By SCOTT GRABER
It is Saturday morning and it’s surprisingly cool on my deck — a wooden rectangle that extends out from our dining room and provides a distant, indistinct view of the Beaufort River. In a few hours that stretch of water will be full of local families and their recreational watercraft.
It’s July and we are in the midst of Beaufort’s Water Festival when thousands gather at the Henry Chambers Waterfront Park for a variety of water-related events. Last night it was the “River Dance.”
As I sat and watched 2,000 kids dancing and singing the strangely irresistible lyrics of YMCA— “Young man, there’s no need to feel down; Young man, pull yourself off the ground” — my mind went back to earlier times when the Water Festival only involved one weekend and that weekend was centered on the Water Festival beauty pageant — the selection of the Queen of the Carolina Sea Islands.
In the early 1970s young women from across South Carolina would arrive for a three-day contest that involved physical beauty, baton-twirling and the ability to smile and wave a white-gloved hand while being driven on the sun-baked asphalt of Bay Street.
In those now-faded days we owned a two-seat, entirely unreliable Fiat convertible. My wife and I bought this car right after I got out of the Army and it sometimes got us to Atlanta (or St Augustine) on the weekends— and sometimes it did not. But in those days, convertibles were rare, so rare that I always got a call from Jimmy Thomas (in June) asking me to carry one of the beauty pageant contestants in the Water Festival Parade.
Now I must admit — here and now — that I liked this duty. I liked having Miss Hampton County Watermelon Festival or Miss Bright Leaf Tobacco or South Carolina’s reigning Collard Queen sitting on the atop the griddle-hot trunk of my convertible while cruising down Carteret Street.
I liked bathing in the reflected spot-light of a beautiful young woman who had hopes of getting a crown later that night. And I liked the conversation.
“I hate this,” Miss Lancaster County would say. “I really find this beauty business degrading.”
“I wouldn’t mention that to the judges,” I would say.
“It’s the scholarship money,” she would reply, exasperated. “But it’s going to pay my way through Winthrop.”
As we turned the corner at Bay Street and drove past the waving dignitaries — often including Strom Thurmond or Mendel Rivers — she would continue, …
“I know I’m cashing-in on my legs, my face, my…..”
“Listen, you don’t have to apologize to me. You don’t have to explain your incredible cheekbones, those well-turned, well-defined ankles.”
“Is it a crime Scott? Is it wrong that I make a few dollars on my looks?”
Sometime in the 80s (or 90s) it was decided that our beauty pageant was passe. Or that the celebration of reggae, bocce ball and croquet were more important than celebrating female beauty.
Maybe the “Lowcountry Supper” generated more revenue and memories of Miss Cheraw belting out “Summertime” were fading.
In any event it was decided by the creative team at the Water Festival that we didn’t need a “Queen of the Sea Islands” anymore.
As I watched the kids dancing last night, I was reminded how things change — quickly change — and something as important as the beauty pageant can be replaced by the Bay Street Bed Race almost overnight.
But we must be nimble and creative if we are to survive in this new world of festival entertainment.
But then, as we were leaving the venue, I saw a wire-enclosed cage where one could throw a hatchet for prize money — actually one was awarded redeemable tickets if you hit the bulls eye.
Fascinated, mesmerized we lingered.
I knew, of course, all about that the new tavern-based sport called “dwarf-tossing,” but I was new to the idea of ax throwing in the immediate vicinity of alcohol-drinking.
But this morning I read that ax throwing has largely replaced dart throwing in many northern cities — some pubs having up to 12 ax throwing lanes.
I doubt that I’ll ever get over the loss of the beauty pageant — old customs die a slow death — but I also know things change.
And I know that the Water Festival folks have to stay current and, if necessary, ax those events that have lost their relevance.