100th birthday

Bill Brown addresses the crowd gathered at First United Methodist Church for his birthday celebration in December.

British historian Arnold J. Toynbee is credited with saying “history is just one damn thing after another.”

He didn’t say it’s one dull thing after another, and that’s why I’m thankful for Bill Brown who has collected a lot of it none of it dull.

When he was 68, Brown had bypass surgery.

“The doctor told me if I didn’t get hit by a truck, I ought to live to be 98,’’ Brown said. “I’ve been dodging trucks, and here I am.”

Here he is indeed two years past the physician’s prediction, but he said he nearly died soon after his operation.

“When I was discharged, I asked for my bill. They told they’d mail it to me. When I got it knew why. I figured they didn’t want me to drop dead in their office,’’ he said with that great laugh.

Brown grew up in a house that his ancestor Urbanus Dart built, one of Brunswick’s landmark structures. It overlooked the Marshes of Glynn, the expanse of saltwater grasses and creeks made famous by Sidney Lanier’s poem. It also had a view of Lanier oak, the tree where Lanier, a Civil War veteran, sat and drew inspiration after coming to Brunswick possibly believing the salt air would be good for his consumption. The creek once flowed right by the oak, rising and ebbing, but now only traffic flows past going ways at once.

Had is the word because the owners of Brown’s boyhood home, the Brunswick-Golden Isles Chamber of Commerce, had the beautiful old house torn down and hauled away like a load of Mr. Peabody’s coal. (See John Prine and “Paradise.”)

Having grown up in that house, Brown has seen it come and go all the way back to when tourists passing through downtown raised clouds of dust. But now they don’t pass through Brunswick so much as they pass by.

Brown notes that the routing of U.S. 17 fronting the marsh took all the tourists off of Norwich, Newcastle and other downtown streets, killing the businesses along them. Then I-95 was built to the west giving drivers a chance to rocket past without so much as sniffing the local barbecue smoke.

Brown figures that one answer is in museums. He likes Jekyll Island’s new one and the World War II Home Front Museum on St. Simons and thinks they and others will draw visitors.

The Home Front Museum has great details on the local effort during the big war including the shipyard where J.A. Jones Co. built Liberty Ships and and the former Glynco Naval Air Station.

You push a button at an exhibit, and someone tells you a story, but Brown has more.

“For every exhibit they’ve got, I’ve got a story,’’ he said.

His brother Bob, who’s closing in on 100 himself, worked in the Jones shipyard when it was still Brunswick Marine. Jones took over the shipbuilding contract and Brunswick Marine’s 16,000 employees. Some say J.A. Jones snagged the contract because the federal government was concerned with the pace the cargo ships were being produced.

Brown says it could be because J.A. Jones had clout in Washington and was upset that Greenville, S.C.-based Daniel Construction got the original contract to dredge the marshes and build the shipyard.

About the dredging, Brown says this: “While they were laying out the ways, Daniel Construction was pumping out the remainder of the marsh. If they saw a trout come out of the end of the drain line they’d run out and grab it.”

Those may have been the only trout fishermen who never had to worry about the winds or the tides.

The war came to Glynn County’s waters in 1942 when a German U-Boat torpedoed a couple of tankers, the Oklahoma and the Esso Baton Rouge. Olaf Olsen, the captain of the Howard Candler Jr.’s 42-foot yacht, became a local hero when he sailed out to pick up survivors and the injured.

Olsen took them to the U.S. Coast Guard boathouse. Albert “Bo” Fendig Sr., an activated U.S. Navy reservist, was dispatched from Savannah to interview the survivors but found them all in some state of intoxication. Fendig immediately called upon Sheriff Mitchell Owens to arrest whomever had gotten his witnesses drunk.

Owens replied, “I don’t think you want to do that, Bo. It was your brother.”

Edwin Fendig Sr. “thought anybody who had been shot at and torpedoed needed a drink or two,’’ Brown said.

To Sheriff Owens’ credit, you don’t go around arresting leading citizens for minor Fendiggery. That’s how you get to hold office for 22 years.

Brown’s draft status was 4-F so he got his degree in business administration at Emory, but he still did his part working as a shipfitter’s helper at J.A. Jones. The shipfitter was a tobacco farmer from Patterson, Ga., named Echols.

“He’d work his tobacco in the morning, ride the bus to Brunswick and work the afternoon shift,’’ Brown said.

The Navy built Glynco to base blimps to watch for German U-boats along the coast and the hangers were the world’s largest wooden structures at the time.

“They said there was a man who took the name of the Lord in vain so much that when he went on the roof of the hangers, his helper wouldn’t stand near him,’’ Brown said.

After all, lightning does strike high objects and the helper figured his boss was too inviting a target, Brown said.

Brown got his own ride on a blimp arranged by his sister’s boyfriend.

“I got a three-hour, 20-minute ride. Sort of slow,’’ he said.

Brown also stood watch offshore listening for German U-Boats. They had to surface to recharge their batteries, but Brown said he never heard any on his overnight watches.

There’s history as written by historians and there’s history as told by those who witnessed it.

Brown hopes there’s a bright new future for the lot where his historic old home once stood. He thinks it would be a great place for a boutique hotel for those who come to visit. Brunswick has some great bed-and-breakfast inns in Old Town but those aren’t for everybody.

Architect Larry Bryson has drawn up some preliminary plans for a hotel that Brown said would fit nicely where the Dart house stood.

A drawing of the hotel has a porch like the one that jutted diagonally and prettily off the southeast corner of the now gone house.

Who knows when and if it ever gets built, but I hope Bill Brown gets to see it done.

All he has to do is keep telling stories and dodging trucks.

Terry Dickson has been a journalist in South Carolina and Georgia for more than 40 years. He is a Glynn County resident. Contact him at terryldickson50@gmail.com

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