A memory of South Carolina
by Emily Walls Ray
We had been teased into thinking spring had come early. Then dark clouds swept over and stayed—uninvited. These unwelcome guests hung around all day, and the temperature dropped. Ugh—I thought I was done wearing warm brown sweaters. Retrieving my big fat novel about South Carolina, I kicked off my moccasins and settled on the sofa. I glanced out the window behind me and saw it. The lone yellow crocus peeked up from a tuft of green shoots, as if afraid to raise its head and stand up fully. My goodness, how I was relieved at the saffron sight. Yellow—the warm globe of the sun, the diamond like rays slanting through the trees, what a glorious welcome yellow brings. I smiled and turned to the page I’d bookmarked. I could put up with the clouds for another day or two as long as that persistent crocus remained.
Fortunately, the content of my book featured the same Spanish moss and warmer clime of the state of South Carolina, a place I’d had the privilege of living and could remember vividly. I closed my eyes and took myself back to a pier I’d laid upon one summer afternoon more than 35 years ago. We’d been stationed at Shaw Air Force Base back in 1986, and my unit had just finished being inspected in a mobility exercise we’d been preparing for over several months. The tension of not knowing when the inspection team would arrive had stretched over so many weeks it had left my whole unit exhausted.
There had been so many weekends in suspense that two of the officers in my unit had taken leave that had been postponed more than once in case the surprise exercise might occur. So when it finally did, I was the ranking mobility officer and would lead my group in my first time ever to be inspected. As the horn announcing the start of events blew, I found myself in an eerie calm. I prayed for help from the Holy Spirit to stay calm and stick to what we had practiced many times. I formed two teams with my most experienced transporters each taking a shift. The highest ranking non commissioned officer and I would take alternating shifts in the mobility control center. It was a long couple of days, but I felt a benevolent presence in the room with me. I took it to be the Holy Spirit, or maybe Jesus. I never saw, but rather felt this presence that had a calming effect on me. At the same time, I felt the approval of my team, that I knew had not always inwardly supported some of my decisions in the past. This time, we were all working to get people and equipment mobilized, packed on imaginary cargo planes, and off early or on time to our classified destinations. The actual flights may not have taken place, but all the planning, packing, sweating, and accompanying adrenaline were real.
So the anticipated event had finally come and gone, and Edwin, my husband, and I, both stationed at the same base, celebrated by driving to a state park for an afternoon of sunshine. He was hiking around the lake, and I had been too tired to join him. I’d felt the warmth of the wooden planks on the pier and stretched out, drowsy and sun soaked.
We were both looking forward to an evening with our friend, who’d invited us for dinner at her apartment in the basement of an antebellum plantation. We’d been her guests before, and so anticipated the run of the full house, as she was looking after it for her landlord during the summer. I knew our friend’s culinary skills, so was quite content to daydream about the smoked ribs and fresh veggies she would be preparing for us later in the evening. I drifted off in the sunshine until the heat penetrated my pleasant thoughts. The water lapped the piling on the pier that stretched not quite a foot over the sun sparkled water, so I rolled to my side to dip my fingers in it. At least six baby snakes lounged in the shallow water all around me. I sat straight up and spotted even more of them around the end of the pier. Lord have mercy. They didn’t appear to notice me. They were warming themselves in the sun just like I was. However, I didn’t want to share my spot with them. Still in my heat induced daze, I got up and walked toward our car, awaiting Edwin’s return from his hike. Shading my eyes, I could see him coming toward me on the path at the lake’s edge.
“You won’t believe what I was surrounded by,” I told him, but he did.
We returned to our house to make the cornbread we were taking to Janelle’s place as our contribution to dinner at the plantation. It grew dark on our way to Statesboro where she lived. We enjoyed listening to Lake Woebegon and the musical guests of the show’s host. By the time we got to the dirt road that led to Janelle’s the trees closed in overhead and our car lights featured grotesque shapes formed by the long beards of Spanish moss. Narrowing to one lane, the road required Edwin to slow down. Boards creaked on the narrow bridge over a creek now black but pungent with the odor of marsh as we passed. I hummed the tune of The Twilight Zone as we passed over it, with windows lowered. The bullfrogs burst out in their best bass voices as we our lights revealed the massive white plantation house. The front was unlit, but we pulled behind it where Janelle was waiting beside her grill, a single bulb surrounded by moths and other flying insects.
“Hey, y’all,” she called.
Like us, she’d been happy to celebrate the end of the inspection. As a maintenance lieutenant, she’d spent countless hours on the flight line preparing for the mobility exercise. It had been her first as well, so none of us had known what to expect and were glad to finally be able to relax for a weekend.
She offered us homemade lemonade, and I felt the cool of the thick walls of her basement apartment as soon as we entered. Edwin tended to her grill and she showed me her latest sketches and paintings of the plantation, which she’d done plein air. As always, her work impressed me and made me wonder what she was doing in the United States Air Force. She’d asked me the same question after learning I wrote poetry and short stories. Then we’d laughed as we’d shared a love of travel and a need to have a great adventure. We were both creative and she, like Edwin and I, loved history. We were living in the cradle of one of the original 13 colonies, and found much to explore within an hour or two of travel. The American Revolution sites such as Camden and other historic sites and churches were sprinkled nearby.
While Janelle’s job kept her near the hangar, mine allowed me to wander all over the base, where we had F16s, HH3 “Huey” helicopters, 02 reconnaissance planes, A10s, and all kinds of communication equipment. She called me to come to the flight line and watch the last operational 0-2 plane fly off to the boneyard. The maintenance crew had the little aircraft painted, buffed, shined up, and looking smart for that last flight to Texas.
Those evenings listening to public radio, playing Scrabble, or just cooking out under the stars were such a release. One night she took us exploring around the rest of the plantation, which was a construction zone of mostly empty rooms awaiting some phase of restoration. The colonel who’d bought it was overseas but planned to retire and take on the entire place. But for now, he’d made apartments, which he rented out to airmen like Janelle.
“Look at the size of this room,” I said as she shined the flashlight in one half of a with massive pocket doors. The wide floorboards had been repaired , ready for sanding. Huge sawhorses held thick wooden shutters that would need refurbishing. The flashlight revealed the room was without furniture, but shadows played as the light bounced into the corners. I jumped as eerie shapes moved before me, only to see it was our reflection in the largest, tallest and mottled mirror I had ever seen.
“May I have this dance?” Edwin quipped to Janelle, who giggled as he led her into waltz-like moves. I shuddered.
“This reminds me of a scene from Whatever Happened to Baby Jane,” I said.
The place smelled of must mixed with the aroma of ancient boxwood, which huddled around the house like giant turtles. It was a faintly familiar scent to me, reminiscent of childhood trips to the library in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, which was housed in another antebellum house surrounded by overgrown boxwoods. The odd mixture of dark shadows, high ceilings, and empty rooms gave me a feeling of being transported to another time where ladies fanned themselves in the summer heat and floor length windows were opened to let in the slightest of summer breezes. I envied Janelle’s chance to live out here, stepping into pages of history on a daily basis, but it was an awfully isolated location on a lonesome road.
Sated on good food and atmosphere, we said good night. Edwin drove us home past the moonlit creek and into the town of Sumter, where we rented a house near Swan Lake, where mallards, wood ducks and geese mangled with majestic pairs of swans. We would host Janelle next time with a drive to Camden for a day at the horse races. Those were Southern affairs with tailgate parties complete with the real silver and china, fine tablecloths and ladies dressed in sundresses or crinoline skirts, and men in enough seersucker to rival a set of The Long, Hot Summer, or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
I stretched on the couch and looked out the window of my Virginia home at the little yellow crocus bloom, trying to remember what I knew of Janelle since we’d all left the Air Force. Last I heard she was living in a converted barn in Vermont, raising babies. I’d heard happiness in the tone of her voice.It was a shame I didn’t remember her last name, or how to get in touch. Our South Carolina days seemed like another life, and yet I missed her suddenly. If we could chat rig.ht now over a cup of tea, I’d tell her about my grown children and my grandchildren. I’d tell her about the day trips Edwin and I take them on to Jamestown, Monticello, Mount Vernon. I’d tell her before the monuments were pulled down, we’d taught them the names of the Generals and their horses. But we will find new adventures for them after just a few more weeks of possible frost and snow. Spring is coming. I feel it in my well traveled bones.
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