Man In A Suitcase

Charleston, South Carolina

As I've written elsewhere, my childhood in New York was punctuated by regular car trips to Savannah, Georgia and to Charleston to visit my mom's family. I remember quite a bit about those visits to Savannah, in part because of the city and in part due to the quirkiness of my relatives. But of Charleson I could recall little. So when I spent a weekend in Atlanta at a cousin's wedding, I decided it was time to wangle an invitation from my cousin Jane to see the place named as the most gracious city in America.

What I found is that Charleston deserves that honor, in addition to being among the most beautiful and both historically and culturally interesting cities in the world. And if you don't believe it, just ask the locals; they'll be happy to confirm Charleston's position at the center of the universe. They'll mean it too, even as they smile at their own presumption. I don't recall being anywhere else where people managed to have their noses in the air and their tongues in their cheek at one and the same time. But a lot of Charleston humor derives from their exaggerated sense of importance. This is God's country and its citizens are the luckiest people on Earth.

The houses above are both nineteenth century. You can tell by their size (the prerevolutionary homes were a bit smaller) and their location on the riverfront. But they do have the important characteristic of the traditional Charleston home: the long veranda to catch a breeze in those benighted days before air conditioning. (After too many years in California I'd forgotten what hot and humid are like.) Carefully tended gardens are tucked away into odd corners or down alleyways; without a guide you'd miss the best parts. I particularly like the sample on the right. Where else would you find a garden patterned after the owner's favorite pair of socks?

Wandering around downtown is quite an experience. A remarkable amount of prerevolutionary and antebellum Charleston has survived the wars, fires, hurricanes, at least one major earthquake and the odd military action. There are way too many churches for a city this size, running from the more modest structures of the early and middle eighteenth century to the rather flashier numbers of the nineteenth. They serve to give Charleston its nickname as The Holy City. I guess having something like a hundred houses of worship within a few blocks of downtown does make you feel a little closer to the almighty than the rest of us. (No, not Strom Thurmond. He isn't God, although he might be one of his older relations.)

Charleston's preservation of its history is as much a happy accident as it is a product of wise decision-making. Following the Civil War, the city's fortunes went into something of decline. And no money meant no ability to tear down the old and replace it with something modern and wonderful as they keep doing in Atlanta. (That was sarcasm, in case it wasn't obvious.) The preservation efforts really began in the 1920s, when people began to realize that what they had matters. One side benefit of this protective attitude is that Charleston is a grand place for filming revolutionary dramas. Throw some dirt on the road, move the cars and the parking regulation signs and you have a remarkably authentic movie set. What must it be like to live with so much history?

One of those responsible for recognizing the value of Charleston's architectural heritage (gee, I love using phrases like that!) was DeBose Hayward, a poet and writer who is best known as the creator of Porgy & Bess. The building at left is Cabbage Row, which Hayward called Catfish Row and made the setting of his novel. Porgy was based on a real local character named Goat Cart Sam, whose life was easily as interesting as the character he inspired. There was even a Bess of sorts, although Hayward didn't know it. As for Cabbage/Catfish Row, it's just an anonymous (and, when I passed, vacant) storefront among many along a tree shaded street justly known as Rainbow Row.

The row of shops at right is more interesting to me because it represents a kind of connection to history I can only imagine. Along this row are a pair of restaurants called Aaron's Deli and Hyman's Seafood. Aaron and Eli Hyman are brothers; their restaurants occupy a building that's been in their family for more than a century. Hyman's is more popular with tourists than with locals, which is the locals' loss. In addition to the quality of the service and the food (I admit to being a sucker for Southern cooking), I had the honor of eating at a table occupied by Mel Gibson during the filming of The Patriot. And how much is an experience like that worth?

Charleston is of course famous as the setting for the shots that began the Civil War, referred to by some of the locals as The War of Northern Aggression or (my personal favorite) The Recent Unpleasantness. Those first shots were fired on Fort Sumter, a small island fort that still bears the results of the thirty-six hours of shelling it received before the Union forces surrendered. In the picture at left you can see one of the shells from that barrage, still embedded in the wall where it landed.

One fact I hadn't known until my visit: that the first casualties of the war came here. But not because of the shelling. Instead, it happened during the hundred gun salute the Confederates permitted during the lowering of the American flag after the surrender. Shot number forty-seven went off prematurely because of some unburned powder in the cannon. One soldier was killed outright; a second died from injuries in the blast. History is never as clean as we're taught in school. But far more interesting.

To me, one of the more fascinating aspects of the Civil War is the weird combination of advanced and primitive technology employed by the combatants. A prime example appears at right: the C.S.S Hunley, the world's first more or less practical military submarine. This is a replica that graces the entrance to the Charleston Museum; the real Hunley was recovered from the Atlantic a few miles outside Charleston harbor in August of 2000, nearly 150 years after its crew set sail into history. Set sail only figuratively; this vessel's motive power was provided by her crew operating a hand cranked propeller.

The Hunley epitomizes the determination of those fighting the war to do incredible things with stone-knife-and-bearskin technology. Crewed by a captain and eight sailors, she was powered by hand and lit by candles and could stay submerged only as long as those inside could keep from passing out. Despite everything, she managed to score a victory before disappearing into history: sinking the Housatonic, part of the Union fleet blockading Charleston. One can only imagine the shock aboard the Housatonic when they first saw this metal monster inching its way toward them from just below the surface.

I must have visited Charleston a dozen times growing up; we'd generally stop to visit my aunt on our way to my mother's other family in Savannah. What's shocking is how little I remember of the city from those earlier trips. About the only thing I do remember is our entrance to the city over the Cooper River Bridge. That's the newer bridge in the picture; you can just barely make out the original span in the distance. This is a bridge to gladden the heart of any child, as it rises two hundred feet over the water below and swoops up and down like a straight and somewhat tame roller coaster. As an adult I can only admire my father's intestinal fortitude to have used this bridge so many times over the years. My one time driving over it convinces me that its designers must have had motorcycles in mind. Or maybe horses, but certainly nothing so wide as a modern automobile. Forget Confederate artillery; this is my idea of scary!

Home / US Index / Back: Georgia / Next: North Carolina / Last: Texas

Google Web
 Comments to: Hank Shiffman, Mountain View, California