I crossed the Catawba River at about 9:30 on a Thursday morning. As I neared my old hometown of Farmersville Springs, I was greeted by the familiar sight of Day-Glo orange signs on the side of the road proclaiming, in succession: Logging Trucks Entering Highway; Mud On Road; Flagman Ahead; Thank You For Your Patience. Sure enough, a logger with an orange flag halted me on the nearly deserted South Carolina asphalt to let a procession of tractor-trailers loaded high with bouncing loblolly pine logs continue on their way to the lumber mill in town. I counted 12 trucks as they rumbled onto the road and traffic backed up behind me.
In my years growing up in this town, nobody ever complained about the inconveniences caused by the mill, for Farmersville Springs was and is a timber town, and most of our daddies worked there. They all came home with traces of fragrant sawdust on their flannel shirts.
I was waved forward and fell in behind the logging trucks, to become enveloped in thick black clouds of diesel exhaust as they progressed through their gears. I had been back to town multiple times to visit my parents, but this time was different. My heritage perpetually haunted me, making me choke when I told people I was from Farmersville Springs, South Carolina. I felt guilty when I portrayed my old home as a peaceful American town, where high-school football dominated autumn Friday nights and the sycamore in front of Town Hall had been standing since the Revolutionary War.
I passed the plain green sign welcoming me to town and continued down the main drag, Calhoun Boulevard. Things had changed little since I departed for California. A new Lowe's stood at the corner of Calhoun and Santee, and the Bi-Lo supermarket had been remodeled. New subdivisions with pastoral names kept growing, such as Cherokee Trail (even though the Cherokee of this region were constantly engaged in skirmishes with colonists and other Indians of the area) and Fallen Pines, where heavy equipment prepared the deep red Carolina clay for further construction.
These homes belonged either to timber workers or employees of the Honda lawnmower plant outside of town. That plant went up in the mid-1990s and helped raise the standard of living for laid-off textile workers, who suffered the same fate as thousands of other workers who lost their jobs to overseas competition. It seems funny that a foreign company replaced the livelihood that a foreign company took away. I drove by the skeleton of the
Southeastern Cotton Milling Corporation, and remembered when that factory put sheets on beds and shirts on backs across America.
The distinctive Southern lifestyle I remembered was beginning to resemble Phoenix, Seattle, Des Moines, Cleveland, Boston and Washington. Maybe it was for the best, because the image of the town I knew was soiled in my mind.
When I reached Atkins Ridge Road, I turned and drove through the hardwood forest until I reached my parents' house. When I was 18, the forest on the other side of the road had been heavily logged over. Now, 25 years later, a mature woodland graced the view from the front porch. I parked under the old live oak in their yard. My mother looked out from under her wide-brimmed hat as she put mulch around a viburnum and erupted in happiness, it seemed. My father, enjoying a beer under the Southern magnolia, walked up to pat my back and greet me.
"Well, I be damned," my father drawled. "Seems like California's been treatin' yuh well, muh boy."
My mother shared his pride as she scanned the inside of my new SUV.
"Y'all got to tell me what you been up to, but after we get you settled in your room. Andrew, grab the boy's bags, will you?" said my mother as she took my hand and led me into the white Federal-style farmhouse. My parents had it built when I was eight years old on a 100-acre tract of land that had been in our family since colonial times.
I climbed the white oak stairs and went down the hall to my bedroom. It was relatively unchanged since I had moved out years ago: my furniture was in the same place, and the bottom desk drawer contained all I had left behind.
I had come here by myself, for I needed to do some thinking. My parents thought this was a routine visit, but that was only part of it. In July of 1968, my life was changed from that of an eight-year-old boy satisfied with life to a scared participant in what seemed, in my eyes, a brutal display of animal behavior. I saw a local man brutally beaten and eventually lynched. His name was Marcus Cooper, and he bucked logs for the lumber company. He lived on what was traditionally the "black" side of town. One day, while driving his old Ford down SC 19, he spotted a child lying on the side of the road. The child, Marian Williams, a white girl from an old family in town, had been walking to the reservoir to go swimming when she was hit by what probably was a logging truck. The driver may not have seen her, and that's why he didn't stop, but unfortunately, Marcus did.
At about this time, the sheriff, a member of the Ku Klux Klan, drove by. Most of the men of what I will call "dignified breeding" (my father included) were part of an exclusive fraternity commonly referred to as the "good old boys."
Now, even though the sheriff was off-duty, he picked up Marcus and took him to the courthouse, and called all the men to tell them what had happened. Later that night, dressed in their hoods and robes, the men pulled up to the courthouse and walked in. They ripped a petrified Marcus out of his cell and bound him in the back of the postmaster's truck, and proceeded to a cattle pasture off Sandy Pond Road. There, after a violent beating, they lynched Marcus Cooper from a sweet gum tree on the edge of the field.
The next day, his family and members of the community gave him a Christian burial in the Baptist cemetery. That was the end for most people - even my mother (who had cried upon hearing the news) never spoke of the event again. My father, who was never involved in incidents of this sort, told me that this was the way things were down here, and to try not to think about it.
So I didn't, but the memory of what I saw as a little kid who pedaled his Schwinn down to Sandy Pond Road to see what the men were talking about, remained. At first I thought that I must have been mistaken; I didn't see the lynching, but some other activity, possibly relating to farming. After all, I was just eight years old, and it was dark. But no, I did indeed see a crime, and it turned my stomach every time I thought about it.
Later that day I decided to head out to the pasture and think the entire event through, to get it clear in my mind, and erase all the falsities that had protected my mind over the years.
When I reached it, it wasn't as I remembered. Half the field was covered in new homes and the frames of new houses, and a sign welcomed me to Granger Estates. The old sweet gum still stood, though it was surrounded by bulldozer tracks. I came upon a fresh stump and sat for about an hour in the sun, staring at the large limb that took Marcus Cooper's life. I thought of all the people involved in the act: my high-school principal, the sheriff, the postmaster, Mr. Greeley, and all the men I was told to model myself after.
I thought of the Cooper family, and how only a handful of community women had offered their condolences. I felt pangs of guilt, stronger than ever, chiding me for being from such a wretched town. At the same time, I had forgiven those men, who after a lifetime of heavy drinking, smoking, and chewing tobacco, were now living in a hell on earth.
By this time, the construction crews had returned from lunch and fired up their earth-moving equipment, turning up clouds of crimson dust. I left that old pasture and felt only mildly comforted. Angry at the fact that I had traveled across the country only to be mildly comforted, I raced down Sandy Pond Road into town, and made my way to Towhee Street - to the old Cooper house.
The yellow one-story house was for sale, but probably wasn't selling because it stood behind the new Wal-Mart, where trucks rumbled in late at night and bright spotlights turned the backyard into a spectacle. I pulled into the gas station beside a pickup truck loaded with bales of hay. Sitting in the tailgate and jovially talking were two men, one white and one black. The fact that two men of different skin colors were speaking kindly in public was shocking in itself, but these two particular men seemed familiar. I walked over and asked if we knew each other.
"Damn straight we know each other. We graduated from high school together. I'm Brett McDonald, and this guy here is Marcus Cooper, Jr.," laughed the flannel-clad man. We talked for a few minutes and I went on my way, knowing that my town had changed, that I had nothing to feel guilty about anymore, and that I could look forward to one of my mother's excellent dinners. I had finally made my peace with Far-mersville Springs, South Carolina.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.