Growing Up in Darlington

Reprinted from The News & Press, Darlington, South Carolina (15 March 2001), B-1.

Darlington has always had about it a magical, storybook quality.  I feel it now on visits home when I drive up Cashua Street toward the Square, especially in early Spring when leaf buds of those wonderful oaks promise yet another season’s canopy for the entrance to the east side of the Square.  I felt it vicariously when Lurline Coggeshall recalled to me, as she often did, her magical Cashua Street rides “into town” at the beginning of the Jazz Age on the pony Judge Parrott gave her for Christmas, which she kept  in a stable behind their house on the corner of  North Ervin and Cashua, then both dirt streets.

For me, of course, there was no more enchanted place than Darlington in the 1950’s.  Central Drug Store served the best limeades around, and Dr. Capers was always visible  from the soda fountain through the window at the back of the store, quietly and dependably filling prescriptions.  Above him, Dudley Pauling and Junie James worked on legal documents to be walked to the old courthouse.  Behind Belk’s block of plate glass windows, Horace Langley, draped in a thin, yellow cloth measuring tape, walked up and down aisles of men’s shirts and slacks, neatly stacking them for the Saturday shopping rush. Cleve and Myrtle Jolly, next door, made certain that no can went undusted or sat out of line on their grocery shelves; and upstairs above the B.C. Moore store, Edward Samuel tacked the cuff on yet another pair of trousers with the patience of Camus’ Sisyphysus, daily pushing his rock up the hill.

The Liberty Theatre, though its days were numbered, still looked majestically toward the old courthouse and caught from the corner of its eye the Park Terrace Hotel, which housed, on the Orange Street side, Dr. Plant’s dental practice and the law offices of Mozingo, Greer, and Chandler.  And somewhere in one of the operatories above Dr. Davis’s Rexall Drug Store, Lee Blackmon filled the tooth of a patient thought worthy by Judy, who guarded the appointment book.  Below, and beneath the elegant ebony and white art-deco Coggeshall’s sign, Robert Spivey arranged pastel LaCoste and Gant shirts and dispensed English Leather, while far back in the building Ted Coggeshall, wearing a bright bowtie, looked over columns of figures put before him by Frances on his massive oak desk. Down the street Oscar Ballard, in white apron and white army-style chef’s cap, put away cups from the Men’s Coffee Club, which met at the DeLuxe Cafe around sunrise every weekday, year-in and year-out, and then prepared for the lunch crowd.  Catty cornered from the DeLuxe, Metropol’s Candy Kitchen was packed with candy apples and cotton candy; and if you walked by it on the way to Arthur’s Barber Shop, which was still on Main Street across from the Pool Hall, you caught the smell of caramel icing and hot cupcakes.

Around on St. John’s Street Mr. Cain made periodic announcements, except when he was in the midst of Latin class, at which time Cora Taylor manned the intercom.  And over at the monolithic Superintendent’s Office and Teacherage were always visible under massive clumps of Spanish Moss a black and white 1956  Eighty-eight Oldsmobile  and, through a first-floor window, the head of its owner, G.C. Mangum, nodding at a school patron or an errant student across the desk from him. These were some of the things that gave Darlington in the 1950’s a storybook quality.  People and things, as in a picturebook, were predictably and reliably in their well-ordered places.

But Darlington’s magic and mystery have always resided in those beautifully wild and largely untamed areas that push against its most civilized social and physical structures.  Who could fathom the secrets that must rest at the heart of the great bamboo forest between St. John’s High School and the old clay tennis courts behind the baseball field?  And what parallel universe must likely exist beneath the primordial bog of mud and partially exposed cypress knees behind the St. John’s Elementary School building?  And can one even begin to contemplate where a hiker would arrive if he or she set off on a journey toward the center of Williamson Park, which may or may not even have a center?

Among generations of Darlingtonians there has existed a silent, collective agreement that the mysteries of these sacred places are best left untouched.  A classically terraced amphitheater pushes at the edges of the bamboo forest; a footbridge has allowed legions of students to tiptoe or even run over the cypress-knee swamp between St. John’s Elementary and Brunson-Dargan; a thin, winding ribbon of a road skirts Williamson Park, but the ribbon narrows each year as the park keeps insisting that there is something in nature that doesn’t love a road.  Transgressions against these natural boundaries and the mysteries that they contain have, at least to my knowledge, always been minimal.  True, almost everyone I knew with a driver’s license in the 1950’s had driven backward in the dark through Williamson Park with his lights off at least once, praying that Chief Privette would not happen along to discover what he had done.  But no one that I knew ever abandoned car and set off in the dark toward the park’s interior.

Of course Darlington’s holy of holies, the central locus of its magic, is, has been, and ever will be Black Creek, whose banks have been decorated at various times and at various bends with truckloads of beach sand, usually to be washed away in a season or two.  In the 1950’s, when the only actual swimming pool that I knew of was in Dr. Wilson’s back yard on Oak Street, there was no better swimming in mid-summer than off the sandy, white beach at the swimming hole below the Cabin at Wildswood or below the whitewashed bathhouses off the number three fairway at the country club.  My strongest memories of Black Creek, though, involve what became yearly golf-ball diving expeditions below the high craggy bank across the creek from the number three tee, which was perhaps the greatest physical and psychological  hazard on the course.  Billy Coggeshall, Albert James, Allen Capers, myself, and many others would gather on the first warm day of early summer to descend the rocks and dive, knowing that the waters below held hundreds of balls that had been topped in during the previous year by such regulars as Pie Stem and Shep Nicholson, the latter of whom towed Darlington’s first electric golf cart to the club every day behind his baby blue Chrysler Imperial.  In turn we would dive down against the current and run our hands against the unpredictable bottom, feeling under slippery rocks and fallen tree limbs for what each hoped would be a new, unsliced Titleist golf ball; and when we were sure the round thing we had grasped was not a snake’s head or worse, we would shoot back to the surface of the water holding our treasure over our heads for everyone to see.  When we had gleaned all of the balls to be had, we would pile in Billy’s old Army jeep or my A Model with the top down and head back up Cashua Street to, in the then-vernacular, cut the square and circle the Southernaire.  On Black Creek outings such as these, I am certain that her waters somehow entered all of our bloodstreams, as they have entered the psyches and bloodstreams of so many before and after us.

All of us, of course, have constructed our own Darlingtons and our own Black Creeks–our own takes on what they are, what they mean, and what they have meant to us.  My father, for example, had an interesting  theory about Black Creek, though I am not sure that he ever tried to validate it with a map.  He grew up on my grandfather’s cotton and watermelon farm in Chesterfield County and learned to swim in a small  hollowed out hole fed by a stream known as Cattail Branch, which began as a spring on his dad’s place.  My own dad believed that Cattail Branch was the origin of Black Creek, and this gave him such pleasure and delight that no one, to my knowledge, ever tried to disabuse him of the notion.  Walking along its banks always made him feel, as it makes so many feel, almost mythically at home.  In summers and on weekends my wife Rebecca and I live on the banks of a small tidal creek off the Rappahannock River in Virginia’s Northern Neck some fifteen miles upriver of its mouth on the Chesapeake Bay near Irvington; and I have developed my own theories about the waters of Black Creek, also without benefit of a map.  It flows in a serpentine fashion, I think, joining Swift Creek some miles out of Williamson Park, before it enters the Pee Dee, finally flowing into the ocean somewhere close to East Cherry Grove Point–the waters of whose inlet eventually mingle with those of the Chesapeake.  On occasion I have sat on the bulkhead of our own Ivey Creek in Virginia and watched the usually rather clear waters, first turn dark– then black.  And I begin in these moments to picture the difficult path that our creek’s dark waters have traveled to get as far as they have come from the heart of the storybook town of all our youths.
Bryant Mangum
Virginia Commonwealth University