Charles Salter knew what he wanted to do when he set off to write about Georgia. He wanted to tell stories like Ernie Pyle.
Pyle, a celebrated correspondent during World War II, wrote about the grunts, not the bigwigs. “He listened to the privates and the PFCs,” Salter said. To write about Georgians, “I thought I’d like to go to the coast or the mountains and interview ordinary people.”
For a while, back in the 1970s, Salter had what some might think was one of the best newspaper jobs in the state. He worked for the Atlanta Journal, the daily newspaper that promised to “cover Dixie like the dew.” The Journal bought a white Chevrolet station wagon, painted its name on the side, and sent Salter out to write a column called The Georgia Rambler. His job was to bring home exceptional tales of ordinary people.
He found them. He met a schoolteacher who’d trained as a U.S. Marine with Lee Harvey Oswald, assassin of John F. Kennedy. Salter spent time with folk potter Lanier Meaders and a black snake who watched the potter work. The Rambler interviewed “Moonshine Kate,” the daughter of Fiddlin’ John Carson, an early country music star. Salter wrote about Old Dan Tucker’s grave and a small-town pharmacy that claimed to have the original recipe for Coca-Cola copied by hand in an old ledger.
“Ninety-eight percent of the people I interviewed had never been interviewed by a newspaper before,” he said. “They would open up and share with me some private stories. I wasn’t there to do some investigative reporting. I was interviewing ordinary folks who had far more than ordinary stories to tell.”
Salter retired from the newspaper life in 1998. The Rambler was only part of what he did in 31 years at the Journal. He wrote a fishing column for 24 years. He edited photos. Now he lives in Sandy Springs, ties flies in his basement and goes fishing regularly.
But when he thinks back to the time he spent crisscrossing the state in that Chevy wagon, he realizes he might have been lucky enough to capture a special moment in Georgia history. The kind of people he wrote about – the farmer who used a mule to plow his field, the moonshiner, a water dowser – were disappearing.
“Looking back on those years,” he said, “I consider myself lucky to have been able to interview some vanishing Georgians.”
He brought their stories back in the city, the new Georgia. “Many people have been transferred to Atlanta. They live inside I-285. I had to tell them they don’t see the real Georgia,” he said. “I was introducing them to citizens of a Georgia they might not know anything about.”
When Salter’s rambling ended in 1980, that could have been the end of those stories. They seemed like something out of a vanishing journalistic past, when newspapers had time and resources to write not only about the news and scandals of the moment, but also about the small things that made up a community. Still, it’s hard to keep a good yarn down. Skip ahead to 2010. The Georgia Rambler found a new life. This American Life.
The producers of the weekly public radio show heard about Salter’s columns and decided to do some modern-day follow ups. The Rambler revived on the radio.
It didn’t stop there. When the shows aired, a representative of a publisher called the History Press happened to be listening. History Press thought his old columns would make a fine new book. Luckily, Salter had salted away boxes of columns in his basement.
So now, three decades after his stories vanished, they’ve come back. This time, they aren’t in the newspaper, but in a paperback called “The Georgia Rambler: A Potter’s Snake, the Real Thing Recipe, a Satilla Adventure and More.”
So Meaders and his black snake pal can find a new audience. And Salter gets to tell a new public about 45 or so of his old acquaintances all over again.
One was that fellow who plowed with his mule, named Thunder. Salter remembers that conversation still. “He told me, ‘Charles, if I don’t die in a hospital, I hope I die in the field, because there’s nobody out there in that field but me and Thunder and the Lord.’”
And, for a time, somebody to tell their story.
Want to share the stories of some interesting people or places in your community? Email Joe Earle at email@example.com.