So Richard Beck is celebrating a birthday on August 21. I don’t know why but for some reason that is important to me this year. I know that he and I share radically differing views in the political world but that does not erase those days long ago when we were friends wearing out the knees of our dungarees playing marbles in the dirt.
Riverland Terrace School, which was the beginning of our education about the wider world, was situated in the middle of our first world which, strangely enough was called Riverland Terrace. It was a relatively new community chock full of children who would later be called Baby Boomers. We had no idea we were the luckiest kids in the world.
I cannot sit here and tell anyone the first day we met because, simply put, I am old and my memory is shot through with holes. There are those memories that seem crystal clear though I may have colored them to my own palette. The early years in our classrooms swirl around in a miasma of bits and pieces that do not coalesce.
The building which stood like a colossal skyscraper to six and seven year olds was ringed by a section of brick that stood out half an inch from the wall and a couple of feet above the ground. He took on the challenge of walking that half inch on splayed feet. Below, the ground promised pain and sorrow with just one slip. Imagination conjured terrifying creatures awaiting a careless move along the precipitous face of brick and mortar. Richard had taken the first step from the protruding arm of the porch that lead into the side entrance. I watched his courageous move shivering at his fearlessness.
“Come on, Rickey! It’s easy. You can do it!” he said his right cheek hugging the wall. I saw half his smile and his sparkling left eye only because his arm was blocking a full view. His hand reached above to find finger holds between the bricks. I shook my head as he began to inch away from me. He turned to face the direction he was moving. His right foot slid along the half inch of brick while his right hand felt along the gripping edge until he was leaning away from me still shaking my head. He continued to the corner of the building encouraging me to follow him with each inch he gained on his journey. He came to the sharp edge of the bricks that formed the corner and reached around with his hand struggling for a hold. The triumph lit his face and he eased his right foot around to the other facing of the red bricked building. He waited for a minute to stabilize his position.
“Rickey! Come on! It’s easy!” he yelled one last time and he was gone from my sight. I listened but heard no scream of a plummeting body to certain death, or at least to a smarting hiney. No, just the call of a friend borne on the wind cajoling me to join him in acres of fun.
Alone, I stood, on the porch shivering in the wind that whistled around the corner of the dark building looming over me. My friend, Richard, was far beyond me now. Fear had turned me to stone. Once more the call for me to join him wafted around the corner faintly. I had to do it. I took two steps to the half inch walkway. I slid my foot out beyond the porch. Placing my body up tight against the wall I reached for a hand hold above me. Feeling my fingers slide into the groove I held on with all my might and placed my left foot sidewise on the protruding brick. Quickly I found a second handhold with my left hand. I had done it. I was alone against the wall two feet above ground.
“Now what?” I thought as I held tightly. A voice inside said slide your feet and hands in the direction you want to go. I closed my eyes and obeyed. At the corner I opened my eyes and smiled having come this far. I kept my hand in the groove and slid it ever so carefully around the corner along with my foot. I was at the turning point. Holding fast I peeked around the corner to see Richard almost at the green door midway along the side of the building. His movements, encouraged by experience, were smooth and fluid as he propelled himself along at dazzling speed. He jumped to the step and turned to see if I had followed. His grin was wide with triumph. Jumping from the step he ran to my position and coached me along until my foot could stand solidly on the step in front of the green door. I might have fallen and died had he not stuck near me with words of cheer at my progress.
Our time at RTS was filled with such moments, far too many to enumerate. The middle years were filled with exploring our world of Riverland Terrace on our trusty bikes, his, a Schwinn and, mine, a Columbia. They were our equivalent of a Ford and a Chevy, mine being the Ford of course. Our rides took us further and further into the wide world of the Terrace. We ventured to the edge of Suicide Cliff at Riverland Drive’s end on the Wappoo Cut. I was elated to have ridden my bike so far and seen the famous site about which I had learned from my mother. The drop was steep for a child my size.
“Why’d your mother call it suicide cliff?” asked Richard.
“Dang if I know,” I answered.
With that we laid our bikes down and began to climb down the rocks to the water’s edge. Jagged rocks assaulted our shoes as we slipped on the slime. Crumbled asphalt lay along the slope of the cliff. We looked up to see the dead end sign leaning ever so slightly toward the water. The oaks along the top of the cliff provided shadow on that hot summer day as we watched the fiddlers scuttle away from us huge pinchers held high to ward off danger as they searched for the opening of their mud holes. We found a cord tied to a sprouting seedling which led out into the water. Richard tugged on it.
“There’s something on the end of it,” he said and began to pull at it. He pulled in a barrel shaped wire enclosure. He picked it up. Inside we could see a cone shape leading into the middle on both ends. Within were flopping bodies of minnows.
“It’s a minnow trap!” Richard said.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“They are used for bait by fishermen. This is put in the river overnight. The minnows enter through that cone on either side. It’s easy to go in but going out is not so easy. The minnows are trapped.”
“Why would they go in there?” It didn’t make sense to me.
“There is usually something inside that they like to eat. That’s what draws them in.”
“Oh,” I always answered when he filled me in on some new piece of knowledge I had never heard.
We scrambled up the side of the cliff and ran back to our bicycles. We raced along the road ahead of us, the wind whistling past, when Richard spoke up in quick gasps.
“I have an idea!” he shouted into the sky above.
“What?” I shouted back.
“Meet me at my house!”
His words faded as he shot forward and beyond me. I pumped my legs as fast as I could to catch up. I breathed hard as he slipped around the curve in the road ahead. When I got to that curve, he was nowhere in sight.
Huffing and puffing, I angled into the steep climb that was the start of his driveway.
“You could have waited,” I gasped.
“I wanted to get here and have this ready by the time you got here.” he was smiling and flipping the cards in a deck he held in front of me. “Lemme show you what I want us to do.”
I was astraddle my bike when he bent one of the cards. He attached it with a clothes pen to the fork on my front wheel extending the other end into the spokes. He did the same with the back wheel. He up righted his bike, dropped the kickstand and added cards to his wheels too.
“OK. Come on. You’re going to love this.” He jumped on his bike and buzzed down the drive leaning to the right as he hit the steep incline to the road. There came a roar from his bike that almost sounded like a motorcycle. I moved forward giving my bike momentum then hit the pedal hard. With a roar I followed Richard’s path shooting down the street in a celebration of noise. We toured the Terrace again with the sound of stiff-back cards clattering against spokes. The smiles on our faces could have lighted the day had the sun gone behind a dark cloud.
Those bikes wore out in time and we were given new ones as we grew. Richard used his to work. He took on the job of paperboy. The evening paper, called the Evening Post, was delivered to a store in the Terrace where he would receive them. On occasion I would accompany him.
The stacks lay on the stone embedded asphalt beside the steps of what we called the Greek’s. Inside were groceries and cold drinks. I’d go in and get drinks and peanuts while Richard cut the cord holding the stack of papers together. He would have rolled half the lot by the time I came out with the bottles and bags. The rolled ones would be stuffed into the canvas bag held on the wooden cross affixed to his handlebars.
“Thanks,” he said taking the Pepsi bottle. “Wow! That’s big!”
“Yeah, I know and it’s still a dime,” I said tilting the pint bottle of Pepsi. The bubbly bites trickled into my mouth. “It’s brand new, sixteen ounces of Pepsi.” I began to pour the peanuts into the neck of the bottle, another thing Richard taught me.
“I don’t know if I can hold that much in one sitting,” he said.
“Yeah, but it’s a dime like the smaller ones. It’s a deal.” I tilted the bottle again receiving peanuts in a stream of Pepsi. I chomped down on them.
Richard put his on the step and commenced to rolling papers again. I joined in. We finished up stuffing the last one into the canvas bag. I took the bottles back inside for the deposit and tossed the empty peanut bags into the trash.
We hopped on our bikes and made his paper run up Woodland Shores and Stono Shores. I’d head on home as he tossed his last paper. We were both heading for supper and the bathroom. A pint of Pepsi was a bladder buster after a half hour or so.
When we picked up our licenses to drive it was a whole new world. Richard began working at the Amoco Filling Station at five points in Riverland Terrace. I started my job at Charleston Rubber Company in the Stark Industrial area after I was able to drive. One of those hot summer afternoons as I drove into the station and the bell jangled for service I cut the engine and got out to meet Richard as he approached the car wiping his hands on an old towel which he stuffed in his back pocket when he got to the pump.
“Lemme do it,” I said reaching for the hose. He rang it up so it could pump.
“How’s your day?” he asked. I slid the nozzle in the tank opening.
“Not bad. Yours?”
“Fine until the cops went flying past earlier today.”
“Something bad happen?” I asked.
“Four of our friends were in an accident.”
“Are they alright?”
“No, they all died. The car slammed into that oak just beyond the sharp curve on Johns Island. They were going to the Tomato Shed to start work.”
I think that was our first brush with death involving someone we knew. It weighed on us for a while but with time we let it go.
The time was taken up with our interests. Richard loved music and began playing the guitar. He became half way decent on it. He tried to teach me but it was not something I could grasp, neither physically not mentally. My fingers were too short to reach around a fret without cramping up but that was nothing to my mind which took no understanding whatsoever to the notes on a page of sheet music. They never ever registered in my head as musical sounds. I could whistle a tune but could never attach that symbol to the sound, no matter how hard Richard tried to explain it to me.
“Try this,” he would say. His fingers would plunk out a tune.
“Like this?” My fingers would bumble across the strings.
“Not quite. Tighten down on this string on this fret,” he’d answer as his ears hurt from my scratchy noise.
The note I tried to make would come out fuzzy. It never had that sharp melodic sound he conjured with those magic fingers.
It came natural to him and he was playing tunes and singing along like a real folk singer. As he sang I would struggle with my finger pressure on the frets without success. He was able to show me how to play a few notes of Honky Tonk.
“I did it!” I yelled proud as I could be after picking off five or six of the required notes.
He smiled while I tried to repeat it. His smile evaporated as I tripped up the notes totally out of sequence producing a discordant sound. I have never been able to play it since not for his lack of trying to help me. We both figured after a while that I should stick to whistling.
We enjoyed the summers though we didn’t get together as often since we both were working our summer jobs but on the occasional Friday night and Saturday night we would head to the pier at Folly Beach to hear one of the bands and sip a few suds.
“The Hot Nuts are at the pier,” I said one of those nights as I slammed the car door.
“Lemme get a clean shirt and I’ll be right with you!”
I sat on the hood of the car smoking my Camel. That was something I never learned from him nor he from me. Cigarettes never tempted him, though I do remember his experimenting with a pipe and some aromatic tobacco.
The screen slammed behind him. He was buttoning the last button when he reached for the car door. I slipped behind the wheel, slammed the door and cranked the car. We were on our way to the pier.
The place was alive with patrons and expectancy. The band had not made its appearance when we arrived. We paid our admission and walked in. The juke box was playing but the noise of the crowd was drowning it out.
“How about a beer?” I shouted next to his ear. He smiled and nodded. We got behind the sea of humanity waving money at the bar tender. Our turn finally arrived and we got our cups. The band still wasn’t on stage so we made the trip to the bar several more times. My brain was swimming in alcohol when the roar of the crowd announced the band.
Faintly within that roar we heard their chant.
“NUTS! HOT NUTS! YOU GET ‘EM FROM THE PEANUT MAN!”
And the night began. The dance floor filled up to become a roiling, writhing mass of bodies syncing to the sound from the loud speakers.
In my alcoholic fog I began to search the crowd for a familiar face or, if not a familiar one, a pretty one.
“Let’s walk around. See if we can find a dance partner.”
“Sounds like a plan,” he replied.
We started shambling around people moving to the music. Some were sitting at tables screaming over the heavy beat. They were leaning in close to one another to be heard. One fellow was monopolizing two girls who appeared bored with him as they glanced around in search of something better. One of them smiled at Richard.
Richard always willing to sing began a Bo Diddley ditty,
“He looks like a farmer.”
To which I added,
“But he thinks he’s a lover!”
We looked at each other and laughed at our drunken witticism as we continued our stroll around the outer fringe of the dance floor. We ended up at the bar once more. Our hands full of beer cup we ambled over to the railing at the farthest edge of the pier and looked down at the ocean waves breaking on the support posts beneath us. We turned to look back over the crowd our elbows resting on the rail. I was watching the band and taking a drink from my cup when I was tapped on the shoulder.
“What did you say to me?”
“What?” I asked over the band.
“I said what did you say to me back there?”
Not knowing who he was or what he was talking about I repeated my question. Richard looked as puzzled as I.
“Over there,” he said pointing, “you said I looked like a farmer.”
“What?” I repeated.
“Yeah,” said a guy behind him. “You said he looked like a farmer.”
“No I didn’t. Richard said that.” My thumb pointed at Richard who looked upset I had mentioned him.
“Then I said, ‘but he thinks he’s a lover’.”
This didn’t make things any better. Here we were our backs to the rail and four guys spreading out around us.
“Whoa, fellas,” I said. “We meant no harm by what we said. It was all in fun. We were just singing that Bo Diddley song. You know, You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover?”
“Well, I didn’t like it, you talking like that about me in front of my girl. Me and my boys want you to step outside so we can settle it now.”
“Whoa, guys. We don’t want to fight. We’re here to have fun and what we said was in fun. We didn’t mean anything by it. I’m sorry if you took offense. Please, accept my apology and let’s enjoy the band.”
The guy looked at his friends. They shrugged their shoulders. He turned back to me without changing his expression.
“I really apologize. I didn’t mean a thing by it.” I looked at him while my mind churned over whether it was high tide and whether a jump from the pier would be too high if it weren’t.
“Well, OK, but you stay away from me and my girl. Got it?”
“Yeah, sure. I’m sorry.” I said it once more for emphasis.
They gave us a threatening look then left to haunt their side of the pier. We watched them as they did.
“What the hell is wrong with you?!”
It was Richard’s brother yelling at me.
“You chicken shit! You apologized to that low life?” He came at me spitting out the words.
“Why would I want to fight him?” I yelled back over the band.
“Because he threatened you!” he blasted back.
“Only because we made fun of him. It was our fault. So I apologized. It was his due.” My words tumbled out.
He stared at me. With the words ‘chicken shit’ repeated he turned and left.
“What the hell?” I turned to Richard.
I’m not sure how Richard felt about it since it was his brother. I’m the one who apologized so I believe Richard was off the hook. I never asked.
Our days of spending time together were coming to an end as our senior year in high school approached June. We shared the same Senior English teacher which we have always felt was our best class ever. We also helped write the senior class prophecy.
“We’re meeting at Mrs. Smithwick’s to finish up the senior prophecy,” I told him as I paid for gas.
“I thought it was finished,” he said.
“Not quite. Just a few more and we can wind it up. So, see you tonight?”
“I’ll be there.”
Mrs. Smithwick was our senior English teacher. She took a real interest in her students and was kind enough to allow us to finish the prophecy there.
“Some of these are fairly raunchy,” she said looking at me.
Jack Lee was there holding the notebook and pen waiting to write down the golden words we had to offer.
“Why are you looking at me?” I asked grinning.
“I graded that essay three times. I know what goes on in your mind.” She looked firm in her accusation.
“How many more are left?” Richard said trying to get the ball rolling.
“I have the list and we have three here not done. Some of those that are done could be altered,” said Jack. He spoke their names. Two we knocked out in minutes.
“The last name is Richard Leander Beck.”
“How about this? Richard Beck was last seen in his red Corvette convertible pulling his mobile church behind him as he preached his way across the country.”
“I’m not too keen on that one,” said Richard.
“Tough!” Jack and I said together. “We’re sick of this and that’s how we end it.”
Our teacher warned us once more about some of the individual prophesies being a bit off color.
“Aah, they aren’t that bad. We’ll just read them at the last meeting and that will be it.” We packed up and left.
About ten minutes before the meeting to congratulate the senior class on its graduation, Jack was called into the principal’s office. When he came out the notebook wasn’t with him.
“Hey, you better go back and get the class prophecy notes.” I yelled at him.
“He took ‘em,” Jack said.
“What?” said Richard.
“He took ‘em,” repeated Jack.
“He can’t do that. We worked on those a long time,” I said.
“What do you mean, he took ‘em?’ Richard was still baffled.
“He said they were not fit to be read in front of the school in the auditorium.” Jack’s words came out with venom which was strange for him.
“How so?” I asked.
“He said they were off color. Just like Mrs. Smithwick told us and he was not going to allow them to be read.”
“That does it for me. I’m leaving.” I turned and marched to my car.
We shared so many more things over those twelve formative years. Richard’s influence on me was marked. I can never hear Bo Diddley without our visit to the pier cropping up into my mind. I can never hear Honky Tonk without struggling to stretch my fingers around an imaginary fret. I can’t hear “Honest I Do” by Jimmy Reed without thinking of listening to it for the first time at Richard’s. I always laugh when Redd Foxx tells the joke about the Faukowi indian tribe and one of the tribe who became lost as he turned to his traveling companion asking, “Where the Faukowi?” I can never hear ‘Work With Me Annie’ without thinking of snickering at Richard’s upon first hearing it.
All these thoughts came to me after hearing this song on Sunday evening. That song was ‘Scotch and Soda.’ I first heard it long ago as Richard strummed his guitar and let the words flow. It always floods my mind with the best memories anyone could want.