By Gene Cashman lll
very March Beaufort County’s unofficial Women’s Auxiliary and Bake Club, smartly nicknamed the “Bless Their Hearts,” arrange a tour of homes through the Historic District of Bluffton. It’s a motley assortment of women, pound for pound the saltiest and the most well connected in the Costal Empire. The founder and leader of the group is Ethel Whipple, a widow of 15 years. She originally hails from Myrtle Beach but will emphatically tell you how she is a dyed in the wool supporter of the historic stretch of Highway 46 running through the heart of Bluffton. She will also tell you, among other things, that her HMO is crummy, her neighbor Harry is too friendly and that if her husband Bob had hung on for two more years he would have lived to see their nomadic son Roger finally meet a decent woman. Ethel is a piece of work and fits her role perfectly. She runs a tight ship of about 15 women. All are devoted regulars to the Thursday morning meeting held in her immaculately clean ‘wicker and gingham’ Florida room. There Maxwell House coffee and Walker’s shortbread fingers, served on Lady Jane’s finest china, of course, are delicately balanced on resplendently pressed skirts and pantsuits from TJ Max. These aren’t just any women, but rather matriarchs from an age quickly fading from relevancy. They didn’t burn their bras in the sixties or rally for feminism in the seventies. This group made an indelible mark, in their minds, by working in factories and hospitals in the forties, dancing to Dean and Frank in the fifties and worrying about their bra burning, hippy daughters and sons thereafter. By the time the eighties rolled around they took well deserved Royal Caribbean cruises and slow Sunday drives in their Cadillacs and Town cars.
The group ranges in age and background but, as members of this guild, they are as blue in blood as they come. It is an active group that does most everything together. They have the local market covered for any baking, cooking or knitting needs. Want ribbons on trees for any cause under the sun? The WABC is there without fail. Church needs funds for missionaries, boy scouts, or band trips? Consider it done. Is your local pastor swamped and in need of help visiting shut-ins or parishioners in the hospital? The women of the WABC have it covered. There is also a competitive side that surfaces at bridge tournaments and manifests itself through good old fashioned gossip, although sometimes things can get out of hand. For instance, last Fall at Bevry Johnson’s Red Rose Bridge Club tempers got heated when Mildred Foose gave the table the bird after being trumped by an opposing player. In retaliation to the gesture an insulted Bernie Feinstein slammed her cane on the table with such force it collapsed in a thundering heap around the ladies’ feet. Thus, an unfortunate chain of events followed. The corner of the table ruptured Fanny Toone’s can of Aqua-Net. This propelled her purse across the room and into Bevry’s cherished porcelain cat menagerie, breaking Miss Beekers, the prized statuette. Much shouting ensued, names were called, dead husbands insulted. It wasn’t until the Christmas tea that all ladies involved got back on speaking terms. Fortunately such flare-ups are a rarity. When they aren’t competing they are arranging the best pot lucks for just about any event imaginable. Complete strangers have been known to sneak into funerals just to sample some of the pies. Despite their year round community activism the group’s tour of homes is the pinnacle event on their calendar.
Each January, Ethel forms a blue ribbon committee to begin planning the group’s big soiree on the town. Since the tour is an off book event for anyone but members of the group it must be meticulously planned. It is seen as the group’s self-reward for their year of hard work. The group rotates a list of several sites to visit each year; sites they consider historical or relevant to their interests. Beatrice Milton chooses the sites based on feedback from the group, she then plans a day of touring around the selections. Each member of the club must then choose to prepare a snack, beverage or summary of a site in order to participate. This year the group would be visiting the The Store, The Oyster Factory, The Orage Cottage and the Church of the Cross. A sign-up list would then be passed around and everyone would have six weeks to prepare. Per Ethel’s instruction the event always occurred on the Ides of March. She feels that the group must be symbolically mindful of the ill that can fall them at any moment by celebrating good works and community through a free spirited yet winsome tour of the town.
The 10th annual event kicked off when a stardust 1981 Lincoln Town car, a white 1985 Cadillac Seville and a shockingly low mileage 1984 Oldsmobile Delta 88 pulled out of the Squat N’ Gobble parking lot at a quarter past ten. Fully caffeinated and trilling with nervous anticipation, the fleet peeled out and headed for the day’s first stop. The destination was The Store, a simple structure built in 1904 that housed an eclectic array of art and antiques as well as an adjourning wine store. Upon arriving at Le Store, as the youngest member of the group- 65 year old Francis Pinkerton refers to the establishment, Beatrice Macintyre popped the cork off a bottle of Andre’ Brut and pulled a bag of strawberries from an igloo cooler. “Yoo-hoo, ladies, come and get your Mimosa’s.” There was the distinct possibility that this could, in fact, be an interesting day.
After several Mimosa’s and an astute lecture on some of the local art represented in The Store, the group piled back in their cars and headed for The Oyster Factory. This is the point in the story where things become somewhat derailed for the group. While at The Store, near sighted and habitually unobservant Doris Fanning, who had forgotten to bring a group beverage to go with her pimento sandwiches popped in the adjoining wine store for a quick purchase; only, she was completely unaware it was a wine store. So, instead of purchasing a half gallon of mint tea, she purchased a pint of pre-made, ice tea flavored, Long Island Iced Tea. Upon mixing it in her sterling pitcher she rejoined the group and headed off to stop number two.
Upon reaching the factory, the group spread tablecloths across several benches and sat down for the history of the factory and what could be caught in the local rivers. Dixie cups and triangles of pimento and Bunny bread were passed around. Normally, per Ethel’s rule, there is a strict two drink minimum with the group. Morning mimosas on special occasion and martinis over cards at night; nothing more in public “for southern women aren’t lushes in the company of strangers.” However, midway through Doris’ oration on shrimp Creole recipes, Bernie Feinstein let out a tremendous belch drawing unruly laughter from the group. There was an obvious violation of the two drink rule actively in progress. “What ever did you put in your tea Doris? I haven’t felt this good since Kennedy was in office” a giggly and tipsy member exclaimed. It was at that time that Ethel noticed Beatrice and Francis had both wandered over to the bushes and were picking azalea blooms and placing them in each others hair; laughing hysterically. “Ladies, Ladies!” she snapped, “Please, get control and do remember the WABC motto! It’s acta non verba ladies, actions not words!” It was at this point that Bernie whipped around, raised her bony middle finger and rebutted “put a sock in it Ethel, we’re having fun.” The group of women howled in approval. Conditions would deteriorate from there.
By the time the pitcher of tea was drained Ethel was the only sober member of the group. Bernie was harassing customers, Doris was skipping oyster shells, Beatrice and Francis were rolling around in the bushes, and Bevry was dancing the Charleston atop one of the benches. It was utter chaos. Locals stared in amazement as the women hooted and hollered, canes raised heavenward as they hunched and danced about. After awhile several of the ladies huddled up and decided to hit the Piggly Wiggly for snacks and refills before heading to the Church of the Cross. They were to meet Ethel’s minister friend for a lesson on Episcopalian hymns, but it looked more and more like that was going to be a complete disaster. Before Ethel could corral anyone, Bernie, Beatrice, Bevry and Doris jumped into the Delta 88 and zoomed off, leaving a trail of dust in their wake. Ethel’s stomach jumped to her throat. Never in all her days of running the WABC had she seen such outlandish behavior. After all, she had founded the club on the virtues of temperance and moderation. Next Thursday’s meeting would be a day of reckoning indeed. Unfortunately for Ethel, the embarrassment was only beginning.
Once landed at the Pig, Bernie commenced to commandeer a shopping cart from a startled man and plowed her way through several Pepsi product displays. Cheesy Curls, corn chips and candy bars were tossed into the cart along with a four pack of Bartles & Jaymes finest. “Hells Bells Bev!” she exclaimed, “I haven’t had this much fun since Harold and I drove up to Niagara Falls in ’78.” All the ladies roared in agreement. Four raucous grandmothers buying junk food and wine coolers; the poor check out girl’s expression was priceless. As the ladies ambled back to the car a police cruiser circled the parking lot. Word was spreading that a boisterous group was cruising the streets of Bluffton. “Simmer down, girls” Beatrice snapped “act your age or the rollers will put us in jail.” The group skirted along quickly to the car and headed for the church.
When Ethel and the remainder of the group finally reached the church for their “lesson on the lawn” they encountered a scene most often reserved for fraternity houses in Athens. The Delta 88 was parked catawampus with its front wheels on the curb. All four ladies were lying on their backs, in the grass, singing Fly Me to the Moon as Ethel’s friend David stooped to pick up potato chip and candy bar wrappers strewn about on the lawn. “My stars, my stars, my stars!” shouted Ethel in sheer horror. “No, no. Really, it’s alright, quite amusing, actually,” David insisted. “I have never been so embarrassed in all my life,” stammered Ethel. Just as the words escaped her mouth a police cruiser and news van screamed down the drive. Out of the lead car jumped one of the group’s favorite son’s, Officer Beauchamp, who demanded to know what was going on. Bernie irreverently exclaimed “Drama club, sir, we’re just practicing some story lines.” Ethel, the consummate cool one in the group and the epitome of femininity countered with smiling incredulity, “Sir, today is our annual parade of historical homes, and we always close the event with a bit of drama. Won’t you join us?” Officer Beauchamp, unable to counter, took a seat and asked the ladies to proceed. Ethel demanded, through tightly pursed lips, that the ladies huddle up. “Okay girls, you got yourself in this mess and you’re going to get yourself out. Remember the Palm Springs Ziegfeld Follies Routine we did for the fire department?” The group nodded in unison. “Good,” she quipped “be convincing.”
Bernie began the show with an impromptu singing number. “Age doesn’t matter unless you’re a cheese,” she smartly belted as her legs shimmied a dance as best they could. Her back ups-Beatrice, Bevry and Doris locked arms and performed a series of high kicks in support of the song; it was appropriate that Bernie simultaneously hit the line “and who wants to look at old lady’s legs” just as the girls support hose flashed the onlookers. The rest of the ladies sang back up, including Ethel. By the end of the routine, a group of people had gathered around and the news team was broadcasting live for the five o’clock news. Officer Beauchamp, satisfied with the show, gave a standing ovation and even asked the ladies to put on the show at the next police ball. It seemed that disaster and some serious jail time had been averted.
The week passed with the town abuzz about the news coverage and dance routine. The ladies were a local hit; even a station in Columbia ran the clip. The next Thursday Ethel stood to address the group. It was the first time they had all been back together since the eventful tour of homes ended with such flare. “I realize” she started “that over the years we have done some good in the community. I also realize that sometimes we can be seen as overly staunch matrons of rules and regulation, well, more specifically, I can. The events of last week have reminded me that age shouldn’t wither the spirit, that age truly is a state of mind. So, from now on we will make sure to have more fun.” All the women cheered in approval. The group still provided pot lucks, knitted sweaters and scholarships, but from that fateful March on they were also known to show up at Karaoke night a few times as well. They provided many in the community a very important lesson that peculiar day - that life is most certainly like a fine wine, it gets so much better with age.