They called him Driftwood.
He was a boozy Irish storyteller, with sun-hardened crow’s feet framing blue eyes that may be bloodshot, but could still twinkle and charm.
Nobody knows exactly when Driftwood came to Beaufort, or when he left.
But his legend grew large in 20-or-so years around town, from about the early 1950s to the early 1970s.
Roger Pinckney XI of Daufuskie Island writes of the man he knew as a boy: Driftwood “was an Irish revolutionary with a price on his head, a graduate of Yale, a raving lunatic or a voodoo man, depending on what he felt like telling you and what you chose to believe.”
He lived in a shack on the side of U.S. 21 on Harbor Island, when there was nothing much out that far but the driftwood and horseshoe crab shells he fashioned into art to trade for booze or sell to tourists headed to the Hunting Island State Park.
Beaufort’s young surfers grabbed onto Driftwood like a hurricane wave. He was a kindred spirit. Together, they literally turned their backs on the handcuffs of town for the freedom at land’s end.
“He would give them a little hooch out back and they’d bring him driftwood and sharks teeth and odds and ends of the ocean that he would make into his art,” said Gibbes McDowell of Beaufort.
“The kids loved him, and the parents hated him.”
McDowell said Driftwood regaled patrons of The Yankee tavern in return for drinks.
He bagged groceries at Ma Miller’s store. He swept up at Koth’s Grocery for beer and boiled peanuts.
When Beaufort photographer Lucille Hasell Culp photographed Driftwood and his home surrounded by driftwood art, she jotted this description: “Irish, Furniture finisher, artist — beer drinker 1960s.”
“You could never tell the truth from a lie,” McDowell said. “Rumors and legends were built up around him. Nobody knew anything about him, except that he was outrageous in every way.”
They knew nothing — until now.
Driftwood fans planned to make another trip out U.S. 21 toward the sea this weekend.
It was for a big celebration at Boondock’s Seafood Restaurant at 4:30 p.m. Saturday. Aunt Pearlie Sue and Gullah Kinfolk would perform, and Wes Johnson, one of those kids spellbound by the mystery of Driftwood, would play his guitar and sing a ballad he wrote about Driftwood.
It was for the book launch for “Driftwood Unmasked: The Legend and the Man” by Gibbes McDowell, from the local YBR Publishing.
“I believe Driftwood had a story to tell, and he chose me to tell it,” said Robert “Gibbes” McDowell Jr., now working at Bill’s Liquors & Fine Wine on Lady’s Island.
And tell it he did, in 200 pages of make-believe that was his best imaginary answers to the mystery of Driftwood.
All the legends, tales and intrigue are there, along with the inner workings of a small town a lot like Beaufort.
McDowell is a third-generation Beaufort resident, known as a state-record-holding pole vaulter at Beaufort High School. Forty years later, he took up pole vaulting again in senior games, and coached a kid at the high school who beat his record.
McDowell has long written magazine articles about his passion of bow hunting.
He co-produced a documentary, “Sea Island Secrets: A Journey Through Time” for SCETV. For a long time he pushed a movie on Beaufort County’s made-for-Hollywood history that he thought should entertain visitors to downtown Beaufort. He wrote some stories included in Janet Garrity’s “Fish Camps of the Sea Islands” and he has three more novels in the works.
Word got out that he was working on a book about Driftwood.
And after he had finished his novel, that talk around town led him to four words that unraveled the mystery of Driftwood.
J.M. Koth Sr. kept a popular store across from the old Beaufort County Courthouse on Bay Street.
He may have been as close to Driftwood as anyone, McDowell said.
Koth’s daughter, Pam, was going through her father’s things and came across something odd inside the cover of a book called “The 50 Most Influential Lives of the 20th Century.”
Written there was “H.P. Knox Corry.”
A lot of people knew Driftwood as “Cory.” So Pam told McDowell about it. Maybe the book had belonged to Driftwood. Maybe H.P. Knox Corry was Driftwood.
McDowell had long been searching every known record to find the real Driftwood.
“The man was real in body, but invisible otherwise,” he concluded.
Perhaps this new name could unlock the secrets.
He took it to Grace Cordial, senior librarian and manager of the Beaufort District Collection at the Beaufort County Library.
With her help, the reality of Driftwood became a stunning postscript in McDowell’s novel. He calls it “Channeling Driftwood,” because in uncanny ways, the novel he invented mirrors the life that unfolded on computer screens.
Hugh Patrick Knox Corry was born in 1909 and reared in Belfast, son of a painter. He had two years of college education. He came to America as an 18-year-old for unknown reasons, identified in the records as a salesman. He went back, but then returned. And after his two brothers were killed in World War II, the scrappy man we knew as Driftwood joined the U.S. Navy. He was 34.
He served in the Pacific, where the Irishman must have seen the Polynesian art like the face he carved into a palmetto tree that still stands on Boundary Street near Bellamy Curve. It’s outside a building that used to be Ma Miller’s store.
His service aboard the highly-decorated destroyer USS Bailey (DD 492), attached to the 2nd Division of Marines, led to what they called “shell shock.” But not before this, as Driftwood would later write in a service record unearthed by McDowell:
“My service bar has four bronze stars and I have a citation bar with a blue star.”
McDowell’s search of Driftwood’s life turns up a lot of “missing” years — five years AWOL here, six years there.
But it tells something no one imagined about a boozy storyteller whose record in this world shows the path of a carpenter, painter, journalist, and interior decorator turned driftwood artist. McDowell says Driftwood wanted to get to the end of the world, and that’s what we gave him.
“I think shell shock in World War II destroyed his reality, and he created another one,” McDowell said.
McDowell writes about Driftwood’s eventual route to Beaufort began:
“Corry was discharged from military service on 10/5/1945 in San Pedro, California.
“Having given his all to the war effort, losing a marriage, two brothers, and his sanity, his total separation pay was $168.94.”
Driftwood died in 1981 in a Veterans Administration hospital in Atlanta. He’s buried beneath a military tombstone in the Andersonville, Georgia, National Historical Site.
Details are in the book, where McDowell paints one of Beaufort’s greatest legends.
And in the end he calls it “my attempt to restore a little dignity to a man most assumed had none.”