October 8, 2017 § Leave a comment
My life begins October 9, 1943 in “The Original Washington,” a lazy little Down East Tar Heel town (10,000 souls today) on the northern bank of the Tar River near the mouth of the Pamlico Sound.
From there we move
to Camden, then Detroit, then Greenwood, Mississipi
until Truman drops the A-Bomb and the boys come marching home.
The Original Washington
First explored in 1585 (some speculate Welsh presence as early as the 12th Century!), Beaufort County isn’t settled and tilled until 1690. Eighty years later, one James Bonner, a gentleman farmer, illegally establishes his riverside property as a shipping port named “Forks of the Tar” which, during the American Revolution—with Wilmington, Savannah, and Charlestown under siege— becomes a significant federal supply outpost.
In 1776, Bonner, now a colonel, renames the now-incorporated town for his commanding general, making it the first of twenty-nine U. S. cities (including the nation’s capital) so-named. In 1785, it replaces Bath (the state’s oldest town, of Blackbeard infamy) as the county seat, and as such grows and prospers until the War of Northern Aggression, when the Yankees come (March, 1862), occupy it for two years, then burn it to the ground (April, ’64).
Rebuilt during Reconstruction, the town burns down again, by accident, in 1900, after which traffic moves to other ports and the population dwindles. Those who remain build a new town over the ashes, erasing nearly all evidence of its early history, and by the time I come along it had become and yet remains a sleepy backwater village known affectionately throughout the state as “Little” Washington, noted in the present century, ironically, for its vast historical district featuring Victorian (post-immolation) architecture.
I’m not from Little Washington. Mamah and Bozo (my grandparents) live here from February, 1942—two months after Pearl Harbor—until the end of the War, when they move back to Greensboro. Mama and Daddy are married here, then set up house in Camden, SC, where Dad, an Air Corps flight instructor, trains death-bound pilots at Woodruff Field. When I come along, Mama goes “home” to Mamah for her accouchement and my delivery, by the venerable Dr. John Tayloe.
I have some very few faint recollections, vague impressions, of a yellow ochre brick 2-story house, a broad front porch where I’m put out to play, waist-high walls with sluice drains out of which I push the screen filters, and then (the story goes) loudly and proudly proclaim, “I punch out the skeens!” Or I call for attention: “Ma-ma! Ma-Ma! MA-MA!! DORIS!!” and finally “MIZZIZ GRA-AY!!!” at which point she gives. Tulips along the front walk. Bobby sox.
It’s where I give Bozo his moniker. The summer before I’m two, as I sit naked in my plastic pool, he crowns me with a string of yellow plastic beads, “King Blozo” (he’s a Popeye fan), at which I blurt back “Bozo!” (the Clown), for so he is. Later younger cousins further corrupt my blunder to “Bobo,” and the connection slips away.
Christmas, 1945 (the story goes, I don’t recall). The War is over, Bill’s a month old, and I want a record player, so badly that I make my own (the story goes) from a cardboard box and a pencil, spinning teenage (baby-sitter) Ann’s few fragile 78’s and singing “Meet me in Saint Ooey, Ooey” at the top of my lungs, perhaps reminded of Marie’s Ooey in Detroit. It finally reaches the point that Bozo, late that bittercold Christmas Eve, scours the tiny town and finally, just as the stores are closing, finds one.
Camden is the oldest inland town in South Carolina, site of the worst American defeat in the Revolutionary War, “Steeplechase Capital of the World,” home of the Carolina Cup since 1930 (except 1943—my Year One there—and 1945). Originally laid out in 1732 as the town of Fredricksburg in the Wateree River swamp by the order of King George III, most of its settlers avoid the surveyed lots in favor of higher ground to the north, and the township quickly disappears. In 1758, Joseph Kershaw arrives in Yorkshire, establishes a store, and names the new township Pine Tree Hill. In time it emerges as the inland trade center of the colony, and Kershaw suggests renaming it in honor of Lord Camden, the champion of colonial rights.
A small town, under ten square miles, seat of Kershaw County, with barely 7,000 people even now, all driven by ante-bellum attitudes, three-fifths white (the gentry all equestrians descended from Confederate colonels and Yankee Reconstruction profiteers, the rest from tenant farmers, driving gun-racked pickups blazoned with the Stars and Bars)—my first home—evokes no childhood memories, although I stop here once with Sidney Zemp and his friend Ronnie Stagner, both born and raised Camdenians, looking for some action.
It’s April, 1961, third Wednesday in a row of heavy snow (unprecedented in our Piedmont), no school tomorrow, fine time for a road trip in his dark blue ’54 Buick convertible with no heat, no rear window, country music on the AM radio, and snowflakes by the billions floating huge and wet outside (and in), too many for the wipers, stopping every ten or twenty miles, arriving after nine to find their friends dispersed, preoccupied, and rather than return unsatisfied, we press on, due south another two hundred and fifty miles, to visit one of Sidney’s many lady friends, in Brunswick, Georgia, pulling in about four am to a find a freezing foyer with doors to three apartments—which is hers? He doesn’t know, so we take turns sleeping on the wicker couch and floor, walk around the stinking harbor, watch the sun come up, until, sometime after eight am, one door opens with a flood of warmth, a billowing fire, the smell of coffee and bacon, and a vision of loveliness still in her nightie, Reida Ann, her honey voice crooning, “Sidney, what’y’all doin’ out heyah? Didn’t you see my note?” On the floor, face down: “Come on in!”
I don’t remember how we spend the day. It must warm considerably, though, since by the time the sun goes down both Ronnie and I are making out in the back seat with (wish I were) blind dates (at least they’re girls) at the drive-in, while Sidney and Rieda Ann groan in the front, after which we drop them off and light out into the night, bypassing Camden, home. I never go back.
The only other tangent linking me to my first home is the purely random ironic coincidence that the girl I probably should have married, given our many mutualities—clearly obvious, I’m sure, to everyone but us (and we knew too, I think; too intimate for romance, we fight as brother-sister)—marries (and quite soon thereafter divorces) a Camden Huntingdon, remains here to raise her children and, after a decade or two abroad, returns her to retire.
But all that comes later.
Detroit to Greenwood
I’m no more than an infant when the Army sends Dad (and us) to Selfridge Field in Detroit, from where he ferries planes—fighters and bombers—to bases all over the world. We live in Flint with Aunt Marie (pronounced “Maa’-Ree’,” accent on both syllables, French with a southern accent) and Uncle ‘Ooey. Louie dies young, before my memory begins, but Marie, who sings for the troops in World War I and gives me lessons in my teens, my favorite great aunt (I her favorite nephew), who leaves life on my thirty-second birthday. There are photos of us somewhere in the snow, yellowed black-and-white…
Ironic: here in Flint, then prosperous, home of (Roger and Me) Michael Moore, on (or about) Leap Day of 1944, my arch-conservative brother is conceived.
Very shortly after which his mother-to-be and I follow Dad (last car to cross some bridge during some devastating flood) to Keesler Field in Greenwood, Mississippi, where late one afternoon he crash lands a P-38 in a cotton field and climbs out to find himself surrounded by a curious mob of African American field hands and one redneck foreman, to whom he gives his pistol, with instructions to keep everyone away from the plane while he goes to phone the base, and returns to find a black man dead. Of course, the foreman gets off, never even goes to court: “the nigger got too close.” What impressed my daddy, though—his anecdote—is the reaction of his fellow pilots when he relates the incident in the barracks. The northern guys are appalled, but a kid from Alabama mitigates, “You weren’t there. Who knows what that nigger done? He mighta’ even talked back to that white man.”
About this time Mama takes me back to Little Washington for Bill’s November birth, and then we all four come to roost among the Gastonia Grays.