American Town

CHARLESTON—It’s my last morning in town, and I will miss this place. The sun is rising over the old American city in a way that steals your breath. The street is lined with colonial single homes. There are fresh horse apples in the street.

I hear the sound of a draft horse clopping behind me, pulling a carriage, warming up his joints for the day. I step aside to let the carriage pass. I wave like a fool because I am a hopeless tourist in a romantic city, and I feel obliged to act like one.

“Can I pet your horsey?” I ask the driver.

Horsey. This word just slips out.

The driver stops, he lets me run my hands along the animal’s silken coat. I wish, by some stroke of fate, that I had been born a horse guy. Horse guys know more about life than I do.

But alas, I am a dog guy. And dog guys know nothing about life. All we do is spend our hard earned money on chew toys shaped like tacos.

I wave goodbye to the horsey and keep walking. I pass a few construction workers at a nearby house. Charleston is full of construction work, but not the kind you’re used to.

Here, they don’t have whining power tools and loud radial saws. They have a gentle tap-tap-tap from a hammer. Or the sweeping sound of a wood plane against poplar. Old sounds. Noises that were once the soundtrack of America.

Sadly, I’m from Florida. I’ve worked on lots of construction crews, I’ve been reading measuring tapes since age 14. In Florida, our national bird is the Sapsucking Real Estate Contractor, who uses earth-shattering electric power tools, and cheap materials.

It’s not like this in Charleston. Just down the street is the American College of the Building Arts. Students can choose from six specialized traditional crafts that predate mud: timber framing, architectural carpentry, classical architecture, plaster, blacksmithing, and stone carving.

“It’s a four-year college,” says a construction worker I meet, who is mixing plaster in a bucket. “When you graduate, you pretty much have a guaranteed job here in Charleston.”

The crew is working on a single house from the 1700s. They are doing plaster work on a “dependency” building, located behind the traditional home, which features a period accurate, authentic Land Rover parked in the driveway.

“A dependency,” the man explains, “is just a fancy word for detached ‘kitchen.’”

Colonial homes weren’t big, but their detached kitchens were huge. I can only imagine how people ate back then.

In those times, servants would exit the dependency kitchens carrying huge platters of, say, fried chicken across the backyard, toward the feast in the dining room. Their biggest obstacles were the family dogs.

Try to visualize how colonial dogs would have reacted to hot food on trays that were parading through the yard. They would’ve jumped, turned circles, barked, howled, and tried to knock the servants down. When the servants fell, the platters would’ve spilled, and the dogs would have had a picnic.

A few servants—nobody remembers who—came up with an idea to prevent this. The cooks started frying little balls of cornmeal to toss at the dogs to distract them. The cooks would toss the fried treats and yell, “Hush, puppies!”

Don’t say I never taught you anything.

I walk over to the battery where a gentle Atlantic tide breaks against a seawall. I see Fort Sumter standing in the harbor, some three miles away. The fort’s lone flag still flies, reminding the world that the Civil War started right here. Reminding us that there have been harder times than these.

I’ll be honest, when the pandemic hit I had a tough time adjusting. I had no idea how difficult it would be on my mental health.

I’ve always viewed myself as a pretty upbeat guy, but when we were all suddenly unemployed, wearing face masks, and the mailmen started wearing hazmat suits, it did something to our minds.

But I feel good today. My final morning in one of America’s oldest cities couldn’t be better. I feel the weight of our national history beneath my feet. And I love our humble beginnings, found upon these streets.

My ancestors once walked these lanes. And they were stronger than me. They had more grit than I do. And I can’t figure out how they did it.

For them, fatal disease was a normal part of life. So was war, starvation, economic collapse, the horrors of racism, and death. The average life expectancy—if you were lucky—was age 45. That’s not even accounting for the 618,222 men who died in a bloody War Between the States.

Even so, these people didn’t roll over and give up. They rebuilt this city once, twice, and a hundred times over. And they’re still doing it. Despite the hurricanes, earthquakes, and utterly astronomical real estate prices. They are still building.

Downtown, you can still hear the tap-tap-tap of wood chisels. And the clip-clops from horses. The melodic bells from a church.

I turn to start walking back. A young women and her dog are out for a morning jog. The dog stops to say hello to me.

I pet the golden retriever because we dog guys are suckers for things with tails. The dog gives me a sloppy kiss and ruins my shirt. The young woman says that her dog’s name is Grace.

Grace.

I have to laugh out loud to myself because it’s only fitting. The older I get, the more I find that this world is full of the stuff.

Until next time, Charleston.

33 comments

  1. Christopher Spencer - August 1, 2020 7:17 am

    It is 2:14am and I lie here in my bed reading this on my tablet. And I have to admit that you caught me totally off guard with the hush puppies story and I laughed out loud and woke up my dog lol.
    Keep writing my friend. And thanks.
    Chris

    Reply
  2. Sue Rhodus - August 1, 2020 10:26 am

    Beautiful !

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  3. Kris Wehrheim - August 1, 2020 11:02 am

    That was beautiful

    Reply
  4. topdock - August 1, 2020 11:10 am

    Another home run Sean. And the Braves won last night. They came from behind. Endurance. Never give up. Do your best. Always do the right thing.

    Reply
  5. Ken Dickert - August 1, 2020 11:27 am

    For the best harbor view, go to the rooftop bar at the Vendue Inn. Hard to find but you’ll be glad you did.

    Reply
  6. Charlotte D Drummond - August 1, 2020 11:42 am

    I loved this so much. Just subscribed and already I’ve developed the habit of saving your blog post until after I check the news first thing in the morning. Heather Cox Richardson first, and you for a refreshing sherbet.

    That said, I can’t imagine I’ll be the first to point out a few corrections.

    “Servants” should have been spelled “slaves.”

    “ My ancestors once walked these lanes. And they were stronger than me. They had more grit than I do. And I can’t figure out how they did it.” Um… ? Their “grit” were slaves. That’s how they did it.

    “Even so, these people didn’t roll over and give up. They rebuilt this city once, twice, and a hundred times over.” Slaves built and rebuilt the city, and then their poor descendants did it again. The fine tradition of building with slow, skilled labor demonstrated during your visit owed much to the skills brought and refined by slaves. https://www.postandcourier.com/opinion/history-lesson-slaves-did-help-build-charleston/article_84017c55-d75a-511b-bda0-259c5c23b211.html

    Those corrections aside, I am delighted to have discovered your writings and look forward to years of enjoyment of them.

    Reply
  7. Grace - August 1, 2020 11:52 am

    My name is Grace. Thanks for this. I may leave my house today and look for normalcy.

    Reply
  8. Connie - August 1, 2020 12:19 pm

    Thank you for sharing your trip. I haven’t made it to Charleston yet but it’s on my bucket list. I’m a history buff and I know my heart would be happy to see that beautiful town. Safe travels to whatever is next for y’all.

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  9. RCK - August 1, 2020 12:36 pm

    We have lived some 90+ miles down the coast from Charleston for the past 35 years in Hilton Head, SC. Sadly, the mindset that drives our Island could not be more different. It has, of course, always been a very different place. At one time, however, wildlife and preserving the natural beauty was the prime consideration of this 14 mile barrier island. Regretfully, that is no longer the case and we are chockablock with timeshare projects. Thank goodness for places like Charleston and our neighbor to the south, Savannah, for being so serious and diligent about preservation….and grace.

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  10. Jane Chandler - August 1, 2020 12:51 pm

    I enjoy your writing so much. I appreciate the information about Charleston, such a beautiful and historic place. Good luck.

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  11. Berryman Mary M - August 1, 2020 1:18 pm

    May we all find grace in our everyday lives, Sean.

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  12. Jan - August 1, 2020 1:19 pm

    Thanks for another awesome look at life and the gorgeous city of Charleston! You make my day, each and every day. Please don’t change a thing!

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  13. Linda - August 1, 2020 1:30 pm

    During Covid your essays are a bright spot every morning. A friend posted one on FB – otherwise, I was unaware of your work. It reminds me of Garrison Keillor, Rick Bragg and evening our Al.com favorite, Archibald.
    Keep up the good work.

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  14. Jeanne Butler - August 1, 2020 1:59 pm

    So beautiful. Needed that today. Made me feel better about life. Thanks Sean. Love you

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  15. Helen De Prima - August 1, 2020 2:01 pm

    I love your soundtrack descriptions, the same sounds you might hear in a boatyard specializing in wooden boats.

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  16. Jane - August 1, 2020 2:18 pm

    I’m so happy to read this and see that you got the “feel
    Of the real” here. I only wish you could’ve come the extra 12 miles to nearby folly beach to see the enormous (well enormous for here!!) waves and the 65 surfers on left side of pier alone. I had turtle patrol (for loggerheads) this morning- I get to absorb all the earth gifts here on that walk. Never the same. Thanks for your insights – esp about Charleston. There is no place like it…

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  17. JD - August 1, 2020 4:00 pm

    Sean, I really enjoyed your column this morning. I normally read the comments to see how others felt about it.
    I was extremely disappointed to read one comment that really took the beauty of the observance of Charleston. In the midst of all the racial divide we have someone that just had to feed the fire. They couldn’t leave the mood alone. It’s probably true but it sure ruined the moment.
    Thank you Sean for treating us to the beauty of Charleston.

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  18. drsheilahere - August 1, 2020 4:05 pm

    Sean, your ability to paint a picture with words is astounding. I am somewhat new to this area and am waiting to take a tour. Are the horses afraid of getting Covid? Perhaps when it is cooler, December maybe. Keep writing. Sheila Dunnells

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  19. H J Patterson - August 1, 2020 4:08 pm

    A reply for Charlotte D. Drummond, Sean writes and you read. If you want a politically correct blog then write your own and try posting it on your own blog.

    Reply
  20. Becky Souders - August 1, 2020 4:38 pm

    Ft. Sumter… Did you know that when the Civil War was over, they wanted Lincoln to come to Charleston to be present when the Union flag was once again raised there? He was advised not to go… “It’s still the South. It’s not safe.” That flag raising was on April 14, 1865, the day Lincoln was shot in Ford’s Theater.

    Obviously, my husband Vern and I toured Ft. Sumter, and Charleston and fell in love with that city, returning there twice more on our travels. Thanks for stirring up some good memories.

    Reply
  21. JD - August 1, 2020 4:44 pm

    thank you H J Patterson. You said it even better than I did or than I could.

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  22. Becky Souders - August 1, 2020 4:47 pm

    Please, Charlotte D., Sean writes for our pleasure. If you wish to write your own piece, do that. You aren’t going to enjoy Sean’s work if you are always fact-checking. He’s not writing “facts” so much as he is writing peace and comfort and smiles. Appreciate that.
    (I’m sure you name-dropped to impress us, but who the heck is Heather Cox Richardson?)

    Reply
  23. Linda Moon - August 1, 2020 4:48 pm

    I miss that town. Thank you for taking us along with you there in the Holy City, full of graceful beauty and history. I’ll spend some leisurely time looking at my album of pictures from there and appreciating my Gullah sweetgrass basket even more each time I see it. Safe travels back home from your Road Trip…aren’t they awesome and adventurous!

    Reply
  24. Larry Wall - August 1, 2020 6:13 pm

    Charlotte D. Drummond – You don’t have a clue, do you? Go back to whatever sheltered university education indoctrination that you came from. Sean is writing about the daily lives of 95% of the people who lived in the area at the time he is considering. I know this because some of my direct ancestors were among those people before transiting westerly.

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  25. RCK - August 1, 2020 8:01 pm

    I see there are others who felt the way I did about Charlotte Drummond’s comment. I believe she truly doesn’t understand the way such a supercilious “correction” doesn’t fit with the message and intent of an uplifting, apolitical, non-ideological, feel-good blog. The mention of “horrors of racism” wasn’t enough for her.

    Reply
  26. Ann - August 1, 2020 9:24 pm

    I needed this one today 🥰

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  27. MAM - August 1, 2020 10:14 pm

    I must admit, I agree with JD and HJ and the others, that if you, Charlotte D(for Divisive?). Drummond, don’t like what you read here, go pick on someone else and post your vitriol there and PLEASE do not return and make more sour comments. This is an uplifting and always charming blog, with up to now, appreciative comments, which usually we enjoy reading. Why did you, Charlotte Divisive Drummond, have to come along and ruin the mood of the readers of this beloved blog? Keep your ugly comments to yourself! Take your snooty advanced degree and go somewhere else. Pick someone else for dessert and keep your malignant opinions to yourself!

    And Sean, for those of us who love your blog, pay no attention to snooty, pompous, arrogant women. Your words are always precisely what you are thinking and always fit the happy (or sad) situation you are talking about. Your words are poetry in a world that sorely needs your perspective in abundance.

    Reply
  28. Mary - August 2, 2020 12:45 am

    Ancesters as far back to the 1700’s. Streets named after some. Statue at the tip of White Point gardens was suggestedand helped design the Continental soldier by my great grandfather who fought in the War between the States. His son in law my grandfatherWalker, was VP what became SC National. Certainly the “Holy City” to me.

    Reply
  29. Chasity Davis Ritter - August 2, 2020 3:09 am

    26 years ago I worked at a Catfish place her in Oklahoma. My boss man drove in every week from Lumberton, Mississippi, he sold cattle down here and the restaurant was kind of a tax write off I think but it did ok for only being open 3 days a week. Mr Bill Davis could tell a story almost as good as you can, Sean. And he told us the story of Hush, puppies!! When we were making ours in the kitchen together. I’ve told it a few times since then not knowing if it was completely true or just one of Mr Bill’s tales but secretly believing it could have been all the same. The ones we made from scratch were amazing as was most of the food we served. Working in that kitchen making Cole slaw, shrimp sauce, tarter sauce and home made hush puppies and amazing beans for a couple of years I thought I’d remember those recipes forever. Sure wish I’d have written them down now…. the folly of youth. I know you were sharing Charleston with us in your blog but like usual I found in it what I could relate to and the door of memories swung wide open. Thanks for that. You and Jamie stay safe and never stop opening those doors for us!

    Reply
  30. Linda Broyles - August 2, 2020 4:41 am

    This was beautiful, thanks so much.

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  31. Nancy M - August 2, 2020 5:26 am

    Thank you Charlotte D. Drummond. I am a Heather Cox Richardson fan and Sean Dietrich fan also! Heather early in the morning, and Sean at night so I can read all the comments.

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  32. Nancy M - August 2, 2020 5:37 am

    Wow. Some of these comments are considerably less than gracious. I don’t think Charlotte’s comments were ugly.

    Reply
  33. Jan - August 2, 2020 12:17 pm

    Kudos HJ for stating exactly how I feel!!!!!!!

    Sean, keep writing exactly how you always have, as I absolutely LOVE how you express yourself, find the most beautiful silver linings in even the darkest days, and bring laughter, color, grace, peace and sunshine to every single day!!! You are truly a gift from God!

    Reply

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