Korean War soldier returned home 69 years after his death

Note: This story first appeared in the Dec. 1, 2019, issue of The Gaston Gazette newspaper in Gastonia, N.C.

By Michael Banks

It was a Saturday in December, in a frozen, war-torn land half a world away from the forests and streams of Gaston County when the life of Cpl. Earl William Duncan was tragically cut short at the age of 23.

And it was a Saturday, a day before December, nearly 69 years after his death, when the remains of the Korean War veteran were finally put to rest in the soil that he called home.

As a lone bugler played taps under a gray, overcast sky, the casket carrying Duncan’s remains arrived Saturday at his final resting place at Gaston Memorial Park.

His was a journey that had left a father scarred, a mother in mourning and a never-ending quest by siblings to have questions answered. It was one that would originate from a historic summit between the leaders of two countries and the use of DNA analysis that would have been thought of as science fiction in 1950.

Most of all, Saturday was a day for Earl Duncan to return to the land where he loved to hunt and fish and a time for his family, friends and the community to mourn, celebrate and reflect.

“This is a homecoming for one that was lost to us and who we celebrate today. It is nothing short of a miracle to be here today,” said Damien Gula, pastor of McAdenville Wesleyan Church, which was filled with 150 family and friends Saturday afternoon for a welcome home ceremony for Duncan.

Citing the Gospel of Luke chapter 15, Gula talked of the despair when “something of great value is lost” and that corresponding “relentless celebration” when that which is lost is found.

On Dec. 2, 1950, Duncan’s Army infantry company was in the vicinity of the Chosin Reservoir in present-day North Korea when his unit was attacked by enemy forces. Duncan was part of the “Home By Christmas Offensive 1950” that involved 3,000 soldiers and found them fighting four days and five nights in the harshest of conditions with temperatures falling to 35 degrees below zero. He was reported missing in action after the battle ended because his remains could not be recovered.

Duncan would be declared dead on Dec. 31, 1953. And in the ensuing years, no new information about his remains materialized. As the decades passed, questions remained unanswered.

But on July 27, 2018, following a summit a month earlier between President Donald Trump and North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, North Korea turned over 55 boxes, purported to contain the remains of American service members killed during the Korean War. Using anthropological and DNA analysis, as well as circumstantial and material evidence, scientists were able to identify Duncan’s remains from one of those boxes.

The family was notified on Sept. 10 and his remains finally arrived in Gaston County on Nov. 23.

Saturday’s day of homecoming started with a family visitation at the McAdenville church as Duncan’s three remaining siblings – brothers Samuel and Howard and sister Elsie – stood beside their brother’s casket that was draped in an American flag.

Overhead, a screen displayed images from Duncan’s life. There were some old black-and-white photos of Duncan with his parents, Prosey and Fronia Mincey Duncan, as well as pictures of him with members of Dog Company, which was part of the 7th Infantry Division’s 32nd Infantry Regiment First Battalion. There were also a great number of family photos, most of them in color. There were marriages, reunions, Christmas celebrations and babies being born. Absent from them all was Earl.

Elsie Loftin, who lives in Lowell, was the only girl among the six Duncan boys. In a letter read by her grandson to the crowd, she talked of the “big brother absent from her life for the past 70 years.” She remembered the pocket full of red pistachios he always seemed to have and the gifts he would send his little sister when he was overseas. And those little trinkets, which were on display Saturday, are “the most highly treasured possessions I will ever own.”

She talked of her big brother’s “generous heart and spirit,” but lamented, “I can’t remember the sound of Earl’s voice. I wish I could.” She also recalled the “complete deafening silence” that enveloped their West Cramerton home when they got the word in December 1950 that Earl was missing in action.

“Our home became a quiet tomb,” Elsie wrote. “Eventually, life would go back to normal for us, but never again for Daddy and Momma.”

She said her father fell into a deep depression and blamed himself for Earl’s death, while her mother was in constant mourning.

And that price paid by Duncan should not be taken for granted, said pastor Michael Loftin, who is Elsie’s grandson and the great-nephew of Earl. Speaking at Saturday’s ceremony, Loftin quoted the Scripture John 15:13: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for friends.”

“It’s men like that who made this country amazing,” Loftin said as he spoke from above Earl’s casket. “This day is about those that made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom and sins. It cost many lives to get us here today.”

With a loud rendition of the hymn “To God Be the Glory” being sung by those in the pews, six members of the U.S. Army’s Military Funeral Honor Guard from Fort Bragg carried Duncan’s remains from the church.

They were also present when his remains arrived at Gaston Memorial Park, led by a convoy of 12 motorcycle riders from the North Carolina Patriot Guard as it passed under a giant American flag held aloft by a ladder truck from the Gastonia Fire Department. The sound of bagpipes playing “Amazing Grace” filled the air as the casket was brought to the grave site by the pall bearers from Fort Bragg.

Under a tent and near the casket, family members sat, surrounded by friends and various military groups, including the Gastonia composite squadron of the Civil Air Patrol and 25 members of the Gaston County Honor Guard.

Speaking graveside, Goda spoke of “this one dearly loved, lost without reach, found and returned home for his final rest. At long last, the search is over.”

A three-volley salute was fired by the military funeral guard with each round representing duty, honor and country. The flag was removed from the casket and presented to Sam Duncan as taps played in the distance.

Howard Duncan said Saturday was a very emotional day and he had decided he was just “gonna let it roll” when it came time for tears. And, for him, that came when taps was played.

The day was about Earl and those who still remain missing, Howard Duncan said.

“There are still thousands of families waiting for this,” he said. “Don’t give up. I had just about given up.”

Three members of The Ride Home, a POW/MIA advocacy group, were at Saturday’s service and made a presentation to the family members. There remain 1,527 service members from North Carolina who are still listed as Missing In Action. Of those, 1,302 are World War II vets, 186 Korean War servicemen and 38 from Vietnam.

The past couple of weeks have been a whirlwind for the Duncan family and Howard admitted at the end of Saturday’s service that it hasn’t quite settled in that his brother is finally home after all these years.

“I suspect the day after tomorrow will be kind of lonesome,” said Howard, who added this Dec. 2 will be different than all those previous anniversaries of Earl’s death.

With his brother’s casket just over his shoulder and tears forming again at the corners of his red-rimmed eyes, Howard said, “It’ll be good. Just knowing Earl’s here. Earl’s home.”

Hooked on fly fishing

From the first time this writer saw the movie “A River Runs Through It,” I’ve had a fascination with fly fishing.
In the summer of 2019 I had the opportunity to cast my first line in the mountains of western South Carolina.
I learned not only about fly fishing, but also a little bit about life.

As numbers rise, anglers find Chattooga River and Upstate South Carolina delivers

 

Editor’s Note: An edited version of this story first appeared in the October 2019 issue of South Carolina Living magazine. The publication is read in more than 595,000 homes and businesses and published monthly except in December by The Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina.

 

By Michael Banks

There is a dirt path leading through the mountain laurel and rhododendron with their clusters of colorful flowers. Hemlocks and pines shoot straight into the blue sky. With hands holding fly rods and feet wrapped in wading boots, we make our way single file through the mountainous Sumter National Forest in Upstate South Carolina.

For I have come to fish the fresh waters. To fly fish, more precisely. And I have come to the Chattooga River. It is, as one resident claims, “a little slice of heaven in South Carolina” and both it and the nearby Chauga River are known as the prime fly-fishing spots in this part of the state.

As I descend a muddied, rock-strewn hillside that’s camouflaged in leafy green undergrowth, I am suddenly thrust upon the main stage. It’s the Burrell’s Ford section of the Chattooga River and I stop, turning in an 180-degree arc, to take in what I’ve come upon. 

Long the land of the Cherokee, the Chattooga serves as a boundary between South Carolina and Georgia. A fishing license from either state allows you on the river that stretches 57 miles from its headwaters in the Blue Ridge Mountains south of Cashiers, N.C., to where it meets the Tallulah River at Lake Tugalo.

Here at Burrell’s Ford, the river — clear and a dark navy blue — is bathed in bright sunlight that bounces off the ripples of the current and rapids that carve their way through a jumble of boulders. The coolness of the mountain-fed waters soothe my sweaty feet as I step into the river. The call of nearby songbirds form a chorus with the sound of the running water. 

It is, at once, an onslaught to my senses, yet a feeling of inner peace and calmness that slowly ascends, along with the sweet cooling relief from my water-covered limbs to sweat-covered brow, chilled by the breeze that comes from upriver.

This is what this angler has come in search of.

The author casts his line along the Burrell’s Ford section of the Chattooga River during the summer of 2019. Photo by Matthew Franklin Carter.

*  * *

Before there’s even a thought to casting the first line, fishing guide Karl Ekberg is off and slogging through the water, eyes intent upon the bottom of the clear riverbed, feverish as he lifts one brown rock after another. If you weren’t upon the Chattooga and had employed his services, Ekberg’s mad scramble would make you think of the frenzied rush of children at a community Easter egg hunt, bursting from the starting line, baskets in hand, scouring each possible hidden cove for treasure.

And that’s exactly what Karl’s doing. For his prize are bugs. And on this day, he is in search of nymphs that lie beneath the silt-covered rocks that line the river bottom. These nymphs will eventually grow to become mayflies, stoneflies and caddisflies that will rise from the river’s surface, creating a perfect storm consisting of a tasty morsel, fly-starved fish and the anglers who seek them.

“Bug in the water catches fish,” Karl says.

In these parts, Karl is known as “the bug guy.” While there is no entomology degree in his fly pack, Karl has put in the homework. Able to quickly identify the often-microscopic creature that flits across the rock’s surface, his enthusiasm is great this day as we’ve found “a monster stonefly.”

“If you have stoneflies in your river, it means you have very clear water,” Karl says.

This aptitude wasn’t always the case. Growing up in northern New Hampshire, Karl, 55, had fished with his father, but, as with most teenagers, he craved speed and action, and he discovered it on the nearby ski slopes as he became a standout downhill racer, even competing on the Olympic course at Lake Placid, N.Y.

It wasn’t until he received fly fishing gear and a fly-tying packet from his parents, as a present for his gaining acceptance into a hallowed culinary school, that the then 21-year-old Ekberg started to get serious about the sport. Yet, it didn’t come easy. There were many hours spent casting on the Pemigewasset River to no avail. 

“It was, pretty much, the school of hard knocks,” Ekberg recalls.

It wasn’t until he heard and learned from the words whispered by wise fishermen that his skills improved. And it wasn’t until about two years into it when he took notice of the many insects that flew above the waters, landing upon the surface to be greedily gathered by the trout and bass.

For he soon learned the secret: Know your bugs.

“I really studied bugs. Because if you didn’t know what was going on, you weren’t catching,” he said of his earlier days spent on rivers that were populated by only wild fish instead of the mostly “put and take” hatchery-supported waters in South Carolina.

For most of his adult life, Ekberg used his culinary education in resorts and hotels in the Northeast. It was the warmer southern temps and the presence of family in Central that drew him here in the late ‘90s. He would spend the next 13 years working for Aramark, which provides food service to colleges and universities, while also spending time on the Upstream waters, perfecting his angling skills.

It would be his talents or, more so, his bragging about his fishing expertise that would catch the attention of one of his employees at the dining hall at Southern Wesleyan University in Central in the summer of 2007.

Karen Maddox had grown up in Virginia Beach, Va., but had lived in several areas of the country as “a Navy brat” before settling in South Carolina in 1972.

“He came in bragging about all of these fish he was catching. And I was like, ‘Dude, if you’re not going to invite me, I don’t want to hear about them.’ It was game-on after that,” said Karen, who would start taking lessons from Ekberg and come to enjoy the sport. Her third fish was a 24-inch brook trout caught along the Canadian border.

“What captured me was the first time that I went out there I realized that the river just has a way of capturing your soul and reworking it and giving it back to you before you leave the river. It’s not an explainable thing. It becomes very obsessive and you don’t even know that it’s happening.”

The two, according to Karen, “co-habitate” and their home and business is served by the Blue Ridge Electric Cooperative. They’ve been operating the Chattooga River Fly Shop for the past seven years, including the past four years at its location on Highway 28 in Mountain Rest. While Maddox operates the shop, selling merchandise and setting up trips, Karl is “the bug and fly guy, rods and equipment guy” who is on the river guiding groups.

While he has caught brown trout measuring 27 inches in length, Karl’s favorite fishing memory is that of one day in 2014 spent with his father, fly fishing the Burrell’s Ford section of the Chattooga. It was the last fishing trip his father, who was battling hip and knee pain, would make. In January 2019, Bill Ekberg would suffer a stroke and his kidney and lungs began to fail. The U.S. Navy veteran, who served on the second USS Juneau, would pass away in February at age 84.

“We caught a few fish that day, but that wasn’t what it was about,” Karl says. “It was his last trip and I’m glad it was here.”

Fly fishing guide Karl Ekberg is shown on the Chattooga River. (Photo by Matthew Franklin Carter)

*  * *

This ambitious angler readily admits to a romantic image taken from the 1992 film “A River Runs Through It” and actor Brad Pitt, deftly handling his fly rod, the line, long and graceful in the air, as he whips and coaxes the fish to rise from the Montana rapids, that first drew my interest to fly fishing.

I ask Karl if it’s possible that I might go down the Chattooga, a big 24-inch rainbow hooked to my line, trying to reel him in as I deftly dodge boulders and waterfalls.

He grins.

On this day, on this angler’s first foray into the river, I stand in knee-deep waters and more likely resemble the scarecrow from the “Wizard of Oz” with arms askew and the rigidity of my pose mirroring the tin man.

Karl, wise and knowing, introduces me to a roll cast in which I handle a 9-foot pole with my right hand, whipping the line out 90 degrees across from my shoulder to the fast-moving water some six to eight feet away. His words are reassuring and welcomed as he teaches me to fish by using the drift of the current.

“Let the river do the work. Keep your tip up. Now, slowly, let it down. Watch as it moves down the river. Very nice. Good work.”

“Uh, what do I do with my left hand?”

With the briefest of pause, Karl offers with that hint of New England accent, “Keep it waahhmm in your pocket.”

And, so, this is what I do. Cast upon cast, I try to remember to pause at the top before flinging my line at the fast-moving foam nearby, watching the red stretch of line near the end where the weighted fly that was knotted by Karl bounces along the river bottom near the Highway 28 bridge.

I try, again and again, the simple, quick flick of my wrist to set the hook, yet on a couple occasions, I resort to my days of pulling bluegill from a Kentucky farm pond and my fly goes “Bill Dancing” across the waters behind me. I can’t tell if it’s a rock or a fish that tugs on the end of the line, but my eyes stay locked and I nearly taste blood from biting my lower lip. I need to catch fish.

Through it all, Karl remains encouraging and helpful. I almost feel like a third-grader whose gotten an A on his math quiz when Karl tells me, “Fantastic job, Michael. Fantastic cast.”

There are worse things I could be doing on a Tuesday afternoon in early July.

“This is the escape from reality,” Ekberg says. “You see the beauty of the river. Catching fish is a bonus because you’re standing in God’s creation out here. I’m not a very religious person, but when you’re standing out here, you’re not attached to anything. There’s no phone call coming in. It’s the game. Let’s try and catch fish. And all of a sudden you look around and say, ‘Wow. This is something.’”

Ekberg offers some tips to the author while catching a respite on the Chattooga. (Photo by Matthew Franklin Carter)

*  * *

Within the past five years, there has been a substantial increase in the number of people interested in fly fishing, according to Maddox and Ekberg. He says about 70 percent of those on their guided trips are brand new to the sport with the others made up of those “who have been catching 10- to 14-inch fish and they’re looking for bigger.”

While so-called industry experts say there is also a rise in women fly-fishing, both Maddox and Ekberg say they haven’t seen a great increase.

On the flip side, the number of younger people becoming interested in fly fishing is taking off. Ekberg points to groups such as the Clemson University Fly Fishing Club, which is the third-largest in the nation, for helping to promote the sport.

And Ekberg believes the completion of the nearby Palmetto Trail – a planned 425-mile foot and bike trail connecting the South Carolina mountains to the coast — will only bring more visitors.

As a businessman, he is in favor of more visitors. As an angler, he is hesitant to see more fishermen in his prime spots. And there’s also the question of whether the infrastructure (improved roads, parking areas) is there to handle the increased traffic. Yet, Ekberg believes it’s possible to find a balance and walk the fine line separating the two.

 “Because there’s so much (of the) river that’s not fished on a regular basis, the river can withstand more fishermen,” Ekberg said. “The river’s plenty big enough to stand having double or triple the amount of people out there, but the problem is getting to those areas.”

Both Ekberg and Maddox say the free-flowing, dam-free Chattooga River is the greatest resource in their part of the state and they remain committed to looking after its well-being. They, as well as numerous nearby Trout Unlimited chapters, subscribe to the practice of “leave no trace” on their trips to eliminate litter and keep the scenic river pristine.

“We made a pact in the very beginning that if anything we did affected the well-being of the river corridor, in any way, then we would no longer be doing what we’re doing,” Maddox said. “That’s how much we care about that. The hard part is needing and wanting the revenue to come to us, but (the river) is still to remain pristine. That’s going to be tough.”

Fishing along the Chattooga River, which serves as the boundary between North Carolina and Georgia. (Photo by Matthew Franklin Carter)

*  * *

In the end, this angler did not land his first fish. But my confidence is buoyed by the fact that Karl was also unable to reel in a catch before a low rumble of thunder and darkening skies chased us from the river late afternoon.

The heat of the summer had the trout lurking below, along the cooler, deeper waters of the Chattooga. Ideally, trout prefer water temperatures in the range of 45 to 55 degrees. On this early July day, as the outside temps exceeded 80 degrees, the water temperature was near 70. Ekberg told me not to be disappointed.

“Listening to some of the old-timers when I first got here, they would say, ‘If you can catch a fish on the Chattooga, you can catch a fish anywhere in the country,’ because it can be that fickle, day-to-day.”

Ekberg says, “A lot of folks come back here. It’s the challenge of this river. Tomorrow, we might come out and catch 40 fish from here to the bridge. And that’s the tough part about the Chattooga.” 

Arriving back at Karl’s fly shop, I was greeted by the hot, humid wrap that is known as summer in the South. Harsh white light bounced off the pavement and my cell phone began to rang as I reached inside the overheated cab of my truck for my sunglasses.

It was a welcome-back-to-reality moment.

The water-laden socks beneath my wading boots were heavy. I felt the scrape along my knee where I’d unsuccessfully hurdled a limb blocking our path and the sting of the horse fly had left a nasty welp.

I raised my eyes to the north, to the green forested mountain range and imagined myself back on the Chattooga River, which now seemed days, not minutes, past. Its cool, clear waters and the fish who lurk beneath are still there.

And I, along with many others alike and unlike me, shall return.

The author and Ekberg head out after their day on the Chattooga. (Photo by Matthew Franklin Carter)

 

Bitten by the fly fishing bug?

There are several businesses that cater to those wanting to learn more about the sport. From beginners to seasoned anglers, there are a number of options available with price per person ranging from $140 to $300 for half-day sessions to full-day trips on the area rivers costing anywhere from $250 to $350. 

Most outfitters provide equipment (including waders, boots, fly rods/reels and flies). Those 16 and older will be required to have a South Carolina fishing license, which can be purchased online at the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources or at several vendors across the state, who are listed on the SCDNR site. 

The cost for a freshwater license for a South Carolina resident ranges from $5 (14 days) to $10 (annual) to $30 (three years).

Among the South Carolina-based businesses offering guide services are:

Chattooga River Fly Shop

6832A Highlands Highway

Mountain Rest, SC 29664

864-638-2806

 

Dodson Fishing Company

533 N. Highway 25

Travelers Rest, SC 29690

864-610-2140

 

River Blade Knife and Fly Shop

1398 Boiling Springs Road, Suite 1

Spartanburg, SC 29303

864-699-9433

 

Southern Outlaw Adventures

141 N. Little River Road

Salem, SC 29676

864-614-1019

Karl Ekberg ties fly fishing ties at his Chattooga River Fly Shop in Mountain Rest, S.C. (Photo by Matthew Franklin Carter)

 

Provider of fishes

A small government facility hidden deep in a valley of the Upstate South Carolina is responsible for producing some half a million items each year.
Let it be known, the trout anglers of South Carolina are very grateful.

Walhalla State Fish Hatchery ensures that trout remain in South Carolina’s waterways

Editor’s Note: An edited version of this story appeared in the October 2019 issue of South Carolina Living magazine.

By Michael Banks

Nestled deep in a green valley in the mountainous Upstate near its borders with North Carolina and Georgia is a facility that is of critical importance to the trout that swim the area waters and the anglers who seek them.

The Walhalla State Fish Hatchery is one of five public fish hatcheries that are overseen by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources’ Freshwater Fisheries Management program, but it is the only one raising trout.

Because South Carolina is at “the southern-most extreme of suitable trout habitat, we’re really limited in the number of streams that we can stock. It is a unique fishery for being this far south,” says Scott Poore, the hatchery manager.

Scott Poore, left, and Damon Wilber clean two of the raceways that hold trout at the Walhalla State Fish Hatchery near Mountain Rest, S.C. (Photo by Michael Banks)

Currently, two trucks depart five days a week with an allotment of trout to stock streams and rivers in Oconee, Pickens and Greenville counties, as well as the tail waters of Lakes Hartwell, Jocassee and Murray and the lower Saluda River in Columbia.

There are some wild populations of all three species of trout in the waters of the Upstate, but the only trout native to the area is the brook trout. The Walhalla fish compound plays a central role in making sure trout remain.

“There are so many anglers that target trout, if we were not able to supplement the existing populations or where populations are very limited, I think you would see angling pressure possibly decimate the fishery in some streams,” Poore says. “I think eventually it would come to a point where angling for trout in South Carolina would become non-existent.”

On average, there is a request of 475,000 trout each year from the biologists overseeing the program in the Clemson office. In the 12 years Poore has been at the hatchery, they’ve met that number and often exceeded it.

In a typical season, they are producing 600,000 to 650,000 trout, Poore said. Of that number, the rainbow and brown species are the predominate ones as there will be some 225,000 to 240,000 of each species produced. The rest are brook trout.

Poore, who grew up in the Upstate and graduated from Clemson with degrees in wildlife and fisheries biology, has been working at the Walhalla facility for the past 12 years.

It’s a job he loves.

“I love being outside. To be in the mountains and see all the seasons, it’s just an enjoyable experience. I feel rich in those non-monetary things that we see,” says Poore, who lives adjacent to the hatchery in a stone house with his wife and two sons.

“For me, growing up and enjoying the outdoors, this is a place where I come to where I’m not confined by four walls in an office,” he said. “As long as I’m producing the fish that’s been requested, providing an outreach opportunity for the visitors that come here, and the anglers are happy, I’ve accomplished what I set out to do.”

Scott Poore is the manager of the Walhalla State Fish Hatchery near Mountain Rest, S.C. He has been there for the past 12 years. (Photo by Michael Banks)

Want to visit the hatchery?

An estimated 50,000 to 60,000 people visit the Walhalla State Fish Hatchery each year. The Mountain Rest facility, which dates back to the 1930s, is open to the public daily from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. There is no charge for admission and hatchery employees are available to answer questions.

“The kids love to come in and see all the varieties of fish,” says Scott Poore, hatchery manager. “During our peak time, we can easily have 1.2 million fish on hand.”

Finding heaven along South Carolina’s Highway 11

Looking for a road trip to experience the colorful palate of nature? Well, a drive down South Carolina’s Highway 11 will provide you with plenty of inspiration and memorable moments.

Seven state parks offer the best of fall for those seeking solace, color

Editor’s Note: An edited version of this story appeared in the September 2019 issue of South Carolina Living magazine.

By Michael Banks

Following a path traversed by the Cherokee and bordered by the Blue Ridge Mountains, South Carolina Highway 11 has become a favored route of those sightseers seeking solace and beauty. 

Seven South Carolina state parks straddle the approximate 120-mile long roadway — also known as the Cherokee Foothills Scenic Highway — and offer everything from hiking to fishing to boating.

With visitors flocking to the Upstate to view autumn’s colorful palate, here are some things not to miss and some tips on how to get the most out of your visit.

There are numerous paved campsites for RV and/or tent camping along the shores of Lake Hartwell near Fair Play, S.C.
(Photo courtesy of South Carolina State Parks)

Lake Hartwell State Park

Address: 19138 S. Highway 11, Fair Play, SC 29643

Contact: 864-972-3352

https://southcarolinaparks.com/lake-hartwell

Known for:

1. Outstanding fishing. The 56,000-acre Lake Hartwell is inhabited by striped and hybrid bass, largemouth, crappie, bream and catfish.

2. Camping. In addition to 115 paved campsites for RV or tent camping along the lake shore, the park is the only one in the state to offer unique, single-room camper cabins.

Insider tips:

Looking to combine a room with a view along with your college football? Well, Lake Hartwell State Park may be the option for you as the park sees a large number of people setting up camp on Saturdays in the fall.

“A lot of people come in for Clemson football games,” says Brooks Garrett, who has served as the Lake Hartwell park ranger for the past three years. “They’ll bring their campers in, stay for the weekend and go tailgating.”

He also suggested that birdwatchers visit Lake Hartwell during the week when the park is less crowded.

“We get a lot of migratory birds, especially warblers, during the fall,” he said.

A Civilian Conservation Corps monument at Oconee State Park in Mountain Rest, S.C., honors the 3-million plus people who served in the CCC between 1933 and 1942.
(Photo courtesy of South Carolina State Parks)

Oconee State Park

Address: 624 State Park Road, Mountain Rest, SC 29664

Contact: 864-638-5353

https://southcarolinaparks.com/oconee

Known for:

1. History. This park was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps and many of those structures can still be viewed. A CCC monument at the park honors the 3 million-plus people who served in the CCC between 1933 and 1942.

2. Wildlife. Black bear are sometimes seen and there is also a family of foxes who live at the park.

Insider tips:

Bring a good pair of closed-toe shoes and some energy and you’ll be rewarded with an awesome view of a 60-foot waterfall.

Assistant park ranger Savanna Kelley, who has been at Oconee for the past five years, says a three-hour hike along the Hidden Falls Trail is a perfect outing for the fall.

“You can see the waterfall more in the fall than any other month with the leaves down,” she said.

Kelley also suggested renting a paddleboat or canoe. 

“It’s gorgeous to take boats out on the lake with all the leaves changing,” she said.

As dusk falls, the colors of a late autumn sky make for a breath-taking display along the shores of Lake Jocassee in the Devils Fork State Park in Salem, S.C.
(Photo by Michael Banks)

Devils Fork State Park

Address: 161 Holcombe Circle, Salem, SC 29676

Contact: 864-944-2639

https://southcarolinaparks.com/devils-fork

Known for:

1. Lake Jocassee. Four mountain streams and several waterfalls feed into the 7,565-acre lake, making it cooler than others and one of the state’s top trout fishing spots, as well as a fave of anglers seeking bass and crappie. The park offers the only public access to the lake.

2. Scuba diving. The clean and clear waters of Lake Jocassee make it a favorite for divers. Swimmers also delight in the cool waters.

Insider tips:

Those looking for a unique study of leaf color can find it here, especially during the park’s peak viewing during the last two weeks of October and the first two weeks of November.

“Just get out on the lake and look at all the levels of color change,” said park ranger Kevin Evans, who has been the manager at Devils Fork for 12 years.

“To me, that’s one of the neatest parts. You can see the progression of fall by viewing the different elevations and the best way to do that is to get out on the lake itself.”

Evans also said Monday through Thursday is the best time to visit.

“You can have the entire lake to yourself. That’s just a great feeling, to have that feeling of being by yourself and that wonderment of really being immersed in the resource because there’s nobody else around.”

Keowee-Toxaway State Park in Sunset, S.C., offers access to the 18,500-acre Lake Keowee. It is a favorite of kayakers and canoeists, as well as fishermen.
(Photo courtesy of South Carolina State Parks)

Keowee-Toxaway State Park

Address: 108 Residence Drive, Sunset, SC 29685

Contact: 864-868-2605

https://southcarolinaparks.com/keowee-toxaway

Known for:

1. Lake Keowee. The 18,500-acre lake offers something for nearly every outdoor enthusiast surrounded by some of the most stunning views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Those looking for an access point for their canoe or kayak should arrive early as there is a small parking lot.

2. Wildflowers are abundant at this state park, especially in the spring. Two rare species that can be found are Alleghany spurge and ginseng.

Insider tips:

One of the smaller state parks in the area, visitors should get out of their vehicles to experience Keowee-Toxaway.

“It’s a pretty park, but you really have to get out on the hiking trails as far as the views,” says park ranger Kevin Blanton, who has managed the 1,000-acre site for the past 12 years.

He suggests the No. 3 trailside camping site for those seeking a neat experience.

“It’s located out on a finger of land surrounded by Lake Keowee. To spend the night out on the point out by the lake is really something,” Blanton said.

November’s fall colors are on display near the Visitor’s Center at the Table Rock State Park near Pickens, S.C., as Table Rock looms large in the background.
(Photo by Michael Banks)

Table Rock State Park

Address:158 Ellison Lane, Pickens, SC 29671

Contact: 864-878-9813

https://southcarolinaparks.com/table-rock

Known for:

1. Table Rock. The towering mountain offers up breathtaking views and serves as an access point for hikers on the 80-mile Foothills Trail.

2. Bluegrass music. The “Music on the Mountain” program takes place from 2 to 6 p.m. the second Saturday of each month.

Insider tips:

There’s something special about hiking three miles to the top of Table Rock and seeing a full moon disappear and watching the sun rise, says Scott Stegenga, interpretive ranger at the park for the past 29 years.

“To take in the transition from night to dawn is pretty special. It’s a long hike, but it’s worth it once you get up there. To sit and take in all the surrounding wilderness, watch the sky change, hear the birds awake, to witness the breaking of a new day. It’s just an exhilarating time.”

There is a $25 per person fee and those interested should call the park to register. The next hikes will be Sept. 22 and Oct. 19.

Autumn is a perfect time to visit, Stegenga says.

“You get the foliage peaking at the end of October. The air is cleaner and crisper, less humid. Altogether, it’s a better hiker-friendly atmosphere in the fall. It’s one of the special places in South Carolina that’s still preserved.”

From the overlook atop Caesers Head State Park near Cleveland, S.C., one can see portions of neighboring North Carolina and Georgia.
(Photo courtesy of South Carolina State Parks)

Caesers Head State Park

Address: 8155 Geer Highway, Cleveland, SC 29635

Contact: 864-836-6115

https://southcarolinaparks.com/caesars-head

Known for:

1. Bird-watching, specifically hawks from September through November. During Hawk Watch, visitors can observe the raptors as they migrate to their South American feeding grounds. On one past September day, 11,048 birds passed through the park.

2. Sixty-plus miles of challenging hiking trails and trailside camping. Hike the Raven Cliff Falls Trail and see the tallest waterfall in the state.

Insider tips:

Tim Lee has spent the past 19 years working as the interpretive ranger for the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area, 13,000 acres of pristine southern mountain forest encompassing both the Caesers Head and Jones Gap state parks.

He has seen a lot of visitors and one of his favorite quotes was from a child as she stood atop the overlook at Caesers Head, which sits some 3,200 feet above sea level with a spectacular view that extends into North Carolina and Georgia.

“She said, ‘You can see the whole world from here.’ And I think that’s a great quote,” Lee said. “Through all our different eyes, you can see the whole world from there.”

And if visitors will look down at the ground, they’ll also be in for a treat.

“One of the things that people don’t think a lot about, but there are a lot of beautiful fall wildflowers that bloom along our trails,” said Lee, mentioning New England asters, various goldenrod species and the beautiful but toxic milk sick, which is also known as white snake root.

A portion of the Middle Saluda River runs through the Jones Gap State Park near Marietta, S.C. Some of the best trout fishing in the state can be found in its waters.
(Photo courtesy of South Carolina State Parks)

Jones Gap State Park

Address: 303 Jones Gap Road, Marietta, SC 29661

Contact: 864-836-3647

https://southcarolinaparks.com/jones-gap

Known for:

1. Beautiful waterfalls. At least five waterfalls can be viewed from this state park. Hikers can work up a sweat on the Rainbow Falls Trail and then cool off in the mist of the falls.

2. The Eastern Continental Divide. Rain falling on one side of this divide runs into streams that eventually end at the Atlantic Ocean, while rain falling on the other side ultimately runs into the Gulf of Mexico. 

Insider tips:

Some of the best fishing for wild trout in the state can be found on the Middle Saluda River, a designated scenic waterway that runs through the park.

Lee, who is a fishermen himself, said the state stopped stocking the river back in the 1970s and those fishermen seeking wild, natural-born trout come to the park.

“You get a true wilderness experience where you feel that you are the only person out there… it’s just you and the river,” Lee said. “It gives you an opportunity to reconnect with the natural world, the river, the forest. I’ve heard many people say how relaxing and calming the sounds of the river

Getting to know South Carolina’s shark whisperer

The man who does battle with man-eating sharks admits he’s “not a crazy jump-out-of-airplanes kind of guy.”
He enjoys playing golf and tennis, but he’s no adrenaline junkie.
“I’m pretty boring. I live a pretty simple life,” says Chip Michalove.
However, he’s quick to admit he gets more than a little nervous when he enters the ocean and the waves hit against his waist.
“I’ve just seen too many of them out there and I can’t relax. If I go chest-high, I’m going to have a coronary,” Michalove says.

Chip Michalove guides his boat off the coast near Hilton Head Island, S.C., on a recent day. In these waters, Michalove has gained the reputation of ‘the shark whisperer.’
Photo by Milton Morris.

By Michael Banks

(This article appears in the August 2019 issue of South Carolina Living magazine.)

Other than doing battle on the open sea with 3,500-pound great white sharks, Chip Michalove claims he’s a rather boring guy.

“I live a pretty simple life,” says the 5-foot-9, 160-pound angler who earned the nickname of “the shark whisperer” by reeling in great whites measuring up to 16 feet long.

His love of fishing was cast early. Michalove was 5 and his family vacationed on the South Carolina coast. His parents booked a charter with legendary fishing guide Fuzzy Davis and, on that first trip out, they caught a six-foot shark.

“I thought it was just the coolest thing in the world,” he says. “I became obsessed.”

The family later moved to Hilton Head Island and at the age of 22, Michalove bought his first boat and went into business as a fishing guide. Before catching his first great white, Michalove was just like everyone else of generation Jaws—scared to death of the giants. But as he’s caught more and more great whites, his respect for the animals has grown.

“It’s the smartest fish I’ve ever seen,” he says. “I’ve never seen an animal that will come up behind a boat and if they sense something’s not right, they leave. They’re not the maniacs that you see on TV that come in and crash into the place. There’s actually a methodical, thinking process.”

Michalove, who operates the Outcast Sport Fishing charter business, says he is grateful for the life fishing and sharks have provided.

“Great whites have absolutely changed my life,” he says. “They’ve given me a new truck, a new house. It’s been so beneficial, and I owe them everything. If I can help protect these guys, I’ll do everything I can.”

Getting to know Chip Michalove

AGE: 43.
HOME TURF: 
Hilton Head Island.

CLAIM TO FAME: Fishing guide dubbed “the shark whisperer” after catching 50 great white sharks over the past four years, including an unheard-of seven great whites in one day.
A MATTER OF SCIENCE: Michalove attaches satellite tracking tags to many of the sharks he and his charter customers reel in so scientists can track shark movements along the Atlantic coast.

ONSHORE: Enjoys golf and tennis in his free time.
CO-OP AFFILIATION: 
Member of Palmetto Electric Cooperative.

Author Greg Iles’ roots are in the Mississippi mud

Mississippi author Greg Iles has written numerous best-sellers and even had one of his novels made into a film.
Yet, Iles quickly admits he’s yet to write that “one great book.” And he is perfectly fine with that.

“Cemetery Road” latest for writer whose had 15 books appear on NY Times’ best-sellers list.

(This article first appeared in the March 6, 2019, issue of The Clarksdale (MS) Press Register newspaper.)

By Michael Banks

Greg Iles has had 15 books appear on the New York Times best-sellers list, including one that reached number one. The Mississippi-raised author has had one of his novels made into a film and his work’s been published in more than 35 countries.

Yet, he readily admits, he’s still to write that “one great book.”

And Iles is perfectly fine with that.

 “I’ve tried to walk the line between entertaining people and really saying some things that really help people. Maybe the day will come where I write that one. Maybe not. But as long as you can sleep at night, it’s good enough,” said the 58-year-old. “I’m alright where I’m at right now.”

And where Liles is at right now is on the cusp of another appearance on the best-sellers list as his newest novel — “Cemetery Road” – was released March 5, 2019. Liles was in Clarksdale, Ms., on Friday, March 8, 2019, for an appearance and book signing at the Cutrer Mansion as part of the Carnegie Public Library’s Community Book Talks lecture series.

Iles attributes his success to the ability to “mine your own experiences and touch people.”

And that’s something he’s been doing since his first novel, “Spandau Phoenix,” was released in 1993.

Yet, the path to success has been filled with long hours spent away from family and a tragedy that nearly took his life.

In 2011, Iles was seriously injured in a car wreck on Highway 61 near Natchez, MS. He sustained life-threatening injuries, including a ruptured aorta. He was put into an induced coma for eight days, and lost his right leg below the knee.

 It was during his three-year recovery when he wrote the Penn Cage trilogy — “Natchez Burning,” “The Bone Tree” and “Mississippi Blood.” The series follows the life of a fictional Mississippi prosecutor turned author.

He said while everyone is on “pins and needles” wondering where “Cemetery Road” is going to debut on the New York Times best-seller list, he’s fine with his station in life.

“On one hand, do I care? Yes, I do, as it certainly affects my future career. On the other hand? No, man, nothing. None of that matters.

“What matters? Are you still vertical, are you healthy, are your kids OK? And nothing else, nothing else, matters,” he said. “You got to get a little bit old to figure that out. Sadly.”

Author Greg Iles. (Photograph by Michael Banks)

One of the hardest things in writing “Cemetery Road,” according to Iles, was having to write about a character who had a terrible relationship with his dad. That wasn’t the case with Iles and his father, Jerry, who was a well-respected physician for nearly 50 years in Natchez, where Iles grew up.

“My dad was Tom Cage. I didn’t have to make anything up,” he said of the character from his books who is Penn’s father and a revered physician in Natchez.

“Cemetery Road” has been described as an electrifying tale of friendship, betrayal and shattering secrets that threaten to destroy a small Mississippi town.

A review by the Washington Post said the book is “an ambitious stand-alone thriller that is both an absorbing crime story and an in-depth exploration of grief, betrayal and corruption. Iles’ latest calls to mind the late, great Southern novelist Pat Conroy. Like Conroy, Iles writes with passion, intensity and absolute commitment.”

Iles believes the second book he wrote, “Black Cross,” which was set in World War II, was the best book he’s written.

“I wrote that book in three frantic months… I’m really proud of that one,” said Iles, who was born in 1960 in Germany as his father ran the U.S. Embassy Medical Clinic at the height of the Cold War.

The book, which is his only work to not reach the New York Times best- seller list, did provide the author some personal satisfaction.

“My father called me and said his partner from Washington, D.C., had called him and said, ‘There’s a bookstore in the United States where they sell you and they don’t sell John Grisham,’” Liles told the large group, which burst out in laughter.

It was at the museum book store at the National Holocaust Museum in Washington.

“That was a really high bar for me to make, in terms of research and writing and things like that,” Liles said. “Those are those small moments you get that you never forget. So, that book is special to me.”

The two books he wrote from a female perspective – “Blood Memory” and “Dead Sleep” – are also among his favorites.

But with all his books, Liles said, “I just don’t write those books. I live those books, every one of them.”

The act of researching and writing a book is “an intense experience,” he said. But once he’s written and completed the book, he’s on to the next one.

“I’ll go as long as I can without writing a single word,” Iles said of his writing process. “For me, the writing is the easy part. It’s the drudgery, the slavery. It’s just something I could always do. It’s the story, the working out the emotion, the psychology and the facts and the research is something else.

“When I start, it’s just bursting to get out. I say, ‘It’s like a pregnant woman when her water breaks.’ This story’s coming,” he said to a roomful of laughs.

At that point, Iles races to his recliner and starts the process, working about 12 hours a day. That moves up to about 16 hours per day and, near the end, he’ll stay up 24 hours, 30 hours until he’s finished.

“I don’t sit there on page one and agonize. I’m going on instinct the whole time,” he said. “I’m living the story with characters. I’m not someone who cries easily, but I’ve found that I’m sitting in the chair and my face is covered with tears because I’m going through it.”

Yet, to have that success, Iles admits a price has to be paid.

“That writing process is not good for your health, not good for your family life. It’s putting work above all things and working 18 hours a day, month after month after month after month,” said Liles, who admits to not having a vacation in 10 years. “You get successful, but you pay a high price.”

Iles lives in Natchez with his wife and three children.

“You just blink and your whole life’s gone. That’s just the way it happens,” he said. “You figure out where you get to where I am now, none of this matters.”

As far as television and movies, Iles had one of his books, “24 Hours,” made into a movie, “Trapped,” which was released in 2002.

With his success, the author now has the luxury of handpicking his future television projects.

“I’m successful enough now, where I don’t have to go, ‘Oh my god, I’m getting a TV show.’ At this point, I don’t want to have just a TV show. I want to have ‘the’ TV show… or at least I want it to be what it should be,” he said. “I’ll just sit tight, be cool.”

All hail the Kingfish

Riding a wave of popularity from the recent release of his first album and appearances in the Netflix series “Luke Cage,” young blues musician Christone “Kingfish” Ingram reflects upon his days growing up in Mississippi and the musical influences shown in his work.

No longer a babe Bluesman, Clarksdale’s own gentle giant lands on the big stage.

This article first appeared in the April 11, 2018, issue of The Clarksdale (Ms.) Press Register.

By Michael Banks

Some scoff when they see not-even-20-year-old Christone Ingram enter the stage. What does this baby-faced kid know about the blues?

But that tune soon changes when he adjusts the strings and his fingers start to dance and dangle, strum and stroll along the neck of his Fender Telecoustic.

And it’s his voice. Oh, that voice.

It’s not the high-pitched cry of a teenager who just recently celebrated his 19th birthday in January and still lives at home with his mother.

Rather, it’s the timbre and down-home drawl of a man who’s already been to nine countries, performed in festivals across the United States and is on the verge of releasing his first album.

“Even though I’m young, I’ve had some tough situations in my life,” says the man known as Kingfish.

Blues-speak?

“While I haven’t had a woman leave me,” he says with a chuckle, “I do know about heart break. Some people will say, ‘He doesn’t know the blues. He’s just 18 or 19.’ But I’m very mature for my age. I’ve always been that way. I’ve been around grownups all my life.”

Christone “Kingfish” Ingram is shown during a performance on Tuesday night, April 3, 2018, at the Hambone Music and Art Gallery in downtown Clarksdale, Ms.
(Photo by Michael Banks)

And it was his days spent in the Oakhurst area in Clarksdale, Ms., where Ingram got his first exposure to blues music. Next door was a blues band that would see the likes of famed musicians Joshua “Razorblade” Stewart, Anthony “Big A” Sherrod, Dr. Mike and Terry “Big T” Williams.

“They were all the time having house parties and such, and they’d let me come in and watch them as they played. I’d just go and soak it all in,” he said.

Another of his earliest musical influences came from gospel music, in particular, the gospel tape by The Canton Spirituals titled “Living the Dream. Live in D.C.” Listening to that tape is where, Ingram says with a laugh, “I got my gospel chops.”

“That’s one of my favorite gospel albums and one I listen to on a daily basis,” said Ingram, who recalls parts of his childhood at Faith Temple Word of Faith Christian Church in Tutwiler, Ms., and the St. Peters Missionary Baptist Church in Sardis, Ms.

Combine that gospel background with the next door house parties and that love of music only grew with Ingram, who found himself wanting to learn more and more.

A cousin of county music star Charlie Pride, Ingram would enroll in the Delta Blues Museum’s arts and education program where he would fall under the tutelage of Daddy Rich and Bill “Howl-N-Madd” Perry.

At the age of 6, he began playing the drums. Three years later, he took up the bass guitar. And by the age of 13, he was playing the lead guitar.

And not only did he gain that musical education and confidence, but he would also come away with the nickname Kingfish. The moniker was handed down by Perry, who believed Ingram looked like the character “Kingfish” from the “Amos and Andy” show, one of television’s first black sitcoms.

“At first, I didn’t like it,” Ingram recalls. “But then I’d be walking around at school and there’d be these kids that I didn’t think knew me and they would yell out, ‘Hey Kingfish. What’s going on?’ Then, I started to like it.”

Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, right, speaks with musician Anthony “Big A” Sherrod, left, and Stan Street, the owner of the Hambone Music and Art Gallery in downtown Clarksdale, Ms., during a break in his performance on Tuesday night, April 3, 2018.
(Photo by Michael Banks)

Another thing to like was the popularity that soon followed. He has shared the stage with musical greats such as Bob Margolin, Eric Gales, Rick Derringer, Guitar Short and Buddy Guy. He’s been a guest on “The Rachel Ray Show” and comedian Steve Harvey’s show “Steve.” And he even performed at the White House for First Lady Michelle Obama.

“I’m trying to not let it go to my head,” he said. “I’m just riding the wave, man, riding the wave.”

His mother, Princess Pride, acts as his manager and handles all his bookings.

The presence of his mother at all of his shows, as well as talks with his father, Christopher Ingram, and other family members have helped keep him grounded.

But still, Ingram knows more awaits him.

“No matter how good you are, there is always somebody out there better than you,” he said. “And that’s always grounded me and pushed me.”

He’s on the verge of releasing his first album, “Been Here Before.” The 12-song album features all original tracks and should be out by the end of April or May, Ingram said, as he finalizes a distributor.

In addition to that, Ingram and his bandmates — drummer Christopher Black and bassist Shaun Reddic — have a full schedule this spring and summer that includes trips to the Beale Street Music Festival in May in Memphis, Tenn.; the Chicago Blues Festival in June; and festivals in Colorado, Utah and California.

Still, he says there’s something special about coming back to Clarksdale.

“It’s always good to play here when I get the opportunity,” said Ingram, who will be performing as a solo act in his fifth Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale this weekend. On Saturday at noon, he’ll perform a set on the Mr. Tater Memorial Stage (350 Issaquena Ave.) before taking the main stage at 8 p.m. Saturday at The Bank (123 E. Second St.).

Christone “Kingfish” Ingram says “it’s been a lot of sweat and tears” and he’s “still paying my dues.” He is shown performing on Tuesday, April 3, 2018, at the Hambone Music and Art Gallery in Clarksdale, Ms. (Photo by Michael Banks)

“I’m not lying. It’s been a lot of sweat and tears. And I’m still paying my dues. I have a lot more to put in,” he said.

As one who has been presented with numerous rising star awards, Ingram believes the genre is alive and well thanks to the efforts of himself and other young top blues musicians such as Marquise Knox of St. Louis and Georgia’s Jontavious Willis.

The young songwriter compares blues music to the roots of a tree. You may chop off a limb, but as long as you have the roots, that tree is going to survive.

“It’s not going anywhere. Blues is the roots. It’s the roots for everything you hear.”

Moon Lake magic and Tennessee Williams

Many of the characters and locations that turn up in the timeless works of playwright Tennessee Williams — including scenes from “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Orpheus Descending” — originated from a small town on the flat open land known as the Mississippi Delta and an oxbow body of water named Moon Lake.

By Michael Banks

So many of the characters and scenes that have been shared on a world stage through the words of Tennessee Williams can be traced back to the time the famous playwright called Clarksdale, Miss., and Coahoma County his home.

An assortment of Blanches and Stellas have whispered the words Moon Lake while audiences sit transfixed, deep within their own visions of characters and scenes drawn from Williams’ Deep South and life in the Mississippi Delta.

And it is still now, some 35 years after Williams’ death at the age of 71, in which this area is still celebrating and creating new ways to showcase its small part in all that was Tennessee Williams.

For Clarksdale and Coahoma County is very much a part of what Tennessee Williams was and Tennessee Williams is very much a part of what Clarksdale and Coahoma County is and can become.

‘Home is where you hang your childhood’

It is believed that Edwina Dakin Williams and her two children moved in with her parents in a church rectory on DeSoto Avenue in Clarksdale sometime during the late spring or early summer of 1917.

Tom, as Tennessee was known then, would have been six years old at the time when he and his mother and older sister, Rose, moved in with his grandparents, the Rev. Walter E. and Rosina Otte Dankin, who lived in Clarksdale from 1917-’32 while the Rev. Dakin was the rector of St. George’s Episcopal Church.

Tom and his mother and sister would live in Clarksdale for about 16 months with Tom attending Eliza Clark School until the trio moved to St. Louis in 1918 to join his father, Cornelius Coffin Williams, who had been a traveling salesman for most of Tom’s early life before he finally landed a desk job.

Still, Tom and his sister would make frequent trips to Clarksdale to visit their grandparents, who by this time had moved into the new rectory located on Sharkey Avenue beside St. George’s Episcopal Church.

And Tom and Rose would live with the Dakins in Clarksdale at different times due to their mother’s poor health following the birth of their brother, Dakin. Tom lived in the Sharkey rectory for 16 months in 1920-21 and completed fourth grade at Oakhurst Elementary School.

He would then visit the Dakins most summers until graduating high school in 1929.

Panny Mayfield, a Clarksdale journalist who has done a number of stories on Williams through the years, believes the days and nights Williams spent in Clarksdale and Coahoma County was “an idyllic, quiet time.”

“I think he was very happy here. It was the happiest time of his life.”

— Panny Mayfield, Clarksdale (Miss.) journalist

“I think he was very happy here. It was the happiest time of his life,” she said.

Acting coach and documentary filmmaker Karen Kohlhaas agrees, pointing to a popular quote attributed to Williams: “Home is where you hang your childhood.”

Gold buckle of the cotton belt

She says the Clarksdale of Williams’ time in the 1920s is very much different than it is now. At the time, Clarksdale was called “Little New York,” Kohlhaas said, as there were as many millionaires per capita here as there were in New York City.

“It was known as the gold buckle of the cotton belt. It was one of the richest small towns in America because of the cotton boom,” she said of the planters who were getting up to $1 per pound of cotton at the time.

But those heady days wouldn’t last as the cotton futures market crashed and the price of a pound of cotton sunk to a nickel as many lost fortunes.

“People lost everything,” Kohlhaas said. “But still, they continued on. It was the gambler mentality. That whole rise and fall with how good of a crop you were going to get.”

And it would be these people, that mentality, that would serve as characters in many of Williams’ future plays.

“These are the people he is writing about,” said Kohlhaas, who makes her home in New York City and has been working on her documentary of Williams for the past eight years.

“Up here in the North, people tend to paint the South with one brush. But the Delta is so incredibly different from the Old South, like Virginia. It was sort of like the Wild West as opposed to Gone With the Wind.

“I did not understand it at all until I started working on this project. As I learned a lot more about the Delta and Delta personalities, I began to see and understand how that is embedded in his plays.”

The people who gave his stories life

Kohlhaas believes the story of Williams is not so much the tale of “this little boy remembering his time here” but rather “it was a constant association with the place through his grandfather.”

She also believes Williams was “deeply sensitive” and pulled from his experience of “being both inside and outside the society of Clarksdale.”

Being the grandson of the town’s beloved Episcopalian priest gave the family social status, but Kohlhaas says “at the same time, he did not fit in with a lot of the kids in town.”

This could help explain Williams’ fondness for “compassion and understanding for people on the edges of society,” Kohlhaas said.

“He would spend his time writing and alone. He wasn’t the typical Delta boy who wanted to go out and fish and hunt. He and his sister both had big imaginations and were very creative.”

Mayfield said she has heard the tale that the character Brick Pollitt from Williams’ play Cat On a Hot Tin Roof was based on a boy who lived right down the street from the rectory and had apparently beaten up Tom on one occasion.

She said that a family member of Brick’s relayed to her on a later occasion that “they thought that Tennessee Williams got even” with his portrayal as Brick as an alcoholic, aging former high school football star who is in a strained marriage.

Williams drew on memories from his Clarksdale childhood as material in his plays. Names such as Blanche, Stella, Brick, Laura, Wingfield, Cutrer and Baby Doll became namesakes for famous Williams characters. He also referenced local stores, towns and landmarks such as Moon Lake and the stone angel in Grange cemetery.

Shown is a marker noting the property beside Moon Lake that has become a destination of Tennessee Williams fans as the “Moon Lake Casino” that was featured in many of his Williams’ plays was located at the site. (Photo by Michael Banks)

She said Williams didn’t like the time he spent in St. Louis.

“He loved the people, the wit, the humor, the style of people like the Cutrers,” Kohlhaas said.

“He hated it and didn’t take to it at all,” Kohlhaas said. “He wanted to come back to Clarksdale.”

Williams would continue to have a strong relationship with his grandparents through their remaining years. His grandmother would send him money until he finally achieved commercial success with “The Glass Menagerie.”

“She truly believed in him,” Mayfield said.

His grandfather, who lived to be 95, would visit Williams after he became famous and his grandson would always ask about the residents of Clarksdale as Mayfield said he kept up with the Cutrers and the Clarks and their stories.

Kohlhaas said the last documented visit by Williams to the Mississippi Delta, that she can find, is his trip to Beloit in December 1955 when he visited for the filming of “Baby Doll.”

A ‘research center’ for actors

With its history and the preservation of several landmarks mentioned in Williams’ plays, this area has attracted both professional actors and common tourists seeking the Tennessee Williams experience.

Mayfield says Clarksdale has become a sort of “research center” for actors and actresses portraying characters from Williams’ many works. She has served as host for many, including Ruth Wilson who portrayed Stella from A Streetcar Named Desire during a London run and also the famous English actress Lia Williams, who was recognized for her role as Blanche du Bois in a production of Streetcar in Dublin, Ireland.

Recently, accomplished actors Robert Cuccioli and Laila Robins visited the county as part of a fundraiser to assist in the opening of the Tennessee Williams Rectory Museum. In addition to many film and TV roles, Robins has portrayed the character of Blanche from “Streetcar” on many occasions and one of her first leading roles was in the role of Alma Winemiller in the Williams play “Summer and Smoke.”

Actors Robert Cuccioli and Laila Robins visited Coahma County as part of a fundraiser to assist in the opening of the Tennessee Williams Rectory Museum in Clarksdale. (photo by Michael Banks)

“In my imagination, I had often wondered who Alma was and who she is. All actors want to do research and see what inspired the character they are portraying,” Robins said. “What he writes of is in all of our DNAs. It captures us as human beings.”

Kohlhaas was able to take the Cuccioli and Robins to many of the notable areas in the county mentioned in Williams’ work. One moment that sticks with her was watching Robins as she visited Uncle Henry’s, the site of one of Williams’ most riveting scenes from “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

“She stood there, exactly where the Moon Lake Casino was, and looked out toward Moon Lake, walking the steps that Blanche would have taken. She, literally, began to cry as it was that moving to her,” Kohlhaas said.

Clarksdale is Shakespeare’s house

There is something special about coming to this area, Kohlhaas said.

“Clarksdale is a huge American theatre history location. It’s like Shakespeare’s house. I just hope to bring more and more awareness to it.”

One thing she is doing is serving as curator for the soon-to-open Tennessee Williams Rectory Museum at 106 Sharkey Ave. in Clarksdale. Plans are for the museum to open Oct. 12 during the Mississippi Delta Tennessee Williams Festival.

The museum will document Williams’ childhood in Clarksdale and his family history, as well as the local people, places and history that Williams featured most in his famous plays. Kohlhaas said it’s “been like decorating a giant doll house.”

The mission of the museum is to educate visitors about Clarksdale and the Mississippi Delta history as they appear in Williams’ work.

Not far from the rectory is a Tennessee Williams Park that was dedicated in October 1994. Other popular spots to visit are the former Moon Lake Casino and the Cutrer Mansion, which dates back to 1916.

Jen Waller, who is director of the Coahoma County Higher Education Center/Cutrer Mansion, said they see a steady stream of people wanting to see the home of the family mentioned so often in Williams’ works.

Clarksdale’s founding father, John Clark, had nine sons and one daughter and her name was Blanche Clark Cutrer. She married John W. Cutrer in a ceremony that was presided over by the Rev. Dakin and was considered to be one of the most lavish events of its time.

“We don’t have as much traffic as I wish we did, but I do love it when tourists stop by and I get to tell them about the Cutrers. It’s almost always because they’ve seen the house connected to Tennessee Williams,” she said. “We do have a small tourist traffic, but not tons. Maybe it will increase with the rectory museum.”

The main event tied to Williams here is the Mississippi Delta Tennessee Williams Festival, which is now in its 26th year. This year’s festival will run from Thursday, Oct. 11 through Saturday, Oct. 13.

There will be a kickoff dinner and dancing, historic tours and a panel on the Cutrer family and Clarksdale history. Saturday’s events include a monologue and scene competition for students from all over the state, followed by an afternoon of plays performed on porches on homes located in the city’s historic district.

One of the leading organizers of the event is Mayfield, who was involved with the first festival in 1992.

“She’s really been legendary over the years,” Waller said of Mayfield. “She’s been carrying this torch for Tennessee Williams and the blues even before anyone else was really doing it.”

Appreciation only grows

Mayfield said Williams’ stories persevere as he was “very courageous” in his writing.

“They still have meaning… he wrote of difficulties in relationships,” Mayfield said.

Kohllaas, who originally wanted to finish her documentary two years ago, said it’s been “quite a process” of putting together the film with the working title “Tennessee Williams and the Mississippi Delta.”

She said, “There’s just so much material and I want to make sure it’s correct. It’s been like making a giant quilt.”

Still, Kohlaas has learned much about Williams during the process and it has only enhanced her appreciation of his talents.

“He is the Shakespeare and the Chekhov of America. He used lyricism and poetry in his writing like Shakespeare, but like Checkhov, he wrote of a decaying society and an aristocracy that was steadily descending.”

She adds that those hundreds of hours spent in the Carnegie Public Library researching Williams and the countless visits she’s made here have also revealed “just how much the Delta actually influenced him, especially early in his career, which are considered some of his greatest pieces of work.”

Waller has spent most of her life in Coahoma County and admits it wasn’t until 1996 when she first became aware of Williams’ association with Clarksdale. As part of the Williams Festival that year, there was a production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” at the former Larry Thompson Center at the old movie theatre on Yazoo Avenue.

“It was excellent. I remember going to that and thought it was amazing,” said Waller, who admits her favorite Williams play is “The Glass Menagerie.”

But the worldwide impact hit her even more when she and Clarksdale resident Eva Connell visited New Orleans for that town’s Williams Festival two years ago.

“We were at this one place and they did a reading of a one-act play. I’d never heard of it before, but it was all about Friars Point and Moon Lake. This was in New Orleans in front of people from all over the world. That was eye-opening. The ones that really didn’t get much play, he used these same landmarks in these shorter plays.”

Waller said, “It’s become such a valuable piece of our history and it’s really become known worldwide.”

These words written by Williams are now being spoken in many dialects. There’s Baby Doll in German. Blanche in a thick Irish brogue. Or Stella on a South African stage.

Williams and his wonderful scenes and these stories of the people and places of Clarksdale and Coahoma County continue on.

As Kohlhaas says, “This little boy who lived in Clarksdale ended up reaching the entire world.”

Author Hank Burdine is definitely Delta

Author Hank Burdine’s latest book is a collection of his stories about the people, places and things that make up the Delta.

And Burdine is the perfect person to share those stories with his Southern drawl and storytelling ease that leaves one craving a sip of whiskey as they sit along the banks of the Mississippi River.

Burdine was in Clarksdale on Thursday, reading passages from his new book, “Dust in the Road: Recollections of a Delta Boy.” The event, held at the Cutrer Mansion, was part of the Community Book Talks lecture series that is sponsored by the Carnegie Public Library in partnership with the Coahoma County Higher Education Center.

The book is a collection of stories Burdine has shared in the monthly Delta magazine. He has been writing for Delta magazine since its inception in 2003. His first column was titled “Why Mississippi Will Always Be My Home.”

“That was 67 issues ago,” Burdine said.

During Thursday’s event, Burdine read the introduction in his latest book, as well as the story “The Night I Lost My Pants at a Debutante Ball.”

He is proud of the work and thankful for contributions by “two dear, dear friends of mine”– authors Julia Reed, from Greenville, and Richard Grant, who wrote “Dispatches From Pluto.” Reed wrote the foreword, while Grant wrote the epilogue.

“I’m honored those two cats wanted to put something in the book,” Burdine said.

In an article, Grant wrote, “Hank Burdine is a writer, raconteur and bon vivant, a big-hearted, loud-drawling, whiskey-loving son of Greenville, Mississippi.”

Burdine said he hasn’t received many compliments in his life, but one of the greatest compliments he ever received was when he was described “as a Rule from Ruleville.”

The introduction to his book reflects on the Delta and memories of his mother.

“So, it is my belief, in agreement with my momma, that while the people of the Delta are what makes it so unique, it is the fact that in most cases, it was our grandparents and great-grandparents that were the true pioneers of this region.

“And it was that pioneering spirit and blood and guts and tears and sweat that beat the Mississippi River back, felled the trees and began to plow and mold the richest land imaginable in order to give us, today, the Mississippi Delta.”

Burdine said Clarksdale and its surrounding area “has got a real, deep part in my heart” and is a special place for him. He talked of Coahoma County’s Robert E. Bobo and his exploits as a bear hunter.

Burdine, who is also a commissioner on the Mississippi Levee Board, spoke of the twists and turns of the Sunflower River as it makes its way through the county and eventually heads to Ruleville and the rest of the lower Delta.

“We’re all so connected and it’s such an integral part of everything as this Delta is. It’s the uniqueness of this Delta, not only to us that live here and have been here, but to folks who want to know about it,” he said.

“The Delta is very special right now. It’s very hot right now,” said Burdine, who recently hosted the second annual Hank Burdine Blues and Greens Festival at the Shack Up Inn near Clarksdale. He pointed out that 80 percent of the inn’s clientele are visitors from Europe.

That’s an example, Burdine said, of the people learning about the Delta and wanting to know more about it.

“It’s not the high glitz and neon glory, but it’s the old stuff, the way we know it. It’s the Delta stuff,” Burdine said. “It’s the deep stuff. It’s the stuff in our guts. This is what we got. This is who we are.”

He said when people ask where he’s from, the answer is simple.

“I’m not from Clarksdale. I’m not from Greenville. I’m from the Delta.”

He said that simple statement covers a lot of people, a lot of races and a lot of creeds and nationalities.

“But, it’s us and it’s our Delta.”

Want a copy?

Hank Burdine’s book, “Dust in the Road: Recollections of a Delta Boy,” is sold exclusively through Delta magazine and authorized dealers. Call 662-843-2700 or go online to deltamagazine.com to order a copy.

(This article first appeared in the Dec. 12, 2018, issue of The Clarksdale Press Register.)

The reality of Wright Thompson

The role of family, specifically, that of the father, in the life of some of the greatest athletes in the world is at the heart of Wright Thompson’s newest book, “The Cost of These Dreams.”

The role of family, specifically, that of the father, in the life of some of the greatest athletes in the world is at the heart of Wright Thompson’s newest book, “The Cost of These Dreams.”

And the Clarksdale, Miss., native didn’t have to go far in searching for inspiration in telling the stories, as he counted on the life lessons he learned from his parents, Mary and Walter Thompson, and the community he grew up in.

“You talk about the things you get from your parents. The thing I got most of all was, for better or for worse, a complete, abiding belief that if I wanted to do it, I could do it,” Thompson said. “I kept believing despite severe evidence that suggested I should quit.”

“The Cost of These Dreams” is a collection of stories that he has written over the years for ESPN The Magazine. The main character in a lot of the stories is “place,” Thompson said during an appearance Friday at the Carnegie Public Library in downtown Clarksdale as part of its Community Book Talks Lecture Series.

And Clarksdale, he believes, is a “crash course in how to really dig into a place.”

Thompson grew up in Clarksdale on Court Street, where his mother, who is a retired teacher from Lee Academy, still lives. His father passed away in September 2004.

Wright believes the experience of growing up here plays a large part in how he writes and his interview process in his work as a senior writer for ESPN and as an executive producer of the television series “True South” on the SEC Network and “Backstory” on ESPN.

“When you’re confronted with so much hypocrisy, it makes you either want to cut through myths… which is basically what these things are, really,” Thompson said, holding up his book. “There is a through-line for all of these stories. Every one of them is trying to tell a story that someone doesn’t want told.

“That’s certainly formed here (in Clarksdale). At an early age, I think you decide if you’re going to tear it down or become part of it. And that’s very little middle ground. I understand how people come to both decisions.

“I don’t think any of this happens if I’m from a suburb of Atlanta with the exact same parents and the exact same situation. The exact same neighbors and the exact same schools. Same teachers and same people in the classes.

“I got to think there’s something from being from this place that gets into you and, if you can get out of the place, you can carry that like a sword and a shield everywhere you go for the rest of your life. If you crawl your way out of this, there’s not a single thing in the world… I mean everything after that is easy. It’s almost like the greatest possible training you could ever have.”

The 1996 Lee graduate attended the University of Missouri, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism. He would work for various newspapers, including The Clarksdale Press Register, Times-Picayune in New Orleans and the Kansas City Star, before he landed a job as a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine in 2006.

He has written hundreds of articles for numerous publications, including a recent article in Garden and Gun magazine about Moon Lake and Katherine’s restaurant. He’s won a number of sports journalism awards and also an Emmy for his E:60 on noodling, the sport of fishing for catfish with bare hands. He is a member of the Clarksdale/Coahoma County Sports Hall of Fame.

And as much appreciation as Thompson has for this community, Clarksdale residents are as equally supportive as more than 100 people turned out for the author’s appearance Friday.

Thompson jokingly said he thought about titling his latest book “Back For More Cash,” which got large laughs from the audience, but he admitted it was a bit of a chore narrowing down the 14 stories that eventually made it into the publication.

“When I read it, it sort of took my breath away,” Thompson said of the book’s preface, which he wrote over 90 minutes spent at a booth in the Yazoo Pass restaurant downtown. “They (the varied stories) really do fit together in an interesting way and speak to each other in an interesting way that was completely unintended. That was a total accident.”

During Friday’s appearance, Thompson read portions of his story titled “Michael Jordan’s Not Left the Building,” which detailed the 50th birthday of Jordan and how the former basketball superstar and one of the most famous people in the world was learning to live a life where “now you’re just a guy whose knees hurt.”

Reflecting upon Jordan and his voracious appetite for competition, Thompson told the audience, “He very much seeks out that part of his life that’s gone.”

And that adjustment of fading from the limelight is at the heart of his newest collection of stories.

“I feel like you spend 48 percent of your life wanting to be something, four percent of your life being it and 48 percent of your life having been it. And that’s certainly true for every person in this book.”

He believes there is a bit of a “mourning period” for athletes once they retire and try to decide how the next part of their life is played out.

“It’s interesting because people want to be famous because it sounds fun. But when they get famous, they want to give it back. And you can’t give it back because you’ve already made too many deals with the devil that you can’t unmake.”

As for Wright Thompson, the author said life is good. The 42-year-old now makes his home in Oxford where he lives with his wife, Sonia, and daughter, Wallace, and often makes trips home to Clarksdale to see his mother and friends.

“Everybody has a story they tell themselves about themselves.  And everybody has a story that other people tell about them,” Thompson said. “What I really want to do when you break it down… the essence of it…  is to figure out what those two stories are… and the most important is figure out what is the space in between, why does that space exist.”

As an example, he said he’ll often tell people that he grew up “working on a farm” from his days spent working in the cotton fields for local farmer Cliff Heaton. But what he’ll not say is that his father “was a pretty successful trial lawyer.”

Thompson said, “It’s because I have a self-image of myself as someone who got here by working really hard and one thing confirms the way I feel about it and the other thing doesn’t. Am I lying? I don’t know. But it feels true to me.

“When I look at and see my own journey here, and all the people who started wanting the same thing… and watching the winnowing happen and seeing who gets stripped away and who is left standing when we get to the top of the mountain… it feels to me, the single most important thing was not talent, but hard work and the ability to believe ‘someone’s got to do this, why not me?’”

(This story originally appeared in the April 10, 2019, edition of The Clarksdale Press Register.)