For Angie, Brandon, and Trevor Calhoun
Pat Calhoun died on December 10, 1985.
I was thirteen.
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.