Horses Don’t Eat Moon Pies
This is one of my favorite essays. It was written by Pat Conroy in 1973.
I post it here for the purpose of social commentary in an upcoming book about a year-long trip around the country. Such publication is covered under Fair Use Doctrine and is not a copyright violation.
The Horse is a sacred animal in Aiken, South Carolina. The town pays a religious homage to the gracefully-throttled, gently-crouped thoroughbreds that graze in the rich pastures encircling Aiken. For the horse has provided the town with an identity, a signature of affluence, scrawled indelibly on the psyche. In McDonald’s Drive-in, on West Richland Avenue, beneath the golden arches, and the sign that triumphantly proclaims the sale of eleven billion hamburgers, the customer gamely chewing on a burger that once digested will bring McDonald’s one bun closer to the plateau of twelve billion, looks up from his vantage point beneath the plastic and sees subdued, almost tasteful prints of men in silks racing thoroughbreds, steeplechasers clearing barriers, and men astride muscled ponies swinging mallets at a willow ball. In Aiken, even McDonald’s Drive-in makes a ritual genuflection toward the horse. It helps sell hamburgers.
In the 1870’s, Mrs. Lulie Hitchcock lured many of her Long Island friends to winter in Aiken. Mrs. Hitchcock and her friends had a legitimate horsey smell abut them; they also had the pungent odors of many dollar bills to recommend their annexation of the town. So they came south for the winter, these knight templars of capitalism, and the winter woods around Aiken soon thundered with horsemen following the baying of hound packs. The townsmen dubbed them the Winter Colony. Aiken was their benighted fiefdom until the Second World War. The soil of the town was holy with the manure of thoroughbreds; Aiken became famous for its polo matches, fox hunts, trotters, steeplechases, and dog hunts. These were the royal families of America, the bejeweled, irascible inheritors of northern wealth who resurrected Aiken from the tragedy of the Civil War. They discovered the town; this sandy soiled carbuncle where land was cheap, help plentiful, and far from the bitter winters of New York. When the winter colony came to Aiken it was not only a discovery, it was an ordination. They did not simply find Aiken; they invented it. For seventy-five years, thoroughbreds, both man and beast, ruled the town. The rule ended, or at least eroded, with the unexpected arrival of the twentieth century. As the winter people walked along freshly-clipped lawns, splendid in their riding suits, elegant beside their horses, timeless in their disregard for the world outside of stable smells, some eggheaded son of a bitch who probably didn’t know a pastern from a coronet, split the atom. The world and Aiken would never be the same. And all this before McDonald’s had sold a single hamburger.
Aiken is a town of categories. The categories have walls, boundaries, dimensions, and strict, implacable definitions. It is a long climb indeed, out of an Aiken category. People, like horses, find themselves grouped, branded, herded into preordained corrals, and handled according to their bloodlines. A rigorous chain of being exists, although nothing is written down; there is no tablet of laws. But there is.
The members of the winter colony are still the high Brahmin of the town’s society and their rule is unchallenged during the winter season of the Triple Crown. To them, the urine of horses is day old wine more precious than the finest Beaujolais, for it signifies the health of a thoroughbred. Folks will tell you that it is easy to crack into the ornate temples of the winter colony. The mansions that house the wintering crowd are splendid architectural contributions to the town; pillared monuments to dying commitments and the unsullied pursuit of the good life. One of the mansions, Joye Cottage, positioned cheerfully on Whiskey Road and Easy Street has an estimated ninety rooms. In South Carolina ninety rooms usually means an incorporated town, but in Aiken it is known as a cottage. The Pink House flutters with the pinions of exotic tropical birds, and one lady claims she saw on a church tour, a butler cleaning up the droppings of a cockatoo as the bird wandered about the house.
Since the mansions are only used three months out of the year, they sit like abandoned cathedrals for the remainder of the year. Townsmen tend the gardens that bloom behind massive brick walls. The gardens bloom unpraised. Magnolias, lining the dirt roads intersecting the horse district (the legs of thoroughbreds are frail as bone china) flood the town with a sweet perfume foreign to winter colony. The horse people depart in April. They never smell the magnolias of Aiken. Nor do they savor the richness of the summer grass or the ruined gardenias browning in the hot June sun. These things do not occur in the proper season. The horses have already gone north. At Rose Hill, a black gardener plows some ground in the middle of a formal garden and plants beans and a few rows of corn. He can let the garden weed over for now; it is summer and the garden is his.
But in winter, the colony returns. The town fills up with trainers, hot walkers, exercise boys, gadflies, sycophants and jockeys. The horse people speak a different language, a blacksmith’s sanskrit, and the strange incantations of the race tracks murmurs through the streets and the town comes alive in ways it is not alive the rest of the year. The true winter colonists, the owners of the horses, stay away from the townsmen. Theirs is a closed society. They have as much real interest in Aiken as King Herod had in planned parenthood. But they have the mystique and tradition of mythic wealth and extravagant lifestyles behind them, and many a lesser Aikenite would sell his children for horsefeed to wrangle an invitation to a party behind the brick walls during the running of the Triple Crown.
The town adapts itself to the return of the horses. The sports section is stuffed with esoteric data dear to the hearts of horse aficianados. Football and basketball fans steel themselves as they read innumerable essays extolling the hocks, canons, and fetlocks of a promising thoroughbred. Aiken is one of the few towns in America where the Triple Crown does not conjure up a vision of Carl Yastrzemski, Frank Robinson, or at least Citation. In Aiken, it means the social event of the year. For the winter colony, it means the intoxicating steeplechase of the Aiken Hunt Meet; it means Polo games on dark green fields; it means horse talk through all the waking hours. It is the celebration of horses in the southern capital of equestrian arts.
But the Triple Crown is not the domain of the Winter Colony; it is under the aegis of the Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber and the town have usurped the horses from the winter people. They have sold their town down the river with the horse as their symbol. The Aiken discovered by Lulie Hitchcock, presided over by The Victorian figure of Mrs. C. Oliver Iselin, blessed by Whitneys, Bostwicks, and Posts, visited by Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby, and Ilia Tolstoy, died a little bit during the second world war and dies a little more every year. Old Aikenites began to make their move. The Old Aikenites began at strut.
“If you live in Aiken and don’t buy your clothes at Julia’s, then you’re looked down upon,” a pretty blond from the Aiken campus of the University of South Carolina told me.
“Where do you buy your clothes?” I asked.
“At Julia’s,” she winked.
Old Aikenites are a kind of rarity in the city limits. They are also the proud descendants of those men and women shattered by the south’s Gotterdamurung who looked up to find their salvation in the arrival of the Winter People. Indeed, the winter people supplied an economic boost to the town of Aiken. They even redefined the town in their own image. Now, in this present delineation, it is important to realize that blacks are not members of this critical subgroup. Blacks are just old blacks, not old Aikenites. An old Aikenite is white, and his position in town is anchored in the premist that longevity is the keenest measurement of tenure and directly proportional to the number of ancestors buried in the local cemetery. Among the old Aikenites, one hears the ancient murmur of the tribe. They own the downtown shops; they overwhelm the ranks of the Rotary and Sertoma Clubs, they feel threatened by the hordes that overrun the boundaries of their county. Yet they profit by the coming of the horde.
The old Aikenites are the chosen people, the Israelites; yet they are blessed with one intrinsic humility, one unspoken area of scraping reverence. Because they are from Aiken, they were suckled on the mystique of the winter colony and their first pablum was the recognition that their town harbored kings and queens too grand to associate with mere villagers. Their noses were rubbed in silks, gold brocade, broughmans and battalions of servants, music spilling over forbidden garden walls, polo games, and all the grandiose trappings of America’s ruling family. Horses, wealth, and aristocracy entered the bloodstream of Aiken; this trinity invaded the psyche and mounted the battlements of the town’s ego.
The Old Aikenites developed a hunger, and the hunger translated itself into a desire to be made worthy before the horse people. For seventy-five years, the children of Aiken studied the magic horsemen who rode forth from shingled stables, cantered down dirt roads, and disappeared into Hitchcock Woods. For seventy-five years the Old Aikenite has lived in awe of the winter resident. The fruit of his experience has been the development of a social schizophrenia: the Old Aikenite feels inferior to the Winter Colony, but by God, he feels superior to every other bastard that comes into town. It is June in 1973 and the Old Aikenite is hitting his stride.
“I’m old Aiken,” a woman told me outside of Julia’s.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“It just means that I’m old Aiken,” she smiled.
But you rise toward the horsey set at your own peril. An Aiken dentist had purchased several thoroughbreds and these horses train in stables emblazoned with the memories of the winter colony. One might think that this social breakthrough would be met with universal applause. No. You would have thought that Martin Luther had purchased stock in the Sistine Chapel. The man was climbing like wisteria, and his climb, unforgivably, was a public one, witnessed by the multitudes who wished they could do exactly the same thing. But his bank account was bright as new dentures, and he was soaring into the circles forbidden local people. The town emitted one long hiss of contempt and envy. A priest of tooth decay had risen and would spend the rest of his life proving himself worthy of the rise.
“I mean real horse people,” the lady said. “Not dentists.”
In 1952, Armageddon headed down Whiskey Road past the mansions and the stables, past the magnolias and the gardens, past the old years and the tired ways. The Atomic Energy Commission had sliced out a huge section of Aiken County for atomic research. The Dupont Company was providing researchers, equipment, and administrators. Overnight, the population of Aiken swelled from a village of seven thousand to a city of thirty thousand. When the dust had cleared, when the town of Ellenton, had gone the way of Troy, when the fences rose, when the guards were posted, when the construction men had left, when the “bum” plant was in full operation, Aiken had a new and large grouping. These were the DuPonters. The were Aiken’s new Negroes, technological Negroes to be sure, but Negroes, nonetheless.
The winter colonists saw the coming of the DuPonters as the death of the Old Aiken, the quaint pine holy town which they had kept time-locked somewhere in the late nineteenth century. They were right. They passed their disapproval down to the Old Aikenites who panicked at the thought of the DuPonters driving the horse people away from Aiken. The horse people had provided jobs and fattened the coffers of many downtown merchants. Aiken could not make it without the horses.
So the DuPonters, uprooted by their company, came into the town welcome as a gonnorrhea epidemic. Many were northerners, unaccustomed to southern ways, and hurt when they found themselves treated like a gathering of lepers on the banks of the Savannah River. Invisible bells rang as they wended their way among the townspeople. “DuPonter” was a dirty word.
The South was as alien to most of the DuPonters as Abyssinia, an unchartered hinterland in the national consciousness. They moved by the thousands into this lyrically beautiful little town that moved slowly in the gelatin of its cranky mythology, riveted to a languor that infected the marrow of the entire region. Up north, they had heard the gospel of southern hospitality. But this was not a prime ingredient in their introduction to Aiken. They would have to serve their time, their purgatorio, disembodied from the Old Aikenites. So the DuPonters dug in. They had to come to live in this town, raise familes, and die in this town. Enough Yankees poured into Aiken after the construction of the Savannah River Project to make it seem like a suburb of Chicago. The DuPont plant was the most important thing to happen to Aiken since Lulie Hitchcock thought it would be a nice place to come for a little polo.
“Where are you going tonight?” a lady asked.
“To a party by some DuPonters,” I answered.
“That makes me nauseous,” she said without smiling.
Old Aikenites will tell you that DuPonters can be goddam irritating, that they do not understand the southern way. Scientists from the DuPont Plant have peeved local shopkeepers by wandering through stores fingering merchandise, and periodically consulting the latest issue of Consumer Reports which hangs out of their back pockets. Others walked the aisles of supermarkets clicking away at pocket calculators each time they put an item in their basket. Haked efficiency offends the southerner perhaps more than anything else, and DuPonters are an efficient group of people. Their occupation of the town lends itself to one profound unsubstantiated statistic: there are more PH.D.’s per capita in Aiken than anywhere else in the United States. What these interlopers brought with them into this sleepy village was an incredible dosage of brainpower. The town’s cumulative I.Q. rose each time a DuPont scientist and his family drove into town. Aiken received into her shaded, flowere, horse sacred midst the gift of brains.
“I don’t like being put into a category,” a DuPonter wife told me. “Old Aikenites are always putting us into a category.”
Though Old Aikenites talk about DuPonters with a weary trace of condescension, a powerful irony exists. It was the coming of the Savannah River Plant that freed the Old Aikenite from the bondage of the winter colony. More than one Old Aikenite made a fortune after the DuPonters arrived. The families of DuPont needed houses, clothing, food, luxuries, automobiles, entertainment and acceptance. Old Aikenites sold them everything but the last item. Acceptance was not marketable. Consumer Reports did not list it. You could not add it up on a pocket calculator; you could not derive its formula by studying the Periodic Chart. The Old Aikenites, patronized by the imperious princes and dowagers of winter colony, were not about to accept the group of people who had routed the winter colony as the most important social force in Aiken County. Instead, they secured their position, circled their wagons, and employing the ancient southern courtesies, the wiley old legacies passed down hand to mouth for generations, they knew they had risen in the rigidly ordered social structure of Aiken and in subtle ways and overt ways they let the DuPonters know that Old Aiken was still Old Aiken, and DuPont was nothing at all. The DuPonters found themselves unhonored liberators. They were exiled in the sign of the horse. In a strange inversion, the Old Aikenites identified with the horse tradition and the horse people and were esthetically offended by the arrival of the DuPonters who built tacky suburban houses and demanded roads widened. But it was the southern boys themselves who benefitted from these demands. Southern boys got rich because some smartass split the atom.
Twenty-one years have passed. DuPonters are active in church affairs, civic groups, charities, school organization, and committees. They have infiltrated where they could. As yet, the southern courtesies have not seduced them completely. Of course, every southerner knows that no one can adopt the full plumage of the old South faster than a transplanted Yankee. But the DuPonters generally have burrowed in following their own personal instincts. They know their place in Aiken’s great chain of being. Some of them have even cracked into the social circle of Old Aikenites and they know that God holds no higher reward for them. Most of the DuPonters, however, have eased into their social limbo with empirical grace, with the consciousness of people who understand the theories of evolution and the town is constantly evolving, shifting, and changing. Slowly, after twenty-one years, a miracle strange as Cana has taken place in a thousand DuPont homes. It is a miracle profound and wonderful, humorous and unsettling, a commentary on the possibility of rebirth and resurrection in the American dream enacted in the pine and Bermuda grass suburbs heavy with DuPonters. In some of these homes, the children of DuPonters: yes, these new Aikenites, born on Aiken soil, natives of Aiken, their first breath drawn in Aiken, schooled in Aiken; yes these children of the twentieth century, of mobile America, of the fission of atoms, of fathers tutored in the mystery of the elemental charts; these children speak, and to the amazement of parents bred in Stoneybrook, Indianapolis, Oak Park, and San Rafael, a softness infects their children’s voices. A “Ya’ll” escapes here and there. The speech of the south, insidious, airy, proud in its rejection of the letter “R”, possesses their children. It is in a flash of pained recognition for some, amused wonder for others that they realize that they: they: they, the DuPonters, are raising southern children. Their children have received the gift of the tongue. The gift of the soil, the gift of the blood. Southern blood.
“I am not ‘yo mama,’ son. I am ‘your mother,’” a DuPonter mother said to her son. “And quit saying ‘ya’ll’, goddamit.”
The blacks of Aiken seem to lack the essential fury of men and women locked into the severe boundaries of the Old South. Aiken does not have to fear the fire next time, because there has not been a fire the first time. Two blacks proferred theories abut the lack of angry blacks in town: The Winter Colony drained off the most talented blacks and trained them as servants and houseboys; the brightest young blacks are bright enough to realize that Aiken, South Carolina is not the town where their talents will be most appreciated. Blacks are still following the drinking gourd north and into the big cities.
“Who is the black man that blacks look to as their leader in Aiken? Whos is the black that the white men fear?” I asked a black woman on Park Street.
“Let me think,” she answered. “There must be somebody. What hotel are you staying at? I’ll call you if I think of anybody.”
Erskine Caldwell wrote about Horse Creek Valley in God’s Little Acre. The valley is the nasty little secret of Aiken County. It is a series of depressing mill towns that cluster along the polluted edges of Horse Creek, a blighted ribbon of water that serves as a large intestine between the towns of North Augusta and Aiken. In this valley, the textile industry of South Carolina had its birth. For twenty miles America has a savage and well preserved vision of what was wrong with the industrial revolution. Along Highway 421 the towns of Vaucluse, Graniteville, Warrenville, Bath, Langley, and Clearwater, and a dozen or more sad offshoot communities blend into each other. Each town has as much visual uniqueness as a Chinese checker. The towns are unincorporated. Baptist and fundamentalist churches line the main road in staggering numbers jockeying for position with sad, off-brand gas stations. When a gas station goes broke, it is quickly taken over as a Baptist Church of the most paleolithic theological orientation. A man can buy a lot of gas and do a lot of praying in Horse Creek Valley and this makes remarkably good sense: both gasoline and prayer are two sure exeunts from the Valley. But whether you leave the Valley by Chevrolet or in a casket provided by J.M. Posey and Sons, it is best to prepare. A statistic common in the Valley declares that there are more Baptist churches per square mile in the Valley than any place on earth. But the truly memorable statistic is one that a stranger fastens to and causes all men to reflect on the nature of God and men in Horse Creek Valley. The Valley had the highest unsolved murder rate in the country.
The valley shelters a grim and fiercely proud native. Often, a boy who enters the textile mill at Graniteville had a father who worked the same shift, a grandfather, and possibly a great grandfather. The mill is in his blood; its weaves and bobbins are an ingrained heritage. History had trapped him. It takes an uncommon man to fight against a destiny of cotton cloth and graveyard shifts.
“The Valley breeds the craziest bastards in the world,” an Aiken businessman told me.
“One of the big problems I have in counselling girls in the Valley is incest. That’s right, incest,” said a teacher’s aide.
“I love the Valley and the people of the Valley,” said an Aiken florist. “I’m from the Valley.”
“Best damn people in the world live in the Valley. I ought to know. I’ve lived there fifty-five years,” a man from Warrenville said.
“What are you goin’ to the Valley for? You’re not gonna find anything about Aiken in the Valley.”
Jerry Swing, my high school basketball coach ten years ago, sits in the library of Langley-Bath-Clearwater High School and talks about his experiences as a school principal in the Valley. Talking with him is Ethel Woodruff, the school’s librarian, and Nathaniel Irvin, a black psychology teacher. They are defensive about the kids they teach and angry over the kneejerk fear and prejudice summoned from the glands of Aikenites when the Valley is mentioned.
“I came from a mill town myself, Pat. You didn’t know that when I coached you, but you didn’t know a lot of things back then. I had to fight my way out of a mill town and fight my way through college. That’s why I love these kids and why I identify with them,” Jerry said.
“The Valley kids got an inferiority complex a mile wide,” Ethel Woodruff adds. “They gotta fight against things that an Aiken kid never even dreamed of. Why, I’ve seen the mill kids come into school year after year having had nothin’ for breakfast except a moon pie and a Pepsi-Cola. Now I ask ya. What kind of breakfast is a moon pie and a Pepsi-Cola?’
“It’s getting better though,” Jerry spoke up again. “The Valley kids are coming up for air. They’ll scratch for it.”
“One great problem in the Valley is how early these girls in the high school become pregnant and get married,” Mr. Irvin said.
“That’s just the way of the Valley,” Ms. Woodruff said. “That’s just the way its always been.”
“Nowadays we marry ’em, then teach ’em,” Jerry said, smiling. “We’re the only high school I know of that has to have a midwife at graduation.”
“The mill snaps up a lot of our students before they can finish high school. They’ve been snappin’ ’em up for a hundred years,” said Mr. Irvin.
“How did integration go in the Valley?” I asked the group.
Ms. Woodruff was the first to answer. “The Valley had very little problem with integration. It’s ironic, too, because the Valley used to have one of the most active Ku Klux Klans in the state. I think the reason for it is this: you have problems with integration in a pseudo-sophisticated neighborhood, but not in the Valley.”
“I agree,” Jerry said. “I think the kids said, ‘We ain’t got that much. We got less to lose. Black people are much more like we are than those other rich white people. Look! There’s the niggers from the Valley and the ol’ white lintheads [mill-workers] from the Valley, but really, all of us are just kids from the Valley.”
Mr. Irvin quickly said, “I do a little preachin’ on the side when I’m not teachin’. A couple of years ago two of my white students came up to me and asked me if I’d marry ’em. A few weeks later I showed up at the girl’s house, met her parents and bound these two children in the eyes of the Lord. Where else in Aiken County would I be invited into a white home to perform a wedding ceremony. Nowhere but right here in the Valley.”
“I think the important thing now, Pat, is this. What can we do as teachers to help those kids from the Valley think they’re as good as the kids from Aiken and North Augusta?” Jerry said soberly, his sad, blue eyes, the eyes of an old coach, burning with the question.
“I get sick of Aiken sometimes,” Ms. Woodruff snapped. “I’ve always liked people better than polo ponies.”
A religion as deeply rooted as Christianity rules the mill-haunted roads of the Valley. This faith, an echoing gospel etched in the blood of the American labor movement, is a truculent, feral hatred of labor unions. It lies as deep in the consciousness of the Valley as the kaolin mined in the hills above Horse Creek. Over the years, a vast propaganda campaign has convinced the mill workers of the Valley that unions are synonymous with godlessness, communism, and loss of jobs. Union organizers in the twenties entered a hostile viper’s nest when they tried to organize the Valley. The mill owners prevailed. The Mill is a father and his mutely obedient children live in the long rows of shotgun houses, each house a reflection of the next house; each village a chimerical walk through a hall of mirrors where there are no grotesque images, no distortion of features, but only the chilling repetition of a false start, and evil conception. The houses stretch like rosary beads for twenty miles. And somehow, in this cloacal anachronism back to the days of sweatshops and milltowns, you realized that the people of Horse Creek Valley are at war with a terrible enemy: the people of Horse Creek Valley. Politically, they are suicidal. Each town, whether it is Vaucluse, Langley, or Warrenville would revolt if someone tried to bind the entire valley into one political unit; each town is as discrete and independent as a European principality. The only organization they have is The Mill. The Mill cares for them, feeds them, entertains them, takes care of their sick, and is always ready to perform fatherly duties if emergencies arise. No one can convince the people of the Valley that the reason they are so buried in this miasma of hopelessness is directly due to the benign shepherding of the Mill. No one has told these people along the sad highway that the Mill is guilty of high crimes, unforgiveable crimes, crimes for which they would fiercely deny responsibility. But that is irrelevant. Until the Valley produces a leader who grew up in the mill town boxes, who sweated under a loom, and who is angry at the system that manufactured the human wreckage who have been bred like cattle to man the assembly line and educated in schools owned by the mills, until this man arises, the people of the Valley will continue political pterodactyls like Strom Thurmond, will continue to salivate blood at the mention of unions, and continue to isolate themselves in tribes along one of the saddest roads in America. The unions will eventually have to come to Horse Creek Valley to break up the iron traditions of servitude to the mill, but right now, if Jesus Christ himself walked into Horse Creek Valley as a union organizer, he would be lucky to escape with something as mild as a crucifixion.
“What are you going to write about Aiken, you simple ass?” the pretty wife of a DuPonter asked me.
The southerner must come soon to some hard decisions. What in the South is worth preserving? What deserves protection” What qualities of southern life are holy parts of the region whose absence would change the very nature of the region? What does it mean to be a southerner in June of 1973? What will it mean to southern children in twenty years?
The South was warned. For decades, crabbed, old prophets fulminated against the encroachment of industry. These men wrote passionately, but they wrote too late. The destiny of the South was bound to industry and all the essays in the world would not change this. The essays were the last gasps before the deluge.
Aiken is a perfect crucible for study of industry transforming a small town into an important industrial center. Besides the Savannah River Plant, Aiken County shelters Owens-Corning Fiberglass, Pyle National, Warner Brothers, the textile companies of the Valley, and Kimberly-Clark is building. Despite its continued fixation with horses, the town is becoming top-heavy with industry. It is in the process of shedding its small town skin: Aiken is going all the way. One of the prettiest towns in America has succumbed to the seduction of quick money. In full knowledge of her zealotry, Aiken has embraced vulgarity and like the way it feels.
Leading out of Aiken is Richland Avenue that turns at some arbitrary point into the Old Augusta highway. Aiken chose this road as her capitulation to the gods of plastic; Richland was dubbed here street of shame. Driving down Richland, one sees the old town of Aiken dying at the end of a magnificent canopy of trees. Columns disappear. The bright flowers of June give off a last, desperate perfume. Then it begins.
America’s great enemy of esthetics is the chain store. Aiken and America are in danger of leaving a bleak contribution to mankind if we are to be judged by future civilizations on what is excavated from our present one. The judgements levied upon our era will come from what artifacts? The plastic icon of Colonel Sanders will be our Collosus of Rhodes; the McDonalds’ arch our flying buttress; the Winn-Dixie Supermarket our Parthenon. Going down Richland, past the gas station, the shopping centers, the irridescent, glossy stores that serve man but serve him quickly, one sees on both sides of the road the cathedrals of plastic rising up one story, dehumanizing monuments to fast foods. In America, there must be efficiency, speed, technological awareness even in what we eat. We are in America, things are fast, ugly, chromium-plated, neon-lighted, brightly colored; we are ablaze in plastic, buffeted by hamburgers on the wing, pizza taking the curve and life coming down the homestretch. We move into the center of the dead land crowding into Richland Avenue and we say we say in one loud collective assent: This is America. This is fast. This is good. But – This is also Aiken, South Carolina.
Once the South had to ward off the assaults of the Philistines. No more. Now the Philistines says y’all come, can deliver a spontaneous defense of collard greens and belongs to the Sons of Confederacy. The Philistine is as southern as redeye gravy. He is the face staring back at our mirror. He carries our briefcase. He signs our names to forms that ignite the bulldozers, hire the contractors, and clear the pine.
Perhaps the Jaycee factor has overwhelmed us. The South reels under the invasion of those indefatigueable, bright-eyed, buttoned-down, fashionably coifed, up and coming, go getting boys out of K. A. who would sell their ancestral burial plot if K-Mart came up with the right price. They would move grandpa’s bones so the world could be made safer for a Hardee burger. In a euphemism of the age, they call themselves developers and have visions of driveways, barbecue sets, patios, four bedroom modern colonials, and Bermuda grass whenever they gaze at an uncut forest. They have their poetry. They name their suburbs Fox Chase, Kalmia Hills, Virginia Acres, Westwood, and Silver Bluff Estates. You will never find a development named Hog Intestines or Gopher Guts. Developers use words; words are the pimps that push the plastic and the patios. They are overrunning Aiken. The are renaming the South into the image of everywhere else. They are the Hun.
Aiken thunders with discordant echoes of itself. Aiken needs a loosening up, a gathering together of its energies; Aiken needs to define itself, to set the boundaries to form its goals. It is a town of such exquisite beauty and matchless color that it deserves the help of townsmen who love her. Winter colonists, blacks, Old Aikenites, the Valley people, DuPonters, each with their own unique destinies bound to this lovely, beleaguered town. For better or worse, these are the people who will live their lives out beneath the magnolias and the McDonalds’ arch. This is where they will die. For all of them, Aiken is holy ground.