We had decided to spend our summer vacation at the beach, but that was the easy part. More difficult: Maine or South Carolina? We left that momentous decision to Emily Susanna Levey, age 3 1/2. Would she rather spend two weeks in a place where people said, "How a-a-a-hh you, Emily Susanna?" Or would she rather hear, "Harye-e-e-e-wwwwww, Emmmmmly?"
To the surprise of absolutely no one, E.S.L. voted for palmettos, not potatoes. So we set sail down I-95 for a state that Emily's parents had been through, but never to.
We soon learned the error of our previous ways. South Carolina has terrific beaches, terrific food and terrific country music radio stations (always, in my experience, the true test of any strange place). We also discovered that S.C. contained some pretty terrific snippets of information, amusement and adventure.
Best Bumper Sticker: spotted aboard a car with Ohio plates, somewhere near Florence:
I OWE, I OWE, IT'S OFF TO WORK I GO.
Best South Carolina Story: A couple of friends wanted to buy some fresh shrimp. So they cruised the back roads of Johns Island, where the shrimpers ply the salt marshes.
But they found no docks and no boats. Finally, just as the sun was setting, and they were ready to give up, a battered old boat hove into view.
My pals parked in a swirl of dust and hustled to boatside. There they found a fisherman who looked older than anything Hemingway ever dreamed up. He was gray, grizzled and stooped. He was 80 if he was a day.
The customers explained what they wanted. The mariner thought it over at considerable length. "Just a minute," he finally said, in a slow, halting whisper. "I'll go ask my Daddy."
Best South Carolina Idea: It comes from the fount of all wisdom, a newspaper column. Ina J. Hughs of the Charleston Post-Courier did an amusing summary of ways to keep the peace inside a car during a long trip. Her best idea was to play something called The Barbara Walters Game.
The oldest person in the car picks out a house. Then each passenger has three minutes to be Bahbruh Waw-Waw herself -- describing the people who live in the house, what their lives are like and why B.W. wants to come interview them.
Prize for the winner: the right to carry the lightest suitcase.
Funniest Culture-Gap Experience: We stopped for gas in a little crossroads town called Coward. I left the car at the self-service pump while I went to the bathroom. I returned to find that my wife had moved it to the side of the station.
"The owner asked me to," she explained. "There were three cars at the island and he said it was getting a little congested."
Craziest South Carolina Experience: Getting caught in a flood.
It was a Sunday afternoon, four days after the brief appearance of Hurricane Bob (I told them they didn't have to name anything for me, but you know those polite southerners). Light rain was falling as I drove toward downtown Charleston, my mother beside me, to do some sightseeing.
Pretty soon the downpour was up to felines and canines. But all I did was to flick the wipers from Leisurely to Rapid. What's a little rain?
The only trouble with that line of reasoning is that downtown Charleston is more than two centuries old. I think its sewers are at least a century older. So, when it rains very hard, for even as little as 10 minutes, the place becomes Lake Charleston.
As I discovered on King Street. One second I was running easily through three inches of standing water. The next second -- SWOOOOOOSH! Like a hydroplane, the Leveymobile hit three feet of water. The engine died, the car coasted to a stop and there we were, half-floating, beside a row house.
The first thing I thought was, "Why is their wash still out on the line? Don't they know it's raining?"
The second thing I thought was, "It's time to get the heck out of here."
I jumped out. Water was nearly to my waist. I waded around to the front of the car and pushed it backwards about 100 feet. Then I turned the key, expecting nothing.
Which is exactly what I got, the first five times I tried. The sixth time, the car blessedly kicked over. I could have kissed everyone at General Motors.
I drove a couple of blocks in the other direction and parked on a sidewalk. We waited for two hours, hoping that the rain would stop. Okay, subside. Maybe slacken? Just a little? Please?
No soap. I figured that any second, animals would be passing, two by two. "Ma," I announced, "we're going to try to reach the freeway."
Which we managed to do, but only by passing through huge ponds at three intersections. The technique: take it very slowly. The moral of the story: inches of standing water can easily become feet of standing water, with no warning.
Next summer? No question where we're going. Charleston still owes the Ma and me a look at the sights. But in sunshine this time, please, y'all.