Down South: Squatters

Photo by Tom Poland

By Tom Poland

Looking back, I realize they lived like frontiersmen. A squirrel-hunting boy who skirted their wooded encampment, I considered them bums. Looking back that seems harsh. Down on their luck some would say. Poor decision-makers others might say.

Today, a debris trail of bottomless chamber pots, broken bottles, glass Clorox jugs, and flotsam brings them alive one more time. Untangling the vines and clearing away the pine straw, I uncover artifacts of unusual people. We have hoboes, vagrants, and itinerants. And squatters named Tom and Yank. Yank carried himself with a bit of dignity. Tom seemed withdrawn.

I first saw these brothers in a local country store. They wore felt hats and rumpled, brown garments. They looked like the Darling family of the Andy Griffith Show. Yank had a grizzled beard; Tom was clean-shaven. What I remember most shocks me still: the first time I saw a man with a missing arm. That would have been Tom. Despite not wanting to look, I stared at his stump, the shirtsleeve dangling over it. And then later, Bill Goolsby, a character if ever, told me Yank had shot off his brother’s arm in a hunting accident. I could see the muzzle blast and buckshot tearing into flesh and bone. I winced.

Yank, in penitence, took care of his brother the rest of his life. As I pumped gas and bagged groceries, the brothers came and went. “They must live close by.” Naïve of my surroundings outside of the goings and comings of squirrels, I didn’t know the ill-fated brother, Tom, shotgun-wielding Yank, and their mom lived close by. But one cold, October morning, one of those mornings when crystalline shafts of light pierce wooded shadows, I followed a squirrel leaping from pine to pine in graceful arcs. In a pool of morning light I saw their shack. It was made of large sheets of cardboard tacked to strips of wood and set among the trees. It had a tin roof, and indeed, rusting sheets of tin take their place in the debris trail, a string of abandonment reminiscent of a sinking ship’s dying moments.

They long lived there. They were living there when Uncle Joe bought the land they were squatting on. Uncle Joe never thought once about evicting them. And so they remained, without plumbing and electricity.

As for me, the years piled up. My days of hunting squirrels faded, and fate moved me to another state. A lifetime entire passed before recent forays into the family woods brought Tom, me, and Yank together again. I searched online to learn what became of these squatters. All I could find was the date of Yank’s death, June 6, 1978. His birth date was given as 1910, no month, no day. His real name was Ansle, a noble name of the old days. Perhaps that’s why he seemed a bit dignified despite his position in life. He’s buried, if indeed, this is the Yank I remember, in the cemetery of my church. I just can’t be sure he’s one of the two mysterious men who would walk into Goolsby’s grocery store. Goolsby’s. It had to be the source of the debris trail’s bottles, jars, jugs, and cans, some of which I no doubt stocked.

We cross paths with all sorts. For this Georgia boy, working at a country store and hunting squirrels brought me into contact with frontiersmen. Had I not been so timid, I could have put myself at ease around them and learned much about survival. But that was then, and this is now. They are gone and the squirrel hunter’s a photojournalist. All I can do is walk their debris trail and see what it teaches me about these squatters of the 1950s and 60s, people who lived like pioneers.

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Tom Poland is the author of twelve books and more than 1,000 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. The University of South Carolina Press released his book, Georgialina, A Southland As We Knew It, in November 2015 and his and Robert Clark’s Reflections Of South Carolina, Vol. II in 2014. The History Press of Charleston published Classic Carolina Road Trips From Columbia in 2014. He writes a weekly column for newspapers in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture and speaks often to groups across South Carolina and Georgia, “Georgialina.”

Author: Stephan Drew

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