The broken cane pole was floating on the surface of the muddy waters of Lake Sinclair as Mom pulled back on the throttle of our white and brown,15’ Chaparral motorboat. My brother had spotted the pole as we approached the bridge near Little River Campground where our tricked out “Cool Bus” was set up for a week of camping while Dad was working nearby in Eatonton.
The Cool Bus was well-known back in those days in our part of the country. It had a semi-psychedelic custom paint job done by family and friends. On the front above the windshield in giant ice-block design letters appeared the words “COOL BUS,” and the inside was a marvel of ingenious design that maximized space. Bunk beds converted into couches, even other beds transformed into a dining room table complete with bench seating. A full kitchen and bathroom and a huge water tank of fresh water on top, and another tank underneath for wastewater, were included. A four-burner gas stove, heater, and gas water heater completed the ensemble. We had all the conveniences of home, and this entire setup was designed and built by my dad, Hugh, and his brother, Ned.
We were always somewhere in that Cool Bus when I was a kid. We were lucky to have a self-employed dad. He worked all over and believed in taking the family with him when the situation allowed for it. It is hard to imagine having grown up any other way. Life on the road was always an adventure. The memories of those days are etched into my mind forever. I can always go back to them when I seek refuge from my troubles.
While its name was The Cool Bus, life inside was warm and inviting. Outside on the door, which swung open via a hand lever next to the steering wheel, was a hand-painted sign. The sign featured an arrow pointing ahead that read “HOME 2 MILES” and underneath another arrow pointing from where we had just come, which also read “HOME 2 MILES.” That’s how it was, too. We were home no matter where we were, and we always had new friends to meet and adventures along the way.
Well, I will return to that cane pole for a little while, but don’t get too comfortable with the continuity of the present tale because I will provide more insight into our childhood as I go along. So when we approached the floating, broken cane pole, it began to quiver. Ripples cascaded away from its length, slowly spreading outward. Suddenly I took an interest in the thing as it began to jerk and dart away from the boat.
Mom slowly pushed the throttle forward and advanced toward the pole, which seemed determined to keep its distance from the vessel. My attention became entirely focused on that swimming cane pole. I had previously been lost in a fantasy involving the long bridge in the distance where countless pirates were attacking the ship, which drifted just beyond.
Now is the appropriate time to add a little more background information to enhance the story. Please keep that jerking, bobbing, and now diving torpedo-like pole in your mind. Knowing a little more about my dad and his brother will hopefully clarify the reader as to why the memory of this, not so monumental occurrence, was permanently etched into the memory bank of a 6-year-old little boy.
Dad and Uncle Ned had created a unique business out of necessity, growing up in hard times when there was not much opportunity in the Deep South. They developed the business as well as designed and built all of the specialized equipment required to perform the work. The company they founded ended up supporting both their families and the families of many others from Swainsboro who would work for Braswell Brother’s House Movers over the next six decades.
They moved their first building with their dad, Donald Braswell. It was a small building on their own property. They powered the move with an old draft horse and used a converted cane mill as a winch to advance the building toward its destination. As the horse circled the mill, hitched to the wooden pole that drove the mill, the chain wrapped around the device’s body and pulled the building forward ever so slowly. They would have to move the contraption back and re-anchor it every few feet, then start the process over. From this simple yet brilliantly improvised device, an entire industry was to blossom.
Braswell Brothers would become widely known in later years, and it was often heard that “they could move anything,” and over the years, they proved this to be true. They moved houses, commercial buildings, entire warehouses, ships, locomotives, colossal industrial machines, and any number of other things. I watched, as did a crowd of others as they moved an entire restaurant from the banks of Lake Sinclair. They moved over land and over water. They met challenges on every move. The pair devised and fabricated new devices to overcome these challenges. The brothers reshaped the infrastructure of cities like Savannah and Milledgeville, where they saved many historic buildings from destruction. These men exemplified the spirit of the American entrepreneur, the men who built this great nation through sweat and determination with little else to draw from except their own intellect. They were rockstars to me at 6-years-old.
Alas, though, this story is about three kids and their mom in a boat on a huge man-made lake that served at the time to cool the turbines of a great coal-powered electric plant. In those days, the enormous smokestacks of the power plant gave it the appearance of being a seafaring vessel. This sparked the imagination of the 6-year-old me and led to many fantasies. In later years, those smokestacks would be dwarfed by a colossus of a chimney that reached high into the clouds, and the illusion of a vessel was replaced by just plain awe.
Mom positioned the boat near the floating pole so she could retrieve it. The entire fishing pole vanished as it shot down toward the bottom, 23’ below us. For seemingly an eternity, the focal point of our latest adventure eluded us. That old familiar sinking feeling of disappointment began to rise up from my soul as my adventure seemed to be coming to an end without resolution. Momentarily the silence was pierced by shouts from either my brother Walter or Susan, my sister, I don’t recall which. “There it is! There it is over there!”
Amazingly the pole was now 75’ away from us, and once again, it lay motionless on the reddish-brown, perpetually muddy waters of Lake Sinclair. We were now a little closer to the power plant; small clouds formed on the lake’s surface and engulfed us as the warm water from the power plant’s turbines merged with the lake’s colder waters. The clouds, the looming bridge, and the faux ship just beyond relit my imagination.
I slipped back into that other world, That place of fantasy where heroes and villains were in constant struggle, that place where a 6-year-old with two older siblings had the potential to become part of a legend. I was no longer the insignificant little runt of the clan but the potential hero who would soon be catapulted into fame and glory as I slew the sea monster that I now knew was the source of that pole’s erratic behavior. The scene was surreal; the surface clouds rose up and swallowed the boat, which to me, was suddenly ironclad and weaponized. Adventure lay waiting ahead.
Lost in my fantasy, I had failed to notice that Mom was now leaning over the boat’s gunwale and reaching for the pole that, for the time, rested lifelessly on the muddy surface. I was still somewhere else, in a distant sea full of mysterious and magical creatures, as my gaze was locked on the smokestacks of that great ship visible through the thickening clouds. Then the spell of my fantasy was broken instantly by a great thrashing in the water and by shouts of excitement and awe from my more grounded-in-reality, older siblings.
The rod was violently jerking; its tip drawn toward the depths from whence it had come. Like a mad dowser grasping a divining rod, mom wandered to and fro, being pulled by an unseen force. This brought me back into reality. Something real was on the end of that line! I was slightly disappointed in losing my chance to become a hero, but this was still pretty exciting.
For what seemed like hours to a 6-year-old, my mom fought what I knew now was only a fish and no mythical creature. She ran back and forth, tripping over minnow buckets, nets, and her children’s own bare feet as the fish fought to unhook itself and gain its freedom. All us kids could do was attempt to clear the way for her. We sorely needed Dad there to help, instead of out there somewhere moving yet another house.
Somewhere deep in my psyche, I was still mourning the loss of my hero status, but I was excited enough over this new adventure to be okay with it. It seldom happened, but today my reality was as exciting, if not more so, than my fantasy. Indeed, this is a rare and miraculous occurrence in the active mind of a six-year-old living in the shadows of older siblings. I was okay with a day without heroes in it. I was okay with being the family runt; heck, it made it easier to stay out of the way, which counted for something.
After an eternity of struggling against the beast, Mom finally fought it to the surface. It was the biggest fish that I had ever seen a mom bring in! She reached into the water, and with my brother Walter’s help, she pulled in a massive (to me) 12 lb. catfish. Just as the fish cleared the gunwale, a mighty blast reverberated through the air. It was as if the great ship of my fantasy had fired off its mighty air horns. Instantly cheers and the honking of car horns filled the void left after the initial burst of sound.
As mom held up the massive fish in a victorious stance, we all looked toward the sounds emanating from the bridge. On that bridge sat an entire two-story house! No, this wasn’t a vision from a 6-year-old’s fantasy life. It was my dad and his brother in their big red and white winch truck with the words. “Braswell Bros. House Movers-Large Or Small, We Move Them All,” painted on the doors. In tow was the house that they were moving from Eatonton. They were followed by hundreds of motorists who were delayed on the bridge by the move. These strangers were honking their horns, and some were getting out and cheering and clapping for my mom. From the lake, boat horns and cheers could be heard. Some were cheering for my mom, but others were cheering for my dad. Seeing this huge house crossing that narrow bridge was something they’d never forget. Just another day at work for the brothers Braswell.
That day fate had aligned events in such a way as to teach a naive, fantasy-driven 6-year-old boy that heroes were real, not a part of fantasy at all. Dad had somehow been crossing that bridge with the massive house in tow at the exact moment that Mom became involved in the epic fight below. He had somehow recognized us from over 250 yards away and stopped right on that bridge to watch, ignoring the long line of traffic which was stuck behind them, unable to cross the bridge. Initially, many commuters were upset about the delay, but they all soon became involved in the fishing battle below them as our boat drifted into sight. Many of the stranded motorists got out of their vehicles and watched. When Mom finally landed the giant fish, Dad blew the mighty trumpeted air horns mounted atop the old Ford truck, and the cheers and car horns renewed their onslaught.
What the spectators didn’t see at that very moment was the heart of a 6-year-old, family runt begin to soar with pride for his mom, but an even more magical thing happened. On that cloud blanketed, muddy lake, my dad, Walter Hugh Braswell, became my hero and has remained so forever. The man who had formerly only been my daddy became more than just a dad to me. That man who had taken the time to hold up his entire world long enough to cheer for and encourage his wife and children became more to me than any dream or fantasy could ever conjure up. I learned that heroes were real, and I no longer had to depend on my imagination to be a part of a legend. You see, until that day, it felt to me that his job was his entire world. I realized at that very moment that my dad worked so hard every single day of his life for us.
Today, those old red Ford trucks lay dormant in Swainsboro. Through the growth of vegetation that now obscures them, the red lettering, “Large Or Small, We Move Them All,” is still visible. The colossal ship of my fantasies on the lake is no longer afloat, as the power plant was demolished a couple years back. The COOL BUS is in some junkyard covered, no doubt in rust and ruin. My hero lies in a nursing home bed, mumbling something from time to time about moving a house. He has been robbed of most of his memories, and although I don’t know if he remembers even the family that loves and admires him, I can only hope that God sees fit to take him back to that day when he became my hero forevermore. As I sit here with my 16-month-old grandson in my lap. With tears streaming down my face, that day saves me once again from the insecurities and trials of this life—a life which is no fantasy at all. There are no sea monsters nor magical beasts, but a reality that I know today can be as good as I allow it to become.
Finn Lamb, let me tell you about your great-granddad, who was and is truly a great and honorable man. The scout that leads me on my Christian path. My hero and mentor, Mr. Walter Hugh Braswell.
– Mike Braswell, with love and admiration for my dad. He passed from this Earth just weeks after I wrote this story.