It’s crisp this morning — perhaps 60 degrees — and a sweet-smelling cloud has settled over Port Royal. That smell tells me that pigs are being slow-cooked on Paris Avenue and that hundreds of folks will be eating those pigs by noon.
When I was a boy, our military family would return, each summer, to South Carolina. June or July was usually spent at Ocean Drive Beach (now North Myrtle Beach) in one of several cottages built by my grandfather. But that month was punctuated by short trips into eastern North Carolina in search of shredded, vinegar-based barbecue in places like Kinston, Ayden, Goldsboro and Rocky Mount.
Ocean Drive Beach was then a collection of cottages — many built atop creosote pilings, arranged in rows that paralleled the strand. These white painted cottages were cooled by a reliable breeze that came off the Atlantic Ocean every night. None had air conditioning other than a table fan that was infrequently used in the late afternoon.
My father and my mother’s mother did not like each other. I am not entirely sure why, but surmise it was because he was from Ohio, a Catholic and indifferent to my grandmother’s deviled crabs, fried chicken and love for North Carolina barbecue.
In an effort to sidestep that mutual antipathy, my father arranged to take graduate level (immunology) courses at Duke, North Carolina or Vanderbilt while we spent the month in one of my grandfather’s three cottages.
In the morning, my single objective was getting down to the beach. For my mother, it was also getting a tan. For me and my siblings it was getting repeatedly knocked-down, tumbled and pummeled by the Atlantic Ocean for three or four hours. This always meant a serious sunburn and then a sleepless, Noxzema-slathered night followed by two or three days of exile from the strand.
It’s hard, perhaps impossible, for one to imagine life without a television or a telephone. It’s also hard to imagine sitting in restaurant without a dozen television monitors bringing a football game from Kansas City.
But somehow, someway we managed to enjoy life with only conversation, the building of the occasional sand castle and a weekend run in search of vinegar-based barbecue as the three pillars of our summer existence.
I will confess there was a place called The Pad where one could dance the Shag. My friend, Jim Gibson, has written (in Ridin’ Round) about the Shag which our General Assembly voted — after months of debate, compromise and negotiation — the South Carolina State Dance. Jim has written about $2-a-night rooms at Blankenship’s — which was next door to one of our cottages—and Fat Harold’s and Sonny’s at Cherry Grove.
Jim has put together a wonderful collection of teenage memories. And while I do have a few of those, most of my memories focus on the simplicity of those long days in the ocean; and the unalloyed happiness that attached to walking in the dunes.
Let me explain.
Ocean Drive Beach is about two miles south of Cherry Grove Beach. In between those two villages there was a stretch of sparsely settled frontage called Tilghman Beach — in those days largely unimproved and empty except for sand dunes, sea oats and ghost crabs who left their delicate trails throughout this undulating, Saharan topography.
On many afternoons I would walk into this landscape, alone, making up a story in my head. Actually it was the same story, but divided into many episodes involving a small civilization, under siege from a larger, lawless, less-civilized civilization. The story came with conflict, battles and characters who brought heroism, self-sacrifice, guile, treachery and evilness into the mix. There was also dialogue that I spoke as I wandered through the dunes totally oblivious to the beauty of my surroundings.
While other boys were playing Little League, or getting ready for football in September, here I was wandering through the dunes talking to myself — I was embarrassed.
Most of you know that this solitary behavior did not lead to my writing the screenplay for “Star Wars” or “The Empire Strikes Back.” But this walking and talking did give my imagination permission to visualize courage, deceit, despair and, yes, a little bit of romance.
My little stretch of dunes is now chock-a-block with multi-story hotels, hot tubs, concrete “lazy rivers” and folks from Canada more interested in sangria than sand between their toes. The dunes — my field of dreams — is long gone.
Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. He can be reached at email@example.com.