A Two-Wheeled Freedom Machine

It was 1982, but it might as well have been 1952. I was a ten year old boy in suburban Columbia, South Carolina, but it could have just as easily been Kansas City, or Sacramento, or Buffalo. I was a member of perhaps the last generation of American kids to have the freedom to run free for hours on end with no adult supervision.

Even then, the nightly news carried ominous reports, which would strip future generations of that time-honored tradition of carefree play. A series of grisly child murders had recently taken place in Atlanta. John Walsh’s son, Adam, had been abducted and murdered the previous year. Etan Patz, a kid my age from New York, had disappeared a few years before, leading to the ubiquitous photos of missing children on milk cartons. Times were changing, but in the still idyllic world of my youth, we roamed free. And when not sleeping or eating or in school, I was outside.

I wore Toughskins jeans with patches on the knees. My friends and I played basketball and football and baseball in backyards all over the neighborhood. We played the violently titled “kill the man with the football”, aka “smear the queer” (we were young, and blissfully unaware of what queer even meant, but we knew we had to run like hell when we got the ball). We played “war” – similar to hide and go seek but with a vague adolescent bloodlust – and we would alternately practice the arts of hunt and evasion – stalking and hiding, hiding and stalking. We would tote bb guns into the nearby woods, where we shot rusted Pabst Blue Ribbon cans discarded by furtively partying high school kids. But when we weren’t doing these things, we were riding our bikes.

My best friend back then was Lee Pitts. His dad and my dad had gone to the old Columbia High School together and had remained friends over the years, eventually purchasing homes in the same neighborhood. Our back yards were separated by a run of chain link fence, which one of us was always jumping to get to the other’s house. We lived in Briarwood – a solid middle-class neighborhood situated off of U.S. Highway 1, which runs from Maine to Florida, but in Columbia is called Two Notch Road, because way back when – when it was an Indian trail – it was marked by two notches in the trees.  At least that was the story we always heard.

We knew practically everyone in the neighborhood, with one notable exception of the grumpy, solitary old German lady who lived next door to my family’s house on Weybourne Way. Whenever a stray football or baseball would find it’s way into her yard – which admittedly happened frequently – she would scowl at us, uttering something guttural and indecipherable, and abruptly release her yappy, wire-haired Dachshund who would run toward the errant ball in a barking frenzy. Sometimes we retrieved the ball and scampered back to safety before the yapping beast arrived, sometimes we didn’t. We learned at an early age that discretion is the better part of valor.

When we couldn’t round up enough guys to get a football game going, or when the football was held captive by the German, Lee and I would set out on our bikes. On weekends, we would ride for hours, all over the neighborhood – up to Windsor Elementary (our school), over to E.L. Wright Middle School (where the “big kids” went), and we would roar at devil-may-care speeds down the long hill of Highgate Road. We explored every inch of that neighborhood, which led us one day to an over-grown back corner of the development at the end of Highgate. There was a sad little trickle of water there, which ran into a culvert. It was nearly covered over with cattails and brambles, and had this interesting aroma. Actually, it quite stunk. We called it Sabotage Creek.

To the left bank of the creek was a thin strip of sandy trail, meandering beguilingly off into the scrub oaks and heat-stunted pines. We didn’t know where it went, but as soon as we saw it, we knew we had to find out.

A secret path to Sesqui

One mean set of wheels…

My bike was an early 80’s model Sears Free-Spirit – black frame with yellow trim and knobby tires – an all-purpose kid’s ride with the heart of a mountain bike, long before mountain bikes were even widely known or commercially available. It was my go-anywhere bike, and there was an unmistakable sense of freedom when riding it. Exploring uncharted trails in the fresh air, free of parental supervision – it was heady stuff.

We followed that thin strip of sandy path for miles, not knowing exactly where it would end up, and with no real expectation in mind, other than simply exploring. At one point we stumbled upon an old family cemetery of a dozen or so humble stone markers with weathered engravings, some dating back to the 1890’s. Even at the age of ten, I had inherited my father’s great love of history, and I was fascinated that people had once lived in this seemingly remote place. I wondered who they were and what their life was like, and the cemetery deepened the mystery and adventure of our exploration.

After more peddling, which seemed monumental in scope at the time, but was probably not more than three or four miles, we eventually discovered that the trail led to an obscure and little-used fire road, which led in turn to Sesqui-Centennial State Park. “Sesqui”, as we called it, is located just a few miles north of Briarwood on Two Notch Road. We had been there many times, but were elated to discover that it could be reached through little-known trails under our own power. Admittedly, we were not Lewis and Clark, but we felt pretty good about our discovery, nonetheless.

I remember riding around Sesqui for a little while and then heading back home. As we pedaled back down the now-familiar trail, past the intriguing family cemetery, Sabotage Creek and on toward home, I remember feeling tired, slightly sunburned and maybe a little saddle-weary. Beyond those things though, I remember the feeling of adventure – of knowing that my legs could carry me to places I never even knew existed. It was a feeling of freedom and though I had no way of knowing it then, I had begun a lifelong addiction.

Sometimes even now when I’m on my mountain bike, I think about that ten-year old kid and I’m thankful that he had the opportunity to play and explore and discover. I’m thankful for hidden paths and the mysteries of trees and forgotten history waiting to be rediscovered. And I can’t wait to see what’s around the next bend in the trail.

Shaving like Granddad

 

I have wonderful memories of my Mother’s Father, James Solomon McClam – Grandaddy. He died in 1991, when I was 19 years old. A small town boy, he was raised in the tiny town of Lynchburg, in South Carolina’s Pee Dee Region, between Sumter and Florence. Solidly a member of Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation”, he was a depression-era survivor, combat veteran and Purple Heart recipient in World War II, an entrepreneur, pillar of his community and Southern gentleman. He was a Thurmond Dixiecrat turned Reagan Republican, though I don’t recall him being particularly vocal around us grandkids with regard to politics. He was a reformed drinker – I imagine a bourbon man, like myself – and a Bible-believing Baptist. He was a colossus of my childhood and his memory still brings me the greatest warmth today. Most of all, what I remember about Granddaddy is his laugh. He had this easy, disarming, room-filling laugh. – it made you happy to be near him.

Courtesy of artofmanliness.com

I remember as a young boy, staying with my Grandparents at their house on the Boulevard Road in Sumter, and from time to time, wandering into the bathroom to watch him shave in the mornings before work or church. There was a process to his shaving which intrigued me – even at a young age – and still resonates with me today.

Like many of their generation, my grandparents both had false teeth, and this was a never-ending source of amazement to me. I remember watching, gape-mouthed and agog, as Granddaddy would take his teeth out of a glass of water on the porcelain sink and pop them into his mouth. Suddenly animated, his face would take on that familiar grin as he often looked down at me with a wink and began his morning shave.

He used an old-school safety razor and badger-hair brush, which he kept along with shaving soap of dubious origin, in an Old Spice mug. I remember him lathering his face with the brush and within minutes, transforming from stubbly, early-morning Granddad into clean-shaven storekeeper. Something about the way he shaved stuck with me. The process of it, the precision, the satisfaction of a wet shave – even experienced vicariously as an eight-year-old boy while glancing at a reflection in a steam-covered mirror. It spoke to me of manliness – of the way things ought to be.

Somewhere between my Granddad’s generation and my Father’s generation, shaving went into the crapper. Was it an attachment to technological advances? Electric shavers certainly made admirable advances during those years. Or was it just that we, as a society, got ourselves into such a big damned hurry that caused the wet shave to lose popularity? Whatever the reason, shaving went from being a process to be embraced – a rite of passage and a thing to be enjoyed – to a rushed, half-assed chore. My first razor, back in ’85 when the most stubborn of whiskers on my pubescent cheeks still fell solidly under the heading of peach-fuzz, was an electric. Even then – even amidst the awkward anticipation of that first shave, I remember the disappointment of the electric razor. It was mechanical, it was cold – it   was not my Granddad’s shave. It occurs to me now, that my Father’s generation, in spite their admirable advances in oral health and resulting lack of false teeth, were boring shavers.

Even as wet shaving experienced a renaissance of late, it was ruined by the greed of Gillette and their ilk. A walk down the shaving aisle at the local Target never fails to produce sticker shock at the cost of replacement cartridges for the standard razor. Replacement cartridges for Gillette’s Mach III razor, for example, cost as much as $12 for four (4) replacement razors. Of course, this is due, in part, to the arms race of the past decade or so, in which razor companies have come up with increasingly elaborate and ridiculous blade designs. Three blades, four blades – I think they are up to five blades… all at a greater cost to one’s wallet with no perceptible increase in quality of save. In fact there is some evidence to suggest that the multiple blade designs cause more skin irritation, not less, as is their claim.

Last year, sick of paying exorbitant prices for the standard replacement cartridges, I went on line and Googled “old school shaving products”. What I found was a veritable world of alternative shaving options. There were straight razors, “safety razors”, bowls, brushes – and this is what sold me – I found that I could still purchase Pinaud Clubman Aftershave – that time-honored, manly-smelling staple of barbershops everywhere. Better yet, I calculated a year’s worth of replacement razors for the old-school equipment vs. the Mach III stuff, and the difference was eye-popping. Each Mach III replacement cartridge costs an average of $3. Each double-edged safety blade replacement costs an average of $.50. Over a year’s time, that’s a difference of $130. I figured that over the course of my remaining working life (because after retirement, I’m growing a big damned beard), I would save over $2,500! Further, I could recapture the manly essence of my Granddad’s shave. The razor, the bowl, the brush, the soap of dubious origin… it was all there for purchase on Al Gore’s wonderful invention!

After a brief flirtation with the idea of purchasing a straight razor (hey, I reasoned, let’s go all out!), I was deterred by visions of a severed carotid artery and Rorschach blood patterns on bathroom walls as I lay prostrate and twitching on a cold tile floor. I settled on the good-old mid-century safety razor – a Merkur double-sided one, manufactured in Germany in a beautiful stainless steel. It has this really satisfying heft, and leaves one feeling that they are shaving with an “instrument”, rather than something they purchased at Target. Hard to explain why, precisely, but this is really enjoyable.

I have been shaving like Granddad for over a year now and I highly recommend it. My visits to Target are much less stressful. Each morning as I shave, pleasant memories of my Granddad are relived. I lather my face with a badger-hair brush, and somehow, that’s just fun. And after it’s all done, I splash on a bit of “ye olde” Pinaud Clubman and walk confidently out the door smelling like a barbershop. Somewhere up there, I know Granddad is starting his day off the same way.

 

Mountain Medicine

 

It was a picturesque October Friday evening in the South Carolina Upstate. Cool and cloudless with the faint aroma of woodsmoke. He thought of his childhood when his Grandfather would burn fallen Pecan branches. It was the manliest scent he knew and it made him miss those days.

In the distance a marching band serenaded the Friday night football crowd. The snare drum and brass, rousing and vaguely militaristic, made him miss football. It made his pulse quicken – made him miss hitting people.

It was a fall Friday night in the American South. The sound of marching bands was as common as the cry of train whistles or the singing of birds.

With nothing better to do after work, Solomon Jackson stopped into the outdoor supply store on Laurens Road in Greenville. Here, he spent his time browsing for boots and backpacks and other pricey camping supplies. He pushed open the shop door and a bell attached to the inside handle announced his arrival. The fragrance of nylon and leather and canvas – equipment unused and awaiting sale – filled his senses, and he inhaled deeply.

Though he rarely purchased anything, he always came here on Friday evenings. He was between girlfriends. This was how he explained the regrettable status of his love life to anyone who inquired. He harbored an unrequited flame for Sharon. She was a quirky, curvaceous brunette coworker from Spartanburg. She considered him a friend but walked the earth in utter oblivion to his plight. “Friend”, that contemptible epithet, was the lonely burden he shouldered.

Sol had jumped at a job offer in Greenville after a miserable few weeks at work in Columbia just three months prior. Hemlock and fir and the loamy soil of the Southern Appalachian foothills took the place of scrub oak and pine and the heat-cursed sand hills of the South Carolina Midlands. He luxuriated in the relative coolness that the altitude change provided, and he spent his weekends exploring the trails north of town.

Despite the welcome change in scenery, he found no great satisfaction in his work as a small-time beat writer for the local weekly paper. He covered the mundane comings and goings of Greenville County and its citizens. Car dealership grand openings, church revivals, arrest dockets, weddings and funerals and births. It was a job and he could take some comfort in the fact that he was writing at all, but he still felt stifled. He had grander visions for his writing. Hemingway was reporting from the Western Front during the Great War at Sol’s age. He ached for more.

Sol was six-foot two and lanky, with an unruly mop of thick, brown hair that seemed in perfect unison with his slouching posture. He lived for the weekends and found great solace in his Saturday morning retreats to the woods and hills and trails north of town.

The next day, one of his eagerly anticipated Saturdays, he rose around six and dressed for the day while coffee brewed. An NPR reporter whispered news of genocide and famine and gut-wrenching tragedy. “Seventeen people died in Guatemala when a bus left the roadway on a high mountain pass” the sedated female voice droned with an odd emotional detachment.

With a shudder, Sol switched off the radio and emptied the coffee into a large stainless travel mug. He bagged two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and filled his Camelback with water for the long day of hiking. It would be a forty-five minute drive to the small gravel parking area at the Raven Cliff Falls trail head just north of Caesar’s Head State Park.

In the dim light of a pre-dawn fog he steered his old CJ-5 north onto highway 276 and headed out past the Greenville city limits. The Jeep’s familiar and pleasing aroma of damp canvas and spilt coffee relaxed him. He was happy to be up at out at this early hour. He passed by the leafy environs of Furman University, just outside of Traveler’s Rest. Further north, he rolled through the tiny hamlets of Slater and Marietta and Cleveland.  The serpentine highway narrowed as hills and trees claimed dominion over the more cultivated world below. It was turning cooler now and the forecast called for clear skies later in the day.

Reaching the parking area at 7:15, his was the third car there. One of the vehicles, a late-model blue Ford pickup, had been there for some time from the thick layer of frost still covering the windows. He unfolded himself out of the old Jeep and began to stretch as he took in the first few damp breaths of cool mountain air. It was a good ten degrees cooler than back in Greenville.

The occupants of the other vehicle – a black Range Rover – stood with dour expressions of regret beside their SUV. The woman stabbed the air accusingly, spewing bile in hissed whispers to her brow-beaten companion. They were dressed in top of the line North Face jackets and boots and cargo hiking pants. A tag still dangled from one of their expensive walking poles. They had made some shop owner’s day, spending lavish sums for hiking gear that would soon know the dark recesses of a cluttered garage. Personal injury attorneys, Sol thought to himself. He grabbed his daypack and set out so as not to end up behind them on the narrow trail.

As the miles went by and the fog cleared, blazes of oranges, garnets and yellows preened like the vestments of some joyful Caribbean monarch. The sky was crystal blue, almost cloudless except for the accents of high, wispy cirrus clouds.