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.