Vic Miller, Class of 1960

Vic Miller is the South Georgia author that Clyde Edgerton calls a cross between Harry Crews and Larry Brown.  A novelist, humorist, and naturalist, he lived aboard his sailboat “Kestyll” for a number of years, often anchored near a Kuna Indian village off the Caribbean coast of Panama. Today, he nests in a vintage Airstream behind his family home, on the banks of the Flint River where he grew up. He is a frequent contributor to Gray’s Sporting Journal.


~ A River Legacy ~

By O.Victor Miller

There can be no settlement until nomadic women like a place enough to bear and nourish offspring. Thus we reckon through Paleolithic litter that Clovis nomads paused on our riverbank twelve thousand years ago. There was no better place to stop-- no better place on earth for pure and living water, for aquifers, plentiful and pure, artesian springs recharged by verdant wetlands. These river banks reveal the Flint is where our ancient history is. Tribes were matriarchal as was the South that nurtured me, where black and white matriarchs were known to trump Jim Crow’s unequal laws with love to keep a young man honest who would kiss the girls.

The clearest words I recollect from my Albany childhood home on the Flint riverbank one bend upstream from Radium Springs are Tillie’s, the black saint responsible for my and Sister’s care. She’d usher us into the yard and say, “And don’t y’all go nowhere near that river.”

I don’t remember Tillie having much trouble with Sister--about the river. But the fetch of it for me became obsession. I lived to wonder what lay beneath its moody progress from south Atlanta down to the Apalachicola and the Gulf of Mexico.

In 1958 mother shelled out $50 for a new U.S. Divers SCUBA tank, a rare gadget this far inland. “I told y’all you gon’ end up on the bottom of that river,” Tillie said. “That’s where the devil stay you always looking for.”

One afternoon in 1960, my senior year of high school, Jerry Lindsey, “Moose” Fountain and I, conscripted by the fire department, recovered two dead skin-divers from Radium Cave. The body I found lay in a domed anteroom to larger caverns, just past the narrow fissure later named Fat Man’s Misery. The corpse, doubled over his waning lantern, was illuminated eerily from below against the outer dark. He rocked gently as in weightless prayer, lime-lighting the disturbing fact that writhing green eels about a yard long covered him comprehensively, as if weaving him into a roiling cocoon. One gigantic eel skirted the edge of artificial twilight alone. It was longer than a Cadillac, fat as a telephone pole.

The pulsing current I’d crawled hand and knee against to get inside the labyrinthine cave propelled me awkwardly back into the sunlit boil with my grim baggage. I ascended the thirty-foot crater from the mouth of the cave through the expanding bubbles of compressed air into the vacillating reflection of the grand, white columned Radium Casino my dear Great Uncle Thad, beloved scallywag, built in 1927 to lure Florida-bound tourists to these sacred springs. Nothing in my little span of seven decades would ever haunt me more than that assent from the black bowels of Radium Cave back into the upper world.

The cavern eels were born of their parents’ fatal spawn in the winding currents of the Sargasso Sea, kith and kin to those we’d gigged at night from stolen rowboats paddled with brooms, eels we sometimes coaxed Tillie to fry and serve with grits. The Loch Ness giant I’d seen was a female aberration that never migrated around the cape of Florida to spawn and die. She just stayed home in Radium Cave and grew large enough to terrify me through the other side of puberty.    

Landlocked between Jim Woodruff Dam at Bainbridge and Albany’s Georgia Power Dam, were mullet, shad and other migratory fish. Striped bass of 50 pounds circled the spring behind my home, finding refuge from summer heat and winter cold. With my new “aqua lung” we weighted ourselves with lead and sat on the river bottom while they circled like pale ghosts the periphery of clear water that sustained them until the chill drove us shivering up the riverbank.

 On other days, we glided flumes and runs and channels where geologic history had etched its murals into the limestone bedrock from an ancient shallow sea that lapped against the Piedmont foothills. In sepia shadow we found ribs of ancient whales and blackened teeth of sharks that cruised above our county 150 million years ago. We discovered tools and blades of Paleolithic hunters that stalked the ancient pachyderms, dire wolves, gigantic sloth and armadillo. We scavenged artifacts of empires that rose and fell two thousand years on either side of Christ. We sounded catfish holes for banner stones, flint tools, projectile points and the drowned remains of lost fishermen.  

Beneath the Bridge House pilings and from rushing channels dredged for paddleboat and barge, we catalogued the artifacts of written history. Stirred into the sand and silt of timeless rubble were Spanish beads and musket balls, glazed earthenware and antique bottles. We found rings tossed from bridges by forsaken brides, revolvers thickened red with rust, and knives encrusted with murder. Among the historic jetsam of Albany were dolls, knickknacks, stoneware dishes, fire tools from locomotives, and stolen bicycles thrown off railroad trestles, brass tokens from saving banks the Depression sucked under. We meandered through channels dredged by Nelson Tift to float his cotton from the Bridge House to the port of Apalachicola and up the Mississippi to the nation and around the cape of Florida above the trackless path of migratory eels into the Atlantic and across the world. We entered steamboat ribs and plundered cotton barges. We found a Model T that had tumbled off a ferry south of town.

I love this place enough to leave it every chance I get. I’ve run away from home, abandoned wives and friends and children, rushed off to idiotic wars, gone to jail in some exotic places, but I’ve never stammered when asked where I’m from, and I’ve returned enough to know exactly where home is and how to get me there. Home’s where they have to take me in from shipwreck, deportation and release from third world jails. It’s where we run away from and return alive or dead from war. It’s where we’d raise our children if we could and where town drunks and village idiots are next of kin. Where everybody knows what all you’ve done, still keeping the hope alive you’ll someday come to good.

What an epic gloom enveloped me last June, a native son of seventy years whose pores, cells and sinews had been nourished in the artesian sky blue waters of Radium Springs, to see the soul and center of my youth gone dry. I walked the desiccated creek from the dam my uncle built from fossil rock where no turquoise water splashed its lace into the whiskey colored Flint. Where wild turkeys roosted my whole life, now sooty buzzards hunkered down on naked limbs as crows pecked skeletons of carp. Where bright wood ducks once exploded into morning air trailing diamonds, I found a creek bed parched and littered with scaly carcasses and turtle shells. Parched clam and river mussel shells open and poised as if for flight on iridescent wings into a fetid desultory breeze that sizzled up a cracked creek bed and moaned a dirge to childhood and renewal.

I walked the dry gulch of creek to the stagnant boil. The sacred fountainhead that gushed a thousand gallons of pure water every second of my youth was transformed into a foul crater of green water opaque as motor oil. This was our city’s swimming hole before there was a city. This was where we dove like otters for silver dollars Shriners chunked and foraged dimes from deep sand tinted blue.  This was the wellspring of our scavenged treasures recovered from hurried swimmers crossing hypothermic canyons. We found the teeth of mastodons wounded by Paleolithic forebears milinea ago and hoarded shards of pottery fired before the birth of Christ. The pool where we gathered daily with ghosts of prehistoric peers to measure dregs of fleeting summer had become a stew of bloated fishes.  The fountain of my generation’s youth, where pristine water promised hope and tempered adolescent blood and cooled us through hottest nights before conditioned air. I felt for the first time since emerging from the inky dark with my cadaverous twin the apocalyptic and official dead end of childhood.

No other place defined our youth in Albany like Radium, the turf where we rivaled Turner airmen for the local girls, the place we learned to dance and swim and spawn and kiss and love beneath the dance pavilion. Never would another generation see this vanished lake alive again with pretty girls in yellow bathing suits or hear the bass thump carried down the creek from the pavilion jukebox or feel the grand casino sway beneath the wild kinetics of a Cotton Ball or Junior-Senior Prom.

There’s no history of my town for me aside from water. Our best kept legacy is our reverence for place, the longing to return from foxhole, foreign jail or storms at sea. Home’s where our people are, the graves, bone shards and ashes of our parents. The place we run away from, bless and curse, return alive or dead from war, or get too broke for any other town to take us in.

Where will our children find the unspoiled hallowed places? Where will they listen to the holy hush and breath of summer breezes through lacy leaves of bone white sycamores? Or behold the calico of cypress in darkest evergreen? What will they think of us who squandered to desiccation the living pulse of Georgia’s largest artesian spring? What can they even guess of harmony and balance in microcosm of the holy heritage we ignored and lost before they had a chance to see it?

They who loved the river have belonged in the Good Life City and will beyond those who’d waste and squander it past revival. Our precious water has fetched humans to these banks for as long as there were humans on this continent, long before the history sung around ancient campfires was corrupted by the written word with all its loopholes, lies, and empty promises.

These banks have known epic deluge, drought, disease and famine. They have seen catastrophic storms, wars, skirmishes, massacres, and native people banished to the Everglades and driven west to live on lizards. These banks have seen human misery imposed by slavery, have suffered greed of scallywags and carpetbaggers and the tyranny of Jim Crow.  Few pilgrims came to Albany for the common good and most were better served by gallows than statuary, but the precious few who stayed to feed the cow they milked became our city fathers, who learned to love this frontier town beyond the reasons that they came.

We haven’t altogether lost the spirit of this river town. These sacred fountains can be coaxed alive again by thoughtful stewardship and brought back to the bounty that first matriarch found and what the tribal chiefs and holy men and city fathers knew: That on these banks there will always underlie a common love of place beyond immoral law and selfish exploitation.

The river fetched us to its banks and keeps our better angels here. The town will prosper only when artesian water surges mightily again from subterranean labyrinths and lightless lakes beneath a mighty river flowing clear and free. Our human souls are woven warp and woof into the continuous tapestry of Creation. There’ll always be the sacred and historic Flint for youthful progeny to feel the hiss and suck of whirlpools, eddies, rapids, runs and choppy riffles and learn their sinuous harmony in the ironic spawn of eels. Where humans sang an oral history older than the Bible, our young must hear the vespers whispered through autumn leaves and suck pure and living river water up their noses, secure in the faith that their children’s grandchildren may still wonder what mysteries tumble yet along the bedrock bottom.

Note: Originally published in “Albany, Yesterday, Today & Tommorow,”

Thronateeska Heritage Foundation (2012). To purchase a book, contact Thronateeska at (229) 432-6955.


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