To understand the Tushkins, you must first understand their homeland. Amidst a frenzy of roadwork and planned developments, Bynum stands out like an extra five pounds on a supermodel. Now an artists’ enclave and natural oasis, Bynum was first settled by a family of yeomen in 1779.
We moved to Bynum in January 2001. Like many others, we chose this area because we love the sound of birds, rushing water, and rustling leaves more than we love the sound of traffic and sirens. Some people don’t recognize its beauty right away, but to us, Bynum is paradise.
We discover something new each day that we explore this town of 250 residents just 10 miles south of Chapel Hill. It was during one such exploration that we made our find. A bunch of friends were over for our housewarming party. It was about midnight, and we were sitting around a lovely blazing bonfire. We’d all partaken of some frosty beverages, which must have bolstered our collective sense of adventure as well as our vulnerability to peer pressure.
Consequently, we decided to take a moonlit stroll down to the river. We were standing on the sad, sagging, old bridge, now closed to traffic. We listened to the rush of the Haw River before someone noticed the dark silhouette of the old mill shrouded in a light fog. We had an enormous Maglite with us. Naturally, we seized the moment made apparent by our rare state of impairment.
What we saw there looked eerie under the atmospheric conditions. Dark brick columns and ash surrounded the burnt out ruins of a once solid pillar of a once vibrant community. We were to learn later that it required five tries for a mysterious arsonist to reduce the mill to this unseemly condition. It was also one of those nights when the clouds pass swiftly across the moon. For some reason, those sorts of scenes always give me the feeling that something big is about to happen, and that night, it did.
Having not yet done our proverbial historical “homework,” we were wondering what the purpose of the mill had been, what they might have made or stored there before this place fell to cinders. So, we started stepping through all of the debris, sleuthing for clues. We found pottery shards, some clothes that people had dumped, that sort of thing.
Then, I shone the flashlight onto something that didn’t belong, something I will never, never forget. I remember somebody saying, “What the . . .” We moved closer. There were zillions of them lying there. All these smiling, happy little – well, you can imagine. I picked one up. “Look,” I said. “They’re jolly little bottoms with feet.”
Our friend, Lancie located the boxes that once housed these inexplicable artifacts. The title read: “It’s Tush, the Squeezable, Scented Greeting Card.”
We ascertained that these had once been air fresheners bearing some sort of Hal-mark style adage like “Happy New Year and Bottoms Up!” What was particularly striking, however, was that several ethnicities were represented in the Tushkin fold. There were African American ones, Anglo ones, Latino ones, Jewish ones, but no Asians. “Yeah, what’s up with that?” a friend from Calcutta interjected with indignation.
We glanced back at the disaster-ravaged ground around us. Some of the Tushkins were scorched; some had lost their stylish straw hats. Yet even more of them were tragically pinned beneath cinder blocks, and a whole mess of them were, in fact, surrounded by yellow police tape. It was one jolly bottom graveyard. It gave us pause.
We felt we should at least observe a moment of silence. Then we began feverishly stuffing Tushkins into our pockets. These could make a mint on E-bay.
As we retreated up the block to our house, I grew overcome with guilt. “Don’t ya’ll sort of feel like we’re tomb raiding?,” I queried. My friend, Joy offered a wise perspective/justification. “No, don’t you see, Molly?,” she responded. “These were creatures intended to go forth into the world and explore the beauty all around us, but they were thwarted. This is our chance to liberate the Tushes!!”
“Free Tushie!” we chanted all the way home.
It turns out that someone else had already liberated hundreds of Tushkins about a decade prior to our own effort. The next morning, which we now refer to as “THE DAY AFTER,” we wandered into the Bynum General Store. I asked the store owner, Jerry Partin, “So now, Jerry, what exactly was it that they had down there in that mill?”
Jerry waited a moment and then smirked, “Well you know about the Tushkins, don’t you?”
I told him that I perhaps possessed some casual knowledge of the Tushkins, but I’d like to hear more from him.
“Well, the mill started out as a textile mill. Most of our families worked there back when Bynum was bustling with its own movie theater, five stores, school, restaurant, game room; it was full of life then. When we were kids, we’d eat at each other’s house. If we got in trouble there, our parents would know about it before we reached home, and we’d get another spanking. In the later years, they began to make those large ceramic desk lamps you see in motels. Then, they stored models of the Roman Coliseum or something like that. And then came the Tushkins. I don’t really know where they were made, but they definitely were stored in Bynum.”
Several of us simultaneously asked the obvious, “Uh, what were they for?”
“No one knows,” said Jerry. “But a while back, somebody broke into the mill and stole box loads of those things. I guess when they opened the crates, they didn’t like what they saw, because it seems they tossed each and every one out the car window. For years, Tushkins were found scattered all over the highways and byways of North Carolina.”
I imagined what it would have looked like if Hansel and Gretel had left a trail of Tushkins instead of breadcrumbs. “I’ll have to take a load with me next time I go for one of my treks in the woods,” I thought to myself.
After talking with our neighbors about this fascinating topic of Tushkins, we learned that they have been one of the village’s best kept secrets until only recently. Now they are finally beginning to enjoy the fame they are due, and they are, as Joy predicted, seizing the day to become world travelers at last. My friend, Josh has a photo of his Shirpa holding a Tushkin at base camp on Everest. My friend, Jodie has tourist shots of Tushkins at every major monument in D.C. Tushkins are just one of the many things that make Bynum special. Aloha, you great Tushkin adventurers!! We miss you back home.
P.S. Supposedly, the mill once stored praying pig figurines as well. My friend, Dan has one, but that’s another story.