Sunday, September 30, 2007

Myrtle Beach

Myrtle Beach, on the coast of South Carolina, is no different from most other Beaches in America. A beachfront boulevard lined with expensive tacky hotels and cheap shabby motels, interspersed with gaudy beachwear shops and restaurants that sell location rather than food, swarmed with tourists taking an unoriginal way to spend a late summer weekend.

The house looked unpretentious but comfortable amid the green growth of palmettos, magnolias, some decorative shrubs I didn't know the name, and a well-tended lawn. An old car was parked in the driveway. I rang the doorbell and was warmly welcomed inside by an aging couple. Some pleasant conversation followed by a simple meal, then we were off to the beach while the night was falling.

We walked on the sand to a pier that jutted out into the dark sea under a dark sky. People were strolling or fishing on the pier, their murmuring voices periodically drowned by the sound of crashing waves. Under the amber artificial lights, faces acquired a rigid, waxy look. Then the moon rose out of the water, big, red and lopsided, like a monster leaving its pelagic lair.

The next morning we went to the Sunday service at a nearby church. The congregation was a small one, the service was old-fashioned, the pastor was dressed in a very modest suit. In the middle of his sermon I was astonished to hear him say we is twice, then he laughed and admitted that "the redneck's coming out." Still his sermon was neat, relevant and genuinely admirable.

I said goodbye to everybody then got into my car to head back home, which was six hours away. I got to the highway, then pulled over in front of an abandoned house where an old pick-up truck was parked with a load of sweet potatoes in its bed. An old man was standing by, the white hat on his white head couldn't quite protect his wrinkled red face from the hot sun. I pointed to a bag of sweet potatoes and asked how much. "Six dollars," he replied. "How many pounds in it?" "It's half a bushel." So he didn't sell his sweet potatoes by weight, but by volume instead. His accent was so thick I had to ask him to repeat everything he had said.

The old man also had a few jars of honey and molasses for sale, all came from his one hundred acre farm. I asked him how he could manage so much land, and he said he had help from a crew of Mexicans. He took my six dollars, emphatically told me to spread the freshly dug sweet potatoes on the floor when I got home to keep them from turning green inside, then we wished each other a good day.

And so Myrtle Beach will stay in my memory not with its beaches and boulevards indistinguishable from other seaside resorts, but with the ill-clad redneck preacher who delivered a heartfelt sermon, the old farmer who sold his sweet potatoes from his pick-up truck on a roadside, and most of all the aging couple who slipped the email address of their beloved daughter into my hand with warm and encouraging words.

Boys playing at Myrtle Beach

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