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Column: Two from Tom Poland
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Tom Poland

Two Zoos with Civil War connections

(Editor’s note: Due to vacations and other plans by some of our contributing columnists, today we’re pleased to bring you two columns by syndicated South Carolina columnist Tom Poland.)

I’ve only been to two zoos, Riverbanks in Columbia and, when I was a boy, the one in Atlanta. I barely remember Zoo Atlanta, but I recall the Cyclorama and its Battle of Atlanta scenes. My parents took me to both the same day. I can still see throngs of blue-clad Union soldiers storming Atlanta’s railroad tracks.

I like zoos because you can travel the world in a matter of hours. Like Ernest Hemingway on safari, you see zebras, tigers and giraffes. Like the star-crossed Sir Ernest Shackleton, you can watch penguins tunneling through frigid water. Like the ill-fated Dian Fossey you can study gorillas as they laze on grass only to burst up a hill with lightning quickness. Much to see and do. You don’t want to miss looking eye to eye with an eastern diamondback rattler.

Last week, I met a busload of first graders from my hometown of Lincolnton, Ga., at the Riverbanks Zoo & Garden. We toured the zoo seeing as much as we could. Flamingos, grizzly bears, elephants, marsupials and seals, which never disappoint with their swift swimming and silky smooth leaps onto dry land. My great niece, Harper, liked the flamingos and penguins a lot, but not being able to feed the giraffes lettuce disappointed her. She dutifully stood in a long line with money for lettuce. Well, you have to use a special zoo currency sold at a nearby station. No time left to stand in line again as the kids only had a few hours and Riverbanks is big, so big a river runs through it. The Saluda River breaks into riffles as it courses over land around large rocks and you’ll see whitewater that, for me, always bring the Chattooga to mind.

This zoo along riverbanks attracts people from all over. While looking at animals, you can read educational graphics about them. Consider this tidbit about Australia’s red kangaroo: “Quick fact: Australia’s largest marsupial, an adult male red kangaroo can weigh as much as 200 pounds and grow to be 5 feet tall -- but at birth the red kangaroo is not much larger than a jelly bean!”

Yes, we saw marsupials. What we didn’t see is the zoo’s Civil War connection. To do that you have to cross the Saluda and enter the botanical garden to see the ruins of the old Saluda River Factory, constructed of granite around 1830. Disaster struck when Union troops set it ablaze during Sherman’s occupation of Columbia. The night before Columbia burned, Sherman and his troops pitched camp just above the factory. Their assault on the city began there on February 17, 1865. Look for a big boulder, “Sherman’s Rock,” along the Garden’s Woodland Walk and look for the old factory’s beautiful granite arch that stands still.

The next time you visit Riverbanks, stop, say, in front of the elephant exhibit and imagine Union soldiers charging right at you. They crossed the Saluda here on their way into Columbia.

I hope my great niece, Harper, and her fellow students long remember their trip to Riverbanks. When they’re older, I’d like for them to come back and see the zoo’s other side where ruins of the old factory stand.

Two zoos with nearby evidence of the Civil War. It’s a strange connection but a memorable one.

After the funeral

Family funerals are different from other funerals. A family funeral makes me drift. I look at the flowers and listen to the ministers and music but my mind wanders. I avoid looking at the casket, choosing to summon up memorable moments, like scenes in an old cinema. I remember the person in full bloom.

When things really hit me, however, is after the funeral, when life supposedly gets back to normal, whatever that is. I put away my suit and recall kicks into high gear. And so it was that I began to call up memories of Aunt Sister, she of two familial names, whom we buried March 19.

She arrived August 11, 1923, as Sarah Evelyn Walker. I knew her as Aunt Sister. I didn’t know her name was Sarah until she was gone. She passed through times, which many of us will never see. Born during Prohibition, she was six when the Great Depression arrived. Sixteen when World War II erupted. Eighteen when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Forty when JFK died in Dallas. Forty-six when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. And there were hundreds upon hundreds of personal events she collected. What we call “life.” Births. Deaths. Vacations. Meals. Heartbreak. Elation. Disappointment. Careers. Family. Beloved pets.

The things she learned. That’s why losing a loved one is like having a museum or a great library burn to the ground. Aunt Sister was the oldest of my late Mom’s sisters and she outlived all the girls save one. She would have been 96 August 11. When you live that long, you acquire a treasure chest of knowledge and experience. My memories include her home on a street called Kings Way, family reunions and hearing her laughter. I remember, too, at Kings Way, watching her, Mom, and Dad listening to Fats Domino’s 1956 recording of “Blueberry Hill.”

“I found my thrill/On Blueberry Hill/On Blueberry Hill/When I found you.”

I recall too when she told me about her job in an ammunition factory helping the war effort. The authorities arrested a co-worker, an operative, who was rendering ammunition defective.

Not quite ten years ago in a bit of random recall Aunt sister shared memories of her youth and the Great Depression with me. I hear her voice as I read what she recalled and I see people long gone: “Sundays mama would fix something special. We’d go to church and in the evening we’d go for a stroll. Wild grapes grew at an old home place and we’d climb trees. Mama and daddy taught us all about trees. We’d find muscadines, what we called fox grapes. We’d set out hooks for fish on Saturday nights. We’d fish on Sundays but we were scared the Devil would get us. Everybody had dresses made from bolts of cloth provided by the WPA so everybody looked alike.”

Aunt Sister remembered making do … “We didn’t eat eggs, we bartered them for things we didn’t have. Mama made her own snuff … dry them (tobacco leaves) out and put them in a sack and pound them into a powder and add sugar … we made homemade syrup … we ate organic and didn’t know it … soles of shoes would flap and daddy would wire them together … they would scratch others if they got too close … in spring dad would borrow $65 to buy cotton seed, fertilizer. In fall he’d pay back the $65 when the crop came in; what was left was all we had to make it to the next year.

“I remember wonderful meal soup with a hambone. Each family member could get a bite or two of meat and she’d mix meal and green onions from the garden. We entertained ourselves with seesaws, a flying jenny, and greased it with an old animal skin. Picking cotton and playing in pile of cotton: we had a good time.”

She remembers dresses made from flour sacks. “They had to be washed a lot to get the numbers and printing out.” She remembers her daddy making persimmon beer. “It had baked sweet potatoes in it and clean broomstraw went in the bottom to strain it. When it was ready, we all got one glass; it was sharp and tickled your tongue. That night a mule wandered through the yard and pulled the stopper out and that was the end of the persimmon beer.”

She recalled summer nights when “it was so hot we’d sleep on pallets on the grass beneath the stars. We shared a good garden with those whose garden failed. Daddy would kill a beef every year. Neighbors would do the same thing. He’d put it in a wagon and take it to the neighbors and share part of it. When they killed a beef they did the same thing. So everyone had some beef that way.”

It’s said that those who lived through the Great Depression never returned to who they were before it struck. I believe it. Here Aunt Sister recalls those hard days, but through it all, beneath it all, you detect hope and compassion. And sleeping on grass beneath the stars? What a beautiful way to deal with adversity.

Well, the years they do go by. My family tree grows young supple limbs as old, brittle limbs break away. One day I added up all the elders I knew as my “growing-up” family when I was a boy. The list came to eighteen names. Today, only two remain. I like to think the other sixteen are together again and they’re busy catching up with Aunt Sister now, and I’ll tell you something you can take to the bank. She will have a lot to tell them. A lot. And you can bet there’ll be plenty of laughter.