Dad

My Dad has played many roles in his life. Father, husband, brother, uncle and son. Navy seaman, Army officer, successful businessman, civic leader, Sunday school teacher, coach and pilot. He has been a mentor and a friend and at times when I needed it, a disciplinarian. From him I inherited a deep and abiding love of the South, of Gamecock sports and of all things old and dusty and historical.

He passed on his great love of music – from Bluegrass to the Blues Brothers, from the Temptations to Hank Williams, Stevie Wonder to Bill Monroe and Electric Light Orchestra to Johnny Cash. My sister and I laugh often about him dancing in the middle of our living room, circa mid 80’s, to Cameo’s “Word Up” – stereo cranked, head down, fists pumping, and showing impressive rhythm for a man descended from East Tennessee hill people. These impromptu jigs always seemed to occur as he was dressing for work or changing clothes after, which resulted in an underwear and business socks ensemble, as if he was possessed by an urge to boogie too powerful for attention to menial details – like pants. He was a strange amalgam of pale Cliff Huxtable and Tom Cruise in “Risky Business”, but he taught us not to take ourselves too seriously, to be open to the joy of music and to embrace our inner James Brown on occasion.

When I was in second grade he held me out of class one morning and drove me out to Owens Field, the municipal airport in Columbia, where he took me flying in a rented Cessna 150. We flew over Williams-Brice Stadium and the buildings of downtown and out towards Northeast Columbia where we lived. We banked right over my school and our house on Weybourne Way. It was magical to see those things from high in the air – to have that expanded perspective. It was both comforting and impressive to see him confidently at the controls and talking with the tower in that mysterious and phonetic staccato of pilot-speak over the crackling and ancient Cessna radio. Later we had lunch together and he dropped me back off at class just in time for “show and tell” where I told proudly – breathlessly – about my awesome pilot-Dad and our early morning recon at 3,000 feet over the Capital City. And it just doesn’t get much better than that for a second grader.

We attended countless basketball games at Frank McGuire Arena and there was no better place to be on a cold winter evening than the cozy confines of “The Frank”. And even though Gamecock hoops was not what it was in McGuire’s glory days, we were not too many years removed and you could still feel the presence of those great teams. The building was equal parts arena and shrine.

We would park on Assembly Street or Main just south of the Capital building and he would hold my hand in those early years as we walked through the tunnel under Assembly Street to the Coliseum. The aroma of fresh popcorn would greet us as we walked through the doors and handed our tickets to the familiar and welcoming doormen in their garnet blazers. We could hear the squeak of high top sneakers on the old tartan floor as we pushed through the turnstiles, and the familiar baritone of court side announcer Gene McKay rang in our ears as we found our seats before tipoff.

The pep band would fire up “Step to the Rear” and “Go Carolina” and the retired jerseys of Roche and English and Owens and Wallace hung proudly from the massive rafters above. We pondered the history of that building, the “House that Frank built”, and there was an electricity there – a soul – that I have never experienced in another arena. And on those special nights when all 12,401 seats were filled and the team played well and the crowd was especially rowdy, I was as happy as any boy has ever been.

Every so often after a game we’d cross over the Blossom Street Bridge into neighboring Cayce and I would peak down at the moon splashed Congaree River flowing purposely below us. We would pick up donuts at the Krispy Kreme on Knox Abbott Drive, back when it was still very much a regional brand, known mostly in the Carolinas. On the way home we would always listen to the incomparable Bob Fulton conduct his post game show on AM 560, and he would delve into the stats and interview Coach Bill Foster and provide commentary. I savored that time in the dark of his car as we made our way along Assembly and Bull Streets and I-277 back northeast towards home, not wanting it to end.

We watched George Rogers’ electrifying run to the Heisman in 1980 and Zam Frederick take the National Scoring Championship later that year in basketball. We watched baseball games at Sarge Frye Field and took pride in that powerhouse program some twenty-five years before Ray Tanner’s magical National Championship squads. We took in road football games in those pre-SEC years at Chapel Hill and Wake Forest and NC State – lingering rivalries from the ACC days. I was obsessed as only a young boy can be with sports and Dad indulged that obsession and shared in it as well.

Later, during the searching and sometimes reckless years of my early 20’s, he held me close through our long-established bond over Carolina sports. And even when we could think of nothing else to talk about we could talk about that. Even now it is a rarity when we don’t talk by phone after games to celebrate or commiserate.

He stood up for me at my first wedding and then provided much needed counsel and hard-earned wisdom during the difficult process when that union failed. He has been a travel companion and a sounding board and a steadfast advocate throughout.

It astounds me when I consider that his father died when he was a mere baby – three months old and living in Erwin, Tennessee. All of his “Dad skills” came through on the job training. He was a quick study and embraced that role with the fiery passion of one determined to provide a better life. He has certainly succeeded in that.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad. Love you, man.

Dad & me

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 being 1980’s suburbia as it was, it could have just as easily been Kansas City, or Sacramento, or Buffalo. Mine was the last American generation of feral kids. We ran free for hours on end with no adult supervision. When not sleeping or eating or in school, we were outside.

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. Adam Walsh, had been abducted and murdered the previous year in Florida. 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.

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 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 solidly middle-class assemblage of ranch homes situated off of U.S. Highway 1, which runs from Maine to Florida, but in Columbia is called Two Notch Road. The name came from two notches on trees which marked the trail long ago. At least that was the story we always heard.

We knew practically everyone in the neighborhood with the notable exception of a furtive German lady who lived next door on Weybourne Way. Whenever a stray football or baseball would find its way into her yard, which admittedly happened frequently, she would scowl at us, uttering something guttural and indecipherable.  Her yappy, wire-haired Dachshund would run toward the errant ball in a barking frenzy. Sometimes we retrieved the ball and scampered back to safety before the surly 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. 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 which ran into a culvert. It was nearly covered over with cattails and brambles, and had an 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, years before mountain bikes were 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 well into the 1800’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 a few miles, we eventually discovered the trail led to an obscure and little-used fire road, which led in turn to Sesqui-Centennial State Park. “Sesqui”, as it is called, is located just a few miles north of Briarwood off of Two Notch Road. It was built by FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps and opened in 1936, its name marking the 150th anniversary of Columbia’s founding. 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, then 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 paternal grandfather, James Solomon McClam – “Grandaddy”. A small town boy, he grew up in the farming community of Lynchburg, in South Carolina’s Pee Dee region. Solidly a member of Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation”, he was a depression-era survivor, combat veteran and Purple Heart recipient in World War II, entrepreneur, and pillar of his community.

He was a reformed drinker who liked his beer as a younger man, I’ve been told. Following an arrest for drunken driving and an ultimatum from my grandmother, granddaddy quit drinking after their second child, (my uncle Jim), was born. He testified humbly of how his faith enabled him to overcome alcoholism.

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.

Photo courtesy of artofmanliness.com

I have fond memories of weekends spent as a young boy with my grandparents at their house on the Boulevard Road in Sumter. Each morning, I would awake in their back bedroom to the sound of pots and pans clanging, as the aroma of bacon and coffee wafted through the house.  On occasion, as grandma prepared breakfast, I’d wander into the bathroom to watch granddaddy shave in the mornings before work or church. There was something elemental about the process of his morning grooming which resonated to me. 

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, 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 looked down at me with a wink and began his morning shave.

He used a 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 granddaddy 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 granddaddy’s generation and my dad’s generation, shaving went into the crapper. Was it a blind attachment to technological advances? Electric shavers certainly made admirable advances during those years. Or was it 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. Around 1985, when my first crop of peach-fuzz arrived, my first razor was an electric. Despite the vague excitement of that first shaving milestone, 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 dad’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, something was still not quite right. The cost of replacement cartridges never fails to produce sticker shock while roaming the shaving aisle at Target. Replacement cartridges for Gillette’s highly popular Mach III razor, cost as much as $12 for four (4) replacement razors. 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, all at greater cost with no perceptible increase in quality of shave. In fact there is some evidence to suggest multiple blade designs cause more skin irritation, not less.

Weary of paying exorbitant prices for replacement cartridges, I did a little research on old-school shaving products. What I found was a veritable world of alternative shaving options. There were straight razors, safety razors, bowls, and brushes. Perhaps most enticing, I found Pinaud Clubman Aftershave, that time-honored, manly-smelling staple of barbershops everywhere, was still available for purchase.

Moreover, 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 meanwhile costs an average of $.50. Over a year’s time, that’s a difference of $130. Extrapolated over decades, that starts to add up. Better yet, I could recapture the manly essence of my Granddad’s shave. The razor, the bowl, the brush, the soap of dubious origin… it all seemed right, and so I took the plunge.

After a brief flirtation with purchasing a straight razor, visions of a severed carotid artery and Rorschach blood patterns on the bathroom wall deterred me. I settled on a mid-century safety razor – a Merkur 34C. Manufactured in Germany in beautiful stainless steel, it has a highly satisfying heft. It feels like an “instrument”, a thing to be taken seriously, and it is somehow just satisfying to hold. 

I have been shaving like granddad for ten years now, and have never looked back. I lather my face with a badger-hair brush, then go to work with the Merkur, and the process of it all is pleasing. And after it’s all done, I splash on a bit of Pinaud Clubman and start my day 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.