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September 23, 2019

On a late summer evening several years ago, Freddie Vanderford, David Ezell, and I enjoyed supper together at a Mexican restaurant in Union, South Carolina. David and I have known each other for years. Since our boyhood days, we have coaxed tunes from our acoustic guitars. Back in the dim ages we each had the privilege of making music with Walter Hyatt. As a teenager, I strummed hillbilly chords with Walt on Monday nights at a small Presbyterian Church after Boy Scout meetings. David and Uncle Walt continued to practice and play, becoming professional certified guitar players.  I went off on a different tangent to become God knows what.

David and Freddie are members of the inner circle of Piedmont Blues musicians in the Upstate. They play gigs together with other artists like Fayssoux McLean, who is a Southern songbird, and Brandon Turner, who can coax a mournful twang from any guitar – acoustic, electric, or steel.

In recent years I have developed a particular interest in the blues, a musical genre with a Southern heritage.

“I want you to meet Freddie,” David had said. “He plays the blues harp like you have never heard. He learned from Peg Leg Sam.”

The meeting over Mexican cuisine in Union was my first encounter with Freddie. We chose the location because David and I call Spartanburg home while Freddie hails from Buffalo, South Carolina. David was right. The man from Buffalo can make a harmonica sing.

We enjoyed our supper and talked about the music indigenous to the South and to the Upstate.

As nearly as I can tell the blues all started at a railroad crossing in the upper Mississippi Delta where “the Southern crosses the Yellow Dog.”  The junction of the Southern Railroad and the Yazoo Delta Railroad was established in 1897. For decades it was the central Delta’s major rail link making Moorhead, Mississippi, the region’s most active freight connections. In 1914 the railroad crossing gained national fame with W.C. Handy’s blues song “The Yellow Dog Rag.”

The Delta Blues developed from African roots cultivated in the cotton rows of the South. During their backbreaking work in the fields of the Southern plantations, slaves developed a call and response way of singing to give rhythm to the drudgery of their day. These field calls served as a basis of all blues music.

Following the Civil War, the traditional slave music was influenced by ballads, spirituals, and rhythmic dance tunes known as jump-ups. The music adopted call and response patterns also common in African-American churches. A blues singer carried on a musical dialogue with his guitar. He would sing a line, and the guitar would answer. This is a persistent pattern in the blues. The famous artist B.B. King named his guitar Lucille, and the two have been singing together ever since.

Blues songs are usually sung in the first person. This style of music has an unvarnished honesty conveyed through powerful, rhythm. The lyrics are soulful and melancholy, reflecting themes of daily life. Nothing is off-limits. Love, marriage, and unfaithfulness all find a voice. Drinking, gambling, stealing, and murder are grist for the mill. Jail time, hard labor, and poverty find expression in the good blues songs, as do mules, railroads, and trucks.

Some of the best known Delta Blues singers were discovered in prison.

Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, was an iconic blues musician. He played several instruments but was best known for his virtuosity on the twelve-string guitar. A propensity for a violent temper and knife fights led to his incarceration in prisons from Texas, to Louisiana, to New York on at least four occasions. Fellow prisoners gave him the name Lead Belly after another inmate shot Ledbetter in the stomach with a shotgun. Alan Lomax discovered and recorded Ledbetter in 1930 during a visit to the Angola Prison Farm in Louisiana.

Freddie Vanderford sings “The Parchman Farm Blues,” named for the Mississippi State Penitentiary, a hard-time prison. Several musicians were imprisoned there, including Bukka White who wrote the song.

During the Great Depression, many Southern blacks migrated north along the route of the Illinois Central Railroad. The earthy music became firmly established in Memphis and St. Louis and then in Chicago and Detroit.

The blues filled rowdy urban nightclubs. The loud crowds and bigger venues led some of the more inventive performers such as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf to switch to electric guitars and to add drums to their bands.

Muddy Waters was born at Jug’s Corner, Mississippi, in 1913. He is considered the father of modern Chicago blues. This new electric Chicago music was more powerful than its predecessor and became a major inspiration for the British blues explosion in the 1960s. Eric Clapton was major contributor.

Here in the Upstate, blues also found a home in the hilly area between the Coastal Plain and the Appalachian Mountains, from Georgia to Virginia. Piedmont Blues is characterized by a syncopated guitar technique that is comparable in sound to ragtime piano. The style features a fingerpicking method in which an alternating-thumb-bass pattern supports a melody on treble strings.  Generally, Piedmont Blues is a little more light-hearted than its Delta cousins. Doc Watson is a prime example.

Freddie Vanderford explained that Piedmont blues musicians discovered that more upbeat music garnered larger tips than mournful songs.

In the early twentieth century, influential artists such as Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Blake, and Blind Willie McTell made Piedmont blues popular. Freddie said that the blind musicians had made a significant contribution in shaping the style. Women were also masters of Piedmont guitar style, including Etta Baker from Morganton, North Carolina, and Elizabeth Cotton, whose “Freight Train” is one of the best-recognized fingerpicking blues tunes.

A good-natured fingerpicking guitarist, Pink Anderson was born in Laurens but raised in Greenville and Spartanburg. He played for thirty years as part of a medicine show, Dr. Kerr’s Indian Remedy Company. Pink entertained crowds with an old Gibson J-50 guitar and a harmonica while Kerr tried to sell a concoction purported to have medicinal qualities. Pink Anderson is buried in the Lincoln Memorial Gardens in Spartanburg.

Pink also played with Peg Leg Sam, a blues harmonica player from the West Springs area of Union County. Peg Leg Sam got his nickname, following an accident while traveling as a hobo in 1930. He mentored Freddie Vanderford, who played a few gigs with Pink Anderson’s son, Little Pink.

The Piedmont Blues influenced other popular musicians such as Ray Charles and Paul Simon. Janis Joplin and Bonnie Raitt also adopted the style as their own.

Meeting Freddie Vanderford opened a door into a part of the rich musical heritage of our part of the country. He recalled stories about Reverend Gary Davis from Grey Court, Baby Tate who lived behind the Varsity Drive-in, and Josh White from Greenville.  Freddie told me that Brownie McGhee got his start playing at tobacco barn auctions and that Sonny Terry played the harmonica upside down.

I often listen to my copy of Freddie’s album entitled “Greasy Greens.” My greater gift is that now I know Freddie. He is one more reason to love the Upstate.


September 15, 2019

Among the visitors to our garden in the early fall is a small winged creature that I have always called a Carolina skipper. I have recently learned that the correct name is the common checkered skipper. This butterfly is easy to identify by the distinctive white spots on her dark gray wings. True to its name the diminutive insect skips from one flower to another. While others of her kin will linger for a longer sip of nectar, the checkered skipper moves quickly to the next bloom.

Residents of South Carolina might assume the checkered skipper would be the state butterfly, but that honor goes to the eastern tiger swallowtail. This is among the largest of the butterflies common to the Palmetto State. The eastern tiger swallowtail was adopted in 1994 with the approval of the South Carolina General Assembly. Interestingly, it is also the state butterfly of North Carolina and Georgia.

Swallowtails are named for the long portion of their hind wings which resemble a swallow’s tail feathers. Each of the forewings of the eastern tiger swallowtail has four black stripes resembling a tiger. Males are yellow with black stripes. Females can be either yellow or dark gray with the same striped pattern.

Adult butterflies do not eat solid foods as they did in their larval stage. Instead, they sip nectar using a proboscis, a long, tube-shaped tongue.

As I worked in my yard last weekend, a spicebush butterfly was my constant companion.   While I stooped to pull weeds, time and again the tiny creature fluttered past.  When I stood to stretch, my beautiful visitor danced in circles close by.  I felt unusually blessed by its presence.

Pausing from my labors, I marveled at the delicate, black butterfly, marked with iridescent blue.  Most gardeners in these parts know that by early fall there are precious few blooms on our tired summer plants. I stopped for a moment to admire the graceful visitor to our garden.

As I continued working, I mopped perspiration from my face with an old, faded bandana. I tossed it aside.  Moments later I noticed the spicebush butterfly perched on the flowered rag as if sipping nectar.  I realized that my own salty sweat had attracted the butterfly.

During spring break several years ago, two of our sons and I hiked a portion of the Foothills Trail together.  On the second day of our backpacking trip, the pedestrian trail crossed an equestrian trail.  The pungent aroma of horses filled the air.  A hundred or more bright yellow tiger swallowtails flittered about.  As we passed among the swirling swarm, we noticed the main attraction just off the trail.  It was a pile of fresh horse manure.

As much as I enjoy butterflies, I much prefer to think of them as being attracted by flowers rather than by human sweat or by horse manure.

In our garden, I have included plants known to attract butterflies.  We have several butterfly bushes.  The summer garden is graced with zinnias and cosmos.  In the fall, milkweed, bronze fennel, sedum, and Joe Pye weed are favorite items on the butterfly buffet.

The plant that anchors one corner of our garden is a lantana.  Throughout October, pink, yellow, and orange composite flowers cover the spreading lantana.  The vibrant colors provide an eye-catching display in the autumn garden.  One of the beauties of the lantana is that it is a congregating place for butterflies. The flowers of the plant are enhanced by the fluttering flowers that are attracted to the bush.

Butterflies are difficult to count because they are constantly on the move.  One sunny afternoon last month, I drove into our driveway and paused to look at the lantana.  My estimate is that there were no fewer than thirty on, above, and around the bush. There were several varieties including majestic monarchs, deep-orange fritillaries, and an American painted lady.  The lantana, accompanied by a bevy of fluttering guests, made quite a display.

In our neck of the woods, September and October are peak months for butterflies. As they prepare to migrate, these winged insects drink deeply from the flowers.  The nectar provides the energy some of them will need as they fly south for the winter.  Some of the ones that dance around the flowers in our gardens, or, for that matter, around a sweaty bandana or a pile of horse manure, will spend the winter in Central America. Many of the monarchs will migrate; many of the others will not.

Butterflies begin life as caterpillars.  After a time of chewing on leaves, they hang upside down and spin a silken case in which they are enfolded.  In this chrysalis stage, they resemble a dead leaf until the moment comes when they emerge from their cocoon.  Spreading their newly formed wings they fly away, transformed creatures.  This metamorphosis has made butterflies a symbol for new life.  Sometimes butterflies are been released at weddings just as the groom and bride are pronounced husband and wife to mark the beginning of their new life together.

Early Christians saw in the butterfly an apt symbol for the resurrection.  I vividly remember the funeral service for a woman who loved butterflies.  She had decorated her home with a butterfly theme.  She tended a special butterfly garden in her backyard designed to attract her flying flowers, as she called them.

After her death following an extended illness, it was only natural at her memorial service to emphasize her enjoyment of butterflies.  Some of the flower arrangements sent by friends and family members included silk butterflies.  At the cemetery on a mountainside in Western North Carolina, the crowning touch to her service came as a complete surprise.  As I finished reading the scripture, a monarch butterfly danced into the funeral tent and descended upon the Bible I held in my hands.  The tiny orange and black creature perched like a bookmark between the opened pages.  For a few silent seconds we marveled in amazement.

There is no telling what will attract a butterfly.

By late summer, my garden is arrayed with butterflies of all varieties. Once they take wing, these beautiful insects are drawn to flowering plants that provide an enticing feast.

Creating a butterfly garden requires a little planning. Among butterfly favorites are ageratum, aster, butterfly bush, bee balm, black-eyed Susan, catmint, coneflower, coreopsis, cosmos, goldenrods, honeysuckle, hyssop, lantana, mallow, marigold, phlox, salvia, sedum, verbena, yarrow, and zinnia. The work of creating a garden spot that attracts these gorgeous flying insects is well worth the effort.

I sat in the backyard of an older man who for several years had cultivated an active butterfly garden. The man had just learned that he was dying of cancer.

The autumn afternoon offered a gentle breeze and warm sunshine. We sat in lawn chairs next to his butterfly garden. The place was alive with flying flowers. Checkered skippers, spicebush, swallowtails, monarchs, buckeyes, a red admiral, and a mourning cloak all sipped nectar from the array of blooms.

We sat in silence for a time before he spoke.

“They’re beautiful, aren’t they?”

“Yes,” I agreed.

After a long pause I added, “You know the Church has long regarded the butterfly as a symbol of resurrection.”

After a few thoughtful moments, he said, “No wonder I enjoy them so much.”


September 7, 2019

I have taught in the Religion Department at the University of South Carolina Upstate as an adjunct professor for the past eight years. This fall I am again teaching the introductory level course, Comparative Religion. I realized that for the first time many of my students were not even born before September 11, 2001.

A line from the musical South Pacific is a poignant reminder of how people become prejudiced.

Children have to be taught to hate and to fear.

They have to be carefully taught.

In the opening lecture of my class, I made it clear to the students that we will approach the study of world religions with respect for all people regardless of their faith orientation. This is a necessary prerequisite if the journey is to lead beyond tolerance to a genuine understanding of faiths other than our own. In my opinion, this approach is a much needed corrective to our current national mindset.

Perhaps never before in my lifetime has there been a more intense atmosphere of doubt and suspicion in our nation. After the atrocities of Adolph Hitler’s Germany, many Americans were guarded in our encounters with people of German heritage, even our fellow citizens. Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, many Americans became suspicious of people of Japanese origin.   The Cold War kept us on edge in our dealings with those of Russian descent.

Yet how deprived we would be without the musical compositions of Germans Georg Philipp Telemann, Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frederic Handel, Ludwig von Beethoven, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Felix Mendelssohn, and Robert Schumann.

Think of our poverty without the music of Russians Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Igor Stravinsky or the writings of their countrymen Leo Tolstoy, Vladimir Nabokov, Anton Chekhov, and Fyodor Dostoevsky.

The art and culture of Japan have long enriched American life. While we have had legitimate reasons to regard the governments certain countries at certain times as enemies, we have also found among those same people individuals who have made our lives better.

On the anniversary of 9/11 Americans will pause to remember the day when the twin towers fell in New York City, the Pentagon burned in Washington, D.C., and a field in Pennsylvania became a charred grave. It is impossible to erase the mental images of the destruction of these important landmarks. Even more difficult is our overwhelming sense of loss and grief even after these years.

In worship services and symphony concerts, at baseball games and football games, at community events and candlelight vigils, we will remember.   The violent acts of al-Qaeda terrorists that turned our commercial jet planes into instruments of war changed our lives forever.

But, this was not just an attack against America.

The 2,977 victims who died that day were not only Americans. The World Trade Center brought together people from all over the globe. More than ninety countries lost citizens in the Twin Towers. This horror was unleashed not only against America. It was also a strike against the world.

We remember not only those who died, but also the more than 6,000 who were treated for nonfatal injuries. We remember the spouses and children of the victims, the parents, the siblings, and the friends who, even now, eighteen years later, continue to grieve.

We remember the heroic men and women who worked to save, rescue, recover, nurse, feed, and console the victims.  Some gave their lives in the effort, becoming victims themselves.  Many others have since become causalities of war, protecting and defending our national interest.

Like most of you, I remember that day well. I was driving to Morningside Baptist Church on the morning of September 11, 2001, when my wife, Clare, called me on my cell phone. “You need to turn on a television when you get to the church,” she said.

I telephoned the church office. The staff already had a TV on in the office.

When I arrived a crowd had gathered. We all watched in dismay as the second jet plane struck the second tower of the World Trade Center.

The events of that day were confusing and confounding. President George W. Bush was reading to a group of children in Florida when he received the news of the devastation. I, along with many other Americans, will never forget the expression on his face.

I had been asked to open the luncheon meeting of a civic club later that day with a devotion and a prayer. As I considered what to say to that distinguished group of community leaders, a hymn kept coming to mind. My devotion was brief. My prayer included some of the words of a favorite hymn by Martin Luther:

Though this world, with evil filled, should threaten to undo us,

We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us.

The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;

His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure….

The body they may kill; God’s truth abideth still;

His kingdom is forever.

Hatred is the motive behind terrorism. Terrorism evokes fear. Fear is the root of prejudice. Prejudice creates adversaries. An adversarial relationship promotes hatred. This vicious cycle must be broken. Otherwise, we become like the terrorists, and they will have defeated us.

A few days after September 11, 2001, Clare and I drove to Greenville. We had seen reports that indicated that Americans were reacting with hostility toward Muslim citizens of this country as well as people who looked like Muslims. Non-Muslim men who wore turbans, like the Sikhs, were victims of violence. Palestinians, even those who were American citizens, had come under suspicion and even under attack. About one-third of all Palestinians are Christians and make up the majority of Palestinian refugees. Many have come to America and have become citizens.

Clare and I have often enjoyed eating at the Pita House in Greenville. The restaurant, owned and operated by a Palestinian family, serves sumptuous Middle Eastern food. We wanted to visit them and let them know of our support. When we arrived, the establishment was decked out with American flags. I spoke with the brothers who are the owners. They felt the same horror and grief that other Americans felt. Yet they feared that they might be targeted by those who had become so suspicious and fearful.

Those who died on 9/11 will help us remember an important truth. No one lives, suffers, or dies in vain.   Even as we remain vigilant in a world of terror, such acts of hatred will not defeat us. Love is the greatest power in the world. We cannot allow terror to lead us to suspicion and hatred. Our best response to the atrocities of 9/11 is to become more loving toward all people. It is the only way to conquer fear and hate within the human soul.

The words of a prayer by South African Bishop Desmond Tutu ring true:

Good is stronger than evil;

Love is stronger than hate;

Light is stronger than darkness;

Life is stronger than death.

Victory is ours, through Him who loves us.


August 31, 2019

Our grandchildren are fascinated by books, new and old.  Several of them have been in summer reading programs through the public library. Clare and I firmly believe that one of Benjamin Franklin’s best ideas was the free public lending library. As members of the Friends of the Library, we make good use of the vast array of books and media resources offered at our local establishment.

Clare scans and reads an amazing assortment of these materials, often having several books going at one time. Recorded books also help her keep track of new authors and interesting titles. After filtering through the volumes, she advises me on materials I need to read.

Next week I will begin a new season of reading with a book club that is sheer delight. One member of the club recently said to me, “The thing I like best about our book club is that we actually read good books.” If you are looking for a book club, please join us on the first Tuesday of each month at 10:30 in the morning or at 7:00 in the evening. We meet in the Arthur Center at First Presbyterian Church. Though we meet in a church, our book club welcomes all people.

Sometimes when I am in the library and have a little extra time, I browse through the stacks. Two of the most enjoyable books I read in the past few years were titles I picked up doing just that. They were written by the well-known authors, Louis L’Amour and Pat Conroy. Louis L’Amour’s Education of a Wandering Man and Pat Conroy’s My Reading Life are alike in that they provide insight into the voracious reading habits of these two prolific writers.

Pat Conroy was one year younger than I. He graduated from the Citadel one year after I finished Furman. We both remembered well the rivalry between the two colleges, especially one incident when Citadel Cadets kidnapped the Furman mascot, a magnificent white horse. Pat told the story in Beach Music.

I never met Pat Conroy; but because we were the same vintage, I was interested in his writing. His death in March 2016 came far too soon for many of us.

My connection to Louis L’Amour is less obvious. Born Louis Dearborn LaMoore in Jamestown, North Dakota, in 1908, he was considered one of the world’s most popular writers. At the time of his death in 1988, no fewer than 105 of his existing works were in print.  He is known primarily for his Western adventures, but my favorite is his full-length novel set in Siberia during the Cold War, The Last of the Breed.

Pat Conroy’s 2010 book, My Reading Life,  was the featured selection in the One Book, One Columbia program. Every February the capital city of South Carolina promotes literacy by encouraging all citizens to read the same book.

The 2015 choice was My Reading Life. In a conversation about the book with historian Walter Edgar, Pat Conroy identified a school teacher, Gene Norris, who had profoundly influenced his reading choices and his writing style.  Anyone who has attempted to write owes a debt of gratitude to others who have guided and influenced their lives.

One such influence in my life was my mother, who was an avid reader. She saw to it that her eight children had access to quality books. I remember the sacrifice she made to purchase the World Book Encyclopedia. What a marvelous resource to have in our home!

Early on I developed a habit that my dad found amusing, but one that served me well. When I looked up a topic in the encyclopedia, I always read at least one entry before and at least one after the item I was researching. For example, if I were looking up Thomas Edison’s invention of the phonograph, I would also read the history of Phoenicia and the Greek myth of the phoenix. Later, I started doing the same thing when looking up a word in my trusted Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

My mother and grandmothers encouraged me to read and memorize certain passages from the Bible. They used the time-honored Baptist method of bribery. I received a dollar for committing to memory the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and several of the Psalms. After I memorized Matthew Chapters 5, 6, and 7, which is the entire Sermon on the Mount, one grandmother gave me ten dollars.

As important as the Bible was, Mama encouraged us to read a wide variety of literature.

Clare and I treasure a verse by Strickland Gillilan:

You may have tangible wealth untold;

Caskets of jewels and coffers of gold.

Richer than I you can never be –

I had a Mother who read to me.

My fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Pearl Fairbetter, was another encourager. She introduced me to the orange books. I much preferred biography and read many books of the Childhood of Famous Americans series. They were hardback books with bright orange covers. That same year Mama suggested that I read Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Mrs. Estelle Lampley, my eighth-grade English teacher, was as tough as nails.  Determined to rid me of my lumberyard grammar, she assigned so many sentences to diagram that I sometimes do them in my sleep to this day.

After the eighth grade, I thought I had it made. I had passed the woman who surely must have been the hardest English teacher in the land. Then, lo and behold, I had Mrs. Lampley again in the eleventh grade. Her mission that year was to teach me to write the English language. Requiring reading beyond my comfort zone was her method. It was because of her that I discovered Joseph Conrad, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Conner, and Thomas Wolfe.

At Furman University I majored in biology and minored in chemistry, planning to enter medical school upon graduation. During my first week at Furman I discovered the James B. Duke Library. Though I had been warned by well-intentioned Baptists about the evils of Charles Darwin, I realized that I needed to read the original documents for myself. I found Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, which chronicled the adventure of a lifetime for a young seminarian, absolutely fascinating.

Once I arrived at Southern Seminary I realized that a steady diet of scientific fare had made reading tedious. My professor, Dr. Wayne Oates, suggested I read How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler. I thought it a useless endeavor until I reached the final chapter. Adler made the point that by scanning the table of contents and the index, it was possible to quickly identify the most important chapters in a nonfiction book. My reading speed greatly increased.

I later purchased a set of Great Books of the Western World, edited by Mortimer Adler. I continue to enjoy the collection to this day.

When I received the Merrill Fellowship to Harvard Divinity School, I was asked to name the five books that had most influenced my life. I listed the King James Version of the Holy Bible; the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Oxford Annotated Edition; The Broadman Hymnal; The Tales of Uncle Remus, by Joel Chandler Harris, and the Boy Scout Handbook.

Harvard University, which has the oldest library system in the United States, includes seventy-three separate libraries. Once I arrived at Harvard, I was like a kid in a candy shop. When I found my stride I was devouring two books daily.

Louis L’Amour writes of the great joy that is to be found in books: “For one who reads, there is no limit to the number of lives that may be lived; for fiction, biography, and history offer an inexhaustible number of lives in many parts of the world, in all periods of time.”

I encourage you to visit the library. Select a book or two you might enjoy. Read, and as you do, you may discover that a window has opened to the big, wide world far beyond your bailiwick.


August 24, 2019

On Labor Day weekend several years ago, Clare and I were invited to attend a cookout at a beautiful lakeside home in the mountains. We stood on the patio with a group of friends enjoying the view across the water to the hills beyond. Our host was basting a Boston butt, a cut of pork that comes from the upper part of the pig’s shoulder.

“What are you grilling?” a lady asked.

“Please don’t call it grilling,” the cook requested emphatically. “This separates hard-core barbecue enthusiasts from the uneducated novice. Think of the difference in romantic terms. Grilling is a quick, hot fling with a hamburger or a hot dog. Barbecuing is a long-term relationship. You have to spend a lot of time rubbing spices into a rack of ribs or a pork shoulder. Then you spend hours over a smoky wood fire. It’s a lot like making love. The real experts take it slow and easy!”

Blushing, the lady said, “My ex only knew how to grill. Maybe my future husband will be good at barbecue!”

Our host’s description gave us a new appreciation for the fine art of preparing genuine Southern barbecue.

Barbecue restaurants are among the most popular eateries in South Carolina. Some have operated for decades while there are newer ones appearing on the scene almost weekly. The August/September 2019 issue of Garden and Gun magazine gives a tour of some of the new barbecue joints across the South.

Those who are connoisseurs of barbecue know that the various types share a rich history.  The Spanish first introduced the pig into the Americas and to the American Indians. The Indians, in turn, introduced the Spanish to cooking with smoke in a pit.

The first colony on the American mainland was in what is now South Carolina. Spanish adventurers were Conquistadores in search of gold. Spanish colonists came later in the early 1500s. They named their colony Santa Helena. It was established in the area that we now call Port Royal in Beaufort County. The colony lasted almost 20 years. In that first American colony, Europeans learned to prepare and to eat slow-cooked pork.

The name barbecue derives from the word barabicu found in the language of both the Timucua of Florida and the Taíno people of the Caribbean. The word means sacred firepit.

Although barbecue is rooted in Dixie, most Americans do not have a clue about Southern barbecue.  The South Carolina Barbecue Association makes a clear distinction between grilled food and genuine barbecue.

A spokesperson for the group explains that many kinds of meat can be barbecued. Barbecued chicken, barbecued beef, barbecued turkey, barbecued mutton, and even barbecued possum are among the possibilities. Don’t even think about the barbecue Big George made out of Frank Bennett in the novel and movie Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café by Fanny Flagg!

Because of its origins barbecue as a stand-alone noun can only be used properly to designate pork. Westerners enjoy barbecued beef, but it cannot rightly be referred to as barbecue. It must be called barbecued beef. To use barbecue as a noun can only mean pork.

Lewis Grizzard, the late columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, had open-heart surgery to replace a coronary valve. The surgeon inserted a valve from a pig’s heart.

“Doesn’t it bother you to think that you have a pig’s valve in your heart?” Grizzard was asked.

“Not really,” he said, “but every time I drive past a barbecue place, my eyes water.”

Grizzard must have shed many a tear in his travels across the South.

Barbecue, barbeque, bar-b-q, BBQ: there are as many spellings as there are kinds of barbecue.  Purists insist that genuine barbecue be cooked in an open pit or a wood or charcoal smoker. They are adamant that neither lighter fluid nor aluminum foil ever be a part of the barbecue process. They want their pork pit-cooked the way their ancestors did.

One certified barbecue judge says that each cook develops a unique recipe for the rub used to prepare the pork. Rub is a blend of herbs and spices that enhance the flavor of the barbecue. It is literally rubbed into the meat before slow cooking.  Most rubs usually have a sweet component (sugar, brown sugar, turbinado sugar), a salty component (kosher salt, sea salt), a savory component (herbs), and a spicy component (black pepper, chili powder).

But, it is the sauce that distinguishes between the four varieties. South Carolina is home to all four. All Southern barbecue falls into one of these four categories: vinegar, mustard, light tomato, heavy red.

Slaves brought with them from the Caribbean a taste for red peppers. In the Southern colonies, barbecue sauce became part of the cuisine when spices and peppers were combined with vinegar. In eastern North Carolina pork seasoned with vinegar and peppers is a favorite.

When my brother Bill and his wife Wanda lived in Greenville, North Carolina, we enjoyed a barbecue plate at B’s Barbecue.  B serves fine vinegar-based pulled pork. The Scottish families who settled the Lowcountry were the South Carolinians who used vinegar and pepper barbecue sauce adapted from the slaves. Dr. Walter Edgar told me that he traveled fifty miles to speak to a Manning Garden Club because he was promised five pounds of McCabe’s barbecue as his honorarium.

German immigrants settled in the Midlands of South Carolina, especially in the Dutch Fork area. Those families received land grants on the Broad, Congaree, Saluda, and Santee Rivers. They brought with them their Lutheran faith and their taste for spicy mustard, which soon found its way into barbecue sauce. Many people know Maurice Bessinger. His sauce is a staple in southern grocery stores.

Clare and I frequently returned to her birthplace, Leesville, South Carolina. There we enjoyed Shealy’s buffet and Jackie Hite’s pulled pork. As we traveled to our family vacation on Pawley’s Island, we often stopped at Wise in Newberry County to take a supply of their barbecue in an ice chest to the beach. For Clare and her kin, only mustard-based barbecue is considered the real thing.

The third type of sauce is made from vinegar and pepper with tomato ketchup added. It is the sauce famous in the Piedmont region of North Carolina. Lexington, North Carolina, is the acknowledged center for light tomato sauce.

North Carolina has declared the month of October as Barbecue Month. In the final two weeks of the month, the town of Lexington hosts the Barbecue Festival.  The last two Saturdays feature an annual North Carolina Championship Pork Cook-Off. Last year an estimated crowd of 150,000 attended the event.  The popularity of light tomato barbecue has spread into the Pee Dee region of South Carolina.

The fourth variety is heavy red sauce featured by the Beacon Drive-In located in my hometown of Spartanburg, South Carolina. I was in the place recently and witnessed two fellows from Pennsylvania reading the formidable menu. Dazed and confused by the array of choices, one asked me, “What are you having?”

“My favorite is an outside.” My answer didn’t help. They were more baffled than before. I showed it to them on the menu and explained.

“An outside is a barbecue sandwich. The meat is pulled from the outside of the pork shoulder, the part that has been basted and cooked to a mouthwatering crust. They put a little coleslaw on top and add heavy red sauce. If you don’t have gall bladder trouble, get an outside-a-plenty. They’ll cover up the sandwich with French fries and onion rings.”

“Is it really good?” he asked.

I noticed his Penn State sweatshirt. “You’ll be whistling ‘Dixie’ all the way back to Happy Valley.”

When Spartanburg native William Ball was Secretary of the Navy he asked John White, then owner of the Beacon, to cater a meal for three hundred sailors onboard a naval destroyer in the Mediterranean Sea. Beacon Barbecue was transported by helicopter to the ship.

The Beacon hosted the Inaugural Luncheon for Governor Donald Russell, a Spartanburg native, at the Governor’s Mansion in Columbia in 1963. Southern barbecue has been served to numerous Presidential candidates visiting the Beacon and to military personnel around the world.  Southern Living, Sandlapper, and Gourmet are among the magazines to feature Beacon barbecue. Charles Kuralt broadcast a segment on the Beacon in his “On the Road” television series.

The popularity of heavy red sauce has spread throughout the nation because of the insatiable sweet tooth of the modern American. Heavy red is featured at Neely’s Barbecue in Memphis, Tennessee. Pat and Gina Neely have one of the most successful barbecue restaurants in the south. Their television program “Down Home with the Neelys,” is broadcast on the Food Channel. Pat happens to be African-American. My brother Bill visited the Memphis restaurant, and he and Pat figured out that we are all distant cousins.

When it comes to barbecue, most Southerners have an impassioned preference.  Pig Out restaurant in Spartanburg County, offers customers both a mustard-based and a tomato-based sauce. Other barbecue places have developed their own special sauce that combines vinegar and tomato with other spices.

Preparing good Southern barbecue is a labor-intensive endeavor. One characteristic of the best barbecue restaurants is that the owner can almost always be found on location. Before her death in 2011, Sarah Shealy was at her cash register daily in Leesville checking out customers one by one just as John White did for so many years at the Beacon in Spartanburg. Jackie Hite, Joe Crook, and Harold Jennings all took a hands-on approach to cooking the barbecue they served.  Clare and I have been impressed at the time, effort, and loving care these master chefs put into their work.

While good barbecue places are in high demand, some folks prefer to prepare and cook their own meat at home. Maurice Pace has a large homemade wood-burning cooker. On holidays he fires it up with split oak and hickory logs.

One November several years ago he issued an invitation. “Why don’t you come down the day before Thanksgiving, and we’ll smoke a few turkeys and barbecue some ribs?”

“I have a problem smoking turkeys,” I said.

“What’s the problem?”

“I can’t figure out which end of the turkey to light!”


August 17, 2019

This far into summer, when I take a few minutes to sit quietly, I invariably become aware of a faint humming sound. It might be emanating from my car. The source may be my computer. The sound could come from a home appliance. But, humming sounds can be natural occurrences. Whales and dolphins beneath the ocean, many varieties of insects, and even the pulsating of heavenly bodies can produce distinctive hums. Some people hear a constant hum caused by the flow of their own blood in the small vessels of their inner ear. The sound is only heard by the person affected. The condition is known as tinnitus.

We might well ask, “What is that humming sound?” This time of year it could be a flurry of hummingbirds.

The last two weeks of August begin a season of frenetic activity for the diminutive hummingbird. On Monday of last week, I enjoyed a second cup of coffee with Clare on our screened back porch overlooking the flower garden. Hummingbirds provided entertainment while we read the newspaper. The tiny, feathered creatures put on quite an aerial display as they competed for the sweet nectar of the flowers and the sugar water in our feeders.

At the end of the day, as the sun was setting, Clare and I again sat on our own back porch.  We were treated to an amazing air show.  As we enjoyed our supper, we witnessed an incredible display of aerobatics.  Agile flying machines were buzzing our yard, staging midair combat maneuvers that would impress even Air Force top guns. Late summer is the prime season for hummingbirds.

Hummingbirds are always interesting to watch. Their activity increases as the summer days grow shorter.  Their excited pace and almost perpetual motion are at once fascinating and wearying to the observer.

From late August through much of September, the tiny birds become frantic in their feeding habits and combative toward all competitors.  Earlier in the spring and summer, two or three hummingbirds might share the same feeder, but by early autumn they become territorial and will attack any intruder, even fellow hummers. Like feisty siblings squabbling over dessert, the tiny birds quarrel with each other over which one will have the next turn at their sugar water treat.

The flight of the humming creatures with tiny wings provides enthralling entertainment. The hummers put on quite a performance, hovering, darting, and diving, in their heightened frenzy. These warm days are the most active time for hummingbirds as they prepare for their long migration to Central and South America.

A friend who welcomes hummingbirds to her garden with feeders and blooming plants wanted to put fresh flowers in an arrangement for a dinner party at her home.  She cut several late-blooming red gladioli from her cottage garden.  As she did, what she thought was a large buzzing insect began to bother her.  The pest attacked from the rear, moving up her neck underneath the tresses of her freshly done hair.  The well-appointed lady ran, clutching gladioli tightly in one hand, swatting wildly with the other.

She stopped when the buzzing nuisance confronted her at eye level.  It was a hummingbird, clearly annoyed that the lady had cut the flowers from which it had been feeding.  The woman held the red gladioli at arm’s length as if making a peace offering.  The hummer moved from one blossom to the next in the handheld bouquet, drinking its fill, before flying off without further conflict.

A hummingbird in flight can be easily mistaken for a large stinging insect. The hummingbird’s tiny wings move so rapidly they make a buzzing sound.    This flight pattern, filmed in slow motion, reveals their remarkable ability to speed forward, to hover, and to reverse directions.

Hummingbirds are attracted to a variety of blooms.  Fiery red salvias, cup-shaped hibiscus, and even the common trumpet vine provide nourishment to these tiny creatures that are constantly in search of a meal.  Their frenetic activity demands a continual supply of sugary food.  They sip nectar and can be enticed into view with feeders filled with fresh sugar water.  A mixture of one part sugar and four parts of water meets the dietary requirements of these small birds.  It is best for the health of hummers if we do not add red food coloring.

Accounts of close encounters between human and hummers abound.  The tiny birds are frequently trapped in garages and on screened porches, usually drawn into these unfriendly confines by something bright red in color.  A red toolbox or a red fire extinguisher can lure a hummingbird into an open garage.  One was even seen attempting to extract nectar from a red plastic bicycle horn.

Several years ago, a ruby-throated hummingbird, attracted by a cut flower arrangement, entered a large sunroom in a nursing facility.  The patients all suffered from dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.  Most of the patients were in the final stage of the illness, sometimes known as the living death.  The nursing staff was unaware of the hummingbird’s presence until they noticed something they rarely saw.  Several of the patients were smiling, some for the first time in months.  With the aid of a towel, a nurse was able to capture the tiny bird and release it outdoors.  The bird flew away but not before bestowing a gentle blessing on a room full of people who needed tender mercy.

This year, Clare and I have especially enjoyed watching with our grandchildren the hummingbirds at a feeder just outside our dining room window. The small birds are entertaining to young children as well as to those of us who are senior adults.

One of our granddaughters remarked, “If you want to see a hummingbird, you have to look fast.”

If you pay attention, you may hear a humming sound.

It may be a hummingbird bringing a special blessing just for you.


August 11, 2019

I noticed in a church bulletin last week that a local congregation was celebrating Dog Days with a hot dog lunch after church on Sunday, August 11. According to The Old Farmer’s Almanac, the Dog Days of summer are traditionally the 40 days beginning July 3 and ending August 11, so the congregation timed their event perfectly.

I was saddened to hear the story of a dog that was found by a police officer in a hot car at a shopping mall last week. The officer shattered the car window to rescue the bulldog from the sweltering car. The animal was lying on the passenger seat, panting, wheezing, and unable to move. The officer took the dog to an emergency veterinary clinic before transporting him to the Humane Society. The shelter reported that the dog died due to complications from heat stroke after he was left in the car. The dog’s owner was arrested and charged with animal cruelty,

Earlier this summer, I read the story about a woman who left her miniature schnauzer inside her automobile in a hot parking lot while she spent more than an hour in an air-conditioned beauty salon. Though she left the windows partially opened so her pet would have fresh air, the well-coifed lady returned, only to find that her dog had died. She, too, was charged with animal cruelty.

It makes you wonder why we call these hot, humid days the Dog Days of summer.

How hot is it?

The old clichés can be heard most anywhere folks can find a shady place to sit and complain.

“Hotter than a two-dollar pistol!”

“Hotter than a forty-dollar mule!”

“So hot that when I dug up potatoes in my garden, they were already baked.”

“So hot that we had to feed the hens crushed ice to keep them from laying hard-boiled eggs.”

Since I was a boy I have known that the weeks between my mother’s birthday on July 4 and mine near the end of August were the Dog Days of summer. Though the local weather reports indicated a few cooler days last week, I’ve been around long enough to know that the hottest days may still be ahead of us.

How hot has it been?

A friend, with beads of perspiration dripping down his face, grumbled, “It’s hotter than half of Georgia.” He must have meant the half that includes Atlanta, which like Columbia, always seems hotter than any place nearby.

When our daughter lived in Nashville she called to report that on a particularly sweltering day her beagle was missing. After a thorough search of the premises, she found her pup stretched out in the empty cool porcelain bathtub as if waiting for someone to turn on the water. Dogs suffer as much as people do when the temperatures rise into the 90s. They, too, are uncomfortable in the oppressive heat. Dog Days are the time of year to be dog tired or to be as sick as a dog. It is an annual occurrence when otherwise good folks might just go to the dogs or be reduced to leading a dog’s life.

So why is this time of the year referred to as the Dog Days of summer?

If you can find a place where the night sky is unobscured by artificial lights and pollution, the stars are clearly visible.  People of ancient cultures gazed into the heavens, imagining that they were seeing figures depicted in the stars.  It was an ancient version of connecting the dots.  We now call the configurations they saw constellations.         Amazingly, Native Americans, the ancient Chinese, and the people of Greece and Rome all saw similar patterns in the stars.  In these different cultures, separated by oceans, stargazers gave the constellations the same names.  Big and Little Bear to Native Americans were Ursa Major and Ursa Minor to the Greeks.  Ursa means bear.  We know these constellations best as the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper.  Diverse cultures saw the likeness of a bull in the constellation Taurus, though to Native Americans the bull was a bison.

The Greeks also identified Canis Major and Canis Minor mean Big Dog and Little Dog. The brightest star in Canis Major is Sirius, the Dog Star. Sirius was thought to be the shining nose of the dog regarded as the companion of Orion, the hunter constellation. The Dog Star is so brilliant the Romans thought of it as a secondary sun, providing heat to the earth.

To the Greeks and Romans, the Dog Days began in late July, when Sirius appeared to rise just before the sun. They continued into late August as long as the Dog Star rose and set with the sun.  They referred to these days as the hottest time of the year, a period that could bring fever or even catastrophe. Ancient people believed that the conjunction of the sun and the Dog Star caused an extended period of hot, muggy weather; hence the name, Dog Days.

Dog Days arrive when the humid weather of summer sets in.  In the old days, this was a time when the pace of life slowed way down, a time when families went to the mountains for cooler temperatures.  People from the Lowcountry came to the Upstate to the resorts like Glenn Springs to escape, not only the sultry days of summer but also the danger of malaria carried by mosquitoes.

Dog Days are no longer a period of inactivity.  Commercially, we have added a tax-free weekend, which has become one of the busiest times for retail shopping, second only to the days after Thanksgiving.  Many schools begin their fall term in the Dog Days of summer at a time when it is almost too hot to go fishing.

Maybe the best way to cope with Dog Days is the old-fashioned way. Back before air conditioning was available, people knew this was a time to take it easy. Sitting outside after the sun went down, spending the night on a sleeping porch, sipping iced tea in the shade, or soaking in a creek were all ways of coping with the heat. Some women kept their perfume bottles in the refrigerator. One man revealed that he placed plastic bags of frozen vegetables between his sheets a few minutes before bedtime.

Clare and I each have reusable ice packs that we keep in the freezer. They are intended to sooth the ordinary aches and pains that are a part of grandparenting.  During the Dog Days, an ice pack provides blessed relief for me after a couple of hours of gardening or for Clare when she takes a break from her work.

Returning from a trip to Tennessee several years ago, Clare and I drove along old United States highway 64, the longest numbered road in North Carolina. It travels 604 miles from the Tennessee state line to the Outer Banks, quite literally from Murphy to Manteo. Dating back to the era of the Model T, this winding two-lane road twists through the North Carolina mountains, into gorges, by rivers and waterfalls, and through quaint towns. A portion of the blue line highway is designated as the Mountain Waters Scenic Byway.

I stopped for gasoline at a convenience store near Franklin, North Carolina. As I stood at the counter to pay for a tank of gas, a rough-hewn mountain man ahead of me purchased two cold beers, and then requested a plastic cup and a plastic bowl. When I left the store, I caught a glimpse of the man sitting in the shade of a large sycamore tree. Next to him was a big red dog. The man opened both bottles of beer, pouring one in the cup for himself and the other in the bowl for his pet. As I pumped gasoline into my car, I saw the man finish his beer and the dog lap the bowl dry. Having finished their beers the man and his best friend dog stretched out on the grass beneath the tree for a nap.

Dog Days indeed!