“Use to was:” Small town South Carolina

Dang it, I searched on Google Books for the quote I wanted, but you know how they leave out pages here and there? Apparently the page I wanted was one of those.

Anyway, there’s a page somewhere in John le Carre’s The Little Drummer Girl in which our heroine Charlie is being escorted through a bombed-out 1980s Beirut by a couple of young Palestinian-affiliated gunmen whom she, and the reader, find utterly charming. One of them speaks English with an odd tick: He throws “use to” in front of all verbs, giving his speech a strange poignancy at all times. At one point, he’s indicating where a certain landmark — I want to say a Holiday Inn, but my memory could be failing me (and maybe it wasn’t even in the book but in the movie, but good luck finding that; Netflix doesn’t even have it) — back before the city’s devastation, back when it was the Paris of the Mideast. Let’s say it was a Holiday Inn, in which case he would have said, “Holiday Inn — use to was…”

That line kept running through my head when I went home to Bennettsville Saturday for the funeral of “Teenie” Parks — my grandmother’s best friend, who lived next door to my grandparents and then my young uncle (only six years older than I) as he raised his family there, with Teenie taking the place for his kids of my grandmother, who died in 1969. There are people in B’ville who would ask Teenie how I was related to her, even though I wasn’t. We were all that close. Her husband Frank, who died in 1984, had grown up in the house that my grandparents lived in during my childhood and my uncle still lives in today. Then they sold the house to my grandfather and moved next door. From then on it was like one household; we walked in and out of each others’ houses as though the doors weren’t there. We were, as I said, that close.

The funeral was at Thomas Memorial Baptist Church, where I was baptized long before I became Catholic. It’s the scene of an incident for which I’m still remembered by some of the older folks in town — far more than for anything else, really. While at the visitation various folks made a point of saying what I hear so often, that “We miss you so much from the newspaper,” a couple of my relatives made a point of mentioning The Incident, and admonishing me not to repeat it.

(Here’s what happened: It was 1957, and I was four years old. Our preacher then, Mr. Thomas, was not the most accomplished homilist. He tended to drone and lose his train of thought. He was reciting a list of some sort in which towns in the Pee Dee were ranked. It went something like this: “Cheraw was first, Dillon second. Um, Marion was third. And Bennettsville was… it was… um… Bennettsville was, um…” I couldn’t take it. I shouted out, as loud as I could, “FOURTH!!!” The congregation, which had been as tense as I was, erupted into laughter, drowning out Mr. Thomas as he murmured “fourth.” I had not known I was going to do it; it was involuntary. Four, after all, was my favorite number because I was four years old. How could he not think of it? But now that I’d shouted it, the laughter of all those grownups overwhelmed me with embarrassment. I lay my head on my mother’s lap and pretended to be asleep for the rest of the service. Bottom line, to this day, I am known by some as the little boy who yelled “Fourth!”)

After the funeral, driving back through town on Main Street, I pointed out to my wife landmarks that once had been. That’s what put me in mind of the le Carre character. B.B. Sanders’ Esso station, where the proprietor would always lean into the driver’s window, while his employees swarmed over the car to check the oil and the tires and the water and wash the windshield, and ask us, “Y’all want a Co-Cola?” Use to was. Belk’s — use to was. The Bennettsville Department Store — use to was. Penney’s, Miller Thompson pharmacy, the dime stores, Bill Stanton’s daddy’s store, the movie theater, the A&P, the Harris Teeter. All “use to was.” The buildings are all still there, and most look fine from the outside. But they aren’t what they were. And there is almost no one walking on the once-busy sidewalks.

This morning, I almost got a parking ticket because lobbyist Jay Hicks sat across from me as I was about to get up from breakfast, and I stayed, and we started talking about a number of things. Eventually, we got onto the state of South Carolina’s small towns, especially the ones well off the Interstates. He spoke of Bamberg, and I mentioned to him how impressed I was the one time I visited Allendale — all those abandoned motels along 301, which died when the Interstates opened.

We talked about whether there was any hope for turning around South Carolina’s small towns, whether Nikki Haley (who hales from Bamberg) or Camden’s Vincent Sheheen is elected. We reached no conclusions.

And I spoke of visiting Bennettsville over the weekend. I didn’t mention the “use to was” part, because it would have taken too long to explain.

2 thoughts on ““Use to was:” Small town South Carolina

  1. Kathryn Fenner

    ‘Bottom line, to this day, I am known by some as the little boy who yelled “Fourth!”’

    Beats being known as the rube who shouted “you lie!”

    Camden will be fine–it’s got great bones and deep pockets and a great location near I-20. It’s Aiken Lite-Aiken is booming, and close enough for people to commute to Columbia, should they wish. Bamberg and the other towns not on any interstate are in much worse shape.

  2. Doug T

    Well, your preacher got one thing correct: Cheraw is Number One!!

    I worked in B’ville in the early 90’s. That factory is gone. The next factory I worked at is gone.

    Maybe I73 will help the Pee Dee, but the Cheraws, B’villes, Mullins will end up as the Tatums, Clios
    or Rubys. Some of those towns lost the railroad and dried up.
    Small towns are losing or lost factories or tobacco and are quickly drying up.

    It’s sad. A way of life is dying, really.

    (Insert political message here.) That’s why some of Sheheen’s rural development plan makes sense….bolster farming and forestry, promote tourism, because those factory jobs aren’t coming back.


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