David Lauderdale

'Reflections of South Carolina' can fill a library of books

It's lunchtime on Thursday and Scott Graber meets me at the door of the Griffin Market on Carteret Street.

Before Pat Conroy, Bernie Schein, John Warley and Jonathan Hannah arrive, Graber explains their weekly ritual.

It started two years ago with trips to Husk and other restaurants in Charleston and Savannah.

Then Conroy decreed Griffin Market in the heart of Beaufort to be the best restaurant on the planet. So that's where they come to a corner table, eat, talk and laugh.

A running theme is Schein's imaginary scramble to grab the check from Conroy.

"Pat has to pay for it," says Schein, who befriended Conroy in high school, after the Great Santini landed in Beaufort. "That's the only way we let Pat come, he's so obnoxious."

Conroy counters that the whole exercise fulfills a promise made to free Schein from an insane asylum by keeping him busy, feeding him and pretending to like him.

Now this restaurant scene has been canonized.

It is among 250 photographs by Robert C. Clark in a new coffee table book by the University of South Carolina Press: "Reflections of South Carolina, Volume 2."

Text by Tom Poland calls Conroy a "Lowcountry lion ... as much a part of the South Carolina Lowcountry as the tides, marshes, and beach music."

Other Beaufort County stars in the book are Bluffton potter Jacob Preston, the big blue Beaufort sky, St. Helena's Chapel of Ease, metallic porpoises bobbing on a rooftop weather vane in Bluffton, a Fripp Inlet sunrise with the moon setting, a Frogmore directional sign, and Gardens Corner native Jonathan Green whose "next project is to see monuments erected on plantations where so many unknown slaves lie buried."

The old friends around the Beaufort table turn out to be as much a part of South Carolina's fabric as peach trees and camp meetings.

As best-selling novelist Mary Alice Monroe of Isle of Palms says in the foreword: "Poets, writers, artists and craftsmen flock to our storied cities and breath-taking landscapes, each desperate to capture in words and color the source of an exquisite revelation. We all feel it."

STACKS OF BOOKS

Conroy is not the only one at the table who feels an urge to write.

Schein has a novel coming out this fall about growing up Jewish down South in a town remarkably like Beaufort.

As Wren's Nest Farm roasted figs with Gorganzola Dolce cheese and a balsamic reduction sauce are passed, Schein is accused of hogging all the attention to promote his book, "Famous All Over Town."

It will be the second issued in the Story River Books fiction imprint of the USC Press, with Conroy as editor-at-large. The first was Warley's "A Southern Girl," which has sold more than 5,000 copies. "I wish I had written it," Conroy has said.

Graber, an attorney by day, has published two novels, the latest "Ten Days in Brazzaville" in 2011. For 15 years, he wrote a Sunday column in The Beaufort Gazette that always began with a line like: "It's Saturday and I'm in Istanbul."

Hannah is a graphic artist who specializes in building websites. He is engaged to Schein's daughter, Maggie, whose first book is a collection of fables, "Lost Cantos of the Ouroboros Caves."

Conroy had spent his morning working on a USC Press project to encourage young writers and readers.

And he's working on a story for Southern Living magazine about chef Laura Bonino. She and her husband, Riccardo, brought the Griffin Market Italian restaurant to Beaufort three years ago from Georgetown in the nation's capital.

The Lowcountry lions don't look bookish. They roar as plates of crostini, maisle tonnato, tagliatelle Bolognese, and lamb rib chops in Parmigiano-Reggiano and parsley crust are passed.

GULLAH WISDOM

Conroy, Warley and Graber were in the class of 1967 at The Citadel.

They are literally characters in Conroy's book about the military school in Charleston, "The Lords of Discipline."

But Schein says that's nothing compared to the year he was shipped off to Carlisle Military School.

"I made the mistake of saying they didn't know what suffering was," he said.

They talk about book promotion, social media, the Books & Books shop in Coral Gables, Fla., and taking high school English students to The Citadel parade.

But the conversation comes full circle for Conroy when the death of Flossie Stafford Washington of Daufuskie Island comes up. He taught some of her children when a year in a small schoolhouse on Daufuskie changed his life. His book about the experience, "The Water is Wide," launched his writing career.

"I went to visit Flossie's mother when she was dying," Conroy recalled.

As he fumbled for the right thing to say, the elderly woman shared some Gullah wisdom Conroy says he still takes to heart.

"She said, 'We've all got to die of something' and 'God don't like ugly.' "

In South Carolina, that's pretty as a picture, and good enough to be published.

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

Related content:

Beaufort author John Warley fictionalizes personal story of adopting child in 'A Southern Girl' May 3, 2014

Pat Conroy and pal John Warley together again. Oct. 21, 2010

Five Minutes With: Scott Graber, author. Sept. 23, 2011

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