PORTERDALE — Life was good — might have been perfect a few decades back, but for that long bridge over the Yellow River. As every local kid knew, under that span lurked a monster.
At dusk, when Porterdale’s children were heading home from a day at play, she was likely to reach up, her hands curled like claws, and —
There’d be a shriek, some muffled howls as she shoved her prey into a sack, then all was quiet again. Soap Sally had claimed another victim.
Soap Sally. Even now, thinking about her makes Darrell Huckaby quake just a little bit. Fifty years ago, when he was a boy, Huckaby used to race across that Newton County bridge.
“We were all scared to death of her,” said Huckaby, 60, a high school history teacher and columnist for several North Georgia newspapers. “We were really sure that Soap Sally was a real person.”
She came by her name (dis)honestly — the snaggle-toothed crone turned children into soap. She’d pop kids in her steamy old black cauldron and render their body fat into suds.
Or so the grownups said. On the strong advice of their parents, kids sprinted home before night fell.
Now, a parent himself, Huckaby understands why older folks let young imaginations run wild. A monster prowling about the town can get a kid home quicker than a mother yelling from her porch.
“They (parents) used her like a weapon to keep us in line,” he said.
That was in the late 1950s and 1960s, when Porterdale, 45 miles east of Atlanta, was a manufacturing dynamo. Osprey, Porterdale, Welaunee: the town’s mills employed thousands, working around the clock. A whistle regulated the ebb and flow of life, its shrieks signaling the end of one work shift and the beginning of the next.
Spring and summer were great times. On May 1, by unspoken decree, the kids of Porterdale chucked their shoes and strolled the town barefoot. Huckaby remembers playing in creeks and swimming in the Yellow River’s dark currents, roaming town under the watchful eyes of hundreds of parents.
“There was nothing to fear in Porterdale,” he said.
But people need to feel fear, said Atlanta psychologist Susan Rudnicki. The human brain, she said, is wired to scare its owner; it’s a holdover from prehistory, when Homo sapiens faced real danger and sometimes had to run, literally, for their lives.
“Fear is our most intense emotion,” she said. “We get off on it.”
Mark Christian saw that fear first-hand. He put down the walking stick he was carving recently and pointed across an empty field to some distant houses. He remembers children running, hard, to reach those homes as night stretched dark fingers from forest and alley.
“Grownups, they’d say, ‘If you don’t get home Soap Sally’ll get you.’”
Sally never got Christian or any of Porterdale’s young, but she did leave some indelible memories among a dwindling few.
“Most of those people who remember her,” he said, “they’ve moved on.”
Folks like Huckaby, who lives in Conyers. But he returns to his little town every so often to drive its tiny streets. Maple, Oak, Poplar: he knew them, roamed them, when he was young.
But the bridge?
On a recent afternoon, long-shadowed and warm, Huckaby returned to that old bridge. It’s long, about 110 yards, and hardly different now than it was five decades ago. For a few moments, he’s a kid again.
It’s night. The bridge stretches forever. The river gurgles.
Or is that a chuckle?
His heart races. He takes a deep breath. And he’s off, bare feet slapping the concrete, arms and legs scissoring, the wind whistling in his ears, running running running.Is that a hand?
Remember Soap Sally tonight, dear reader, especially if you come across a bridge. As long as they live in peoples’ memories, monsters never go away.