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BROTHER TO A DRAGONFLY

July 18, 2020

One afternoon last week, I hurried through a sudden downpour to my car. Dark gray clouds filled the sky as the drops slanted from above. I jumped into the driver’s side and slammed the door. To my amazement, a dragonfly hovered before my eyes just on the other side of the windshield. I stared at the curious insect as the fluttering wings held the dragonfly in place as if he or she was staring back at me with large compound eyes. I waited a moment, turning the key in the ignition after the interesting visitor had flown away. Having a close encounter with a dragonfly brought back memories of other times when I was taken captive by this fascinating creature.

The dragonfly is an aviation marvel. The Boeing Corporation in Seattle, Washington, has filmed dragonflies in flight. After taking a close look at this small insect, engineers were astounded at their aerodynamics.  They concluded that the dragonfly is a highly perfected flying machine.  

Each one of the 6000 varieties of dragonflies is unique. Some fly at speeds up to sixty miles an hour while the average cruising rate is about ten miles an hour.  They fly backward, dart from side to side, stop in midair, and hover.

The secret to their agility is the two pairs of wings that work independently of each other.  The front two wings churn the air, creating disturbance, while the back two wings provide stability.  

Researchers say that the dragonfly stirs up turbulence, whereas an aircraft tries to avoid it. Engineers acknowledge that it is impossible to approximate this dynamic mechanically. They conclude that the flying ability of the dragonfly is superior to anything the Boeing Corporation can manufacture.

Dragonflies have been called horse stingers.  Originally thought to be guilty of stinging these beasts, they were, in fact, pursuing the real pests, horseflies.  Sometimes dragonflies have been called mosquito hawks, a name that actually fits because of their preference for the little bloodsuckers.  It is the combination of their aerobatic maneuvers, combined with their ravenous appetite, that leads to widespread acclaim.    

Sometimes dragonflies are called snake doctors and darners.  People in Old England believed that falling asleep during the daytime was dangerous. They thought this insect, with a body like a darning needle, would sew a person’s eyes shut as the penalty for laziness.  

It’s enough to scare you out of an afternoon nap!  

As a boy, I often went fishing with my grandfather. On one occasion, I had not had even a nibble on my fishing line.  Dragonflies were darting all around, and one hovered close to me. I was afraid of the thing that looked as if it had a killer stinger on its tail.

The insect disappeared from my view, but my grandfather could still see it. “He’s on the brim of your hat.  Hold really still.”  

I did just as Pappy instructed. In a few minutes, it flew away.

“Don’t worry. They don’t sting,” Pappy said. “Now, you’ll catch fish.”  

Within just a short time, I had landed a bass. Soon, I caught several bream.  

Appalachian folklore says that if a dragonfly lights nearby while you are fishing, you will have good luck.  If it does not, you might as well pack up and head home.  You will not catch any fish. That day it was the truth.  

Last week I saw a pair of blue dragonflies stalking prey above the pond in my garden. The predatory insects are always welcome guests in our yard. They are reputed to have a voracious appetite.  In half an hour, they can consume their own weight in mosquitoes.  

According to Japanese legend, a gadfly bit an emperor.  No sooner had the ruler been bitten than he witnessed a dragonfly eating that gadfly.  The emperor considered the dragonfly a friend since the insect had attacked the one who accosted him.  He decreed that from that day forward, the entire island of Japan be called the Island of the Dragonfly.  

Samurai warriors considered the dragonfly such a ferocious fighter that they wore the design of the insect etched on the front of their leather helmets.  

The Lakota Indians of the northern Great Plains regarded the insect as a fierce hunter.  They incorporated the dragonfly motif into their Native American beadwork. The Navaho people of the Southwest believed the presence of a dragonfly was an indication of pure water, vital to people who live in arid conditions.  They often incorporated the insect’s image into their sand paintings.

Like the butterfly, the dragonfly is a symbol of immortality.  

The life cycle of the dragonfly leads to this assumption.  Dragonflies mate in mid-air – quite the feat! They then deposit their eggs in water.  Eventually, the larvae crawl out of the water and attach to a reed.  Its skin becomes hardened, creating a cocoon.  

Then a transformation takes place.  Before long, the chrysalis splits.  A brand new body emerges from the dead shell.  The gauze-like wings unfold, and a colorful and sleek dragonfly takes to the air.  No wonder the dragonfly has become a sign of new life!

Will Campbell, who grew up in rural Mississippi with his brother, Joe, died in early June 2013. Will was an exceptional author and a Baptist minister who did not fit the mold. As a white supporter of the civil rights movement in the South, he received numerous death threats.

Campbell’s autobiographical work, Brother to a Dragonfly, was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1978. In that book, he tells about an experiment his brother conducted. Joe buried a dragonfly in an empty aspirin box. Three days later, the two boys followed a muddy path leading across a field, through the woods, and down to the river. When Joe opened the box he had buried in the soft mud, a dragonfly flew out!

Joe turned to Will and explained that though the dragonfly had been buried in the ground for three days, he was still alive. For Joe, the dragonfly was a symbol of the resurrection of Jesus.

In 1941, at Joe’s funeral, Will related the story, referring to Joe as a brother to a dragonfly.

A few years ago, I conducted a graveside funeral service. The widow of the deceased wore on her black dress a silver pin crafted in the likeness of a dragonfly.

“My husband gave this to me,” she explained.  “For me, it’s a symbol of hope.”   

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

TALES FROM THE DARK CORNER

July 11, 2020

Dean Stuart Campbell, now in his 80s, is known as the Squire of the Dark Corner. An author, lecturer, photographer, storyteller, and tour guide, Dean Campbell has the perspective of a native son who’s maternal and paternal ancestors were early settlers in the Upstate. Campbell was the first to delineate the Dark Corner, the infamous mountain region in northwestern South Carolina, in his book, His Eyes to the Hills—A Photographic Odyssey of the Dark Corner.

Several years ago, I attended an event at the Chapman Cultural Center. Dean Campbell was there to share his stories. Those gathered also saw clips of a movie featuring interviews with Dark Corner residents. I was able to connect with some of my own family history.

The first European settlers in the Southern Appalachian Mountains were primarily Scots-Irish, granted their lands from the King of England before the Revolutionary War. When these people immigrated to the American colonies, they already had an axe to grind with Great Britain.

Originally from Scotland, they had been transplanted to Northern Ireland in what was known as the Irish Plantation or the Plantation of Ulster. Land owned by Irish chieftains was confiscated by King James I of England and used to settle the Scottish colonists in Ireland beginning in 1609. The British required that these transplanted colonists be English-speaking and Protestant. The Scottish colonists of Ulster were mostly Presbyterian.

The British colonists, along the coastal plain in North America, encouraged the king to grant to the Scots-Irish the land along the mountains and rivers of the frontier. This was to use the immigrants from Ulster as a buffer against the Indians.

The plan worked. The Scots-Irish learned to fight the way the Indians fought. When the Declaration of Independence was signed, the mountain people were prepared to fight the British for their freedom. When these families, the Neelys among them, came to America, they brought with them a fierce independence. They hated British taxation. Some historians contend that the American Revolutionary War was won in the South. At the Battle of King’s Mountain in 1780 and The Battle of Cowpens in 1781, these volunteers, known as over-the-mountain men, carried the day.

These Scots-Irish families inhabited the Upstate of South Carolina. Descendants of many of those early pioneers still reside in the area, living on the original tracts of land. Many of them retain to this day a strong, stubborn, independent streak.  That is especially true in the region known as the Dark Corner.

For years the Dark Corner was difficult to pinpoint. When local folks were asked the location of the Dark Corner, the usual answer was, “Just a little piece further down the road.”

Over time, the entire northwest corner of South Carolina became known as the Dark Corner.

Dean Campbell’s Dark Corner is much more specific, confined to an area that encompasses portions of Spartanburg, Greenville, and Pickens Counties.  It includes rolling foothills and the rugged Blue Ridge escarpment called the Blue Wall by the Cherokee Indians.

The Dark Corner was so named because there were few routes in and out. The land was densely forested. Farmsteads were away from the roads, hidden by the trees. The people who lived in the Dark Corner were good, hard-working people. Making and selling liquor was a legal way of earning money. Many residents of the Dark Corner have distilled their own alcoholic beverages for generations, turning their grain crops into whiskey. They reasoned that they could get a better price for their corn and rye if they distilled it into white lightning and sold it to flatlanders. Besides, they reasoned, it was by their own sweat and toil that the crops were grown. It was nobody’s business what they did with the harvest. They certainly did not expect their brew to be taxed!

President George Washington was the first to appoint High Sheriffs to collect taxes on homemade liquor. These officers were called revenuers. The first sheriff dispatched to the Dark Corner was shot and killed.

The people of the Dark Corner felt that the government was unreasonable for imposing such laws. Government agents charged with enforcement of taxes and, later, prohibition, were looked on as enemies. Strangers who entered the Dark Corner were regarded with suspicion.

An intruder in the Dark Corner literally took his life into his own hands. Folks who operated the stills, hidden in the laurel thickets, hollows, and coves along mountain streams, looked on revenuers as fair game.

Sometime after the turn of the century, in the early 1900s, Troy Alverson lived on Von’s Creek near the old road that went from Tryon through Dark Corner. One day a wagon and seven men stopped at the Alverson cabin. The buckboard was loaded with axes, picks, and guns. They asked Mr. Alverson if this was the road to Dark Corner.

“Do you fellers know anyone there?” he asked.

“No,” they answered.

They were advised that it was dangerous to go prowling around if they didn’t know anyone in the area.

One of the men spoke up, “We’ll take our chances. We’re Revenue Officers.”

Mr. Alverson shook his head. “Good luck, fellows.”

The seven men were never heard of again.

Ed Martin was my dad’s college roommate and a life-long friend. In the late 1930s, they both attended North Greenville Junior College in Tigerville, South Carolina. Just off campus was an old country store. The store owner, Perlow Wood, was also a deputy sheriff. On the wall of his establishment, he had a map of the Dark Corner. He hired students from the college to scout the surrounding area at night, looking for the telltale smoke of moonshine stills. If a student found a still that lead to a successful raid, the storekeeper paid the student spy five dollars for the information.

The proprietor of the store had a pretty daughter. Ed was not interested in finding stills, but he was always interested in a beautiful girl. He made arrangements to date the storekeeper’s daughter. After courting the young lady, Ed was walking back to campus. On that moonless night, a grizzled mountaineer stepped from behind an old barn and pointed a double-barrel shotgun at Ed.

“Where ‘you’ns been?” he demanded.

Shaking in his shoes, Ed blurted, “I have been dating a girl over yonder!”

“What’s her name?”

For the life of him, Ed couldn’t remember. “She’s too ugly to remember,” he said.

“I ought’er shoot you’ns. You go up to that college and tell them others the snooping around is over. If I catch any of you’ns out after nightfall, there’ll be no talk’n, just shoot’n.”

That ended the spying days for North Greenville students, and Ed never dated the storekeeper’s daughter again.

In his book Smokin’ Shootin’ Irons in Dark Corner, James Walton Lawrence gives a detailed account of a raid on an illicit whiskey still. The episode occurred beside the headwaters of the South Pacolet River at the base of Hogback Mountain on January 31, 1924.

Reuben Gosnell, a Governor’s Constable with nineteen years experience, led a team of officers. The group included Constable Holland Howard, a life-long resident of the Dark Corner.

The raiding party approached the suspected site following a stream up through a mountain cove. They met brothers W. P. and Alexander Plumley coming from the direction of the moonshine still. The experienced officers could tell by the condition of the brothers’ clothing they had been working at a still. They searched the two and found a pistol. The Plumleys were placed under arrest and incarcerated in a small log corncrib about a half-mile below the liquor-making operation.

Gosnell and Howard left officers guarding the corncrib. The guards soon came under rifle fire coming from a cave 100 yards away across the South Pacolet River, a lookout post protecting the approach to the still.

Gosnell crept around to the head of the cove to cut off escape.  Howard ran upstream toward the still to flush the moonshiners.  Gosnell heard cursing. Several shots rang out. He saw two men run from the still, one going west and one going east. He went after the man going west. After a 400-yard chase, he caught the culprit. Holland Pittman tried to draw a pistol on Gosnell, but the constable got the drop on him.

Gosnell returned to the distillery and found Howard dead. Gosnell was fired upon from ambush as he tried to leave the scene.  Pittman was placed in Greenville County jail.  His father, Alexander Pittman, later surrendered in Greenville. Both father and son were charged with murder. The folk song, “The Ballad of Holland Howard,” memorialized the event.

The Dark Corner is among the most intriguing venues in Upstate South Carolina.  The Dark Corner’s reputation has improved. Once viewed as an area of outlaws that rivaled the Old West for its gunfights and knife fights, the region of rugged mountain country surrounding Glassy Mountain is now known as a beautiful place to visit.

Now, tourism has replaced bootlegging as the most substantial economic influence. Visitors and retirees flock to the Dark Corner to play golf on some of the finest courses in the southeast. From Pretty Place at Camp Greenville to the Greenville Watershed, from Campbell’s Covered Bridge to the Poinsett Bridge, the Dark Corner is rich in wonders to behold.

Dean Campbell said there are still moonshiners in the area. He added, “Back in the old days even the preachers made ‘shine, for medicinal purposes, of course.”

I know for a fact that Reuben Gosnell was related to some of my family members. If you go to the Dark Corner, be careful! You may meet one of my kinfolks, and he, or she, might be packing heat!

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

REMEMBERING INDEPENDENCE DAY

July 4, 2020

My mother was born on July 4, 1922.

When I was a boy, I was impressed that, on Mama’s birthday, everybody took the day off. The entire Neely family, as many as fifty-six of us, gathered at the family farm for the afternoon. We enjoyed a picnic featuring fried chicken, soggy tomato sandwiches, coleslaw, potato salad, deviled eggs, and blackberry cobbler. We went swimming in the pond. Some tried fishing, but the mosquitoes were biting more than the fish. After a supper of leftovers, we watched as our uncles put on a fireworks display.

Because it was Mama’s birthday, it took me a while to realize that all of the festivities within our family and across the United States were not just in her honor. Also, we were celebrating the birth of our nation.   

In 1776, the Second Continental Congress unanimously adopted the Declaration of Independence. The American colonies officially separated themselves from the authority of England, and a new country was born.

When I was a student at Cooperative School, one of my teachers required the class to memorize a brief passage from the Declaration. At the family picnic, those who knew the selection repeated it by heart. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

The importance of the Declaration can be underestimated even by the most loyal Americans. Students in a sociology class designed a research project. They printed out the words of the Declaration of Independence and placed copies of the document on clipboards. Without identifying the document as the Declaration, the students invited people at a shopping mall, to read and sign the petition. Most people refused to sign their names. They thought the document was too radical and would incite too much conflict.

The fifty-six signers of the Declaration of Independence were committing an act of treason against King George III. Though the names Franklin, Adams, Hancock, and Jefferson are familiar, few residents of the Palmetto State can name the four South Carolinians who placed their signatures on this document. They were Edward Rutledge, Thomas Heyward, Jr., Thomas Lynch, Jr., and Arthur Middleton.

In 1956, Paul Harvey, in “The Rest of the Story” radio broadcast, presented a moving editorial about the signers of the Declaration of Independence. The following is my summary.

On July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was adopted.

 Ben Franklin, seventy years old, was the oldest among the fifty-six signers. Eighteen were under forty; three were in their twenties. Almost half were judges and lawyers. Eleven were merchants, nine were landowners and farmers, and twelve were doctors, ministers, and politicians.

With few exceptions, such as Samuel Adams of Massachusetts, these were men of wealth.  All but two had families. They were educated and well respected.

Each had more to lose from revolution than he had to gain by it. John Hancock, one of the richest men in America, already had a price on his head. He signed his name in enormous letters so “that his Majesty could now read his name without glasses and could now double the reward.”

These men knew what they risked. The penalty for treason was death by hanging. It was principle, not property, that had brought these men to Philadelphia. Ben Franklin wryly noted: “Indeed we must all hang together; otherwise, we shall most assuredly hang separately.”

 All of them became the objects of British manhunts. Some were captured. Some had narrow escapes. All suffered who had property or families near British strongholds.

Francis Lewis, New York delegate, saw his home plundered and his estate completely destroyed. His wife was treated with brutality and died from abuse.

William Floyd, another New York delegate, was able to escape with his wife and children across Long Island Sound to Connecticut. They lived as refugees without income for seven years. When they came home, they found a devastated ruin.

Phillips Livingstone saw all of his extensive holdings in New York confiscated, and his family driven out of their home.

Louis Morris, the fourth New York delegate, saw all his timber, crops, and livestock taken. For seven years, he was barred from his home and family.

John Hart of Trenton, New Jersey, risked his life to return home to see his dying wife. While his wife lay on her deathbed, Hessian soldiers ruined his farm. Hart slept in caves and woods as he was hunted across the countryside. When at long last, emaciated by hardship, he was able to sneak home, he found his wife had already been buried, and his thirteen children taken away. He never saw any of them again.

Dr. John Witherspoon was president of the College of New Jersey, later called Princeton. The British occupied the town of Princeton, billeted troops in the college, and burned the finest library in the country.

Judge Richard Stockton, another New Jersey delegate, had rushed back to his estate in an effort to evacuate his wife and children. The family found refuge with friends, but a Loyalist sympathizer betrayed them. Stockton was pulled from bed in the night and cruelly beaten by the arresting soldiers. Thrown into a common jail, he was nearly starved. The judge was released as an invalid. He returned home to find his estate looted and did not live to see the triumph of the Revolution. His family was forced to live off of charity.

Robert Morris of Philadelphia met Washington’s appeals and pleas for money time and again. He sacrificed one hundred and fifty merchant ships, depleting his own fortune.

Dr. Benjamin Rush from Pennsylvania was forced to flee to Maryland. As a heroic surgeon with the army, Rush had several narrow escapes from the British.

John Morton lived in a strongly Loyalist area of Pennsylvania. When he came out for independence, most of his neighbors and even some of his relatives ostracized him.

William Ellery, Rhode Island delegate, saw his property and home burned to the ground.

South Carolina delegate, Thomas Lynch, Jr., served as a company commander in the Patriot army. His health was broken from deprivation and exposure. His doctors ordered him to seek a cure in the West Indies. On the voyage, he and his young bride were drowned at sea.

In the siege of Charleston, the British captured Edward Rutledge, Arthur Middleton, and Thomas Heyward, Jr., the other three South Carolina signers. They were exchanged at the end of the war. The British completely devastated their plantations.

Thomas Nelson of Virginia was in command of the Virginia militia at Yorktown. When British General Charles Cornwallis moved his headquarters into Nelson’s palatial house, Nelson cried, “Give me the cannon!” and fired on his own magnificent home himself, smashing it to bits. He had raised two million dollars for the Revolutionary cause by pledging his own estates. When the loans came due, a newer peacetime Congress refused to honor them, and Nelson’s property was forfeited. He died, impoverished at the age of 50.

Of the fifty-six who signed the Declaration of Independence, nine died of wounds. Five were captured, imprisoned, and treated with brutality. Several lost their wives; others lost their entire families. Twelve signers saw their homes burned to the ground. Seventeen lost everything they owned. Yet not one defected or went back on his pledged word.

Independence Day, July 4, 1776, was not a day off and certainly not a vacation. It was not about fireworks and picnics. It was the beginning of a war for independence marked with musket and cannon fire, death, and destruction. The freedoms we enjoy were hard-won.

Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence, composed a magnificent closing line. These Patriots took a great risk when they signed, “And for the support of this Declaration with a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”

For the signers of the Declaration, that was no idle boast. It was a solemn vow, one that cost them dearly and secured our liberty.

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