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.