For me, one particularly melancholic aspect of the death of my elders is the loss of family lore, no more tales from my father, mother, grandparents, or great aunts. If I could recoup some of the precious time I squandered in my younger days – hours wasted bouncing tennis balls off the side of our house, watching Saturday cartoons, or later, sitting at bars solving crossword puzzles – I would reinvest some of that recaptured time asking follow-up questions to my kinfolk about some of the stories they used to tell.
Now, in my own old age, questions arise that I cannot answer. For example, it seems that no one in my family except my Uncle David had a church wedding. My maternal grandparents and my parents both eloped, Hazelwood Ursula Hunt running off with Kistler Jerome Blanton in the 1930s, my parents following suit a generation later. As Springsteen puts it in “The River,” “No wedding days smiles, no walk down the aisles, no flowers, no wedding dress.”
And I might add, no photographs.
According to my mother, her father Kistler had to quit school in the third grade because his pipe-smoking raw-boned Scots-Irish mother demanded that he not waste his time on abstractions like reading, writing, and arithmetic. After all, there was hard money to be made with child labor. Kiki, as we called him, was born in 1901, so his dropping out would have occurred in 1910 or 1911. But was my mother’s memory accurate? Could it have been the fifth or sixth grade? Weren’t there truant officers? Kiki seemed pretty damned literate for someone with a third-grade education, but then again, he never wrote me a letter or sent me a birthday card, so who’s to say?
That he was “dirt poor” is beyond a doubt, unlike his future bride Hazel who grew up on a prosperous farm in Branchville, South Carolina, her mother a Fairy (as in Shepard Fairly, a distant cousin). The Fairys arrived in the Palmetto State before the Revolution so I guess would qualify for the DAR.
Anyway, how did these two meet? They say Kiki sang in some kind of quartet that performed in various venues. Mama Blanton, as we called Hazelwood, played the piano. Did their music bring them together? Did they meet at a dance? A church? A party? How did they pull off their great escape? Who hitched them? Where did they stay? What was their parents’ reactions when they found out? I have no idea, only know that their marriage ended up being a separate bedroom arrangement, and I never once saw them embrace, much less kiss.
The Hunts were good-fearing Baptists, the Blanton’s not so much. Now that I think of it, the Hunts were atypical Southerners in that they didn’t really tell stories. I remember Mama B and her sisters Pearl and Ruby sitting in front of a television shelling beans and watching soap operas, but I don’t remember any tales of deering-do or tragedy or even gossip coming from anyone of them.
My father’s people, on the other hand, were full of themselves and also stories. The Moores considered themselves aristocrats, which I always found preposterous, until a distant cousin tracked me down and provided me with a family history. Someone named Richard Dunmore has written a history of Appleby Magna in rural Leicestershire and has devoted a chapter to the Moores, which begins, “The Moore family lived at Appleby Parva for about 320 years, first at the old manor house and later at Appleby Hall, built in the 18th century and enlarged in the 19th. Although Sir John Moore who built Appleby School is the most famous member of the family, there is much of interest to be found in the lives of the others.”
Sure enough, I’m descended from these once well-to-do Brits, as the family tree my cousin provided me attests, and it appears they lived the Downton Abbey lifestyle for a while:
The social status which the Moores enjoyed is illustrated by the 1841 census which shows the Hall occupied by George Moore and Isabel his (second) wife with their first child Clara aged 3 months. Fourteen servants were present at the Hall itself, 9 female and 5 male. There would be other employees living in cottages belonging to the estate. In particular the lodge or gate-house on New Road was staffed by a family with two children. (Dunmore)
However, just as we saw in Downton Abbey, the old families found it impossible to maintain these estates in modern times. Again, Dunmore:
Charles L G Moore inherited the Appleby estate on the death of his father in 1916. Despite their desperate financial situation, his parents had continued with their lavish lifestyle with numerous staff. In 1891 soon after the return from Norfolk, the Moores employed 3 male and 8 female staff in the house; and Aubrey Moore recalled even more employees just before the First World War. Although Mrs. Louisa Moore had her own ‘fortune’ which provided some income, the fact remains that the Moores were making ends meet by spending the capital arising from the sale of farms. In effect they were eating their seed-corn.
Of course, by this time, their fourth or fifth cousins, my great aunts and my grandfather, were alive and kicking in the not so great State of South Carolina, not residing in oak-lined plantations in the Lowcountry but dwelling in backwater communities like Bishopville and Bennettsville. My great-great grandfather fought as a foot soldier for the Confederacy, and there is an apocryphal (I hope) story about his turning down a medal for carrying a wounded soldier off a field. Supposedly, his conscience wouldn’t allow him to accept the medal because his motive was not to save the wounded man’s life but to provide himself protection from incoming fire.
His son Luther produced a bevy of girls, my great aunts Polly, Mary, Tallulah, and Lila, and one son, Wesley E. Moore, Sr., my grandfather.
Although I spent less time with these great aunts than I did with the mineral-named great aunts on my mother’s side, I can recall many more stories from Aunts Lila and Lou than I can from Ruby and Pearl.
For example, whenever Aunt Lila dreamt of diamonds, someone close to her was doomed to die. She told me once – I couldn’t have been over ten – that she had begged her daughter, Lila Moore Stanton, not to go out with her roommate from Winthrop the night after Lila the Elder had dreamt of diamonds, but to no avail, and sure enough, both Lila Moore and her roommate were killed when a train smashed into their car a half mile away from the house. Aunt Lila related the story as matter-of-factly as if it had happened to someone else.
Also, after her first husband died, Aunt Lila remarried someone named Norman Lynch, who, according to what my parents told me, was lobotomized because he was an alcoholic. Can this possibly be true? Daddy told the story that someone once said to Lila, “You know, Uncle Norman would be better off dead,” and she replied, “But I sure as hell wouldn’t be.” It seems she was receiving some kind of monetary stipend as long as he was alive. Once again, this sounds suspect. What about social security?
There is one story I know is true that Aunt Lila’s sister Lou told me about the suicide of her nephew’s wife Sarah, who burned a hole in my blue sweater with a cigarette one Christmas Eve when I was seven or so.
Tipsy on sherry, Aunt Lou told this story more than once. Sarah had locked herself in a bedroom with a gun threatening to kill herself, then opened the door, put the gun to her temple, and fired.
“I don’t think she knew it was loaded,” Aunt Lou said with a twinkle in her eye. “I’ve never seen a person with a more surprised look on her face when the gun went off.”
So that’s what you get in “classless” America, the descendent of Sir John Moore marrying the daughter of a man with a third-grade education. In other words, what you get is a red state, an obsession with the past, and some pretty good stories to pass along.
 If an efficient God wanted to create a heaven and hell in one location, he could make a heaven by having Pearl, Ruby, and Hazel shelling those beans watching those soaps and a hell for my father by placing him in that same room with no cigarettes or whisky.
 In our family lore, Aunt Polly was infamous for her flatulence, which she could harness and employ at will to dissuade certain of her daughter’s suitors from continuing their flirtations. According to daddy, her trumpet-like blasts could rattle windows and smelled like a Stygian sewer. When launched at a dinner table, they could certainly give a young suitor second thoughts.
The Ballad of Old Buck Howland
For years and years he lived right here
in a tent on the edge of Folly.
He brewed his beer and wrote his poems
in the shade of a stunted loblolly.
He played at working construction,
could drive a nail I guess,
but what Buck was really good at
was downing his Inverness.
He’d have a drop in the morning,
he’d have a drop at noon,
he’d have a drop at midnight,
‘neath the light of a winter moon.
The cold on Folly ain’t that bad
(unless you stay in a tent),
but Buck would hum all through the night,
shivering but still content,
content because his poems would clack
from that old Underwood,
clack-clack-clacking, like a woodpecker,
on the edge of the stunted wood.
The VA doctors warned him
to change his lifestyle soon,
but Buck was a stubborn cuss.
He loved the light of the moon.
They found him dead inside a shed
on the side of Folly Road,
and in his hand he held a poem,
the last one he ever wrote:
Drunk me some wine with Jesus [it read]
At this here wedding in Galilee. He saved the bestest for second And provided it all for free. So I quit my job on the shrimp boat To follow Him eternally, No longer bound by them blue laws Enforced by the Pharisee. And we had us some real good times Till them Pharisees done Him in. Ain’t got no use for the religious right After I seen what they done to Him. Then when Saul Paul stole the show I sort of drifted away. Cause he never quite did understood What Jesus was trying to say. Paul was like a Pharisee, Cussing this, cussing that, Giving the wimmins a real hard time, Gay bashing and all like that. So I stay at home most nights now Trying to do some good, Offering beggars a little snort Whilst praying for a Robin Hood. Drunk me some wine with Jesus, It was the bestest day I ever seen. Drunk me some wine with Jesus, Partying with the Nazarene.
I can think of worse things
to have in your hand when dead
across the bridge on Folly Road
inside an old tool shed.
Some Saturdays during my preadolescence, my friend Paul Smith and I would ride our bikes from our subdivision Twin Oaks to downtown Summerville and squander our allowances in the shops and drug stores along Main Street. In those days, a dollar and three cents went a rather long way. If you spent judiciously, you could draw out your expenditures for hours before exhausting your funds.
We’d ride up Lenwood Drive across the canal and the quiet two-lane road that is now Berlin Myers Parkway. From there we pedaled up Rose Hill where we would cut through the Sullivans’ yard and down a leaf-strewn path through woods that led to the black neighborhood on the outskirts of Summerville Elementary. Here in one of the unpainted houses lived my friend Gene Limehouse’s Dah, an ancient cotton-haired woman who smoked a corncob pipe and wasn’t to be messed with. Also along this stretch lived a kid everyone called Squeaky, whom my brother Fleming hung with during the earliest days of his juvenile delinquency, a sort of latter-day Huck and Jim duo.
We’d ride our bikes on the sidewalks in front of Summerville Elementary (i.e., across the street from Beasley’s), past what then was the High School, continuing along the white wooden private school Pinewood and down the big hill in Azalea Park where the sidewalk snaked between two oak trees. Paul and I would pedal as fast as we could down the hill and negotiate the oaks like slalom skiers, then stand up pumping until we hit the commercial district.
Although our routine wasn’t the same every Saturday, chances are Paul and I would order a six-cent fountain cherry Coke at Guerin’s and sit at one of their wrought iron tables. We’d hit both Ben Franklin and Poppleton’s department stores, buying maybe caps to bang with a hammer, peashooters, or a thin-toothed contraption my mama called a “cootie comb.” We didn’t venture into Alexander’s or Barshay’s, not being in the market for shoes or looking to rent a tuxedo, but my parents certainly patronized those stores.
Down the lane from Kramer’s was Dr Melfi’s Pharmacy where you could cop a Superman comic for a twelve cents or a Mad Magazine for a quarter. Dr. Melfi displayed pharmaceutical instruments and powders, which gave the establishment an exotic, downright alchemical vibe. It smelled authentic, as if potions were being concocted.
Usually, we’d end our spree at a more prosaic drugstore, Kramer’s, where we’d slide into a booth and spend the rest of our change with a thirty-cent banana split or milk shake.
Being a red-blooded American, I lived from allowance to allowance, not possessing the self-discipline to save for a baseball glove or board game. Although the nation was in turmoil, we only heard about it distantly in newspapers or the nightly news, Cronkite or Huntley and Brinkley. I remember a “white’s only” sign over one of the lauderomats. Even doctors’ offices were segregated in those days.
Of course, the ride home wasn’t nearly as much fun. We’d pedal back on the other side of Main, struggle up the big hill we’d sped down a couple of hours earlier. Plus, we might be loaded down with merchandise. Still, it was a good feeling coasting up to your front door, especially if you’d bought something worthwhile to read, like a Mad Magazine or a fifty-nine-cent cardboard bound copy of The Swiss Family Robinson or Treasure Island.
I can still almost conjure the delightful smell of the crisp pages of those books.
If you look at poll numbers devoted to the current US Presidential race, a couple of statistics seem especially noteworthy. Men overwhelmingly support Trump, women Biden, and by wide margins, non-college educated whites prefer Trump over Slow/Sleepy Joe Hiden.
Now, I’m not suggesting that not having graduated from a college means a voter is unintelligent. Shakespeare, Yeats, Faulkner, nor Hemingway graduated from a college or university. I myself am a graduate-school dropout, and despite that the school where I taught for thirty-four years offered to pay my way for a Masters, I declined, despite the salary increase and enhanced status an advanced degree would bring.
On the other hand, most non-anti-intellectuals would agree that college provides an opportunity intellectually to expand one’s horizons. Potemkin Villages, McCarthyism (co-starring Roy Cohn), wintertime invasions of Russia/USSR, statistical analysis, deductive and inductive logic, cultural anthropology, quantum mechanics, ecological biology, etc. are subjects not necessarily covered in high school, or if covered, not in depth. For example, if you knew that Trump’s personal lawyer in the 1980s, Roy Cohn, was once Joseph McCarthy’s righthand man and spearheaded the Red Scare of the 1950s, you might be a bit more skeptical when Trump or one of his minions accuses the Democrats of McCarthyism.
I sometimes wonder if being a Trump supporter is culturally isolating. I mean, none of the late-night comedians can abide him; virtually every world class musician files a lawsuit whenever one of his or her tunes blasts from speakers at a Trump rally. The artists who support Trump tend to be B-listers at best, like James Woods, Nick Nolte, Ted Nugent, and Kid Rock. Is the fact that our most celebrated actors, musicians and comedians – Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, Bruce Springsteen and Barbra Streisand, Stephen Colbert and Amy Schumer, e.g. – support Biden over Trump a product of undergraduate brainwashing or a sign of a sophisticated world view? I recently received an invitation to join a group called Writers for Biden, and I’m trying to imagine who would be spearheading a group called Writers for Trump. The poet Billy Collins once told me he didn’t know of any poet who would be willing to read at the Inauguration of George W Bush. I suspect that’s even more so in the case of Donald J Trump.
I will say that Trump has been very successful in creating a cult of personality, as some pictorial depictions of him suggest, echoing, if you will, the enhanced physical renderings of charismatic leaders of yore.
The truth is that if you buy the argument that the man in heels with dyed blonde hair and orange make-up pictured below is walking through the consequences of a future Biden Administration, you should perhaps consider enrolling in a class devoted to logical fallacies.
 If you think Trump’s nicknames for his enemies are clever, chances are you dropped out of school in the 6th grade.
 Easy trivia question: Which of the above worthies did not receive the Nobel Prize for Literature?
Early in July, my good friend and former college/grad school roommate Warren Moise wrote an article for the Charleston Mercury describing his former existence as a beach musician in the 60s and 70s. He admitted in the article that he had never learned to shag, which for me was a shocking revelation.
No, British readers, not that kind of shagging!
We’re talking about the venerable North and South Carolina dance known as “the shag.” According to the website NCPEDIA, the shag might trace its evolution back to early settlers of the Carolina in an attempt to preserve their European musical lineage. According to the article, in the 1920s and 30s, the shag evolved as dancers adapted it to swing music and jazz. However, the dance really came into its own in 50s and 60s with the advent of Beach Music, a genre made famous by such groups as The Drifters, Tams, and the Embers and performed at beach pavilions up and down the Carolina Coast.
Essentially, the shag is a two person hand-holding shuffle that allows room for much improvisation. Knowing how to shag is almost a social necessity if you live in Charleston or Myrtle Beach. Nevertheless, like Warren, I, too, never learned how, essentially because I didn’t have the inclination.
Folly Beach, where I live, used to have a shag dance club on Center Street where old people attempted to keep the fires of their youth ablaze, and you can still see lots of shagging at the Sand Dollar Social club on weekends.
Curmudgeon that I am, I saw members of the old shag club as victims of their youth, incurable nostalgia-holics stuck, like a stylus on a scratched record, in a repetitive rut, so I wrote the following rather acerbic poem.
If you look closely, you can detect the traces
Of teenagers drowned in the puddles of their faces.
Perhaps this is beauty’s curse, the clinging,
King Canute by the seaside singing:
Stop in the name of love. But the aging process
Stops for no one. There’s no recess
In decay’s school day, no stopping the seasons,
Even if you’re sockless and sporting Bass Weejuns.
In some ways my childhood homelife
was not unlike the sit-com Cleavers’ –
we lived in a house in the USA with a yard, slept in beds, and ate
On the other hand, my mother didn’t wear pearls
as she dumped overflowing ashtrays
into a pedal-operated plastic receptacle,
my father watching TV, cursing LBJ, baring his tobacco-stained teeth,
much less restrained in the den than Ward in tie and cardigan,
turning the pages of the afternoon newspaper, which happily
we had in those days.
In fact, Ward and June never watched TV or talked politics.
He never held his boys down, arms pinned, to tickle them
as they laughed hysterically in anguished howls on the floor.
There were apparently no black people where the Cleavers lived,
no juke joints on the edge of town, no bootleg whiskey,
no Wilson Pickett records, no Muddy Waters, no mojo magic.
Mr. Cleaver played golf; my father flew airplanes,
performed snap rolls and loops and hammerhead stalls.
On rare occasions I accompanied him in the cockpit.
More often, though, I was down below, neck straining,
calmly watching his daring acrobatics,
like the son of a trapeze artist who knows the act by heart.
It was an expensive hobby, but one well-suited to
an adrenaline junkie, paradoxically
terrified by the thought of undertow dragging him out to sea to drown.
Like the Cleavers, my parents never divorced,
Died, in fact, in the very same bed a decade apart,
Next to a window overlooking our overgrown lawn.
No tombstones bear the Cleavers’ names;
alive and well in reruns, they relive their lives
in thirty-minute arcs resolved with smiles.
Going through some files this morning, I ran across this speech I delivered at Middle School Parents Night at Porter-Gaud a few years ago.
My principal, the excellent Maureen Daily, asked if I’d address parents on the subject of stepping back and allowing their sons and daughters to learn through trial and error. It seems that a rash of them had been overly involved in essay compositions.
Anyway, what follows is the speech I gave that night, which I, of course, consider good advice.
* * *
Hi, I’m Wesley Moore, Chair of the English Department, and I’d like to share some advice on your involvement with your son’s or daughter’s writing.
Writing, of course, is a process, so we teach it in steps. In class, we conduct exercises in stimulating thought for germinating ideas (what the vulgar call “brainstorming”). We work with introductions, body paragraphs, conclusions. We talk about diction, especially verb selection, how action verbs bop down the boardwalk whereas passive verbs are not all that interesting because it takes seemingly forever for them to get where the reader wants to get to. Each teacher spends focused time with each individual student in instilling the virtues of good writing.
A student who learns to write well needs to propel the two-wheeler herself. If you insert your diction into her essay, she doesn’t get to hear in the editing process that “maybe you could find a more specific word here” or “read the sentence outloud.” It’s through individual labor and through repetition that writers learn their craft, not from their editors. Parents who rewrite their children’s drafts actually retard the process.
So please, as difficult as it is, remove yourselves – the training wheels – and let your children have a go at it. Skinned knees are rarely fatal. As someone who has taught here 27 years in both the Middle and Upper Schools, I assure you that if allow your children the academic space to inhale the air of our classrooms, they will be become excellent writers. I personally guarantee it.
One last thing, a grade is merely a snapshot in time. No one in the media is brandishing Rick Perry’s 6th grade report card. You can fail the 8th grade twice and get into Harvard. Grade obsession creates unnecessary stress and can lead to shortsighted pettiness – students haggling over a point on a quiz that equals one-ten-thousandth of a point on a yearly average.
The thrill of the A never compensates for all of the day-to-day fret that grade obsession spawns. I myself have a son who made a C in 6th grade Spanish for the year – O, tears and lamentations! – who later graduated magna cum laude in German and received a Fulbright to teach American literature in Kiel to German high schoolers. Now, he’s back home unemployed. Who knows, maybe in two more years he’ll be teaching at a university.
Go with the flow.
 What I didn’t add was that his Spanish name was Jesus, and the first sentence of the report card comment read, “I’m so disappointed in Jesus.”
 Update: He later went on to get a Masters in linguistics, taught for a few years at a Florida prep school, and now is back in Germany getting a Masters in American Lit.
He’s in the jailhouse now He’s in the jailhouse now Well I told him once or twice To stop playin’ cards and a-shootin’ dice
Well, given that I’ve waxed nostalgic about Summerville’s azaleas, the Curve Inn Pool, our village idiots, and county hospital, I think it’s high time I turned my misty memories to a local institution you may not have visited – the Summerville Jail.
I spent one memorable night there in the summer of 1972, the summer before my junior year of college, after a group of friends and I engaged in a series of what educators nowadays call “bad decisions.” We’d smoked a joint (mostly seeds and stems) on our way to downtown Charleston to patronize a basement bar called Hog Pennys. There, of course, we downed a couple of beers, no doubt Old Milwaukees because they offered two extra ounces. On the way back home to Summerville, I suspect we did another joint. I know for sure the Kinks just released album Everybody’s in Showbiz was blasting from the speakers of the car’s cassette player.
I guess it was only eleven or so when we pulled up to our hometown poolroom. We weren’t close to drunk or even all that high. After a couple of games of nine ball, we decided to call it a night.
Another friend, Keith, who hadn’t accompanied us on our journey to the peninsula, asked if he could bum a ride home, so we all piled into the car. At some point, a revolving blue light clicked on behind us. It seems the driver – I’ll call him Billy – hadn’t come to a complete stop at the most recent stop sign.
There were two different bags of cannabis, belonging to different passengers. My perhaps flawed memory has us tossing them back and forth like in that old childhood game hot potato. Someone stuffed one of the baggies beneath the front passenger’s seat. The policeman approached the driver’s side, and as the fellow riding shotgun leaned over to make sure the baggie was well hidden, the officer took note.
“What is that?” he demanded.
“Uh uh uh.”
So we were all hauled downtown to the Summerville Jail, an adjunct to the police station itself, located in those days at 225 West Luke Avenue.
The thing is that the officer did not procure the other bag, which created a very convenient out for this very inept liar. When the interrogators tried to put, as they say in crime novels, “the screws to me,” I could honestly say I didn’t know who had been in possession of the one baggie of impotent marijuana – less than a nickel’s worth – that had been confiscated.
Anyway, we were all ushered into the same cell without being fingerprinted or having mug shots taken. I recall an intercom with its red flight aglow, so we didn’t blab about what had happened. The police instructed us to call our parents, though Keith told the jailer that his mama had recently suffered a heart attack, so he’d rather spend the night in jail than wake her up with a phone call. I felt really bad for him because he was perfectly innocent.
One-by-one, my fellow inmates were released to their unhappy progenitors. When my father and mother arrived, my father was so boiling mad that I told the jailer I’d rather spend the night than be released, and he agreed that it might be a good idea.
Keith and I ended up in different cells, neither of which had bed linen, pillows, or a toilet seat, and I can’t begin to tell you how unpleasant it is waking up about 85 times in the middle of the night and remembering you’re in the clink. Morning did at last dawn, and we were served a poolroom hamburger for breakfast. My mother showed up to retrieve me; (thank goodness my father was at work). I assured Mama that the marijuana didn’t belong to me – it didn’t – but I did lie and claimed I hadn’t smoked any. Like I’ve said, I’m a terrible liar, but in this case my mother believed me.
We were supposed to be tried in St. George, and all of us but one made the trip. We sat there among other miscreants of Dorchester County on the pew-like benches of the courtroom. A self-important man with a Southern drawl called out cases and the accused stood up to acknowledge their presence . One trial involved statutory rape. Not only did they make the accused stand, but also the teenaged girl who was his victim, though she looked of age to me. Finally, the names of the last trial were called. Our names never were. Seems as if our no-show friend’s parents and procured a lawyer and had the case dropped.
Sad to say, but the last time I saw that friend was in June of 2014 at the funeral of another of that carload. Because I don’t make it to Summerville often, I don’t think I’d seen my late friend or the no show in the new century. We sat next to one another in the pew, but neither of us brought up the incident. Sadly, it had created some bad blood.
 18 was the legal drinking age back in those more lenient days.