Advice to Parents Who Want to Help Their Children Compose Essays

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.[1]  Now, he’s back home unemployed.  Who knows, maybe in two more years he’ll be teaching at a university.[2]

Go with the flow.


[1] 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.”

[2] 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.

A Night in the Summerville Jail

The Old Summerville Jail

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

                                                            Jimmie Rodgers

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. [1]  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. 

An appropriate snippet from the album

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.


[1] 18 was the legal drinking age back in those more lenient days.

Me in 1973 (note spray-on tans had yet been invented)

The Curve Inn Pool, Make Me Feel So Good, Make Me Feel All Right

Of all the songs on the jukebox at Summerville’s long-gone Curve Inn Pool, songs like the Byrd’s “Eight Miles High” and Bobby Fuller’s “I Fought the Law,”[1] my favorite was “Gloria” – not the Van Morrison original but a cover by an obscure Chicago band, Shadows of Knight. 

Somehow the Knight’s lead singer Jim Sohns’s gritty growling imitation of a Northern Irishman trying to sound like an American fit the funky working class vibe of the Curve-Inn, which you could join for the entire summer for a measly eleven dollars.[2] I can’t remember if the swimming facility at Miler Country Club featured a jukebox, but I’m absolutely positive you wouldn’t find anyone there perched on the rail of the high dive with the adjectives “sweet” and “sour” tattooed on each of his pectorals. In fact, those were the first homemade tattoos I ever witnessed, the equivalent of stick drawings compared to colorful tapestries you see sprawled across the epidermides[3] of hipsters nowadays.

Summerville coach and administrator Olin McCurry owned and operated the Curve-Inn, and he was there six days a week overseeing the establishment, shirtless and sporting one of those pith helmets bwanas wear in old Tarzan movies. I can see his son, little more than a toddler back then, also shirtless and waddling behind him.  I think the McCurrys were neighbors of ours when we lived on Laurel Street. I remember Laura McCurry, who was a few years younger than me,[4] conversing with my mother like an adult at the tennis courts as I rode my bike around and around the metal nets.

My most memorable summer at the Curve Inn was the summer of ’66. I had a so-called girlfriend named Francine Light, who had delivered me a note two days before school let out for the summer asking if I’d be her beau. I had been admiring her from afar forever, so I was thrilled. I remember walking her to the school buses that afternoon, my hair parted on the wrong side so it would hang over one ear, which no doubt looked ridiculous, though daringly out of dress code.

The problem was that I was so shy I rarely called Francine that summer, and when I did, I couldn’t figure out what to say. She came to the Curve-Inn a couple of times with her little brothers in tow, but all too soon wearied of my awkward non-engagement. I remember sending a message via a female friend to tell Francine I loved her, but the friend came a couple of days later to report that Francine didn’t love me back.

[cue Herman’s Hermits] “Why does the sun keep on shining?/Why does the sea rush to the shore?”

In reality, by no means did that crush-gone-wrong darken my summer. We played Marco Polo, devoured Zero candy bars and Cokes, perfected our cannonballs, back flips and gainers.

Oh yeah, and got an earful from that jukebox standing among puddles in the shade of the pavilion.

G – L – O – R – I – A 


[1] By the way, when I saw Springsteen on the front row of Gaillard Auditorium in The Darkness on the Edge of Town tour in ‘78, the Boss began with a cover of “I Fought the Law,” and I recognized it two chords in.

[2] Cool quote from Sohns, “The Stones, Animals, and Yardbirds took the Chicago blues and gave it an English interpretation. We’ve taken the English version of the blues and re-added a Chicago touch.”

[3] Forgive my pedantry, but epidermides is preferred over epidermises as the plural form, though both are acceptable.

[4] More pedantry: If any former students are reading this, note how I have broken a grammatical rule – it should be “older than I” – so I don’t come off as a constipated, um, pedant.

The Saddest Heart at the Egocentric Supermarket

Just Beneath the Surface by Damian Michaels

Like a tramp choir crying,
like a coat made out of lead,
ink spilled in water, a bird
beating about the cruel wires of a cage . . .

Wesley Moore “What Guilt Feels Like”

O wolves of memory! Immensements!

Philip Larkin, “Sad Steps


Yes, some memories should be locked away
In impenetrable safety deposit boxes,
The keys thrown away,

Those faux paus of yore, poxes
That that have pitted your past.
Oh my God, how could you have been so obnoxious?

Better yet, let’s wrap those indiscretions in x-ray aprons and cast
Them into oblivion’s untroubled ocean,
Chanting like defrocked priests, “What is done is done, what is past is past is past.”


			

Extended Definition: Kafkaesque

It’s certainly not surprising that almost any cool sounding word is likely to be picked up by the subliterati and its meaning distorted, especially by people ignorant of the word’s origins.

Take the word “Kafkaesque,” for example.  How many people who haven’t read Kafka throw the word around as if it only means “weird-ass strange,” not aware that to be Kafkaesque an event must be characterized by surreal distortion and a sense of impending danger.  

Let me offer an example of a not even close to Kafkaesque incident from the Police Blotter of the 11 October 2017 edition of my hometown weekly, The Folly Current.


BAD NIGHT FOR EVERYONE

The R/O[1] was dispatched to Center Street around 1:30 a.m. in reference to a Hit-and Run. Upon arrival, he found the suspect vehicle in the roadway, with the 44-year-old female driver in the driver’s seat, passed out with the car still running. Two victims were also on the scene and said the suspect had backed into their car hard, then drove off. They had followed the car to Center Street. The R/O opened the suspect’s door and then she woke up and asked what was going on. The officer immediately noticed the suspect had bloodshot eyes and impaired motor function. She also smelled like alcohol. The officer asked the woman to step out of the car to look at her back bumper. The woman complied, and nearly fell down getting out of the car. In the process, her boob fell out, and the officer had to ask her to cover up. During the discussion, the suspect asked several times, “what do you need again?” The woman became aggressive with the officer and refused to follow instructions on field sobriety tests. Then she resisted arrest and had to be manhandled into the patrol car. She refused to provide a Breathalyzer test sample, and was arrested for Driving While Intoxicated, Leaving the Scene of an Accident, and Resisting Arrest. While being transported to the county jail, the suspect made several declarations, including that the R/O was violating her, that she was going to tell her lawyer and her sister who is in the media business, and that the R/O was a “wannabe white boy.” The officer notes the suspect made “so many derogatory statements during the arrest, the breath test and all the transports, I couldn’t write them all down, but have it recorded on body camera.”

[1] Blotterspeak for responding officers


Okay, while this incident might well be described as “bizarre,” it is by no means rises to the dada nightmarish distortion of a Kafka story. To be Kafkaesque, it would have to go something like this:


SCHLECHTE NACHT FüR ALLE

The R/Os, conjoined biracial twins (Cuban/Chinese) sporting a freshly laundered uniform (complete with his-and-his golden-fringed epaulets) are shark fishing from the pier at 1:30 a.m. when their supervisor dispatches them to Hauptstraße [1] in reference to a Hit-and Run.

Upon arrival, they find the suspect’s Citroen parked in the middle of Hauptstraße with its 44-year-old female driver – a dead ringer for Marlene Dietrich – in the driver’s seat passed out with the car still running and her cigarette holder in her hand, the cigarette still lit, its ash a gravity-defying six centimeters long.

The two hit-and-run victims, unemployed Lithuanian circus clowns in costume, are also on the scene and report (in heavily accented English) the suspect had backed into their car hard, then fishtailed off, headed beachward.  The victims hopped into their vehicle and trailed in hot pursuit.

One of  R/Os opens the suspect’s door. She stirs slowly into consciousness and asks, “Wo bin ich?”[2]  

The officers immediately take note of the suspect’s bloodshot eyes and impaired motor function. She moves and speaks as if through a green aspic salad reeking of Schnapps.

In falsetto unison, the officers ask the woman to step out of the car to look at her back bumper, The Citroen seems to spit her out in disgust as if she were a chunk of rancid Meeräsche. [3]

Teetering on her stilettoes, she stumbles into the open arms of one of the circus clowns. In the process, her right breast falls out, and the officers, again in unison, ask her to adjust her décolleté, which she accomplishes beneath muttered curses.

Interrogation begins. During the discussion, the suspect asks several times, “Was brauchst du nochmal?”[4]

During her field sobriety tests – reciting the 23th Psalm backwards, walking on her hands on the sidewalk in front of St. James pub – she emits a howling a scream that sets off the car alarms of the vehicles parked along the bars and restaurants. Having had enough, the officers manhandle her into the patrol car as ants crawl from her ear.

Refusing to provide a Breathalyzer test sample, the R/Os handcuff her and charge her with Driving While Intoxicated, Leaving the Scene of an Accident, and Resisting Arrest. While being transported to the county jail, the suspect accuses the R/Os of groping her and threatens that to tell her lawyer Rudy Giuliani and her sister Laura Ingram, who is in the media business.  She calls the R/Os wannabe weiße Jungs.[5]

One of the R/Os notes, the suspect made “so many derogatory statements during the arrest, the breath test and all the transports, I couldn’t write them all down, but have it recorded on my Luis Buñuel body camera.”


So there, that’s Kafkaesque, Lynchian, messed-up, creepy.

That’s it. Thanks for listening to my Ted Talk.

from R Crumb’s book Kafka

[1] Center Street

[2] Where am I?

[3] mullet

[4] What do you need again?

[5] White boy

Football Pratfalls

In addition to its verdant beauty, its azaleas, its wisteria-entwined pines, Summerville is also famous – at least in South Carolina – for its long history of high school football excellence. If Summerville’s so-called historic district can’t claim a Revolutionary or Civil War battle, it can claim over a century’s worth of Friday night clashes on the gridiron, an impressive history of prep school football dominance.

I remember being a little boy and Mama bragging about Summerville teams of her high school days in the late 40s  and early 50s, teams featuring Bufort Blanton and Bo Berry, who a decade later were still being lauded for their post-World War II gridiron exploits. Perhaps they still are among the dwindling number of Summerville citizens of that era, though even greater triumphs would ensue.

mama and bette

Summerville High Students Bette Newsome Walton and Sue Blanton Moore (my mother) circa 1950

Hired in 1953, John McKissick amassed 621 wins, 10 state championships. “Legendary” is a word I hate to see affixed to a historical figure, but I will say that McKissick may have earned it. He was so successful that Pat Conroy included him in two of his novels, The Prince of Tides and South of Broad. I was born in 1952, so Coach McKissick was the only coach I ever knew, and I can proudly say I was once paddled by the great man in his role as assistant principal. I had been dismissed from class by a math teacher and sent to the office. I had the choice of three days of suspension or three “licks.” I opted for the latter, and Coach McKissick performed his duty affably, without a smidgeon of rancor, but all too efficiently.

Screen Shot 2020-08-10 at 8.59.44 AM

via 1967 Summerville High Yearbook

Of course, virtually every boy growing up in Summerville dreamed of being a football hero, of donning the green and gold of the mighty Green Wave, of achieving, like Billy Walsh in the 1960s, the mantle of hometown hero.[1] I was no exception; only there was a small problem, literally a small problem, which actually ended up being big problem: I was so scrawny I could have been the model for the 90-pound weakling advertisement. Not only that, I wasn’t very fast, though I did possess fairly decent hand-eye coordination and was capable of making diving catches, even an occasional one-handed grab. We played tackle every day after school in my front yard, for hours on Saturdays and Sundays. In my neighborhood, I was considered pretty good, the equivalent of an impressive koi in a tiny little backyard water garden.

90 pound weakling

One time, I remember, the kids in my subdivision challenged another neighborhood  – or they challenged us – in a game where we wore helmets and shoulder pads. I guess maybe I was in the sixth or seventh grade. The contest was played near the Curve-In Pool on a big slopping grassy side yard of someone’s house. If I remember correctly, Green Wave stars Wayne Charpia and the late Billy Sedivy refereed.  A kid on the other team named Punky Pearson ran through our arm tackles for touchdown after touchdown. A less romantic child might have reasoned that maybe he wasn’t cut out for the bigtime.

But when high school rolled around, in the fall of ’68, I went out for junior varsity. The tryouts were at Doty Field, and although our coach, Reid Charpia, didn’t cut anyone, lesser talents like me had to pick out our equipment last from a diminished pile of helmets, pads, pants, and shoes. I ended up with white, not gold pants, and a pair of high-top cleats at least two sizes too big.

I will say this for myself. I didn’t quit as several did. Practices were brutal. Hydration was frowned upon in those days, though I think we had salt pills.  I ran the windsprints, got creamed in the tip drills, but managed to survive the season without serious injury. On Thursdays, I got to wear my jersey to school, number 67, not a typical number for a halfback, but appropriate enough for a fourth string halfback.

The good news is that the Summer of Love had just passed, and other recreations beside football were in the offing for those not well-suited to bodily collisions.


[1] In subsequent years a few Green Wave veterans ended up in the NFL, most notably, AJ Green.

Miss Capers Gives Edgar Allen Poe a Gothic Run for His Money

V0025881 The witch of Endor with a candle. Engraving by J. Kay, 1805,

The witch of Endor with a candle. Engraving by J. Kay, 1805, Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

 

Of all the many eccentric characters who haunted the streets of my hometown in childhood, including the mentally challenged man known as Pepsi Cola and another more infamous miscreant who trafficked in underwear and firecrackers, I believe that the old crone known as Miss Capers deserves the title of the strangest Summervillian of all.[1]

In the early Sixties, my maternal grandparents stayed in a subdivided Victorian house on West 3rd Street, the upstairs having been split into two apartments, the bottom story uninhabited and warehousing a portion of some wealthy family’s estate: furniture, rugs, an extensive library with hundreds of books.[2] In the side yard there was a well.  You could remove the cinder block and then the plywood and peer into an abyss.  I think I remember looking down at my reflection in water, but I may have gotten that idea from a Seamus Heaney poem. Behind the house was an open grassy field and a patch of woods featuring bamboo that we called “Ghost Forest.” It was a convenient neighborhood, two houses down from Timrod Library and close to the Playground via the short cut through Pike Hole.

sepia house copy

Although not an adventurous child, I somehow gained entrance into those off-limit rooms downstairs, the furniture sheeted, the air stale. I’d sneak below and explore. After repeated visitations and investigating some of the books I could reach on the lower shelves, I started secretly “borrowing” individual volumes of the Complete Works of Edgar Alan Poe.

20200308poe-015_1296x

This is from the actual set I’m talking about

pit-pendulum-bmp-2Each slender volume, bound in red, featured sheer paper sheathing occasional engravings of ravens, subterranean crypts, or rats gnawing on ropes of the dudgeon-bound protagonist of “The Pit and the Pendulum.”  Into the forbidden first-story space I’d sneak, terrified I’d get caught, carefully replacing last week’s purloined octavo, flipping through other volumes, choosing another based solely on the luridness of the illustrations.

I was only eight or nine, so most of the prose lay beyond my reckoning, but I could manage lots of the poetry and some of the stories (“The Tell Tale Heart,” for example). Unable to distinguish bathos from profundity, I became completely enamored of the singsong silliness of “The Raven,” devoting several stanzas to memory. “Annabelle Lee” could bring tears to my eyes. Something sinister lay beneath those works, so the whole enterprise smacked of trafficking in pornography – though pornography would not have been in my early Sixties vocabulary.

I’d smuggle the forbidden text and read it surreptitiously in bed because I knew my parents/ grandparents wouldn’t approve of my trespassing and borrowing without asking. I liked the musty smell of the books, the way the pages whispered when I turned them, the way the illustrations lay perversely beneath diaphanous paper. Despite the buxom space sirens who cavorted on the covers of pulpy paperbacks, Sixties sci-fi couldn’t compete with the deep purple sublimations of diseased consciousness that I found in Poe.

The thing is, though, if it were the gothic that I was craving, I needed only to traipse across the hall and knock on mysterious Miss Capers’ door because she lived in the other apartment in the upstairs of my grandparents’ house. Truth is, I would not have knocked on her door for five dollars, a fortune in those days, because my brother David and I were convinced that she was a witch, and as far as diseased consciousnesses go, Miss Capers could give Bertha Mason, Mr. Rochester’s insane wife in Jane Eyre, a run for her money.

She certainly looked witchlike with her sharp nose and perpetual frown. It seemed that she only possessed two outfits, the one she wore most often a brown, probably woolen, monkish garment, the hood coming to a point pulled up over her stark white hair, even on blistering summer afternoons.  Her other outfit consisted of an old-fashioned white blouse and long blue skirt. Her shoes were strange Victorian contraptions, boots, I guess you’d call them, that had several buttons on the side.  She looked like she’d stepped out of the pages of a 19th Century Gothic novel.

shoes

She rarely left the house, but occasionally you’d spy her walking down the street, hunched over a cane in one hand and a bag in the other. Perpetually belligerent, she’d shake her cane at you if you passed her on the sidewalk. I seem to remember that she was terrified of thunder and lightning. One time my parents took David, my high-school aged aunt Virginia, and me into Miss Capers’ room during a storm, I think to try to comfort her, and she told me the safest thing to do during a thunderstorm was to place your face six inches from a window and to stare out at the rain. It’s the only conversation I ever had with her.

Eventually, a smell began to emanate from Miss Capers’ room, which we thought might be accumulated garbage, but when the smell metastasized into a stench, my father knocked, then pounded on the door, eventually forcing it open. I wasn’t there at the time, but what he found was Miss Capers sitting with her leg wrapped in newspapers, gangrenous, terrible to behold, literally rotting.

Of course, my parents called for an ambulance, and from what I understand, the leg was amputated, and she survived, but was taken away somewhere to live out the rest of her days and nights under some sort of supervision.

Miss Capers would have made an excellent ghost, moaning in that room whenever a thunderstorm passed, but the house has been redone, been spiffed up with all its gothic traces effaced, an incongruous setting for a specter. They should have kept that library, though. It was really something. Perhaps if I ever become a ghost, I’ll haunt it, aggrieved that the books shelves have been replaced with prissy wainscoting.


[1] According to legend, the second man would trade firecrackers to naive newcomers to town for a pair of their underwear and a photograph of them. He would say, “I’ll give you 50 pack of firecracker for your drawers.” If successful in the transaction, he would tie the underwear (always tightie whities) behind his bike, place the photograph of the victim in the underwear, and pedal his bicycle all over town. There was a local band fronted by the late Jerry Stimpson who adapted Yardbirds hit “For Your Love” into “For Your Drawers.”

Also, I realize that “crone” has fallen into disfavor because of its sexist connotations, but I use it here anyway because, well, she fit precisely the definition, especially the bad-tempered part.

[2] It’s still there, across the street from Bethany Methodist Church.

Sometimes the Twain Do Meet

Dorchester County Hospital Summerville, SC

Dorchester County Hospital Summerville, SC 1950s

In the first decade of my life, the 1950s, my mother worked as a practical nurse at Dorchester County Hospital in Summerville, South Carolina. Unfortunately, I got to spend more time at the hospital than I would have liked because I contracted rheumatic fever in 1956, which would result in a two-week stay in a ward at the hospital and two months in bed at home after that.

I was only five at the time, so my memory of the ward is hazy. I remember getting EKGs and Reverend Storm, the Baptist preacher, coming and extolling everyone on the ward to bow their heads and pray for me, which I found embarrassing, and I also remember some of my mother’s friends and my grandmother’s friends coming to visit the hospital.

hospital-ward-1950s-cropped

One of these was Vivian Mallard, a good friend of my grandmother’s. I remember her playing a simple board game called Davy Jones Locker with me as I lay in the hospital bed. If erect posture is a sign of moral uprightness, Vivian was a paragon of virtue. She was a short, trim woman with curly gray hair and glasses, a no-nonsense lady who walked as if she were balancing an etiquette book on her head. After my recovery, when my grandmother kept my brother and me while Mama was nursing, I spent many a boring hour on Vivian Mallard’s porch or in her immaculately trimmed yard while “Mama Blanton,” as we called my grandmother, and Vivian exchanged gossip about the ins and outs and comings and goings of Summerville’s citizenry.

Another of Mama Blanton’s good friends was Miriam Etheridge, who with her husband ran a grocery store attached to their house just down the street from Alston High School, the African American School in those days of segregation. This was a “colored neighborhood,” as we put it back then, so the clientele of the store was almost exclusively African American.  Because of segregation, my only exposure to Black children was at the store. I remember the girls having elaborate, complicated hairdos featuring multiple parts and ponytail like projections. I actually had a crush on one of the Black girls, a tall, pretty light-skinned girl, but even back then I knew better than admit to something like that.[1]

Perhaps, it was at Mrs. Etheridge’s store that I first encountered Harold, a mysterious black man whom people claimed “was not right in the head.”  In addition to mental illness, Harold suffered from a strange, plum-sized, sac-like growth dangling from his ear that my mother called a “wen.” Scouring google for an approximation, the closest image I could come up with is the one below, which isn’t nearly big enough. Why no charitable entity sought to have it removed seems strange. But back then even doctors’ offices were segregated with separate black and white waiting rooms. Perhaps pro bono operations weren’t a thing.

cystAt any rate, among the rumors about Harold was that he had been on a path to becoming a physician but had some sort of mental breakdown in medical school. Whatever the case, Harold’s status in his adulthood was that of a vagrant. Riding my bicycle through the park, one time I saw him passed lying among azalea bushes with a jug next to him.

Another time, in those days before people locked their cars, Harold crawled into the back seat of Vivian Mallard’s Oldsmobile and fell asleep. It’s not clear if he had done so the night before or in the morning when Vivian decided to go grocery shopping.  It wasn’t until she arrived at the Piggly Wiggly parking lot and got out of her car that she discovered Harold curled up unconscious in the back. I suspect that she screamed, but I don’t know for sure. And I also don’t know if Harold was arrested or whatever ultimately became of him. Sometimes cases like his were sent up to the State Mental Hospital on Bull Street in Columbia, an institution featuring the same dark brown bricks that gave Dorchester County Hospital such an uninviting vibe. If he had been sent to Columbia, maybe they would have removed the wen, but at that point, it wouldn’t have done him much good.

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The now abandoned State Mental Hospital on Bull Street


[1] She actually appears in a short story I wrote, which you can access here.

Update: Please note in the comments that Harold indeed eventually had the wen removed.

The Silent Screams of Preacher Simmons

preacher simmons illustration

There was a man in Summerville named Preacher Simmons. I don’t think Preacher was an ecclesiastic title, but merely what his mama had named him.

Unfortunately, cancer had claimed Preacher’s larynx, and after his tracheotomy, he communicated by holding a vibrating wand to his throat that produced a strange humming robotic voice. He and my granddaddy, Kistler Blanton, had been pals for a half-century, once boyhood fishing buddies, now surreptitious drinking buddies, both cursed with Baptist wives raised by Puritanical mothers way back in the days not long after Reconstruction.

Preacher called my house one time when I was twelve or so, asking for my granddaddy, and not putting two and two together, I thought I was getting bamboozled with a prank call. Not to be outwitted, I said in a theatrically polite voice, “I’m sorry, sir, but there are no extra-terrestrials by that name living here.”

Without waiting for an answer, I hung up.

In less than a minute, the phone rang again, so I picked it up and heard again the robotic vibrato in my ear, “Preacher Simmons, this is Preacher Simmons on the line. I need to talk to Kistler.”

Of course, I felt terrible.  “So sorry, Mr. Simmons,” I said, halfway apologizing and halfway not, segueing from my sorry-ness about my rudeness to my sorry-ness that Kistler was not at my house. I told him I had no idea where he might be, though I couldn’t imagine he wasn’t in his room, where he spent virtually all of his time.[1] No, he hummed, he’d tried that. My grandmother had given him our number.

 

Alas, this next anecdote featuring Preacher Simmons may strike you as cruel, but if I were telling it to you in the flesh, I guarantee you that you’d laugh out loud. When I was an English teacher, I used to tell it to my classes to illustrate the cruelty of comedy, to suggest that laughter itself could be strange and creepy, a sort of nervous reaction brought on by either discomfort or perverse incongruity.[2] When telling the story, I’d act the part of Preacher, placing an invisible wand to my throat, mimicking his robotic voice, making a Lowcountry baritone sound mechanical.  It never failed: at the denouement, every year, every single student would be laughing out loud, some ashamed of themselves but unable to stifle the reaction.

In fact, the story would make a great silent one-reeler, with Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd starring as Preacher. It would have to be filmed outside in a yard with an unpaved driveway that snaked some fifty yards between pine trees to a clapboard house without a garage.

Anyway, Preacher’s wife, whose name I’ve forgotten, had purchased some piece of furniture that had been stashed in the back of their station wagon and impeded her view from the rearview mirror. She had parked the vehicle way up the driveway and honked the horn, summoning Preacher from the house. The idea was that he’d turn the station wagon around and back the vehicle to the front porch so they could save some steps unloading the furniture. When she got him on the porch, Preacher’s red-rimmed eyes and the telltale olfactory emanations of Old Grandad signaled to Mrs. Simmons that she ought to be the one driving, that Preacher ought to be the one to help her negotiate the twists, turns, and trees of the driveway.

So she pulled up a ways, turned the car around, and started backing up. Standing behind the wagon, with auditory wand to throat, he guided her, waving with his free arm, back peddling as the vehicle moved slowly in reverse.

“COME ON BACK,” his electrified voice hummed. “TURN IT MORE. KEEP TURNING.”

He backed into a tree, so he decided to cut around the back of the wagon to the other side, but tripping on a root, he went sprawling, arms splayed, the wand falling from his hand and rolling out of his reach.

Of course, when he screamed for her to stop, there were no sounds, just a mouth franticly mouthing, “STOP! FOR CHRISTSAKES, STOP!”

Mrs. Simmons felt the vehicle run over something, a root or limb she thought, so she shifted gears, put in forward, and ran over Preacher one more time.

She got out, walked to the back of the wagon to find her husband, thrashing on his stomach in the dirt, screaming in pain, mime-like, his head lifted with his mouth opening and closing again and again in thunderous silence.

She leaned over and handed him his wand, so he could scream out loud, so she could ask him how bad off he was, but the contraption no longer worked.

The good news is that he wasn’t bad off at all. The station wagon had rolled over his legs, not inflicting all that much damage. According to Mama, Preacher and Kistler had consumed so much alcohol over the course of their long lives, they had become “pickled,” a metabolic process that made them impervious to injury.

I guess you could say Kiki and Preacher lived semi-charmed lives.

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[1] You can read a more detailed description of his existence here.

[2] I have a theory about the psychological creepiness of laughter, which you can read here.

 

Tales from Old Summerville

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Old Carolina Inn, the first building in Summerville to have an elevator

Before the fast food franchises, before the Wal-Marts, before the sprawl, my hometown Summerville, SC, was a lovely, quiet village nestled in a pine forest 25 miles northwest of Charleston.  Settled just after the Revolutionary War and originally known as Pineland Village, the community in those days offered a haven for plantation owners seeking seasonal escape from malaria-bearing mosquitoes.

Eventually, Pineland Village became known as Summerville, and people started settling there year round. In 1847, Summerville officially became a municipality, and that very year the town council passed one of the first conservation laws in the nation, a statue forbidding cutting down trees of a certain circumference without permission.

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Town Hall back in the day

This passion for conservation and appreciation for the beauty of nature resulted in the planting of hundreds of azaleas, camellias, and gardenias throughout the town, both in its municipal parks and in the yards of the old clapboard whitewashed Victorian houses.  In the springtime, what is now called “the Old Village” or “the Historic District” has to rank as one of the most beautiful towns in the nation.  It claims as its official motto “Flowertown in the Pines.”

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St Paul’s Episcopal Church (photo credit Fleming Moore)

In 1950, the year my mother graduated from Summerville High School, the population stood at 3,312; in 1970, the year I began my senior year there, the population had barely grown to 3,839.  However, it almost doubled between 1970 and 1980 and grew a startling 247% to 22,519 from 1980 to 1990.  Since then, the population has doubled yet again, and according to a 2019 estimate, now 52,549 people call Summerville home.  When I go there nowadays, have lunch out or hit a bar, I recognize virtually no one.

However, in the old days, being a native and growing up “Flowertown” meant that everyone knew everyone else, which was a real disadvantage if you were a redhead like me.

“Did you recognize any of the boys?”

“No, but one of them was redheaded.”

“I bet it was Rusty Moore.  I’ll call his mother.”

Everyone in town knew everyone else, but outside of the town limits, there were a number of smaller unincorporated communities like Knightsville, which had its own elementary school, the Boone Hill community, Stallsville, New Hope, etc.  By junior high, children from these communities had matriculated in Summerville schools.  Unfortunately, a few of these rural children were dirt poor.  I remember shoeless White children hopping on the bus on the first day of school. We’re talking about the days of segregation when only a few handpicked African Americans had been integrated into our classes, and they were from downtown and academically talented.  Because academically, we were “tracked,” I rarely interacted with any of the disadvantaged kids from the rural areas, although I became good friends with several prosperous college prep kids from Knightsville.

However, when PE started in the 7th grade, I not only interacted with some of the disadvantaged rural kids, but I also showered with them, and since several had failed a year or two, some sported five o’clock shadows rather than peach fuzz.  PE  is where I first met Bobby Bosheen, the antagonist (and protagonist) of this piece.

My attempts to google Bobby Bosheen have turned up zilch.  I heard somewhere decades ago that he had been chained to a tree and bullwhipped and lost an eye.  Another rumor had him throwing a Hanahan boy off the Folly Pier and killing him in a tribal fight between rival high schools.  Although I doubt that either rumor is true, I don’t doubt that Bobby is no longer among the quick.  To say that he had anger issues is to say that Kanye West has ego issues.  Adjectives like volcanic and nuclear come to mind.  I would like to think that Bobby overcame his rage, that he turned out okay because deep down inside I don’t think he was a bad person.  He had this haunted look about him that suggested his childhood hadn’t taken place on Sunnybrook Farm.

For some odd reason, one Saturday, I let my friend, the late Gordon Wilson, talk me in going to Boone Hill Methodist Church to engage in unsupervised tackle football with the natives of that region.  Bobby was among the crew and had a jolly time swinging elbows, crushing ball carriers, and piling on.  Even though I enjoyed the game about as much as I would a root canal, I think my participation reaped the benefit of Bobby’s vaguely recognizing me and therefore not targeting me as an adversary.  True, he did punch me once as I was sitting in a car at the Curve-Inn Pool, but he was rip-roaring drunk and started fights that night with numerous revelers, including Kenny Reese, a popular basketball player.  The very next week I saw Bobby at Tastee Freeze, and Gordon asked him why he had punched me, and Bobby actually apologized, lamenting, “Whiskey and beer don’t mix.”

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The Old Tastee-Freeze

What really solidified my self-identification as a coward was Bobby’s girlfriend, a large, stringy haired bruiser with discolored teeth and the calves of a linebacker.  Unlike, Bobby, she hated me, hated me viscerally on sight. This was in ’70 or ’71, and I had started to grow my hair long and dress like Neil Young.  She used to position herself outside the entrance of the back of the main building and threaten me.  “I can’t wait to cut your ass, you red-headed bitch,” she said one day with arms crossed blocking the entrance.

red neck gal

I suspected she could have, given that she outweighed me and I hadn’t been in a real fight since the fourth grade, so I turned tail and found another entryway.  Whenever I saw her, I avoided her.  She scared the shit out of me.

The last time I heard something concrete about Bobby was in ’75 when I was bumming a ride back to college with one of my mother’s colleagues, a teacher at Newington Elementary School.  As we passed Morris Knight’s, a beer joint, the husband of the teacher, a non-Summerville native, mentioned that he had made the mistake of going in there one time to shoot pool and had been assaulted and actually beaten with pool cues.  He told me that he had pressed charges against the assailant, who was convicted, but that he couldn’t remember his name, that is was something funny sounding.

“Bobby Bosheen,” I suggested.

“Yes, that’s it!  Bobby Bosheen!”

Of course, Bobby’s anger had to come from somewhere.  I suspect at home he was no stranger to corporal punishment.  Perhaps, like Pee Wee Gaskins, he had been strung upside down naked and beaten with a two-by-four.  If he had been born to one of the families living on Carolina Avenue in a Victorian house with a spacious porch beneath moss draped live oaks among the azaleas, I suspect he and the rest of the world would have gotten along much better.

sville house