Armchair Peregrinations

November 28, 1999

I went out to Folly Beach late this afternoon, and there was just enough light for a walk just before dark settled in. I was able to catch the most exquisite, low-hanging, orange-red sunset in a narrow band above the horizon, off the coast, which illuminated with crimson the shallow tidal pools left behind as the tide went out.

As night fell on that quiet, late autumn beach, the edges of the lit-up pools became perfect silhouettes, shimmering ever so slightly in the available light of that gathering dusk.

I sat for awhile to think of things briefly before heading in. I looked up at one point to see an older man, too old, it seemed, to be running, passing me with a kind of shuffling, but steady and rhythmic gait. He had a white beard and was missing some teeth -- an altogether strange-looking figure to suddenly come up from nowhere. I've seem him on other occasions over the past few years, always jogging up or down the beach in his rather odd way, getting his run in. An incongruous figure, I have to say.

So, as he neared where I sat, I didn't want to look at him, but started to do so anyway, and he suddenly said in the most joyful and unexpected way, "Beautiful out here tonight, isn't it?" I recovered from the surprise of hearing his voice to say, "Yes, it really is."

There I was again, starting to judge someone by how eccentric or strange they looked, by how out-of-place it was to see such an old man trying to jog on the beach. But he's done it for years. I should be happy he keeps fit that way. I should not be so ready to avert my gaze just because he is not very pleasant to look at. Don't we find ourselves doing this a lot? It's as though people somehow have less value because of their age or unattractiveness. He should be walking, not running, I said almost reflexively to myself, as I saw him coming.

When he had passed, I returned to my thoughts, vague and empty as they were. I just couldn't come up with anything too profound or appropriate for the beach on this night of the second day after Thanksgiving, a perfectly beautiful day. I should have been thankful. I had reason to be happy. But I wasn't.

I guess I was in a rather bad mood today. I can't quite explain it, other than to say it has something to do with the way I feel physically -- I'm not feeling too healthy and this makes me tired. I noticed some pains I wished would go away. Although tired, I had energy, but I didn't feel too good after a short walk. Could it be that the bent old man -- half walking, half running -- was in much better physical tone and condition than me? Perish the thought, but true, I suppose.

Thus, I guess I felt bad today because I don't like getting older. I want to stay young. I associate being young with Folly Beach, at times, because I spent so many happy summers in my teens and 20s at that place. I've been writing about it for as long as I can remember, and those memories include letters and diaries entries from just after high school up through my undergraduate college years.

And another thing: youth is fleeting, but middle age is, too. If you want to feel the passage of time, look at all the surfers in the ocean at the Washout, which I pass every time I go to my brother's house farther up the beach. You see them in their wetsuits, hair streaming down their faces, water on the suits glistening in the sun. Spring, fall, summer, winter -- it's always "Endless Summer" for those youthful dovotees of the ancient Hawaiian sport. They laugh and talk to each other as they carry their boards into the surf. Once there, however, it seems to be a solitary pursuit -- they are pitting themselves against the force of the waves and the elements. They spend long minutes, which turn into hours, adjusting their positions on their boards to catch just the right waves at just the right moments, and, I would imagine, to absorb in the process the powerful bursts of energy those waves contain as they curl, unfold and crash upon the shore.

For decades, I've noticed these surfers from my car as I passed the Washout. Sometimes, I get out and sit on the rocks and watch. I resent their surfer's bodies and quick, agile movements in the water, spinning in the waves, crouching, gripping the boards, going back out in ceaseless repetition in harmony with their chosen element. I see the smooth, unadulterated freshness of youth, forever young, generation after generation at that same spot, summer turning into fall and fall into winter, and still they come, the high school students and the college students, to pursue the sport, to be young, to smile at the face of the sun, and to gaze with their own longing at the waves forming around them as they decide which one will take them up and carry them to shore.

I've passed the Washout as quickly as I've arrived. I'm soon at my favorite place a mile up the beach toward the lighthouse, walking and looking for shells. Feeling not so good. Heavy hearted. Until that old man slowly running for life and health, or so he imagines, comes up to where I'm sitting and tells me how beautiful everything is. I look at the sunset over the ocean and know what he's talking about.

I return to the beach house. It's empty, cold and dark, and I have no desire to turn on the heat and stay there and write and read, as I had initially planned to do. Instead, I get in my car and drive back to town.

Winter is here. The days are short. The afternoon light tarries for awhile and then is gone. It's evening, and the Washout is empty. All the surfers have gone. It's dark and quiet; it's nighttime, before you know it, and the beach is transformed. Night hides my moods and allays my fears, for no-one can see me, and I can see no-one else.

November 26, 1999

See the curtains hangin' in the window,
in the evenin' on a Friday night.
A little light a-shinin' through the window,
Let's me know everything is alright.
Summer breeze, makes me feel fine,
blowing through the jasmine in my mind...
Sweet days of summer, the jasmine's in bloom...

Summer Breeze
Seals and Crofts, 1972

This is one of my favorite songs, and its words and melody have stayed with me all through the many years since I first heard it in the fall of 1972. It's force and staying power are somewhat mysterious, but there is a reason, and it's rooted in a particular time and place.

Summer Breeze was one of about four songs I recall distinctly from that year and 1973, my last year of college at the University of New Orleans, and the year I truly felt I had gone out on my own, living for the first time in an apartment instead of the dorm, and with the end of four years of college approaching.

The summer of 1972 had been a golden interlude in the undergraduate journey I was on, the final summer I worked on the fireboat alongside the Mississippi at Algiers. After work, I remember taking long bike rides atop the levee beside that river on warm August nights when the moon shone across the wide river and illuminated a path before me. It was the summer I spent dreaming of the freedom and independence that would be mine once I had finished that degree and could finally move to South Carolina and begin my life away from home.

I spent all that summer lookng at classified ads for an apartment, near school, in a quiet neighborhood, within biking distance. As I've written before in this journal, I found it finally in late August on a rather inconspicuous street off Gentilly Boulevard. The street was named Wisteria, and it was near other streets similarly named after flowers such as Clematis, which was perpendicular to it. I liked that.

Those first heady weeks of getting used to an apartment were very happy ones because I was liberated from the cubicles that had been my home for the past couple of years. As I drove my car down St. Roch Boulevard toward campus each morning, I felt as if some weight had been lifted from me. It's hard to explain. It was as if some dividing line had been crossed. I was in unfamiliar, but longed-for terrain, where everything was different. And, for a while on those drives, upon turning on the radio, that song, Summer Breeze, would be playing and I'd remember the "sweet days of summer" just past and think I truly knew what Seals was referring to when he wrote those words, "Summer breeze, makes me feel fine, blowing through the jasmine in my mind."

That fall turned into winter and spring semester followed. I was taking six courses each semester, doing virtually nothing but reading, studying and writing various papers. But for some reason, despite all the academic pressure that year, it was not a burden, but almost fun. The courses were stimulating, the classes much smaller, and I saw the end in sight.

And each day when I came home from classes, "I walked up on to the doorstep, through the screen and across the floor..." into the sanctuary that was my first apartment. How I loved that place, beat-up furniture and all. I can hear distinctly, even now, the big kitchen window fan as I turned it on, and the cool air was drawn through open windows in the bedoom, down the hall to the kitchen. And I would sit at a formica table and start thinking of the suppper I was going to fix, the novel I was going to be reading later that evening, and, the inviting front porch where I would sit outside about 9 or 10 most nice nights and gaze at the stars over Gentilly Boulevard and dream of the future.

November 23, 1999

College of Charleston, Nov. 22, 12:15 pm:

I'm sitting under a sycamore tree at the garden in back of the student center. My usual spot near the pecan trees is inaccessible now because they're doing some digging and construction work. But it's nice here. I can hear the waterfall in the fish pond, and the sun is starting to dissipate the clouds we've had overhead for the last day or so. The air feels so perfectly pleasant -- just a slight bit cool, a very faint breeze, the kind that just hints around every now and again that it's there at all.

The sun is emerging now. It's really a beautiful sycamore tree. About half its leaves are still clinging, a mixture of yellow, green and brown hues in the sunlight filtering down through bare branches. It has the characteristic trunk with that bark that looks as if it wants to peel off.

This all reminds me of so many other pleasantly mild November days in the past. In New Orleans, it isn't unusual for the whole winter to be mild. I really enjoy it when the weather's like this. I could sit out here for a long time, but it's always, of necessity, just a short visit in the garden before I have to get back to work.

Charleston reminds me so much of New Orleans. I guess you can tell I'm a bit homesick for the place where I grew up and went to school. I've been mentioning it more often in my entries, it seems to me, anyway. The years keep passing and no return visit to all the spots where memories lie embedded in the very trees, streets, houses, yards, familiar cityscapes and skies. It is my home. For better or worse. I was born there. I spent my childhood in that city by the Mississippi.

I love Charleston, and I wouldn't want to live anywhere else -- now. But there are also times when I miss being in a big city, near skyscrapers and office building canyons, and big urban parks, and downtown traffic and crowds. But only occasionally do I miss all this. I liked that about Seattle -- that feeling of vibrancy and energy that just pulsates in your consiousness the whole time you're in such a thriving downtown. New Orleans is similar in some big-city respects.

When I was younger, all I wanted to do was get away. Now, I'm in no hurry to return, but the lure of both a real and imagined home, a starting point, an unchanging place, will always beckon me back. At some point soon, I'll retrace the steps taken by a much younger person who, many years later, will always allow certain memories of his birthplace to remain with him always.

November 21, 1999

From my journal, Dec. 7, 1992, Edmonds, Washington:

Home from work today watching snow drift down peacefully over the fir trees. Beautiful winter scene! Really have the feeling of the Christmas season with this snow.

It's a quiet Sunday morning, and I was lying in bed earlier, putting off getting up, and thinking how nice it would be to have a couple of inches of snow outside on the ground. In Charleston, of course, it's almost unheard of. In the five years I've been here, I've not even seen any flurries, although there have been days when it certainly seemed like it might snow. I was lying there in kind of a groggy stupor and remember how utterly still and peaceful it was each time it snowed, on those rare occasions when I experienced it.

Growing up in New Orleans, we had snow I think twice in all the years I lived there, and one of those times was when I was in college and nearing the time I would leave New Orleans for South Carolina. Naturally, with the onset of those flurries, and as they begin to fall faster and more definitively, people start coming outside to gaze in wonder at this rare spectacle. As the snow falls faster and starts to, of all things, ACCUMULATE on the ground, kids bundled up like they were in the Arctic and their excited parents seem to be the first outdoors, tentatively scraping together the first snowballs. Later, there will even be crude snowmen.

The excitement only builds when it become clear that the snow is going to stick and be around for a little while. Cars and drivers begin to start acting strangely. On those few occasions when it snowed in New Orleans, and later when I was in South Carolina, you really don't want to be out driving if you can help it. People don't know what to do. They turn their steering wheels at the first hint of a skid instead of holding steady and lightly braking. It can be funny watching all the inexperienced snow drivers, and I'm one of them.

In Columbia once, we had a good snow of about 3 inches, and I went outside with my camera to take pictures of the bare hickory tree branches covered in that pristine snow. And, what I remember most from that and all other snow encounters, is the stillness. The obnoxious normal city sounds of cars and traffic seemed to evaporate within that caressing blanket of white stuff that will have its way and let peace reign for a little while.

Later that morning, I drove to the USC campus in downtown Columbia and sat awhile at the Horseshoe Park watching college students frolicking like 7-year-olds, throwing snowballs rather aggressively and laughing and tumbling all over each other.

My best acquaintance with snow, however, came during the brief 1 and 1/2 years I lived in Edmonds, Wash., north of Seattle in 1992-93. For some reason, that second winter I lived there was a snowy one, and that is rare for the Seattle area because it seldom snows much there. Maybe a couple of times a winter in the city. But we had about five snowfalls that winter in Edmonds, some with 4 or 5-inch accumulations, and I recall looking out at Pine Ridge park outside my apartment balcony, and seeing the snow swirling down among the fir trees. It is an image that will forever remain with me because it was so peaceful and beautiful a sight to behold. I could have been looking out on some snowy Northcountry woods in Canada or Minnesota. I imagined I was very far North, anyway. Walking about in it later -- oh, that was nice. It was cold and clean and quiet.

This morning, thoughts of snow drifting down from the gray Charleston skies had me thinking these thoughts, but knowing it would be a fantasy for that to happen here. My sister and niece and nephew are down for the Thanksgiving holidays from Edmonds, and that, too, triggers memories. Yesterday, it was sunny with the most wonderful blue skies and every imaginable type or cloud in the sky here where I am on James Island, and later at Folly Beach where I took a short walk. I just wish that same weather was with us today, for their sakes, because the rainy season has been with them in Seattle for the past three weeks. I'm looking for the skies to clear up so we can go out to the beach and look for shells later in the day.

It's very mild, though. Not much chance of snow. And snow on the beach -- wouldn't that be a sight to behold?

November 19, 1999

The job situation I wrote about in my 11/12 entry didn't work out. One day I'm facing major change in my life, with every indication that there'll be a job offer, then the next morning it's all for naught. They've decided not to fill two of the positions that were open, but they'll still be open, if that makes any sense. I'm left empty-handed, standing on the side of the road, watching the cars go by.

In a way, I'm relieved. No more anxiety about starting in a totally new job. No more concerns -- for now, anyway -- about a new routine and a new commute, working with a whole new group of people. Those are major things. I never take them lightly.

It's all very confusing and disorienting. I was psyched up for the change, since the process had dragged on for months. My desk was already considerably cleaned out. Now it's back to the way things were. Nothing's changed. Just a lot of emotional energy expended and wasted.

Now, I've resumed my journey across the long plateau that's stretched out before me. No great wind storms on the horizon to buffet me and steer me off course. No great highs or lows. That's okay. Every day is different. I just ahve to realize I am where I am for a reason. The job was not meant to be, right? For whatever reason. And believe me, there are many rumors about what actually happened. The crude and tortuous machinations of politics, fear, miscalculation and calculation have all conspired to produce this distasteful little drama wherein, unbeknownst to me, I was caught in the middle. Who'll ever know the full story, and, at this point, who cares?

November 16, 1999

Where are you, Eddie?

My first real friend has long since slipped into the mists of time, living as far as I know in the faraway land of Australia, in Sydney, I believe. Does he know anything at all about my whereabouts now? I think he does, for I have been in touch within the past few years with one of his oldest friends, and also a friend of mine for years. Would he contact me again, or I, him? I don't know if that will ever happen, and it's truly a shame, for you see, he was the first real and close friend I had ever had.

I've written about him before. He was the friend with whom I learned *serious* photography back in years 1973 and 1974. I met him in a photojournalism class and we hit if off almost instantly. I recall being curious to know more about this slight, serious-minded, and bespectacled guy in my class, and one day, outdoors on campus on a photo assignment for class, I just struck up a conversation with him. This is something I almost never did, before or since. Those few words literally changed the whole direction of my life for a few years in that coming-of-age decade for me and for Eddie, and also for our mutual good friend, Ralph.

Eddie was very intelligent, and a natural and excellent photographer. He had an inquisitive mind and an excellent eye for composition. Very visually oriented. I could learn things from him, and I knew it. When we went to the State Fair in Columbia, we took a lot of pictures of everything that was going on around us (black and white, of course). We went back to his place, a small house he rented with Ralph and another friend of theirs, and put to work our newly acquired darkroom skills we had learned at school, developing our own film and printing the pictures in the darkroom he had set up. It was a heady, exciting, and creative time. Our enthusiasm for photography knew no limits in those days.

Later that fall, as I got to know him ever better and needed a change of jobs from the shipping and receiving work I was doing at a local department store, I took up Eddie's offer to try working at the newly started community residential program for 18 mentally retarded adults where he and Ralph worked. I soon found myself in the wholly new and alien world of social work, helping serve meals, assisting in teaching living skills as basic as doing laundry and making beds and house cleaning. I was learning, too, about all the different levels of mental retardation and how much I had not know previously, how much I had held on to stereotypes of them in my mind. I had thought, for instance, they were all victims of Down Syndrome, while, in fact, only a relatively small percentage have the condition. There were other causes and other types of this developmental disability, ranging from the moderate to the severe.

I think I only survived the first months working in that stressful job because I admired Eddie and Ralph so much. I thought what they were doing for these guys, many of whom had been in institutions, was wonderful, liberating. Maybe I could be part of it. As it turns out, I ended up working there for three years, the last of which was spent doing fund raising and publicity for the organization, a growing non-profit program in the Columbia area.

On weekends, Eddie, Ralph and I took long, rambling trips along back roads to photograph old, abandoned houses and barns, and to explore the countryside. It relieved the stress of our jobs. It gave us more negatives to develop and print. It was wonderful companionship. We enjoyed each others' company very much.

I remember that Eddie and I used to go canoeing occassionally on the Saluda River, near the rapids at Columbia where it joins the Broad to form the Congaree River. It was like being out in the middle of some wilderness, a dream of adventure come true. And it was all in the middle of a large urban area. We'd sit out on the exposed rocks in the river, and bask in the warm sun, and frame the clouds overhead with our hands. And we'd talk of many things.

One of my all-time favorite pictures I took of Eddie is of him at the counter of an old general store, dim lightbulbs illuminating part of the scene, buying a bottle of ice- cold Coke and some crackers. That was one of those rare, and now almost gone and forgotten places, where a pot-bellied stove stood in the center of the room and old timers from the surrounding area gathering on cold winter afternoons to talk and share stories of their lives. I took a photograph once of one of those men sitting around the stove eating an ice cream cone. I gave the one and only print of that gentleman to Eddie to remember our experiences with photography, and to remember me in years to come. Months later, he took a similar photograph of me buying a Pepsi at the counter of another old store. I have both of those pictures still, and I treasure them.

Eddie was a restless soul. When I first met him, he was a year of so older than I, 24 that year in 1973. I was 22. By 1975, he was hungry for new adventures and took off on a solo trip to Europe where he ended up traveling all over the continent, working odd jobs such as harvesting grapes, and continuing to pursue photograpy. I'd get post cards from him and letters detailing those wonderful experiences. One of them was a homemade card he made with a photograph showing the small attic room he rented in Amsterdam for awhile, after he had met another traveler, a girl from Australia, whom he later married.

I saw Eddie only sporadically in the years up until 1982, after which he and his wife moved to Australia for good, as far as I know. I never saw or heard from him again after the fall of 1982, when we took a trip, just me and Eddie (his wife stayed behind) to the mountains of South Carolina. It was an awkward time. Much of the past magic of our friendship had been left behind on those Richland County back roads we used to explore so fervently and enthusiastically. It didn't seem the same anymore. We tried to rekindle some of the old feelings from the past. It just didn't work. At least to me it didn't. Perhaps Eddie saw things differently. But I was moody and sad. I felt the loss.

It was a long, one-day trip, and we returned to their mobile home in the woods way out in rural Lexington County. (He and his wife lived very frugally, always saving up their money for trips together). They tried to persuade me to stay the night at their place, for it was quite late, about 11 pm. But all I wanted to do was get in my car and head back to Columbia, about 25 miles distant.

I think about this first and very special friend from time to time. Not too often, but enough. I wonder how he is doing. I wonder if he remembers as much about me as I remember about him. I'll probably never know. What I do know, and will always cherish, is that the young man I came to know as my friend, Eddie, was the first person who really took an interest in me as a person worthy of cultivating as a friend. He valued me for who I was. He saw my talents and abilities, and encouraged me.

I took the first steps toward making that friendship happen. He welcomed those halting and tentative first steps on my part. He became a friend to me, a lonely kid who grew up in the suburbs of New Orleans and who passed through four years of college without knowing anyone nearly so well as I came to know him.

All of that seems very long ago to me now. But I still have my photographs and my memories of canoing on the Saluda River and studying with him the texture of old wood structures in the deep Carolina countryside that mysteriously appeared in sunlight and shadow in a tray of chemicals, on photographic paper, in a darkroom where creativity was unleashed, and where we shared an artistic vision that remains with me all these many years later, regardless of whether I can ever share any of those memories with that old friend again. He is far away now on the other side of the world. I wish it were not so.

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