“Place of the Sunlight of God”: An excerpt from a story about Tamassee-Salem

With the announcement of the closing of Tamassee-Salem I would guess that it would be normal to feel nostalgic…and I am. The following is an excerpt from “Winning…” in which I explain how I ended up a Tamassee-Salem where I spent seven of the best years of my working life. Enjoy for free…but the whole book can be purchased at goo.gl/dO1hcX

If you travel west on Highway 11 between Highway 14 and the Georgia State line, you will certainly understand why this particular highway is called the Cherokee Scenic Highway. Small mountains, water features galore, forested areas, parks and unfortunately, many golf courses cover the landscape around what was once a Cherokee trading path. Traveling is usually slow due to pulp wood trucks, bass boats being towed to and from Lake Keowee, or “Sunday Drivers” sight seeing on a Wednesday. I am fortunate to have lived on Highway 11 for nearly thirty years. Even after all of this time, Linda Gail and I still like to explore around Highway 11, looking for pig trails that might lead us on an adventure. Sometimes you get what you ask for.

Late one Friday, in the spring of 2001, Linda Gail and I were enjoying the evening while driving west in her Mustang toward the setting sun. We had eaten at a local golf course called The Rock and had turned west toward the sun instead of east toward home. I felt this was somewhat symbolic as I had made the decision before the 2001 baseball season to retire from athletics and ride off into the sunset. As soon as the baseball season ended, I began to regret my decision. While Linda Gail and I rode west, top down with the wind in our face, we talked about our careers, shared stories about former players and friends and discussed what I was going to do with those free hours I had not had for twenty-eight years. I did not have a clue but knew I did not like the size of Linda Gail’s honey do list.

I have often joked that if you drive far enough on Highway 11 you will reach the end of the world. If you turn left at the end of the world, you will find yourself in Salem. It is less than one square mile of mostly … nothing. The city of Salem boasts a population of one hundred and thirty five people according to the 2010 Census. The area adjoining it, Tamassee, is an unincorporated area whose name in the Cherokee language means “Place of the Sunlight of God”. It was named for an old Cherokee village destroyed by Andrew Pickens in the late 1700’s. There are a few businesses, churches and homes clustered around Highway 130 and what is called Park Avenue. There is also a fire department to the east and area’s namesake Tamassee-Salem Middle and High School to the west. This is where we found ourselves on that Friday evening with the sun setting behind the hill that the school sat on. The symbolism had not gone un-noticed as I joked, “I know what I can do when I grow up. I’ll come be the athletic director at Tamassee-Salem. They don’t have football or soccer. How hard can it be?” I have since re-thought the silliness of that statement.

As I looked at a South Carolina sports website the next day, I found a classified advertisement for a baseball coach and social studies teacher at, you guessed it, Tamassee-Salem. Once I got over the tingle up and down my spine I began to feel a strong pull toward the setting sun. I am religious but not in a recognized way. Even though I was publically dunked into the Baptist Church where I still attend, I lean more toward the New Testament Evolutionary Church of Christ according to Don. I even throw in a little Buddhism to add seasoning and for heat would like to combine it with some of the pagan activities that I have read about. For some reason Linda Gail won’t let me.

I still could not deny the feeling that I was being called to Tamassee-Salem. Like a moth’s attraction to an open flame or a siren’s call, the tug was unmistakable and strong. I discussed my feelings with Linda Gail but did not come to any clear decision. Linda gave me her normal “Do what you want” advice. The following Monday I continued to battle the feeling that I was being pulled toward Tamassee-Salem and decided that during my planning period I would call and inquire about the position. The telephone call was … well, interesting. Mr. Bill Hines, Tamassee-Salem’s principal, could not figure out why I wanted to come to Tamassee-Salem after my successes at Riverside. After the third time of being asked “But why do you want to come HERE,” I responded, somewhat testily, “I don’t know that I do, that is what I am trying to find out.” In Bill’s defense, he thought that I had committed one of the two cardinal sins of teaching or coaching that will get you fired faster than your won-loss record; diddling where one should not diddle or spending money that was not yours to spend. When I took the job at Tamassee-Salem a lot of my coaching peers actually thought the same thing. They could not understand why I was walking away from a successful program for one that had not even attained mediocrity. I wasn’t sure either but I told Mr. Hines that I was still a teacher in good standing at Riverside and gave him permission to call to confirm it. The next day he called back and invited me to come for an interview.

As I walked away from my interview, none of the allure for Tamassee-Salem had been displaced. I liked everyone that I had met and felt that the administration had gone out of their way to impress me which was quite flattering. (I am not easy but I can be had.) I also knew that athletically it would be a challenge, but I felt that I probably needed a new challenge.

As much as I felt that I had “come home,” I was still in a conflicted state. I had many close friends at Riverside and had served in Greenville County for twenty-five years, but my biggest issue was with my wife. Linda Gail and I had spent over fifteen years involved with the Warriors. She was the junior varsity girl’s basketball coach and the varsity girl’s tennis coach at Riverside. Our support of each other athletically was part of our relationship. I was actually present when Coach Golden asked her if she was interested in the coaching position. Louie was trying to hire a body just to field a position and had not realized what he was getting into. This is something he and I share … the not knowing what we were getting into, not the body. Linda Gail and I had been intertwined with athletics and each other our entire dating and married life. I debated with myself the decision to change schools. Our intertwinement included friends, parents, students and former players in addition to each other.

When I returned to Tamassee-Salem for my second interview, it turned out not to be an interview but an offer of employment. I had decided to take Linda Gail with me and while driving around the community, I found her to be somewhat reserved. Anyone who knows my wife would never use that description, but she was on this particular day, which made me very uncomfortable. She realized that our lives were getting ready to change, something that had not dawned on me but quickly would. When I returned to my truck with the news that I had been offered the position she broke into tears which I found were not tears of joy. Linda realized that a large part of our lives together had “been torn asunder” and the man responsible was me. We recovered, as many couples do, when their unions were torn apart by seductive outside forces. Luckily my seductive forces were another school and not … well, take your pick.

I spent seven great years teaching and coaching at TS during my first “retirement” and would trade nothing for the experience. I made many acquaintances that I now call friends. I am sorry the old girl is going to close. For me Tamassee-Salem lived up to its Native American name a “Place of the Sunlight of God”.

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