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.


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.


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.

Tales from Old Summerville

carolina inn

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.


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.”


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.”

tastee freeze

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

Hillary, Barry, and Me

1101630614_400Like Hillary Clinton, I, too, worked for Barry Goldwater in the ’64 election, although I was only 12. Growing up in Summerville, South Carolina, I had inherited this tiny hamlet’s folkways, which is just another way of saying I was a racist, although a relatively benign one. In Summerville, not only could you encounter a “whites only” sign above the laundromat, but also patients in doctors’ offices were segregated into separate waiting areas, like dogs and cats waiting to see a vet.

My parents did not hate black folk – we were taught not to use the n-word and loved our “maid” Alice like an aunt – but my folks deemed “colored people,” as they called them, inherently inferior.[1] Obviously, given that he had voted against the Civil Rights Bill, Barry Goldwater was their man, so our 1964 Ford Falcon station wagon sported an Au(H20) bumper sticker because we wanted “a choice not an echo” and “in our hearts” we knew “he was right.”

The fledging Dorchester County Republican Party had rented the defunct movie theater as Goldwater headquarters where they distributed buttons and bumper stickers, and on a couple of Saturdays played the old Fay Wray King Kong movie for an admission fee of ten cents. Among other nominal duties, my job at the theater was to climb a ladder and position letters on the marquee outside. This theater didn’t have a balcony, and even if it did, I doubt if black children would have wanted to donate their pennies to the Goldwater cause. Once, when I took a short cut through one of their communities on my bike (which also sported a Goldwater sticker), I was pelted with rocks, a valuable lesson that freedom of speech can be dangerous.

Well, obviously, Goldwater lost, and I was heartbroken, but attitudes were slowly changing in Summerville. For one thing, the public basketball courts became integrated, even before the school became fully so. I played three-on-three half-court b-ball there after school and on Saturdays. The black kids had different rules – you didn’t take the ball back past the foul line if you got a defensive rebound – but we all got along well, and I got to be friends with these boys before they became my classmates when Summerville’s black and white schools finally merged in 1969. I remember passing a bottle of Boone’s Farm to my pal Mookie at my friend Adam’s one night as we took turns taking swigs. This action would have enraged my father if he could have seen it, even though he was Alice’s children’s Santa Claus, even when we couldn’t afford it.

And so, like Hillary, I switched political sides, I started cancelling my father’s vote out — my very first one cast for McGovern — and politics became a topic best not broached at the dinner table, along with race, and a host of other potentially explosive issues.

It’s hard to believe it’s been fifty years, and although things are much better now, obviously, white supremacy is still alive in darkened, un-Christian anti-intellectual cesspools, and I suspect I won’t see that change in my lifetime. But things do change; people do change sides. It will be interesting to see how many South Carolinians do in this election – if not completely change sides, go for the libertarian candidate.

[1] Alice, for example, called me “Mr. Rusty.”

You can't see it, but there's a Goldwater sticker on the back bumper

You can’t see it, but there’s a Goldwater sticker on the back bumper

[What in Those Days Were Called] Village Idiots

I’ve come to distrust memories, which, if you want to get technical, are basically chemical/electric configurations warehoused somewhere, somehow in the brain. Over the course of my six decades, I have not always consumed the recommended daily allowance of vitamins.* I also plead guilty to attempting to blunt the pain of my existence by drinking more than the recommended daily allowance of malted beverages — a combination of behaviors that I suspect over the course of a lifetime might fray synapses, make brain chemicals go bad — might muddy memory, desire, dream, daydream.

*My mistyping of vitamins was auto-corrected to “citizens.”

For example, it seems that every time I tell a story, my wife Judy has a different, more prosaic memory of the events, like the tattoo on the palm of the hand of the panhandler not actually being on the palm of his hand but on his wrist.

When I’m telling the story, I’m sure I’m right — can see the swastika clearly slashing across the wrinkles of his palm — but I’ve been proven wrong so many times I’ve lost virtually all confidence in my recollection of events.

Today!This lack of confidence in the reality of my memories is more pronounced the further back I go. For example, did I dream this up, or was there in my hometown of Summerville, SC a [what in those days was called] colored man who travelled the streets in a mule-pulled buggy equipped with automobile tires? In my mind’s eye he’s wearing a slouching felt hat. But who knows? Maybe I’m confusing him with the image of Mississippi John Hurt on the album cover.

Then there was a [what in those days was called] retarded man whom everyone called Pepsi Cola, because he’d come up to you — in this case me, an 8-year-old — and ask you to buy him a Pepsi Cola. I think even though he was a grown man, he lived with his mother, so he didn’t roam around the town but might accompany her to the Piggly Wiggly where he’d wander off. You could tell he wasn’t “right” by his head bobbing and slurry annunciation and the repetitive, obsessive poverty of his diction.

But the absolute king of the Summerville town [what in those days were called] idiots was a man whose Christian and surname I’m not going to repeat for his family’s sake but whom everyone called Beakie.

Although he seemed much younger than my mother, she told me that they rode the same school bus and that he would try to impress the girls by sticking pencils so deep into his gums that they would embed and stick out.

In my junior high days, Beakie rode a bicycle back and forth along the sidewalks of Summerville, and he wore national guard fatigues — or was it that he only wore a national guard hat, the kind that Fidel Castro wore back in the day?

Anyway, what earned Beakie his notoriety was that he 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 band in town who actually played a version of “For Your Love” with these lyrics:

For your drawers, for your drawers,
I’ll give you 50 pack . . .

It sounds impossible, doesn’t it? Is my memory of Beakie coasting by on his bicycle dragging drawers and a polaroid of some sucker a legitimate memory or concoction?

Frankly, I have no idea.