High flying quail and taller tales
By Prioleau Alexander
Peter Lehman Marvin Infinger, Perry Buckner, Tommy Hartnett, Kayton Dawson and Peter Hughes. Image provided.
If you’re a native son of the Lowcountry and Tommy Hartnett indicates he’d like to go to lunch, you go. Only a fool would pass up the opportunity to break bread with one of the Lowcountry’s great politicians, businessmen and characters. He reminds me a good bit of my father — a life steeped in pluff mud, a thick Charleston brogue, quick with a laugh or a legendary story and perhaps best described by a phrase usually applied to Marines: no better friend, no worse opponent.
My friend Peter Lehman called last year and asked me to join him for a lunch with Tommy and group of men involved in an annual event at Back Woods Quail Club that included lunch, a quail shoot, dinner, drinks and stories of “behind the scenes South Carolina” that few know — or want to know.
At this lunch I conversed with the men and asked what inspired an annual trip to Back Woods Quail Club. The answer came in pieces in a variety of fine Southern accents, which I put together thusly: You know those pretentious idiots that started the Renaissance Weekend? The Clintons and all their buddies? Well, they didn’t invite any of us, so we decided to have a Southern Renaissance Weekend. While they’d be attending boring seminars and speeches about drowning polar bears, we’d be shooting quail, eating homecooked meals, drinking good brown liquor and swapping stories.
There are a variety of reasons I’d rather attend a Back Woods gun-and-whiskey function than a weekend with the Clintons. First, at Back Woods I knew that even the tallest of tales would have a kernel of truth. Two, if I got shot, it would be by accident. Three, if a week later if someone found me dead with a butcher knife in my back, the coroner wouldn’t immediately rule it suicide.
Anyway, I was invited — and was told this was their 25th anniversary. This would be one of my greatest fly-on-the-wall moments ever.
After arriving, I soon discovered there was another writer attending, representing a well-respected sporting and wildlife magazine. As we ate lunch and a few of the never-to-be-repeated stories began to flow, there arose a tad bit of concern regarding what would be recorded and written for the world to hear. The conversation was sprinkled with a few comments something like this:
My fellow writer: I’m not here to ruin anyone’s life.
Me: I am.
My fellow writer: I don’t intend to hurt anyone’s feelings …
Me: I do. Actually, that’s all I do.
My fellow writer: I don’t care about someone’s political bent.
Me: I do. If any of y’all are Democrats, expect to read about it.
My fellow writer: If anything is off limits, let me know.
Me: Ditto that. I’ll want to listen more carefully and take closer notes.
The group that eventually assembled was wonderfully eclectic, with not a man in the crowd who’d be considered for attendance at Renaissance Weekend. There were attorneys, a surgeon, a dentist, a retired judge, real estate professionals, politicians, businessmen and, well, me. The stories began to flow and covered such insider topics as government corruption, graft, SCOTUS and the raucous early days of the Republican Party in S.C.
Speaking about one of our famed S.C. politicians, one guest remarked, “I know him well. I wouldn’t get out of the electric chair to speak to him.”
We ate a light lunch, and the guides and the dogs soon arrived to take pairs of the men out into the field to hunt quail. The group was slow to break up, as every hunter knows the “hunt” isn’t about hunting — it’s about friendships, good-natured harassment and the one that got away.
At the end of the hunts, pairs of men reentered the main cabin, all greeted with the question “How’d you do?” One such exchange went:
Room: How’d you do?
Hunter: Killed ’em all so fast we started shooting buzzards.
My fellow writer: Please don’t say that in front of me.
Me: Is it okay if I spell buzzards e-a-g-l-e-s? Makes for a better story.
Before adjourning to the living room (aka the lyin’ room), one hunter told the story of a prank he’d recently pulled when he invited a friend named Will to come along for an exclusive hunt with a caveat: “This is last minute and it’s down in Georgia, so we gotta fly in Mike’s Cessna. But Mike’s a great pilot.” His friend Will — deathly afraid of flying — agreed, as the hunt was at a location too legendary to miss.
The teller of the tale went on to say, “Just after takeoff, I told the pilot I sure could go for a belt of something strong. Mike reached under his cockpit seat, pulled out a bottle of Wild Turkey bourbon, took three long swallows and handed it back to me. I took a swallow, handed it back to him and he pounded a few more gulps before putting it away.”
“I waited 15 minutes,” he added, “before telling Will the bourbon was long gone and the bottle was filled with sweet tea. I ain’t sure Will is 100 percent back together yet.”
Beverages flowed with happy hour now under way, and I learned things about the underbelly of S.C. and D.C. politics that you don’t want to know. Hell, I don’t want to know them, except I can’t unhear them. Of course, every story was embellished with hilarious and colorful sidebars, but I believe 90 percent of them to be true, as everyone there was involved in politics — and knew first- or close second-hand where crooked politicians buried the bodies… and I’m here to tell you, based on the number of crooks named, I think they may be running out of graveyard space for all those corpses.
One of the bothersome realities I came to (better) understand is how badly hobbled honest men are in the world of political knife fighting. Sure, we’ve all heard the clichés about “all’s fair in love and politics,” but how does an upright person deal successfully with a sociopathic liar? Not lying via the media or a campaign speech, but looking an opponent or an ally in the eye in a one-on-one meeting and saying, “I give you my word I’ll do everything in my power to ensure that the Whooping Frog Swamp in your district is protected,” when they’ve already signed a contract with their cousin for backfill and concrete?
How does anything productive get done? When you have to waste time playing four-dimensional chess, figuring out every possible move based on every possible lie? (Okay, he can pave Whooping Frog Swamp, rezone it as toxic industrial, build a casino or actually protect it. Gotta think, here).
Even if Congress is an unhappy couple staying together for the sake of the kids, if one parent agrees to pick up Biff from t-ball, the other parent shouldn’t have to worry about Biff being sold to a passing rodent removal company because they need someone short to drag water moccasins out of crawl spaces.
But all the politicians in the room were veterans, and were able to laugh about the times they’d been betrayed. They’d even make fun of themselves, having fallen for a lie from a liar who’d withhold Mom’s stroke pills until Mom finished her canvasing calls.
The cooks at Back Woods prepared an exquisite Southern meal for dinner — fried chicken, rice, gravy, meatloaf, collards and cornbread. Post dinner we returned to the lyin’ room, where I learned even more insider information about past governors, mayors, congressmen and senators, and political races gone wrong. Based on the depth of detail these men knew about our august elected leaders — information gathered before the Internet or social media — the most important thing I learned was advice to pass along to my nephews and nieces: No matter what, never, never, never ever run for political office.
The evening wound down around ten p.m., although a few people stayed up solving the world’s problems past midnight (I know this via rumor, not because I was one of them). In the morning we enjoyed a homemade breakfast and launched south back to Charleston. Prior to leaving Tommy told me I’d be on the list for next year — and I couldn’t be more excited.
In closing, I’ll say this to every living politician who’s ever done something illegal, unethical or underhanded: Your secrets are known. All is lost. Unless the statute of limitations has passed, flee the country immediately.