The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
And God fulfils himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world…
Tennyson, from Idylls of the King
You could tell you were getting close when you smelled the marsh. Just before, on the right, was Sol Legare Road, down which was a Black settlement, including Backman’s Seafood. That was owned by Mrs. Backman, but it was run by her eldest son, Junior Backman. Her other sons were captains in her trawler fleet. Passing Sol Legare Road and looking out over the first tongue of marshland, you could see the trawlers tied up at the dock - pretty wooden boats with their graceful sheer and high bows, freshly painted white with red trim, and with red mast, boom, and outriggers. The nets hanging in the rigging were tar-dipped instead of the newer green dip, and they waved like gossamer in the balmy southwest wind, heralding an early opening of the season in May when the wildlife people had decided enough of the big white shrimp had spawned.
The tides run around six feet in those parts, and at low tide you could see the exposed black mud banks of the sloughs lined with clusters of oysters, and smell the heavenly smell of the golden green marshlands.
Past the first tongue of marsh you passed a stand by the side of the road run by a Black woman, who advertised on a hand-painted plywood sign: “LIVE AND STLL CRABS.”
Next after that was the turnoff onto a long sandy causeway leading out across the marsh to Bowen’s Island, where the road forks to make a loop around the island. Taking the right hand fork you pass several funky houses up on blocks to the left, and on the right, a little cinderblock house painted pink. Around the bend you emerge from the thick palmetto and live oak jungle and arrive at Mrs. Bowen’s laid-back restaurant on the creek, a restaurant noted up and down the Carolina Low Country. Entering one of the side doors, one faced a table and some chairs and a counter with the cash register beyond, where Mrs. Bowen presided as proprietress, cashier, and waitress. Behind the counter was the galley, which was John Sanka’s domain. Here fried fish, shrimp, oysters, and home-made hush puppies were created, garnished with a slice of pickle for a balanced diet, and served up on paper plates, which were delivered balanced on Mrs. Bowen’s arms to the joyous customers, who would wash down these delicacies with cold beer. On top of the refrigerator was a cardboard pyramid wherein John stored his knives when not in use, so that the Cosmic Forces would be concentrated in order to keep them sharp.
From this area of management, one went into the main dining area through one of the two portals in a cinder block petition. On the right, in the corner, was a juke box that would play “Zing Went the Strings of My Heart” for a nickel. Down the aisle between the two rows of tables, at the other end of the restaurant, sat Mr. Bowen in front of the big black-and-white TV set. He had to sit close because his eyesight was not the best. He also had it turned up full blast because he not only was a little hard of hearing, but because of the noise of the patrons.
“When she dies, I’m going to sell this damned place and move to California!” he would say.
Mr. Bowen was born the year of the Spanish-American War, played the trombone in the US Marine Corps Band in both world wars - and in a jazz band in between, until Mrs. Bowen took it away from him.
Continuing on past the Bowen’s Island turnoff, just before the bridge across Folly Creek, was Geezer’s place - not a tourist destination. Passing beyond Geezer’s and the bridge, and just before crossing the next bridge over Folly River leading onto the beach, you have almost arrived at your destination. Here, on the right, one turned down another sandy road behind a bait-and-tackle shop. A little way down the road was a deep dip that must have been a prehistoric dinosaur wallow, for rainwater would fill it up to the hubcaps of a late fifties Chevrolet pickup truck with a straight six, three on the column, and the passenger-side door tied shut with a piece of rope. But just beyond that, there you were at one of the last refuges for individuals in this Brave New Corporate/Bureaucratic/Conform-or-Die-from-Political-Incorrectness World – the Folly River Boatyard.
The proprietor’s name was Jim. His office was in an old trailer there on the yard. His wife ran the store room and his ex-wife was the receptionist in the office. Both of them were mad at Jim because he was running around on his girlfriend who lived over on the beach.
There was an assortment of boats around – little ones blocked up out on the yard and bigger ones at the dock waiting their turn to be hauled out on the marine railway. There was the usual resident kibitzer who lived on a little blue and white wooden cabin boat that never left the dock. He would come over and tell you how you were not doing things the way they were supposed to be done. To give credit where credit is due, sometimes he was right.
Mr. Richardson was the caulker and he taught me the fundamentals of that dying art. He used a regular carpenter’s hammer but he had an old set of caulking irons with which to drive the cotton and oakum into the seams. I found a set of irons available from an old cooperage firm in Charleston and purchased it. For a mallet, I took a piece of seasoned live oak and had a cabinet maker in town turn it down into a traditional cylindrical shape on his lathe. The mallet head was about a foot long and about two-and-a-half inches in diameter – a little thicker in the middle where the handle was fitted. I split each end of the hammer head lengthwise with a saw cut about four inches long to give it a bounce, and then banded each end with a short piece of thin-walled copper pipe of the same diameter. I drove wedges into the split ends to keep the bands tight as I knocked on the irons with the mallet. The handle was just a regular ball peen hammer handle that I got from the hardware store. I drilled a hole for it into the middle of the mallet head and wedged the handle in place, giving the whole mallet a “T” shape.
Mr. Richardson showed me how to clean and roll the ropes of caulking cotton and how to knock it into the seams with successive little tucks. Then he showed me how to paint the seams and the caulking cotton with bottom paint and to putty the seams when the paint had dried.
Mr. Richardson was from over there on Sol Legare Road. One of his most noted accomplishments – other than caulking - was his remarkable talent for conserving his strength. We had a two-masted schooner hauled out on the railway in which he had been assigned to do something up forward inside the hull. The insides had been stripped out amidships except for the bulkheads and I was in there building a fiberglass-over-plywood fresh water tank in the floors of her. I kept hearing an occasional tap-tap-tap with a hammer coming from forward of the bulkhead. At first I didn’t pay any attention to it, but eventually I got curious and went forward to see what was going on. Mr. Richardson was lying in one of the fo’c’s’le bunks with his hammer and every now and then he would give a few raps with it on the bunk overhead.
“Whatcha doin’ Mr. Richardson?” I asked.
“Oh, Aye studyin’ de psychology ah de sitiation,” he said in his old Low-Country Gullah dialect, tapping again a couple of times.
When we were getting the schooner ready to go back overboard I asked Mr. Richardson if he was going out in her for sea trials.
“Oh, no,” he smiled, “Aye ain’ gwine’ out dey. No sah!”
“How come?” I asked.
“Aye ain’ gwine’ out dey ‘cause dey got sea munksters out dey!”
“How you know that?” I asked, “You been takin’ a little nip?”
“Oh, no!” he said. “Aye a good Chrustian! Aye ain’ use no anchor haul!”
“Well then, how you know ‘bout sea monsters?” I went on.
“Aye seen um on de talliwidgeon las’ night,” he replied.
“Is that right? Wha’d they say?”
“Well, Aye b’n watchin’ wi’de chillun’ an’ dis big munkster come up out de wa’ddah an’ sta’at stompin’ t’r’u’ de city knockin’ over bu’ldins and ma’ashin’ up cya’as and pickin’ up de people an’ t’rowin’ ‘em down, an’ all de people b’n runnin’ an’ hollerin’ an’ ca’ain’ on an’ de whole place catchin’ on fiyah an’ all like dat!” he said, getting more exercised as the description went on.
“What happened after that?” I asked.
“Aye ain’ knows. Me an’ de chilluns b’n screaming an’ hollerin’ so much de wife come in an’ shet de talliwidgeon off!”
So I never did find out any more information about sea monsters.
Later on Mr. Richardson told me about the root medicine – or “the root” as it is called – which is a form of Voodoo that was still practiced back in the swamps and remote Sea Island settlements in the Low Country. Love potions, money potions, windows painted blue to keep the root off, “cunjie” bags, roots put on a doorsill or under a gate in the dead of night, all had powerful effects. Mr. Richardson told me that down around Ladies Island, near Beaufort, if you needed to see a noted root doctor named Dr. Buzzard, he would come across the creek at midnight in a skiff towed by a flock of buzzards. His medicine was so powerful it would put people in the hospital. At the Medical College of Charleston, people who would come in who had had the root put on them would be treated with a diuretic that made them pass urine in different colors to cure them. They would be told that if they passed one color it was the root going out of them, but if they passed the other color the doctors would have to try something else.
One Monday morning Mr. Richardson and I were working on the quadrant at the head of the rudder post on a boat that was up on blocks out on the yard. A couple of police cars pulled up and carried the proprietor off in handcuffs. Mr. Richardson tossed his hammer aside and fell back listlessly against the waist exclaiming, “Aye ‘clare! Aye feel so ba’ad ‘bout de police ca’in’ Mist’ Jim off, Aye cya’an’ hardly work!”
I tried to sooth him and said, “There, there, Mr. Richardson. It’ll be all right!”
Evidently, Jim had had a little kerfluffle with his girlfriend over on the beach and had gone over to her house that weekend to get his TV set. She wouldn’t let him in so he kicked a panel out of the door and went in and got the TV anyway. She filed a complaint and Monday morning the police came around to the boatyard and hauled him off in handcuffs. Jim’s wife and ex-wife were both ecstatic over the developments and immediately took Jim’s girlfriend into their ever-expanding sisterhood.
During a work break on one of my first days at the yard I noticed a little crowd of yard hands gathered around the boat shed laughing at someone holding forth with some harangue or other. I went over and caught the last part:
“…. but he thought it was a tugboat coming up the river so he opened up the swing bridge. The mule ran off into the river and drowned and the hounds ran off and swam to the other side. It just so happened that the bridge tender was running for sheriff at the time and he didn’t get but seven votes, because everybody thought that anybody who couldn’t tell the difference between a tugboat blowing for the bridge and a mule with a fox horn up his ass ought not to be sheriff of the county!”
This was Abbott, who liked to be called “Blackie” (not to be confused with Captain Blackie, who used to be seen walking up and down Folly Road winter or summer with his short sleeves rolled up to his armpits, his captain’s hat at a jaunty angle upon his head, and his shirt unbuttoned halfway down with his chest hair sticking out in a gray ruff.) At that time Abbott was renting a place over on the beach where he was taking care of a fellow he had found living under the Folly Beach Pier. Abbott went around and told everybody on the yard that if they wanted to each chip in something like a bag of rice or beans or a can of vegetables or something every now and then, we could go over to his place at lunchtime each day and his buddy - who was living over there - would have a big pot of stew or beans or something for our lunch. So some of us went in on the deal and it was a pretty satisfactory arrangement for a little while until they got evicted. I don’t know what happened to his buddy but Abbott moved into the back room of Geezer’s place, which situation evidently was a little more stable.
The other arrangement seemed sort of like the halt leading the blind.
Geezer’s place, as noted above, was on the right hand side just before the Folly
Creek Bridge, right after the Bowen’s Island turnoff. Geezer never said too much. He mostly just sat in a chair sidled up close by the window so he could keep an eye on whomever was turning in to his place from up the road.
I had a double-breasted, pin-striped suit that a local tailor had made for me when I was on “R & R” in Thailand, and I asked Abbott if he wanted it. He did, and he used to wear it around Geezer’s place after work. He said people would ask him if he had undertaken to being an undertaker. He cut quite a sartorial figure around there for a while. All that he lacked to top things off were a white carnation in the lapel, a white fedora, and a violin case - and probably a set of spats to cover the brogans he wore that still had copper bottom paint drips on them from working at the boatyard.
Abbott had once served as a deputy sheriff in Columbia and had witnessed the first execution of a woman in South Carolina. It was done by the electric chair, and Abbott said he never wanted to see anything like that again. He had also served in Navy gun crews on merchant ships during the Second World War – probably as hairy as any job in the war. I am told that the Merchant Service – often backlit by the lights on shore along the coast despite the blackout regulations - were sitting ducks for the U-boats, and they had a higher rate of casualties than did any other branch of service, including the US Marine Corps.
Abbott had been torpedoed twice - once on an oil tanker that set the sea on fire off Newfoundland. He said he remembered seeing the German U-boat on the surface beyond the flames. He and some others were in one of those life rafts with the webbing in the bottom, and in the cold North Atlantic waters everybody got frost bitten except for the Bo’s’n and him, because – as he said – they were both alcoholics and had plenty of antifreeze in them. They were all rescued by a French Corvette.
One Saturday – before he had moved to Geezer’s place - I went over to the beach to get Abbott so we could go downtown and register to vote. Before we got off the beach he asked me to stop so he could run into the liquor store and get a half-pint, which he stuck in his pocket. When we got downtown we saw two different doors for voter registration. He went into the one marked A-M, while I went into the one marked N-Z. I told him I’d meet him out by the truck after we had gotten registered. When I came back out, there was no Abbott, so I waited at the truck. I waited - and waited some more. Finally I went into his end of the building. No Abbott. Somebody was standing outside on the sidewalk and I asked them if they had seen anyone fitting the description I gave them.
“Oh, yes,” they said. “The police carried him off about a half an hour ago.”
Well, that was pretty good. So I went down to the police station looking for him. I was told they had him back there in the jail. He was in a cell with a pretty big crowd and he was glad to see me. When I bailed him out he swore fealty to me forever and promised that he would pay me back. I said I could use a hand getting some sheets of tin up onto the roof of my boat shed over on Bowen’s Island if he was free next Saturday morning for a little while. He said he was, and I went and picked him up about eight o’clock.
It was a muggy, still morning and the sand gnats were about to eat us alive when I climbed up onto the roof, but fortunately a nice little breeze soon sprang up and blew them away. Unfortunately it also blew Abbott over into the honeysuckle when he tried to hand me up about the third sheet of tin, so that pretty much wound things up on the boat shed project for the day.
We had some pretty interesting boats come into the yard from time to time. One of the most beautiful boats I ever saw was the Louis B. Fuerstein, built in 1901. She was a big old Chesapeake Bay oyster “buy boat” – one of those boats that used to go out on the oyster grounds and buy oysters from the men tonging on the oyster reefs. The Fuerstein was about seventy five or eighty feet long with a very broad beam and a beautiful sheer line over a low freeboard. Her hull was planked fore-and-aft and she was round-bottomed and round-sterned. She had a varnished mast forward by the forepeak hatch, and a wheelhouse aft. The lines of the top of the wheelhouse followed the sheer line, and there was a small break aft of the pilothouse with narrow windows that allowed the pilot to see aft over the cabin top. The pilothouse was rounded off forward, and it and the cabin house were made of narrow strips of vertical tongue-and-groove. The engine room was below the pilothouse but it had a raised trunk with port lights near the deck, and one had to take a step up to enter the pilothouse through the side doors. Both the main deck of the vessel and the overhead of the cabin and the wheelhouse had not only a graceful sheer, but also a pronounce camber. And all was set off by a low, ornamental rail around the stern. She had been purchased by some Cubans, if I remember, who had tried to trawl shrimp with her, but she was underpowered for that, so they were taking her out offshore to use her to fish for grouper and blackfish (or black sea bass). Years later I saw a painting of the Fuerstein in an antique shop near Gloucester Point, Virginia, near where she had been built.
Another big Bay boat came in, got hauled out on the railway for repairs and a paint job on the bottom, and was bought where she sat for forty thousand dollars cash - all in twenty-dollar bills. There was a lot of smuggling going on back in those days, and this boat was last seen heading south.
A little decked over Bay boat came in for haul out, and I was to sail away in her.
The boat was built in 1917 in Perrin Creek, across the river from Yorktown, Virginia. She was of “deadrise” construction, built with a hard chine and cross-planked on the bottom in the traditional Chesapeake Bay fashion. She was about forty-five feet long, and had a GM 6-71 engine below the pilot house. One gained access to the engine compartment through a hatch in the pilot house deck. She was decked over with the wheel house and cabin aft. Earl, the Captain, had been a civilian contractor in Vietnam with Pacific Architects and Engineers (PA&E) and had married a Vietnamese girl. He name the boat Mai Ly after his wife, and he was getting the boat fitted out to go blackfishing.
Captain Earl had a brother George who fished and shrimped out of his dock in Shem Creek, up in Charleston, and he was planning to take up the same endeavor with his boat. One day Jim came over and said Captain Earl was looking for someone to help him pilot the boat out of Stono Inlet and up to Charleston, and he asked me if I could do it. I told him I could. I had practiced land navigation extensively, running Long Range Patrols during Ranger training in the Army. I figured I could read a chart and a compass well enough to get us out of the river, out of the inlet, up the coast, and into Charleston.
When we got to his brother’s dock, Captain Earl offered me a job, which I accepted. The pay was a percentage of the catch, and all the beer I could drink and all the tuna fish and Saltine crackers I could eat. I accepted on the spot. How could anyone turn down a deal like that?! I told Captain Earl I had to go back to the boat yard and give Jim my notice, and it might take a few days or so before I could start work as his deck hand. I told Jim about it at the boatyard and there was no problem and there were no hard feelings. People around there pretty much sort of drifted in and out of the place anyway. And eventually the boatyard, too, drifted away like the rest.
The Folly River Boatyard is long gone now, like Geezer’s place, and like Mrs. Bowen and her restaurant, which burned and got rebuilt into an upscale restaurant by her grandson. Gone, too, is the little stand on Folly Road with the hand-painted sign that read “Live and Still Crabs.” Now there is a stoplight, a shopping center, and a Piggly-Wiggly. Backman’s Seafood is gone, too. When some Arab Sheik bough Kiawah Island and developed it, that killed the shrimping. Just like off Folly Beach, the trawlers were not allowed to work within a half a mile of the shore where the best shrimping is, because they brought in the sharks. The Backman fleet either rotted in the marsh or went south, Junior Backman went to Fiddler’s Green, and Backman’s Seafood is no more, all gone the way of non-conformists and replaced by lock-step corporations, and by McMansions and condos that have popped up around there like mushrooms.
Nothing stays the same but the Absolute.
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A native of Lynchburg, Virginia, the author graduated from the Virginia Military Institute in 1967 with a degree in Civil Engineering and a Regular Commission in the US Army. His service included qualification as an Airborne Ranger, and command of an Engineer company in Vietnam, where he received the Bronze Star. After his return, he resigned his Commission and ended by making a career as a tugboat captain. During this time he was able to earn a Master of Liberal Arts from the University of Richmond, with an international focus on war and cultural revolution. He is a member of the Jamestowne Society, the Society of the Cincinnati in the State of Virginia, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and the Society of Independent Southern Historians. He currently lives in Richmond, where he writes, studies history, literature and cultural revolution, and occasionally commutes to Norfolk to serve as a tugboat pilot