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The Road to Darlington


ALL OF US HAVE an old country.

Even those whose families have been in this country since the 18th century. For me, the old country is called Darlington, a county seat in the South Carolina low country, the flat land that extends inland from the Atlantic coast.

I grew up 300 miles away in Atlanta, where my parents moved after World War II. Darlington was the destination of countless family trips, daylong affairs with packed lunches over two-lane roads in pre-interstate and pre-McDonald's days. Awaiting us was the family matriarch, my grandmother, holding court in her modest house that to us was a magical castle.

I had not been to Darlington in probably two decades. Neither had my father. His parents are long dead. Other family members have moved away or died off. There was little to bring us back, other than memories. And we were never a family that spent a lot of time trafficking in memories. We looked forward, not back.

But an article in the newspaper of nearby Florence said my grandfather's drugstore building was being renovated into apartments. Dad wanted to see it. I drove from Baltimore; he flew from Florida. I picked him up at the Raleigh-Durham, N.C., airport and we headed to Darlington.

My Dad and I have always gotten along quite well. Sure, we had our generation-gap spats, but nothing serious. As adults, we've been good friends.

Now, at an odd stage of life to form such things, we find ourselves with a new bond. We are both dealing with loss -- his gradual, as my mother fades with Alzheimer's; mine sudden, with the unexpected death of my wife in December.

And we found ourselves back in Darlington.

To me -- I think to both of us -- Darlington was like the Shire to the Hobbits. Everything was to be compared and contrasted to life lived there. This was life as it was supposed to be lived.

The stifling summer heat with its incredible humidity. The bare feet on black sandy soil. The grits every morning. The boiled peanuts most afternoons. The Black Creek swimming hole. The rapid-fire clip of the auctioneers walking along the piles of golden cured leaves in the redolent tobacco warehouses. The roar of stock cars every Labor Day, racing around Nascar's first high-banked speedway, built the year I was born.

And the town square. My memory is of the old courthouse in the middle, not the 1964 mistake of modernity that now sits next to the inevitable monument to the Confederacy.

The square has suffered the same fate as Howard Street in Baltimore, losing business to the discount stores and their big parking lots.

At the soda fountain

So it is with the drugstore that my grandfather once owned. It has been closed for decades. You can see "Hill" carved atop its facade, along with the year 1931, marking a Depression-era renovation of a late 19th-century building.

Its latest renovation into three apartments -- with a retail space in front -- has attracted the same kind of attention in Darlington that Inner Harbor projects once did in Baltimore. Will anyone want to live downtown? Will it spur a comeback for the old square?

It was the dusty tile floor that grabbed Dad's mind and sent him back to the days of standing behind the long-gone soda fountain counter, making Cokes -- a glass of ice, a squirt of syrup and a fill of carbonated water. "I could do that in six seconds," he said.

"My father used to say that my brother and I were outstanding soda jerks," Dad said. "He meant he would come to the store and find us out standing on the sidewalk."

He remembered that the store's phone number was 44. "As often as not, I would ring it and the operator would say, 'Jimmie, is that you? Are you looking for your Daddy? I think I just saw him go down to the cafe. I'll ring down there.'"

There were the nights when Gone With the Wind was playing at the Grand Theater just across the street -- stupidly demolished in that misguided urban renewal of 1964. Dad remembered preparing Cokes for the crowds that would spill out during intermission.

And he remembered the old elaborate pharmacy counter -- said to be in some state museum -- used when the local pharmacist was responsible for filling prescriptions by mixing the medicines, when turning them into pills required the skill of a craftsman.

Upstairs, the renovators had found the painted sign for the doctor's office of my father's Uncle Cephas who died before I was born. He was a graduate of the University of Maryland medical school.

Dad stood in an upstairs room -- now framed out and awaiting new Sheetrock -- and told of the time that he, not yet 3-years-old, lay there with a strangulated intestinal hernia. He says he remembers Cephas giving a can of ether to my grandfather, telling him to drip it onto the gauze held over my father's mouth.

Cephas pushed the intestines back through the abdominal wall, saving my father's life, then took him to McLeod Infirmary in Florence, now McLeod Regional Medical Center. It was just before Christmas and Dad remembers his room festooned with Christmas decorations from the drugstore.

We left the old drugstore and crossed over to the middle of the square, to the courthouse where my father, a federal judge, has his portrait hanging along with those of other judges from Darlington County. One of those was my father's best friend growing up. Over at his high school, Dad told the story of the time the two of them won the state debating championship. They arrived from the competition in time for the school dance that night, entering with their big medals around their necks.

At the town's historic society, we perused the file on Hill's Drug Store; old ads, old prescription forms, old photographs. We drove around to the houses that he had lived in, past those of friends and relatives, and past the house of Billy Farrow, who was captured in Doolittle's raid over Tokyo and beheaded by the Japanese.

The family house

We arranged a visit to the house where Dad lived from the age of 11 in 1935 until he went to college, then off to war. This was the house of my memories where my grandmother lived until she moved to a retirement home in 1977. She died there a few years later, two decades after my grandfather's death.

The house was in beautiful shape, carefully restored, much better than we remembered it, frankly. There was the porch where I used to sit in the heat of the afternoon, reading, sometimes with the sound of the stock cars in the background.

Dad wanted to see if a certain step leading upstairs still squeaked. The three kids knew they had to jump over it if they came in too late. It didn't. Renovation had taken care of that.

The new owner had commissioned a pen-and-ink drawing of the place. Its title: The Hill House.

We spent some time in the cemetery where a plot is marked by a big monument that says "Hill." Cephas is in there. So is my grandmother, Alberta, and my grandfather, and great-grandfather, both with my name, Albert Michael Hill, also the name of my older son. My great-grandfather's plot has a metal marker that says "CSA" (for Confederate States of America), marking his service to the now-mythologized Lost Cause.

In another plot was the grave of my father's high school debate partner and his wife, my mother's first cousin. My parents met at their wedding in 1945, Dad just back from the war.

Many monuments had names recognized by anybody who knows Darlington -- Coggeshalls and Dargans and such. My attention was most drawn to the graves with names I had never heard of, but with dates that showed a death too young, someone in their 30s or 40s or 50s, families that endured the tragedy that is now part of my life. There were so many. You don't notice until you look.

Dad and I got in the car to get back on Interstate 95 and drive on down to his place in Florida. We didn't say that much, other than how much we enjoyed visiting Darlington. But there was a sense that the losses we shared had become more than absences. They were now present in a long multi-generational narrative, part of a text that, for us, began in the old country of Darlington, that had taken us to many other places where we found elation and fulfillment and success and, now, heartbreak.

It was up to us to continue the story.

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