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Mudflat Moïse
by Ben McC. Moïse

Although I would hardly call it an obsession, I had pretty much wanted to be a game warden since my first encounter with one back in the mid-1950s. Every afternoon while delivering newspapers by bicycle in rural Sumter County, I stopped by a small country store along my route (a forerunner of the 7-Eleven), owned by G. A. Thompson, a delightful and gregarious old gentleman. There I had the opportunity to listen to the adventures of a game warden who routinely arrived about the same time I did. Without fail he would buy a cold bottle of Coca-Cola, which he called a “dope,” and a cellophane bag of salted peanuts. After taking a hefty swig of Coke, he would pour the peanuts and a sleeve of BC Powder into the bottle. There was no end to the stories he told as he variously shook, swigged and chewed that amazing concoction.

He wore a khaki uniform and a brown fedora and carried a blue steel revolver in a leather holster on his belt. I was suitably impressed. He was the only uniformed person I was acquainted with other than the sheriff ’s deputies who guarded the stripe-clad chain gang that worked along the county highways. (I met the sheriff, I. Byrd Parnell, in person one time during an unfortunate episode involving the midnight acquisition of some watermelons, but that is another story.)

My family and I lived on my grandfather’s farm, about two miles out of Sumter, South Carolina. The house we lived in, the circa 1790 Heriot-Moïse House, is on the National Register of Historic Places. The farm had acres of cultivated fields and gardens, a pecan orchard and grapevine, a large barn, numerous outbuildings, a swimming pool and the main attraction for me, Rocky Bluff Swamp, which was located across Brewington Road at the end of the holly-tree avenue in front of the house.
My hideouts were everywhere. My mother described me as a swamp rat.
It was my daily playground. In the tree-shaded confines of the section of Rocky Bluff Swamp that extended between Highway 15 and Highway 401, I explored, camped, hunted and trapped. I traversed it day or night from end to end and side to side, usually without even getting my feet wet. My hideouts were everywhere. My mother described me as a swamp rat.

I became infamous for the “swamp things” that I brought to school (when I bothered to attend). They wreaked havoc among the old-maid teachers and female students. Following a few noteworthy episodes, I was made to promise not to bring any more large spiders or snakes of any size to class, regardless of whether they were poisonous or not, at penalty of expulsion and a good whipping by the principal. My father backed up the school by promises of more to come at home if I caused any more disturbances. My mother was heard to say that I was not an easy boy to raise.

Probably because of my legendary show-and-tell episodes in school, in 1958, when I was fifteen years old, the Sumter County Fish and Game Association sponsored my attendance at the Wildlife Conservation Camp in Cheraw, South Carolina. It was one of those “Saul on the road to Damascus” experiences, for there I found my true calling.

There were wildlife classes and daily field trips to study indigenous flora and fauna, and the people there actually liked snakes. I came to know Gordon Brown, the Wildlife Department photographer, who took me under his wing and showed me how to observe nature with a keen eye for even the smallest details. I was not only enchanted by the extra attention but also excited to see and understand things I had previously noticed just casually. It gave me an altogether new perspective. Here were experiences and things worth preserving. I became even more firmly convinced that I wanted to be a game warden and work in the woods.

With Belle I on patrol in Price Inlet between Bull and Capers islands

At that time I did not have a proper regard for academic achievement. My mother and father saw fit to remove me from my carefree, barefoot existence and send me to Carlisle Military School in Bamberg to focus my attention on more scholarly matters. My father said that he sent me to Carlisle to study map reading since I seemed, more often than not, to stray unerringly down the primrose path. Electroshock therapy could not have applied as much of a jolt. I got to wear a uniform, but it was not the one I had in mind. Three years at Carlisle Military School, three years at the Citadel, a two-year interval at the University of South Carolina, and four years in the Coast Guard—followed by numerous intervening career moves — provided distractions from my earlier ambition to be a game warden. The desire remained, however, and I thought about it in those existential reveries when I had time to ponder the limitless possibilities of being.

I was issued all the accoutrements for a conservation officer: long- and short-sleeve gray cotton shirts, a clip-on green tie, green polyester dress trousers, a lattice-weave-patterned ranger belt, briar-proof pants, an L.L. Bean goose-down “Warden’s Parka,” black oxford shoes, green leather boots, caps, a pair of handcuffs with belt case, a dash-mounted blue light and a stainless-steel model 66 Smith & Wesson 357 Magnum pistol. Later that afternoon, I was issued a 1969 Plymouth patrol car with a driver’s side spotlight and a mobile radio with a large whip antenna.

I was happy. I was at long last a game warden, making just over nine thousand dollars a year. How in the world was I going to spend that much money?
I had much to think about during the long drive back to Sullivan’s Island in my newly acquired patrol car. I was proud of it even though it was nine years old, had more than one hundred thousand miles on it and was soon to become a maintenance nightmare. I remember thinking, “What in the hell have you gotten yourself into now?” Then I adjusted the rear-view mirror so I could see the long whip antenna swooping back in the wind and listened with great interest all the way back to Charleston to the frequent radio calls blaring from the Wildlife Department radio. I was happy. I was at long last a game warden, making just over nine thousand dollars a year. How in the world was I going to spend that much money?

It seemed that most of the officers then chewed tobacco, a pernicious habit that I soon acquired. Officer Fort could spit right out of his car window while running down the highway. I used a bottle or cup as a receptacle, being unable to attain sufficient velocity to project any great distance. I did observe that the whole driver’s side of his car, from front door to rear bumper, was covered by a large brown streak. In a few places the chrome around the windows had been eaten away by the tobacco juice. At least he could project it out the window. The presence of full spit cups in several of my vehicles had grievous consequences over the years.

I quickly learned that the coastal marshes held many surprises in the form of shallow flats or shell banks just beneath the surface. When I got my own patrol boat, I found operating a boat is a completely different experience than being a passenger in one.

I think I went aground on each and every flat and shell rake at least once. My talent for wearing down propellers to the hub was legendary. One of the outboard repair shops in Mount Pleasant had a row of my truncated props mounted on the wall. At one time I was known as “Mudflat Moïse.” I think Captain Ed McTeer had one particularly noteworthy example that he used as a paperweight on his desk. I was not issued any expensive stainless-steel props until the row of damaged aluminum props had substantially ceased growing.

Ben McC. Moïse was a conservation officer with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources from 1978 to 2002. In recognition of his achievements in law enforcement, he was presented the Guy Bradley Award by the North American Fish and Wildlife Foundation in 1990 and the Order of the Palmetto by South Carolina governor Carroll Campbell in 1994.
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