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Wednesday, December 22, 2010


The modern world seldom stills except when the power grid fails. One such occasion was a Christmas Eve night, a blackout during a rare cold snap in Central Florida.

Landon Fuller
Eventually, Landon's voice broke the silence; the lone flickering candle illuminated memories from long ago. Just shy of his one-hundredth birthday, Landon asserted that his earliest memory was harvesting winter wheat in Charleston, South Carolina. The men hauled the wheat by wagon to the mill. It took all day. They packed a lunch.

A small reticent man of sharp wit and keen mind, Landon steepled fingers before his face and leaned into the flame correcting himself: An earlier memory was a trip by steamship and train, summer vacation to the home of his mother's mother in Crystal River, New York. He and Henry, his twin, made friends with two older boys whose father was the Crystal River station master. The twins helped the boys chalk lines on a tennis court. Also that trip, Landon and Henry saw their first moving pictures in a nearby town.

Landon and Henry Fuller were born to Sally Landon Seward Fuller and Paul Hamilton Fuller in Charleston, South Carolina, on August 7, 1902. Landon survived his twin by a number of years.

"No," Landon leaned back, arguing with himself, "harvesting winter wheat had to be the earlier event. The black and white Charlie Barnwells were among the farmers that day."

Landon explained white Charlie Barnwell was a bachelor cousin of his father, and black Charlie Barnwell was cousin Charlie's manservant and lifelong companion. Both shared the same name. The two Charlies were from Beaufort, South Carolina. Neither man ever married, nor did cousin Charlie’s sister Martha; the three lived together much of their lives.

Cousin Charlie was a veteran of The War Between the States, and black Charlie saw battle at white Charlie's side. After The War, cousin Charlie bought for little or nothing several hundred acres of barren land near Albany, Georgia. This, the black and white Charlies planted in pecan seedlings. During the time it took for the grove to produce, the men cultivated cotton between the saplings. By the 1880's, the two Charlies experienced several years of high cotton and the pecan trees bore fruit. Cousin Charlie sold the grove and became wealthy from its proceeds.

Black and white Charlie returned to Beaufort and again lived with cousin Charlie's sister Martha. With profits from the Georgia land, white Charlie bought "Bay Point," a small island in the Port Royal Sound. The island had a single crude residence surrounded by scrub palmetto, live oak, and sea oats. It was no place to be in a storm surge.

Landon recalled a trip to Bay Point around 1914. The sister Martha was herself an outdoor-type who enjoyed these rustic excursions. The party started out under power, but the motor soon choked. That suited the two Charlies fine; they hoisted sail and completed the journey under wind. White Charlie Barnwell was a huge man of solid build as was black Charlie Barnwell. At the island the two Charlies carried Martha and the twins through the surf to the shore.

Mosquito netting was essential for sleeping. Martha slept on the porch, the twins made a pallet inside, and the two Charlies shared a bed, as was their custom. The next morning, in a single haul of the seine, black Charlie pulled more than enough catch for the day.

Memories of the two Charlies brought to mind the tangle Landon's father Paul Hamilton Fuller had with the devilfish. A number of boats were anchored off The Point in Beaufort in the Broad River. During a strong incoming tide, a good-sized unmanned bateau moved against it. The empty bost gained speed as it headed toward open water. Paul Hamilton and the others realized the only conceivable explanation was a devilfish.

Landon's father and his companions took to their craft and drew along side. Paul Hamilton jumped into the unmanned bateau to cut the anchor, but the added weight spooked the devilfish. It took a powerful dive. The boat dunked to the point of taking water, but suddenly the line snapped on its own accord. The boat popped like a cork straight out of the river and tossed Paul Hamilton overboard.

Landon explained that the devilfish is also known as a manta ray. Although devilfish can grow to be 12 to 15 feet across, small devilfish muck themselves in shallow brackish water. When disturbed, devilfish strike with venomous barbs along the tail. The poison inflicts permanent pain, and afflicted limbs are often lost to gangrene. Landon knew of one fisherman who stepped on a small devilfish in the shallows off The Point. The man tried hanging himself and eventually died a laudanum addict.

The twins had two great-aunts, both school teachers. Their names were Mary Stewart Hamilton, "Aunt Mamie," and Phoebe Seabrook. The sisters lived in the old Hamilton home, still known today as "The Oaks," an often photographed mansion on The Point in Beaufort. Aunt Mamie's room was in the cupola where she sat up on moonless nights to study the stars. After The War, Aunt Mamie opened a "free school" in Beaufort and taught any white children who cared to attend.

Sometime after Reconstruction, the sisters moved to Washington, D.C. and opened The Seabrook School, a successful school for girls. It sat across Lafayette Square from the White House. The twins spent the summer of 1912 with these aunts. They traveled from Lakeland, Florida, to Washington by train because, as Landon put it, "that was the only way to get there."

Each day that summer, Aunt Mamie took the boys to an educational venue: They observed sessions of Congress. From the visitor's gallery, the twins witnessed as the state of Arizona was admitted into the Union. They visited the National Zoo. The Bureau of Engraving. Mount Vernon -- Landon's assessment was that it was rather dilapidated and appeared past saving. Jefferson's Monticello. And the twins made numerous visits to the Smithsonian Institute. Several Sunday evenings Aunt Mamie and Aunt Phoebe took the boys to hear John Philip Sousa "The March King" lead rousing and patriotic performances on the Mall.

But, Landon said, at that time, what he and Henry found the summer's highlight was seeing Walter Johnson pitch for the Washington Senators. It was Walter Johnson's rookie season, fresh out of Kansas, his first year pitching with the American League.

Landon stated emphatically, "Walter Johnson was the best pitcher who ever lived."

Aunt Mamie and Aunt Phoebe attended Saint John's Episcopal Church, also across Lafayette Square from The White House. One Sunday at services President William Howard Taft sat down behind Aunt Mamie, Aunt Phoebe and the twins. The twins' great-aunts were shocked and unaccustomed to seeing President Taft at Saint John's, as he was a Congregationalist.

Landon remembered the President as being a large, jovial, and friendly man. At one point during the service, Landon nodded off and President Taft shook the back of his head.

Landon said he recalls the incident very well, like yesterday, but at the time he had no idea who the man was -- or that the man was President of the United States.

About that time, the power sputtered. The Christmas tree lights twinkled on. We blew out the candle and went back to watching TV.

Frederick Landon Fuller

RIP: Landon Fuller (August 7, 1902 – June 13, 2002), father

RIP: Frederick Landon Fuller (May 30, 1936 – November 11, 1997), son

© Phil Comer

Text is copyright material of the author. Photo of Landon Fuller by Olan Mills. Photo of Fred Fuller by Horace Holmes. Unless stated otherwise, links are for information and not the property of the author. 

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