Grand memories buried in the sand
By Tom Bryant
When the July sun is almost directly overhead and the dogs are digging in the shrubbery looking for some cool and the humidity is thick enough to cut with a kitchen knife and the air conditioner is working overtime, relief is two words away . . . THE BEACH!
We always called it that, simply the beach. Other people from around the country refer to it in different ways. Some folks call it the shore or the coast; but down South, it is always known as the beach. And in South Carolina, the beach means Ocean Drive or Cherry Grove or Windy Hill or Crescent or Myrtle or Pawleys or Litchfield, but always it’s the beach.
The tradition of going to the beach began early in our family. My grandfather, a tobacco farmer in the low country, would load my grandmother and all eight kids, along with Shep, a farm hand and cook when needed, in one of his 2 1/2-ton farm trucks and tote them to the beach. The old farm vehicle would be loaded with a crate of live chickens, dozens of eggs, country ham, watermelons, cantaloupes and bushel baskets of Grandma’s garden vegetables. Enough food to feed an army, and with eight hungry kids, it almost was.
There they would remain for a month, glowing brown from the summer sun and almost growing gills, they were in the water so much. Mom often said that the good Lord looked after them because they survived swimming out so far in the ocean that the beach house back on land looked like a miniature reproduction, and in those days lifeguards were nonexistent.
My grandfather disliked the beach and thought it was a serious waste of energy. He often said the family could spend their time more wisely working in the crops that were in full summer bloom. Jokingly, he would threaten to cancel the coastal expedition; but secretly, he really did enjoy the fishing and laid-back times spent in the porch swing. He would carry the family and the cook to the beach and drop them off, and then he would return on weekends or when the farm crops would let him.
There is an old family story about him and the beach, and if it’s true, what a story. It seems that a land salesman from Myrtle Beach made an appointment to see Granddad on the farm right before the family’s summer outing. Grandma always rented the same beach house, a big rambling two-story affair right on the oceanfront. The old house, made of heart pine, had been there for years and had survived storms and hurricanes and seemed to grow stronger every summer. Mom remembers that the ancient beach house had two screened porches, one on each floor, and was the only house for several miles.
The beach salesman showed up at the farm early one evening just as Granddad was coming in from the fields. Granddad, who was a big landowner, didn’t suffer fools lightly; and unfortunately, sales people, according to him, fit that category. However, he begrudgingly agreed to listen to the gentleman’s spiel.
The story goes that Granddad sat in the big front porch swing and the real-estate expert sat opposite in a rocker. The salesman opened his briefcase, drew out maps and charts of the beach and the house where the family always spent summer vacations. Now Granddad was a gentleman. He was tired from his day in the fields, but he let the salesman go through his material, pointing out the maps and extolling the potential of the beach house and surrounding area. He said that the whole plot was for sale at a depressed price because the banks were going to foreclose. The original owner had passed away, and the heirs didn’t want to keep the place and would let it go at the tax value, which in those days was next to nothing.
Granddad listened politely, and Grandma went inside to the kitchen to get some iced tea. When she came back, Granddad stood up, walked over to the wide steps of the porch and said, “Come here, mister, I want to show you something.” He pointed to the cotton field across the road.
“See that? That’s 200 acres of the finest cotton I’ve ever grown. And look over there.”
He pointed to the field across the fence adjacent to the ancient plantation house. “That’s about a hundred acres, give or take an acre or two, of good corn, excellent corn if we get rain at the right time. Behind the house and over toward Black Creek is some of the prettiest tobacco I’ve ever raised. And last week, I closed the deal on land down toward the creek that has some outstanding second-growth timber. So, mister, you can see I’m pretty well occupied, and like everybody else in this country, I’m waiting out this blame Depression with my fingers crossed.”
They both sat back down and my grandfather continued, “I appreciate your effort and sorry you drove here from the beach, but I’ve looked at your maps and prices, and the family dearly loves visiting the old house and our summers there, but my major problem with what you’re offering,” and here he paused for effect, “I don’t know of a thing I can grow in all that sand.”
The story continued that the salesman was invited for supper and did stay and enjoyed my grandmother’s good cooking and the restful time on the porch afterward. He later left for home and the beach, and I don’t think he made any more overtures to Granddad to buy beach property. The beach outings went on for a few more years until the children got older and times changed.
Years later, my dad and mother continued the tradition, and our family spent time every summer at the beach. After Linda and I were married, we joined them, and my sisters and brother and their children did the same. We would all gather at Ocean Drive, Garden City, Pawleys Island or Litchfield, and we did this until the families got so large that one house couldn’t handle us and we had to rent two. Finally, the logistics and other distractions interfered, and our summer family gathering fell by the wayside.
Linda and I and sometimes our son, Tommy, still make summer excursions to the beach with our little Airstream trailer. We camp at Huntington Beach State Park, famous for its 3 miles of pristine oceanfront. The park and surrounding area remind me a lot of the descriptions my mother remembers of the early outings with Granddad and the family. We love it there and try to go as often as we can.
The other evening I was looking at some old photos of the family when everyone gathered and had fun at the beach. They were grand times, and if I have one regret, it’s this — I sure wish Granddad could have figured out something he could have grown in all that sand. PS
Tom Bryant, a Southern Pines resident, is a lifelong outdoorsman and PineStraw’s Sporting Life columnist.