Saturday, July 26, 2014

We All Come From Some Place

(This is a blatant plug for my book Return to Rocky Bottom. Enjoy!)

The cold, black Edisto River snakes through the town of Orangeburg, South Carolina where I grew up. A small cove called Rocky Bottom was floored with pebbles to provide a safe harbor for kids learning how to swim. I cut my teeth on those pocket-sized rocks and later when I was no longer a child, Rocky Bottom was the place to which I returned ... if only in my heart.
One of the local mothers had trained for the Summer Olympics when she was younger, so she kindly volunteered to be the town’s Red Cross Life Saving Instructor. It was a proud day when our own mothers sewed the coveted Red Cross Lifesaver patch onto our youthful bathing suits. We earned it by diving off a high platform and swimming against the strong Edisto River current without drowning. That patch represented a significant rite of passage.
I remember the day we were learning the Dead Man’s Float in the roped-off section of Rocky Bottom ~ the official dividing line between safety and peril. Beyond the division, deep water rumbled swiftly past on a fast track to the Atlantic Ocean.
My face was totally submerged when the shriek of a whistle jerked me up in time to watch our instructor plunge over the ropes and dive headfirst into deep water, slicing it with first one muscular arm and then the other.
She was clad in a Catalina swimsuit designed to make her look skinny and a black bathing cap. The spitting image of a loggerhead turtle, she cut through the water like the Gold Medalist to which she had once aspired.
She swam downriver to a young African American boy struggling to keep his head above water. When his limp hands disappeared for what could have been forever, she swam even faster in order to grab his little body before it was too late.
Just like she had taught the lifeguards, she placed the boy on the shore and began to resuscitate him. When enough water squirted out of his mouth to put out a grass fire, I let go of the breath I had been holding in.
Although it didn’t seem so at the time, the incident was over quickly. Even so, it has remained a permanent snapshot in my mind, a watershed moment. I was left with a formidable respect for the cold-hearted Edisto River when it proved itself to be a killer in disguise. On the other hand, I was fortunate enough to be there when our swim teacher fulfilled her destiny and established herself an unbiased heroine who did what she was born to do.
People like her nurtured and shaped me into the person I was born to be. Growing up in that small town meant that I experienced good times and bad, altogether creating the person I am today. My memories are what suckle me now and will do so all the days of my life. Rocky Bottom is the touchstone that takes me home again.
In writing these stories, I chose fictional characters Scrappy and Boo Sanford to be narrators. A few exploits might point to my own brother or me, but that’s for you to decide. If any of the book seems familiar, it’s only because Southern towns are almost always comprised of people in love with football, fried chicken, barbeque and ancestors.
That pretty much describes the folks of Greenburg, South Carolina, a town created for Scrappy and Boo and where they seem to always … Return to Rocky Bottom

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Waking up With Lady Liberty

We all came here from someplace else. Someone in our distant past made it possible for us to live in America enjoying the freedoms we too often take for granted. Let's never lose sight of the fact that we are here today because someone many, many years ago had the courage to leave his homeland and start a new life in America.

Today is no ordinary day. It is the last one of a transatlantic crossing and much too short a visit to England, Ireland, Iceland and Newfoundland. I had hoped to spend more time in Ireland, birthplace of my great-grandfather, so the few hours on a bus tour around the city of Dublin turned out to be not nearly enough.

It is 4:30 in the morning and as I make my way up to the open deck and worm my way over to the starboard side of the cruise ship, I am as wide awake as the city that never sleeps. I greet the new day by looking at the magnificent New York City skyline kicking up her heels with more sass and bling than a chorus line of Rockettes. "Take a look at me," she says, "Am I not the most exciting city in the world?"

I have visited New York City in the past, but never have I sailed into town at 4:30 in the morning while hanging onto the side of a ship and wondering how my great-grandfather felt when first he glimpsed, as I am doing now, the grand Lady Liberty herself.

I hope he heard the story of how the statue came to be constructed from toe to crown and how ships transported it piece by piece from France to America. He probably didn't, but I bet my great-grandpa wiped tears from his eyes while standing at a railing and allowing The Lady's glow to shine the light of freedom on him.

What might he have been thinking? What would he have said to his little brother standing next to him, both of them having recently fled the devastating potato famine in Ireland, and both of them scared out of their Irish britches?

"Look at 'er there, lad, the ol' gurl hursef. That's our noo mum. She's gon' tek' caire of us naiw, she will."

Lil' brother likely whimpered at the mention of their mother, a victim of poverty and neglect, buried mere months before the boys set sail. Perhaps he moved a wee bit closer to his big brother, the one charged with his welfare once they set foot on American soil, the one who would find work however he could in order to feed, clothe and properly school his brother in this, their new country.

My guess is they looked across the New York Harbor that day at the torch held high by The Lady and were warmed by her light just as I am today.

They came here with nothing, having left everything behind in the fallow potato fields of Ireland. In time, their losses would be replaced with fulfilled dreams made each night as they grew into men and good Americans. Like so many immigrants throughout our history, their earnest prayers were answered, their hopes rewarded.

Many Americans will never have the opportunity as I did to look upon The Statue of Liberty at daybreak. Seeing her at least once should be a requirement for every citizen of our great country, but one of the things that make us great is that we don't require it of our people. It is no surprise to me that The Lady's power too often gets lost amid the information overload that we are fed and must sift through day after day.

But she is patient. She is willing to stand her ground and remain strong for all of us. Lest we forget what she symbolizes, the poet Emma Lazarus summed it up in her work engraved at the base of the Statue of Liberty.

"Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

The Lady lifted her lamp to a homeless, tempest-tossed Irish boy and his brother and when she did, our country was made stronger. My great-grandfather became a proud citizen and later served his country. The accomplishments of his descendants would have filled him with awe: A symphony musician; NASA Engineer; lawyer; Episcopal priest; psychologist; writer; teacher; good Americans all.

Nothing can ever diminish the spark of hope woven into the fiber of the Statue of Liberty and nothing should ever diminish our humanity to those seeking a better life.

"Give me your tired, your poor."