Gone to Carolina | Part 1, South Carolina

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Part 1: South Carolina | On baby turtles, floaty pens and the nature of monuments


We’ve all been there. Your flight is about to board. The gate attendant seems just now to notice it’s oversold. They get on the loudspeaker, and the auction begins. Someone is not getting on this plane—who’s it gonna be? The bidding starts at $200. You look around the gate to see who could possibly delay their vacation or business trip by a day. The price ticks up. Tensions rise. Finally, there is a taker. $600. Sold, to the lady with the good shoes. I’m married to that lady.

To clarify, Dawn’s not one of those people who buy tickets to places they don’t intend to go, only to game the system, get bumped, and rack up free trips. She travels to see family in Minnesota often, and those trips are usually not time-sensitive. So delaying a $75 flight 18 hours for a $600 credit is a deal worth taking. That $600 voucher was set to expire a month ago, so she booked a trip to the Carolinas to celebrate my birthday and check some Liberty Bells off the list.

Five days, two bells, one island

Our trip will take us on a 717-mile loop through the Carolinas. We’ll fly into Charlotte early Friday morning, head straight to Columbia to see the South Carolina bell, up to Emerald Isle for three days on the beach, then see the North Carolina bell in Raleigh on Monday before returning to Charlotte.

This quest to see all 57 of the 1950 Liberty Bell replicas has taken us to places fascinating and mundane; a park in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, the New Mexico state fairgrounds, a high school in North Dakota, a former church basement in Allentown Pennsylvania, and a lot of state capitals, where most of the bells reside.

Capital cities are all pretty similar. There are bureaucrats in business suits, lots of lawyers’ offices and always a Capital Grill (sometimes a Capitol Grill). The Capitol buildings are centrally located, easy to find and surrounded by war memorials and statues of storied old statesmen — all impeccably kept and soundly ignored.

The South Carolina Soldier’s monument | erected 1879

All that’s about to change as we head to the Carolinas. We’re riding into the epicenter of the debate over Confederate monuments.

On August 22, 2018, a week before our visit, the North Carolina Historical Commission presented Governor Roy Cooper their recommendation on what to do with the Capitol’s three Confederate monuments. Acknowledging the “over-representation and over-memorialization of a difficult era,” the commission recommended the monuments stay in place, along with the addition of plaques to add context and a memorial to honor African American North Carolinians.

Will time wound all heels?

Thursday, August 30, 2018 | We get about an hour’s worth of sleep on the red-eye flight from Denver to Charlotte. With a lot of miles to travel today, we hop in the rental car and drive south to Columbia. The Capitol grounds are lush and pristine, with gently rolling hills all leading up to a copper-domed neoclassical statehouse.

Not to be outdone by its northern neighbor, the South Carolina Statehouse also has three Confederate monuments, four if you count the 17-foot Strom Thurmond statue.

South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond monument | erected in 1999

Born 38 years after the Civil War ended, Strom Thurmond was a larger-than-life figure who holds a number of impressive records. In 1954, he was the first senator ever elected as a write-in candidate. He was continually reelected for the next 46 years, switching from the Democratic to the Republican party in 1964. In 2003, at the ripe old age of 100, he retired as the oldest and longest-serving member of Congress to date.

But Thurmond is perhaps best known for staging the longest filibuster in U.S. history. 24 hours and 18 minutes. All talk, no bathroom breaks. However, it’s now widely believed he violated Senate rules by taking a bathroom break 4 hours into his filibuster and later urinating into a bucket held by an intern in the Senate cloakroom.

The bill he was attempting (unsuccessfully) to filibuster was the 1957 Civil Rights Act. An ardent segregationist, Thurmond’s record falls spectacularly on the wrong side of history. He fought for a version of southern culture that used the concept of states rights to preserve the Jim Crow status quo well into the twentieth century.

In 2003, the man who tried to deport John Lennon posthumously earned another impressive record when 78-year old Essie Mae Washington-Williams revealed herself to be the oldest secret lovechild in U.S. political history. Her mother was Carrie Butler, a 16-year old African American servant working for Thurmond’s family.

If you look closely on the side of the monument, you’ll see where the inscription “his four children” was changed to “his five children,” and Washington-Williams’s name was added.

South Carolina’s Women of the Confederacy monument | erected in 1912

Relatively speaking, South Carolina is slightly more progressive than its neighbor to the north when it comes to Confederate symbols. In 2000 lawmakers moved to take down the Confederate flag that had flown over the Capitol dome since the end of the Civil War — give or take 97 years. Raised in 1961 as the state’s none-too-subtle response to the Civil Rights movement, the flag was moved a few yards to fly next to one of the three Confederate monuments. It remained there until it was removed in 2015.

South Carolina’s African American History Monument, erected 2001

The 2000 legislation also called for the addition of a monument honoring African American South Carolinians. The commission selected Colorado sculptor Ed Dwight, directing him not to depict any actual people, to avoid “controversial” figures like Denmark Vessey, a freedman who was hanged for plotting a slave rebellion. Fourteen years later, Vessey was honored with his own statue in Charleston, also by Ed Dwight.

The South Carolina Liberty Bell is on the southeast corner of the Capitol grounds between two concrete government buildings. Unlike other state bells which have been lost, forgotten in storage rooms or loaned to semi-pro baseball teams, the South Carolina bell has not moved much since the 1950 savings bond drive. Originally displayed in front of the Capitol’s east wing, it was moved to its current location in the early 1970s when the Capitol grounds expanded to the south.

The South Carolina Liberty Bell replica | dedicated July 1950

Perhaps in an effort to not be known as the home of the world’s largest statue of a racist centenarian, Columbia boasts the world’s largest fire hydrant and a Hootie and the Blowfish memorial. On our way out of town, we make a pitstop at the Devine Cinnamon Roll Deli to fuel up on shrimp and grits and caffeine.

There is no straight shot from Columbia to Emerald Isle, so instead, we plan to drive east until we hit the ocean, then follow the coast up to Emerald Isle. Myrtle Beach, here we come.

A lesson from the Gay Dolphin

Our stop in Myrtle Beach is a brief one, just long enough to walk the beach, eat some fried seafood on the pier, take a ride in the skywheel and hunt down a floaty pen for Dawn’s collection. Once a souvenir shop staple, floaty pens have grown increasingly harder to find over the last decade. We’ve had the best luck in off-the-beaten-path gift shops — the kind that might hold onto merchandise for a decade. The first place we look does not fit that bill at all.

From the skywheel, the Gay Dolphin Gift Cove looks to occupy an entire block in the heart of Myrtle Beach. Built in 1946, when gay meant happy, the massive gift shop has been a local landmark for generations. The place is jam-packed with every kind of tourist trinket imaginable. This could take a while. We weren’t in the store half a minute when a gray-haired, bearded man asked if he could help us. Usually, when we ask a clerk if they sell floaty pens, the response is either “sorry, no,” or “what’s a floaty pen?” Not at the Gay Dolphin.

This man knows a thing or two about local souvenirs. He grew up here. Not here in Myrtle Beach, here in the Gay Dolphin. Buz Plyler was born in 1949, just three years after his parents opened the store, and he’s never left.

There are several thoughts as to why floaty pens have become increasingly harder to find; consumer tastes have changed, they’re expensive (why pay $5-8 for a pen when you can pay $2?), and there were rumors the manufacturer was struggling.

Once he knows he’s talking to a collector, Buz opens up. This man seems to know more about buying tourist merch than anyone in the world. He moves 19 pallets of merchandise through the store every day of the three-month tourist season. Despite only being profitable in the summer, the Gay Dolphin is one of the few local businesses to stay open, providing year-round employment for core staff, some who have worked here for decades.

Eventually, Plyler gets to why there are no floaty pens at the Gay Dolphin. Socialism. Floaty pens are made exclusively by the Danish company, Eskesen. Plyler explains that since Denmark implemented Socialism, Eskesen (founded the same year as the Gay Dolphin) has become lazy. Without capitalism, they have no motivation to make floaty pens for Myrtle Beach.

Sensing the conversation could go on until closing time, we thank Buz for his help and move along. Our last chance was a more modest looking shop further down the strip. If you want your beach towel to show how much you like assault rifles, or if you’re looking for a Confederate anything, this is your place. We ask the 20-something behind the counter if they sell floaty pens. “What’s a floaty pen?” he asks.

Beach time

With sand in our shoes an no floaty pens, we hit the road. After 167 miles of mostly two-lane roads through fields of cotton and tobacco and every sort of Baptist church imaginable, we roll into Emerald Isle around 5 o’clock. The plan for the next three days is to have no plan.

The town of Emerald Isle occupies five square miles of a half-mile-wide barrier island. A single main artery runs the length of the island, with 13 miles of uniquely south-facing beach on one side and the Bogue sound on the other.

After 20 hours of traveling with little sleep, we check into the Islander Hotel. Fighting the urge to hop into bed and crash for the next 12 hours, we head down to the beach. The Atlantic is a clean blue-green and perfectly warm. After a quick dip, we clean up for dinner.

We walk the beach en route to our restaurant. The beachfront is lined with brutalist concrete condos and single family homes ranging from cute bungalows to monstrous vacation cubes. As we head toward a set of wooden stairs leading to the street, we pass a resident digging out what seems to be a plumbing problem: PVC pipe, shovels and a long trench marked with caution tape.

As we climb the stairs up and down over the dunes, we’re passed by a few groups on their way to the beach, each wearing different color tee shirts with the same design.

Turtle fever

The lush boardwalk path spills out into the cul-de-sac of a swanky neighborhood. When we pass another woman sporting the same shirt, curiosity gets the best of Dawn, and she asks what’s going on. The woman’s answer and a closer look at her shirt reveal she’s part of the Emerald Isle Turtle Patrol.

An all-volunteer group, these intrepid turtle stewards are the embodiment of Emerald Isle’s tagline: Nice Matters! (The exclamation point is part of the tagline.)

The plumbing problem we passed was, in fact, a Loggerhead turtle nest. The 300-pound momma turtle, who likely hatched on this same beach, returned only long enough to crawl to the tide line and lay 137 eggs. She laid her eggs 54 days ago. Average time to hatch is 55 days. We picked a good time to get into turtle watching.

the Emerald Isle Turtle Patrol awaits the big show

Starting May 1st, each Turtle Patrol volunteer walks a 1-mile stretch of beach every morning looking for turtle tracks leading up from the ocean.

Sea turtles bury their eggs 10-15 inches below the sand, so the tracks are the only indication a nest might be present. Not every set of tracks leads to a nest. Noise, lights, animals or humans can frighten a mother back into the sea before laying her eggs.

When this nest was discovered, one egg was taken for DNA testing to determine if the mother was also born here, and the rest were moved to the safer spot at the edge of the dunes. Volunteers lay PVC pipe to cordon off a nine-square-foot area around the nest and brush the sand atop the nest perfectly flat. When the eggs have hatched, and the babies are ready, a small mound will form in the sand. In either a slow trickle or a rolling boil, the turtles will emerge from their nest and follow the trench to the ocean to begin their lives.

This is one of 13 nests on the island. Twelve nests are Loggerhead, and one nest is Kemp’s Ridley, the world’s most endangered sea turtles. All told, there are 988 eggs on Emerald Isle. One in 1,000 will survive to adulthood.

We thank our new friend and continue to our dinner spot. As football reruns play on 100 televisions, one about three inches from my head, all we can think about are baby turtles. We’re going to witness a baby turtle walk. Tonight’s the night, we can feel it.

After dinner, we retrace our steps through the neighborhood, up and over the dune to the beach. There are now about 30 turtle watchers lined up in beach chairs facing either side of the 100-foot long trench. We’re welcomed warmly by our new friend and the rest of the patrol. No one makes us feel like the interloping turtle-peepers we are. There is some lovely conversation, but no turtle action.

The turtle watch lasts from 7 to 11 p.m. every night, starting on incubation day 50. We pledge to check back later in the evening, then go back to the hotel and sleep for 12 hours.


Saturday, September 1 | I wake up 46 and feeling good. As we drink hotel coffee and share a surprisingly tasty Food Lion mini carrot cake, we each silently worry we’ve missed the birth of our own babies, all 136 of them.

Sure, technically they belong to the sea, and scores of qualified humans are minding them — but they are our turtles nevertheless. After cake breakfast, we walk down to the nest to see what we missed. Nothing. Tonight’s going to be the night.

The birthday plan is to sit on the beach, eat a picnic lunch, discreetly drink some beer, go out for a nice dinner, watch our babies hatch and top it off with some night swimming.

After dinner, we check on our turtles again. No action. We consider asking the Turtle Patrol to text us if anything happens, but ultimately decide that might test the limits of how much nice really matters, so we call it a night.

Sunday is a perfect repeat of Saturday: cake breakfast, check turtles (no babies), beers on the beach, swim in the ocean, swim in the pool, dinner, check turtles (still no babies), night swimming, sleep for nine hours. A person could get used to this.

We recheck the nest Monday morning, and again our little baby ping pong balls are not ready to pop. Later this morning we’ll head to Raleigh to see the bell, then close the loop back to Charlotte to stay at an airport hotel before catching an early-morning flight back to Denver.

Taking one last swim right where our babies will enter the sea, we each silently contemplate staying another night. We talk it through, logic prevails, and we leave Emerald Isle as planned.

Turtle-peeping is rightly not a tourist attraction — humans have made a turtle’s life hard enough as it is — so there is no hashtaggery, no live Facebook feeds to follow. Dawn manages to find a page on seaturtles.org listing the rough locations, breed, the number of eggs and the total number of babies hatched so far on Emerald Isle. She refreshes the site every few hours looking for an update on our babies.

North Carolina’s monument to women of the Confederacy | erected  1914


The North Carolina Historical Commission’s press conference on the fate of the Capitol’s Confederate monuments was held the day after protesters at the University of North Carolina took matters into their own hands toppling Silent Sam, the 105-year-old Confederate monument. Legend had it, as freshmen pass Silent Sam for the first time, his rifle will discharge if he sees someone who’s not a virgin. While Sam is now history, his departure is a drop in the bucket. A 2017 report from the Southern Poverty Law Center counts 1,740 Confederate symbols on public display throughout the country. UNC is now soliciting ideas on what to do with Silent Sam. No word on how they will now detect non-virgins.

We reached Raleigh on Labor Day afternoon. There are no protestors, no armed guards. The first thing you notice about the North Carolina Capitol is how small it is. The 1840 building now serves exclusively as the Governor’s offices.

The Capitol grounds are chock-a-block with monuments: the three Confederate monuments in the news recently, monuments to other wars and a giant statue honoring the state’s three presidents, James K. Polk, Andrew Johnson and Andrew Jackson.

The Monument to North Carolina’s three presidents | erected 1948

State Capitols are built to convey a sense of strength and permanence. In 50 years, they will look like they did 50 years ago. In the next five to ten years, I think both Carolina Capitols will look significantly different.

There is no room on the Capitol grounds for North Carolina’s Liberty Bell. When it was given to the state at the conclusion of the 1950 savings bond drive, the bell was temporarily housed in the State Museum of Natural History, moved to the Hall of History, toured the state for at least two more bond drives and did some time at the Dorton arena and the state fairgrounds. After spending a number of years in storage the bell was installed in Bicentennial Mall in 1976. 

The North Carolina Liberty Bell replica

We cross the street on the north side of the Capitol and descend the gently sloping pedestrian mall between the state’s twin museums of natural sciences and history. As we approach the end of the mall, having yet to spot the bell, we hear an unmistakable F note pealing out. We follow our ears and find the bell in front of the History Museum’s outdoor dining area. The bell ringer was nowhere to be found. I touched the bell and felt it warmly reverberating through my hand and up my arm. Most of the replicas have been modified so they can’t be rung, but in North Carolina, it seems to be encouraged.

So with some coaxing from Dawn, I crawl underneath, take the clapper in my hand and bring it up to gently strike the inside of the bell. Even with my soft touch, I’m surprised by the loud and rich tone it produces. Diners look up from their plates toward the racket.

Raleigh Nort Carolina Liberty Bell replica

As the toll of the bell dissipates, I take some photos and notice the original frame has been welded so the bell can no longer swing. I imagine this was done to prevent anyone swinging the bell to ring it at full volume.

If there is one practical thing we can learn from the Liberty Bell, it’s that bells are extremely fragile. Any mishandling or adverse conditions can lead to damage. Without being able to move even slightly to offset the energy from the clapper, I worry this could be the first replica to crack like the original.

Nort Carolina Liberty Bell Replica, RaleighThe original frame has been modified to prevent the bell from swinging

Cracked rear view

As we walk through the Capitol grounds on our way to the car, I wonder what will replace these Confederate monuments when they go. Will plaques tell us what used to be there? Will the memorial shift from the object itself to the memory of the object, like the Spanish American war cannon in South Carolina that was melted down to fight another war in 1942? Or will the monuments be simply erased from history?

A memorial to monuments past

In their current context, these monuments are not long for this world. But I fear to move them from the Capitol to another location of equal prominence, as current North Carolina law requires, could imbue them with an even greater power to divide the public.

When we consider how we mark our history as a zero-sum game, no one can win without someone else losing. While a monument to African American North Carolinians is certainly warranted, it won’t make the Confederate monuments any more acceptable. Forgetting our history is never a good idea, but it’s necessary over time to change how we remember it.

Beneath the bronze and marble lies an opportunity to reshape the national conversation about a difficult era in our history and the difficulties that continue to reverberate throughout the land.

I think both Carolinas should commission contemporary artists to reimagine and recontextualize the monuments in place, in a way that honestly addresses our difficult history and transforms the Capitols from places of division to platforms for conversation. It’s a tall order, I know. But at its best, art can accomplish the impossible.


Tuesday, September 4, 2018 | When we return to Colorado, an update appears on the sea turtle website. Our babies are still in situ. Once again, we didn’t miss anything.

Dawn checks the site for updates daily, and on September 7th, 61 days after their mother came to shore, our babies emerged from their nest and bumbled into the ocean with a lot of cool humans rooting for them.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018 | As I write, Hurricane Florence is barreling toward the Carolinas. Emerald Isle is ordered to completely evacuate by 8 p.m. Four nests remain unhatched. The turtles are on their own.

Sunday, September 30, 2018 | As recovery efforts continue through the Carolinas, the Island Inn remains closed until further notice and the Emerald Isle sea turtle page is updated for the final time this season. 880 of the 988 eggs hatched. The four unhatched nests were lost to Hurricane Florence.

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