Cold River, Warm Memories—Beginnings

Tom Poland

Posted December 28, 2022

By Tom Poland
A Southern Writer

All the presents opened, good food and family time done for a bit, come the day after Christmas I found myself standing on the banks of cold Little River. Before me stretched a wall of rock and concrete, the old Calhoun Milldam. Water roared-poured-soared over it, milky spray rising like steam from rocks below, crystalline ice glazing rocks, and river water ringing a cold jangle of a chime from all that ice. Might have been my imagination though. It does get the best of me now and then.

The Calhoun gristmill milldam keeps dropping Little River water for a wheel long gone.

I stood there looking at brown boulders, blue water, and ice—some white as snow, some as clear as glass—and I began to remember. My mind went back to a man I will be forever grateful to, John Madison Culler. John hired me to my first writing job. I could say writing “position,” but the word seems pretentious. It was a job involving words and film just as a mechanic’s job involves tools and dark mysterious things needing a seasoned eye and a helping hand.

The connection between an icy milldam and my job as a scriptwriter-cinematographer goes back forty-four years, several million words, other writing jobs, a good many deaths, the birth of six special people, and a lot of water over the bridge. Maybe that’s why the cold milldam took me back… water over the bridge. John Culler was a writer too and he wrote a book called Purple Heaven. In that book was a section called “Memories,” and in it a story, “Bluegills.” The story’s about a boy getting onto his first bream bed.

A “little shaver, John fished a millpond where a crusty old miller, “the cussing piece” had been watching from a window. On this particular day John had had no luck. As John trudged past the gristmill the “greatest wizard of all,” the old man who pushed and pulled levers and caught meal in sacks, sat on the steps.

“Didn’t do much good did you?”

“I got some bites but I missed them,” John lied.

Sporting a beard that held about a cup of meal, the old man took John down a path to the pond. Parting fragrant honeysuckle he showed John a bream bed and told him to drop a worm in there at sunrise. The next morning John was there at daybreak with a pole and wrigglers.

To this day a line jumps off the page. John described sunrise on a summer day as “the most delicious time in all creation.” It was at this most delicious time when a bluegill weighing over a pound seized John’s hook and fought as if it weighed 100 pounds. When he got the bluegill onto the bank, John heard the mill crank up. Off he ran to show the miller his prize. Writing his memory many years later, John ended “Bluegills,” with this line. “I haven’t gotten over it yet.”

 As I wrote in my seventh sentence, I will be forever grateful to John. A tall, lanky man from Americus, Georgia, John turned a leaflet into the country’s best conservation magazine of its day. Folks know it as South Carolina Wildlife. At one time I was its managing editor. I wrote for it as well and after a recess of twenty-five years, I write for it some more. John made all that possible. He gave me a beginning and he made things possible for me that he can only guess at. He changed the course of my river of life. It’s seen warm spring days and ice-cold days when warmer days seemed impossible. Thankfully, we endure and all things pass.

Standing by iced-over Little River, I recalled another moment from John’s story. The old miller told John to put his hand in fresh ground meal. It felt warm. In a lens of cold, clear air set onto earth by an Arctic blast, the beginning of my affair with words came into focus. I stuck my hand into the past. It felt warm.

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