One of my favorite programs on National Public Radio is “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross. I’m not big on listening too much of what the rich and famous like to whine about on other interview shows. But many times Ms. Gross has been able to open up various subjects and people I could have cared less about and making the topic or people interesting to me. Her interviews dig deeper than the superficial People magazine or Entertainment Tonight pieces that usually have some loony pop diva or whacked out actor expounding on their latest trip to rehab or their new diet of lawn clipping and tequila. Ms. Gross is able to draw out a real person and their beliefs most of the time with the exceptions I’ve heard being Gene Simmons who acted like a prick on her show and Bill O’Rielly who really was one. Then there was the show that they rebroadcast recently were she interviewed Mickey Spillane and I still got the strong feeling that after countless interviews where she handled many an overbearing personality she had a hard time coming to grips with a guy who was to use an old saying from my grandparents time: “common as an old shoe.” Of course I’m bias since I carry the memory of when I encountered the great writer as a young kid with him helping me out in a tough situation down in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina.
It was the mid-70’s and my parent’s marriage was a roller coaster ride of reconciliation and estrangement. Their marriage never was solid even going back to days before any of my siblings were born. As my siblings arrived both seemed unable to adjust to the added stress with each moving off into their own little worlds unable to come to terms fully with the children they each brought into the world. My father never was an emotional man often given to bouts of moodiness and outright detachment. My mother existed in her own little world full of stories of opportunities for a career she lost due to marriage and children. Where as my father grew detached and more distant over time my mother took refuge in a bottle and ever more elaborate fantasies of what she could have been, all the while increasing the circle of those guilty of holding her back. Given the times we lived and the general stigma that divorce still held in the South instead of ending the misery of their marriage they continued to be drawn together like a suicidal moth to a hot flame.
For some reason I can't even begin to understand my parents tried again to reconcile this time living on the mainland side of Pawleys Island in a trailer park just off the south causeway leading to the island, but it fared no better than their other previous attempts. After months of battles between the two involving all sorts of crimes, both real and imagined, my father arranged the purchase of another trailer and had it setup on the far end of Murrells Inlet off some dirt road. After months of enduring their strange behavior both my siblings and I soon came to appreciate the move and the relative peace that set in as we settled into our new home as the summer began. Like most good things though, it was never meant to last for long.
For those who don’t know Murrells Inlet even today bills itself as the seafood capital of South Carolina. Driving up Highway 17 just north of the Litchfield area unless you see the sign you still stand a good chance of missing the spur off the highway leading into the village. Many times I have written about the almost hidden coastal village of Pawleys Island but Pawleys to a great degree was always a destination more than an actual town. During the 70’s and earlier while there was a population of locals on the island itself it was still a place that drew tourists staying in one of the many rental beach houses and were wealthier types own second homes. The only difference was that the tourists did not come from as far away as they do now and had the consideration to leave once their vacation was over. Murrells Inlet on the other hand was always a working fishing village. But over the centuries it had also offered a haven for pirates, Confederate blockade runners, and during that time the occasional boat full of marijuana and its crew. How I know about the last one I will never tell, at least until I know for sure the statue of limitations has run out. For the first few months of the renewed separation between my parents it also became a haven for my siblings and me. The trailer park offered many things to keep children occupied before the advent of music videos and video games drew them inside for most of the day.
Behind our trailer was a rather large swath of woods that allowed us to run through viewing the occasional wild turkey, numerous possums, and the foot print evidence of a local bobcat that my grandfather identified during a visit. Many days would find my brothers, my sister, and me running through the woods with me carrying the BB gun trying to stalk the phantom bobcat or hunt squirrels so my grandfather could teach us how to clean and dress it to make squirrel purlow like he did as a child during the Depression. Yes, a few of the furry critters gave their life in our efforts. Just a little further down was a L-shaped pond that I’m now sure was artificial but never the less held many nice sized bream and a few small bass that we fished for many times early in the summer mornings. The trailer park we lived in had only recently been cleared and opened up and only a few other trailers had been setup and all were spread out leaving a huge area for playing without having to worry about making too much noise.
My mother’s mentally peaceful period ended upon the start of the school year. It was always difficult to judge when the dark clouds inside my mother would developed. Her alcoholism helped to bring it on but often times it was difficult to tell what was the cause and what was the effect since she could literally wake up one morning after weeks of being human and begin accusing everyone around her of disloyalty, lies, and holding her back for which she would start to drink. The really scary times were when she got this soulless, feral look in her eyes that seemed to suggest any sort of mayhem was possible. You just knew she would go for the belt which would be used to punish us for the most minor infraction. During these periods my grandparents did their best to blunt the worst of her bad times, when they knew about them. My mother had a fantastic acting ability to mask her darker moods from everyone. Being the oldest I did my best to keep track of her actual state of mind but even I was painfully caught short at times after returning home and she discarded her act of normalcy like some cheap Halloween mask.
Mr. Spillane’s appearance and help while brief and minor did much to defuse a glowing rage my mother had late one weekday afternoon. I’ve tried to pin down what drew the great mystery and crime writer to Murrells Inlet and the best I can discern was that he came to the Myrtle Beach area sometime during the 50’s after being invited to some sort of celebration that was being used to draw more tourists down. He somehow stumbled upon Murrells Inlet, which during that time was even more cutoff and secluded than when I lived there, and fell in love with the place, enough that to the best of my knowledge it cost him his marriage at that time. But to this day I’m thankful he did since his timely help may have saved my siblings and me.
Mom’s drinking could either be like a mad flood in which she quickly consumed enough beer and hard liquor to cause her to pass out, which could be a small blessing. At other times it was slow and steady which almost always fed whatever demons that lived inside her. These were the worst times to be around her since reality, even in her sober moments, was an ill defined thing subject to a whole manner of influences but drinking made it far worse. We were all home playing outside when she realized that there was nothing for her to make for breakfast the next morning. My siblings and I were rounded up and loaded into her Chevrolet Caprice that not many months later would carry us all across country as she chased the voices inside her head. Our destination was an old fashioned general store not very far down the road but the last thing I was worried about was my mother wrecking the car while under the influence. She had this almost supernatural ability to drive perfectly while heavily drunk and still gulping down a rum and coke she had mixed up before leaving the house.
We pulled into the parking lot of the general store with her sipping her drink and leaving the car running so she could listen to her music. She handed me a five dollar bill and gave me a list of various items that I was not to deviate from in the least, she assured me a whipping would result if I did. Wanting to get back home and outside away from her I quickly walked into the store and looked for the needed items placing them on the counter as two guys talked nearby. The clerk was a rather tall mustached fellow who owned the store and had always been kind to me whenever I went inside. The second guy sitting on a stool drinking something I don’t remember looked to me like a short fireplug of a fellow equally jovial and lighthearted. Right off the bat they could tell I was nervous asking me if anything was wrong. I was only eleven years old at the time and it was beyond my ability to explain to them that my mom was in a possible dangerous frame of mind due to her drinking. I knew enough that when confronted before she could without hesitation don her mask of civilized behavior and act out abject puzzlement over how anyone could believe she had any sort of problem. I don’t remember my answer but I sure I said everything was alright. Looking back while they might have accepted my answer they knew something terrible was wrong after seeing my reaction to the clerk telling me I did not have near enough money for the items I had brought to the counter. I felt like some cornered animal unable to fight or flee knowing that once my mother found out she would be instantly convinced I had lost the money between the car and the store. Repercussions upon returning home were sure to be swift and brutal. I’m not sure how much time passed between me being told of the lack of enough money and the gentleman on the stool coming up and looking into my eyes worried that I was hiding something but I remember him putting his hand on my shoulder and telling me it was going to be alright as he pulled out his wallet paying for the groceries and giving me a couple of dollars more along with returning the five dollar bill I walked in with. The clerk then asked me if I knew who the guy was that they knew had delivered me from some sort evil and I said no. The clerk then went on to tell me that my benefactor was none other than the famous writer Mickey Spillane. I, of course, had no idea who he was at that time but to this day I know he saved me from my mother’s rage that night.
I returned to the car carrying the bag full of groceries and sure enough my mother asked what had taken me so long. I told her that I did the best I could while giving her the couple of dollars Mr. Spillane had handed me. Like a petulant child the return of more change than she expected sent her clouded mind off onto another, calmer direction, I kept the five dollar bill hidden for weeks only breaking it out while staying with my grandparents one weekend. As we drove off I saw that the man identified to me as Mickey Spillane had walked out the store and had been observing the interaction I had with my mother. I could tell that it was more than a casual observation and that he was genuinely concerned over my fearful behavior. While I never saw Mr. Spillane again I was always touched by his simple gesture and concern. He will always be a king among men to me.