When Junius Wright and his students sit down to write, it is utterly silent at the Navy Yard except for the scratch of pencils on paper, the whisper of dying shrubs in the November wind, and the occasional clank of steel from Detyens Shipyards. The students are rewriting history, and the new version is a bit surreal.
The students are spread out on the graying asphalt near an empty building with a collapsed roof. On an exterior wall near the entrance, a plaque explains what happened at the site: “The machine shop, which formerly belonged to Project Wildfire, was used for shelter by a small group of Event survivors. Documents recovered from this and other locations around the base lead Scribes to believe that this group included at least two of the Afward children, Dr. Elias Nines, and a mechanic from the shop.”
The reader is left to imagine what Project Wildfire could be, who the Afward children were, and what sort of doctor Elias Nines was. It helps to know that the Scribes are the students, members of an elective creative writing class taught by Wright at Academic Magnet High School. And the Event? That’s intentionally open-ended.
Wright explains, “The idea is to be vague, but not so vague it’s frustrating.” Like a good pop song. Or a myth.
Wright first directed students from the 2010-2011 school year in what he has called the Three Dimensional Story Project — a series of plaque installations and smart-phone-scannable QR codes placed on empty buildings around the Navy Yard. The narratives on the signs skew toward the post-apocalyptic literary stylings of H.G. Wells, Pat Frank, and Richard Matheson. He says some of the students wanted to create a zombie story, but others threatened to quit if they took that route. As a compromise, some of the plaques make mention of bodies piling up after an outbreak of the mysterious AEB12 bacteria, but the Event is also described as the outpoured wrath of a god named Old Tom Longlegs.
“They are pretty well-versed on dystopian literature,” says Wright, pointing to the recent zombie craze in young-adult fiction and to movies like Wall*E. In this year’s class, he had the students read Ray Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains,” a short story set in 2026 that consists entirely of descriptions of automated appliances operating in an unsettlingly empty house.
In the narrative the students have created, mankind’s greatest city once stood where the Navy Yard stands today. Of course, the history accepted by most North Charleston residents is more mundane: President Theodore Roosevelt ordered that a naval shipyard be built there in 1902, and by the time of the Second World War, it employed nearly 26,000 people, many involved in the building of destroyers like the U.S.S. Tillman. In its latter years, the Navy Yard became a production site for nuclear submarines, but demand and funding dwindled after the Cold War. The base closed down in 1996, and political and legal complications have left many of the historic buildings untouched and unpreserved.
“This already looks like a post-apocalyptic wasteland,” Wright says, standing near the school bus as his students take notes on another derelict building next to the Machine Shop. It’s certainly not the sort of description that the area’s main developers, the Noisette Company, would like to hear. But standing in this wide expanse of shuttered warehouses and aggressive weeds, it is not difficult to imagine a once-mighty civilization hunkered low and dying in the wreckage of concrete and rebar.
It is Friday morning at the Navy Yard, and Wright’s two classes of creative writing students are fanned out across a field between a Section 8 apartment complex and an abandoned stretch of railroad. The field is populated by rows upon rows of concrete obelisks, arrayed like terra cotta soldiers guarding an emperor’s tomb.
The obelisks were originally used to store sheet metal upright as trains moved materials in and out of the Navy Yard, but Wright isn’t interested in that. Today’s field trip is more of a brainstorming session than a fact-finding expedition, and he has instructed the students to take notes on sensory details and start dreaming up legends for sites that have not yet been marked.
Slipping through the gaps, one student quips that these might be Stonehenge wannabes. Another, sophomore Matthew Stapleton, takes a note about the marking on one structure in particular. “I see a cross, so I think it’s a priest,” he says. Stapleton, who wears a swim team jacket and sports pink and green bands on his braces, favors the epidemic narrative in his explanation. These objects, he says, are grave markers.
In February, Los Angeles artist Eames Demetrios stopped by North Charleston to speak with the Scribes. Perhaps more than any living artist, Demetrios knows what they are trying to accomplish. For nine years, he has been constructing a worldwide installation project as the geographer-at-large for a realm he calls Kcymaerxthaere (pronounced ky-MARE-ix-theer, it is significantly a cognate of both “chimerical” and “camera”). In the introductory spiel on his website, Demetrios describes Kcymaerxthaere as “an alternative universe that is largely consistent with our linear world in some ways, though it has many different stories, rules, creatures, even laws of science it seems.” So far, he has installed 83 bronze plaques and historic sites in 15 different countries.
“I think what the kids have done is totally fun, but what’s really deep about the experience of the project is that it helps you look at the world afresh,” Demetrios says. The beauty of both Kcymaerxthaere and the Three Dimensional Story Project is that they encourage a different sort of thinking about the physical world.
“I would argue that it’s very important to know what’s there, but often it’s equally or even more important to know the possibilities,” he says. “The things people prize the most” — relationships, careers — “didn’t exist at first.”
Demetrios returned to Charleston during Spoleto in May to install two markers, one at the Old City Jail and one at the bottom of a range marker in the Charleston Harbor. He got an Academic Magnet student to illustrate part of the jail story, and a student at the American College of the Building Arts is in the process of creating a carving of the image to place next to the marker.
Wright says the students were a little overwhelmed at first when Demetrios launched into the Kcymaerxthaere narrative in February, but they latched on to the idea once he started explaining the reasons he did what he did. Demetrios remembers giving one piece of advice: “Be willing to surrender to this journey. See where it’s really going to take you.”
The second stop on the students’ expedition is the old Navy hospital, a two-story white building topped with mission-style red shingles. Here, Wright hands them a death certificate and toe tag for a 23-year-old man named Lee Patrick Thompson. The cause of death is listed as an overdose of Risperidone, which 10th-grader Maxx Bradley looks up on his friend’s iPhone and finds out is an antipsychotic drug used to treat schizophrenia. Supposedly, both documents were found in the infirmary.
Wright has planted a few “artifacts” at the sites; others were already there. Arden Turkewitz says she had a hard time processing her teacher’s explanation of the project at the beginning of the semester.
“When he told us about it in class, I wasn’t sure what was true,” Turkewitz says. “I think it’s hard to separate fiction from reality.”
As the students search for clues around the building, sophomore John Baldwin — who plays drums with Bradley in an indie band called Ramona Splice — takes pictures with his point-and-shoot camera of the asbestos warnings posted at the barred entryways. Back at the last site, Baldwin had the foresight to count the rows of concrete markers — 115 in all, with 18 in most rows, making for a total of about 2,070.
After looking at the infirmary, the students get back on the bus and ride to the site of an abandoned chapel called the Eternal Father of the Sea. That name is actually a reference to a song found in old Navy hymn books, but a plaque installed by the last group of scribes indicates that worshipers of the Greek sea god Poseidon had once congregated there until they were persecuted and killed by the religious majority in the 1990s.
Brian Graves, a professor in the department of communication arts at Georgia Southern University, says he nearly believed the plaque when he found it while exploring the Navy Yard five months ago. When he finally did some Googling and found the sign’s genesis, he arranged to meet with Wright on the Navy Yard and talk about the project.
“I think the work that he is doing is really profound, particularly because he’s tapping into the creative potential of young people,” Graves says, “and maybe their imaginations are freer than old people’s imaginations are sometimes.”
The day ends with lunch at Riverfront Park. The students have spent three hours exploring old buildings, including later stops at an unlabeled brick shed and a porticoed manse they are calling the Admiral’s House. Maybe an admiral really did live there at one point, or maybe he was a commandant. Aside from the Three Dimensional Story Project, there are few if any historical markers on the Navy Yard.
The students prompt senior Balu Pillai to share the story he’s been working on all day, and he takes a long gulp from his water bottle before beginning. Picture this: A man called the Custodian, whose father was the Custodian before him, has been wandering the fields and ruins of the Navy Yard, searching for pieces of the truth about what really happened during the Event. He lives in an abandoned building where every window has been smashed out. His brother was Lee Patrick Thompson, and he suspects that his death had less to do with Risperidone than with shady dealings done by the Admiral.
It’s a work in progress. In the end, even Riverfront Park is eerie at midday, its mundane details now imbued with mystery: its abstract metal sculptures, the faint tire tracks in its broad carpet of grass, the graduation tassel someone left on its sidewalk, the arthritic-looking knobs in the trunks of its topiaries. There are legends here, and there is history. Take your pick.
The Noisette Company warns that it is unsafe to go inside many of the Navy Yard buildings due to structural damage, asbestos, lead paint, and copper thieves.