Beaufort News

Lauderdale: Cancer fighter Ken Burger still has way with words

Cancer has come back on Ken Burger.

It snuck up in his prostate eight years ago but was fended off. He told us all about it in the only way he knows how, with words that flow like the Savannah River of home.

Burger comes from Allendale. It's backwoods, even for the Lowcountry. Or, as he says, it's behind the Pine Curtain, in "a swampy catch basin for raindrops with nowhere else to go."

We know it today as the place the state took over the schools before asking what the heck they were thinking and leaving.

It's where a prison attracts volunteers from Hilton Head Island, like the preacher's wife who hums the sonnets of murderers.

It's where I got a speeding ticket coming home from the funeral for Uncle Jack, the flying trapeze artist who became a Presbyterian preacher and had his last show in the ARP church in the heart of Due West, S.C.

They said I was doing 55 in a 35, but I was in the country, where people only venture in search of UFOs or the annual air show of swallow-tailed kites.

A local man stood with me before the judge. He was charged with loitering. I wondered how they could prove the difference between loitering and living in Allendale. The judge worried he might not pay his fine. He said he worked with the undertaker, digging graves. And the judge says: "Are you expecting somebody to DIE?"

In Allendale's heyday, the bomb plant hired a lot of people to do who knows what behind tall fences. And U.S. 301 was thick with motor lodges and mom-and-pop diners before the faceless Interstate 95 sucked them down the drain.

Yet in the late '60s young Kenny Burger sat on car hoods, toasting the Carolina moon with a PBR tall boy and dreaming of the great escape after high school.

THE ESCAPE

"All I wanted to do was write and make a living at it," Burger told our newspaper three years ago when a collection of his precious words about life in South Carolina was published. It's called "Baptized in Sweet Tea."

Burger escaped to write for 40 years at newspapers in Columbia and Charleston. A new collection of his sports columns is out, called "A Sporting Life." The last of his millions of words in newsprint came as a metro columnist at the Post and Courier in Charleston.

In retirement he has produced a trilogy of novels -- "Swallow Savannah," "Sister Santee" and "Salkehatchie Soup." They dare to talk about race and other stuff that spurred our own Pat Conroy to say, "Nobody picks at the scabs of South Carolina like her native son Ken Burger."

About himself, Burger says on a book jacket that he graduated dead last in his class at the University of Georgia, has been married five times, is a gratefully recovering alcoholic, a cancer survivor and a happy man.

His hometown friends say riding with Burger has been a roller coaster.

IN LOVE WITH WORDS

Burger writes that he often cruised in a clunker:

"Truthfully, you haven't lived the lower end of life until you've bought used tires, wrapped duct tape around a carburetor or tied up the muffler with Christmas tree lights."

About us, he writes, "There is something special about being in the waterways of the Lowcountry, surrounded by silence, except for the rustling of birds and the subtle sway of spartina grass.

"They say people come here for the beaches. But they stay here for the marsh."

He dunks us into his old haunts this way:

"We killed the engine, letting the darkness settle softly around us, as nocturnal noises echoed through the silent swamps of our boyhood.

"Regardless of age, there remains a sense of danger deep in the woods at night. At 16, you hear things that haunt your dreams. At 60, you just hope the Jeep starts next time you turn the key.

"If it doesn't, the boy inside you thinks of all the daring things that make life worth living. But the man you grew up to be sees pig paths that wind through cypress swamps where rescue workers find people one day too late.

"Still, we parked beneath the stars, next to an old railroad line that sliced through the Savannah River swamp, talking of old times, appreciating friendships that come full circle, laughing aloud, allowing the silence to speak for itself.

"Then we heard the whistle."

THE BIG C

Burger heard eight words that changed his life. A doctor closed the door and said, "Have a seat, Ken, we've got a problem."

He discovered that every prostate has a story to tell, and he wrote them in a series of columns for the Post and Courier called "An Unexpected Journey."

We talked about it at the Heritage golf tournament in Sea Pines. We stood in the press tent, where Burger never broke a sweat, finishing another award-winner and walking out while the multitude was just starting to grunt.

He said he told his editors that the journey was "a helluva story if I live and even better story if I die."

And the dapper old newspaper man proceeded to hit another one over the fence.

Burger screamed out that we all need to get checked early and often. He has continued to write about it in a blog. It's all available at his website, kenburger.com. He has visited the sick, started a benefit golf tournament and shared the stories of nurses.

Now, he's back in the arms of those angels, as he put it in a Charleston hospital room. The legions influenced by the sweet keystrokes of the roller coaster from Allendale are writing about him on Facebook and in newspapers.

I called his cellphone Friday, and left a message.

But I can share with you his recent tweet: "Fight On Friend."

Click here to visit Ken Burger's website.

Follow columnist and senior editor David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale and facebook.com/david.lauderdale.16.

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