Water more than a festival for 90-somethings in Beaufort creek

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comJuly 14, 2012 

Beaufort celebrates its waterways for the 57th time this week with a festival full of events.

But few relish the salty Lowcountry waters more than three Beaufort women, all hovering around 90, who still consider themselves river rats.

They've been jumping in a creek off the Beaufort River for more than 20 years, never touching the bottom or running out of things to talk about.

The creek runs behind Chloe Martin Pinckney's house in Pigeon Point. They sometimes humorously call it "Chloe's Creek."

The three women are Pinckney; Helen French, who was hospitalized last week after a fall; and Dottie McDaniel. Others to leap in with them over the years have been Mary Hagy, who is much younger, Charmian Paul Webb and the late Elise Bringle.

French coasted into Beaufort 28 years ago. She was en route to Florida with her second husband when their houseboat had engine trouble. She's still here, living aboard the boat in the City Marina, though she's legally blind. Two years ago, she got married on Valentine's Day. She was 91 and he was 90. Her third husband was a retired commercial salmon fisherman.

McDaniel, who married two men named Cecil, celebrated her 90th birthday last fall. She explains her 1959 arrival in Beaufort: "Hurricane Gracie blew me in, and I lit and I have never been blown back out."

Pinckney, 88, was raised in the Point neighborhood in Beaufort by her single mother. Clothilde R. Martin may have been the first female full-time news reporter in South Carolina. When Martin's husband died at 32, she used her typewriter to survive the Great Depression with two young children. For several decades, she wrote the "Lowcountry Gossip" column in the Charleston newspaper, sometimes telling about her children's antics. She also wrote a series of stories about Lowcountry plantations, republished in the 2009 book, "Northern Money, Southern Land." Co-editor Stephen G. Hoffius tells this story in the introduction:

"Chloe remembers demanding that her mother stop writing the column so that she could avoid embarrassment; her mother suggested that she stop eating so that they would not need the income."

'CONNIPTION FIT'

Pinckney was married to Roger Pinckney X, and their son Roger Pinckney XI of Daufuskie Island is a writer. Chloe's husband was the county coroner for 35 years. He was known as a raconteur who dug up history's best morsels. But his day job was building docks. He built docks all over Beaufort County, except in his own back yard.

"Until I went into a conniption fit, which I'm good at," Chloe Pinckney said.

Now, the women enjoy the gazebo her late husband built, with a walkway down to a long floating dock with a ladder on each end to make it easier to get in and out of the water.

Pinckney says, "Time and tide wait for no man -- and no woman."

So when conditions are right, the women ease into the buoyant saltwater, just as Pinckney did as a child with other Point kids in the waters off Beaufort's back green.

"Nobody ever came looking for us, and at the end of the day we got out of the creek and went home," Pinckney said.

Maybe that memory is why she says, "I don't go down there to exercise. We go to get in the water."

McDaniel said, "It's the loveliest place to swim that anyone could ever conceive."

Sometimes they put on enormous straw hats, and McDaniel jokes that the U.S. Marine Corps fighter pilots training overhead might think they're mushrooms in the water.

'DELICIOUS'

Mother Nature has to be in their favor. The tide has to be right, the storms have to stay at bay and the women have to have the energy to get to the water, and then to enjoy it.

In exchange, McDaniel said, the water is "good for your bones, good for your muscles, good for your mind and good for your energy. Man's biggest blessing is energy."

Some people think they're nuts.

"They say, 'There are THINGS in the water,' " Pinckney said. "And I say, 'I know there are THINGS in there. So far, I haven't been eaten by any of them.' "

One day a strange head popped up in the water. It was a wayward sea turtle.

McDaniel pities children who play on computers instead of playing outdoors.

"What memories are they going to have?" she asks.

Last year, she was unable to get in the creek.

"I've been in three times this year," she said. "I'm proud to say it was more delicious than ever."

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

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