Down the River

Down the River
Here’s a Google Earth view of The Camp and the little hummock on which it sits


Zoo and Buddy started it all for us.  Sometime way before I was born, “Zoo” Von Harten and “Buddy” Lubkin occupied (read as squatted) on a little hummock island made of oyster shells, sand, and pluff mud.  We were told it might have been an old Indian midden, too.  We called it a hummock.  Its true geological name is a coastal hammock island.  That little hummock was and is attached to the larger Pritchard’s Island by marsh flats. Pritchard’s is a barrier island on the South Carolina coast between Trenchard’s Inlet and the Atlantic.  I don’t know who owned that parcel of land or who owned Pritchard’s Island when Mr. Von Harten and Mr. Lubkin set up their fish camp there.

By the time the 1970’s rolled around, Mr. Lubkin, Mr. Von Harten, and their friends had squatted on the hummock near the south end of Pritchard’s Island long enough to claim  potential adverse possession of the spot.  By the time I was aware of that fish camp, Philip Rhodes, an Atlanta businessman, owned Pritchard’s Island. By his grace and favor, the camp remained on the hummock on the south end of the island.

There are hundreds of fish camps all over Beaufort County.  Only accessible by boat, these camps are made of ramshackled sheds and bunk houses, generally able to be opened to catch prevailing sea breezes.   Generations  of men and children, and sometimes brave women, have gone down the river to these camps to catch fish, drink liquor, and escape life.  There are cooking stoves, old appliances, cisterns, generators, camp fires, mildewed mattresses, old sofas and chairs hauled from town – all of varying degrees of comfort.  Some camps have water closets with toilets flushed with salt water.  Some have outhouses.  Some have generators and air conditioning.  The camps are called Pair a Dice, Gale Break, Huff n Puff, Capers, Skull Creek, Spit, and a hundred other names.

Being at those camps was best summed up by a popular beer commercial where one fishing buddy said to the other, “It don’t get much better than this.”

The camp that Zoo and Buddy started was the one into which my family was invited in the 1970’s . We called it Pritchard’s, Buck’s, the Camp.  It never had a clever play on words name.

My father and I were first invited down the river to the camp when I was in either first or second grade, right after Christmas.  We said goodbye to my mother and brothers with my middle brother kicking his square toed Dingo cowboy boots at the back door screaming, “I want go with my Daddy! I want to go with my Daddy!” He was too young.

We packed cold weather gear, sleeping bags, rain coats, a cooler filed with beer and may be two Gatorades or Co-colas for me, snacks, and some contributions to the food for the weekend.  We loaded the gear into the back of the Blazer attached the boat trailer with our Boston Whaler and headed to the Station Creek landing out on St. Helena Island.  At Station Creek landing we arrived with our friends and other campers to the start of a cool rain.  As our fathers put in the boats and we headed down the river toward the camp the cool rain turned into a cold, almost freezing rain.  It rained the entire time we were there that weekend.  We never warmed up in spite of the old pot bellied stove in the main cabin being fed log after log after log after log of seasoned oak felled from right on our little hummock. We children slept in an unheated bunkhouse called the Women’s  Cabin. Women rarely slept there.

On Saturday, the men decided we would head up the way to the beach in spite of the weather.  The winter trout were running.  We attempted to fish for a little while, but, for us children, it was too cold .  My friend Paul and I took refuge in the covered bow of his father’s boat and buried ourselves under life jackets and old towels.  We were both 6 years old at the time.  Comfortably cocooned in the bow, we were jolted from our hibernation when our older friend Clark, who was then 10, came and jumped in with us.

It was such a trauma that Paul wrote about it when he returned to class in January:

“We went down the river. It was cold. Clark squished our guts out.”

Below was a picture of a boat with one large stick figure atop two other stick figures.  Paul’s teacher gave him an A for that essay.  For years his mother had that work of art on their refrigerator.

That was my introduction to life down the river.

It was not my last time there.

It was not the most memorable time there.

In our what are now called tween and early teen years, we boys relished our time down the river.

We were Lord of the Flies meets Huck Finn meets the Bad News Bears.

We were covered in pluff mud.

We fell off docks.

We learned to gig for flounder at night.

We pulled what we called wire crabs out of crabbers crab pots hoping we wouldn’t be shot.

We learned to cast shrimp nets.

We dipped skinny in the summer.

We watched loggerheads lay their eggs at night.

We woke early to see the baby turtles crawl to the sea.

We shot raccoons with our bbguns.

We shot each other with our bbguns.

We burned everything we could get our hands on.

We added lighter fluid to fires to see how large the arc of the flame would go.

We made swords out of palm fronds.

We whittled with our fathers’ Marine Corps issued K Bar knives.

We cussed like sailors.

We fought our siblings.

We fought our friends.

We played war.

We played cards.

We snuck alcohol when the adults weren’t looking.

We smoked cigars and cigarettes when the adults weren’t looking.

We floated on super high tides on leftover blocks of fiber glass, which really itches when it gets under the skin.

We searched high and low for the remnants of certain magazines that we knew the men had brought but whose existence they denied: Playboy, Penthouse, Hustler, Oui, Cheri.  Thanks Messrs. Hefner, Guccione, and Flynt.

We went to bed as late as the dads would let us.

We went to bed itchy from salt water baths in the creek.

We knew that On this Isle of Sun and Fun, We do NOT Flush for Number One as the sign over the toilet in the back of bunk house read.

We pestered the hungover cook for pancakes for breakfast knowing he would probably put onions in the pancakes to mess with us.

We trusted the men saying “We’ll catch our supper” which often meant watery gravy over grits or rice for every meal which they called venison stew as one time a deer might have passed by the cabin while the stew was cooking.

We knew that some dads never helped the children

We knew that some dads always helped the children

We warily eyed Mr. Sutker who would never share his fried chicken. “Get your goddamn grubby hands off my chicken, boys.”

On one trip down the river, the men coyly denied the presence of  lewd and licentious literature anywhere on the entirety of the island.  Of course, the men only read them for the articles.

In the cook house, one friend found a waterlogged copy of a Penthouse.  He screamed, “I got it boys!” We marched around the camp that day each carrying pages of exposed breasts and airbrushed bottoms chanting, “We’ve got the proof! We’ve got the proof!”  On that same trip, several of the dads gathered all of the remaining girly magazines and dumped them into the camp fire.  Our pal Christopher sat by the fire with his homemade palm frond sword turning page after page as the smut smoldered.

“Son, what are you doing?” asked his father.

“Getting one last look.  She’s burning fast.”

On Saturday nights down the river we begged for ghost stories around the camp fire. We had some great ones.  Bone chilling great ones.  Pat Calhoun would regale us with the horror of Ronnie Ron Du Leeay who was born in Charleston under a blood red moon who would later exact revenge upon those who spurned him due to a physical deformity.  My father would terrorize us with the Three Armed Prince who arose from the depths of the Egyptian pyramids to haunt explorers like Lord Carnarvon in a way in which King Tut never could.  My father would elicit girlish screams with tales of the half man/half beast Bolo Gator by lowering his voice and then yelling “AND THERE HE IS!” as another one of the dads roared behind us.  Younger boys were known to have wet their pants.  Paul Schwartz never put much effort into his stories.  He would always tell the one about the couple parked on the lonely country road hearing about the escapee from the mental prison with a hook for an arm arriving home with the hook latched to the passengers side of the car.

“Why did the bad guy lose his hook?” someone would always ask.

“Goddammit, it’s just a story. Go to bed you little shits.”

One Saturday night, Charlie Webb donned an old sheet and went out a ways from the camp fire out into the flat pan marsh separating the main part of the camp from another little island we called the Disco Deck.   As my father told us the tale of the Three Armed Prince for the hundredth time, Charlie rose from the marsh illuminating the bed sheet with his flashlight.  Instead of being scared, we boys took to arms and chased Mr. Webb across the marsh and into the woods. He had to run for his life.

“I knew it was my Dad” said his son Milledge. “We almost got him.”

Not everything was carefree down the river.  Buck Morris,  for whom we thought the camp was named,  was known to line us all up on the porch of the main cabin and give us a dressing down worthy of a Parris Island drill sergeant whenever one of us did something wrong like point a bbgun at someone or litter in the marsh.

“But, Humble Buck [his nickname], it wasn’t me,” some neophyte would protest. “Well, just look at ya,” Mr. Morris would say, “I don’t care who did it, because you’re all in trouble because none you stopped [whoever from doing whatever].”

One working weekend, when the men would go to clean up, repair boards, install generators, replace what was broken, a large water tank was dropped on Jimmy Vaigneur. What followed were screams and hollering and “My God, we killed Jimmy.”  One of the men had a CB radio that worked and radioed into the Sheriff that they were bringing Mr. Vaigneur in on a boat as fast as possible.  The ambulance met the boat at our friends’ dock that was right by the landing.  From that dock, Mr. Vaigneur was rushed to the hospital where they discovered a couple of broken ribs and a collapsed lung.  He was lucky to be alive.

Another trip, our pal Bill shot a friend in the back with his bbgun.

Another trip, a grown man fell off the dock at 2 a.m. fully clothed into freezing water with the air temp around 38 degrees with a stiff wind blowing. Hypothermia anyone?

Another trip, my father and Bill Robinson got stuck on an oyster bank for hours and hours until the tide came in and lifted the boat.  They didn’t care.  They had enough whiskey and beer to wait out the tide.  No one at the camp thought to go and look for them.

Another trip, my brother and two other friends got violently ill.  They were taken into town and since no one could find their mothers, they stayed with a friend’s grandfather at his store.  The men went back to the camp, of course.  The grandfather nursed them for a couple of hours until the moms could be located.  It turns out these then 12 year olds had massive hangovers after smoking cigars and shooting some Rock N Rye they had found in a boat the night before.

Another trip, one of the dads was begged and begged NOT to take his boat and his children home due to his state of inebriation late on a Saturday afternoon in June.  The father exclaimed with slurred speech, “Ahm not gonna hear it. Ahm gonna go home. I’m takin’ mah chirren and goin’ home, gottamnit.”  He then proceeded to fall from the stern to the bow of his boat as he started his rip cord outboard motor.  He then directed his then ten year old son, “Drive usss to the hill, Shon,” which meant back to the landing at Station Creek.  Any child over the age of six who had been to the camp could make that trip.  That boy made it that day.  He also helped his father get the boat out of the water and onto the trailer.  He also helped his father get them home as he sat on his dad’s lap and steered the car and boat and trailer back into town, including over two bridges.  On arrival at their house, the boy jumped out of the car and greeted his mother who was doing some yard work, “Mom, I drove the boat AND the car home.”  His mother’s reply, “Get inside, children, your father and I need to talk.  I didn’t expect y’all home until tomorrow.”  The father spent the next week on various friends’ sofas.

One Monday after a weekend down the river, I was approached at school by my friends Ginny and Sydney Meeks.  Their father, Buster, had no male children.  He came down the river with us from time to time and had a thoroughly fabulous time.

Ginny and Sydney have always been like older sisters to me.

“Oh boy, Hambone, Buster had a time down the river, but you’re gonna be in big trouble with your parents this week,” said Ginny.

“Uh-huh, big trouble, Hambone,” said Sydney tilting her chin to the left, cutting her eyes to the right. “Last night at supper, Buster told us, ‘You know I love Hambone, but boy can that kid cuss. George is gonna wear him out,’  That’s what Buster said about you, Hambone.”

I laughed in their faces.  “Ha! Y’all are just jealous. We can say whatever we want down the river. Y’all, I’m never gonna get in trouble for cussing down the river.”  We should have all had our mouths washed out with Octagon soap. What happened down the river stayed down the river.  Until now.

On all of those trips, communal living was the norm.  Moms would send various dishes.  One family would bring all the paper products.  Another would bring all the drinks for the children.  Another would bring extra coolers of ice. Another would bring hot dogs.  The tasks were always divided.  One child never had any drinks and everyone said to be careful as so-and-so would steal all your Fanta.  He always did.

One Mom usually baked a beautiful chocolate cake.  Her cakes were legend.  On one trip, the husband of that cake baker decided to hide the cake on his boat and save the confection for himself and his son.  He didn’t secure his boat very well.  Going out to the dock the next morning, we noticed thousands of little brown footprints all over the dock leading to and from the baker’s husband’s boat.  Upon arrival at the boat, it looked like the chocolate room in Willy Wonka’s factory had exploded.  There were chocolate covered raccoon foot prints all over the boat. The chocolate raccoon diarrhea stunk to High Heaven.

“Dad, we should have shared that cake,” said the baker’s son.

Reynolds Robinson loved the camp more than anyone I know.  As we would pull off the Seaside Road into the Station Creek landing he would let out a loud “YES! The boys are here!” and jump up and down. He would be the first in the boat, pluff mud already spotting the lace up mud boots we all wore from that store by the Hardees and the ice plant.   His straw colored hair would be stuck to his head by the end of the weekend.  He often tore his pants or his shorts, depending on the season.  He would always win the award for the most dirty.  No one loved the camp more than he did.  No one.  He was probably the reason we were all called Muddy Buddies by the menfolk.

One weekend, Reynolds’ older sisters, Carrie and Reyne’ came to the camp.  Usually, sisters were not allowed.  Carrie and Reyne’ ended up sleeping in the Women’s Cabin bunk house with us boys. Poor girls.  Someone’s younger sibling was particularly needy one of the nights we were there.  Carrie said he could sleep with her.  Carrie woke up the next morning with her hair covered in the remains of that siblings’ Big League chew.

We lost our beloved Muddy Buddy Reynolds in 1989. He was 13.  We miss him every day.

One year, all of us Muddy Buddies loaded up on the bed of an ancient flat bed pickup truck to appear in Beaufort’s Water Festival Parade.  My father drove.  Ray Williams was the navigator and beer provider.  We all had Muddy Buddy t-shirts with our names on the back.  Mine was misspelled. We hurled candy at folks on the side of the streets of Beaufort.

We were in line somewhere behind Senator Strom Thurmond on horseback but ahead of the Wee Princess Potentate of the Harmony Lodge Number Seven Ladies Auxiliary.  (There is so much royalty in small town parades).

My father had stenciled on the doors of the truck “Pritchards Island Muddy Buddies.”  One of our dads wore an old wool bathing suit from the 1920s with a straw boater and got razzed mercilessly.  We banged on the hood of the cab and rust fell all over my father and Ray.  They emerged from the end of the parade with a heavy dusting of ferrous oxide in their hair.  “Lucky none of that shit got in our beer,” said Ray at the end of the parade.

Continuing the tradition of Christmas visits down the river, my friends and I arranged to go to the camp during our last years of high school and throughout college.  I went to boarding school in New England for high school.  Trips down the river were about as diametrically different as an experience as one can have from my beloved Andover.

We often left early on Boxing Day and named our trips Boxing Day Down the River.  Not so original.  We usually only lasted a couple of nights wanting to be back in town for New Years Eve.  What happens down the river stays down the river, but we had endless drinking games, card games, and laughter.  We loved playing hand after hand of the interminable game called “Oh Hell.”  That game called Nomination Whist by some was taught to us by Brandon and Trevor Calhoun’s grandmother, Jane “Dolly” Elliott Calhoun Sanders, commonly known as “Dada”.  Dada patiently explained the bidding, the play, the complicated scoring to us.  After years at her card table, we knew how to play by the time we were in high school.

She would have died off to know how much drinking accompanied her beloved “Oh Hell”.  Beware being one of the players having to place a bid while holding only one card. “I bid two…” Kiss of death.  Kiss of death.  Thirteen hands total, but that one is the kiss of death, even if Dada always reminded us that it’s a poor Oh Hell scorekeeper who can’t win.

During one of our first annual Boxing Day festivities, a friend poured a shot of bourbon into an old rusted dust pan and took a shot.  From then on, the dust pan shot was how we opened and closed Boxing Day down the river. The clarion call “Dust pan shot!”  had to be obeyed by all that august assemblage.

During those Boxing Day festivities, we never even thought to look for the porno magazines of our earlier trips down the river.  Instead, we were intent on destroying brain cells and playing endless hands of “Oh Hell” while burning endless packs of Marlboro Lights.

Eventually, we learned that Mr. Rhodes, who owed the Island, had decided to donate Pritchard’s to the University of South Carolina.  The whole island.  Considering the number of lawyers who were members of the camp and the potential for a lawsuit, Mr. Rhodes stipulated to the University that those of us with the camp on the south end be allowed to remain where we had always been.  He basically granted us a life estate, of sorts.  We had been good stewards of that end of his island. We had helped with the turtles at a time when the old timers could remember going out to the islands to dig up the turtle nests to eat the eggs.  Mr. Rhodes had gained from our squatting as much as we had gained from him letting us squat.  Either the University or Mr. Rhodes  required that a limited liability company be formed.  At the time, my father was one of the members of that LLC.  For a while, at least one or more members of the camp LLC attended an annual meeting about the Island along with Mr. Rhodes’ heirs and University administrators.  My father gave our membership in the LLC to my brother who lives in Beaufort.

One of Mr. Rhodes’ granddaughters, Martha, lives in Charleston; she keeps me up to date about that magical spot where I grew up as much as I grew up in downtown Beaufort.

I pray that my brother passes on our family’s membership interest in the LLC to someone who will appreciate the camp as much as we did.

I pray that young boys are still raising hell down the river.

I pray that one of them is turning the pages of a burning girly magazine as it smokes in fire and is getting one last look.

With love and pluff mud to my Muddy Buddy brothers: Arthur and Wade O’Kelley, Hayes Williams, Brandon and Trevor Calhoun,  Paul and John Schwartz, Clark and Reynolds Robinson, Christopher Gibson, Charlie and Milledge Webb, Lee Morris, Lawrence Rowland, Bill Fuge, Richard and Chuck Pollitzer, Rob and Patrick Ragsdale.  

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