Beyond the Sea

By  |  November 19, 2019
Untitled photograph (2018), by Brennan Booker Untitled photograph (2018), by Brennan Booker

 

I

t’s generally accepted that Junior was the nicest person in Myrtle Beach. He was a lifelong delivery driver—first for the town’s ice house, then, for decades, for the grocery and variety store at the heart of old Myrtle Beach. Having a job that took him all over town meant that he knew everybody and everybody knew him. He was a gentle, innocent person with a high voice that trailed away at the ends of his sentences. When I was a small child, my understanding of Junior was merged with the character of Mr. Green Jeans from Captain Kangaroo, a show I watched every day before kindergarten. Like Mr. Green Jeans, Junior frequently dropped in with a delivery and stayed to chat, wearing green work clothes and carrying about him an aura of rurality greater than could be accounted for by his surroundings. 

I spent my childhood in Myrtle Beach, where my father had also grown up, and which his father and grandfather had each had a hand in developing. In the late seventies and early eighties, the nucleus of the community was still a small, insular network of families, many of whom had lived there since the town’s founding. Most of us lived off some aspect of the tourist trade—in my family’s case, miniature-golf courses—so Junior’s job as deliveryman was unusual in that it catered primarily to the year-round residents. Junior’s ancestors, like mine, had been there in Horry County since at least the early 1700s; in fact, our family trees join if you trace back far enough. 

There are scores of stories about Junior. The oldest dates to his first day of first grade, in the late 1920s. Junior’s parents, farmers on the outskirts of town, had not yet been able to buy him a pair of pants, so they had to send him to school in the dress-like shirttails that rural children wore in those days, irrespective of gender. Even as old men, Junior’s former classmates often addressed him as Frock. 

Most of the Junior stories have to do with his kindnesses to others. Unlike many other white men of his time and place, Junior actively engaged and socialized with Myrtle Beach’s black residents. He’d give domestics rides to their jobs while he was on his delivery routes, and in hard times he was known to set aside additional groceries to distribute in the poorer black sections of town. 

For the store’s customers, he’d not only deliver groceries, but he’d bring the groceries into the house and put them away. My grandmother, on her first visit to Myrtle Beach after my parents were married, was alarmed when a lanky man drove up to the house in a green pickup truck, let himself in the front door, and proceeded to put food in the cabinets and refrigerator. “Howdy, howdy, howdy,” he told her. 

There exists one story in the body of Junior tales that has to do with something he did for himself, for his own pleasure. Junior loved Elvis with all his heart. (He loved Elvis even more than he loved racing, and he loved racing so much that he went to the track at Darlington one evening after he had been hit by two different cars in the grocery store parking lot. “You can’t go, you’re all skint up,” his friends insisted, and he went anyway.) One day, Junior got into his truck and started driving west. He drove seven hundred fifty miles in a straight shot to Memphis and asked around until someone directed him to Graceland. Once at the King’s abode, Junior pulled out a trowel that he had brought with him and carefully cut out a one-square-foot section of turf from the front lawn. He put it in the back of the truck and headed east again. Once home, he planted the grass in front of his own house, so that forever after, he and Elvis, in Myrtle Beach and Memphis, could look out upon their shared lawn.

 

I don’t think Elvis ever performed in Myrtle Beach, but just about everyone else did. My father, who was born in 1934, wrote in later life about what it had been like to be a teenager at the beach in the 1950s. This was the generation, both black and white, that developed the dance known as the shag, a smooth swing dance to accompany the r&b music they were listening to. Most of the kids who frequented the local clubs and dance halls during the summers, he wrote, “came from the larger Carolina towns and cities, some from rural villages, and only a few by way of reformatories and denominational colleges.” One, he remembered, who came from the textile town of High Point, North Carolina, went by the name of One Lung—short, the boy explained, for Two Lungs. Daddy recalled, “There was something awesome about the early summer gatherings of the Peers, resuming their dominion as casually as if the separation had been a matter of hours rather than months.” 

Vacations are about pretending that you’re someone you probably aren’t—someone with ample leisure, with the money to eat at restaurants every night, with the sophistication to dance to the house orchestra at the Ocean Forest Hotel or the hipness to hear a blues shouter at a backstreet club. Myrtle Beach has always capitalized on tourists’ desire to put a soundtrack to their vacations. Long before the days of the megachurch-style country music theaters, like the Carolina Opry and the Alabama Theatre, which would later dominate the north end of town, Myrtle Beach was a regular stop for the working musicians who toured the Southeast. 

My dad’s father ran the company that owned the Pavilion, the late and lamented downtown amusement park with a wooden roller coaster and other rides, and a beachfront theater and dance floor. It was probably because of my grandfather’s influence that my father got a teenage summer job “pulling curtains” at the Pavilion. Daddy could hardly have asked for a more fun assignment, operating the curtains for the often well-known performers who appeared at the Pavilion. Some were regional figures, like the South Carolina country radio personality Slim Mims, a native son of the Pee Dee region; others were on the national circuit, like Roy Acuff and the Smoky Mountain Boys. But Daddy wasn’t crazy about country music when he was young; he associated it with his mother, whom he adored but whose countryisms would set his teeth on edge, as he was attempting to establish himself as a sophisticate. (The worst offense, he remembered years later, was her habit of saying “Speck so” to express agreement.) 

Daddy’s real love at that age was r&b, and he was one of the white teenagers who frequented Charlie’s Place, a club in the black neighborhood known, like those of so many Southern towns, as the Hill. Charlie’s Place, owned by local African-American businessman Charlie Fitzgerald, was a stop on the chitlin’ circuit, and a multiracial hub of early shag dancing. By some accounts, the dance was named for a woman who worked there, a virtuosic dancer who went by the nickname Shag. Billie Holiday, Little Richard, Fats Domino, and many others of the jazz and r&b pantheon performed there. At Charlie’s Place, black and white patrons danced together, including black men with white women; in Chicago, Emmett Till was still alive. 

In the summer of 1950, during a wave of Ku Klux Klan demonstrations, the Grand Dragon of the Association of Carolina Klans led a reported twenty-six carloads of Klansmen, with police escort, to the Hill. Stopping at Charlie’s Place, they opened fire. Charlie Fitzgerald was kidnapped, thrown into the trunk of a car, and carried to the outskirts of town, where he was badly beaten. He survived the assault but for the remaining years of his life bore scars where the Klansmen had mutilated his earlobes. One person was killed in the attack, a Klansman who was hit in the gunfire. When his robes were removed at the hospital, he was found to be a uniformed police officer. 

It’s tempting to see the attack on Charlie’s Place, and the symbolic sacrifice of Charlie Fitzgerald’s ears, as the turning point when Myrtle Beach lost its musical innocence. But after leaving town for a while, Fitzgerald came back and reopened the club, and it continued to be a thriving venue where black and white audiences mingled. Hurricane Hazel, which hit four years later, had a lot more to do with ushering in the commercial resort that Myrtle Beach would become in the second half of the twentieth century. Vacationing in Myrtle Beach lost much of its communal atmosphere after Hazel, when many guesthouse owners, rather than rebuilding the home-style lodgings that had been numerous before the storm, instead replaced them with motels, linear cells of enforced privacy. 

107 PS Bryan2Leon “Rubber Legs” Williams, dancing in Myrtle Beach in the late 1940s. Williams recalls he was in competition to win a savings bond. Photograph courtesy of Frank Beacham

 

When my parents got married in the early seventies, my mother was working on her dissertation on medieval Latin. My father, whose linguistic aptitude was used up on his native English, bet my mother ten thousand dollars (which I doubt either of them had at the time) that he could learn an entire song in Latin. Eager to see what would happen, my mom accepted the bet. A few weeks later Daddy triumphantly sang for her “Gaudeamus igitur,” an eighteenth-century paean to fleeting youth, which he had learned phonetically from Mario Lanza’s soundtrack to the 1954 movie The Student Prince. 

He accompanied himself on his Stella Harmony four-string tenor guitar. For all his love of music, and a decent ear, Daddy was discouraged from seriously learning music by not having a good singing voice. He knew the chords to three songs, in addition to “Gaudeamus igitur,” which he would occasionally sing to himself with his Stella. One was “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” a plea for reacceptance into the fold that I think resonated with him, as an atheist raised in the Southern Baptist Church. Another was “La Mer.” Rather than going easy on himself and learning Bobby Darin’s 1959 “Beyond the Sea,” he learned Charles Trenet’s 1946 unctuous original in a phonetic approximation of French. The third song was “Blue Moon.” He favored Elvis’s baleful 1956 version, which lacks the happy resolution of Frank Sinatra’s and Dean Martin’s recordings. Daddy really disliked Elvis, though. Having grown up on the r&b that Elvis plundered, he saw him as a larcenous knockoff of the real thing. 

I was a year old when Elvis died, but as a child in Myrtle Beach, I thought he was alive, because he was everywhere. You could buy Elvis towels and t-shirts at all the beachwear shops, but if you really meant business you would go to the Gay Dolphin, a multistory giftshop built in the 1940s. Like a department store, it was, and still is, segmented into thematic areas, with one devoted entirely to Elvis souvenirs. Then came Legends in Concert, a Las Vegas–based chain of theaters where you can “see the industry’s greatest collection of live tribute artists,” i.e., impersonators. Soon, sweating Elvises loomed over every road into town from huge Legends billboards. By the eighties, Elvis had become a mascot for working-class white Southerners, the demographic that’s always been the main target audience for Myrtle Beach tourism. Like Xerxes watching the naval battle of Salamis, the King has long been enthroned at the beach. 

My family lived away from Myrtle Beach through my teens, but in my twenties I started going back, and I reimmersed myself in the culture of a singular place that I’d missed viscerally. The first person I reconnected with was Junior. He was exactly the same: sweet and ingenuous. 

One day we were talking about Elvis. “Boy had it meed,” Junior lamented, in the quasi-Gullah accent of the older white people in that neighborhood. “And then he got mixed up in them drugs.” It had been almost thirty years, and he still grieved his idol’s decline and death. We were standing in his front yard on the southwest edge of town, just past the airport, Junior’s mule Alice braying at us from the back pasture. 

I remembered the story about the lawn and its patch of Graceland grass, and asked—casually so as not to embarrass him, because I figured he’d probably been teased about it over the years—where he had planted the grass from Graceland. But he looked at me blankly. 

“I’ve always heard,” I told him, “that you drove to Memphis once, and took some grass from Graceland to plant in your yard.” He shook his head. “Have you ever been to Graceland?” I asked. He said no. 

I thought with irritation of my father and the countless times he had told the story. There was no question whom to believe. An island in an ocean of artifice, Junior didn’t dissemble. 


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Sarah Bryan is a folklorist from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. She directs the North Carolina Folklife Institute and edits the Old-Time Herald, a magazine about traditional string band music. The recipient of a 2020 literature fellowship from the North Carolina Arts Council, she is currently working on a collection of essays. She last wrote for the magazine about the music history of Kinston, North Carolina.