Billy Malanga: Salt Marsh (Memoir/Essay)
Southern Legitimacy Statement : Upon graduation from college in 1984, I sweated my way through basic training at Parris Island, South Carolina. After earning the title of U.S. Marine, I was permanently stationed at Marine Corps Air Station – Beaufort, South Carolina. That four-year stint was an education in itself. Not just the military duty but also gaining an understanding of the history of the low country, its people, and its remarkable culture. Those years left a permanent mark on my soul: I will never forget it. In recent years, my wife and I have returned to Hunting Island to smell the lively salt marsh, soak our bodies in the briny water, grab a shrimp burger, a bowl of Frogmore stew, or watch brown pelicans and snowy egrets. The call of the South has never wavered, and we will be moving to Auburn, Alabama in August 2017.
As I gazed at the cruise box crammed with camping gear, I became anxious, not knowing how the southeastern trip would turn out. My wife had recently been recommended for full professor at a top research university here in the flatlands of the Big Ten. This was my opportunity, a break from the constant compression and restlessness of academia. Unfortunately, a chronic lymphocytic monster called Leukemia was swimming inside of her body. It was in a holding pattern, like a rattlesnake hiding in the barn. If I didn’t take her away, just the two of us, I may come to regret it. We eventually made the trip to the Low Country.
It ‘s a special place, another kind of Parris, an Island where I earned the title – U.S. Marine. Only a few miles from where we would set up camp. My wife had never traveled the barrier islands, especially Hunting Island. This is where it all began for me as a young man; a mysterious place located at the end of Route 21, seemed like the end of the earth to me. It is filled with sand fleas (i.e., no see-ums), balmy sea mist, inlets, bridges, the constant smell of salt marsh, and plenty of shrimp to go around the Shrimp Shack. Fighter jets could be heard thundering upstairs, reminding us that the Marine Corps Air Station was standing watch over the eastern skies. The Second MAW/MAG-31, where enlisted Marines troubleshot jet engines and filled the night with consistent roars that my wife confused with an electrical storm in the distance, it took me back.
We were in a breathtaking Gullah (sea island) culture, as I remembered it, fascinating and mysterious, endured but mostly untouched. This was a place filled with truths and untruths, merged with the historical African slave trade and the nostalgia of rich tomato, rice, and Indigo farmsteads. In 1984, I was permanently stationed a few miles from Parris Island, at MCAS Beaufort. There were good and evil memories I held onto, struggles that I had to work through after being honorably discharged.
This was the time to strip away the layers of flesh and get down into the bone. This trip into dense tick laced tropical pinewood at Hunting Island would attend to these loitering annoyances. We both had to lean hard into the irritations and uncomfortable 95% humidity 99-degree heat. An unruffled sea breeze would save us from the muggy silence of our dank encampment, without the luxury of civilization. We stripped away tightfisted stains that humanity had left on us.
I remember the first night in our tent. The heat from the sun boiled the inside to approximately 120 degrees as temperatures hung like an apparition at sunset. Sweat poured out of our skin like water down a shower screen. I tried to lie still on top of my sleeping bag but each move brought on more sweat. My wife muttered, “Damn this fucking sucks,” that first night, not getting much sleep. At that moment I knew she was in it. She was stripping off some of the stress that detained her. It was at this point; I knew she was in the right spot at the right time. I told her to lean into it. “Yea right,” she said. Well, this was where I wanted her, in an uncomfortable state with stinking body parts, sand, heat, spiders, and lots of Palmetto bugs. I never said anything about how hot it was in that tent, I held onto the burning fuse that connected us. We worked through the grit and bullshit together. I watched her movements and listened vigilantly to her remarks. She accepted it and didn’t complain the rest of the trip.
We normally woke up early to see the beautiful sunrise on the Atlantic’s dark eastern skyline. We walked to the north end of the beach near JC creek to catch the startling western sunsets. The sun would set into the smooth marshland like a ball of fire, slowly weakening, then dying into the sounds of crashing waves. We would walk barefoot back to our bivouac for a glass or two of red wine inside our bug-screened canopy hoping for slow Wi-Fi connections. It worked sometimes; we let it go if it didn’t.
Toxic bug spray with DEET slowly poisoned us, but I didn’t want to interfere with this stunning experience. I could taste it in my mouth each morning. It was all part of the game, all part of removing layers. Making it through the rough spots together, laughing at how uncomfortable and foul we had become in the pine jungle. We flogged away the stress and tedium, right there with the salt, pelicans, and sand. Mosquitos landed on us like F-18 fighter jets on a landing strip, we swiped them fiercely.
I will never forget the look on my wife’s face when the salt filled breezes floated across her soft face. It was the most serene and lovely I had seen her. Her head tilting upward, eyes closed, anticipating privileged wafts of divine salt air. I kept thinking, when you don’t have it you end up longing for it. It kept us going, we were sensing things, most of them unseen. We exhaled occasionally, letting out soft groans of approval. It was peaceful.
We soaked in several inches of soft green ocean water. The waves washed over our bodies like Epson salt, giggling together, smelling it, letting it go, healing her soul and mine. Each wave taking more and more basecoats back out to sea where sharks and porpoises plunge. The tidal change in the morning and late afternoon restored her energy. Unwanted judgments temporarily released above tall rows of pine, she was mending. Truly alive like never before, I watched her smell salt air each night with a childish look of curiosity. I enjoyed seeing her speak to God as she rinsed her body with indifference. We left several layers of ourselves in the sand along with the loggerhead shells. I didn’t know what any of this meant years ago. I was too busy.