Living in the Town of James Brown, Get Down!

Aiken, South Carolina, once known to residents as the Land of James Brown… this story is 98.9% true:

Back in, ohhh, must have been Autumn 1987, late one night, hours past midnight, a neighbor living on the other side of the woods called to tell me about an escaped convict. A convict on the loose in my two-acre wood — a convict coming toward my house.

I had a vision of Steve McQueen as Max Sand, wearing striped prison garb, sweaty and dirty, meeting up with Suzanne Pleshette waiting with her dugout pirogue in the swamps of Louisiana, running from howling blood hounds and crashing toward me through my two acre wood. Reality was the convict — a murderer — had abandoned a stolen car less than a block away, near Strom Thurman’s house. He’d used a spoon to commandeer the escape vehicle, held it to the throat of an innocent bystander, brandishing it like a Bowie knife.

Hanging up the bedside phone, I snake-slithered under the quilt to the floor, and over to the shuttered floor to ceiling window and cracked the bottom shutter and looked outside. A helicopter spotlight shone down upon the half-circle drive, illuminating the macadam like I was entertaining a saint, like I’d seen Elvis’s silhouette in my freezer door — or some a holy visage, a Virgin Mary yard ornament crying real tears and, that, at the exact moment of the vision, some poor slob from Smyrna, Georgia drove by my house and told the world what he’d was looking at and the world heard him and now, here was the world at my door, witnessing and rolling and crying and speaking in tongues.

Only it wasn’t some holy tongue, it was the sound of blood hounds, howling and baying, in my front yard, by my deodar cedar and then back again, to the crawlspace hole. Two king cab 4X4 trucks with spotlights mounted on the roof, a black windowless van, and about 20 men in SWAT uniforms, wearing Kevlar vests, and carrying large rifles with infra-red scopes mounted on the barrels filled the driveway.

More bloodhounds, six of them, crashing through the woods, howling and baying, joined the original pack. The men turned toward the side yard and dogs as the animals smashed through the undergrowth into the yard. I crawled across the dining room — this was guerilla warfare now — I crawled on toward the living room, and stood up beside the window, hiding in the lace curtains, trying to watch from an angle where I wouldn’t be seen from the outside.

The dogs ran up to an overturned canoe next to the house. Howling and moaning, they circled, then they abruptly abandoned the canoe for the small trap door which led to the crawlspace. The dogs threw themselves against the side of the house as the men approached, rifles shouldered, Mag lights pointed at the door, rifle scopes sighted in, right cheek on the barrel. A SWAT man came forward, kicked open the crawlspace door from the side, and the dogs rushed under the house.

I could smell their excitement, the scent of the dogs, not the convict, as they slammed around the floor joists beneath me. Only the hardwood floor separating me from them. The dogs howled out from the crawlspace in less than five seconds. Noses to the ground, they ran to the front yard over to the deodar cedar. Jumping up against the trunk of the deodar, one dog almost made it to the first limb, climbing it like a squirrel.

The dogs were off again in a flash, running through the yard, pausing only briefly to howl and bay, then the whole pack ran down the road. Some of the men ran back to the vehicles and tore out after the dogs, others ran through my neighbor’s yard, rifles still at the ready, tracking both dogs and man.

I heard the dogs baying as they ran toward downtown Aiken, heard the helicopter overhead , then I walked over to the back door and noticed it was not locked. I locked it, went back to bed as the sun was coming up…

The next day I had an 8:00 a.m. history final at USC-Aiken. When I was late, the instructor tried to lock me out of the test and I pitched an unholy fit and made him open the classroom door. I told him what had happened the night before — he accused me of “making up the best excuse he’d ever heard.”

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