by Gene Owens
One of the nice things about being in your middle 60s is that you have mastered the art of time travel.
I have now traveled more than six and a half decades into the future that
awaited me at birth. I have bridged the gap between the world before World War II
and the world beyond the Cold War. I can glimpse the world gone by through
my rearview mirror. And on occasion, the mirror is so clear that I can almost
step back in time, as I did a few weeks ago when Miss Peggy and I returned
home after celebrating our 20th anniversary on Hilton Head Island, S. C.
Freezing rain was falling by the time I reached my mother’s home in the mill
village of Graniteville, S. C. A call to our home in Anderson revealed that an
inch of snow was already on the ground, and more was coming. We stayed
overnight with Mom and took a side trip to Aiken, Graniteville’s larger neighbor,
where Lecil Cushman and Penny McKeown now live in an assisted-living home on
the site of the old Aiken High School.
She coached me in writing and in public speaking. She taught me what little
French I know. And she was my window on the educated middle class.
Penny was in her bed, oxygen tubes inserted in her nostrils. She took them
out to talk to me.
“I’ve called her ‘Lecil’ ever since I left college,” I said.
“And what do you call me?”
“You’d better,” she said.
I reminded her of the times she had caught me chewing gum or committing other minor infractions in her classroom. She had punished me by making me stay after school.
“We probably were a little too strict,” Penny said.
“No you weren’t,” I assured her.
Lecil was a police reporter for the Columbia Record during World War II, when male reporters were off fighting the Axis. She told me about the time she rode all night with a policeman patrolling Columbia’s seamier haunts. After she wrote the story, her father -- an educator in a nearby county -- called to give her stern counsel. A young woman should not expose herself to that kind of danger, even in the performance of her job.
I wonder how he would have felt about the Jessica Lynches in today’s military -- or the female war correspondents who took such grave risks in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Under Lecil’s tutelage, our small mill-town school newspaper won top honors
competing against bigger schools around the state. I recently learned that the
loving cups we won during my editorship are still stored in the basement of
the old school -- long since transformed into a middle school. It’s good to
know they’re there.
When I first began practicing the journalism she taught me, I typed my stories on a manual Underwood and, when away from the office, dictated them via a telephone call placed through a Southern Bell operator who had never heard of an area code. I would be lost today without my computer or the Internet. But I would be even more lost without the enduring knowledge and skills she imparted.
Lecil has never flown in an airplane.
I have flown across the Atlantic and the Pacific; across Europe, the old Soviet Union and mainland China. I have landed aboard an aircraft carrier and set down on the deck of a Navy cruiser in a chopper. I still don’t like to fly.
She, like me, was loath to retire. After giving up her high-school career,
she taught kindergarten and primary school well into her 70s and was a popular
figure in local theater productions.
She’ll walk again soon, I’m sure.
Gene Owens has been around the Southern journalistic scene for 48 years. He has been senior associate editor of The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., and editorial-page editor of the Roanoke Times in Roanoke, Va.
As senior editor for Creative Services, a management consulting firm in High Point, N. C., he ghosted more than a dozen published books for professional clients. For the past nine years he has been assistant managing editor, political editor and columnist for the Mobile Register. Register readers last year named him their favorite local columnist, and readers of the independent regional magazine, Bay Weekly, agreed. He was runner-up in the regional Green Eyeshades competition among writers of humor columns.
He has been on the board of directors of the National Conference of Editorial Writers
and was editor of The Masthead, the NCEW’s national quarterly. He recently went into
semi-retirement in Anderson, S. C.
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