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The Torts Exam That Trashed Thanksgiving

by Jay Reeves |

To this day I recall the torts exam that ruined Thanksgiving.

I wish I could rewind the clock 40 years and do things differently. But life doesn’t work that way. All we can do is drop our briefcase of regrets, heed the calendar call and keep moving towards that glorious closing argument.

For me growing up, Thanksgiving was a special time. At dawn, my family would pile in the Chevy Impala for the two-hour drive to tiny Reevesville, located deep in the South Carolina low country where the counties of Dorchester and Orangeburg come together.

Everybody in Reevesville was related, and many of them – like my grandmother Effie Reeves who at age 15 wed the notorious Red Reeves – married each other. My wife says this explains what she calls the kinks in my personality. Though I prefer to think it adds consistency to the bloodline.

Plus it keeps things simple. I don’t have to remember anybody’s name. I just call them uncle or aunt or cousin and everything is good.

Grinding Sugar Cane Into Syrup

The extended Reeves clan gathers in Reevesville on a farm that has been in the family since before the Civil War. It is like a scene from a Faulkner novel, or Woodstock with grits.

Eating is the main activity. Pecan pie and red velvet cake and candied yams and string beans and boiled peanuts. Cousin Durham, an ex-Marine, barbecues a hog. There is an outdoor privy, dogs everywhere.

Music is a big part of it. Men in bib overalls play old-time tunes on stringed instruments. Women in flowery dresses sing gospel harmony.

But the highlight is the cane grinding. Sugar cane flourishes in that hot swampy region. On Thanksgiving farmers haul their crops to the Reeves farm, where Cousin Durham built a grinder using a tractor engine and belt pulley. Everyone helps feed the cane stalks into the chute of churning cogs. The mashed, milky extract is then cooked over an open vat until it thickens into syrup.

The process is hard, sticky and time-consuming. But at the end, everyone goes home with a liquor bottle filled with warm, fresh-made cane syrup.

And Then Came Law School

I used to always look forward to Thanksgiving. That changed in my first year of law school. On Thursday morning, I woke with a sick feeling. Exams were next week, and though I had attended classes more or less faithfully I had made little effort to actually learn the material. In some – most notably Torts 101 – I was essentially clueless.

And so when my older brother pulled up in his Ford Pinto to my dorm on the USC Horseshoe, I met him with bad news.

“I can’t go,” I said. “I have to stay here and study.”

“This is not about you,” he said. “Get in the car.”

“You don’t understand. I have to learn about strict liability and proximate cause.”

My brother is an effective and forceful negotiator. That morning he effectively negotiated me in a headlock and forcibly dragged me to his car.

Tortured by Torts

It was a gray and cold day when we arrived at Reevesville. On the surface everything was the same. My parents were there, and all the others. The same picnic tables sagged under the weight of the same sugary desserts. The same pig was being cooked, the same dogs were barking.

But this year everything was different. My mood was blacker than the Carolina soil. All I could think about were the foreseeable consequences of my academic negligence. I was going to flunk Torts 101, and somehow all of these people were partly to blame. I sulked around like an unreasonable man.

“What’s wrong,” my mother asked.

“Oh nothing,” I said, playing the role of the eggshell plaintiff.

I left without even taking my bottle of cane syrup. I wondered how many health and safety regulations were being violated in the cooking process, how well they’d cleaned the liquor bottles, whether the syrup vat had been sanitized.

I couldn’t wait to get out of there and back to the more important business of punitive damages.

As Inside, So Outside

My friend Nick, who fancies himself a philosopher, has a saying: “As inside, so outside.” By that, I think he means our internal thoughts and feelings color our external perceptions, but I’m not sure. Like most lawyers, Nick loves to be obtuse.

The funny thing is, I can’t remember what grade I got on that oh-so-important torts test. And though I value my law degree, I can’t honestly say I learned anything in Torts 101 that has brought real meaning to my life.

But this Thanksgiving I’ll take I-95 down to South Carolina, past Cattle Creek and Dorange to the annual gathering at Reevesville. I can almost taste the pecan pie. My parents won’t be there, but my brother and his family will. To the unfamiliar faces I’ll just say “Hello aunt or cousin” and it will all be good.

I’ll bring back a liquor bottle of cane syrup. If I ration it carefully, it will last the whole year. It makes everything sweeter because it was made by hand, it is part of my history, it reminds me of home.


About the Author

Jay Reeves

Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina. He was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. He is the author of The Most Powerful Attorney in the World, a collection of short stories from a law life well-lived, which as the seasons pass becomes less about law and liability and more about loss, love, longing, laughter and life's lasting luminescence.

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