Poinsett -- Beautiful, Enchanted, & Mysterious
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Poinsett -- Beautiful, Enchanted, & Mysterious
By Mike Bailey

First of all, you have to understand that Poinsett State Park is one of the most beautiful,
mysterious, magical, spooky and serene places you will ever encounter. She also is a great “nature
tease” in that she fools mother nature a lot by having plants and animals growing and living there
that should not be there but only found in other places hundreds of miles away –- like way up in the
mountains, or down south in Florida, etc.

Poinsett is located in Sumter County in South Carolina and is well known for its botanical oddities,
combining the flora of the Blue Ridge Mountains foothills, the Piedmont of upstate South Carolina,
the Sandhills across the middle of the state, and the Atlantic coastal plain.  All four geological
regions of the state represented in one small place –- what more could you ask for?

Surveys of the park have found 337 species of flowering plants within the park, including 65
species of trees and shrubs that have been identified as making Poinsett their home place. It is
truly a biological wonderland from the large canopy of oaks, sweetgum, bald cypress, pine, mountain
laurel, and hickory trees, etc., down to the tiniest of plants that hug the forest floor.

It should also be noted, that its uniqueness also applies to the animal life that can also be found
within the 1000 plus acres of the park that is nestled up against the eastern edge of the vast
Wateree Swamp that cradles the mighty Wateree River that flows from upstate SC. Then after
the Wateree joins with the Congaree River that comes down past Columbia, it continues flowing
downstate for another 5 miles or so to form Lake Marion.

From numerous species of non-poisonous snakes (some of which are huge at Poinsett like the large
chicken or corn snakes) and all four native poisonous snakes (rattlesnake, water moccasin,
copperhead, and coral) found in the United States, to bobcats, raccoons, alligators, deer, wild
boars, birds of every type including some of the largest hawks I have ever seen, Poinsett offers a
bounty of wildlife to keep you guessing as to what might greet you up around the next bend on any
of the many tails that traverse the park.

One of the most intriguing features of Poinsett stems from its physical (geological) makeup. As
you approach the park from say, Wedgefield (if coming from Sumter), you are totally surrounded
by flat, red clay and sandy farm lands (mostly cotton) as far as the eye can see. However, once
you enter the park, all that changes for you immediately get to see up close what the term “High
Hills of Santee” really means.

Within minutes, you are surrounded by an enormous green canopy of heavy hardwoods and
mountainous landscapes.  There are several places within the park that have close to 200 feet in
elevation changes within very short distances inside the park -- giving you the visitor -- the feeling
that you have suddenly transported yourself to somewhere up in the mountains further north in
the state.

One of the interesting geological attributes of Poinsett that has always fascinated me is the clear,
physical evidence that you can see that shows at one time in our geological ancient time, all this land
was once under that water. At that time, the Atlantic Ocean reached far inland to form the
“Sandhill” section of South Carolina (some people say South Carolina’s first beach front sand
dunes) that stretches across the entire state from just below Augusta to up and over to Camden
and then on pass Cheraw and Chesterfield to the northeast.

What is this evidence you might ask? Coquina rock -- a natural young limestone in which fossil
seashells are still readily apparent – which was used to construct the bathhouse and other
structures in the park. The coquina used at Poinsett was actually mined right there in the park by
members of the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) who built the park in the mid-1930s.  

When I say mined, I mean they first actually cut/saw it out of deposits found in the ground. These
sawed blocks are then set out to dry and harden in the air. In areas where the coquina is already
exposed, the originally soft seashell deposits can be readily sawed into building blocks and used
almost immediately -- such as the blocks used to construct the bathhouse at the lake.

When you stop and look at the coquina up close, you can readily see that it is made up of thousands
of tiny sea creature shells. While coquina is beautiful to look at and examine up close, it can be
your worst nightmare if you accidentally rub up against it as it will peel the skin right off you and
leave you with a nasty bleeding and open wound that seemed to take forever to heal.

Meanwhile, on a historical note, these very same “high hills” were well known to Generals Thomas
Sumter and Francis Marion (The Swamp Fox) during the Revolutionary War to gain our
independence from England.

They used these hills, valleys, and swamps as well as the swamps over by the Great Pee Dee river
in eastern SC, to not only hide from the British General Banastre Tarleton when he was pursuing
them, but a safe place from which to launch their own strikes back against the British as they
made their way through South Carolina.

What is interesting though is that even before the Revolutionary War, the land that is now Poinsett
State Park was owned by a man named Levi, who for rice cultivation purposes, had built a dam to
impound water from Shanks Creek that still runs through the area.  Levi's Mill Pond, as it became
known, was later used to power a mill. Remnants of the old mill and water raceway to feed the mill
are still present and the pond (present day Poinsett Lake still fed by Shanks Creek) was improved
by the CCC in the 30s when the park was constructed.

While the current park may only be about 80 years old, the lake, dam, and old mill raceway are
over 250 years old. Who knew … don’t you just love history?

The park, which has often been called just "weird and beautiful", is named after amateur botanist
and South Carolina native Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first American ambassador to Mexico and
popularizer of the beautiful, bright red poinsettia plant that we all see at Christmas time. The
name was actually chosen by the CCC workers themselves who built the park.

To conclude my introduction to Poinsett, know that the following thoughts and remembrances about
Poinsett State Park are in no particular order -- either chronologically by years or otherwise. My
brother Storm was Superintendent at Poinsett from 1960 until sometime in the 70s and I was a
lifeguard there for several years (60, 61) and we (the lifeguards) lived in the upstairs loft of an old
barn up by the Superintendent’s house.

The collection of mini-stories that follow are not so much about my times there as a lifeguard but
about the place itself -- Poinsett -- a truly magical, mysterious, and fascinating place if there ever
was one.

The man who could talk to honey bees

One of the strangest things I have ever seen and heard took place at Poinsett in the summer
of 1960.

All of us lifeguards lived on the top floor of a huge old barn up next to the superintendent’s house.
The barn floor here was about 60 feet long and 30 feet wide and was all open (like a bunkhouse)
except for one closed-in bathroom.

One night after we had finished checking out the entire park and locking up everything for the
night, we all came back to the bunkhouse and bounded up the stairs and inside laughing and cutting
fool like we did every night. Only problem was that on this night, we were greeted by bees –-
thousands of honey bees –- and let’s just say we immediately became un-welcomed guess near their
hive (wherever it was).

Long story short, some of us got stung (last ones up the stairs heard the screams and did not even
come into the room).  Within two minutes, I had been stung over a 100 times and some of the other
guards got about half that many. I knew I was not allergic to things like poison ivy, bee stings, etc.,
but was smart enough to know that I might have had too many. One of the guards was already
acting like he was going into shock so we knew we needed to head for Sumter to get help.

It’s almost 20 miles from the barn to Tuomey Hospital and I do not remember who was driving but
less than 15 minutes later, we limped into the emergency room. Mama was already at work (she was
head nurse and 11-7 supervisor) and she immediately took over getting us fixed up (shots of
something and some kind of cream on all the bites).

We survived that ordeal but the best was yet to come. Two days later, the bee activity had calmed
down enough for an examination as to where the hive might be located. It was determined to be in
the east wall of the bunkhouse as bees were seen from the outside swarming in and out of about 10
holes along the top section of the entire wall.

We had no idea how to get rid of the bees until one of the men who worked there at the park as a
ranger mentioned he knew someone who could “talk to bees” and would love to have these bees.

“Talk to bees?” “Yeah, sure, what else you been smoking?”

However crazy it sounded, he was called as we were desperate to get rid of the bees. Late in the
day (twilight time), this old man showed up with bee-hive boxes on a trailer he was pulling. He got
out of the truck and checked out the barn – inside and out. He told us that best as he could figure,
the entire wall (all 60 feet of it) and for a depth of about 5 feet high was the hive -- biggest one
he had ever seen.

We were all dumbfounded -- no one could believe how big it was. We knew there were tens of
thousands of bees but had no idea how that related to the size. The old man said we probably
hadn’t seen a 10th of what was really there.

Well, the moment of truth had finally arrived (for him to get the bees) and we could not wait to
see what was going to happen. He made all of us get away from the barn and his trailer while he got
several of the hives off the trailer and set them up on the ground and removed the top lids.

Then he walked over next to the barn and just stood there making a funny noise with his mouth. We
thought he was crazy or something. Then he took two things out of his pocket -– looked like small
metal things like coins (silver dollar size). As he stood there making these weird, funny noises, he
started clicking and rubbing the two coin-like things together.

Then it happened. We saw that bees were starting to come out of the hive -- some flying but most
just crawling (in layers on top of each other like a coke bottle foaming over after being shook up)
on the wall of the barn around several of the holes.

When the old man saw this he started to really rub the metal things together more rapidly and
clicked them together harder and making his verbal sounds (chants) louder. All of a sudden, we saw
several bees fly straight to him and land on his hands. Within seconds, thousands of bees were
swarming all over his arms and hands as he walked over to the open beehive boxes and gently
brushed them onto whatever he had set up inside of them.

Then thousands of more bees went straight to those boxes while he walked back near the barn wall
and started his ritual all over. He had whispered out to us as we all stood there with our mouths
wide open watching all this that this hive probably had at least 4 or 5 queens and he wanted all
of them.

It turned out that what he was doing -- making weird sounds and clicking those things together --
was (as he said), “Straight talk to the queen herself and when she comes to me, all her workers will
follow her without hesitation or question.”

If I had not seen and heard all this with my own eyes, I don’t think I would have believed it. Within
an hour he had, by his count, 4 queens and untold tens of thousands of worker bees safely and
securely relocated into his beehive boxes. Within a day or two, all the bees at the barn and
bunkhouse area upstairs were gone -- the thousands that the old man had hauled away in all his
beehive boxes and the rest to somewhere else in the forest where some other queen needed some
willing workers.

I guess it was only fitting that Poinsett was where I had the privilege to witness this once in a
lifetime strange and magical interaction between a gentle old man and some willing queen honey bees
that without fear or hesitation, liked “whatever he had to say to them.”

Spillway Antics

The lake at Poinsett was between 10 and 18 acres -– depending on who was measuring. Purest would
say 10 acres because the real lake ended at the head of the lake where the first of the tall and
majestic bald cypress trees could be found growing in the lake. Other lake measurers said, “Oh
no … the lake goes all the way back up through all the bald cypress trees to where Shanks Creek
first widens out.  Oh, well …

Anyway, on the western end of the lake next to the edge of the swamp, there was a 450 foot long
earthen dam -– running from the old stone raceway towards where a colonial era rice mill once
stood and then on to the other end (the furthest away from the bathhouse) where the lake emptied
out through a wide concrete and stone spillway.

This spillway was about 40 feet wide, had rock walls up on both sides for several feet high and
curved to the right leaving the lake and downward for a total run of about 100 feet with a total
drop in elevation of about 15 feet before it ended at a natural creek rushing off into the swamp.

I think you are already getting the picture! If ever there was something meant to be played in/on,
the clean, cool, rushing water filled spillway -– raceway in our eyes -– was it!

We ate our meals in the dining area of the old bathhouse at the swimming area and they used those
big old brown plastic (I guess) lunch trays to serve meals on. It didn’t take long for some of our
quick thinking lifeguards on a rainy day (meant no swimmers to contend with) to visualize, “If I put
that lunch tray at the top of the spillway and sat on it and shoved off, I bet I could ride down the
spillway all the way to the creek!”

Not mentioning any names of course but I bet if you were to just happened to run into say, Ervin
Shaw over in Lexington now days, he might tell you that, “No, it can’t be done!”

Of course after he flipped out on his first few trial runs, that was his stock answer until he finally
mastered the trick and showed all of us that riding big old brown plastic lunch trays down a flowing
water spillway was a great way to have fun (and almost kill you leaning how to reach the creek in one
piece) on a hot summer day!

I doubt if anyone since our days in the sun during the summers of 1960 and 1961 has attempted the
fastest, wettest lunch tray slide this side of the Rocky Mountains!

Pottery and ghosts from the past

Santee, Catawba, and Wateree Indians lived in this area (Poinsett) for hundreds of years -- also
enjoying the physical features of the surrounding landscape that I described earlier in the
introduction. Because of the abundant plant and animal life that was also present, the swamp itself
was an abundant source of food year round.

On one of those non-swimmer days at the park (heavy overcast and rain on and off all day long), me
and another lifeguard took off exploring off trail from the main hiking trail around the lake. After
about an hour of poking around, we came out into a small opening and just as we started to ignore it
and move back into the woods, I noticed something that looked out of place in the dirt.

But before we even got halfway to the objects sticking up out of the ground, we both looked at
each other and stopped dead in our track. We both had sensed at the same time that this place --
this circle of ground -- was in fact very different from any place else we had explored at Poinsett.

At first, we were excited as all get out because the objects we had found/seen sticking up out of
the ground were in fact, pieces of old Indian pottery.

We had a sense that what we had stumbled upon was some sort of sacred place -- like maybe a
burial or ceremonial place or something -- and we both felt like (were made to feel like) we should
guard the secret and never divulge the location.

The whole time we were there we both felt like we were being watched. All the natural sounds of
the area had gone stone-cold dead quiet when we had reached the area and we thought we could
hear whispering in the background. We didn’t feel threatened but in a strange way, felt like we
were being warned to go away and not return.

We had at first excitedly picked up some pottery etc., but as the time there started to freak us
out – the dead silence, eerie feels, etc. -- we decided that maybe it would be better if we just left
everything alone. After putting everything back where we had found it, we quietly left the area
and as we made our way back to the bathhouse there at the lake, all the natural sounds in the area
returned to normal and the whispers faded away.

Ten years ago, I returned to that spot to see for myself if it was still hidden and was pleased to
see that in the intervening 40 years since my first visit, everything was still as it was -- no one had
been there and disturbed the area. On this visit, I felt a different sensation than I did the first
time even though as before, all the sounds in the area went away.

This time, I sensed a feeling of peace -- like the spirits that watched over the place were pleased
that whatever was there was still safe.

Never Think You Are Alone at Poinsett

As I mentioned in the introduction, Poinsett is a mysterious, magical, and most assuredly, a very
spooky place. At night time, if you know where to go, you can hear babies crying and women
screaming -– those and other sounds guaranteed to make you shake in your boots.

Then, there are the places where the “glowing red eyes” will scare the living daylights out of you.

And who can ignore the whispers up around where the ancient Indian pottery can be found (NO
ONE knows where except me and one other person), the laughing (ladies) ghosts in the swamp, dark
shadow spirits up near the head of the lake, gigantic sized snakes, etc... :-)

Some people love all this, hate all this, ignore all this, and some don’t believe any of it. That’s all
well and good and I have no problems with any of those reactions. As for me, I’m sure by now that
you know that I have been there, done that, and have ALL the t-shirts.

As Jennifer Garner on the TV commercial for the Capital One Venture Card asks -- “What’s in your
wallet?” -- I can answer truthfully that mine is filled with vivid personal memories of unexplained
and spooky events that occurred within the boundaries of Poinsett.

Black shadows:

Not long after starting to work out at Poinsett as a lifeguard, I started hearing tales, rumors,
whatever, of strange sighting up in the head of the lake where the huge bald cypress trees start
growing in the lake.

The park had about 15 small boats that you could rent and paddle all over the lake to explore the
natural beauty of it up close. Meandering all around the cypress trees at the head of the lake was a
favorite place to explore and also was an excellent place to try your fishing luck at catching one of
the large bass that called Poinsett their home.

More than once, a boater would return and quietly ask, “What kind of animals did we have in the
park that were solid black and moved silently through the swamp at the head of the lake?”

This was their way of asking a question about something that actually scared them but was
reluctant to state their question in those terms. We could tell from their demeanor, they weren’t
talking about seeing some black animal prancing around in the swamp area of the lake but were in
fact, talking about seeing fleeting wisps of blackness that seemed to float above the water and at
times, even move through the tree trunks themselves.

When I first saw these apparitions (don’t know what else to call them), I was spooked -- totally
freaked me out. You could almost hear the images it seemed but there were no sounds (that I ever
heard). The images were like a puff of thin, black smoke – maybe 6 or 7 feet tall and maybe two
feet wide. They were always poised just above the water line and moved about freely as it they
were following wind currents.

The only problem with the wind theory is that on the occasions I saw these images, it was dead calm
and while I am thinking about it, it was also dead quiet. If you are any type of outdoor person, the
one thing that will always grab your attention is when the sound level around you turns off – leaving
you there in total, dead silence.

Every sensory cell in your body starts signaling like the robot did in the old TV series Lost in
Space -- “Danger, Will Robinson, Danger!”

To this day, I have no idea what it was that I and others have seen, felt, and experienced up at the
head of the lake that appeared to us as fleeting, almost invisible black shapes that taunted us with
whispers of danger and excitement.

Cries and Screams in the Night:

I cannot begin to count the times people came running to us and excitingly exclaiming, “There’s
someone hurt, or crying, or hollering frantically, whatever, in the swamp.”

Make no mistake about it -– swamps have voices -- all sorts of them in fact. If you had the time and
nerves to do it, I would recommend a several-night vigil out at Poinsett, say sitting in a lounge chair
at any point along the earthen dam there at the end of the lake from around an hour just past
sunset until about 5 in the morning.

Rule 1; No cell phones, music boxes, and earphone gadgets, whatever.
Rule 2; No visitors, companions, or pets.
Rule 3; No humming, singing, whistling, talking, or yelling.

If you make it until at least 3 each night, you’ve got guts and/or you are hearing impaired.

We rushed into the swamp more than once to answer a cry for help or to just check on the cries
that we or others had heard and reported to us. As expected (we found out over time), nothing was
ever there -- that we could prove or ascertain as having been there, etc.

Every sort of sound you can imagine could be heard. Car and truck horns, racing engines, babies
crying, young kids hollering for help, funny bouts of laughter and yes at times, there were those
strings of haunted or evil laughter that filled the air. Sometimes, it sounded like a group of people
who were either all excited about something or they were afraid of something and or were just
angry at each other.

No matter what the sound, each one could chill you to the bone in a heartbeat. I realize that the
swamp is actually alive with all sorts of real live creatures wandering about but in general, I think
we could eliminate most of those sounds rather quickly -- had heard before, knew what they were,
etc. Also, compounding the situation is that for whatever reason, sounds carries far and wide
through a swamp, especially if it is say elongated like the Wateree Swamp is.

I learned this the year before while working at Aiken State park where we had a jukebox located
at the concession stand by the swimming lake. At night and long after the park was closed and we
lifeguards had the place all to ourselves, we would turn the jukebox on and listen to the great
sounds that came out of it. More than once, visitors (locals) that came to the park the next day
would tell us, “We heard your jukebox last night … must have been a great party up here.”

What was weird about this was the fact these people lived over 20 miles away –- the sounds of the
jukebox had carried that far through the “swamp valley” that surrounded the South Fork of the
Edisto River that ran through the park.

Maybe that was what we were hearing there on the dam at Poinsett late at night when we were
shaking in our tennis shoes at hearing some God-awful sound coming from the swamp behind us. Who
knows, maybe some baby was crying his eyes out -– 20 miles away and safe in his own back yard.
Yeah, that must have been what it was.

Glowing Eyes in the Dark:

Foxfire, also sometimes called "fairy fire", is the bioluminescence created by some species of fungi
present in decaying wood. I can tell you right up front that Poinsett has ample examples of this
most beautiful, mysterious, and frightening phenomenon that occurs naturally in nature.

While the most common color found in the woods is a blueish green color, other colors are also seen
at times. Poinsett is also home to several species of fungi that when it emits its display of light, the
color is a fiery red and sometimes, a yellow-orange color.

Regardless of the color -– if you are not prepared for it -– it/they will scare the living daylights
out of you.

One of the secret, unannounced benefits of working at Poinsett as a lifeguard was being able to
be in the park after hours. While the park was great, exciting, beautiful to look at and explore
many of its natural features during the daytime, it also had another side to it -– night time -– when
strange sights and sounds and other things happen like I will describe later called “Which way
is up.”

Over the many nights that we rode around in the park to round up all the visitors and help shoo
them away so we could lock the gates and go get some rest, we were constantly presented with
strange things that were never visible or apparent, etc., during day light hours.

Foxfire, as I described above, was one of those thing that could make you almost pee in your pants
when first seen -- especially when you looked over in the woods and saw two huge pieces of it, side
by side and maybe 5 inches apart and glowing a fiery red. Your heart would skip a beat as you
immediately thought there was some huge, ferocious animal hunched over there beside the road and
ready to spring into action and attack you.

The fiery red pieces of foxfire were the most frightening to see, especially when found in pairs
like glowing animal eyes. Don’t get me wrong, seeing other colors like yellow-orange or even the
blue-green could also make the hair on the back of your neck stand up.

You’ve got to remember that while driving around in the park at night, we were under a heavy
canopy of hardwood tress and as such, there was little or no lighting the roadway or the woods
around us as no night light from the stars, moon, etc., could reach the ground. This meant that when
we looked out into the woods as we drove around, any light whatsoever that was seen was strange
and usually spooky looking.

Of course our headlights on the truck picked up the reflection off animal eyes that were out and
about looking for something to eat, but over time, we got use to these and learned real quick to
just ignore them  -- unless they were exceptionally large and we gunned the truck to get away as
quick as possible! : -)

Which Way is Up?

As I mentioned above, there was another side to those nights there in the park when it was dark
and you could see strange things glowing brightly in the woods.

We discovered a scary physical phenomenon by accident one night while we were on one of the side
roads in the park. We were sitting there on the road, parked with lights off about a block or so
uphill from the main park road and were waiting to see if a suspicious vehicle that we had seen
earlier in the park was still in the park. If he was, we’d have to follow him to the gate to let him out
as we had already locked up for the night. We set the parking brake on the truck because the
road was steep at that point and anxiously waited to see what would happen next.

After about 15 minutes, someone said, “Does anybody feel strange?” You could have knocked me
over with a feather –- for I and the others in the truck had felt the same thing but had been
reluctant to say anything. “Hey, we were big, strong, young, and healthy lifeguards … who’s afraid
of what?”

We all realized that we had lost all sense of directions – left, right, up, and down, everything. You
felt like you were suspended in mid-air and did not know which way you were facing. You no longer
knew if you were sitting down or what. The longer you sat there in the total darkness it would get
so bad that if you do not turn a light on, it would make you sick.

Anti-gravity, edge of a worm hole running through that part of the park, whatever it was, it was
real and the experience could be recreated almost every time we stopped there on that hill and
parked with the lights out on the truck. I am sure there in a logical, scientific explanation for what
was happening to us, but to this day, I have never seen or heard of one.

Maybe it was just some of the ghosts of the Wateree Indians who were just having fun messing
with visitors to their ancestral homelands.

All in all, poking around Poinsett at night was exciting, to say the least. It was fun, scary, spooky,
eye-opening, entertaining, and mystifying when you sensed you were floating in space and didn’t
know which way was up.

Snakes -– The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Any good State Park worth its salt would have a good display of snakes -- whether it is posters,
models, or liked us at Poinsett, had a cage with real live snakes hanging around and enjoying
themselves as we provided them with a constant supply of things to eat and drink. Not having a
good snake display would be like having a movie theater without a concession stand and popcorn!

Our cage was about 8 feet long, 2 feet wide and used 4 tall 4x4s as legs and corners for the glass
and wire cage built around them. The cage bottom (all wood) itself was about 3 feet up the posts
from the floor and then the wire sides of the cage then extended up the bottom piece for about 2
feet to a top across the entire cage.

The cage sides were two-fold -- chicken wire on the insides of the posts and glass mounted on the
outside of the posts.

The wire was a type of chicken wire (fence) that had the wires crossing each other every half of an
inch. This made for a very strong and semi-ridged piece of wire. With the wire nailed to the inside
edges of the post and then having glass mounted to the outsides, we had a narrow buffer between
the snakes and the glass sides. This space allowed for ventilation as well as being a safety feature.

Of course like all good snake cages, it had sand, dirt, leaves, sticks, rocks, etc., strewn all about and
of course -- a pan that held water. For some of our guests, they had it better in here than out in
the wild.

Anyway, the following are just some of the many accounts of snakes that have graced Poinsett at
one time or another.

Red and Black is Friendly Jack:

One day, I was standing out by the fence that was at the swimming area in front of the bathhouse
and I heard this little voice say, “Mister Mike, Mister Mike.”

I looked down and saw this little girl about 6 years old and realized immediately that she was very
excited about something. “What’s up,” I asked her.

“Mama and I saw one of those pretty snakes you told us about!”

“You did … what kind was it?

“It wasn’t one like you said that was “Friendly Jack.”

Before I could even respond, she blurted out, “It was that other one … the bad fellow!”

Earlier that day, I had spoken to her and her mother who wanted to walk around the lake and they
had asked about snakes. I had told them about the fact that we had here in the park 3 of the 4
types of poisonous snakes found in the United States and most likely, had the 4th -- a coral snake
-– but that we had never found one.

When I had told her how to distinguish it (colored ring markings) from a harmless king snake, I told
her the riddle I had learned in my childhood – that being – “Red and Black, Friendly Jack,” and “Red
and Yellow will Kill a Fellow!”

“It was red and yellow just like you said, Mister Mike … honest promise.”

About this time Ervin Shaw and Henry Harder (fellow lifeguards) had wandered over and were
acutely listening to this conversation. When the little girl had emphatically said that the snake was
that “yellow fellow,” they turned and raced into the bathhouse to get something.

Moments later they came running out of the bathhouse with something that looked like a beat-up
old cricket cage used to go fishing with and boom -– they were off running around the lake, across
the dam and on to where the hilltop trail was located. The mama had said that they had seen the
snake up at the hilltop trail shelter.

Thirty minutes later, the great snake hunters were back and low and behold, they had a beautiful,
real live and honest-to- goodness coral snake in their cricket cage! You would have thought they had
captured a grizzly bear, they were so excited!

When they had first arrived at the shelter, they didn’t see anything and thought maybe the little
girl (and her mama) had been fibbing but after poking around a bit with a stick under one of the
benches, low and behold, there was the coral snake all curled up under a bunch of leaves.

Using their sticks, they gently poked and prodded the snake to move and eventually, coached it to
go into their small cricket cage.

Soon, we heard them whooping and hollering as they reappeared on the dam and were running full
speed back to the bathhouse. Our intrepid snake hunters had triumphantly returned with the first
coral snake to ever grace the snake cage we had located there in the foyer area of the bathhouse.

Bath House Suzie:

The bathhouse was divided into three sections -– men and women’s change/rest rooms on either
side of a large basket storage/retrieval room. When you came up to the counter where we maned
the change rooms, you bought your ticket for the use of a basket and once paid for, we handed out
an empty wire basket that had a numbered safety type pin attached to it.

Once you took it to your bathhouse change room, switched over to your bathing suit, etc., you
brought the basket back with your clothes in it and you took the numbered safety pin device with
you. After swimming, you brought the pin back, retrieved your clothes basket, and life went on as
you got changed, brought the empty basket back to us and left the bathhouse.

Well, how exciting was that, you might ask? One word -– boring!

Being the ever creative geniuses we were at making the most out of nothing, we decided that one of
our pets we had adopted could most likely, help liven things up a bit.

We had a small pet chicken snake about 18 inches long we called “Susie” that one of us had found
somewhere in the park. One of the places we liked to keep Susie, especially if we got real busy,
was under the ticket dispenser box at the change room basket area.

This box was about 7 inches tall and maybe 1 foot square. Cut into the top of the box were two
narrow holes side by side and spaced about an inch apart. Each slot was maybe 9 inches long and an
inch and a quarter wide. Mounted to the top of the box were brackets at the center of the slots
that held 2 large rolls of tickets (almost 9 inches wide when new) by placing a wooden pin through
the center of the ticket roll and then securing the pin into the brackets on the box.

As I said earlier, this simple home-made box dispenser served us well as a place to hide Susie. As
the day wore on and more and more tickets were sold and the roll got smaller, the space between
the edge of the ticket roll and the end of the slot opening in the box got bigger and bigger.

This was Susie’s cue I guess, that it was now time to come and play. She would stick her head up
through this now enlarged hole and just look all around like she was surveying her kingdom.

Needless to say, when her head and body popped up out of the ticket dispenser box, total chaos
would break loose there at the counter. Scream, yells, and baskets of clothes thrown into the air,
people running away, you name it, it happened and we laughed every minute they were being
entertained by Susie.

Sometimes when it got to be real slow and boring, we would place Susie in a girl’s basket under
their clothing when they came to claim their basket to go get dressed after swimming. You guessed
it -- about 3 minutes after they had entered the change room, all hell would break out when they
discovered our pet snake in their clothes basket. You never heard such screaming and loud yells in
your life -– it was a hoot!

After everyone left the change room -- and believe me, no one stayed in there after one of these
episodes took place -- we would have to go in as big, ferocious game hunters and “capture” this
dreaded creature that had somehow found its way into their change basket.

Swimming Area Harold:

Somewhere along the line, somebody found another chicken snake that soon became a favorite pet
in the bathhouse (to us lifeguards at least). He was soon named Harold because he was almost 6
feet long and looked ferocious (if that is how you can describe a snake).  “Mean as a snake?” -–
OK, I quit!

When things got really slow and we wanted to shake things up, one of us would slip Harold under our
T-shirt, go out into the swimming area near the rope line (separated shallow swimming water from
deeper water) and turn him loose and start yelling, “SNAKE, SNAKE, SNAKE!”

Absolute, total pandemonium would break out in spades! When the other swimmers finally saw
Harold start frantically swimming back towards the beach (he was not fond of swimming), it usually
took only about 20 seconds to totally clear out the entire swimming area and it would be at least an
hour before anyone would venture back in. Harold was our favorite “swimmer.”

Snakes in the Cages:

We were always on the lookout for great poisonous snakes to put in our snake cage that my brother
had made. There’s nothing worse than an empty exhibit cage at a State Park.

One rainy day in ’60 when there were no swimmers at all in the park, we all went snake hunting in
the swamp behind the spillway. We had been gone about 30 minutes when we came up to a small
creek -- maybe 6 feet wide -– and just as I started to jump across, one of the other lifeguards
grabbed me by the arm and yelled, “SNAKE!”

Of course, we all froze and started looking for the snake.

We all hollered at the same time, “Where, where, where is the snake?”

“Right there,” yelled Henry Harder, “Can’t you see it?”

“No we can’t … how close is he to that big log that is lying there in the water?

“He IS the LOG,” screamed Henry.

Oh my God -- we all about fainted. Sure enough, stretched out there in front of us was the largest
water moccasin any of us had ever seen in our entire lives.

We ended up catching the largest water moccasin that had ever been seen or captured in the State
(up until that time). It was over 6 and a half feet long and had a girth of I think, right at 19 or 20
inches. The folks that came out to the park from the University of South Carolina to check him out
said that it was so powerful that if it had struck at one of us at the calf level of our legs, it would
have probably broken the leg when he struck.

It took some doings getting the snake captured We used a special long-handled stick with a “Y” fork
on the end (each fork maybe two inches long) and a rope noose attached to them that we could pull
on to tighten around a snake’s head to lift him up if we were ever lucky enough to snag one.

What was funny about this particular stick was that we had just made it a few weeks before as a
stupid joke for my brother who always had one mounted in one of the slots on the side of his State
Park pickup truck. He told everyone that asked what it was that it was his special snake capturing
stick that he might have to use in case he ever ran across a really, really big snake in the park.

Everyone always laughed and said, “Mr. Bailey, if you ever have a situation that you have to use
that big huge stick to capture a snake with, please don’t call us for help!”

Well, if it had not been for that stick, we would have never been able to capture and bring back
the monster “cottonmouth” that we did.

He was raging with anger at us and thrashed about violently. That’s one of the things I never liked
about water moccasins (cottonmouths) -- they are very territorial and relentlessly aggressive
towards attackers of them.  They will purposefully come after you when thoroughly provoked and
they feel cornered.

We finally managed to get him out of the water and then we realized how in the world were we
going to get out of the swamp carrying him thrashing wildly all about? About that time, someone
showed up with a garbage can and our transport problem was solved.

When we got back to behind the bathhouse and on the outside of the breezeway where the snake
cage was located, we stopped and decided we’d just sit the can down and let the snake calm down.
Someone placed a lid on the can and just as we started to walk away – boom -- the lid flew off and
out started the snake. Needless to say, we knew we had a problem on our hands.

After some careful moves and the use of sticks, we got the snake back in the can and the lid on top.
This time, we tied a rope around the can and top and stood back and watched (and listened to) one
mean old angry snake trying to get out of his new-found home. We decided to just leave him alone
and come back later after he had calmed down and try then to get him into our new snake cage.

About two hours later after quietly picking up the can and carrying it to the snake cage, we
carefully untied the rope and opened the top just enough for us to dump the snake out and into his
new home. It went rather peacefully and after hitting the sand in the bottom of the cage, he moved
over to a corner, curled up, hissed at us and just sat there staring at us.

Now our collection was almost complete. We had the mother of all water moccasins, a small pygmy
rattlesnake, a fairly large copperhead, and of course, our prize venomous snake –- our beautiful
coral snake. All we needed now was an honest to goodness rattlesnake to make our collection
complete.  That quest was soon fulfilled.

Agnes’s Rattlesnake:

There was a beautiful and kind-hearted older black lady that lived near the park who worked at
the park as a cook and babysitter as needed for Storm’s younger kids at the time.

Never one to mince words or afraid to get after any of us young and bull-headed youths who ate in
“her dining room,” she came to Storm not too long after the capture of the large water moccasin
and said, “Mr. Storm, when are you going to come over to my house and get that big ole mean
rattlesnake that keeps getting in my way when I walk home?

If Agnes walked home she could do it quicker than we could drive her there it seemed. She would
take off across the dam there at the lake’s end by the swimming area, cross down over the spillway
stream and then on one of her “secret trails,” she would pop up out in the farmland around the park
in about 10 minutes and be at her house.

All summer long she complained about some mean ole rattlesnake that was starting to get on her
last nerve. We had long thought that she was exaggerating the size of it so as to make us want to
come capture, kill, whatever, her annoying snake. Finally on another one of those long, dreary, rainy
days with no swimmers at hand, the great Poinsett Snake Capture Patrol sprang into action.

After a long beat the bush routine around her house and no snake at hand we decide to call it quits
and head back to the park -- finally convinced that Agnes had just been spinning one of her
colorful tales.


“Dae he is,” she screamed at us frantically as she waved her hands and hollered at us.

Sure enough, dae he was – 6 plus feet long, and huge in girth. He sat there all coiled up under some
underbrush near her pathway and was determined to stand his ground and not be intimidated by us
or anything else.

Friends, when a big-ass rattlesnake coils up, rattles his rattlers menacingly at you and hisses at you,
it’s not time to stand around and act like nothing is wrong! First, stop dead in your tracks and do not
move. Then, carefully look for where you can move to (make that jump if you are able) safely and
when ready -- jump and get the hell away from death’s doorstep.

Once we overcame our initial shock at how big the old rattler was, we carefully got into position
with our snake sticks and once again, Storm’s over-sized snake stick saved the day as we finally got
the noose around the rattler’s head and picked him up and placed him into a garbage can for
transport back to the bathhouse. It seemed like garbage cans has become our de facto method of
snake transport.

Once back at the bathhouse, we slowly opened the top of the snake cage and gently prodded the
rattler to leave the trash can and go check out his new home. Once inside, he immediately knew of
(sensed?) the presence of the water moccasin and the copperhead and headed immediately to an
open corner of the snake cage, coiled up and hissed insistently at everything that moved or made
a noise.

It was a Mexican standoff for hours -– lots of hissing and stuff -- but after a while, everyone
settled down and all was quite in the snake cage.

Our collection was complete. The rattlesnake was HUGE -- over 6 feet long and looked like he could
whip anyone in reach of him. Someone said they could count 12 rattlers on his tail but neither I nor
anyone else was going to physically open the cage, hold the snake and count them. Yeah, 12 looks
just about right we all agreed! Anyway, all the other snakes freely gave him all the room he needed
and left him alone.

One slow going day at the park came to an immediate end when some lady decided she though it
would be funny to tease all the snakes in the cage, especially the huge rattlesnake in the right
front corner, by tapping on the glass with something she held in her hand.

We never did know what she held in her hands that she not only tapped the glass with but drug it
along to make some high-pitched scratching noise but whatever it was, it irritated the crap out of
the snakes in the cage and within minutes, she had all of them stirring around and looking like they
were all going to go on the warpath towards some unseen enemy.

Then it happened –- all hell broke loose!

All we could figure out later was that the large rattlesnake had already had enough of the tapping
and screeching noise she was making on the side of the glass with whatever she had in her hand and
lunged at her full blast -- strong enough to break through the inner chicken-wire screen and hit
the outer glass hard enough that it shattered and huge pieces fell to the floor -– on top of the now
passed out cold lady lying there on the floor.

People were yelling and screaming bloody murder -– afraid for her, afraid for themselves, and just
plain scared that a huge rattlesnake was on the warpath and seemed intent at getting to anyone
close by.

We immediately rushed to the scene and while some took care of the lady on the floor, others were
swatting at the cage to make the rattlesnake retreat back into the cage and to quit his aggressive
attack on the woman.

Long story short -– the woman was OK (but scared to death) and that was the end of our illustrious
snake cage exhibit at the bathhouse. Within days, all our caged snakes were returned to the woods
around the bathhouse and life went on like nothing had ever happened.

We of course kept our two pets chicken snakes, Susie and Harold, but all the others went bye, bye.

Water Tank Storm Watching

Back in the middle of the park near where the park equipment and service sheds were, was located
the park’s water tower. Standing over 100 feet tall like a thousand other typical water tanks you
see scattered everywhere in the countryside around towns and villages, ours was located on just
about the highest elevation of land in the park.

This fact and also the fact that we were literally on a ridge overlooking the vast Wateree Swamp
to the west, gave a viewer, if crazy enough to be on top of the water tank, an unprecedented view
towards the west out across the swamp.

Storm, acting officially as Park Superintendent to us rowdy lifeguards, had two very strict rules
about the water tank there at Poinsett.

Rule 18 -– never climb up on the water tank and Rule 19 -– you guessed it -– never, ever, ever
forget Rule 18!

Oh, did I mention that Storm had lots of rules for the lifeguards under his command? Sometimes,
I think that the TV writers that created the character Leroy Jethro Gibbs on the popular TV
show, NCIS, must have known Storm in his Park Superintendent days because just like Gibbs and
all his rules about everything, Storm had his list also.

Remember, not only were we lifeguards, we also picked up trash throughout the park, cleaned the
restrooms and changing areas in the bathhouse, picked up litter along the roadways, secured the
park at night, rented boats, mounted search and rescue missions -- the list was endless and so
were the list of rules that went along with each set of duties we lifeguards might be performing
at the time. Now that I'm "older," I clearly understand why he had so many rules! : -)

Anyway, as you have probably already guessed by now, these tank top viewers were some of us
crazy lifeguards who more than once, ignored Rules 18 and 19. As you know by now, having this
water tank in the park was just an adventure waiting to be had –- that is, regardless of Storm’s
rules  -– we were going to climb to the top of the tower to see what you could see from up there
that high.

On rainy days or late in the day after the swimming area had closed but there was still some
daylight left –- we used these hours to explore around Poinsett and do things like climb a
forbidden water tank.

I cannot begin to put into words what the
view from the top of that tank provides to the viewer.

You can see all the way over the vast Wateree Swamp to the ridge line rising up above the western
edge of the swamp -- about 5 miles straight across. You can see far to the north towards Camden
and when looking towards the southwest, you can almost make out where the Congaree River joins
the Wateree River about 7 miles away. From this one place, you see how Poinsett sits snuggled in
tight against the Wateree Swamp.

I think the first time Ervin Shaw and I decide to ignore Storm’s rule was late one afternoon and
we were already off duty from lifeguarding. We had heard rumblings from the west earlier that
afternoon meaning that a rainstorm was probably headed our way since 90% of our weather
patterns arrived from the west or southwest.

Ignoring these warnings, we climbed to the top of the tank and were rewarded with one of the most
spectacular rain and lightning shows I had ever seen before in my life.

Here we were on top of a metal water tank a 100 feet above the ground and watching a lightning
storm. Crazy, I know but, believe me, it was worth it.

Spectacular colors of brilliant purples, violets, reds, and oranges raged and billowed all about in
the clouds just below the heaver darker gray clouds above. Jagged bolts of brilliantly flared
lightening blots shot down from the boiling purple clouds towards the earth like someone had
dropped a basket full of jagged-edged daggers -- each one hitting the earth in a brilliant and
almost blinding flash of heat and power.

We were dumb struck -- the show was awesome. Soon the view of the swamp started to blur out
as the rains started falling from the angry charged clouds -- still glowing with all sorts of vivid
colors. We both realized then that maybe we had both outstayed our welcome atop the water
tank and made a hasty retreat back to safety down on the ground.

I know it is 56 years late but, “Sorry Storm, but we just had to climb that water tank!”

Duck for Cover and Pray!

Situated a few miles east of Poinsett State Park is (was) Camp Burnt Gin, founded in 1945 and is a
residential summer camp for children who have physical disabilities and chronic illnesses. We went
over there a lot to help haul their trash away to the same dump we used.

Burnt Gin is only about 2 miles north of an Air Force air to ground gunnery rage located there in
the middle of Manchester Sate Forest that surrounds Poinsett State Park to the east and towards
Wedgefield. Military jets from all branches of the armed forces flew here from all over the
Eastern United States and shot at targets (old tanks, trucks, buildings, etc.) there on the ground
inside the gunnery range.

The planes always approached the range from the north up by Wedgefield and flew straight south
towards the range and beyond. This flight path took it directly over one of the roads we used to
travel on when we had to go to Burnt Gin. Our favorite thing to do was to take a new person with us
on days we knew the range would be in use and we would time our departure from Burnt Gin

The road we used had the gunnery range to our left on our way back to Poinsett and a wide open
field for over a mile in distance to our right. If we timed it right, we’d be about half way across
that open section of woodlands when the fun started.

You could hear, see, and feel the jets screaming in towards us at almost tree-top level and firing
their 20 mm cannons mounted in their wings and see the tracer bullets flaring out then go zooming
over our heads and on to the gunnery range targets less than 2 miles away. We could also see the
empty shell casings spewing out of the wing guns as they fired hundreds of rounds and started
dropping to earth just past were the truck was travelling

We would play act and act scared with lots of screams and yells like, “Oh my God, we came back
on the wrong road -– we’re over on the target range road!”

When those words came out, any newcomer visitors we had with us would absolutely totally
freak-out.   It was total raw, screaming fear on their part -– the only way I can explain how the
situation played out for some of our surprised guests that we had with us.

Bottom line, it was a hoot!

Fishing with Quarters

The creeks that wound all around behind the earthen dam there at the lake by the bathhouse were
brimming with all sorts of fish, especially bream.

"Bream" is a local term throughout the southeast that includes a variety of deep-bodied panfish
belonging to the sunfish family. The most common of these are bluegill, redbreast sunfish, spotted
sunfish and warmouth. I’m not a real fishing expert but I would venture to say that most of
these types were found at Poinsett, especially the huge ones like the warmouths we could catch
back behind the dam.

“Gone fishing” was another of the pastimes for those of us with days off to enjoy or it was another
dreary, rainy day and no one was at the swimming area and we were bored. However, there was one
thing that always bothered us and that was we never seemed to be able to catch the really big ones
like we had always heard about from some of the locals who were the experts.

We had seen them (the locals) come up out of the swamp with a string of bream that had each one
of them weighing in at over 2 pounds each. Let me tell you -- a 2-pound bream is huge and can fight
like a 15-pound bass -- especially if the bream is hunkered down in a deep hole when you hook him.

Finally, after much prodding by us, one of these bream fishermen told us it was easy to catch them
–- just bring a handful of shiny new quarters with us.

Oh Lord, we thought, another one of those jerk-your-leg- pranks was headed our way.

“Seriously.” he said, “ Bring the quarters with you and when you find one of those deep holes like in
a curve of the creek, sneak up to the hole and flip a quarter into the center and just wait a minute.
Then flip another one and standby with your baited hook and sinker with the shiny spoon
attached to it.”

“Then what?” We all asked at once.

“Drop your line right in behind where your last quarter went down and stand by,” He said with a
smile on his face as he turned and walked away.

Two hours later, we were at one of the deep holes and had about 10 quarters with us. Thinking we
were still being played, we laughed and said “What the hell,” and flipped our first quarter into the
hole. Nothing -- except ripples. We flipped another quarter -– nothing again except ripples of a
few bubbles that came up from the bottom of the hole.

Then in went the weighted fishing line with a shiny spinner spoon attached and a huge earthworm
on the hook.

Boom! The line was hit so hard that whoever was holding the short cane pole we were using for a
fishing rod just about went head first into the creek. We all started laughing and hollering at the
same time, “Jerk that sucker up out of that hole!”

Bing, bang boom -- out popped the largest, heaviest bream any of us had ever seen or caught. It had
to weight over 2 pounds.

Ten minutes later, after we had settled down and were ready to go again, we started the ritual all
over again, Sure enough, after the second quarter hit the water and then followed that up with the
baited hook -– boom -- another record size bream was on the hook!

To this day I still do not know why or how it all happened -- don’t really care. I can only assume
that the shiny quarter flips over and over on its way to the bottom and some crazy, hungry bream
sees it and says, “Don’t know what that is but it is starting to look like dinner time around here!”  
I guess by the time the hook entered the water after the second quarter did, he couldn’t resist the
temptation any longer and went for the goods.

Flipping 5 or 6 quarters in to a creek bed to catch 4 or 5 pounds worth of good eating bream is a
small price to pay for a few hours of fun and excitement in the swamp.

High Dives and Bottom Mud

No swimming pool/area worth its salt would be without a diving board. At Poinsett, we had the king
of diving platforms.

Sitting out in the lake down towards the right end of the lake near the dam not to far past the
swimming area rope line, we had a concrete structure that was about 20 feet square and rose up
above the water about 2 feet and had two ladders mounted to the sides so a swimmer could safely
climb up out of the water and onto the diving platform.

If the lake level dropped say an inch or so, you could tell that the structure was actually poised on
top of four concrete pillars and that if you really wanted to, you could swim up under the platform.  
This was highly frowned on and when seen by a lifeguard, the swimmer was warned to not do
that again.

On this platform was mounted a lower diving board that faced towards the bathhouse and was
called the “One Meter Board” because it was 3 feet above the water. Behind it and facing
outwards towards the head of the lake was the “Three Meter Board” structure that held a diving
board that was a full 9 feet high above the water.

I was amazed at the reactions that people took when first confronted with the diving platform.
Some wouldn’t go near it because snakes might be hiding under the structure. Other’s thought it
was way too far from the swimming area (it was only about 50 feet past the rope line that
separated shallow water from deep water in the swimming area).

As to those that made it out there, some used both diving boards and some only used one type --
usually just the 1 meter board. Don’t let any one kid you -- diving off or jumping off a 3 meter high
diving board is scary and can be quite painful if you hit the water the wrong way.

My brother was an excellent swimmer and diver and loved the 3-meter board. The dives that he
could do and even attempt to do were awesome and breath-taking at the same time. Diving (well
executed dives) is a learned, acquired skill that takes strength, stamina, mental focus, and guts to
achieve success. Lacking any of these, any would be diver is likely going home defeated, frustrated
and most likely, hurting like hell because a poorly executed dive made him hit the water while he
was stretched out flat.

We sat there in the lifeguard chair while on duty and watched in awe sometimes, the many types of
divers that came our way. Sometimes, tiny kids -- maybe just 3 years old -- would jump off both
diving boards without hesitation and be laughing and giggling like crazy when they popped back up
in the water after they hit it near whoever was there with them.

Young or old, some cried, some screamed, some laughed -- the parade never ended. Yes, there were
times when something went wrong and a diver hit the water wrong and the lifeguard knew it
instinctively and was already blowing his whistle for help and on his way to provide assistance to
the diver.

One of the games a lot of us used to do was to see who could come up with the most mud in their
hands after going off the high dive. This was proof positive that you had indeed gone all the way to
the bottom of the lake and touched it. The water there under the high dive was about 20 feet deep
and going to the bottom was not an easy task for some.

When we conducted swimming classes at the park, the diving platform served as a teaching station
at times as various things were done using it as a home base, so to speak.

One of the things that one had to do to pass certain type of swimming level test, was to dive off
the diving platform and then swim down along the dam to a small platform that was 235 feet away.
This platform was used to house, protect a large drain pipe structure with a wheel attached to it
that when turned, it opened a valve that let water out of the lake through a special drain pipe that
went under the dam and on down into the swamp,

I know that 235 feet doesn’t sound far to an accomplished swimmer, but to the young ones first
starting out, to reach that platform and swim back was like winning the lottery. It was their badge
of honor and they didn’t hesitate to tell anyone what they had done to earn their
swimming certificate.

Yes, the old concrete structure that sat out there in the lake as a diving platform provided for
many hours of fun in the water. People sun-bathed on it, used it as a gathering place to hang out
and gossip, and some even used it to dive back into the lake, climb back up and do it all over again.

Disaster From the Sky

As the sleek new F-100 Super Sabre jet fighter lifted off the runway at Myrtle Beach Air Force
Base, its pilot -– United States Air Force Captain Frederick A. Crow Jr. -- was all smiles as he
looked down at the beach disappearing from his view while banking sharply to his right and
heading for the air to ground gunnery range up by Poinsett State Park.

The F-100 was the first USAF fighter capable of supersonic speed in level flight and with that
ace up his sleeve, Capt. Crow figured he be at the gunnery range just 90 miles away in no time
at all.

Approaching the gunnery range from the southeast, the Capt. Crow guided his F-100 into a sharp
turn to its left over Cane Savannah turnings towards Wedgefield and then further around to head
due south towards the targets below on the ground at the gunnery range. As the flat farm land
around Burnt Gin camp now passed quickly under his wings, the jet screamed towards the targets
with his 4 20 mm cannon spitting out regular rounds and tracers to show where the bullets
were hitting.

At this point, Captain Crow knew things were going wrong –- very, very wrong –- he could no
longer control the aircraft. Normally, after firing runs like he had just completed, he would pull
back on the stick, climb back up to 6-8 thousand feet, bank back hard to the left and go around
for another firing run or a bomb drop run.

On this particular day in late April, 1961, I was sitting in the lifeguard chair at Poinsett Park
watching the jets over at the gunnery range just 3.5 miles away make their passes. From the chair,
if you look up towards the head of the lake, there was a natural depression in the landscape which
allowed for a view much further to the east.

From our vantage point in the lifeguard chair, we had a good view of the jets in the distance after
they had made a firing run and were pulling back on the stick to make the jet climb. There was
something odd about the pull up I was now watching -- the jet appeared (based on all the others
that we had seen) was going too high up after a run.

Then it happened -- the pilot blew the canopy off and was shot out of the aircraft as it still was
climbing.  The chute opened immediately and as Captain Crow hung there, he helplessly watched his
beautiful F-100 fighter-bomber make a sharp turn and head back towards the ground.

The jet screamed loudly as it plowed nose first into the park road inside the park near the road up
to the cabins just a half mile away. The impacting explosion was horrible and we could even feel the
ground shake. A second or two later, we heard another loud explosion and saw thick black smoke
filling the sky.

I had already blown my whistle to get the few swimmers out of the water and within seconds we
had the beach area emptied and the gate closed and locked.

We all piled into Storm’s truck and raced towards the entrance of the park to see what had
happened. As we approached the crash site, we realized that the road was completely blocked.
Our biggest concern was that we could already see that a fire was heading up hill towards
the cabins.

We turned around, went back and up through the camping area and then used an old park
service road to made our way over to the cabins. We could already feel the heat from the fire
below down on the main park road when we arrived. Someone jumped out of the truck and ran for
a water hose by one of the cabins and started hosing down the sides of the cabins facing downhill.

The rest of us raced on down the cabin road in the truck where we could now see the crash site
itself in the middle of the main park road and the raging inferno that was rapidly invading the
hillside. Piling out of the truck, we stood helplessly behind our truck parked 100 yards or so from
the fire and watched the raging inferno. We had nothing, from a fire-fighting stand point, that
would allow us to safely try to even begin to fight a fire of this magnitude and intensity.

The heat was absolutely intense. As the fire raged on, it sounded like the Fourth of July as all the
ammunition still in the plane was going off. We just stayed hunkered down behind the truck and
watched in fear and awe as every now and then, one of the tracer bullets would be set off and it
would go zipping through the woods along the ground and leaving a trail of fire behind it.

About that time, we heard the crash (fire) trucks from Shaw Field Air Force Base (just 12 miles
line of sight from Poinsett) arriving and within minutes, with their powerful water cannons and
foam dispensing apparatus used for fires like this, they quickly had the fire out and things started
to calm down.

That is, until a few hours later another bomb still hidden under all the now smoldering and burnt
jet wreckage exploded and started a whole new round of fires.

Thankfully the Air Force fire crews were there for we could have never contained the fire that
was being continually fueled by all the jet fuel that took a while to burn off. Of course, we had
long since escorted everyone out of the park and had locked the gate.

The jet had come straight down through the narrow opening in the tree canopy above the road and
the nose of the jet had hit dead center on the white line making the center of the road. Even more
amazing, was that the impact forced out, blew out, whatever, a hole 20  feet deep as that is where
the crash-site investigators finally found the actual nose of the jet buried in the ground.

And, just to make thing even more exciting, one of the investigators determined that 2 bombs were
still unaccounted for. Hello -- 2 bombs missing -– we were not happy campers.

With this latest addition to the turmoil that was still in full swing, we were politely thanked for
our assistance and then given the boot as they sealed off the entire area for over a day and had
Air Policemen that had arrived that guarded the entrance to the park to keep spectators from the
crash site.

When they all left us, we assumed they had found the missing bombs or determined that they were
really not missing, whatever, but by then, we no longer cared -– we had experienced enough heart-
pounding excitement for two days and just wanted to get back to dealing with obnoxious swimmers,
wayward raccoons, and snakes that like to swim in the lake.

In closing out this mini-story about Poinsett, I have to add the following footnote.

Just three years earlier, in the summer of 1958, I was a lifeguard at Myrtle Beach State Park.
Myrtle Beach Air Force Base was across the main highway from our park and the pilots that
frequented our park had told us many times that they used the end of our fishing pier to line up on
when making a landing at the base just a short quarter of a mile inland pass the pier.

While on duty one day, I witnessed an Air Force T-33 Jet Trainer getting ready to land and he
flamed out (3 times his engine failed, restarted and finally failed to restart) over the ocean and
then watched it crash through the concession stand at our fishing pier, killing the worker there,
and finally coming to a halt by smashing down on top of a car and killing a man and his two sons as
they were leaving the parking lot at the pier.

Long story short, I was the only official eye-witness to the crash and as such, was interviewed over
20 times over the next 3 years by the Air Force and FBI. The wife of the man killed along with his
sons, had sued the government and I constantly had to give depositions, etc., as to what “I saw”.

It was my story and I never changed it that in “my opinion, it was pilot error –- he should have
ditched the plane at sea.”  The wife finally dropped the suit after they paid her a ton of money
but until they did, they kept trying to get me to change my story. It was fun (all the FBI
attention) at first but after 3 years, it had gotten old.

Meanwhile -– back to the crash at Poinsett.

I was standing at the gate to the swimming area one day about a week after our dramatic plane
crash and I spotted a man walking towards me that made me feel sick on my stomach. Here came
the same FBI agent that had relentlessly interviewed me about the plane crash at Myrtle Beach all
through my last 2 years in High School, and then when I was a freshman at the University of South

When he got closer, he finally saw me and stopped dead in his tracks and sputtered out, “Please,
God, tell me that you are not my one and only official eye-witness to this plane crash!”

I smiled and said, “Looks like this is your unlucky day because I’m your man!”

I thought the man was going to keel over.

“Mike, do you realize how many red flags, markers, etc., are going to be by your name now in
various government data files because you are the sole eye-witness to not one but TWO
accidental United States Air Force Jet crashes in the last 3 years?”

Of course, at the time I had no clue but as explained by other stories that I have written, I found
out in spades how true and prophetic his warning really was.

Moonlight and Star-Filled Night Escapades

No story about working and living at Poinsett (from a lifeguard’s point of view) would be complete
without covering some of the things that happened at night, especially on those nights lit up by a
bright moon high above the park and watching over us.

However, do not despair for Poinsett also offered spectacular nights of visual pleasure and awe on
those dark, moonless nights when the heavens were ablaze with stars twinkling at us from
horizon to horizon.

How Much Do These Stupid Things Weigh?

On more than one occasion, we would get the nighttime hungry bug so bad we’d become desperate to
get some extra food that we all hoped would satisfy those cravings and let us make it until
breakfast the next morning without starving to death. Even though we were fed like kings as
lifeguards while working at the park, we were still growing young men that at times, had
enormous appetites.

One of the great crops that grew in several farmland fields located near the park were Jubilee
Watermelons. These huge, oblong dark green striped melons were to die for with their bright,
almost flame pink flesh insides that was juicy sweet to the last bite.

Anyway, one moonlit night when we had the hunger pains real bad, we decided that maybe we ought
to go see if there were any watermelons that might just be, oh laying around out in the middle of a
field somewhere all alone and desperate for company.

We all piled into one of the cars someone was lucky enough to have with them that week and we
were off. 30 minutes later, we were no longer laughing and thinking about the watermelons slices
that we all would soon be devouring.

Instead, we were all grunting and swearing at each other, the car, the moon, and of course the
stupid watermelons –- maybe 15 or 20 of them –- that had somehow ended up stacked all inside the
car and filled the truck to capacity, thereby overloading the vehicle to the point that we stuck up
to our axles in the middle of the watermelon patch, spinning our wheels and going nowhere fast!

“How much do these stupid things weight,” someone cried out?

“About 40 pounds each, someone yelled back.”

We were all scared to death that the owner was going to hear all the commotion and come out with
his shotgun (as we had heard he would do) so in desperation, we decided to off load all the melons
except two and make our getaway.

We figured out later that we were trying to sneak off with probably over 800 pounds of
watermelons. In the excitement of sneaking out into the field and snatching up some great big old
juicy watermelons, we never really thought about what the heck we were going to do with that
many, how much they weighed, and would we have any problems driving a car around in a plowed
farmland field with an extra 800 pound load onboard.

As Storm said later when he got wind of our great watermelon raid, “Well, that was stupid.”  

Twinkles from Horizon to Horizon:

Earlier, I talked about climbing up on our water tank and described what all you could see while
perched up there and looking all around. As beautiful as it was, it didn’t hold a candle to what you
could see at night when there was no moon.

The view of the stars -- the vastness of space -– was almost overwhelming to the eye. From horizon
to horizon, the sky was filled with thousands of pin points of light -- twinkling at times as if they
were greeting you. Large or small stars, it didn’t matter. The heavens above you seemed so close,
like you could reach up at touch the stars. It also gave you another feeling, like they were going to
crush down on you.

To the west towards Columbia, you could see tiny pinpoints of lights as you surveyed the vast
Wateree Swamp spread out before you. Behind you, it seemed like you could almost see downtown
Sumter, glowing there in the dark just 14 miles away as the crow flies. Cars moving about with their
lights on, houses lit up here and there -- all playing out their role in presenting to a viewer like us a
nighttime show that only a few would ever have the chance to see.

It was beautiful, it was mesmerizing -- it made you feel small and humble all at the same time. At
times, you could see shooting stars streaking across the coal-black star-lit heavens –- like a
message from God that simply said, “Yes, I made all this … just for you.”

Adrift in the Lake:

Another nighttime escapade that had it rewards was going back down to the lake late at night and
pushing off in one of the rental boats and then just laying back in the boat and staring up at the
night time sky as you quietly drifted about.

All sorts of sounds greeted you the longer you stayed out on the lake. Of course we could hear all
the weird sounds we always heard from down past the dam and then on into the swamp, but there
were other sounds from the woods nearby that were also entertaining and frightening at times.  

Lying back in the boat and staring up at the heavens was almost hypnotic. Depending on the
breezes that were moving about, determined how fast your boat moved and/or turned. This lazy,
slow movement made the view above constantly change and it could almost make you sick as the
stars seem to be spinning around at times.

The moon, the stars -- they were all simply beautiful as framed by the trees that surrounded the
lake and gave you just the open window above you out on the lake to stare off into space. If you
ignored the weird noises around you and the insistent mosquitoes that welcomed you as their
midnight snack, it was quite a treat for the mind and eyes.

End of the Trail

I hope by now that you have gained an insight into why I love Poinsett so much and have such a deep
and profound respect for its place in our time and the wonderful -- almost magical -- beautiful
sights and sounds that she so freely shares with all who come her way.

She may only be just a plot of land in the center of South Carolina that we mortals measure up to
be just over 1,000 acres in size.

However, in reality because of her natural differences in both animal and plant life that abounds
there and her geological makeup, she seems far larger as she magically seems to take us on a
journey of never ending surprises from the mountains in the north of the state, down through the
rolling hills of the piedmont plateau and then on through the ancient sand hills, and finally on
down to the coast.

Thank you, Poinsett, for the gift of a lifetime.
. . . The End
This was fun-filled Poinsett in my day. Click here to see her today -- Still beautiful but boring and lonely.