The Road to Darlington

Life changes lead a father and son back home, and back in time

Real Life

True Tales From Everyday Living

June 17, 2007|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Sun Reporter

ALL OF US HAVE an old country.

Even those whose families have been in this country since the 18th century. For me, the old country is called Darlington, a county seat in the South Carolina low country, the flat land that extends inland from the Atlantic coast.

I grew up 300 miles away in Atlanta, where my parents moved after World War II. Darlington was the destination of countless family trips, daylong affairs with packed lunches over two-lane roads in pre-interstate and pre-McDonald's days. Awaiting us was the family matriarch, my grandmother, holding court in her modest house that to us was a magical castle.

I had not been to Darlington in probably two decades. Neither had my father. His parents are long dead. Other family members have moved away or died off. There was little to bring us back, other than memories. And we were never a family that spent a lot of time trafficking in memories. We looked forward, not back.

But an article in the newspaper of nearby Florence said my grandfather's drugstore building was being renovated into apartments. Dad wanted to see it. I drove from Baltimore; he flew from Florida. I picked him up at the Raleigh-Durham, N.C., airport and we headed to Darlington.

My Dad and I have always gotten along quite well. Sure, we had our generation-gap spats, but nothing serious. As adults, we've been good friends.

Now, at an odd stage of life to form such things, we find ourselves with a new bond. We are both dealing with loss -- his gradual, as my mother fades with Alzheimer's; mine sudden, with the unexpected death of my wife in December.

And we found ourselves back in Darlington.

To me -- I think to both of us -- Darlington was like the Shire to the Hobbits. Everything was to be compared and contrasted to life lived there. This was life as it was supposed to be lived.

The stifling summer heat with its incredible humidity. The bare feet on black sandy soil. The grits every morning. The boiled peanuts most afternoons. The Black Creek swimming hole. The rapid-fire clip of the auctioneers walking along the piles of golden cured leaves in the redolent tobacco warehouses. The roar of stock cars every Labor Day, racing around Nascar's first high-banked speedway, built the year I was born.

And the town square. My memory is of the old courthouse in the middle, not the 1964 mistake of modernity that now sits next to the inevitable monument to the Confederacy.

The square has suffered the same fate as Howard Street in Baltimore, losing business to the discount stores and their big parking lots.

At the soda fountain

So it is with the drugstore that my grandfather once owned. It has been closed for decades. You can see "Hill" carved atop its facade, along with the year 1931, marking a Depression-era renovation of a late 19th-century building.

Its latest renovation into three apartments -- with a retail space in front -- has attracted the same kind of attention in Darlington that Inner Harbor projects once did in Baltimore. Will anyone want to live downtown? Will it spur a comeback for the old square?

It was the dusty tile floor that grabbed Dad's mind and sent him back to the days of standing behind the long-gone soda fountain counter, making Cokes -- a glass of ice, a squirt of syrup and a fill of carbonated water. "I could do that in six seconds," he said.

"My father used to say that my brother and I were outstanding soda jerks," Dad said. "He meant he would come to the store and find us out standing on the sidewalk."

He remembered that the store's phone number was 44. "As often as not, I would ring it and the operator would say, 'Jimmie, is that you? Are you looking for your Daddy? I think I just saw him go down to the cafe. I'll ring down there.'"

There were the nights when Gone With the Wind was playing at the Grand Theater just across the street -- stupidly demolished in that misguided urban renewal of 1964. Dad remembered preparing Cokes for the crowds that would spill out during intermission.

And he remembered the old elaborate pharmacy counter -- said to be in some state museum -- used when the local pharmacist was responsible for filling prescriptions by mixing the medicines, when turning them into pills required the skill of a craftsman.

Upstairs, the renovators had found the painted sign for the doctor's office of my father's Uncle Cephas who died before I was born. He was a graduate of the University of Maryland medical school.

Dad stood in an upstairs room -- now framed out and awaiting new Sheetrock -- and told of the time that he, not yet 3-years-old, lay there with a strangulated intestinal hernia. He says he remembers Cephas giving a can of ether to my grandfather, telling him to drip it onto the gauze held over my father's mouth.

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