Kendall Bell was an award-winning journalist, author, and speaker whose newspaper career spanned more than twenty years. A native of Lancaster, he lived in Beaufort for a few years in the early part of the 21stcentury, where he worked as an editor at the Beaufort Gazette. Last month, Ken died of Covid 19, leaving behind many friends here in Lowcountry. In his honor, we’re reprinting his essay from State of the Heart: South Carolina Writers on the Places They Love, Volume One.
Reflection in the Water
Anyone who has ever worked for a newspaper knows the “controlled chaos” that goes on before deadline. Some nights you literally hold your breath and hope no computer glitches slow you down. After deadline, everyone heads out the door and either stops by a late-night watering hole or goes home to watch TV or read. It generally takes an hour or so to release the stress.
Once, after an especially bad night at The Beaufort Gazettewhen we barely made deadline because of a late-breaking story, I decided I needed to go somewhere quiet. I had already discovered the Port Royal Boardwalk Park—known locally as “The Sands”—and I knew it could bring my heart rate down.
I strolled along the lengthy boardwalk, listening as a fish jumped out of the water and splashed. I tried to see it, but on this moonless night all I could see was the blackness of Battery Creek at Port Royal Sound. Perhaps halfway toward the end, I sat down and performed my usual routine of closing my eyes and inhaling deeply, reveling in the briny saltwater smell. As I slowly exhaled, the magic of The Sands at night enveloped me. I opened my eyes and found myself staring into a sky dotted with millions, if not billions, of pinpoints of light, many twinkling against the ebony space. Never had I seen so many stars. Here were the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper, and even Orion. Unlike the textbook photos from college astronomy, each constellation was bathed in a wash of dimmer stars. I was spellbound.
Besides the sandy beach area, The Sands has a floating dock, a boat ramp and a boardwalk. Actually, “boardwalk” is a misnomer. It’s actually 1,250 feet of cement slabs resting on a wooden frame, which makes walking easier. It winds along the waterfront, only a few feet above the high tide mark, providing views of the water, surrounding marsh and protected oyster beds beneath the structure. From a four-story observation tower, you can get a panoramic look at the intersection of Battery Creek and the Beaufort River from the Russell Bell Bridge (S.C. Highway 802) to Port Royal Sound at the mouth of the Atlantic Ocean. Across the river is the Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island.
Breathtaking at night, The Sands is entertaining by day. It’s not unusual to see bottle-nosed dolphins, raccoons and numerous species of birds. One day, a dolphin spied me on the dock. It swam almost to the edge of the boardwalk and blew me a “whoosh” of greeting. As soon as I leaned forward for a better view, it disappeared, but not before I stole a good look at it.
Every July Fourth, boaters come to watch fireworks that burst first from the Town of Port Royal, then Parris Island, and finally in the distance, Hilton Head Island. With some friends on a boat, we packed a cooler and cast off from the Beaufort Downtown Marina, dropping anchor after a two-to-three-mile ride. Darkness fell. Soon, the boats were crowded so close it seemed I could have stepped completely across Port Royal Sound from boat to boat without ever getting wet. The people on our left offered beer, wine and lots of food. We likewise shared our picnic. Soon, people were passing food and drinks between the boats as if it were a family reunion.
At 9 p.m., several people tuned their radios to a station playing patriotic music. Suddenly, we heard a loud “Boom!” Red fireworks shot skyward, exploding into a multi-colored starburst. The reflection drizzled upon the water, and the crowd oohed and ahhed after every thundering crack. When Port Royal’s fireworks ended, Parris Island’s began. Then off in the distance, we saw Hilton Head’s fireworks light the sky. Meanwhile, every patriotic song I think I have ever heard was broadcast across the water from several boats. Then suddenly, the night got quiet. Sandi Pattybegan singing The National Anthem, and chills shot down my arms. I thanked God for the brave men and women in our armed forces. And I thought about my own father, a disabled veteran from World War II, who never got to enjoy a normal life because of his injuries.
Dad never revealed the details of his time in the Army. When he was asked how he got injured, his usual response was, “it was just war. And things like that happen during war.” After he died in 1987, I found copies of military records that showed he was guarding the munitions storage area at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, when several other soldiers horsing around accidentally pulled the pin from a hand grenade. The panicking soldier hurled it as far as he could. The grenade landed in the doorway of the munitions storage area, causing a huge explosion. Dad was burned from the waist up, his vocal cords severed.
At first, it didn’t appear he would survive. Later, doctors somehow repaired his vocal cords but his speech was never the same. While our family could understand him, he often had to repeat himself. Or a family member explained to others what he had said. Dad survived a lot, but after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and later suffering a heart attack and several strokes, he died two weeks shy of spending 18 months in the William Jennings Bryan Dorn V.A. Hospital in Columbia. I had never felt so proud of being an American when I realized everything he had endured. And yes, on that hot Fourth of July night, I had a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes listening to Sandi Pattysing.
My newspaper days are behind me now. But I remember the stress of those deadlines and the relief I found near the waters of Port Royal. When I look into those waters, I see a middle-aged man, shrouded with thinning gray hair. The face is much like my father’s. I close my eyes, lick the salty brine from my lips, and listen to a dolphin playing nearby. Yes, Dad would have loved The Sands.
Printed with permission from State of the Heart: South Carolina Writers on the Places They Love edited by Aïda Rogers and published by the University of South Carolina Press © 2013, University of South Carolina, Columbia. https://uscpress.com/State-of-the-Heart-Volume-1