Going Back in Time Down Highway 162 South

drowning treesBecause we don’t work from June through July, Judy Birdsong and I tend to take trips to far flung places like Chicago, New Orleans, Lisbon, Paris.

We had planned last summer to head out on a whim in late July to a yet-to-be-decided somewhere, like Nova Scotia or the Pacific Northwest, but just after the 4th, Judy was diagnosed with PTCL-NOS, a more-often-than-not fatal non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

I’ll spare you the Lifetime movie of our dealing with uncertainty, calling our sons with bad news, the cheery waiting room posters pushing upcoming studies for the recently relapsed. To make a long, painful story short, after four rounds of in-hospital 96-hour continuous EPOCH chemo, Judy’s last PET scan came back “completely normal.” Although the process is far from over, the quick disappearance of the cancer bodes well for a permanent cure.

Time, then, to celebrate. We hadn’t vacated town since last October’s Leaf Festival to see Dr. John and the New Orleans brass band the Soul Rebels*, so we decided to drive down to Edisto last Sunday before Judy’s fifth round of chemo** and visit Botany Bay, 5,000 acres of what once were cotton fields from plantations that are [cue “Tara’s Theme”] no more.

Botany Bay’s main attraction, though, is a three-mile stretch of pristine beach whose bleached dead trees succumbing to the assault of the encroaching ocean serve as poignant symbols of what the ravager Time has in store for all of us. The copious shells that crunch under your feet and decorate the trees along the strand like grave ornaments offer their own testimony that time, time, time, ain’t on our side.


*Click HERE to see a video of Judy, the Soul Brothers, and Dr. John in action.

** She still has two more rounds of chemo, a stem cell transplant, and perhaps radiation before it’s over.

 The Drive Down

Rantowles

This trip down to Edisto took us right past the first house owned, a brick-veneer 3-bedroom ranch-style monstrosity custom-built by a good ol’ boy who couldn’t believe we were taking out the red and orange shag carpet he had just put in last year. We didn’t have the heart to tell him the red sink in the green bathroom was also slated for removal. The house’s redemption was that it overlooked Logbridge Creek, which connected to the Intercoastal Waterway. The view from the backyard and bedroom bay window was like, as my friend Steve Rey put it, a cover off of South Carolina Wildlife.

Judy and Me at our first house in Rantowles

Judy and Me at our first house in Rantowles

So Judy and I detoured right down Chaplin’s Landing Road to check out those digs of yore.

Guess what?

It’s changed. Our old dirt road is now a paved street lined with handsome houses that make our original seem like an embarrassing uncouth great uncle, you know, the one who wears suspenders that clash with his flannel shirt. A large Beware of Dog sign graced the busy front yard with its un-pruned Azaleas, garden do-dads, and array of automobiles.

Hollywood

Once we got back on Hwy 162 headed towards Edisto, we discovered that things haven’t changed that much since the early ’80’s, in fact, haven’t changed much since I was a boy.

Lining the road stood small modest domiciles, a mixture of wooden cottages, manufactured homes, and dilapidated house trailers. Business establishments include Parry Ruth’s Beauty Parlor, Youmans Natural Gas, small engine repair shops — lots of family owned businesses. The one incorporated town you pass through, Hollywood, hasn’t suffered the ever growing proliferation of traffic lights that plague the Charleston area. However, I don’t remember this antique store whose outside sentinel certainly headembodies the theme of the post.

Nevertheless, on the drive down, I felt as if I were once again in the Old South, here where black country folk seem to outnumber white country folk, and what a pleasure to see brothers and sisters in all of their finery chatting on the steps of an AME church.

Well, a couple of things had changed. The house trailer we remember perched on concrete block stilts is gone, along with a full sized mattress that hung like a hammock with four chains dangling from the boughs of a giant live oak, each chain attached to one of the mattress’s four corners.

Hollywood to Botany Bay

churchOnce you’re out of Hollywood, you enter even deeper into the disappearing South, pass through tunnels of moss-festooned live oaks, transverse bridges offering marsh vistas, pass a generous sampling of white-washed churches of various denominations. Genteel establishments like the Old Post Office Restaurant closed on Sunday stand as mute reminders of days gone by.

 

The Beach at Botany Bay

Natural Resources runs the Preserve, so you have to stop and sign in. The friendly ranger, who looked like he might be a volunteer, provided us a map and warned us of what not to do (collecting a shell can cost you a $470 fine), and gave us a brief history of the plantations that once stood on the property.

The beach is being engulfed by the sea, which has created a sort of graveyard of entangled trees, some blanched white and prone, others with beautiful swirls of root wood, other’s standing alone in the ocean like a crazy old doomed King Canute.

A variety of shells carpet the sand, but a chambered nautilus I saw not among the Darwinian litter.

tangleHow wonderful to be alive on this island of the dead! How wonderful to know the little that we know.

The Plantation Ruin Tour

Ain’t nothing left to speak of — an ice house, a tabby tool shed, dikes, and part of a plantation house’s foundation.

I couldn’t help but think of the slaves on this Sabbath, their only day off, nothing much to look forward to.  Their cottages used to line the Creek, according to our map.  Evil.

The six mile dirt road drive was pretty enough, but after four so hours of unrelenting beauty, I longed for the familiar squalor of Chico Feo’s.

We hauled ass home opting for the short cut via Toogoodoo Road where you can go 60 and not encounter another car for miles and miles.

shellsbutterflies

The Struggle Itself

Each weekday morning when Judy’s getting her 96-straight hours of EPOCH at Roper, I pull into the Doughty Street Parking Lot around 7,  just when the hospital staff switches from day to night shift. As I cross Doughty on foot, Judy’s morning paper in hand, I work against the oncoming pedestrian traffic of off-duty nurses, technicians, engineers, many in their uniforms. Nurses in their navy blue combinations and high-priced athletic shoes seem especially happy.  I see them walking in groups of three, smiling, chatting, heading to their cars. They work 3 day-12 hour shifts in a fulfilling profession; nevertheless they’re delighted at the moment to be free.

(Now, what do they do? Devour a delicious breakfast and slurp down a bloody mary before drifting off in front of the Today Show?)

Going with my flow, the on-coming staff marches in, but, even though they seem relatively eager to start work, their affect isn’t nearly as upbeat as their departing colleagues. Then again, we aint talking all doctors and nurses here. Some of these people’s jobs don’t seem fulfilling at all, like those men awkwardly manipulating box-stacked carts into narrow elevators, like those cafeteria workers breathing for hours the odor of hospital food, like the crew out front dealing with valet parking.

Their minutes probably crawl by.

MC Escher: Convex and Concave

MC Escher: Convex and Concave

Of course, I’m on the way to work myself to shift through dozens of emails before advisory, and if I’m brave enough, to peek at the day’s school calendar, an absurd, way-too-busy color-coded chart of lines and rectangles that look as if they could be the work of MC Escher. We ride a rotating schedule – either Week A or Week B — and when I arrive at work on a Friday morning, people often greet me with the salutation “Happy Friday” or comment sunnily “it’s Friday.” Some time during the day I’ll receive an email inviting me to a “happy hour” in some conveniently located spirit-stocked decompression chamber.

TGIF!

Mythically speaking, labor is one of Adam’s curses, punishment for his uxoriousness, his casting his lot with Eve instead of Yahweh, which brought death into the world and all our woe, e.g. work — in Adam’s case tilling “cursed ground” that produces “thorns and thistles” — in my case dealing with an educational agenda that might be likened to a jewel box of tangled necklaces — academics, sports, service, chapels, assemblies, advisories, peer reviews, study halls. Or think of circus clowns, not leaving a car one after another after another, but entering a car one after another after another.

Actually, I interpret the Eden myth as a story about the shift from hunting/gathering to agriculture, the shift from running around half naked to the natural pulse of the earth’s heartbeat to our settling down to the soul-crushing repetitiveness of the punch clock.  Thus, the knowledge of good and evil becomes the knowledge of how to cultivate plants from seeds, which many scholars believe was a discovery made by women, the gatherers of edible plants. And, of course, settled communities brought us the establishment of property and its evil twin poverty.  I maintain that Amazonian tribespeople untouched by Western civilization live more meaningful lives than the average American who watches five hours of TV a day.

There’s a cool Philip Larkin poem about what a bitch work is called “Toads.” It goes like this:

Toads

Why should I let the toad work

Squat on my life?

Can’t I use my wit as a pitchfork

and drive the brute off?

 

Six days of the week it soils

With its sickening poison-

Just for paying a few bills!

That’s out of proportion.

 

Lots of folk live on their wits:

Lecturers, lispers,

Losels, loblolly-men, louts-

They don’t end as paupers;

 

Lots of folk live up lanes

With fires in a bucket,

Eat windfalls and tinned sardines-

They seem to like it.

 

Their nippers have got bare feet,

Their unspeakable wives

Are skinny as whippets-and yet

No one actually starves.

 

Ah, were I courageous enough

To shout Stuff your pension!

But I know, all too well, that’s the stuff

That dreams are made on:

 

For something sufficiently toad-like

Squats in me, too;

Its hunkers are heavy as hard luck,

And cold as snow,

 

And will never allow me to blarney

My way to getting

The fame and the girl and the money

All at one sitting.

 

I don’t say, one bodies the other

One’s spiritual truth;

But I do say it’s hard to lose either,

When you have both.

 

I’m with you, Philip. After listening to my litany yesterday about how frustrating teaching has become in the age of technology,  a colleague asked me why didn’t I retire.  A reasonable question given the frustrations I had just catalogued – parents having access to the grades I post on the website, shooting me emails that proliferate like mushrooms while I’m bouncing from meetings to covering detentions or contacting the help desk because the projection wire in one of the rooms where I teach doesn’t work.

Why don’t I retire?  Because I don’t want to. I eventually get bored in the summers if I’m not traveling or working on a project. I like interacting with students, instructing them about the bane of unnecessary linking verbs and the sloppiness of the “naked this” — not to mention the fun introducing them to the Wife of Bath or riding with them up the Congo with Marlow as we steam towards Mistah Kurtz.

It’s like what Camus says in “The Myth of Sisyphus.” –

I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

Sisyphus-e1298413740742