When my mom and dad found themselves the parents of a six, four and two year old at the ripe old age of thirty two, when they examined their finances and found that they were, indeed, still in the red, they decided it might be a good time to run for Congress.
A family meeting was called.
That threw us. What were family meetings for, except to announce babies?
Anyways. If anybody reasonable was in the vicinity at the time, they must have come to the solid judgment that the Inglises were complete fools. The incumbent in the race had deep family roots in the District, had recently survived challenges by two of Greenville’s Republican mayors and seemed highly unlikely to fall to a fellow with nothing but a bunch of ants in his pants to get to Congress.
But with just us in the house, no such voice of reason found audience above the din.
Sometimes, youth and utter abandonment of cranial faculties do prevail.
And so, our career as a politician’s kids was born.
(As for the additional numbers on stage, a few years went by, several more family meetings were called, and this time they yielded the usual results: more sisters.)
As the five kids of a guy that got letters addressed to The Honorable Congressman from South Carolina delivered to our door, you might think that the glory of the politician’s kid was unparalleled.
Let’s be honest here though. We were on the stage, but the spotlight was not on us.
It was on this guy.
And being on the stage and not in the spotlight, which is to say being props that walk, had its downsides. People in the audience stared at you while they chewed on their stump-meeting BBQ, and sometimes they looked curious about you five, and sometimes they looked bored and stared too much, and somehow they did not look entirely friendly.
When we weren’t posing on stage, life as a politician’s kid had its own particular trenches.
For instance, sign waving:
Since the Republican primary was the only election that mattered in South Carolina, high campaign season took place in the swelter of June instead of the cool sways of November, and sign waving, as we soon discovered, was a particular activity thought best suited for kids in such weather.
Likewise, a campaign tactic called Door to Door was a good way to marshal kids’ flyer-carrying talents.
There were so many of them.
There were, however, moments of glory.
In the finale of one of my dad’s speeches during that first improbable campaign, I leaped from my mom’s lap, up the stairs and into my dad’s arms.
It turns out having a two year old with blond curls bounce across the stage and into her father’s arms is very good for publicity.
We looked smashing.
And when that stunt was paired with an inspirational soundtrack in the campaign video, we were pretty much unstoppable.
Alas, later publications never quite measured up. My high water mark will always be 1992.
To make our campaign trail long term instead of a one-stop circus show though, we needed a few lessons. Diplomacy was key.
When confronted with a spectacle like a lady whose eyebrows seemed to have been cinched up to her scalp at a political get-together, for instance,
waiting to ask questions was essential.
All questions regarding the nature of plastic surgery or otherwise were reserved for behind closed doors, preferably in the car and driving away, where no potential donor, political advisor or elected official could hear.
It’s in keeping with my childhood theory that discipline got seriously lax with my two younger sisters, eleven and nine years off from the oldest of us, that they failed to honor this one cardinal rule of political kiddom.
Enter: the Homeschoolers.
The Homeschoolers had at least six kids, which us five naturally viewed as a preposterously large number that really did toe the weird line. They didn’t help themselves by all dressing alike either. What with their dad being a campaign contributor though, we had to deal with them at some of the fundraiser brunches and shrimp and grits dinners that were held on our territory on a regular basis.
In general, we engaged in surprisingly harmonious activity for kids with our capacity for high quality pranks, jumping on the trampoline without double jumping them off, running around the farm without leading them through poison ivy mazes or rooster booby traps, all the while simply thanking God and our parents and the stars and the green green grass that we had gone to public school instead of getting the Homeschool Curriculum of Social Demise.
Not Meade though.
Needless to say, there was no recovery. While I slunk beneath the bar-top counter, Mom bumbled something about maybe never saying that at all and what she really meant and such and such and… until she came to a grinding halt at the black hole that was the social situation.
We never saw the Homeschoolers again. And suffice it to say that Inglis for Congress Inc. never cashed a check from the Mister again either.
While Meade showed her capacity for untimely frankness early on, Dews waited a while to develop hers.
Enter: Dad’s old fraternity brother, D.C. resident.
This time it was dad's turn to desperately try for a cover-up.
But we’re getting a good many years ahead of ourselves.
Once Dad ran for Senate after six years in Congress, our getaway vehicle for all question sessions was supersized.
As it happened, Dad’s opponent had a supersized ego himself.
When Fritz Hollings, senator of thirty two years, Democrat of the old Southern order, son of South Carolina’s oak-lined, pastel-painted and high-porched Charleston, wasn’t mouthing off about the upstart Congressman in the north of the state with the high and holy itch to take his seat, he was mostly holding forth on other matters, with truly admirable bravado.
In other words, Fritz had an excellent way with words.
After the skunk quote made its splash in the state and national papers though, Fritz’s chief of staff up in Washington booked an immediate flight to South Carolina, with the sole purpose of holding his hand over his boss' prolific mouth for the remainder of the campaign.
For good measure, the Hollings campaign had someone tailing us to keep tabs on our movements as well.
The fellow doing the tailing must have thought a red sports car was excellent camo for a red RV, but he failed to get the memo that you don’t ride someone’s bumper, pull into the same gas stations, park shadily to the side and immediately get back on the bumper when the RV pulls out of the gas station if you want to keep your cover.
Meanwhile, back on the farm, life went on. Twenty five chicks and one free surprise hatchling were delivered via the Travelers Rest Post Office, where the mail ladies scanned the doorway all day, waiting for Mrs. Inglis and some motley assortment of her five kids to finally arrive and take the eternal chirpers out of the backroom and to the barn where they belonged.
As all things do on the farm, the chicks grew tall and strong and sprightly. The twenty five Buff Orpingtons lived up to their description in the Murray McMurray Hatchery Catalog by being “large, stately birds of a quiet disposition,” their golden coloration “symbolic of great value and high quality,” their studied way in the world making them “excellent setters and mothers.”
They were at peace with the world and the children in it.
The Surprise, however, began showing his true colors after the first crow eeked past his croaking adolescent voice box.
Indeed, some of my most vivid childhood memories involve getting too near The Surprise and experiencing the results.
Around that time, after flinging a well-placed shovel at The Surprise’s neck and missing a clean cut by a feather after one too many terrorize-little girl-in-pink-polka-dots sessions, Dad looked the Surprise in the eye and saw his soul.
And named what he saw there accordingly.
Much like Senator Fritz got the voters in the Senate campaign, Chicken Fritz got all the Chicken ladies, leaving the three Buff Orpington roosters to wonder in the anguish of rejected love:
And naturally, given the coextensive quality of our life of the farm and our life on the campaign trail, us kids couldn’t help but see that if the Surprise was Fritz, those three forlorn Buff Orpington roosters had to be our dad.
Hence, there was Smart Bob, who was continually conscious of his affliction.
There was Confused Bob, who didn’t even consider that hens were in the realm of love’s possibility so went for the kittens instead.
And there was Dumb Bob, who sat day by eternal chicken day in the bottom of the two-tiered coop, wondering why there was this wire between him and the rest of the world of hens pecking on the choicest fallen figs and riding their favorite horse and striding around the premises like Barnyard Royalty.
If Barnyard politics were full of Fritzes and Bobs, terrorized kittens, dogs licking their chops at the chicken dinner dream in front of them and horses that observed it all serenely while simultaneously knocking the hell out of successive slats of the barn to get at the horse-mates on the other side of the party line, the house saw its share of politics as well.
One of our campaign helper mainstays usually had a few theories to share with us when she came to the farm.
On the farm or off, going on the campaign trail inevitably involved forced playdates with some of the worst kids in the state of South Carolina.
This particular one in the part of the state where sink-holes were the main attraction had just about as weird and therefore truly as Southern a name as we all did, a name that came surprisingly close to sounding like Hooligan, which of course we started calling him by, for highly credible reasons.
Playdates were not limited to the young, however. After the annual Prayer Breakfast in D.C. one year, my Dad and I shared the sidewalk with the most senior Senator in the establishment, the guy who, in 1948, decided to run for President of the United States as a member of the States’ Rights Democratic Party, otherwise known as the Dixiecrats, who above all things, ran rabidly against desegregation and anti-lynching legislation.
When that didn’t work and the country moved fitfully towards a Civil Rights bill, the same Strom Thurmond stood up and executed the longest filibuster in United States history, he was that mad.
Of course, Strom Thurmond was our state’s guy, born and raised. And when he died, a black woman emerged to tell of the shadows in the oak-lined drives that wind towards the camellia bushes and white pillars of segregated history in the South Carolina Strom Thurmond came from, of a sixteen year old black maid and a twenty two year old white son under the eaves of his family’s estate. She was the daughter that came of that, and her father had spent his life fighting against her equality.
Such are the tragedies welled within our state, a finger’s scratching from the surface.
Out on the sidewalk though, Strom Thurmond got the idea that we needed more time together.
Little did I realize then, but Strom was a believer in stuffing his pockets at any event that offered edibles.
Unsure and unhappy with the rather wrinkled, warm and slightly rotten object now on my hands, I offed it to my dad, who has possibly the strongest aversion to rotten fruit known to man, at which point he had to put it in his formerly pristine pocket.
Needless to say, he was less than pleased. In retrospect, however, I believe he should have been grateful that we had just come from a National Prayer Breakfast instead of, say, a National Prayer Eat Up While We Pray BBQ, after which Strom would have been highly likely to brandish a soggy fried chicken leg.
If we were lucky in those long summers on the campaign trail, we landed at a place with a swimming pool.
For example, the Governor’s pool. It was a little oddly shaped, but it passed the muster.
The First Lady of South Carolina was also very nice about snacks.
But my mom, my mom was not embracing the whole set-up. The mansion with the all-black wait staff, the private pool, the exceedingly fake-blond white lady with red heels in front of her asking what her white kids wanted to order from the all-black wait staff.
In her moment of hesitation, we saw how the ordering was usually done.
And before us five even got a chance to imitate, our mom spoke in our stead.
And so, when a platter of watermelon and one big-a#% smoothie arrived at the end of the table with the governor’s kid, us five stood forlornly over our communal bowl of goldfish.
That was a low blow.
It did, however, reinforce what lessons we were learning at home.
Clearly, our parents had gone for the Rattlebang combo.
The deal did, however, come with the ability to field an entire Kitchen Cabinet, dad’s main home team for all political advice.
We took our roles seriously. Along with lessons from Rattlebang Picnic, we found guidance and inspiration from a particular classic.
Jimmy Stewart had a few things to say that made a strong impression on us.
It turned out we had some bleeding heart tendencies.
And so, when we watched our getaway RV leave our driveway for the last time after the Senate race was lost and done, when we heard the campaign trail song “On the Road Again” playing one final, memory-jerking round, when we saw some mixture of childhood games in the loft and adult purpose in pursuit of an America we wanted very much to be a part of, we had Mr. Smith and our dad and both of their and our lost causes to think about.
Before the RV lurched out past the rose bed and the horse pasture and the chickens clucking through the greens patch, I ran up the steps to rescue a poster we had spent considerable time waving.
And gave it to my dad.
And there with that sign, I watched my dad cry for the first time in the entirety of my eight year old life.
And the seven of us stood on the porch and learned what it is like to watch a dream of a life drive away.