subscribe: Posts | Comments      Facebook      Email Steve

The Last Democrat in South Carolina


Part 1

Crockpot Holler is just a bend in the woods in southwestern South Carolina, hard by Crockpot Creek. Its 457 souls live mostly along Route 278, a two-lane blacktop that winds along the Georgia border from Bluffton up to New Ellenton, which is where I’m from. I never would have had any reason to go to Crockpot Holler if it hadn’t been for Willie Hunke.

You see, Willie was my cousin, on my mom’s side. He was from Jackson, just a toad hop from New Ellenton; his mom, Essie, my mom’s sister, had married a farmer, Mitch Hunke, who had a little auto repair shop in his garage. He also grew alfalfa and corn in the summer and Christmas trees for the holiday season. Willie and me was best friends from the time we was babies. I used to help Uncle Mitch harvest the Christmas trees. He’d pay me $5 a day, a lot of money for a 12-year old kid in 1958. Mitch was originally from Crockpot Holler.

Now, long before I ever went to Crockpot Holler, I’d heard it referred to as “Crackpot Holler.” That was what the kids in Jackson and New Ellenton called it. You see, Crockpot Holler was famous for its Pentecostals. Now there was a bunch of holy rollers fit to be tied! We had some pretty good Christians in New Ellenton and my mom, Winona, read the Bible a lot, but she never whirled and spun like a dervish the way the Pentecostals was supposed to in Crockpot Holler. So one cold December day, when the snow was piling up in the Blue Ridge and the wind ripped right through you, Mitch told Willie and me to hop into his old Chevy pickup because we was driving down to Crockpot Holler to visit his momma, Willie’s grandma, Esmina.

The three of us squeezed into the front seat. Route 278 was a mess, with slush and patches of black ice, and Mitch almost went off the road two or three times, but we made it to Esmina’s little house. The old lady came out to meet us, wrapped in a black shawl that had seen better days. Snowflakes flicked through the air and dotted the shawl. I knew she was a widow for a long time; her husband, Floyd, had died during the War, in a place called Iwo Jima. Mitch was her only child.

We went into Esmina’s house, where a hot wood fire was burning in the old potbelly stove. Esmina invited us to take off our boots and coats, which we hung on hooks by the front door, and then she said she had oatmeal cookies and coffee for us, but first, she wanted us to know, we would pray. As she was talking, I noticed someone in the parlor, a tall, middle-aged guy with black hair parted in the middle that swept below his neck over his collar and a black suit that made him look like a scarecrow.

The man was Reverend Dennison. Esmina explained that the Reverend had recently arrived in Crockpot Holler from Aiken, which was a big city by our standards—population 30,000. He had come to Crockpot Holler, she said, because the Lord had whispered to him that’s where his ministry lay. “And I knew,” Esmina told us, smiling, looking at Rev. Dennison as though he were her own flesh and blood, “as soon as I set eyes on him that he was a holy man God sent to us, praise Jesus.”

Rev. Dennison beamed. “Well, howdy, boys, nice to meet y’all. Y’all set to open your hearts and talk to Jesus?” Now, I knew that Mitch wasn’t big on that old time religion. In fact, I’d heard him call the place of his birth “Crackpot Holler.” Neither was I, nor Willie. But this was Mitch’s momma, and he had that respect for her that even the roughest, toughest southern men have for their mothers. So we gathered in a little circle near the stove, got down on our knees, took hands, and waited for Rev. Dennison to begin.

There wasn’t too much fire and brimstone; I expect he held that for Sunday mornings. Afterwards, we sat down at Esmina’s little table, with its cracked formica top and stained plastic doilies, and Esmina served everybody up their coffee and cookies. Rev. Dennison seemed especially interested in me.

“Well, there, young man—Bertram, you say, right? Now what grade would y’all be in school?”

I wasn’t used to being questioned by preachers. I expect I muttered something under my breath. Esmina said, “Bertram, speak up. We can’t hardly hear you.”

“I’m in seventh grade, sir.” Rev. Dennison took that in. “Seventh grade. Well, I’ll be. That sorta puts you right in the middle of bein’ a boy and a man, don’t it.” He looked right at me, and that’s when I noticed his eyes were blue, like a robin’s egg you find in the woods that dropped down out of the nest. “You got right with the Lord, boy?”

No one said anything but I could hear Willie chewing on his cookie and Uncle Mitch slurping his coffee. I didn’t know what to say so I kept my mouth shut. “I asked you, you got right with the Lord, Bert?” Esmina was looking at me in such a way as to make me feel I had to answer the question, but I didn’t know what to say.

“I don’t know, sir.”

“You don’t know? You don’t know if you right with our Lord and Savior? Well, Bert, how long’s it gonna take before you know? Because you’re gonna be a man soon—I ‘spect you already are in some respects—and every man’s gotta know if he’s right with his Lord and Savior, ‘cuz that’s what it’s all about. Am I right, Brother Mitchell?”

Uncle Mitch put down his coffee cup. “That’s right, Reverend,” he replied, without, I thought, much conviction. I noticed Willie out the corner of my eye. He was delighted it was me, not himself, that was being picked on.

“Tell you what,” Rev. Dennison said. “You live in New Ellenton, right? Why, that’s not too far from Jackson, and you know every two weeks I travel up there for some preachin’ at the old church, right there on 278. Tell you what, next Sunday I want you to come, and we’ll spend some time afterwards, jes the two of us, talking about gettin’ saved and repentin’ your sins and all that. All right, now, let’s enjoy these fine cookies that dear Esmina baked herself, God bless her.”

And that’s how it started.

Leave a Reply


Recent Comments

Recent Posts