I admit, I had no idea what to expect from Saturday night’s SEWE Soiree. Was it going to be a small gathering or a colossal festival? Indoors or out? How should I dress? Would we fit in?
After entering the Charleston Visitors' Center, I wasn't worried. In the football field-length pavilion, hundreds—maybe thousands—of people stood talking, eating, and drinking.
Mom and I agreed that we would venture all the way through the party in order to get a feel for the party’s feng shui. We didn’t get far. I felt a tug on my arm and Mom gestured mischievously towards the first (of three) open bars. With a gin and tonic in her hand, and a bourbon and ginger ale in mine, we strolled through the party.
Mom led this time, nearly losing her 6’6’’ son as her 5’7’’ frame slipped easily through the crowd.
Suddenly, my Sperrys stopped in their tracks as if stuck in thick Ashley River mud. I gazed over the shorter crowd to see a fully cooked, open-face pig… a gigantic, entire pig. Even better were the people standing around the beast sharing massive shredding utensils and tongs to eat pulled pork, pigskin, pig fat, pork shoulder, pork butt, and pretty much every edible part of the animal. Forks were a dainty and unnecessary afterthought as hungry hands reached in, grabbed some pig, and stuffed equally hungry mouths.
After a 10-minute pork protein break, we continued through the party—stopping every so often to spark up conversations with strangers. We hit the oyster table next, armed with cocktail sauce, lemons, a rag to grasp the sharp shells, and an oyster-shucking knife. While we were sorting through the skimpy remains left from the last go around, I sidestepped just in time for a massive vat of steamed salty oysters to be emptied right in front of me. We got to work, stopping only to take turns for refills from the nearest open bar. And every time a new vat of steamed oysters was emptied on one of two oyster-shucking tables, someone from every shucking group was designated to grab handfuls of oysters and bring them back to their station. We had no idea who the fellow was in all camouflage (a popular get-up at the soiree) who kept returning to our oyster-shucking station with a broad smile and fistfuls of oysters, but we loved him. We loved it all.
Mildly buzzed and fully sated, Mom and I wandered back toward the live music at the other end (the front) of the party.
By this time, both of us had completely thrown out our initial reservations about the soiree being outside in such cold weather. We had what my mom referred to as “cold remedies” (dancing, bourbon, spicy pork, koozies, and huddling with strangers).
The band, Second Nature, rocked out in their Hawaiian shirts as the letters S E W E glowed crimson behind them.
By 10:30, I could see Mom was fading fast. I grabbed a quick catfish taco, and agreed that we should retire (happily) for the evening. As I walked out of the Visitors' Center munching the taco, oyster slime and pig juice coating my hands, I looked over at my mom and asked her if she had had a good time.
“Best party in years,” she responded with a yawn.
Eagles, hawks, owls, falcons, and kite birds soared one by one through the cold air Sunday afternoon at Marion Square. A Yellow-billed Kite swooped by John Calhoun, seemingly trying to frighten the statue from his pedestal. Crowds gasped; my mom and her friend hooted in amusement at the eagle that rose to the sky and then plunged toward the earth, narrowly missing a small blond boy who may or may not have been mistaken for a field rodent.
I couldn’t help but gawk, too. Still, I got the feeling that these beautiful birds may have been mocking us. They soared in such a grandiose manner, as if to say, “Huh, so you people have cell phones, thousand-foot-high sky scrapers, automobiles, electricity, and Chia Pets, and yet you still can’t figure out how to fly on your own?”
(Yes, that is except for you, Mr. Michael Jeffrey Jordan, His Royal Airness.)
Turns out, each bird of prey at the demonstration that afternoon was either born in captivity or rescued from nature. Now the birds are used for teaching purposes.
One bird, a Red-tailed Hawk with no name because these birds “are not pets,” had been saved from a car accident a few years ago. When the hawk was found at the wreck it was in bad shape and had lost all vision in its left eye. The Center for Birds of Prey took the hawk in, rehabilitated it, and now the bird serves as an “ambassador for its species,” said Jenn Tyrell, a five-year employee for the center.
After a few more feel-good killer-bird stories, we hopped aboard a packed trolleybus to Brittlebank Park for the DockDogs show.
This was a spectacle—huge white tents, beer trucks, carnival food vendors, two 30,000-gallon pools, a monstrous blowup kid’s playground, and hundreds of people.
Despite having spent the entire weekend at SEWE events, honestly, I had barely noticed the hunting theme until I arrived at Brittlebank. Here, wearing camouflage was more vital to being granted entry than a ticket itself.
The largest of the white tents was fittingly hunting themed. I know I’m supposed to be a man and admire stuffed dead animals while I spit my tobacco and drink my Miller Lite. But unfortunately, I hate Miller Lite, chewing tobacco and dip give me the spins, and although I’m fascinated by the hunt, I just couldn’t get with the stuffed baby deer that were on display in that tent. Across from the four or five stuffed deer (one albino) stood two 10-foot-tall stuffed bears. I guess any man who is man enough to kill a snarling brown bear triple his size can display the animal wherever he wants, but for me, it was just a little much.
The highlight of the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition was the DockDogs competition.
After I scarfed down a bowl of fried crawfish tails and washed it down with an Arnold Palmer, the finale was set to begin. The dog handlers ranged from a seven-year-old who controlled his canine with poise and swagger to your prototypical bearded hunter who looked like a non-cartoon version of Elmer Fudd. I could tell that each of the handlers had a serious investment in the competition by the way they chased after their dogs, screaming “get it” when the whistle blew. (Secretly, I hoped that one of the handlers would hit the brakes a split-second too late and fall into the pool themselves—I think everyone would have enjoyed that.)
The first dog, a black Labradoodle with a striking resemblance to '70s singer Rick James (here to our right), soared more than 17 feet off of the dock and into the pool. A few jumps later came a muscle-bound Black Lab. Early in the afternoon I had overheard folks talking about how a Black Lab was, “hands down going to win the long jump at DockDogs.”
I whispered to my mom and her friend, “I’ve got a feeling this dog is going to show us something special.”
The whistle blew and the pooch took off. Suddenly, at dock's end, the Lab came to a screeching halt. Actually it was more like a screeching stumble, which landed half of him in the pool and the other half clutching for dear life to the dock’s edge. What a genius I looked like.
Regardless, something about a competition of dogs belly-flopping into a pool—their tails wagging in delight—while a thousand people laugh and look on in delight, just seems Charleston-perfect.