With an escort of dolphins on this crisp, bright morning, the ferry ride from the mainland to Sapelo Island lasts perhaps 20 minutes, a span that might as well have been spent in a time machine.
This simple, peaceful and lush but complicated island was once a slave colony.
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Now it has a dwindling and aging permanent population of fewer than 50 “Saltwater Geechee” descendants in Hog Hammock, the one remaining community on the 10-mile by 2-mile barrier island — a community that improbably nurtured and produced a Kansas City Chief: defensive lineman Allen Bailey.
It’s a people groping with how to preserve and honor their West African ancestry and customs while contending with modern times and circumstances.
“It’s almost like you can see the handwriting on the wall, but you don’t want to see it,” said Cornelia Bailey, the island “griot,” an African term for tribal historian. “So we hope and pray.”
No doctors live on this land draped in Spanish moss, an island that lies about an hour south of Savannah that you can only visit as a guest of one who lives there or as part of an organized tour.
On this day, one such tour ends with a woman who brought her three children for a look lamenting having visited this “land of sorrow.”
And while there are two paved roads, an aptly named bar called “The Trough” and a fire truck that was donated last year, there have been no schools here since 1978 and there are no cellphone services, no supermarket to speak of and no police.
Not all of that is problematic, of course.
“We don’t have crime, so you don’t need police,” said Cornelia Bailey, who is Allen Bailey’s great aunt. “You might need a doctor, but there are first-responders and emergency numbers to call. And we can call in a helicopter.
“You live on an island, so you don’t panic. You don’t have to go to school or have a medical degree to figure out some things.”
If it sounds like a certain mysticism prevails here, well, it does.
“We live by signs. Signs carry you through,” she said. “Signs of death. Signs of joy. Signs of madness. Signs of luck. Signs to plant by. Signs to fish by. Signs to give birth by.”
Live by signs as they might, there could have been no harbinger for the island cultivating a Chief, as much a fairy tale as a ferry tale.
“We have ventured out,” Cornelia Bailey said. “But Allen is our biggest adventure, that’s for sure.”
Bailey is in his third year with the Chiefs. He is a reserve but plays frequently in opponent passing situations and is an emerging presence on a defense allowing an NFL-low 11.6 points a game entering today’s game against Cleveland at Arrowhead Stadium.
“He’s a very, very athletic big man,” defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said. “I mean, he can run, change directions, has great energy. I think he is really coming on right now, honestly. And I think he can be a real factor as we move forward here. His arrow’s definitely pointing up.”
Just how that arrow was put on a trajectory from Hog Hammock to Kansas City is an improbable tale.
“Sometimes, people don’t believe it,” Bailey said, smiling.
But it’s less so for him because he had no points of comparison in how he grew up. And what would be the point of making comparisons, anyway?
That wasn’t the island way, after all. Don’t wish for what you don’t have. Enjoy what you do have.
And so Bailey did, limited as that existence might seem from the outside looking in.
The sixth of seven children always had chores to do or church to attend and someone to play touch football or basketball or hide-and-seek with.
Never mind that you had to be wary of the wild bulls and alligators and foxes and rattlesnakes.
“We couldn’t go too far because you could get lost,” he said, smiling. “That’s all we did, really: walk around.
“It was adventurous. You didn’t have the dangers of a city life, cars. You could play in the streets all day.”
That wasn’t the only thing different from city life.
Bailey grew up on a diet that among other exotic entrees featured armadillo, possum and raccoon, at times prepared by himself or one of his siblings since their parents often were working.
“I can’t really describe the taste of raccoon because it’s so different; you have to eat it yourself,” he said, laughing. “People say it tastes like chicken. It really doesn’t. It tastes wild but not, like, gamey wild. You might have to try it.”
It’s unclear what impact the diet had on Bailey, whose mother, Mary, was and is a cook at the Reynolds Mansion, a retreat on the island.
But he grew to be unusually large. So much so that his great aunt is struck by his resemblance to her father, Hicks, who was better known as “Big One” and lived to be 100.
Despite his size, or perhaps because of it, the understated Bailey was so shy, recalled Nancy Banks, an island guide, that she literally had to shove him out on a stage to play his role in an island Christmas show.
So it was determined that he’d be better-suited to behind-the-scenes work with the lights.
But Bailey was less tentative when it came to sports. He began playing organized football in seventh grade on the mainland, where, like his three sisters and three brothers, he took the ferry for school every day.
This could be family time not just with brothers and sisters but his father, Alfred, who was a first mate on the boat and a good mate to all.
So it was especially jarring when, at just age 53, Alfred died of complications after an apparent heart attack this past Labor Day.
“Everybody knew my daddy, loved my daddy,” Bailey said. “He was like me, basically, a quiet dude helping everybody.”
As football became a more serious matter in high school, Bailey frequently stayed on the mainland with friends during the week because practice wouldn’t end until well after the last ferry back at 5:30 p.m., a time he rattles off to this day.
The ferry would become a popular ride for college football coaches as Bailey came to excel for McIntosh County Academy and became conspicuous at camps, including those run by Nike and on campuses at the universities of Georgia and Florida.
Because Bailey had a voracious work ethic to match his natural attributes, said Robby Robinson, his high school coach, “Once he was seen, it just caught like wildfire. Literally, everybody in the country offered him” a scholarship.
No one, evidently, spent more time trying to lure him than Georgia coach Mark Richt.
“Oh, Coach Richt was courting him, courting him heavily,” Cornelia Bailey said. “Every time I looked up, he was courting him.”
As attached as Bailey might have been to family and home, where he reckons 95 percent of the population is related to him, he also had a yearning to get away.
So Richt “hounding me,” as he put it, didn’t help. And since he didn’t know what to make of Alabama’s new football coach, Nick Saban, he chose Miami where he became a two-time All-ACC player.
And no, he says, he had no dealings with rogue booster Nevin Shapiro, a statement Robinson believes he can back up when he says Bailey seldom ever left the campus and “wasn’t into all that stuff.”
When a high school recreation director went to visit Bailey in Miami one spring and offered to take him to dinner wherever he wanted to go, Bailey said, “Let’s go to Denny’s,” since it had good cheeseburgers.
Just weeks after being drafted in the third round of the 2011 NFL draft by the Chiefs, Bailey thrilled his family by becoming its first college graduate.
Bailey remains enamored of home and goes back as often as possible, unspoiled by moving away. He is as sincere and amiable a guy as he appears to be, everyone says.
“Like Flip Wilson said, ‘What you see is what you get,’” said Cornelia Bailey, who says that means he doesn’t drink or carouse “whatsoever” and is a magnetic role model for the few children left on the island. “He’s like a giant, with all these kids walking behind him.”
But what will there be for those children to follow going forward, to learn about the basket-weaving and making their own fish nets and living self-sufficiently off the land and the sea?
Who will be the guardians of the history and folklore, there to tell of the 400-plus slaves who once plucked cotton and cultivated rice and worked the sugar mill?
Who will help decipher the meaning of ominous-sounding places like “Behavior Cemetery” — was it thus named because unruly slaves were sent there, or was it because if they behaved it was a place to be left alone?
And what of the area called “Hanging Bull”? Was it really where slaves were hanged?
Who will tell about the crops and ways of life mirroring what’s to be found in Sierra Leone, where the endlessly inquisitive Cornelia Bailey traveled to learn about the ancestry that brought her family here under slavery in 1802?
What she saw there were familiar things: familiar fish and familiar birds and familiar bush animals and familiar foliage.
If she had the resources of Bill Gates, she would want every African-American to visit such places and see what he or she comes from.
“It’s like a missing link, a missing place, because to me once you get over there and set your foot on the soil of the mother country, something happens to you,” she said. “You’re not going to be the same.”
But Hog Hammock soon won’t be the same, either.
The average age of the island’s residents is now over 60. Even with no improvements in service, oppressive taxes are being assessed in the wake of attempts at development elsewhere on the island, which is also inhabited by a few researchers at the University of Georgia Marine Institute.
Work opportunities are increasingly scarce even as the Sapelo Island Cultural and Revitalization Society has launched the Sapelo Island Geechee Red Pea Project.
Cornelia Bailey doesn’t want to see the island become a resort, like Hilton Head — doesn’t want that kind of exposure or a bridge built here.
“We are the permanent natives of Sapelo; everybody else came and went,” she said. “But we’ve been here 200 years. So we figure we’re the permanent people, and we should be granted some special status for that fact.”
Allen Bailey reckons it’s only a matter of time before it’s all going to change. And to what, he’s not sure.
“There’s no way to know,” he said. “You can only wait.”
But as long he’s “blessed to be financially stable,” he said, “I’m going to make sure we never lose our parts” of the island — which always will be part of him.