Like many other locals, my life has been affected by the big idea that, more than 50 years ago, created the biggest man-made lake east of the Mississippi River.
One grandfather's ancestral home is under water at Clarks Hill Lake. The other grandfather helped build the lake's dam.
And the lake's water almost claimed my life one summer day.
I grew up in Winfield "a suburb of Appling," I tell out-of-towners, who don't know their leg is being pulled where the lake was a taken-for-granted part of life.
My mom used to take us swimming to a little beach, mostly mud and rocks, at the end of the Little River Bridge. An uncle would sometimes take us to the Army's much-cleaner sand beach just across the water at the Fort Gordon Recreation Area.
Only later in life did I hear snippets of stories about my mom's dad, Mitch Martin, who worked to build the lake. He drove a bulldozer, they said. Pawpaw never told me any of the stories himself; he died before I thought to ask, his body hollowed out by the filterless cigarettes he smoked since childhood.
My dad's dad, Lloyd Paschal, was born in a house that once stood near Winfield Point. The stone foundation is still visible when the lake level drops. He moved out of that house in 1906, nearly 50 years before the lake existed; unlike many other farmers, he didn't have to lose home and land to the lake's rising waters.
It was at Winfield Point, a Corps of Engineers park, that Jim and Jeff and I, boyhood pals, went swimming one summer day about 25 years ago. Drinking Mountain Dew and eating pork rinds, Jim, Jeff and I blew up a bunch of garbage bags and tied them together, preparing for a swim to one of the lake's islands. The plan was sort of a reverse Alcatraz, where the inmates used inflated raincoats to escape.
Our only escape was from boredom on a hot summer day; curiosity and a sense of adventure drew us to the empty island. So we tied pairs of the Hefty bags together, looped strings around out chests and waded into the water.
(I know what you're thinking: "Say, that sounds like a really bad idea!" Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time, but we were only 15, 16 years old; lots of our bright ideas were pretty stupid.)
Jim and Jeff stayed together, while I drifted off, a barely competent swimmer paddling madly under the ungainly floatation devices. About halfway to the island, one of the bags slipped loose, cutting me back to just one inflated Hefty.
Do you have any idea how hard it is to float on one inflated garbage bag? I do. Swimming classes teach beginners not to panic; I'd never had a swimming class, so, of course, I panicked. When the blown-up bag kept bucking me off, I let go and sprinted toward the island without it.
Jim and Jeff changed course and headed my way, responding to my gurgled cries of "Help!" the couple of times I was able to gasp for air between flailing attempts at swimming. Only when I tired and sank and my feet touched bottom was I able to make real progress, running for my life under water until I finally emerged and collapsed.
When I woke up, Jim and Jeff had pulled me to shore where I threw up lake water and Mountain Dew. Our excitement for the exploration of the mysterious island was now as deflated as the Hefty bags and my ego, and a fisherman ferried us back to shore. He didn't even charge us for the safety lecture that we endured in sheepish, sullen silence.
Somehow, that adventure a quarter-century ago doesn't quite compare with the magnitude of the construction of the Clarks Hill Dam a quarter-century earlier. Must be because while both seemed like good ideas at the time, only one really was.
(Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail comments to bpaschal@ newstimesonline.com, or call 863-6165, extension 106.)
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