance at the Carolina Theater. I had a crush on Lash LaRue who cracked his whip, KAPOW! and made my eyes grow as big as salad plates. He was one slick, sexy dude dressed head-to-toe all in black, a good guy even though he never wore a white hat.

My heroes have now all gone up to that big roundup in the sky, but I can't forget the good times I experienced on Saturdays for twenty-five cents.

                                          An Ode to Cowboys
I miss ol' Hopalong Cassidy. I coulda sworn I saw him yestiddy. 
I ’spose I must be wrong, ’Cause I heard his git-along-song
When he pranced off on his horse into history.

Buster Crabbe made Westerns, too. You remember him, at least you ought to.
He was a white hat cowboy in his prime,
He could turn his horse round on a dime.
But with a name like Buster Crabbe, he had to.

Will someone tell me where did Lash Larue go
With that black hat of his cocked real low?
When he snapped that bullwhip my stomach did a flop-flip.
His smile was mighty sexy, also.

Do you ever ponder about Tom Mix and 
wonder how he did those gun tricks? 
He was quickest on the draw, could shoot holes in a straw,
Then use 'em over again for toothpicks.

Where oh where could all my heroes be?
Those matinee cowboys I so loved to see. 
I ‘spose I could be wrong,
But did I hear their git-along-song

When Calvin Klein pranced into history?

Friday, April 15, 2016

The Town That Time Forgot

Several years ago while living in Coastal Georgia, hot flashes and global warming took control of the upwardly moving saturation of my body. That’s when my husband Babe and I began looking for a summer getaway in the mountains. It took a while to find the right town with just the right character (and characters), but finally our search paid off when a Saluda blip appeared on our personal radar screen.
Laying claim to a main thoroughfare not much longer than a football field, shops and restaurants line up on one side of the street. A defunct set of railroad tracks stands sentry between the business side and children playing outdoors on swing sets and monkey bars in the town’s well-used playground. Squeals of their laughter can be heard even when it snows. I love that sound.
Weekends often bring strangers to our midst, curious to find out how a town the size of ours has survived the onslaught of high tech as it heads toward the isolation of all people everywhere. The visitors receive friendly smiles of welcome and easy chatter, but it is difficult for any of us to portray Saluda in mere words.
“We believe Saluda is a special place,” it might be said to a stranger. Or, “Saluda is like a modern-day Brigadoon —definitely magical.”
Indeed, none of the residents have lived here for over two hundred years as in the mythical Brigadoon, but Saluda has no problem claiming to be the town time forgot. That, in itself makes it a haven for throwbacks who still remember how things used to be back in the day.
In Saluda it is rare to see people in restaurants texting the person seated across the table from them. They talk to each other using real words. I once even witnessed a boldly snatching a smart phone away from her child. “This is called real time. Get used to it,” she admonished. Good for her!
Saluda people don’t do a lot of texting because they would rather have conversations. They still speak and spell the language learned in grammar school and they don’t care what’s going on in the Silicon Valley. Saluda people don’t give a hoot about fiber optics; they don’t allow electronics to rule their lives, inhibit their conversations or steal their humanity.
Friendly folks chat with each other while munching on an old fashioned hamburger, hot dog or a made from scratch milkshake served up in a large metal ice cream shaker.
When visitors wander into one of our local caf├ęs, it’s not unusual for them to be invited to sit for a spell. That's when a local might tell him about all the new grandbabies born the week before or give an update on the Historical Society project. The stranger learns about the kind of produce sold at the Friday tailgate market. “The veggies are terrific this year,” he will hear. “Best doggone corn and tomatoes since 1945.”
There could be a report on the Saluda Dog Society’s recent fundraiser when enough money was donated to build a new shelter. Information might be shared that local thespians plan to perform, “It’s a Wonderful Life” during the month of December.
A tear or two will grace the eyes of an older resident when he reports, “It’s official. A community barbeque will be held in the park annually with all proceeds going to the Wounded Warriors Project. God Bless America.”
Saluda folks still use Ma Bell to ask about a friend’s son serving in the Middle East and they still phone each when they just feel like saying, “Hey, how’s your mama and ‘em?”
They support the lonely veteran struggling to adjust to a life without legs. They sit in church next to the widow who feels abandoned since the love of her life can no longer be by her side. They attend town meetings; they donate blood to the Red Cross and they always, always vote.
Saluda people figured out a long time ago that when we care and nurture each other we make a difference.
It took us a few years to settle permanently in this magical place that is not Brigadoon but comes pretty darn close. What took us so long?

Brigadoon, Brigadoon, blooming under sable skies.
Brigadoon, Brigadoon, there my heart forever lies.
Let the world grow cold around us, let the heavens cry above!
Brigadoon, Brigadoon, in thy valley, there'll be love!

Monday, April 4, 2016

The cold, black Edisto River snakes through the small southern town where my brother and I grew up. There was a cove in the river floored with pebbles and that is where we learned to swim. Warm and familiar, we cut our teeth on those stones, and it was the place to which we returned when we were no longer children ... if only in our hearts.
When our swim teacher was much younger she trained for the Olympics. Imagine our delight when she accepted the Red Cross’s offer to become the official Edisto River Swim Instructor. Kids in our town proudly sported a lifesaver patch earned by diving off platforms and swimming against the strong current. It was a rite of passage.
I will never forget the day I was learning the Dead Man’s Float. It was in the roped off kid's section, the official dividing line between safety and peril. Beyond the ropes, deeper water rumbled past on its way to the Atlantic Ocean.
I was under water when a whistle shriek made me jerk my head up in time to see the swim teacher plunging over a barrel and diving headfirst into the deep water, slicing it with first one muscular arm and then the other.
She was clad in a black Catalina swimsuit designed to make her look skinny and a black bathing cap giving her the appearance of a loggerhead turtle as she cut through the water like the Gold Medalist to which she had once aspired.
She headed downriver toward a small, black child struggling to keep his head above water. As soon as his limp hand disappeared into the blackness for what could have been forever, she caught up with him and grabbed his little body before it floated out of sight.
She pulled him out of the river, placed him on the muddy banks and proceeded to give the child mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. When enough water squirted from the little boy's mouth to put out a grass fire, I let go of the breath I had been holding in.
It all happened quickly, but the moment was captured in my mind where it has remained as a permanent snapshot, a defining moment leaving me with a lifelong, formidable respect for that cold-hearted river. A child’s near-fatal drowning was valid testimony that the river was a killer in disguise but our swim instructor an unbiased heroine who did what she was born to do.
The people in my small Southern town, as well as my experiences there, nurtured and shaped me into the person I was born to be. Even today, it continues to suckle me and will do so all the days of my life.
While it may be true that Rocky Bottom was only a shallow area of the Edisto River, over the course of my life it became a touchstone in my soul that could take me home.
Scrappy and Boo Sanford, the brother and sister who narrate the stories of Rocky Bottom, are fictional entities of my imagination. If any of the people places or events seem even remotely familiar to the reader, it may be because many small southern towns are made up of people who love football, fried chicken, barbeque and ancestors. That pretty much describes the folks who season my made-up town of Greenburg, South Carolina.


I tossed and turned before finally getting out of bed and padding softly to the kitchen for a glass of water. A light was on in the breakfast room and I wondered who besides me was having a hard time sleeping.
Daddy was sitting alone at the kitchen table in front of what was left of a bottle of Jack Daniels. His shoulders were slumped, his head bent.
I stood back, shielded by the night shadows. A part of me wanted to put my arms around the man who had been my hero and who any fool could see needed comforting. But I was young and ignorant of adult pain, so I remained in the shadows.
I felt his sadness and it hurt me, but something big had happened to me on that long, horrible day, something unexpected and still very raw. A new piece of me had reared its head from the cocoon existence of self-absorbed adolescence and this new feeling compelled me to keep still.
When six hundred black college students publicly opposed the status quo, it changed everything for me. If, years later I wrote my life story, I would be obliged to say, “That day in the Square is when everything I had ever believed shifted.”
They had marched in silence knowing they would be taunted and sneered at by intolerant, frightened white people. Prepared to suffer physical abuse or God knows what, they kept on because they believed in their cause. I caught only a measure of their passion, but it was provocative and I was determined to protect a smattering of the transfused spirit I had stolen from them.
I would no longer be a naive young girl when, through a different set of eyes, I was able to be more generous in my judgment of Daddy’s involvement that fateful day. Generosity of spirit came easily when I thought of the students, however. I had sensed the courage it took for them to demand a better way of life for themselves and their people, but Daddy’s participation in it was harder to understand. He had followed orders instead of his innate sense of fairness.
And therein lies the rub.
In my mind’s eye, I can see Daddy giving the order to use fire hoses on those students. It makes me sad to remember, but I can do it. The thing is, he is long dead and I am left with only a pocketful of memories of the man who was once my hero.
Other people can do the blaming, the criticizing. Let them. I choose to remember him as a human being. I choose to keep the vision of my father as he sat alone at the kitchen table in the middle of the night weeping for having played a part in man’s inhumanity to man.
That image is enough to remind me that we are all fallible. Even parents.


It has been a long time since I witnessed first hand a not so peaceful protest demonstration in my hometown, a long time since my unintentional comeuppance. A long time since the day my perception of the world shifted.
Now when I catch myself gazing through the windows of my past, I find it difficult to understand how I could ever have gone along with a myopic community that patently ignored the basic rights of too many of its own.
It shames me that I never questioned the existence of separate drinking fountains and toilet facilities. I was aware that black children were relegated to swim in the river away from where we swam and played, but it was not until years later that I challenged the injustice. I, like many Southerners, accepted the status quo and it will forever be my cross to bear.
I know times change, issues change, and sometimes even people change. Diversity makes our lives sing and not ding. But needed change, whether domestic or far-reaching, must be purged from the predilection of ideas and beliefs handed down from parent to child. To be effective, it must claw away at the marrow of our primal souls.
My hometown is no longer the small, sheltered place where my brother and I were acquainted with every backyard and all the Chinaberry trees within a six-block radius. We knew all the kids, their parents and most of their aunts and uncles. We knew no strangers then.
Some landmarks are left, but they become fewer in number as time marches on. The big clock in front of The First National Bank still stands. The statue of the Confederate Soldier that once stood proudly in the town square, however, has been taken down. In its place, a patchwork quilt of multi-colored azaleas now covers the area each spring as a gentle reminder that beauty can be found in diversity. The tired old Civil War fought and refought long after Appomattox has lost some ground.
Schools I attended for twelve of my young years managed to survive the unrest and subsequent rebellion of the turbulent Sixties. They have since been rebuilt, renamed and revitalized. I don’t recognize them today.
When I return, I don’t know where to go. There are no remembered haunts where I might bump into old friends; no special gathering places where I pigged out on hot dogs and hamburgers and shag danced till I dropped. There are no familiar places left for me go.
The river bridge is still there, rotten to the core and condemned to die as slowly as so many other worn out traditions. The kid area with its green water barrels disappeared long ago. The wooden platforms off which both children and dogs loved to jump, no longer exist.
Rocky Bottom itself was dredged and done away with more than twenty years ago for some harebrained, probably bureaucratic reason. The shallow area floored with tiny pebbles where hundreds of kids learned how to dogpaddle is no longer available to any children, black or white.
The thing that remains pretty much the same is the Edisto River itself. It is still swift and deadly, and it still moves toward an inevitable end. That frightening, black body of water grasps and holds onto bits and pieces of remembered childhoods, the carefree days so many of us spent down at Rocky Bottom.