Torch Song

Learning to harmonize


It was about a trillion degrees out, the way the Midlands can be in late June. The cloggers were in danger of combusting, what with all the hair spray and everything. You could just see them, little human torches in white Spandex and spit-shined shoes sprinting up Broad River Road really giving the folks lining the route something to remember.

Unbelievable. Here I was with everyone else, standing in the blistering sun on a stretch of blacktop in the middle of Nowhere, broiling like some stupid Cornish hen, waiting for a glimpse of the Olympic torch.

I hadn't planned to get caught up in the thing; was vaguely annoyed by it all, in fact, for reasons I hadn't bothered to examine. Maybe it was the relentless TV coverage. Or maybe just a general mistrust of cultural frenzy. I don't know.

But the torch happened to be coming through my neighborhood at the same time I happened to be going to work. All along Highway 176 people had gathered on front porches and under shade trees, waving flags and banners, every last one of them wearing red, white or blue most of them all three.

Mile after mile, people lined the road, cheering anything that moved. They came in Cadillacs and Cameros, pickup trucks and church vans, on roller blades and skateboards, in wheelchairs, strollers and wagons. On Harleys trailing American flags. On bicycles with ribbons on the handlebars. It was one big cheesy party and everyone was invited.

So I was moved, unexpectedly and literally. I copped a U-turn and headed away from Columbia, falling in behind an advance vehicle for the torch relay. When we got to the first town, I parked and joined the crowd that converged on the street across from the Pomaria Roadside Park.

A card table had been set up, covered with a paper tablecloth anchored by plates of cake with vanilla icing, a floral centerpiece (an ambitious affair made of curly pipe cleaners dusted with silver and gold glitter, sprigs of white yarrow, some pieces spray-painted red and blue, and gardenias fresh-picked from someone's garden) and a wooden plaque affixed with the key to the city. People took pictures of the table and of each other standing in front of it.

The whole town had turned out. Out of towners, too, apparently. "Some of these people I never seen before," whispered one woman to her friend. They sat in folding chairs and stared.

A red-faced fat man leaned against the freshly painted wall of the Pomaria Automotive & Lawn & Garden, picking his teeth with the stem of a miniature American flag, watching the spot on the hill where the torch would soon crest.

A man in work boots and suspenders stood in the shade outside Wilson's Grocery finishing off an orange popcycle. He asked me when the torch was supposed to get there. I didn't know.

His name was Charlie Farrow. He said he was retired. Normally he'd be planting watermelon or cutting trees, which is what he does, or poking around at the Jockey Lot. He lived about a mile away, and came out to see the torch, well to be able to say that he had.

"This is the biggest thing to happen in Pomaria since the Bicentennial," he said. "Remember that?"

Then a commotion broke out. But it wasn't the torch; it was Coca-Cola. A motorcade thundered into town, a string of vans and trailers screaming with images of the real thing. Sirens wailed, rock and roll blared from loudspeakers and beach-type boys on motorcycles with gigantic Coca-Cola bottle sidecars gunned their engines. More surfer-types set up huge cardboard Coca-Cola signs proclaiming: Olympic Celebration Zone, sold T-shirts, passed out red Coca- Cola fans and gave away cups of Coke for $1 "donations."

It wasn't long after they took off for the next town that the torch finally came over the hill. "I see it," shouted a little boy standing on the roof of a truck.

Other people had spotted it, too. Now everyone strained to get a look, standing in the middle of the road even though the cops had said, "All right, folks, behind the white line," at least a dozen times.

It all happened so fast. The torch bearer came into the town square and was cheered by the crowd, the cloggers clogged, the mayor gave away the key to the city and posed for pictures.

A few kids got to touch the torch before the runner decided it was a bad idea.

And then off the runner went, with his noisy entourage, on up the road.

Much of the crowd left, but some people stayed for awhile, sitting in the shade and talking, drifting into the park for free cake and popcorn. Kids played barefoot in Crims Creek, ran in the grass, rode around on their daddies' shoulders. A man with a long white beard mesmerized a circle of children in the park by doing magic tricks and pulling coins out of their ears.

"Hey, Mary Nell," said a woman to another.

"How do," her friend replied.

I thought I might like to live in Pomaria, a place where kids go barefoot and dogs don't need leashes. A place where people still say "How do."

In any case, I was glad to have visited, even for a few hours. I met Charlie Farrow and Everett Lake, who thought it went "pretty good." He was on his way home. "I got a cut of watermelon waiting for me."

I met Grady Adams, who told me about the vegetable-eating piranha he had in his freezer. A friend of his caught it in Lake Murray. Very rare, he said. He was going to have it mounted.

And Ms. Annie Fanning, who said she was "happy and excited." Everything, she thought, went beautifully. She had been responsible for getting Pomaria's oldest citizen, W.C. Koon, to the celebration. Even she had never seen anything like it, and she was 93.

The torch, symbolically lit by the rays of the rising sun half a world away, in Olympia, then changing 10,000 hands across 42 states on its way to the Atlanta games, stirred something deeper than nationalism. By watching, we were all for a moment part of something bigger. We were, it seemed, starved for connection to ritual, to the larger world, to each other.

On my way home, the route was still lined with balloons and flags. People lingered on their porches and in the shade, talking, finishing off their rolls of film, eating watermelon and ice cream.

I thought about the people in Greenville County, who were uninvited to the party because of their council's anti-gay resolution, which the Olympic committee thought contrary to the spirit of the games. They missed the torch. They missed the point. Too bad; perhaps nobody needed it more.

W.C. Koon, Pmoaria's oldest citizen, had never seen anything like it, and she was 93.

© Copyright by POINT, 1996
Last modified 7/11/96