That school with the worst fan base in college basketball.
I am a proud graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Bicentennial Class of 1994.
I’ve converted my Davidson graduate wife to being a huge Tar Heel fan.
I’ve brainwashed the next generation as you can plainly see.
We love us some Tar Heels
We hate our biggest rival.
H A T E
During this basketball season, I must state emphatically dook sux.
At a fellow Tar Heel’s funeral, the person speaking about the deceased told all assembled that the deceased had a particular talent for hating dook.
I miss that person every day for many reasons, that one included.
The rivalry is amazing.
Shove it Dick Vitale.
We all know you’re completely biased toward dook, Baby.
There is a book entitled To Hate Like This Is to Be Happy Forever: a Thoroughly Obsessive, Intermittently Uplifting and Occasionally Unbiased Account of the [dook]- North Carolina Basketball Rivalry by Will Blythe. Published in 2006. I loved it. It accurately describes the hatred that we Tar Heels feel towards that tobacco money melee down 15-501.
Unless you’re a die hard North Carolina fan, you might not like the book.
One school is a large state university of which 85% of its students are required, by law, to come from North Carolina.
Its motto is Lux Libertas. Light and Liberty.
The other is a private college named after the Duke family which started out as the Methodist and Quaker school called Trinity. It is now highly funded by chemical companies and the Yankees that swell its ranks.
Its motto is Eruditio et Religio. Knowledge and faith. A little bit of Methodism left. Not much.
It’s about as Southern as a Connecticut Yankee, a Boston cream pie, a Maine lobstah roll.
I love New England. I went to school there. But, it is weird to have a little piece of Yankeedom in North Carolina.
That’s part of the rivalry.
Ask anyone from around the South; most of them would rather pull for UNC than dook.
And, yes, everyone says, “But, So and So went to dook. You like So and So. Y’all are friends.”
I make my confession here. Some of my friends went to dook.
Yes, I love So and So. But So and So is the exception proving the rule.
I went to Chapel Hill when Christian Laettner played over at dook. I can think of no one more badly named. I guess Antichrist Laettner would have been too obvious.
The guy is the original douche.
He stomped on the chest of a player who was down on the court. Stomped. Hard. Hurt the man.
ESPN’s 30 for 30 entitled “I Hate Christian Laettner” fueled my continued hatred of that dude.
As I watched it, I had no difference of opinion as to him. No softening. No warmth, except the undying fire of my hatred.
As Powers Boothe’s character said to C. Thomas Howell’s character in the first PG-13 movie red-commie-invasion-flick Red Dawn, “Son, all that hatred’s gonna burn you up.”
The reply, “Yeh, Colonel, but it keeps me warm.”
I’m burning up over here.
It’s not fair to judge Mr. Laettner so harshly.
He was only doing the bidding of Rat Face, the evil Mike Krysewski.
Evil. He barely punishes his players for flagrant technical violations.
Coach K indefinitely suspened Grayson Allen a few years ago for tripping an opponent. It definitely didn’t last long. Neither did those crocodile tear apologies.
Coach K stands in stark opposition to the late Dean Smith, who was a god.
So is Roy Williams.
Don’t come at me dook fans.
Yes, yes, yes, yes, I cried like a baby when I read about Coach K’s 37 year friendship with Steve Mitchell. Mr. Mitchell sat behind the dook bench at every home game at Coach K’s insistence. Mr. Mitchell died in 2017 at aged 62 from complications of a stroke. He lived with special needs his entire life, and Coach K made him an integral part of the dook family. I’ll give that one thing to Coach K. One thing.
He’s not all bad.
But, can anyone tell me the name of an evil North Carolina player?
Does anyone remember a North Carolina player stomping someone or intentionally tripping someone?
Does anyone remember the dook students who chanted “Inhale…Exhale” when Steve Hale came back to play after a collapsed lung?
They’re just not nice.
Zion Williamson and his fellow teammates will probably make me eat all of these words this season, but, at the very least, Syracuse beat them already. I got that going for me.
At the end of our alma mater, “Hark the Sound!”, there’s the cheer of
Rah! Rah! Carolina-lina!
Rah Rah! Carolina-lina!
Rah Rah! Carolina-lina!
Go to hell dook!
It used to be
Go to hell State!
It changed as folks over in Raleigh aren’t one millionth as obnoxious as the folks in Durham.
My maternal grandmother had nine siblings, eight of whom lived to adulthood. The children of Lottie and Lee Muller of Redlands in Blythewood, South Carolina.
Lee a/k/a Buie
Wilhelmina a/k/a Willie
The eldest sibling, Mary Lavinia, died very young.
Emma was my grandmother. Emma Kersh Muller Heins.
These great aunts and uncles helped rear me and my brothers and all of us who were second cousins though our great-grandparents. More on them later.
All but two of these siblings lived within thirty minutes of each other and the family place, Redlands, in Blythewood, South Carolina. Named for the color of the soil, my great-grandparents’ house was built in 1790. It would not look out of place in the Lowcountry. The house sits by what is now called Muller Road, named for my family, on a rise of a hill. My great-grandparents’ old outbuildings remain across the road.
Two of my grandmother’s siblings actually lived on land formerly belonging to my great- grandparents.
My grandparents lived in Columbia, South Carolina.
I logged many hours with my beloved maternal grandparents, Emma and Arthur Heins, whom I called Mama (pronounced Maw-Maw) and Papa (pronounced Pah-pah).
I logged many hours with my great aunts and uncles, first cousins once-removed and their spouses, and a whole host of second cousins.
My brothers and I often piled into my grandmother’s bench seated Chevy Impala and rode over to see Aunt Virginia and Uncle Capers, Aunt Rachel and Uncle Kemp, Uncle Buie, Aunt Lucy and Uncle John, Aunt Laura and Uncle Bob. Sometimes we would ride over to Aunt Ruth and Uncle Bob’s house about thirty minutes away. Aunt Willie and Uncle Earl lived in Florida. We didn’t visit with them unless they came to South Carolina. We didn’t visit with Uncle Fred and Aunt Catherine much, but we did swim in their pool on Harden Street just up from Five Points.
Aunt Virginia and Uncle Capers lived on Kilbourne Road only minutes away from my grandparents on West Buchanan Drive.
Aunt Virginia and Uncle Capers capably gardened. Goldfish ponded under water lilies. I should have fallen in that pond as close as I teetered on the edge every time we were there.
“Aunt Virginia, can I go see the goldfish?”
“May I go see the goldfish?”
“Yes, you may, Son”
Aunt Virginia was known for her camellias and her hydrangeas.
Often, we would go round to Aunt Virginia and Uncle Capers’ house for dinner.
Dinner was the main meal of the day, eaten in the early afternoon.
When we didn’t eat in the dining room, we would eat in the sunken breakfast nook off the kitchen.
After one dinner, Aunt Virginia stepped down into the nook with cut glass bowls of dessert. Aunt Virginia baked chocolate cookies that I loved. I knew that’s what she was serving. Nope. That day, she served canned fruit cocktail. Starting to fail. Must have been.
“Aunt Virginia, what is this?” I inquired
“It’s fruit cocktail, Son. You will eat it, and you will like it.”
“No, I won’t,” I retorted.
My grandmother gasped. Uncle Capers and Papa giggled.
Aunt Virginia pinched me under the table with long bony fingers.
I ate the rancid canned fruit in front of me.
I ate it; I didn’t like it.
Uncle Capers died when I was thirteen. He served in World War I and had given my grandmother a dud grenade from Flanders’ fields. At least we were told it was a dud when we were lucky enough to play with it. Yes. We played with a dud grenade from World War I.
A few years after Uncle Capers died, the house on Kilbourne Road sold. My grandmother and her sisters used to say that “Well, Virginia’s broken up housekeeping” even though she had simply moved into the Cornell Arms apartment building uptown, the same building where one of my grandfather’s cousins lived. Back then, the Cornell Arms was for the newly wed and nearly dead. Friends of mine lived there during law school.
We would go up to Cornell Arms to visit Aunt Virginia and my grandfather’s Cousin Easie. At least there were drinks in jelly glasses for us children. We had to sit on uncomfortable sofas covered in silks, brocades, and slip covers in the summer. For what seemed like hours. No amount of iced cookies from the Winn Dixie could alleviate the boredom.
People visited more back then.
“Bring the boys. Come for a visit.”
Constant refrain from my great aunts and uncles when we were in Columbia.
“Latch strings are on the outside.”
“Come see us, hear?”
At such visits, family news and local gossip dominated. We were inculcated in who was related to whom. We knew every branch on the family tree. At least I did.
Aunt Virginia died in 1992. I didn’t go to her funeral at Elmwood Cemetery officiated by one of the assistant priests from Trinity, her church to which she could walk from Cornell Arms. That’s a regret on my part. One of the side tables from her dining room is upstairs in our house. A set of her glasses is in my kitchen cabinets. I went to Trinity when I was in law school and always gave flower memorials in honor of Aunt Virginia and Uncle Capers. Small penitence for not attending her funeral. I could have made it.
My grandparents foisted me upon my Thomas cousins on numerous occasions, which I loved. We were double, triple, quadruple kin to the Thomases on several levels. Aunt Laura Thomas was my grandmother’s sister. Her husband, Uncle Bob Thomas, was my grandfather’s second cousin and running mate from growing up in the small town of Ridgeway, South Carolina, meaning my second cousins were also my fourth cousins. We were kin through the Rosborough family more than twice.
Non-branching family trees aren’t uncommon in the South.
I spent happy hours at Aunt Laura and Uncle Bob’s house, which had been built by Uncle Ike Thomas in the late 1800’s. Uncle Ike was also one of my cousins. My cousins in Ridgeway used to say I was their coastal kin when introducing me around town. Then they’d say, “This is Arthur and Emma’s grandson.” Everyone would smile with acknowledgement. It’s a tiny tiny town.
“How’s Emma? How’s Little Ahhthah?”
My grandfather was Little Arthur until he died.
“Oh, Son, I’m your cousin So and So through the So and Sos.” Another constant refrain when there are nine siblings in a family.
On my visits with the Thomas family, we put on talent shows. A group of children in dress up clothes can sing “Rhinestone Cowboy” loudly and well for grandparents and great aunts and uncles. Old hair brushes make great microphones.
“I want to be where the lights are shining on me.”
Aunt Laura and Uncle Bob encouraged us to gather fresh eggs from the chicken coop.
Don’t walk barefooted through the chicken yard.
I did it all the time.
And according to all those old people with great old Southern accents, it’s a chicken coop sounds like book not coop sounds like Luke.
Eggs used for all manner of breakfasts, dinners, suppers. Always had to wash my feet outside after gathering from the chicken coop.
Aunt Laura and Uncle Bob also ate dinner in the mid-afternoon.
At one such dinner, my cousin Little Bob Thomas, the third of that name, leaned over to me at the dining room table and said in nothing like a stage whisper, “I don’t like eating at Grandmama’s house.”
“Why not?” I asked of him.
“Too many casseroles.”
We had a lot of casseroles.
We had a lot of aspics.
We had a lot of congealed salads with the adjectives “elegant” or “supreme” or “divine” in front of them. I may be the only person under 85 to love any recipe that uses the following directions:
Soften Knox gelatin in hot water
Wait until the Jello begins to set in the icebox, about twenty minutes
Add the fruit
Garnish with a spoonful of mayonnaise
Rinse the cherry pie filling
Chop the walnuts fine
Mix the cream cheese and nuts
Let soak overnight to sweeten
Let the 7UP go flat before adding to the lemon Jello
I don’t remember eating dinners with Aunt Rachel and Uncle Kemp at their house on South Edisto in Columbia. But, Aunt Rachel knew how to entertain us without setting a full table. Aunt Rachel baked gingerbread cookies with us. We begged for it on visits to her house. Such a prolific cookie baker, her own grandchildren called her Cookie.
Aunt Rachel would show us the painting of our ancestor great-something-great-grandfather Frederick Muller, our immigrant from Germany. Painted by his father, our great-something-great-great grandfather in Germany. The portrait intrigued due to the place in the hollow of Herr Muller’s neck. Sliced. Repaired. A hole that had been fixed, poorly.
“Boys, that’s Frederick Muller your [however many]-great grandfather. See that place under his throat. That’s where Sherman’s troops sliced his throat as they passed through.”
That generation cussed Sherman regularly.
Aunt Rachel called my grandmother every day at the same time. The phone would ring at my grandparents’ house, and I would answer knowing that it would be Aunt Rachel.
Precocious little jerk.
“Hey, Aunt Rachel.”
It would always be Aunt Rachel.
With a giggle, she would say, “Put Emma on the phone, Son.”
All males cousins were and are called Son in my family. On all sides.
Both Aunt Rachel and my grandmother would close their eyes when they talked on the phone. I do it now without even knowing it.
Like Aunt Virginia and Uncle Capers, Aunt Rachel and Uncle Kemp were amazing gardeners. Aunt Rachel put egg shells in water to add calcium to her tomato plants. She had foxgloves all over the garden in early summer. Purple and pink phlox spread amid the beds.
Uncle Kemp was a Lutheran pastor known for his work in pioneering mental health care as part of ministry.
Uncle Kemp brought back a Nativity set for me from the Holy Land made of olive wood from the Mount of Olives. He told me I was his only great-niece or great-nephew who would appreciate that. I put it out every Christmas.
We would go see Uncle Buie, pronounced Buh-ee, whose real name was Lee, but it’s the South and everyone has an Uncle Buie, Uncle Bubba, Uncle Boy, Uncle Brother. Uncle Buie kept cattle and would call them for us. He loved to make dump cakes and would show up with a dump cake in tow whenever there was a family function. He kept a running tally of Christmas cards received every year.
We used to have giant Easter egg hunts at Uncle Buie’s with second cousins running all over filling Easter baskets hoping to find the golden egg.
Uncle Buie also called my grandparents house every day.
He lived almost next door to Aunt Lucy and Uncle John Smith. Aunt Lucy used to get into heated arguments with Uncle Buie about raking leaves and the best way to garden.
“Buie, don’t tell me what to do.”
“Lucy, you should use those leaves as mulch.”
“Buie, don’t tell me what to do.”
Aunt Lucy made the best potato salad in the world.
Whenever anyone asked her about her technique, she would say, “All in the world I do is peel and boil red bliss potatoes and add a little celery, salt, pepper and mayonnaise. It’s all in the world I do.”
Mama would put is in the Impala and drive us over to Bishopville to visit with Aunt Ruth and Uncle Bob. Aunt Ruth and Mama were super close; they were closest in age. I have a sepia tinted picture of the two of them as little girls in white linen finery. In the event of fire, I will run out the house with that picture in silver frame.
Aunt Ruth remained the sweetest of those great aunts. Never a word of judgment against anyone or anything. Still not sure we were related.
The whole time I knew her, she was just as sweet as the fresh summer blackberries she covered in sugar until syrup formed.
“These need just a touch more shuga, don’t y’all think?” she would say.
Uncle Bob had served in World War II, jumping out with the 82nd Airborne in France on DDay. Due to a parachute malfunction, he broke his back when a French farmer’s hay bail broke his fall. He didn’t know he had broken his back, but he had. Tougher than shoe leather.
As Uncle Bob was jumping into the thick of it, his father-in-law bemoaned the fate of his distant German kinfolk.
He would say to Aunt Ruth, “Oh, my poor, poor people.”
What about his poor, poor son-in-law?
Aunt Ruth said she would just go cry when her father made such statements.
As a young lawyer, I would pop in on Aunt Ruth if I had court in Lee County. I showed up with bad fried chicken from the Piggly Wiggly or the Hardees or an ugly plant or flowers.
Never show up empty handed.
“Oh, Son, you didn’t need to bring a thing but yourself,” she would exclaim. I secretly new she appreciated even the badly fried yardbird.
After those visits, Aunt Ruth would put out the APB to everyone in the family that I had stopped by. I was her favorite of the great-nieces and -nephews. I just was. Hands down.
As I would leave her door, she would say, “Come back any time, Son.” She would then repeat her family’s hospitality statement, “Latch strings are on the outside.”
I sat on her sofa and all of their sofas for hours and hours.
I would listen.
They talked about the hired help, including “Aunt” Rachel for whom my Aunt Rachel was named. Truly. Yes, just like Aunt Jemima, there had been an Aunt Rachel. Only 100 years ago, folks.
They talked about all of the the sharecroppers who lived on the place, the commissary operated by my great-grandparents, how my great-grandparents were entrusted with the food stores and canned goods of their neighbors during the Depression because they had a cold cellar and the neighbors all around them knew that Lottie and Lee Muller would not steal, about the foster children taken in by my great-grandparents, about cousins who were even more distant kinfolk.
They reported on Aunt So and So who was in her what they called a Second Childhood. We now call that Alzheimer’s.
They discussed how my great-grandmother, a college graduate herself, insisted that all of her children would go to college. No debate, even though she had been trained in debate.
My great grandfather said they could all go work in a mill.
Over her dead body said my great-grandmother.
I need to write all of this down somewhere.
After we would return from dinners and visits and family gossip and discussions about friends, we would retreat to my grandparents’ house. Plopped down in front of reruns on WTBS out of Atlanta. Green Acres were the place for me.
My grandmother would allow us bowls of Pet vanilla ice milk and Pepperidge Farm coconut cake as only grandmothers would allow.
Parents would say such would spoil our suppers.
After watching the news on WIS in the evening, my grandmother would rise and say “Lemme go see ’bout suppa”, pushing up from the same Hepplewhite sofa that now sits in our living room.
Our decorating style could be called Early Dead People.
“Brother Kemp says we are allowed three tries,” Mama would say as she aged and rising from the sofa became more labored.
Into the kitchen she would go. A quick cook, we would be eating in no time. At the dining room table. Always. Usually a smaller meal than dinner.
My brother Arthur was a food critic, too, like our cousin Little Bob.
At one supper around the dining room table, he said, “Mama at your house we always have such little meals.”
Papa placed his napkin over his mouth and laughed out loud.
“Hush, Arthur,” she said, calling both their names.
On one trip to Columbia, we went with my grandmother to shop for something at the now defunct J.B. White’s department store. Height of elegance.
They had a display of books for some reason. I stopped to check them out. I was left behind and one of the clerks took me to my grandmother.
“He loves to read. He’s a bit bookish,” my grandmother told that shop clerk. I now realize that was a bit of an insult. But, she was right. It runs in the family.
Aunt Rachel wrote a memoir entitled, “I Remember” about growing up with all of those siblings and stories of life on the place. She dedicated that memoir “For the Cousins.”
I will be stealing it from my parents and making copies the next time I find it.
At the end of her memoir, Aunt Rachel recalled a conversation with Aunt Virginia when they were both young teachers living together before they were married and started housekeeping.
Aunt Virginia said, “Rachel, we have met many who grew up with more money, more comfort, more education, but we have met none better reared.”
Having spent so much time with that generation, I declare the same.
By now, if you are one of my followers, all sixty of them, you can tell that tradition, continuity, and sameness play a large role in the culture in which I was reared and continue to live by choice.
This includes New Year’s Day.
As that quartet from Ireland sang, nothing changes on New Year’s Day.
We have the same menu, with a few variations, that we had when I was young. We often spent New Year’s Day at the home of Betsey and Bill Robinson with other families. I basically cook the same menu we ate together all those years in Beaufort, at the Robinsons’ home on First Boulevard, then at their home out on Lady’s Island.
When Mary Perrin and I were first married, we had no one to cook the traditional New Year’s Day meal for us; we were going to a house party at Pawley’s Island. Before we left for Pawley’s, I pulled out cookbooks, called my mother for advice, and used the nascent search engine on our home computer to figure out a thing or two before we drove up to Pawley’s. I went to bed at 9:30 p.m., dog sick. The next day, I helped cook the big meal with the Hoppin’ John and cornbread being my contribution. I powered through walking pneumonia and the Y2K scare as there must be Hoppin’ John on New Year’s Day. Nothing changes on New Year’s Day.
I love Hoppin’ John.
Hoppin’ John got me married.
On our first date in law school, I invited Mary Perrin over to my apartment for supper. I had no money to go out, but I did have the old rice steamer from home. I also had some frozen doves in my freezer as it was dove season. I cooked smothered doves with gravy served over Hoppin’ John. The receipt for Hoppin’ John came from Charleston Receipts. I have made that staple for over twenty years. It’s the best version of Hoppin’ John that I’ve ever had. I have been cooking for Mary Perrin ever since. Thanks be to God.
Field peas a/k/a cow peas make all the difference.
Sine qua non.
A little over a year ago, we went to Chapel Hill for a football game and met some college pals. We all decided to go to that venerable Chapel Hill temple of Southern cooking known as Crook’s Corner. I ordered their Hoppin’ John. It made me Hoppin’ mad. Inedible rice with some mushy black eyed peas, green peppers, and onions does not Hoppin’ John make. I won’t darken Crook’s door again if I can help it due to the abomination on my plate in October, 2017.
Every year, I hear strange tales of people eating black eyed peas on New Year’s Day for luck. It’s either field peas, or it ain’t. Full stop.
Every year, we have the same meal on New Year’s Day.
Some years we throw in curried fruit, the kind with the canned pears, peaches, apricots, brown sugar, butter, curry powder.
My mother used to add macaroni and cheese when we ate with the Robinsons and other families.
All that carbohydrate soaking up the prior night’s alcohol.
I don’t love New Year’s Eve. I call it Amateur Night.
For those of us for whom drinking and carousing with friends remains a non-special event, New Year’s Eve chafes. It brings out the hacks. Cute peeps refrain from lampshades as headwear.
I love New Year’s Day due to the menu, the ease, the quiet, the Bloody Mary with pickled okra.
I love the polite cough made by the proper uncorking of Champipple bottles on New Year’s Day.
I love that the menu never changes. Nothing changes on New Year’s Day.
On New Year’s Eve, I will soak my field peas. I will wash and wash and wash and wash and wash my collard greens. I will hope we have had at least one hard freeze to take the bitterness out of the greens.
I will chop the collards and place them in bags to go in the fridge overnight.
On New Year’s Day morning, I will boil the field peas with a little salted pork product: bacon, salt pork, ham hock, side meat.
I will get another pot simmering with more salted pork product and let it roll.
It’s Hayes Star Brand Field Peas or it ain’t.
I will add the collards and cook them until they are bright green but not mushy. The house will stink with the green sulfurous funk of those wealth producing leaves.
I will also fry bacon, chop onion, measure rice for the steamer, season the pork roast, make pepper vinegar, and stir up the cornbread.
I don’t make sweet cornbread. That’s called cake. Jiffy is sweet cornbread. It’s made in Chelsea, MI. Not very Southern. Sweet cornbread may be popular among many of my fellow Sandlappers, but I don’t eat it. Along those same lines, I don’t like sweet tea, banana pudding, or Brunswick stew. Shhhhh. Don’t tell.
By one o’clock everything will be ready for a two o’clock big feed.
Sometimes there’s dessert.
Sometimes there’s not.
When our eldest was three years old, we had another couple come for New Year’s Day dinner. After we ate, our then three year old hung out with Hannah Montana. We four adults, a loose term, sat at table for hours crying laughing and solving the world’s problems.
One year, I cooked the New Year’s Day dinner for eight other couples, all of us being young and childless at the time. A Charleston native whose mother wrote a cookbook about entertaining ate at our table. Her words to me that primal day of 2002, “Ham, this is my mother’s Hoppin’ John.”
I’ve served my parents.
I’ve served my in-laws.
I’ve served other families, including Godfamily.
I’ve served rando’s in town who have come to our table with friends of friends.
Entertaining angels unawares and all as the Good Book tells us to do.
No matter who breaks cornbread with us on New Year’s Day, the menu will be the same.
Nothing changes on New Year’s Day.
.….in the stateliest of Charleston houses and in the humblest cabin…good thing I put that star there….
Here’s the Hoppin’ John from Charleston Receipts with a couple of hints since nothing changes on New Year’s Day.
1 cup raw cow peas (dried field peas)
4 cups water
2 tsp salt
1 cup raw rice
4 slices bacon, fried crips, drippings reserved
1 medium onion, chopped
Boil peas in salted water until tender. Add peas and 1 cup of pea liquid to rice, bacon and grease and onion. Put in top of rice steamer and cook for 1 hour or until rice is thoroughly done.
Mrs. W. H. Barnwell (Mary Royall)
So, here are the tricks. I double this every year. In rice steamers, it’s one to one. One cup of raw rice for one cup of liquid. I have an ancient rice steamer that probably puts aluminum salts directly into our blood stream, leading straight to Alzheimer’s. I always add more liquid and more peas. I always steam at full tilt then cut it way back. The steamer acts as its own warming dish. I also add a few good bops of Tabasco sauce, too. If you know what a bop is, then, you’re my kind of cook.
I always make those changes to Mrs. Barnwell’s original receipt even though nothing changes on New Year’s Day.
And if a double-decker bus Crashes into us To die by your side Is such a heavenly way to die
And if a ten-ton truck Kills the both of us To die by your side Well, the pleasure – the privilege is mine
from “There is a Light That Never Goes Out”
Words & lyrics by Johnny Marr & Steven Patrick Morrissey
For those of us who were tormented teens of a certain age, there is no greater angst- ridden, black- t-shirt-and-jeans-donning, awkward-arm-holding, guitar-bass-and-drum-driven-band than The Smiths.
Violently independent sound.
Rejection of the punk of the late 1970’s.
Rejection of the dance and synthesized pop of the early 1980’s.
Burn down the disco! Hang the blessed DJ!
She said in the days when you were hopelessly poor, I just liked you more.
Pass me a cigarette
Such bon mots as
They said “There’s too much caffeine in your bloodstream and a lack of real spice in your life”
Call me morbid, call me pale
I got confused. I killed a horse. I can’t help the way I feel
I wear black on the outside ’cause black is how I feel on the inside
What she said to me at the end of the day, Caligula would have blushed
Now I know how Joan of Arc felt as the flames rose to her Roman nose and her Walkman started to melt
Since you asked, you’re a flatulent pain the ass
Writing frightening verse to a buck-toothed girl in Luxembourg
Girlfriend in a coma, I know, I know, it’s serious
Oh Manchester so much to answer for
The dream is gone, but the baby is real
Give up to lust; Heaven knows we’ll soon be dust
The alcoholic afternoons we spent in your room
I was bored before I even began
You just haven’t earned it yet, Baby
You just haven’t earned it yet, Son
Some dizzy whore, Eighteen Hundred and Four
I’ve got the 21st century breathing down my neck
I am the son and the heir of a shyness that is criminally vulgar
Oh, I know, I’m un-loveable; you don’t have to tell me
Privileged upbringings gone wrong
Cross-dressing vicars in tutus
Churchyard meetings late at night
Welcome no more
A yodeling coda for boys with thorns in their sides
Please save your life because you’ve only got one
Mixed tapes begged to be filled with such goodness. Only 73 songs total.
Quietly, I listened to The Smiths in the semi-reclusive space of my room on Bayard Street on The Point in Beaufort, South Carolina. How fitting. There weren’t many of my peers in Beaufort listening to The Smiths in 1985. No judgment there, just a fact. May be that was another reason to go off to school.
And if you have five seconds to spare/Then I’ll tell you the story of my life/Sixteen clumsy and shy/I went to London and I……..
Upon arrival at a certain school in Massachusetts, there were more musically kindred spirits. Tons of fans of Moz and Marr and crew.
We loved them.
We knew they didn’t love us.
We knew they hated us.
Part of the charm.
Why do I give valuable time to people who don’t care if I live or die?
At least three Andover friends had that large The Queen is Dead poster in their dorm rooms our Lower year.
Alain Delon in repose from 1964’s L’insoumis (The Unvanquished)
A few more friends hung the Meat is Murder poster in their rooms. It was the one with the picture of U.S. Marine Corporal Michael Wynn on the cover. The Smiths had changed the peace movement’s “Make Love Not War” originally on Wynn’s helmet to “Meat is Murder.” Early PETA supporters.
They provoked with their album covers.
Viv Nicholson, the British lotto winner who squandered all her winnings, graced the covers of Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now and Barbarism Begins at Home. They loved the story of her venally tacky fall from grace.
Stills from Jean Cocteau films
Terrence Stamp with a chloroform pad
Truman Capote jumping
Elvis Presley in bow tie
A couple members of Andy Warhol’s Factory in poses
Stills from Coronation Street
James Dean on motorcycle
Playwright Shelagh Delany on more than one cover herself. She was Moz’s Muse.
Even these days, as I work in the yard, I listen to the witty, charged lyrics.
I have been known to sing them aloud. Badly.
Oh…sweetness, sweetness, I was only joking/When I said by rights you should be/Bludgeoned in your bed
Through an open window this October, I heard the laughter coming from inside my house as I dug up the summer’s caladium bulbs and replaced pine straw. I can’t carry a tune in a bucket, but that didn’t stop me from letting anyone within earshot know that
[m]y only weakness is a listed crime/But last night the plans for a future war/Was all I saw on Channel Four
I went inside to get water and saw my wife and two daughters howling laughing at me, my earbuds, my Manchester mantras.
Shoplifters of the world, unite and take over!
My friend Perry Poole actually attended one of their concerts in 1985 at the Warner Theater in Washington, D.C. The Meat is Murder tour. Damn. He told me it was surreal.
I am not a jealous person, but, I am jealous of his being with less than 2,000 other like-minded fans. Perry told me that at the end of the set he and his fellow concert goers quietly left the hall. No raucous applause. No screams for encores.
Another friend, David Brown, also a fan of Marr and Moz, and I had the following text exchange this past Spring:
Is there anything more depressing than listening to The Smiths on this rainy cold Sunday morning?
Yes. Living on a cul-de-sac in the suburbs of Atlanta
Channeling Moz’s disdain. Just the type of retort he would have given.
I take comfort in knowing that my local pals Laura Dukes Beck, Acey Boulware, and Chisolm Coleman share the same affinity for the lads from Manchester.
When Rolling Stone came out with the ultimate ranking of all 73 songs written by Morrissey and Marr on August 1, 2017, well, let’s just say it was a day killer.
I had to appear before the City of Charleston’s Board of Zoning Appeals that afternoon promptly at 5 p.m. Thankfully, I had prepped a day before the ranking appeared.
I was looking for a job and then I found a job and Heaven knows I’m miserable now.
We won before the BZA that night, and, frankly, Mr. Shankly, I think Mr. Marr’s guitar spurred me on to victory buoyed by all those great memories of songs that spoke to me as a young teenager.
Please, please, please, let me get what I want. Lord knows, it would be the first time.
Fans of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off viewed the Art Institute of Chicago with The Smiths through The Dream Academy’s instrumental version of “Please, Please, Please Let me Get What I Want”. A lullaby played as we all went into that Sunday afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte on the banks of the Seine.
What a perfect use of the tune.
Five Hundred Days of Summer employed “There is a Light That Never Goes Out” and the same song as Ferris. Forgetting Sarah Marshall needed “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” to set the scene in that break up flick. Some claim that Pretty in Pink started it all for The Smiths in the U.S. when the ultimate arbiter of teen drama, John Hughes, included “Please, Please, Please” in the soundtrack. He also directed Ferris & Co., which was released four months later, so may be it is a correct assessment.
Good times, for a change.
I’m glad that their 73 songs continue as a part of my personal soundtrack.
I rewind and replay. Spotify. Pandora. Playlists. All my playlists and preferences include The Smiths.
I’m still in possession of my cassette of Louder than Bombs, released in 1987 after the break up of The Smiths. Moz’s Muse, Ms. Delany, leans on the cover, cigarette in hand. I think I’ll go play it on my yellow Walkman, which Sony released as a personal music player in 1988, a year after Louder than Bombs.
On Christmas Day, I shall call my parents and ask them the following question:
“What time are we going to Bruce and Riley’s house?”
It never gets old.
I grew up on The Point in Beaufort, South Carolina.
Let me say it again: I grew up on The Point in Beaufort, South Carolina.
It’s the oldest neighborhood in town featuring the oldest building, the Hepworth Pringle House circa 1724, home of the late Mrs. Somers (Kitty) Pringle.
The Point is also home to Tidalholm which was used for filming The Great Santini and The Big Chill as well as The Oaks, Riverview, Marshlands, Tidewater, The Castle, Pretty Penny, Cassena, Petit Point, The Robert Smalls House, Moorlands, and other old houses with names as well as newer homes, such as ours built in the 1930s.
The Point is a peninsula on a bend in the Beaufort River. We were beyond blessed to grow up there surrounded by the loveliest of people. We actually were an integrated neighborhood when such was unknown in most of Beaufort. Robert Smalls’ descendants lived around the corner from us. We didn’t think anything about it until much later when a friend of ours said, “You do know that the Nashes are black.” Well, yes, we do. We can see them with our own two eyes. Did we invite them over for supper? Well, no, we did not. We had the Nashes on Duke Street and the Cappelmans on Laurens Street. Mrs. Cappelman remained an Unreconstructed Rebel until the day she died. She flew the Confederate Stars and Bars from her second story porch every day of the year until she died. We didn’t have the Cappelmans over for supper, either.
Back in the 1970s and 1980s, there weren’t a lot of children on The Point. Here was our roster of fellow Point kids:
Hamlin, Arthur, and Wade O’Kelley
Anna Liz and Jimboy Moss
Chilton and Katherine Grace
Josh and Elizabeth Gibson, before they moved to Lady’s Island
Lauren and George Bullwinkel, before they moved to Charleston
Honorary Point residents were Paul and John Schwartz, whose grandparents were around the corner, Taylor Kinsey, whose grandparents were across the street, and Robyn Josselson who was Anna Liz and Jimboy Moss’s cousin. These honorary Point residents logged many hours east of Carteret Street, the unofficial boundary of The Point.
We spent a lot of time with Hugh Patrick, Paul and John Schwartz, Taylor Kinsey, and Jimboy Moss. We roamed wild. Free range parenting. We climbed through drain pipes. We road bikes downtown. We had huge pick up games of football, war, tag, hide and seek. We built forts. We cracked pecans. We picked loquats. We climbed old tabby sea walls. We broke light bulbs on the same sea walls. We taught two L.A. kids how to be wild and free and Southern during their sojourn renting a house on East Street. We found raccoons and possums and, one time, a nest of coral snakes. It was Heaven on Earth for a child.
We also spent a lot of time with the older folks in the neighborhood. And, there were a lot of older folks.
Margaret “WaWa” Scheper kept us supplied with grape juice, pimento stuffed green olives, and Cheezits.
Martha and George Tucker let us cut through their yard. Mr. Tucker would even offer us a cold beer, even though we were boys. My youngest brother married their granddaughter. All in the family.
The Harveys, all of them, Helen and Brantley, Senator and Mrs. Harvey, would wave to us and make sure we were o.k.
Mossy Schwartz, the Schwartz boys’ grandmama, always had the back door open as she played Yahtzee on her front piazza with her pal Tut Dowling.
Miss Iola Kirkland only invited certain of us children to Trick or Treat at her house.
The Aimars and Sams were our extended cousins by adoption.
Hugh Patrick’s grandparents, Bruce and Riley Gettys kept us in a steady supply of drinks and snacks, too.
Bruce Gettys was a tall, elegant, funny lady. She always said, “How do?” upon greeting someone. We O’Kelley boys called her Granny, like her grandchildren. We also called her Bruce. She loved it.
Riley Gettys was a dry witted retired chemical engineer who cut swords for us out of old plywood while tending his extensive boxwood gardens at Cassena, their house on Federal Street.
This is how I remember Cassena:
The Gettyses were kind of naughty, too. They called a certain soap opera The Hung and the Breathless. We were too young to understand the joke.
Every year, Bruce and Riley, their daughter, Mary Patrick, and their son-in-law, Joel Patrick, Hugh’s parents, their daughter Janie Brooks, and Hugh, hosted a Christmas Night open house at Cassena for all of the folks on the Point. That drop in lasted for years. We boys loved it.
The O’Kelleys, Aimars, Schepers, Harveys, Tuckers, Varns, Miss Martha Wallbank, Edmunds, Strongs, Sams, Schwartzes, Mosses, Cobbs, Kennedys, Millers, Pringles, Graces, Danners, Hryharrows, Murphys, Tuppers, Miss Iola Kirkland, Miss Posey Schwartz, Mrs. Guila Snow, Colonel Jenny Wren (yes, a female Colonel)….all of us ended up at the Gettyses on Christmas Night. I’m pretty sure the Gibsons were there, too, before they moved to Lady’s Island.
Every Christmas afternoon, I would ask my parents, “What time are we going to Bruce and Riley’s house?”
We went the same time every year, just as the sun went down on Christmas Night.
We would walk up Bayard Street, turning left onto Hamilton Street, and left again on Federal Street walking through the side yard to the front of their house. We entered across the first floor piazza and through the front door. The Gettyses decorated Cassena with a Christmas tree and smilax over every mirror, the front entry, and tucked in here or there. Pine or Fraser Fir garland is a new thing. Smilax is old Beaufort.
Each year, we reveled in the full comfort and joy of those parties.
One year, Hugh received a rabbit for Christmas. The rabbit left its own Christmas decorations all over the house. Bruce and Riley did not care.
One year, my youngest brother, Wade, got locked in the bathroom off the back sitting room. He called for help. Riley answered saying, “Need a little help, Son?” as he unlocked the door with an ice pick. Bruce and Riley did not care.
One year I received a remote controlled tank – we called it ‘mote control – and I took it with us to the Gettyses. I almost tripped up Ethel Strong, which would have been a disaster. Bruce and Riley did not care.
One year, it was a little icy out on Christmas night and Riley tasked me, Hugh, and my two brothers with walking WaWa Scheper back to her house, all of two houses to the east. Poor WaWa. I don’t think we let her feet touch the ground. WaWa remained a lithe, thin lady her whole life, and we boys practically carried her that night.
“Oh, boys, slow down. Dahlin, not so tight on the arm. Wade, that means you, Son.”
When we reached the foot of her steps, she kissed us all on the forehead and said, “Now, run on back to Bruce and Riley’s. I can make it from hyah. Merry Chrusmus.” She had a wonderful old Beaufort accent. We ran to see who could be the first one back to the party.
One year, Bruce had foregone her usual greenery centerpiece on the dining room table and pulled out her old silver epergne and filled the baskets with mints and candies. My youngest brother did the boarding house reach for the mints with my mother barely grabbing his hand and righting one of the baskets before the whole thing toppled over spilling confections across the table and onto the floor. My mother was mortified. Bruce and Riley did not care.
If it was below 60 degrees, we assisted in taking all the fur coats, of which there were many. We piled minks and sables on the sofa in the back sitting room. One year, Thelma Harvey wore her full length mink coat and handed it to us children as though we were the coat checkers at the 21 Club in New York. She was doing us a favor. Bruce and Riley did not care. Thelma did.
“Boys, don’t lose my coat,” she told us. This was the same lady who had curtsied to the pretender to the Russian imperial throne at the same house a decade prior. Delusions of grandeur danced in her head. She loved us boys, though, and made a damned fine sour cream pound cake.
Not just one year, but every year, Mrs. Des Edmunds always insisted on a kiss from us as we hid from her third lip of ruby-red lipstick.
“Look out, Hughbie,” I would warn him when we saw Mrs. Edmunds approach from the far side of the dining room. “Here comes Miz Edmunds.”
“Well, hey, children,” she would wave, lips all a-pucker.
“Run!” Hugh would command. We would pivot out of the dining room, into the hall, and haul ass up the stairs. We would hide in Bruce’s room. “Granny will never know we’re here,” Hugh would tell us. The whole party knew where we were. Sawmills created less noise.
Cassena still had old copper communication pipes running from downstairs to upstairs. These pipes were an early from of intercom to summon an enslaved servant. One of the pipes opened into Bruce’s room. She would hear us overhead, and she would intone into the pipe below, “Boys, you come on down and speak to everyone, hear?” We heard. We trudged downstairs. Miz Edmunds assaulted our cheeks leaving smears of red Revlon on our youthful flesh.
We were required to wear wool pants with sweaters, sailor suits, Little Lord Fontleroyesque stupidity, khakis, blazers. One Christmas Hugh showed up in a football jersey. Bruce and Mary sent him home to change. We would have never showed up at Bruce and Riley’s dressed in a football jersey. I envied Hugh living around the corner from his grandparents.
Almost every year, Helen Harvey would hold court at one end of the dining room table telling everyone about her duties as a Trustee at the University, how her children were all far above average, and how Brantley, her husband, was this close to being The Gov’nah.
The men would usually stay in the kitchen, huddled around the scotch, the bourbon, the vodka.
There would be snippets of the local gossip and news
“Yeh, filming that movie over at Tidalholm”
“He only has to serve his jail sentence on the weekends”
“Trout are running this side of Station Creek”
“Yankees are just gobbling up the place”
“They gonna develop Datha Island. Have you ever?”
“Well they got a bunch of those local boys all caught up in that Jackpot sting they keep talking about”
“Glad they blocked that chemical plant over near Bluffton”
“Hilton Head keeps growing like gangbusters”
“Oh, they’ve been divorced. He’s remarried though, to the same secretary”
“You mean, Bun Bun?”
“Y’all going to The Anchorage for New Year’s?”
Men gossip worse than women could ever hope to gossip. We would catch bits and pieces around the bar and around the dining room.
Every year, the Gettyses had the same menu.
Their dining room table was set with ham, bread, Mary’s homemade champagne mustard, mayonnaise; cream cheese and pepper jelly and crackers; vegetables with dips; some form of either crab or shrimp dip; tea sandwiches; Bruce’s homemade divinity; fudge; cookies. On the side table stood the punch bowl with egg nog. I still see a gajillion silver punch cups ready to be filled. We were never allowed the egg nog as it was the good kind with a lot of nog.
In the kitchen was the bar with our fathers, their friends, likka, wine, beer, and cokes for us. Just what we needed, more caffeine and sugar.
Because we always went to Bruce and Riley’s house, my family really never had big Christmas dinners until after the Gettyses advanced age caused them to give up their Christmas Night party.
I have had some amazing Christmas dinners since those days.
I would forego every last one of them to be running up the stairs one more time with Hugh and my brothers in order to escape Miz Edmunds’ third lip only later to eat two bites of a ham sandwich, a couple of pieces of divinity, and slug down a co-cola all while waiting to walk WaWa home in the ice with the sounds of drunken laughter coming from the kitchen.
So, what time are we going to Bruce and Riley’s house?
His sons, Brandon and Trevor, were thirteen and ten, respectively. He, his bride, Angie, and their boys were some of our closest pals at the time. Our families have been great friends for almost fifty years, four generations in at this point.
Pat was the direct descendant of that most famous of Calhouns, John C. himself. The Southern Apologist. The Secretary of War. The Vice President. The plantation owner whose son-in-law established Clemson University on the sight of Calhoun’s Upstate plantation.
Pat Calhoun died as a result of complications from a car wreck on the Sunset Bluff Road on Lady’s Island just on the other side of the river from Beaufort, South Carolina.
At the time of the wreck, Brandon and I were in the eighth grade at Beaufort Academy.
I had heard about the wreck from my parents the day it happened.
Pat had not been wearing a seat belt, not uncommon at the time. The Doctors could not recommend blood thinners due to a head injury. The story that I remember is that Pat threw a clot. He died in the hospital a few days after the wreck. There was a Coroner’s Inquest following Pat’s death.
I have never told anyone this, but, as the call came to our house from the hospital telling us that Pat had died, I heard the phone ring. I was wide awake. I listened to the entire conversation.
There had been a Special on that night. (See? T.V. specials were everything.) This Special aired in two parts on December 9 and 10, 1985. That fateful night we had watched the end of that two-night Special. Peter Paul’s candy bars and Irwin Allen of The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno fame brought us a remake of Alice in Wonderland. That dude loved an ensemble cast. In the remake of Alice, Mr. Irwin cast Red Buttons, Pat Morita, Roddy McDowell, Ann Jillian, Sammy Davis, Jr., Carol Channing, Jonathan Winters, Sherman Helmsley, Telly Savalas, Shelley Winters, Scott Baio, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, Steve Allen, Ringo Starr, and all the other regulars from the Battle of the Network Stars. I don’t remember if it was good. I just remember it aired on CBS with that trippy Special sign. We had to watch.
I had been feigning sleep when the phone rang. My bothers had been asleep for some time.
My mother answered and spoke quickly to our friend on the other end, Grace Dennis. I heard my mama cry. I heard her say, “Oh, no, Grace, no. Here’s George. Thank you for calling us.”
She passed my father the phone. I could hear it all from my bedroom just off our kitchen. He, too, began to cry. I pulled a possum and played dead.
The next thing I heard was my father saying “You want me to call Ruth?”
“No, I’ll do it,” sniffled my mother. She called Ruth Simmons.
Ruth Simmons came to work for our family when I was eight months old. She helped rear us. Without any blood family in Beaufort, my parents would often call Ruth to come and check on us, help us out in a pinch.
When my youngest brother was born, I longed for Ruth’s arms, not my parents.
“Ruth?” I heard my mother say on the phone through tears, “Can you come on over and stay with the boys? Pat Calhoun has just died, and we need to go to the hospital. I know it’s late.”
I don’t know what Ruth said on the other line except, probably, “Yes Miz O’Kelley. Course I can. Be there shortly.”
I heard my mother say, “Well then, we’ll see you shortly. Come on around back, the door will be open. Thank you, Ruth. Thank you.”
I’m sure Ruth roused from her resting, slumber, t.v. watching and threw on some clothes. She was never not turned out when she came to our house. She lived about five minutes away. Back then, everything in Beaufort was five minutes away. I’m sure that she jumped in her Chevy Nova and high tailed it around Bellamy’s Curve, the largest landmark between her house on Wilmington Street and our house on Bayard Street, practically getting that Nova up on two wheels.
I continued to feign sleep, when I heard the slightest rap on the back door.
“Oh, Miz O’Kelley, Buster [Ruth’s husband] and I are so sorry, Ma’am. So sorry.”
I could hear my parents and Ruth crying. I know she hugged them.
Ruth believed in the forgiveness, comfort, and power of the Risen Lord Jesus more sincerely than any person I have ever known. The Paraclete spoke to her regularly. When she said that night, “Jesus is with him, and Miss Angie, and those boys,” she meant it. Ruth’s daughter, Mary Louise, often worked as a babysitter for the Calhouns. Beaufort was one big family back then, white and black.
“Ruth, we’re going. We don’t know how long we’ll be,” said my father.
“O.k., Mr. O’Kelley. Y’all just go. I got the boys.”
I finally went to sleep with the knowledge that my friends would never see their father again.
Sometime in the wee hours, I sat up in my bed, wide awake. I saw a light on in the kitchen. I left my room and peeped down the hall and saw the lights still on in my parents’ room. I padded to the den where Ruth sat on the sofa in front of the lit Christmas tree. Something babbled on the t.v. Ruth read from The Upper Room devotional she had brought with her.
“Oh, hey, Boney,” she said to me. She called me, in turn, Hamlin, Hambone, Boney, Boney Rabbit, and ultimately, Rabbit. I was Boney that morning.
“Hey, Ruth,” I said. I knew I had to be careful in divulging what I knew. I couldn’t let on that I knew about Pat and then have Ruth turn me in to my parents when they got home.
“Where are my parents?” I asked coyly. What an actor. Irwin Allen’s next ensemble cast member.
In her most inimitable way, Ruth patted the place next to her on the sofa. I plopped down beside her. She patted my back with her left hand and held onto my right with her right.
“Well, they had to go see ’bout Miz Angie,” and that was all she said. She would allow no more. She knew I would broach no more about the subject.
“Go on back to bed, Boney.”
I went back to sleep wondering if my friend would have to get a job to support his mom and brother. I went back to sleep wondering if Pat’s mother, Dada, pronounced Dah-dah, knew that he had died. I went back to sleep wondering if we would all have to go to school the next day. I went back to sleep wondering if our other friends knew. I wanted to pick up the phone and make some calls. 524-7863. 524-9689. 524-0129. 524-7865. 524-7676.
As I awoke that next day, I recalled the nightmare of the previous night.
My parents pulled us into the kitchen and sat us at the table. My mother told us the news through tears.
I asked if Brandon had to get a job to support his family. I was told, “No.”
I asked if Dada knew that Pat had died. I was told, “Yes”.
I asked if we were going to go to school. I was told emphatically, “Yes.”
Now, I think parents might keep children home from school or let them at least go see their friends.
Somehow, we all made it to school and through school that horrible December 11, 1985.
One of our teachers that year at Beaufort Academy was Lillian Spears. Mrs. Spears taught us English, grammar, literature, drama. Mrs. Spears’ husband was the Reverend Dr. Eugene Spears, the Senior Pastor at the Baptist Church of Beaufort. I adored her as a teacher. Adored. I still know to say “It is I” due to her insistence on diagramming sentences. I hope that diagramming makes a comeback.
As the wife of the pastor of one of the largest churches in Beaufort, Mrs. Spears had years and years of training in comforting those who mourned.
That horrible day, Mrs. Spears volunteered to take a group of us eighth graders over to the Calhouns’ house after school.
The Calhouns were faithful members of St. Helena’s Episcopal Church, not the Baptist Church. It mattered not. Truly one big family back then.
Before a group of us piled into Mrs. Spears’ car that day, she gave us advice that has stuck with me to this day.
“Children, Dr. Spears always tells his associate pastors that they are to take the tone of the closest to the deceased. So, if Mrs. Calhoun and the boys want to talk about Mr. Calhoun, you just let them. All you all have to say is that you’re sorry and you want to know if there is anything you can do to help them. Just being there is enough. Follow their lead.” Mrs. Spears had taught us enough about the theater for us to know how to follow a lead and to never break role.
Mrs. Spears knew that entire dump out, not in, thing some thirty years before it became popular.
We arrived at the Calhouns and my family were already there.
The rest of the afternoon remained a blur of greetings, playing outside, being present, eating supper. Hugging Dada. Hugging Pat’s step-sister, Susan Sanders, who had flown in from New York. Talking to Aunt Jane who had driven home from Tennessee. I have no recollection if we followed Mrs. Spears’ advice. I do know that we all cried with our pals. I do know that we were really young. Super young. I remember that the Reverend Roger Smith, the Rector at St. Helena’s, prayed with all of us. I remember a funeral at St. Helena’s a few days later.
We sat right by the family.
Dada wore dark glasses through the entire service at the church where she had worshiped her entire life. So unnatural to bury a child, even if that child was in his 40s.
A few weeks later, on Christmas Eve, we, the O’Kelleys, and the Calhouns, were invited to the home of Ernie and Sue Collins for Christmas Eve dinner after church. Dr. Collins delivered me, Brandon, Trevor, and my brother, Arthur. My brother, Wade, came along too quickly for Dr. Collins to make it to the hospital, and his partner on call delivered him.
We had a bitter-sweet Christmas Eve that year. We all missed Pat. We all knew we wouldn’t have been together that Christmas Eve without Pat’s death. Brandon, Trevor, and Angie were sad…super sad…so were the rest of us.
The only good thing to come from that Christmas Eve in 1985 was our deep, abiding, quoting love of A Christmas Story. Ted Turner’s WTBS began to air A Christmas Story on Christmas Eve about that same time. I had actually seen A Christmas Story in the theater in Savannah with our friend, Hayes Williams. I think Hayes, his parents, and I were the only people in the movie theater.
As the adults settled into another drink or another cup of coffee to steel themselves for the long night ahead, chatting around the table, Mrs. Collins told us boys we could all go to her room and turn on the t.v. Big doings.
We went into their bedroom and cut on the boob tube. I flipped the channels until we rounded the corner at TBS.
I recognized Ralphie and crew. “Hey, y’all, Hayes and I saw this in Savannah. It’s really funny. It’s about this kid who wants a b.b. gun for Christmas. He beats up the neighborhood bully and they eat Chinese food for Christmas”
“Gross, Chinese food for Christmas,” intoned Trevor Calhoun.
“Barf,” said my brother Arthur.
“Grody,” said my brother Wade.
We all piled onto the Collins’ bed beneath the Colonial Williamsburg fish net canopy. We laughed at the great thrashing of Scutt Varkas and “You’ll shoot your eye out” and “It was…soap…poisoning” and “Fa ra ra ra ra ra ra ra ra.”
We had Christmas Eve with the Collins and the Calhouns from 1985 until 1997. A good run. Almost every year, we piled onto the bed underneath the fish net canopy to watch Ralphie and crew. We piled onto the bed even when we were far too old and far too big. Secretly, we five knew we were paying homage to the Christmas of 1985 and to Pat Calhoun.
Since that most bitter sweet of times, we have all scattered as families do when there are marriages, children, grandchildren, deaths. Dr. Collins died years ago. Of us five wild boys, only one still lives in Beaufort.
While he was alive, Pat Calhoun cross stitched Beatrix Potter Christmas ornaments for his friends’ children. I have two of them: Jeremy Fisher with a wreath and Benjamin Bunny with presents. I hang them on my tree every year and remember our friend and the Christmas that felt like we had all gone through the looking glass, darkly.
My sister-in-law died after a two year fight with cancer.
Another friend, who is no longer with us, told us cancer staked a claim on a sensitive body part.
A beloved cousin’s doctors discovered an inoperable brain tumor.
A business associate disappointed.
My law practice suffered a setback.
And, the Christmas tree fell.
Annus horribilis indeed.
Growing up, we had a couple of “Man down” moments at our house. My father, being our favorite of the Wise Men, always secured/tied our tree to the window latches in the corner after one or two falling firs.
Prior to that stroke of engineering genius, we always thought our parents were going to get a divorce over the trimming of the tree.
We all knew the story of the dad in Beaufort who tossed an entire decorated tree down his front steps after it fell twice. As his weeping wife and children cried in horror, the dad cussed the evergreen and the holiday necessitating its placement under his roof.
My family never went quite that far.
In November of 2014, we went to the mountains of North Carolina for Thanksgiving. It snowed and snowed and snowed. Complete whiteout. I loved it. My family went a little stir crazy when we could not come down the mountain as planned that Friday. On Saturday, there was enough of a thaw to allow us to leave. We went straight from the High Country into Marion, North Carolina, where our acquaintance George Bishop sold trees from his house. Twenty dollars. Flat rate. No matter the size. We slapped two nine footers on top of the car. Thank you Ellen and Donovan Smith for introducing us to George several years ago.
George was a true Western North Carolina mountain man. He called our friend Donovan’s father “Dawk” because Dr. Smith is, well, obviously, a doctor. He referred to my wife as “Murry Purrin”. He called me “Hamblin”. He’s beautiful and his trees were the best. He no longer sells them. Accordingly, there’s no reason for us to go back to the mountains for Thanksgiving. Ever.
In 2014, we made the trek from the mountains back to the Lowcountry. We cut both trees from the internecine twine trap atop my car. I placed our tree into a bucket of water in the side garden. We gave the other tree to our down the street neighbors and great pals, Libba and Chris Osborne and their boys. The Osbornes rejoiced.
The next day, that Sunday, the tree was up, decorated, and shining forth in its sacred corner in the front room.
It took me hours to put the lights on the tree. Not kidding. Hours. I poked and proded and placed. Some 900+ little white lights glow from every branch. My children rolled their eyes and asked, “When can we put the ornaments on, Dad?”
“When I’m finished with the lights,” I replied.
I finally emerged covered in sap, dirty from the branches, with sweat covering my brow.
We then decorated with the ornaments. All the ornaments. It was the prettiest tree we ever had.
As soon as the tree was finished back in 2014, I heard the German words:
O Tannenbaum! O Tannenbaum!
Wie treu sind deine Blaetter
Du gruenst nich nur in Sommerziet
Nein auch im Winter, wenn es schneit!
O Tannenbaum! O Tannenbaum!
Wie treu sind deine Blaetter
We are bonkers about Christmas.
In addition to putting up the tree as fast as we can after Thanksgiving, we love to put stuff all over the house.
We place the forty plus Wendt und Kuhn angels on the mantel. We think we’re in the Erzgebirge.
We love to put out pictures of Christmas past. We love it all.
Someone light that Thymes Frasier [sic] Fir candle.
As we put the tree in the stand in 2014, I did notice that two of the screws in the bottom of the stand (there were eight total) seemed a little threaded. There were six others.
As we gazed upon our finished product and listened to the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s version of Oh! Christmas Tree from the Charlie Brown Christmas Special, our eldest said, “Dad, I think it’s leaning a little.”
“No, it’s not, Margaret,” I replied.
Deep within my immortal soul, I knew I was lying.
Blessedly, the One whose birth we celebrate had already forgiven me for this sin.
“Uh, it really is,” said our other child.
“Hush, Perrin,” I replied. “It’s fine.”
For unto us a child is born!
While the girls weren’t watching, I pulled out some high test fishing line and redneck engineered. I tied the tree around the trunk and secured the lines to two cup hooks I had installed in a window sill in years past for just such an emergency.
As we went to work and school the next morning, the tree stood.
When we came home, the tree listed more than we liked.
I called my down the street neighbor, the aforementioned Chris Osborne, to come and help me lift the tree out of the stand and screw it back into place. I offered Mr. Osborne my thanks and a glass of brown water.
“I don’t think we need to tie it this time,” I said. “She’s in there good.” Mr. Osborne concurred after our second glass of brown water.
Pride goeth before a fall.
As we slept the sleep of the just that night, my bride and I heard a soft “swoosh” sound somewhere around three a.m. We both knew exactly what it was.
At 5:45 a.m., I could no longer take it. Full recon of the damage. Besides water on the floor, there was only one broken ornament.
From 5:45 until time for work and school, we scrambled to reset the tree as we propped it up in a corner.
I went to work.
I went to Lowe’s.
The man there assured me that the stand he was selling me was the ULTIMATE in stands. He was right. We still use it today.
The stand that we had in 2014 had become completely threaded. The screws slowly failed that Monday night and into that early Tuesday morning.
On that first Tuesday in Advent, there were tears, sweat, cussing.
“Come, Thou, long-expected Jesus, born to set Thy people free. From our fears and sins release us, and please help our Christmas tree”. (Actually, I don’t think those are the words as approved in the hymnal)
As I re-positioned he tree, I actually attended a deposition by telephone as I replaced the stand and secured the tree with high-test fishing line. I’ll never not use the fishing line. It disappears at night.
There are myths about superhuman strength under times of stress. These tales are no myths. I lifted the entire tree, fully lit, fully ornamented, into the new stand. Advent adrenaline.
As we put the tree up this year, I thought I saw it listing just to mock me.
That night I had a nightmare that the tree fell. Like Scrooge, I attributed the dream to a bit of indigestion. The tree stands as I write, still all aglow with all 900 plus small white lights.
The Gullah angel spreads her arms to shout the Good News for all to hear. She’s gone to tell it on the mountain, over the hills, and everywhere.
To borrow from the Reverend Clement Clarke Moore and his timeless “A Visit from St. Nicholas:
Now you’ll hear me exclaim ere I go from your sight,
“Merry Christmas to all; may your tree stay upright.”