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Posts Tagged ‘The South’

I’m trying to puzzle out the story of my paternal great-great-grandfather based on a smattering of tantalizing facts. He seems to have led an eventful life in interesting times, and I’d like to know more about him.

The ancestor of whom I speak is John Hubbard Sherrod, M.D. He was born in 1830 in Emanuel County, Georgia, midway between Macon and Savannah.

His connection to the present-day Smiths: Dr. Sherrod’s daughter Martha married a Smith from the next county. Their son was my Savannah grandfather.

This is what I’ve learned about Dr. Sherrod so far…

Family notes say he probably was born in Norristown, Georgia, the son of Mrs. Elizabeth Sherrod, who was born in 1792, maiden name unknown. Nothing so far about his father or any siblings.

In 1851, at age 21, Dr. Sherrod married Elizabeth Moxley of nearby Jefferson County. By the time the Civil War started, John and Elizabeth had three daughters, Martha, Elizabeth, and Susan, born in 1854, 1857, and 1861, respectively.

When and where Sherrod earned a medical degree, I don’t know. Nor do I have information about earlier Sherrods and Moxleys. Considering his profession, I assume the families were fairly prosperous, but were they merchants? Farmers? Owners of vast cotton plantations? All unknown.

When the Civil War began, Sherrod served as a first lieutenant and Adjutant (second in command) of Company C, 38th Georgia Infantry, CSA. According to military records, the unit completed its training in April 1862, at which time Lt. Sherrod tendered his resignation. Whether he joined another unit or simply went home, I haven’t discovered yet.

I do know that he survived the war, and in 1867, he was appointed judge of Emanuel County civil court. He and Elizabeth also had two more children, John and Margaret, born in 1869 and 1871.

During the Reconstruction years, the history of the Sherrod family becomes fuzzier. Elizabeth died of unknown causes, and Dr. Sherrod remarried.

His second wife was Sudie Dunn, also from Emanuel County. The Dunns seem to have been as numerous thereabouts as Sherrods and Smiths.

John and Sudie Sherrod had at least three children: Charlie, Joe, and Jessie. Charlie was born in 1886, when Dr. Sherrod was 56.

Dr. Sherrod continued to practice medicine in Emanuel County, and/or made a living in some other way, for two more decades. Finding out how long he served as a judge is on my to-do list.

John Sherrod died in 1903 at age 73. After some Googling, I located his grave at a small Methodist church cemetery a few miles south of the Emanuel County line in Treutlen County. Last month, I drove down to pay my respects.

Neither wife, I discovered, is buried with him. I haven’t located the graves of either Elizabeth or Sudie, nor have I uncovered more information about them.

However, buried next to Dr. Sherrod are his daughter Elizabeth (by his first wife), his son Charlie (by his second wife), and various other Sherrods and Dunns whose connections are unknown. The head of the family surrounded by his flock, as it were.

Dr. Sherrod’s gravestone is six feet tall and fairly elaborate and imposing, as you might expect for a small-town prominent citizen. A separate granite marker with details about his CSA military service sits in front of the headstone.

I was surprised to find a small Confederate flag, a new one, flying next to his grave. It could have been placed by local Confederate history buffs, or it could have been placed by his descendants in the area. Odds are, quite a few of Dr. Sherrod’s relatives, and my own, live in those parts.

The best parts of Dr. Sherrod’s story, I suspect, are still out there — the War, his life afterward, his medical practice, his family. Maybe I’ll get lucky and ferret out more pieces of the puzzle.

Plenty of mysteries, clues, and threads of evidence are there, waiting to consume my spare time.

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The grave of John Hubbard Sherrod (left) is surrounded by those of assorted Sherrods and other relatives at Midway UMC Cemetery in northern Treutlen County.

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Dr. Sherrod’s monument prominently features the Masonic letter G with square and compass. The marble CSA marker at the base was placed sometime after his burial. The crisp, new Confederate flag was unexpected.

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Martha Roseanna Sherrod Smith (1854-1939), my great-grandmother, was the oldest child of John Hubbard Sherrod. In 1875, she married John Wesley Smith (1845-1918), also a Confederate veteran. Their son was my paternal grandfather, Walter Anthony Smith (1881-1950). To the family, Martha was “Granny Smith.”

 

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Torque

I believe in maintenance. When you maintain things, small problems are less likely to grow into big problems.

For example, I get myself checked regularly by an assortment of medicos. Not just my GP, but the dermatologist, the ophthalmologist, and the periodontist. If something needs fixing, in me or on me, I want to know about it, pronto.

This philosophy also extends to my vehicles. I take them in for regular maintenance to keep them running smoothly and, knock on wood, head off serious issues later.

My mechanic is a life-long local, a soft-spoken family man of about 40. He’s a pro, very conscientious, well regarded hereabouts.

But sometimes, stuff happens.

One morning several years ago, I took my Subaru to his shop for an oil change. It’s a fairly large operation for this little town, with half a dozen mechanics working in the bays. While I waited, one of them would change the oil, inspect things, and rotate the tires.

After about 30 minutes, the deed was done. I exchanged pleasantries with the owner, paid the bill, and drove away.

100 yards from the shop, the car suddenly lurched and pulled to the left. I stopped immediately.

When I got out to investigate, I discovered that the left front wheel was askew on the wheel studs. Three of the lug nuts were loose, two were missing.

For whatever reason, the technician had failed to tighten that wheel. As I drove away — fortunately at low speed — the nuts had unthreaded themselves, and the wheel was on the verge of coming off. Yikes!

I walked back to the shop and gave them the news.

My friend the mild-mannered owner blew his top. He was as angry as I’ve ever seen him — close to breaking things

Finally, he calmed down, collected himself, and dispatched a truck and two employees to retrieve the Subaru.

Fortunately, no damage was done. They made things right and triple-checked the work. The owner offered a heartfelt apology and said I was ready to go again.

“You know,” I told him, “This surely was a freak thing. Your guy probably just got distracted. You can bet he won’t let it happen again. Don’t be too hard on him.”

“No, this is unacceptable,” he said. “He and I are gonna have a come-to-Jesus meeting, and then I’ll decide what to do.”

And there, for me, the episode ended.

Since then, no one at the shop has mentioned that particular unpleasantness. A few times, I was tempted to make a joke about it, but I always stopped myself. Too touchy a subject for levity.

But last month, while I was at the garage for an oil change on my current vehicle, I got curious and decided to ask.

As I was preparing to leave, I said to the owner, “Got a minute? I’d like to ask you something.” I turned and went outside, indicating that I wanted privacy, and he followed.

“Remember that time a few years ago, ” I said, “when I drove away, and the front wheel on my Subaru –”

“You bet I remember,” he said. “It was a nightmare. A low point for this business. ”

“Well, I never knew who did the work that day. You said you planned to read him the riot act. How did things work out?”

How things worked out was a bit surprising.

The come-to-Jesus meeting was brief, animated, and, no doubt, one-sided. But the mechanic had been a steady and reliable worker, and he kept his job.

More importantly, the shop put new procedures in place aimed at preventing similar screw-ups in the future.

First, the shop’s standard work order was changed to include new checkboxes about lug nuts and the proper torquing thereof.

Under the new rules, mechanics are required to look up the manufacturer’s torque specifications, tighten the lugs as recommended (it was 75 ft-lbs in the case of my Subaru), and record it on the work order. Individually for each wheel.

After that, a second mechanic is required to check the work and add his initials to vouch for it. Four wheels, four initials.

Yikes.

The moral: preventing human error is a tough and never-ending job.

It’s pretty much hopeless, but you have to try anyway.

Torque

 

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$7.10

Maybe a math major could help me understand this transaction.

Back in January, because my RV had been sitting idle for too long, I decided to take a road trip. Nothing elaborate, just a loop into the Tennessee and North Carolina mountains for a few days. It turned out to be a leisurely, interesting, and pleasant trip.

Usually, I stay at state park campgrounds, which are reliably clean, quiet, and inexpensive. But sometimes you have no choice. The first night, due to the timing, I was obliged to stay at a private RV park in North Carolina. A place called Whispering Pines or something like that.

Whispering Pines was a bad decision. After checking in, I discovered that the bathhouse had been “winterized” and closed for the season. In other words, the pipes had been drained to prevent freezing, and the place was padlocked. It would reopen in the spring.

Sorry, Mr. Camper. Use the shower in your RV.

Which would be fine, except that my RV, like virtually every other RV this side of Tampa, also has been winterized for the season. My shower is closed until spring, too.

I was not a happy camper.

Fortunately, by the second night, I was back in Northeast Georgia, and with great relief, I checked into the campground at Tallulah Gorge State Park. The facilities there, thank you very much, remain operational all year long.

At this point, the aforementioned transaction comes in.

The campground host was a patient, almost serene woman trying to deal with an infant, a toddler, and me at the same time. She said campsites with full hookups were $32 per night, with discounts to senior citizens and veterans.

“Are you a senior or a veteran?”

“Both.”

“Okay, that will be $24 for the night. Also, we’re having a special right now: you can stay a second night for half price. That’s $24 for tonight and $12 for tomorrow night.”

“You’re kidding.”

She wasn’t kidding.

“That’s basically a free night,” I said. “How can I turn that down?”

The only problem was minor. The office was closed, and the nice lady had no cash with her.

I gave her $25, and we agreed I could settle up when the office opened the next morning.

Later that evening, when I retired to the RV and watched the news, I learned that heavy rain was moving toward us from the north. It would arrive by mid-morning and hang around for the next 48 hours.

Bummer. Up to that point, the weather had been sunny and mild. In an instant, the idea of being on the road lost its appeal. It was time to head home. After a luxurious morning shower in the bathhouse, of course.

The next day, up early and ready to depart, I saw no reason to wait for the park office to open. I owed $24 for one night and had paid $25. Close enough.

A few hours later, just as the storm caught up with me, I was home.

Three weeks later, a hand-addressed envelope arrived from Tallulah Gorge State Park. Inside was this:

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In case you can’t tell, enclosed was $7.10.

First and foremost, refunding the money — taking the trouble to refund it — was a generous, high-minded thing to do. It speaks well of the person responsible and of the park itself.

But, as I understood the situation, I overpaid THEM. Where the idea of $7.10 in my favor came from, I haven’t a clue.

I even sat down with pencil and paper, trying to use dead reckoning to figure it out. This is as far as I got:

– $32
– $24
– $12

– $25

– $7.10

Baffling.

Math was never my thing.

 

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The Augusta Canal

This is my second post about Augusta, Georgia, which I visited in June on a lark. No need to read my earlier post first, but feel free.

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When I think about how people lived in earlier times, I tend to judge them as primitive and unsophisticated. Not stupid, mind you, but simple and unrefined. Clueless compared to us cutting-edge modern folks.

And up to a point, they were. For example, to prevent disease, you have to understand the concept of pathogens. Good luck with that if you lived before people knew what pathogens are.

But sometimes, I run across evidence that people from days of yore were quite competent and shouldn’t be sold short. A case in point: the impressive feat, way back in the 1840s, of building the Augusta Canal.

A bit of background. In 1733, General James Oglethorpe founded Savannah, the first settlement in the new colony of Georgia. In 1736, Oglethorpe sent a contingent of troops up the Savannah River to build an outpost at the limit of upstream navigation.

The purpose was to establish a settlement where goods could be brought from towns to the north and west and shipped downriver to Savannah for export.

The limit of upstream navigation turned out to be 200 miles north of Savannah at the fall line, where the Piedmont Plateau drops down to the Coastal Plain. For centuries, native people used the ledges and shoals at the fall line to cross the Savannah River.

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(Later, the cities of  Macon, Columbus, and Milledgeville also were established at the fall line. Below them, the rivers are deep and smooth to the Atlantic or the Gulf. Above them is rocky, shallow water and a steady climb to the Appalachians.)

Oglethorpe’s expedition built an outpost on the west bank of the Savannah River about seven miles south of the fall line. The settlement was named in honor of Princess Augusta, the wife of the Prince of Wales.

And Oglethorpe’s plan worked splendidly. For the next hundred years, Augusta thrived as a trading and shipping center. Wagons rolled into town from across the region carrying tobacco, cotton, and other goods. The warehouses brimmed with product. Barges and steamboats transported a steady stream of cargo downriver to Savannah, where it was shipped to other markets.

But by the early 1800s, Augusta’s prosperity was waning. Various economic factors were taking their toll — the country’s westward expansion, the growth of the railroads, competition from other river towns.

Then in the 1840s, a man with a vision came forward. Henry H. Cumming, son of the city’s first mayor, proposed a plan to turn Augusta into a manufacturing center by building a canal from the fall line to Augusta.

 

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Henry H. Cumming

Because the canal would drop 52 feet in elevation by the time it reached Augusta, it could provide hydropower to operate mills and factories. Plus, it would be a transportation corridor and a source of drinking water.

Cumming hired a prestigious engineer to survey the route and draw up the plans, and the city fathers gave it their blessing. Construction on the Augusta Canal began in the spring of 1845.

The workers — hundreds of slaves, freedmen, and white laborers — dug the entire canal by hand.

This, mind you, was an era when the only tools available were pickaxes, shovels, and horse-drawn carts. There was no electric power, no heavy equipment. Steam power was in development, but it was not practical for a field project.

The canal was designed and built in three sections. Where each section ended, some of the water was allowed to flow downhill and back into the Savannah River. At those drops, the new factories would be built.

Despite constant engineering complications and a several legal battles over the route, the canal was completed and opened in July 1850.

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Painting of the headgates of the Augusta Canal at the fall line, 1850s.

But the project was only a limited success. The canal performed as expected, but it wasn’t large enough to power all the proposed factories and mills. The engineers had miscalculated.

Thus, after the understandable delay of the Civil War, a project to enlarge the canal got underway in 1872.

Again, battalions of workers were assembled. Some were local laborers, some were convicts from area prisons. Italian stonemasons and Chinese railroad workers were brought in. Steam-powered equipment was used in addition to picks and shovels.

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Expanding the Augusta Canal. Painting by Bernard Willingham, 1870s.

By 1875, the new and improved Augusta Canal was in operation. This time, the channel was 13 feet deep and 150 feet across.

Between the canal and the Savannah River, a towpath was built atop the levy so horses and oxen could pull the barges. The towpath ran from the canal headgates to downtown Augusta.

As envisioned, new factories soon arose along the canal banks. “Mill towns” materialized to house the factory workers and their families. The textile industry and other enterprises flourished in Augusta well into the 20th Century.

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Sibley Cotton Mill on the Augusta Canal, 1903.

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A flat-bottomed “Petersburg” boat on the canal in the 1890s.

As the decades passed, the canal generated electricity not only for the factories, but also for streetcars, streetlights, homes, and businesses.

But by the 1960s, inevitably, Augusta’s prosperity began to wane again. The canal was becoming antiquated. Truck transportation took business away. Electricity was cheaper from the new power plants on the Savannah River.

Meanwhile, the city began neglecting the canal and even considered draining parts of it. When Augusta demolished several abandoned factories during urban renewal projects, parts of the in-town portion of the canal were allowed to dry up.

In 1971, another Cumming stepped forward and woke up the city fathers in grand style. It was Joseph Cumming, great-grandson of Henry, who managed to get the Augusta Canal added to the National Register of Historic Places.

This action forced the city administration to change its viewpoint about the canal. “Save the Augusta Canal” bumper stickers became popular. Local citizens organized to stop the construction of a golf course near the canal headgates.

By the 1990s, Augusta also realized that the canal had superb recreational possibilities. Soon, a canal authority was chartered. The canal was cleaned up, and the flow of water was restored throughout its length.

In 1996, the canal was designated a National Heritage Area. One of the old factories was converted into a canal museum and visitor center.

Today, You can rent a canoe or kayak at the headgates, float as far downstream as you like, and take a shuttle back.

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You can walk, run, or cycle for miles on the towpath or other trails in the vicinity.

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The city now offers cruises along the canal aboard replicas of the old Petersburg flatboats. Appropriately, one of those flatboats is the Henry H. Cumming.

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Sibley Mill (left) and J. P. King Mill today. Both are vacant, but are owned and protected by the Canal Authority.

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One leg of the canal passes through this in-town courtyard as the water flows back to the Savannah River.

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A view of the canal from the towpath.

The Augusta Canal is now 166 years old — and doing pretty well for its age.

 

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Mr. Dynamite

Last month, I spent a few days in Augusta, Georgia, exploring the city. I went simply out of curiosity. I knew very little about the place.

We Smiths, you see, are from Savannah, and we always dismissed Augusta as that other cotton town upstream on the Savannah River.

Silly us. As I discovered, Augusta is an interesting and attractive place.

But it wasn’t always thus. In the decades after World War II, the city had become seedy and rundown — bedeviled by trash, brothels, strip clubs, and the shells of empty mills and factories. Finally, in the 1980s, the city fathers acted.

Augusta invested heavily in cleaning up and modernizing the riverfront and the downtown district. Former factory buildings became condos. The worst of the strip clubs were zoned out of business. The brothels, I assume, went underground.

Augusta built Riverwalk, a beautiful city park that runs for a dozen blocks atop the levee and along the river.

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An art museum was built at one end of Riverwalk, a history museum at the other. Most of the downtown streets were landscaped and prettified.

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The key to understanding Augusta is geography. The city was built at the “fall line,” where the Piedmont Plateau drops down to the Coastal Plain. This is the spot where upstream navigation on the Savannah River ends.

At the history museum, you learn that Augusta’s economy was founded on tobacco and later thrived on cotton and textiles.

You learn about the construction in 1845 of the Augusta Canal, which starts at the fall line and flows south through the city. For years, the canal generated power for factories.

And, no surprise, a large part of the history museum is devoted to the life and career of Augusta luminary James Brown.

Yes, that James Brown. The Godfather of Soul. The Hardest-Working Man in Show Business. Mr. Dynamite.

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Brown was born into poverty across the river in South Carolina in 1933. When he was five, he and his family moved to Augusta, where they lived in a brothel run by his aunt.

Brown had a tough childhood, and he was incarcerated by age 16. But he prevailed. And even though life knocked him around at regular intervals, he went on to gain fame and fortune in true Horatio Alger style.

Today, one of Augusta’s major downtown streets is James Brown Boulevard. The civic center complex is James Brown Arena. Nearby, in James Brown Plaza, is a life-size bronze statue of Brown at the microphone, wearing his signature cape.

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The plaza is a favorite spot for tourist photos.

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As it happens, the statue is across the street from K’s Buffalo Wings, where I had stopped for lunch. I emerged from K’s, wiping hot sauce from my beard while trying not to drop my lemonade, and walked over to the plaza.

The spot was shady, but hot, this being Augusta in June. Occupying the benches around the statue were half a dozen black guys ranging in age from 20s to 60s. Two were eating lunch, a few were chatting, one was reading. They all looked up as I approached, but quickly lost interest.

At the time, I was the only tourist in the plaza. I took photos of the statue from various angles, trying to avoid getting people and traffic in the shots. It wasn’t easy.

Finally, a voice behind me said, “No offense, man, but you don’t look like a James Brown fan.”

I turned around. It was a young man in his mid-20s, holding a takeout box of K’s chicken wings. He was neatly dressed, probably an office worker on his lunch hour.

“Well, I’m not a huge fan,” I said, “But he really had talent. He was quite an entertainer. I saw him at a concert in Macon once, back in the 60s. ”

“For real? You saw James Brown back when he was young?”

“Yeah, I was in college in Athens, and a few of us drove to Macon to see him. I was in my teens. He was about 30, I guess. Really in his prime. He was amazing.”

The young man shook his head in wonder. “I saw him on stage a few times before he died. But he was pretty old, you know? Not James Brown like in the old days.”

“I don’t remember too much about the concert,” I said. “It was so long ago. But he was a trip — so much energy. Dancin’, struttin’, and sweatin’. One guy followed him around the stage to wipe his brow.”

The young man grinned. “Yeah, yeah, the cape routine. He falls to his knees, he’s exhausted, and they put the cape around his shoulders.”

“That’s it.”

He chuckled. “Man, I wish I coulda seen him in those days. I sure do.”

“If you’d seen him, you’d be old like me. You don’t wish that.”

“No, but I sure envy you seein’ him.”

The conversation stalled. Then the young man asked, “You from around here?”

“I live over by Athens. I just came to see a little of James Brown’s Augusta.”

“Well, you enjoy. Nice talkin’ to you, man.”

He returned to his lunch. I walked back to my car.

———–

Here is the man himself, live in 1964, performing the cape routine.

 

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My beloved Paco, my best friend, the kindest and gentlest soul I’ve ever known, died Friday. I am reeling with grief. I have cried a hundred times.

Paco was 15, more or less. I don’t know for sure. He was a rescue dog, a stray found wandering along a county road, wearing a purple nylon collar with no identification.

He was a charmer, and I adopted him, and he had a long, eventful life. He was happy, healthy, comfortable, and content. Then, a few mornings ago, he was too weak to stand. The vet never determined why.

Death came to my precious boy in a calm, gentle way. For two days, he was kept on an IV. He was lucid, and he responded to me and others with his usual affection, although it was muted.

But he couldn’t get up. Several times a day, the staff carried him outside on a blanket. He ate only once.

Although he didn’t bounce back, he was never in pain or distress. When the time came to let him go, he passed away peacefully. I kissed his cheek and stroked his fur, and we were looking into each other’s eyes when the moment came.

For 13 years, Paco and I were a team. It was just the two of us, and I did my best to treat him well. I tried to make sure he lacked for nothing.

I probably raised my voice a few times, but I never struck him or punished him. I treated him with kindness and respect, because he deserved it; he never misbehaved or caused the slightest trouble. He was just a devoted friend. I was soothed and uplifted by his calm demeanor and quiet presence.

During the last year of his life, Paco slowed down considerably. For a long time, we were trail buddies, and we logged many miles hiking in the North Georgia mountains. But age and arthritis finally made the hills and the distances more than he could handle.

So, instead of driving north for a day of hiking, we settled for Sunday morning walks in town, around the elementary school or the high school. He could go off-leash there, wander at his own pace, and investigate all the wonderful smells.

It may be selfish of me to say, but suddenly, my life is abruptly changed. Paco isn’t there to greet me when I come home. The food and water bowls have been put away. The treat canisters are gone from the kitchen counter.

The familiar rituals — taking him outside for potty breaks, saving a few choice morsels for him on my dinner plate, making sure the toilet seat is up and the bowl is full, helping him onto the bed at night — all have ended.

Paco was a border collie, but an especially calm and quiet one. He rarely barked or vocalized. Perhaps to compensate, I talked to him quite a bit.

I had a long list of affectionate names for him. I called him “Sweetness.” That was the nickname of Walter Payton, the Chicago Bears running back of the 1970s.

I called him “my handsome friend” and “my bat-eared buddy” and “old flop-eared mutt” as often as “Paco.”

“You silly pooch,” I would say, or “What a knucklehead,” or “Look at that beautiful tail.” He answered with a head tilt.

Yes, I know — everyone’s dog is the best dog in the world. But Paco truly was a special creature, a special soul. Everyone who knew him acknowledged that.

It’s hard to say what made him so. Probably many factors. He was deeply intelligent. He had a quiet dignity, a noble character — almost an air of Zen, if “just a dog” could display such a thing. Whatever it was, it was impressive. It was admirable.

A long time ago, I ran across the adage that “most dogs are better people than most people.” Paco certainly was that. He was a better man than I am.

He was a calm, serene, delightful spirit. I loved, admired, and respected him more than I can express.

People have said Paco was lucky I found him. I suppose that’s true. But I was the lucky one. That silly pooch, he was a treasure. He enriched my life.

If there is a next realm, if there is a God, then God has the duty to take care of my wonderful Paco now.

There. I’ve said what I wanted to say about my dear, delightful friend. If you’ll excuse me, it’s Sunday morning, and I feel like walking for a while at the elementary school.

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A Geechee, as you may know, is a person from coastal South Carolina or Georgia. The term can refer to:

– African Americans, including those from both the Gullah culture in South Carolina and those known as Geechees on the coastal islands of Georgia, or

– the local Anglos, who also embrace the name.

According to some authorities, the word Geechee derives from the Ogeechee River, which flows into the Atlantic below Savannah. Others say the term came from one of the languages brought to America by African slaves.

I’m familiar with all this because Savannah is the long-time home of the Smith family. My dad and his three siblings were born and raised there. They proudly called themselves Geechees, and they spoke Geechee because they couldn’t help it.

Indeed, part of being a Geechee is the distinctive manner of speech. Among blacks, the dialect can be baffling to the listener; among whites, it’s a hybrid of Irish and Scottish brogues, heavily influenced by Gullah/Geechee words, style, and delivery.

In Geechee-speak, most “R” sounds are discarded except at the beginnings of words. Thus, Cousin Roger is Cousin “Rah-juh,” and the Lone Ranger is the Lone “Range-uh.”

To a Geechee, Charleston is “Choll-stun.”

A Geechee will wish you a Happy New “Yee-uh.”

As for my dad, he was not Walter, but “Wall-tuh.”

The four Smith kids — Walter, Allan, John, and Betty — were of the World War II generation. The three boys enlisted and went off to war.

Dad became a bomber pilot in Europe. Allan was an Air Corps mechanic in China and Burma. John was an Army infantryman who, as he liked to put it, pursued the German army on foot up the length of Italy.

Happily, all three brothers made it home. Dad, who spent months in a prison camp, came back with a bunch of medals. So did John. Everyone had stories to tell.

The war also set the three brothers on their eventual career paths. Dad stayed in the Air Force and flew jet fighters. Allan became a civilian instructor of Navy aircraft mechanics. John, an Army cartographer, pursued an art career.

Clearly, art was John’s thing. As early as grade school, he showed genuine talent. He did the oil painting below at age 15. (The white material flowing from the coffee cup: grits.)

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After the war, John moved to New York City to seek his fortune. He attended art school at Pratt Institute and began working as a commercial artist in Brooklyn. As often happens, he met and married a nice local girl, Annette Conlin from Connecticut.

A few years later, John was hired by the design department at Fisher-Price Toys in East Aurora, New York, near Buffalo.

John and Annette raised four children in East Aurora, and John rose to became the chief product designer at Fisher-Price. Most of the classic Fisher-Price toys you may remember from your childhood, including the “little people,” are John’s creations.

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In 1993, Fisher-Price was acquired by Mattel, Inc., the toy manufacturing behemoth. John’s department was disbanded, and Mattel took over the design duties. John was invited to retire.

But the new Mattel designs didn’t measure up, and Fisher-Price sales quickly nose-dived. Before long, Mattel asked John to return to the company in a consulting role.

John agreed, and ultimately, Fisher-Price rebounded in the toy market. John’s consulting fees, I’m told, were eye-popping.

A few years later, having put Fisher-Price back on course, John retired again. He and Annette settled into a quiet life in East Aurora.

It’s worthy of note that, even after decades of living in New York, John never lost his Geechee accent. Neither did Dad, Allan, or Betty.

Despite drifting into commercial work and product design, John had a fire in the belly to paint. For him, it was both artistic expression and therapy.

He preferred maritime subjects,  landscapes, and architecture — which Savannah, and Buffalo and Lake Erie, provided aplenty.

This watercolor of a stately downtown Savannah residence is typical of his style:

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So is this watercolor of the Savannah Cotton Exchange, where my grandfather worked years ago as a broker.

Cotton Exchange

Sometimes — in fact, many times — life takes an unexpected turn. And, when life is really on its game, the turn can be wonderfully ironic.

Not long after college, one of John and Annette’s daughters took a job, strictly by chance, in Charleston. Soon, the other daughter joined her.

As often happens, both girls married local fellows. They had children and became Charlestonians — Geechees, if you prefer — but with New York accents.

John and Annette spent their golden years in East Aurora, but naturally, they went to Charleston often, sometimes for visits of a month or two. Charleston became the subject of more and more of John’s paintings.

Through the years, John enjoyed good health and remained mentally sharper than people half his age. But a few years ago, his time came. He died in East Aurora at age 91.

It took a while, but Annette got the estate settled, got the house ready, and sold it. Last fall, she relocated from upstate New York to Charleston.

There, she moved into a comfortable cottage near the beach, which was fixed up for her by a son-in-law in the landscaping and construction business.

Because the cottage is on stilts (required by the hurricane code), and because Annette is 85, the son-in-law installed an elevator. Annette says it’s quite handy for taking in the groceries and taking out the garbage.

In the Geechee vernacular, a true native is a “been-yee-uh” (been here), and a newcomer is a “come-yee-uh” (come here).

Annette will never be the former, but she is now a Charlestonian. As are three of her four children and all of her grandchildren.

Last month, Annette invited me to the coast for a few days to see her new place, join her for her daily walks at the beach, and visit with the cousins.

Her cottage is impressive. Nicely renovated and beautifully landscaped. Tastefully decorated with her treasures from East Aurora, plus lots of new beach-themed items.

And, parked beneath the house, convenient to the elevator, is a gift Annette gave to herself to celebrate her new life down South: a handsome Mustang convertible.

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The new wheels.

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Annette enjoying the ocean breeze on the pier at Folly Beach, in the land of the Geechees.

 

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