January 8
by Jim Smith

Abner had about 10,000 acres of the best timber land in the County and was obliged to sell some to pay his taxes. He was tighter than a bull’s ass in fly season. On this Indian Summer day I dreaded trying to deal with him but did give him enough to pay his taxes, all while he complained that I was taking unfair advantage of him. After we struck a deal and signed the timber lease, I stopped at the Last Chance Café in Springfield, Georgia for lunch. The menu never varied from a choice between two meats and a plateful of three vegetables and as much ice tea as you could drink – all topped off with the customary banana pudding.

Pete Clifton hailed me from across the dining room and invited me to join him. He had seen me with Abner and asked if I had been fishing in Abner’s pond. I said, “Hell no!” Pete was the affable County Agent for Effingham County. His motto was “Fish more, work less.” He fulfilled that ambition admirably. In fact, the coat rack in his office had a sign on it – “If my hat’s not here, I’ve gone fishing.”

He was always good for some stories about local happenings and anxious to find out where the fish were biting. Pete had access to most of the farm ponds in the County and introduced me to many of their owners, but we both preferred to fish in the Savannah River and its local tributaries. So when we ran into each other, as Pete said our love of things “piscatorial” always provided fodder for shared experiences and stories

Pete asked me as I sat down “Been fishing lately?”

I told him “Pete, I caught so many last Saturday, our freezer has no room for more fish, and I will be a “catch and release” fisherman for a while. I reckon that’s the penalty for being so good.”

Now Pete usually fished the River from Abercorn Landing south to Coleman Lake and I usually fished north of the Atlantic Coastline Railroad Bridge to Coleman Lake.

Pete said “For me, the fishing hasn’t been that good and I think you are bullshitting me, so I might have to check out some of your fishing honey holes, if you’ll tell me where they are.”

I told him I caught most of the fish about a mile up Collis Creek, which entered the River on the Georgia side about a mile north of the Atlantic Coastline Railroad Bridge.

Pete said “I just bought a new outboard motor for my bateau and can make about 15 miles an hour on the river. “

I cautioned him, “Pete, be careful. I have seen some floaters and submerged trash around Gum Stump Point a little below Purrysburg. If your new outfit is so good, you might want to immerse yourself in some historic culture and try fishing in some of the old rice-field canals that were part of the Savannah River Plantations: Richmond Oak Grove, Mulberry Grove and Drakie where Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin.”

Pete said “I’m not much on “cotton gin,” or any other kind of gin. I favor the corn that come in a fruit jar.” Pete’s affinity for corn likker was well known, and anyone who encountered him on the river could often observe him in a state of mild inebriation.

A few days later, Pete’s new 10 HP Johnson outboard powered Pete’s cypress bateau downriver to the places I had described to him. Now, this section of the Savannah River was subject to tidal action. The day of Pete’s trip was at the peak of spring tide. On such occasions that coincided with low water levels in the River, the River might seem to run backwards for a short time each day. Pete’s inattentive navigation in the vicinity of Purrysburg caused his motor to hit a sunken log resulting in a broken shear pin. By this time, it was late in the afternoon and Pete had no extra shear pins, no tools and no ideas to improvise a fix.

Adrift above the Railroad Bridge, Pete’s bateau drifted in lazy circles until it passed beneath the bridge. Pete thought he was still above the bridge, but in fact was below it. His confusion was compounded by the effects of the settling drink he had right after his mishap. He knew the rural community of O’Leary in Georgia was about two miles from the River. Pete figured a two-mile hike on the railroad would put him close to a telephone and help.

Pete was wrong. The slack current convinced him had tied up to a bridge piling on the Georgia side of the River. In fact, he had tied up on the South Carolina side. Instead of O’Leary he started walking toward Hardeeville, South Carolina about 7 miles from the River across a desolate, dark and deserted stretch of swamp. Pete had no flashlight, no food and an unmitigated fear of the dark which was his companion along with some hooting barred owls and imagined alligators and cottonmouth snakes.

He arrived in Hardeeville about 10 that night. The local police took him into the station after receiving a complaint call from a local black man who said a deranged white man had wandered up on his porch. By the time the police took him to the station, he was completely sober but still confused. His wife, frantic believed the worst and had dispatched some of his acquaintances to search his usual fishing spots.

Relieved to find Pete safe in Hardeeville, she was irate to hear of his escapade and reluctant to excuse him based on his affirmation that the “River was running backwards that day.” By the time Pete’s adventure was widely shared in the community by his wife, the searchers and his friends, the inventive elaboration provided by the local wags made it a story that was repeated for years – long after Pete retired as the County Agent.