Friday, June 25, 1999
I first learned about the islands off Beaufort (byou-fert), South Carolina the way maybe a lot of people did—from Pat Conroy novels. I’m not sure I saw Conrack before reading The Water Is Wide, the book it was based on, or if I read the book first, eager to learn how people in other parts of our country lived. Then I heard about the Gullah settlement, established by freed Civil War slaves, from another book-movie combination, and that made the area even more interesting. When I discovered that one of my former college teachers and his wife had retired to one of the islands, it made for an easy detour.
We got there by crossing a long bridge, then a short island. Then another bridge and island. Then a third bridge/island mix. The islands were barely-solid marshes, green, and as seductive as quicksand, and the bridges were as romantic—low, and the kind you wanted to fish off, or dive off, or skinny dip in their shadows. People seemed to be doing exactly these things as we passed, happy to be living in this near-wildlife preserve.
The particular island we were headed for was named for Captain John Fripp, privateer (read pirate). It seems that when you rent yourself out to steal for the king, you’re a privateer. Freelance, and you’re a pirate. Fripp helped King Charles back in the days where America still had a king, and Charles deeded Fripp this piece of land. Of course, Charles had never seen the marsh, and Fripp might have taken it for himself anyway, but the very undesirable nature of the island was probably what also allowed the American government to give away another piece of it in 1865 to freed slaves. Pirate Fripp reportedly never lived on the island, but it kept his name anyhow, even when repeated nineteenth century storms subdivided it into Fripp, Prichard, and Capers—separated by narrow creeks called Moon and Skull. In the late 1950’s, a developer bought the whole three mile square area for a million bucks, about what one of the big houses on the white sand beach presently goes for.
There are many houses now on Fripp, and the preferred means of transportation is a golf cart, so as not to spook the herds of deer or rouse a dozing alligator. Still, when we got to David and Lissa’s, the front door was wedged open so there was hardly concern about security.
I immediately wanted to own the place, though I had little need for three bedrooms, a study, and four bathrooms big enough to park golf carts in. But huge glass windows in the two-story living room overlooked the boulder-strewn beach, and I envied the view.
David soon appeared, though Lissa had been delayed in Statesboro and would either drive in later that evening or the next day.
“Food?” he asked.
And just when you think you can quietly go out to dinner, safely leaving the dog on a railed-in porch, you come back to find her gone. Well, not gone—she was waiting by the front steps, gloating and wagging her tail. But she wasn’t where she should have been.
“Must’ve jumped the railing,” I guessed.
“‘Long as she didn’t run away,” Tom said, looking unhappy.
And who knew where she’d really been? We’d been gone several hours.
Tom took the dog into the house, though I would’ve locked her in her room. David merely laughed, having had dogs of his own. But he also had reason to frown. As we reached the living room, we discovered the dog hadn’t simply jumped her way over the tightly-railed fence. She’s forced her way through the tiny dog door.
David and Lissa had a Chihuahua. The dog door was maybe the size of a milk carton. Tom’s dog is three feet-long. She’d pushed the whole damned contraption out of the wall.
“I’ll pay,” Tom said immediately. That familiar song.
“No,” David insisted.
“You already took us to dinner.”
“It’s not a problem,” David went on. Then, maybe to assure Tom, he began reassembling the pieces. “I just put this in, a couple weeks ago. It doesn’t look broken.”
It wasn’t. Mostly. There were a couple of gnaws. A few chews. A little lost plaster. But when we cleaned it all up, it looked almost new. Still, I suspected that the first time even the tiniest mutt crawled through it, the whole thing would fly apart.
The next morning, the dog discovered the beach. (There’s a possibility she’d discovered it the night before and was just waiting.) In the light, she could run everywhere, and as long as Tom could see her, he didn’t care.
She followed kids. She followed pretty women. She followed other dogs. I kept the train whistle handy, explaining to David its history, but we didn’t need it. ‘Cause, next, the dog discovered the water.
Oh, boy. The dog went in. The dog came out. The waves and bubbles swirled about. She’d already been in the muddy San Francisco Bay, but not for long. That was cold, while, in June, the ocean off South Carolina was a pleasing tub. Driving across the bridges, I’d seen people lazing in waist-deep water and couldn’t understand it. Once I got in myself, I could have stayed. And stayed.
“Only problem is gnats,” David explained. “At night. No-see-ums.”
I forget about bugs. The don’t exist in L.A. (Oh, sure: Termites. Ants. Occasional killer bees. But flies that feast on you hourly can’t survive in our former desert.) And, gnats be damned, I knew where I wanted to retire.
“Also hurricanes,” David continued. He pointed at a long, rocky wall, like a jetty, but on land and the length of the beach. “Cost us each thirty-thousand bucks. You can’t get insurance without it. And it can wipe out in any storm.”
Retirement was some time off. I could reconsider.