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THE OLE SWIMMIN’ HOLE

July 31, 2021

During the difficult days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Clare and I have been considering what we might do to help those in need. We have decided to continue our support for the charitable nonprofit organizations that are serving our community. Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider helping one charity. This week, please volunteer or donate, as you are able, to the American Red Cross, www.redcross.org/

One Saturday afternoon, just after school was out for the summer, I was invited to go swimming at the Y.M.C.A. with five of our grandchildren. I enjoyed being in the water with these young ones who wanted their gray granddad to cheer them on in their newly developed aquatic skills. They especially took delight in shooting down the water slide and splashing the old man. Being with them in the water brought back recollections of distant times past when, as a boy, I went swimming on hot summer days.    

Other folks of my vintage have similar memories. On a sweltering afternoon last week, a friend said, “I wish I could go swimming in Barr’s Pond back in Lexington County. On a scorching day like today,” he said, “Barr’s pond was the best place to cool off. We’d pile into the bed of a pickup truck. My father would back the truck right up to the water, and we’d all jump out and go swimming.”

Many folks have pleasant memories of a favorite swimming hole. A spot in a creek or a pond, one large enough and deep enough to go for a cooling dip provided blessed relief on a hot summer day.

In a time when there were few swimming pools, the old swimming hole was an important part of my growing-up years. Besides the swimming pool at Camp Croft, there were no public places to swim other than rivers and lakes.

In the popular television series, “The Beverly Hillbillies,” Jed Clampett and his mountaineer family relocated to Beverly Hills. The family was fascinated by their swimming pool, which they called a cement pond. The Clampetts never seemed to grasp the intended use of the pool. Granny sometimes did the laundry in it and set up her moonshine still next to it.

 For the Beverly Hillbillies, the cement pond was a less than acceptable replacement for a mountain swimming hole. So, too, the high-tech pools of our time are just not the same as those natural swimming places that afford such great pleasure.

Some of our best swimming holes were rendered unusable by those whose disregard for clean water turned our waterways into trash dumps. I remember cooling off as a boy in the North Tyger River. By my early adult years, industrial pollution had altered the alkaline content of the river enough to burn human skin.  In recent years, environmental efforts to clean up streams and rivers have resulted in cleaner water and healthier places to swim.

Rainbow Lake, north of Boiling Springs, was a popular place to swim in our area. The fancy swimming hole featured a three-story stone tower for diving. I remember going to Rainbow Lake on hot summer afternoon with my Little League baseball team.

Tommy Stokes, our second base player, did a headfirst dive off the third story of the tower. Tommy narrowly missed swimmers leaping from the first and second levels as he plummeted into the deep water.

I did my first backflip off the tower at Rainbow Lake. I made a valiant attempt. I flipped and rotated too far. The backflip became a painful back flop.

Soon after I graduated from high school, Rainbow Lake was closed. It was 1968, and the Civil Rights Movement was changing the social landscape across America. Due to some local pushback to racial integration, Spartanburg Water Works officials announced that the lake would not reopen for the summer season. A great swimming hole was lost, even as the country made important moves towards greater inclusion.

When I recall places that I have been swimming, the lakes at scout camp and at Ridgecrest come to mind. What joy!

 I have been swimming in the Pigeon River in the Smoky Mountains, Elk Shoals on the North Fork of the New River, and at Burrells Ford on the Chattooga River. I have enjoyed a refreshing dip in pools at the base of waterfalls like Big Bradley on the Green River and Kings Creek Falls in Sumter National Forest. Sliding Rock on the Davidson River in Pisgah National Forest is perhaps the coldest swimming hole I have endured

Safety is always a concern when swimming in a natural setting. Never swim alone! There are no lifeguards. Use the buddy system. Currents can be swift. Rocks can be hazardous. Do not dive! Diving is especially dangerous because the water may be shallow, or there may be rocks hidden below the surface. Slowly wade into the water. Always wear shoes! Broken glass and discarded metal are often underfoot.

One summer Saturday, my parents took us swimming with our cousins at Lake Lure. On Sunday morning, my mother received a telephone call notifying us that a cousin with whom we had been swimming had been stricken with polio. This was before the Salk vaccine had been introduced. All of us were required to quarantine for the rest of the summer. There was no more swimming that year. After this year of navigating the COVID-19 pandemic, the stress and loneliness of quarantine is all too familiar.

There were two swimming holes I remember most fondly. One was a small pool my friends and I made in a creek behind our house. We dammed up the unnamed stream. A large vine hanging from a poplar tree provided a ready-made swing. With a running start down the hill, we could soar across the creek and back. At the right time we would turn loose, splashing into the muddy pool. The water was a pale yellow. It coated us from neck to toe with a thin layer of mud.

The second place dear to my heart was my grandfather’s farm pond. Skinny-dipping is a well-established tradition at some remote swimming holes. My grandfather’s pond was not the place for swimming sans swimsuit!

Pappy had built a small dock that gave us a perfect launching pad into the cool water. I often fished in this same pond. While swimming, we could feel small bream nibbling our legs.

After we hooked a couple of granddaddy catfish, we didn’t even let our feet touch the bottom. Catching a washtub-size snapping turtle made us still more leery. In that same pond, Rudy Mancke and I caught thirty-eight snakes one night. After that, I didn’t swim in that pond ever again.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com

THE LEGEND OF SKUYKA

July 24, 2021

During the difficult days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Clare and I have been considering what we might do to help those in need. We have decided to continue our support for the charitable nonprofit organizations that are serving our community. Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider helping one charity. This week, please volunteer or donate, as you are able, to the Palmetto Council, Boy Scouts of America, 420 South Church Street, Spartanburg, South Carolina, 29306, 864-585-4391, palmettocouncils@scouting.org.

May 16-18, 2018, torrential rain pelleted the mountains of Polk County, North Carolina. Along the old Saluda Grade. Highway 176, between Tryon and Saluda, North Carolina, falling trees and rock slides made traveling hazardous. Just a few miles away, the scout camp was inundated. The wind and rain wreaked havoc on property that had been used for decades as a place of fun and fellowship for scouts camping in the hills and hollers of those mountains.

On that Sunday morning, one hundred and fifty scouts and leaders had to evacuate. The side of a mountain slid into a valley below. The dam gave way on the lake where scouts had canoed, rowed, and fished. The main road into camp became a raging creek. Buildings were destroyed. The dining hall was later condemned as unsafe. This beautiful piece of mountain property was deemed unusable by the Boy Scouts.  

From 1958, when I was thirteen years old, this camp was the place I went each summer to complete my scout ranks and merit badges. It was here that I earned swimming and lifesaving merit badges in water so cold it made my teeth chatter.

Previously known as Camp Palmetto, the camp closed in 1980 for several years to be restored. The new name was Camp Bob Hardin.  Since I had served as a volunteer in various capacities, I was asked by Bob Justice, the Scout executive, to become the advisor for Skyuka Lodge Order of the Arrow, an organization for honor scouts.

In 1982,  the first season in the refurbished camp, the program director asked me to write the script for a pageant to be performed by the camp staff on Family Night each week.  After extensive research in the Polk County Library, I wrote “The Legend of Skyuka.” It is based on fact, but it is mingled with legend.

*****

Years ago, the Southern Appalachian Mountains were inhabited by a proud and peaceful people.  Relatives of the Iroquois, they were known for their imposing height and robust stature.  Claiming for their hunting grounds what is now part of eight states, these noble people became the mightiest empire of all the Southeastern tribes of Native Americans.  They called themselves Ani-yun-wi-ya, which means Principal People.  They were called by other tribes “the people who speak another language” – the Cherokee.

Though their nation was vast, the Cherokee had a unified government that was effective and efficient.  They were divided into seven clans:  the Wild Potato, the Bird, the Long Hair, the Blue, the Paint, the Deer, and the Wolf.  Each clan had a chief.  The seven clan chiefs served as counselors in the Cherokee government and were convened when important decisions had to be made.

The Cherokee were religious people.  They believed in one Supreme Creator, a unity of three beings referred to as The Elder Fires Above. The diety gave fire to bless humankind with smoke as a messenger.

The Euperoan’s idea of land ownership was completely different from the Cherokee concept. The Cherokee had no notion of land as belonging to individuals.  The earth belonged to the Creator.  The forests were for hunting deer and bear, squirrel and rabbit.  The rivers were a means of transportation.   

The arrival of the first explorer, Hernando De Soto, into the land of the Cherokee in the 16th century marked the beginning of a long and painful march of white men into the Cherokee’s world. The influx of settlers pushed hard against the Cherokee.  A series of treaties from 1684 to 1835 were consistently broken.  The Cherokee lands shrank from an empire of enormous proportions to a small boundary in Western North Carolina.

In the Colonial period of American history, Governor William Tryon of North Carolina sent Captain Thomas Howard into the mountainous backcountry to explore the possibilities of settling useable land.  He settled at what is now Tigerville, South Carolina.  On one of his expeditions, Captain Howard came upon a Cherokee settlement on White Oak Mountain.  A young Cherokee boy, playing on the outskirts of the settlement, had been bitten by a timber rattler.  Captain Howard used his knife to open the boy’s wound.  He sucked the poison from the boy’s body and put tobacco juice on the wound as a kind of primitive first aid treatment.  The young boy’s life was saved, and Captain Howard and the young boy became steadfast friends.  The boy’s name was Skyuka, meaning Chipmunk.  He later became one of the seven Cherokee clan chiefs.

The Cherokee had been a peaceful people for centuries.  Now their hunting lands were threatened by white settlers. Cherokee chiefs like Atta Kula Kula of the Keowee Settlement and

later Tsali of the Qualla Region took a warlike stance toward whites.

With the American Revolution, conflict intensified between the Indians and the settlers. British Redcoats and Tory sympathizers encouraged the Cherokee to raid and massacre the pioneer homesteaders.

The Governor immediately dispatched Captain Thomas Howard to put down the uprising.  Skyuka guided Captain Howard and his men to Round Mountain, where the Cherokee were celebrating their victory. Howard made camp at the base of Round Mountain. When darkness fell, several bonfires were lit. Three men were left there to create a distraction while Howard took the remainder of his men led by Skyuka on a secret twisting trail up Round Mountain. They approached the Cherokee from the rear, killing most of the raiding party.

Because of his loyalty to Captain Howard, Skyuka was the only one of the seven Cherokee chiefs to side with the settlers at the time of the Indian Wars in the mid-1700s.  The Cherokee won victory after victory as they burned settlers’ homes in defense of their own territory.  Because of his devotion to Captain Howard, his own people considered Skyuka an enemy.

A monument now stands near the crest of the Saluda Grade on Round Mountain, marking the battle site.  The trail up Round Mountain became Howard Gap Road. The name of Skyuka is perpetuated in the Tryon area by Skyuka Creek, Skyuka Road, old Camp Skyuka, and Skyuka Lodge, Order of the Arrow.

In 1765, Governor Tryon signed a treaty with the Cherokee delineating the Indian territories.  The Indian boundary went from a point in Virginia to a point on the Reedy River in Greenville County.  The old Indian boundary line now divides Spartanburg and Greenville counties and is identified by a South Carolina State historic marker in Greer, South Carolina. The treaty was signed at a large granite outcropping known as Treaty Rock on White Oak Mountain. The treaty was short-lived.  Like many others, the white settlers violated it until finally, the great Cherokee Nation was reduced to a small band in Western North Carolina.

The saddest winter in Cherokee history was that of 1838 and ’39, when most of the Cherokee were taken from their homes and herded like cattle to Oklahoma.  Over 4,000 Cherokee died on this journey.  To this day, the Cherokee call it The Trail of Tears.

The legend concludes with two traditions about Skyuka’s death. One is that he was captured by Loyalists during the Revolutionary War and hanged from a sycamore tree at the foot of Tryon Mountain on the bank of what later became known as Skyuka Creek. The other holds that because the Cherokee considered him a renegade, his tongue was cut out, and he was bound and stretched across the rock face on White Oak Mountain.  Those who witnessed the death of Skyuka said that in death, he rejoined his Cherokee people.  As he died, a large eagle soared near the rock face of the mountain to receive the spirit of Skyuka and return it to his Creator.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com

POSSUM TALES

July 17, 2021

Note to readers: During these difficult days for many people, Clare and I have considered what we might do to help those in need. We have decided to continue our support for the charitable nonprofit organizations that are serving our community. Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider helping one charity. This week, please volunteer or donate, as you are able, to Spartanburg Humane Society Animal shelter in Spartanburg County, South Carolina, 150 Dexter Road, Spartanburg, South Carolina, 29303, (864) 583-4805  

Clare and I look forward to receiving our Garden and Gun magazine. We subscribed ten years ago, in 2007, when the publication was first announced. It is

a welcomed guest in our mailbox. I try to get to the latest issue before my wife does. I read the magazine, leaving it intact. Clare reads Garden and Gun the same way she reads Time magazine or the Herald-Journal or the New York Times. She rips out pages and trashes them as she reads. So, I was surprised and delighted to find the remnants of the April/May 2017 issue because I had not yet seen it.

My favorite sections are Roy Blount’s column, always on the magazine’s back page, and Julia Reed’s piece before her death in 2020. Both excellent writers display a keen wit and genuine southern charm. In this particular installment, the tenth-anniversary issue, Julia Reed wrote “The Awesome Opossum.”

I thoroughly enjoyed reading her take on an animal most of us know only as roadkill. Julia Reed and I beg to differ with that assessment. In this article, I combine a few of her possum tales with some of mine.  

Few of us welcome untamed creatures in or around our homes. In the course of fifty-five years of wedded bliss, Clare and I have had several close encounters of the wild kind at our house. While our exterminator faithfully deals with the usual roaches, ants, wasps, and mice, we have also hosted squirrels, snakes, bats, and owls as uninvited visitors. Possums also occasionally pay a visit to our place.

Our sweet daughter-in-law, Patrice, phoned me some time ago with concern in her voice. “Papa Kirk, can you please tell me how I can get rid of a possum!”

“Why do you want to get rid of him?” I inquired.

“Because he’s ugly and scary, and I don’t like for him to be under my deck!”

Patrice is right. A possum is an undesirable houseguest.

Most of us consider possums to be annoying varmints.  Opossums, to use the proper name, are our only native North American marsupials. According to Julia Reed, the animal was named by Captain John Smith of the Jamestown Colony. The name was derived from the Algonquian word, which means white animal.  They are first cousins to the Australian kangaroo. Females have a pouch on their belly where the young, up to 13 in number, are carried and nourished for about two months after birth.

Adult possums can be three feet long, including the prehensile tail. They cannot hang from a tree limb, a posture immortalized by the character in the comic strip Pogo.

They weigh as much as fourteen pounds, depending on how well-fed they are. Possums are omnivores. That means they will eat anything. Their diet includes insects, snails, rodents, berries, fruit, grasses, and leaves. Possum favorites seem to be pet food, garbage, and other roadkill. Yum! They are nocturnal animals, prowling around at night and sleeping during the day.

Playing possum is a defensive tactic the critter employs when frightened. Playing possum is feigning death. If you see one lying in the middle of the road, he is probably not pretending. Chances are he is really dead.

When I was a boy, my family lived on a dirt road until the area across the road from us was developed, and homes were built. Early one morning, construction workers across the way found a possum scuffling around inside a nail keg where garbage had been thrown the day before. They trapped the possum by putting a scrap of hardware cloth over the keg holding it in place with a brick.

I wandered across the road to see what was going on. The workmen said I could have the possum for a pet. Wow! That afternoon, my dad and I built a cage that looked something like a rabbit pen. My pet possum had a home, or so I thought. The next morning I found the cage empty. The possum had chewed through the wood. Blood was everywhere, and the possum was gone. Possums don’t make good pets.

Possums are not clean animals. They eat dead animals as small as a slug or as big as a horse. They are sometimes referred to as the sanitation workers of the wild. These critters can carry parasites and rabies, although rabies incidents are less frequent than in other animals, such as raccoons. Possums have a strong immune system, so strong they can devour venomous snakes with no ill effect. Possums also have a strong offensive odor, except to other possums. That is the reason they have so many little possums.

Some folks eat possums. As Reed pointed out, a recipe for cooked possum was to be found in the Joy of Cooking as late as the 1960s. Clare had a copy of that edition of the cookbook given to us as a wedding gift. I’m not sure the recipe is in our copy. One of our dogs partially devoured the cookbook.

President William Howard Taft considered the possum a delicacy. Julia Reed reported that when the rotund president was the honored guest at a banquet in Atlanta, Georgia, he requested that possum be the main fare. One hundred folks were served boiled, baked, and basted possum with a side of sweet potatoes.  

Julia tells the story of a special cocktail named Possum Drop. At a place called Snake and Jake’s Christmas Club Lounge, a New Orleans establishment lit only by Christmas lights, a customer was seated at the bar enjoying a shot of Jägermeister. Suddenly a possum fell through the tiled ceiling, startling the customer and spilling the patron’s drink into a pint of Schlitz.

Voilà! The Possum Drop cocktail was born!

Because possums are prolific, they keep having to find new places to live. They will live in a variety of habitats. They will make themselves right at home when they move into the neighborhood. Undersides of porches, decks, and tool sheds provide an ideal home. That puts them within striking distance to raid garbage cans and steal pet food. They are excellent climbers. Possums can be found living in attics, where they make a terrible mess and a lot of noise. It is an excellent idea to get rid of possums if they are hanging out around your house.

Have you ever wondered how to get rid of a possum? There is no magic spray or device to make them go away. Some people have tried predator urine, such as coyote or fox urine, to get rid of possums. Not only does it not keep possums away, but it also makes the odor problem worse, and it is hard to come by. Coyote and fox are not necessarily interested in cooperating. 

Some have recommended mothballs or ammonia-soaked rags to make possums leave, but that doesn’t always work either. One way to take care of the possum problem is by trapping and removing them.

My sister-in-law, now deceased, was a master storyteller. She told about a time when a couple in her church in rural North Carolina paid a visit to her home. The visitor had long gray hair. It was pulled up into a large beehive hairdo, in the style of the 1970s, held in place by maximum-strength hair spray. In the course of the conversation, my sister-in-law thought she saw something moving in the woman’s hair. Struggling to maintain eye contact with her guest, my sister-in-law caught a glimpse of a small face peeking out from the beehive. She politely asked about the critter in the hairdo. The woman pulled three baby possums out of her elaborate coiffure and, turning to her husband, said, “Show’ er the ones you’ve got, Earl.” Earl reached into his shirt and brought from his considerable chest hair another two baby possums.

“Ain’t they cute? Their mama got killed in the road in front of our place, so we took  ‘em in,” the woman explained.

My sister-in-law was speechless for a moment and then recovered, “What are you going to do with them?” 

“We’re gonna keep  ‘em and fatten  ‘em up. Then we’re gonna eat  ‘em.”

That’s one way to get rid of a possum.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. He may be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com