BEAUFORT, S.C. — On Boundary Street leading into the city, Sgt. White’s Diner is just past the lights at the intersection of Ribault Road across from Municipal Court and alongside a vacant Bail Bonds office. Hours before the polls opened and people voted in the Republican primary here there was a steady stream of customers for the pit cooked barbecue chicken and barbecued ribs and, it seemed, more interest in what might happen over the long haul leading to November than who would win Saturday.
“My husband’s disabled,” a woman who gave her name as Ella Mae Jenkins said as she waited for her takeout order of ribs, “and my boy is overseas now, again, for the fourth time.”
“Where?” she was asked.
“Can’t say,” she replied. “He’s Air Force Special Ops and they do secret stuff so I ain’t sayin’.”
The woman behind the counter put Ms. Jenkins’s order in a bag and Ella Mae walked to her car parked in a lot alongside a Piggly Wiggly market that’s been out of business for some time. She spoke briefly about her husband’s disability due to being badly wounded nearly 50 years ago at a place called Quang Tri City in a country then called South Vietnam.
“He’s had a hard life, but the good Lord let him live,” she said. “We’re thankful for that.”
She said she had little interest in politics and paid hardly any attention to what the candidates were saying and that she would be happy when the campaign went to another state: “Then I can watch my shows without seein’ all these fools on my TV.”
“Yes, sir. Fools,” she said, uttering the word with an explanation point in the air. “Damn fools. “They all talkin’ about killin’ these terrorists like it’s some kinda’ game. Ain’t no game. People die.”
In the sky above, two F-18 Hornets cut through a low ribbon of haze heading to Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort just up the road from Sgt White’s Diner. The noise and power of their engines filled the air but Ms. Jenkins never looked up because their appearance is part of daily life here, where the reality of America’s military, its cost and duties as well as its existence are the framework for so many proud families who are charged with paying the price for loose political rhetoric.
A few miles east, past the causeway above the Harbor River and down Malecon Drive, is the main gate at Marine Corps Recruit Depot East at Parris Island. Here the pine trees line much of the approach, some stretching 50 feet and higher and, then, on the Island there are fewer of them and the wind, warm now in mid-February, meets no obstacles as it whips through the day fluttering flags on the buildings that house the young who someday will be asked to fight for the dreams of the old who send them to war.
Here, in South Carolina, memory is part of the cement of a culture rooted in service to the country. And here on Parris Island with roads named for bloodshed and lives lost in places like Chosin, Guadalcanal, Bataan and Quang Tri, the cheap chatter of candidates talking tough is merely muffled noise when measured against the drills and preparation of those who could be sent to places where polls and political ambition are meaningless. Here, the dreams and desires of those on the ballot live in a universe totally estranged from the future of the men and women who might one day face a bullet.
Listening to some of the Republican candidates for president is like eavesdropping on men trying to earn their letter sweater with worthless phrases: carpet bombing, crushing ISIS, as if words alone will accomplish the mission and the lives of those sent into the fight are merely an anonymous squadron of props used to advance a political agenda. The world is on fire, a dangerous place, and too many seeking to lead appear to be clueless or ignorant of what is required to keep the country secure.
Charleston, South Carolina, is about a 90-minute drive northwest of Beaufort and Parris Island. It is an old city reborn with new charm and an influx of snowbirds from the North attracted by its ease, comfort and accessibility.
In the harbor, Fort Sumter is a constant reminder of the first shots fired in the Civil War. And the distant echoes and impact of that war can sometimes still be felt in the air all these years later.
The USS Yorktown is also here at Patriots Point Naval Museum here. It was commissioned in 1943, named after the Yorktown sunk by Japanese at the Battle of Midway in June 1942. Today it is a museum and Friday night, hours before South Carolina voted, John Kasich, the governor of Ohio, came to talk to about 300 people who had gathered below deck.
Kasich is an interesting candidate. He knew his chances in a state dominated by evangelicals and anger were not great but he arrived with a smile on his face and a sound of contentment in his voice because it was not in him to feed the beast of those filled with rage and despairing of the future.
He stood on a stage with a huge American flag hanging behind him. He told the people he’d been at a Town Hall rally earlier in the day and could sense the worry that many have about the direction of the country and the frustration and failure of politics in Washington.
“I looked out in the crowd, looked at the faces in that room and I saw my family. Right there in the third row. Saw my family sitting there listening to me. Oh, they weren’t my family but I knew them. I know what worries them and I know what worries you but we live in the greatest country God ever created and we’re going to be even greater if we stop listening to all this doom and gloom we’re getting. I’m here to tell you we can do this, but we have to do it together. Together. All of us. Together.”
After he spoke, he was walking through the bowels of the boat on his way to another stop on the long trail and he was talking about those who served the country and those who will serve. He spoke about the families in Ohio who have lost a child, a husband, a brother in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I meet with them one on one,” Kasich was saying. “And I cry with them. I’m not embarrassed to tell you I cry. I just wish we’d pay more attention to what war costs and I wish more of us would talk about what it means to be Commander-in-Chief. That phrase is more than words. It’s the ultimate responsibility of a president. We’re cheating people by not talking enough about that role. Shame on us and shame on this process we have of electing a president the way we’re doing it now. We’re better than this and people deserve more than what they’re getting from us. From all of us.”
Then he climbed on board a bus, off to another stop in a campaign that is already draining for the candidates and the people anxious, worried, frustrated, and more than a bit fearful of the immediate future.