Saturday, October 13, 2007

I lost a good friend when Carl E. Copeland Jr. died unexpectedly at the age of 67. He and I were born just days apart in the first week of July, 1940 in Sumter, South Carolina. We didn't spend much time together until we were teenagers. Our friendship really grew strong as college students at Clemson and the University of South Carolina. It was then that we became intoxicated with the newness of art, music, literature, poetry, and life in general. We shared an enthusiasm for painting, folk music, and the daring things that young men are drawn to. As most men say when looking back at their youth, "It is a wonder we survived." We climbed mountains, drove fast cars, parachuted from planes, traveled without specific destinations, and reveled in the stream of consciousness lifestyle epitomized in Jack Kerouac's books. We never felt the need for the drugs used by Keroac's "Dharma Bums" and "The Subterreneans" as life was intense and intoxicating enough for us. Most of us became more conservative as we grew older putting at least our wildest dreams to bed in pursuit of a more conventional life but not Carl. He never gave up that lust for life and went on to paint a colorful life full of adventure and experiences few people can claim.

One day some of my friends and I were driving, a rare event since we walked most places, and saw Carl walking on the side of the road in Columbia, South Carolina near the campus of the University. We stopped and offered Carl a ride. As he climbed into the car with a very full backpack we asked where he was going. "To the freight yards to hop a freight train to California." he replied. Since we knew Carl well we never questioned his statement and delivered him to his destination with a bit of awe and fear for his safety. Carl was an art major at the University and we heard later that his professor had begged him to take the final exam as Carl was just weeks away from graduation. Carl had decided to begin his life adventure early though and nothing could sway him from his decision to start out on the pursuit of his goal. We didn't see Carl again until years later and when we did he told of his adventures starting with that day at the freight yards in Columbia.

He had done just as he said he would riding freight trains from South Carolina to California. Along the way he stopped in small towns, found work, made friends and then traveled on using his preferred form of transportation at the time, freight trains. He never carried more than he could put in his backpack. His warm personality and willingness to work gained him acceptance in each place he stopped along the way. he worked as a carpenter, handyman, and painter. He took any job that was available to earn enough money to travel on. We could only imagine all the experiences he had on this trip but he shared some of them. He told us of crossing the Rocky Mountains in an open gondola car huddled in a corner with a couple of other vagabonds as the temperatures dropped and snow began to fall. Carl, in his usual understated soft spoken style said, "I had no idea how cold it would get crossing those damned mountains."

He made it to California and somehow met the right people and started applying his art in the movie business. He worked his way up as his talent began to be appreciated. I have no doubt that his the experiences he gained working his way across the country carried him far. He was at ease meeting and talking with anyone. He was willing to work hard and had an artistic talent that he put to good use in the entertainment industry. He developed an extensive portfolio of experience and became respected and loved by many in the movie and television industry. His credits included set designer on the Lowell Thomas TV show. Lowell Thomas was the writer and broadcaster who had made "Lawrence of Arabia" famous. He had a television show about his adventures traveling the world. He went on to work as art director, set designer, construction foreman, or construction coordinator on major movie and TV projects including "Summer of My German Soldier" in 1978, "Heartland" in 1979, "Swamp Thing" in 1982, "Black Rainbow" in 1989, "A Show of Force" in 1990, and "Rich in Love" in 1993. He produced and worked on a number of fitness videos and films. He then returned to South Carolina to devote his time to set design and construction on major local productions such as "The Nutcracker" and other plays. He also worked as a local artist on various commercial works. He was a master of the "Trompe l'oeil" murals. "Trompe l'oeil" murals are paintings that trick or fool the eye into believing that the scene is real. No doubt Carl's years of working in the movie industry led him to work in this medium.

One of Carl's loves was skydiving and like anything he pursued he poured himself into it attaining many thousands of jumps and a high level of expertise. He told me one Christmas during one of our infrequent meetings that he wanted to be the first person in the new year to be eating an apple while in free fall from an airplane. This was just the kind of "off the wall" experience that he could think of. He later told me that he had indeed accomplished his goal by eating an apple during the first minute of the new year. He opened his chute and landed somewhere near house and delighted in telling of the shock in the faces of the people whose party he interrupted by ringing their doorbell wearing his jump suit, goggles and helmet while carrying his parachute canopy. While telling this story Carl had that twinkle in his eye and laughter in his voice revealing his wonderful sense of humor.

My dad, Robert T. Brown Jr, had made up his mind that he would "save" Carl from his terrible vice of skydiving. Dad offered to take Carl fishing each Saturday when he knew Carl would normally be skydiving. Dad said that each Saturday a few minutes before the designated time for the fishing trip he would hear Carl's car coming down the driveway at their lake home, Tranquility Cove. Carl would tell my dad that the temptation of skydiving was great but he had overcome it to go fishing instead.

At our last meeting in Columbia, South Carolina only a few years ago Carl told me of another funny experience that illustrates his sense of humor. He would get horribly sea sick anytime he was on a boat out of sight from land. In spite of this he loved sailing and even lived on a sailboat on Lake Murray. Carl had always wanted to be able to say he had worked on a shrimp boat. This was a dream of his ever sense we rode our bicycles from Sumter to Mclellandville, South Carolina. Mclellanville is a shrimp fishing vllage and Carl was fascinated with the shrimp boats and their crews. In his usual style Carl attained his dream working on a shrimp boat but as usual he also became very seasick. During one particular voyage the boat was boarded by the Coast Guard to do one of their searches for contraband, to validate the boats documents and the crews identification papers. Carl recounted how the heavily armed coast guard crewman asked for each crew member's identification in turn. All members of the crew were supposed to be topside but Carl was still in his bunk below. An armed coast guardsman went below and demanded Carl's identification. A very seasick Carl lifted himself from his bunk showing his wallet and ID. As he lifted himself up he accidentally bumped a "Popeye the Sailor Man" toy that his niece had given him. It was one of those toys that plays a song when squeezed or bumped and it started singing "I'm Popeye the Sailor Man" as Carl opened his wallet to show his ID. The coast guardsman and Carl broke up in laughter. With the ice broken the shrimp boat crew and coast guardsman laughed together and enjoyed the moment. As always when telling the story there was a twinkle in his eye and laughter in his voice.

Carl loved South Carolina and his friends and family. One of his sisters said at his funeral that "Carl was a soft spoken man who was at ease with paupers and with kings."

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