by Doug Ferguson|
I don't know what it is about this time of year that makes the memories of my childhood haunt me during those rare opportunities when my mind has a moment to wander. Perhaps it's the way that the changing seasons mark the passage of time . . . or the way that fall brings with it the musty scent of leaves that gather in moldering piles beneath clustered trees. If time had a smell, I have a feeling it would be the smell of fall -- rich, dark and punctuated by the smoke of a burning fire.
Or perhaps -- as spring does for so many people -- fall represents a time of new beginnings for me. A new school year, new friendships, new opportunities. Fall also brings with it an end to summer, the season during which so many of my childhood memories were formed. I can recall August after August of childhood angst, as days of summer play in a backyard creek gave way to hours spent behind cramped desks in stuffy classrooms.
It's interesting, when I think about it, that one summer destination in particular has come to symbolize my entire childhood. And whenever memories of my youth creep unexpectedly into conscious thought, they are often memories of that place -- a tree-covered campground on the South Carolina shore.
Long before my family grew spoiled by air conditioned beach houses with indoor/outdoor showers, we used to stay in our old canvass camper in a state park thirty miles south of Myrtle Beach. Huntington Beach State Park was a mystical place. Spanish moss was tossed like tinsel across towering trees. Alligators swam in a lily-covered swamp. And a cracked and weathered mansion, once home to an eclectic and reclusive artist, guarded a small pathway that led through a canopy of trees and over a brackish marsh to Highway 17.
Huntington Beach State Park was where I learned to ride a bike. Balanced precariously on a causeway between the alligator swamp and a saltwater marsh, I remember how frightened and excited I was as I wobbled down that little road. With my family following behind me in our green station wagon, I made it about halfway down the causeway before losing my balance and plummeting down a steep bank and onto the rocks below.
Although I was unhurt (except for my pride), I screamed so loudly my parents thought I must have broken a bone. Actually, I was just frightened of the alligators -- even though I soon discovered that I had fallen on the saltwater side of the causeway. The only creatures threatening me there were the tiny hermit crabs that were too timid even to peak out of their holes at me -- the loud and clumsy monster who had invaded their marshy home.
I also learned to fish at that campground. One time, my cousin and I ventured the long walk across a deserted beach to a boulder-strewn jetty that parted the churning waves of the Atlantic from the little channel of Murrell's Inlet. We fished there for hours, pulling up fish after fish until our little cooler was filled to the top with Croakers. The aptly named fish muttered and groaned as we balanced the cooler between us and walked back toward the campground with the July sun burning our pale backs.
We had misjudged the time, and although we walked as quickly as we could, the rushing tide formed a swiftly moving current that cut off our only path from the jetty to the safety of the campground. Trying not to panic, we held the cooler high above our heads and trudged through the waist-deep water to the other side. As we drew within site of the campground, we felt like heroic hunters returning from a dangerous adventure with our prized catch to feed the local villagers.
I also can remember ghost stories told by camp counselors in the courtyard of the mansion, and fairy houses built of twigs and grass. My parents used to tell the kids that if we built the houses by the edge of the woods in the evenings, forest fairies would stay in them overnight and would leave a gift for the builders in the morning. And just as the sun would rise above the dunes, we inevitably would find gifts of M&Ms and Reese's Peanut Butter cups paid as homage to our diligent efforts.
My family stopped camping when I was in high school. And although I enjoyed being able to return from a day on the beach to the comfort of a cool shower in an air conditioned rental house, I still would ride my bike the short distance from our home in Litchfield Beach to the old state campground. Walking beneath the trees and across boardwalks in the salty marshland where my father and I used to go crabbing, I was able to hold onto my youth for a short while longer, although I could feel it slipping all too quickly away.
I haven't been back to Huntington Beach State Park since my freshman year at Carolina. That was the year I returned there with a friend, only to find that Hurricane Hugo had ravaged the old campground. The once towering trees were bent and snapped, turned an ugly brown by the storm driven waves. Many alligators also had perished in the storm, and the boardwalks I explored as a child had been washed away by the raging flood.
The site disturbed me in a way that I couldn't describe to my friend. Because as I surveyed the damage to the campground, I felt as if the hurricane had not only swept away trees and buildings, but that it also had swept away part of my childhood. Was this a sign that I could never return to my youth? That I could never recapture the magic that I had once found in this place?
The one thing left standing after the hurricane was the old and weathered mansion, although it appeared a little worse for wear. And -- in those moments in the fall -- when memories of the campground intrude upon my conscious thoughts, I am given some hope by the fact that all was not lost in the storm.
My youth may be waning, and parts of it may be forever lost like the fairy houses and ghost stories. But every once and awhile, when a childlike whim carries me on some crazy adventure, I realize that nothing can rob me completely of my childhood. If nothing else remains after yet another fall brings summer to an end, I'll always have my memories. Just like that stubborn old mansion in Huntington Beach State Park, they shall weather the storms that come with the passing of time.