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Zan Thompson

That's What She Likes About the South

May 22, 1988|Zan Thompson

We went to Savannah in the rain. The Georgia city is just about 25 miles from Hilton Head, an island off the coast of North Carolina. I have never been anywhere in the South except Charleston, S.C., where I went some years ago when Bo, Patsy's son, was graduated from The Citadel.

Savannah is a beautiful Southern city with a restored waterfront walk filled with restaurants and shops. The city seems sleepy, resting somnolent around its squares. In 1733, Gen. James Oglethorpe laid it out with the help of 120 Englishmen who had been in debtors' prison. The general persuaded King George II to release them.

Then Oglethorpe and his grateful band built a series of squares, each one now centered with lush green lawn and centuries-old shade trees.

The houses on all four sides of the squares have been restored or immaculately cared for and maintained from the beginning. The keystone of almost every square is a church, all of them looking like post-card churches.

Juliette Gordon Low, the young Savannah woman who founded the Girl Scouts, spent her growing-up years in one of the houses that is now open to the public. It was built between 1818 and 1822, and has been restored and furnished with period pieces. Many of the houses have plaques telling their history and who lives there.

Another day, Mandy, Patsy's oldest daughter, took me to Beaufort, S.C., where she lives about an hour's drive from Hilton Head. "If there were a ferry, it would only take about 10 minutes," Mandy told me.

We crossed three wide rivers and a lot of marshy woodland before we reached Beaufort, pronounced Bewfort. There's another town with the same name in North Carolina and it's pronounced Bowfort.

Mandy took me to a restaurant on the waterfront where we sat on a brick patio and looked across wide lawns to the Broad River. There was a large tour boat warped to the bulkhead. The boat brings travelers from the north on the Inland Waterway.

Beaufort is a beautiful small city of antebellum houses with newer areas growing up among the pine woods. The oldest house in town was built in 1697. It looks as if it might have been made of immaculate white paper, folded to shape a house and then trimmed with gray-blue shutters.

Many of the large houses are built of what Carolinians call tabby, ground oyster shells and sand. That's what The Castle is built of. A surgery during the Civil War, it is an immense house with wings reaching out all around, the entire thing capped with crenelated towers.

When Mandy was a little girl, Patsy's husband was stationed in Beaufort at the Marine Air Station. An eccentric old lady lived in The Castle. She was quite mad and all alone in that great gray pile. Mandy was walking home from school one day when the old woman called to her. Mandy politely walked to the wrought-iron fence.

The woman said, "Do you know why my flowers are so beautiful, such glorious colors?"

"No, ma'am," Mandy said.

"Yankee blood," the old woman crowed.

Mandy walked three blocks out of her way to get home from school after that. The huge house looked as if Yankee and Confederate boys might still walk its halls, looking for a way out into the sunshine.

Beaufort's Episcopalian Church, St. Helena's, was built in 1812 of tabby and brick. The steeple is tall and pointed, ringed with a narrow widow's walk almost at its top. The house in which the South seceded from the Union is also in Beaufort, looking genteel and comfortable and at peace.

We found a wonderful restaurant in Hilton Head called Charlie's. I had soft-shelled crab for dinner three times, something I never thought I'd get to do.

It was a great trip even though I know I only nibbled around the edges of the South. The area seems compact to a Californian. We drove almost across two states in less than seven hours.

I came into LAX on a bright blue day, with a tangy breeze blowing in from the Pacific. It was probably fumes from jet fuel, but it smelled heavenly.

Patsy was fine and said that Peaches and Mrs. Goldfarb had behaved well in my absence. I'm sure she was just saying that to make me feel comfortable about having stuck her with the odd couple. I really can't ask her about it right now.

Patsy is in South Carolina. She went back for Bo's birthday and to see Mandy. I hope they stay away from The Castle. I'll bet that lady walks by night among the tattered gardens.

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