In the aftermath of the tragic accident of the Exotics Band while they were traveling to a gig in North Carolina 50 years ago on Oct. 3, 1969, those who survived are considered to be highly blessed by our Lord and Savior to have escaped the claws of death on that night. As we rewind our memory of this misfortune, it can only be understood in this plain and simple saying: “It was not their time.”
As to the dearly departed souls of John “Pogo” Riley and Lemuel “Lem” Austin, their names were taken off the roll book of life. In the comment section of their report card, it stated, “Completed all of the requirements.”
The eight survivors came away from the accident with the following injuries:
• Harry Palmer lost both legs
• Levi McDonald lost one leg
• Francis Thompson had a fractured thigh and forearm
• Coleman Sistrunk had a fractured thigh
• Clayton Fogle had a laceration of the left arm
• Russell Kennedy had a laceration of right arm
• Dwight McMillan had back and neck pains
• James Stroman had abdominal injuries
Dwight McMillan was an original member of the Exotics Band. As with all of the rest of the members, he was a student of James B. Hunt, the band director at Wilkinson High School.
“Mac,” as he is called by the people who know him, started out playing the alto saxophone. When he graduated from Wilkinson High School in 1963, McMillan continued to push the band to greater heights by negotiating contracts with white booking agents like Ted Hall who was based in Charlotte, North Carolina. At the same time, when the group played for black events or were backing up black recording artists, he would contract with such black booking agents like “Satellite Poppa” and Roger Redding, who were well known in the black circuit.
To keep up with the musical sounds that the black recording artists were making, McMillan decided to switch to the baritone saxophone because that instrument was heard in almost all of their recordings.
He became a driving force and the leader for the Exotics when they began leasing The Ghana Club in Greenville in the late 1960s.
Of the fatal accident, McMillan said, “I don’t know how I got out when the bus stopped. When I came around, I was in the hospital. I stayed in the hospital for a week and then returned to Orangeburg after being dismissed. My injuries consisted of back and neck pains.
“Over the years, I have had to deal with the accident in my own way. I can tell you that at times it has been tough. That accident changed my life, but I was determined to continue with my music and the band. We regrouped and started practicing again and not long after that, we were back on the road.”
McMillan became the band director of Harleyville-Ridgeville High School, Orangeburg-Wilkinson High School and finally Claflin University, where,he retired.
James Stroman became the keyboard player with the Exotics Band in the summer of 1967 after graduating from Wilkinson High School. Stroman was also a member of the Wilkinson High School Band under James B. Hunt.
James replaced Roger Jarvis as the keyboard player for the Exotics when Jarvis graduated from South Carolina State College and went into the Army. At that time, Stroman was an incoming freshman at South Carolina State College.
Of the accident, Stroman said, “While lying on the ground, I remember seeing the rescue people placing Palmer on the stretcher and then I saw them place his cut-off legs on the side of him. I was frantic seeing that."
“When I got to the hospital, I had cracked ribs and was bleeding on the inside, along with having back pains. I also recall the students from Western Carolina University coming to the hospital to give blood.
“Over the last 50 years, I have had many bad dreams and nightmares about what happened on that night of the accident. Sometimes I would wake up screaming, feeling like I was going to die. On many nights, my wife Mary would have to shake me until I came out of the dream. That was very tough.
“I am very blessed to have come through that tragic accident without any major problems. For that reason, I give the Lord thanks at all times. He brought me through that difficult period and I am so thankful.”
Stroman became the band director for Holly-Hill Roberts High School, Ruffin High School and Clark Middle School in Orangeburg.
In 1969, the Exotics made the decision to add another trumpet player to the group. This came about because they were growing in popularity as well as being in demand all over the state.
Clayton Fogle became a second trumpet player along with Leroy McClain for the Exotics Band. He was another in the long list of musicians that Wilkinson High School Band Director James B. Hunt nurtured and gave inspiration.
While a student at Wilkinson, Clayton was recruited to play the trumpet for John Wright and the Invincibles Band and Show. With his great talent, the Exotics Band approached him about being one of their trumpet players. He soon made the decision to take the offer. Clayton graduated from Wilkinson High School in 1969.
“When we left to go to the gig in North Carolina, my mom told me she did not want me to go with the band, but she laid my clothes out for me,” Fogle said “She said, ‘I felt like something was going to happen.’”
About the accident, he said, “Somehow, I was able to tie a tourniquet on my left arm covering the gash on my forearm. Then I climbed out of the bus through a hole that was ripped in the top of the bus.
“When I got to the hospital, the doctor told me, ‘If you can grab my fingers and squeeze my hand, we might be able to save your arm.’ It took all I had in me to squeeze his fingers. I was scared that I might lose my arm.
“Over the last 50 years, I have had many nights of bad dreams and haunting nightmares. That accident was an experience in my life that I have had to live with, and those memories will never be forgotten.
“I can say this much. God spared my life for some reason and for that. I have given him thanks each and every day since. I am very grateful.”
Today, Fogle lives in California and is a wildlife photographer and instructor at a community college.
Coleman Sistrunk was a graduate of Wilkinson High School and received his musical training under band director James B. Hunt. While at Wilkinson, Coleman played trumpet in the band. Sistrunk joined the Exotics Band while in high school. He also became the group’s first permanent bass player.
“Two weeks before our gig at Western Carolina University, my father died. During that time, I was unable to play with the band because my family had to make arrangements for his funeral.” Sistrunk said.
“Knowing that I needed to be with my family, I asked local bass player David Stephens to fill in for me.
“On the day of Oct. 3, I decided to rejoin the band and go to the gig in North Carolina. When my mom dropped me off on the campus of South Carolina State, she told me, 'I don’t want you to go because I had a dream that y’all were going to have an accident.'
“While traveling to the gig, for some reason, I kept thinking about my dad. I even dreamed about him when I fell asleep.”
Of the accident, he said, “I can remember lying on the ground next to Palmer. His legs were broken off all the way to his knee cap. It was terrifying seeing both of his legs cut off. While we were lying there, Palmer kept trying to give me comfort even though he was in worse condition than I.
“As we waited for help, Palmer kept on talking and acting as if nothing had happened. He was the only one that I remember seeing and talking to.
“After being released from the hospital and returning to Orangeburg, it took about a year for me to regain my health and start playing the bass guitar again.
“Over the last 50 years, I have had to live with that tragic and traumatizing event. There were many times when; I had to keep myself mentally strong and yes, there have been some low moments that would totally consume my ability to control my feelings and thoughts. Those memories will never die.
For some unknown reason, Coleman did not rejoin the Exotics after his recovery. He joined a group on the campus of South Carolina State College known as the Soul Agents Band.
Today, Sistrunk is a retired band director and is using his musical talents performing in church while living in Columbia.
Harry Palmer was the drummer and one of the founding members of the Exotics Band. He began his musical training at Wilkinson High School under James B. Hunt, just as all of the other members did.
Hunt was responsible for molding and nurturing the members of the Exotics Band into becoming exceptional musicians. From that point, they carried themselves beyond the scope of their musical education they received in high school.
Of the surviving members of the accident, Palmer suffered the worst of the injured members. He had to face a new life with the loss of both of his legs. With that life-changing event, he was shifted into a most precarious position of not being able to play the drum set as he once did.
Having to live with this new physical condition became a monumental task he was facing. Before the accident, Palmer lived a life of independence and freedom from restricted movement and use of his body to do whatever he wanted and when.
After the accident, “I remember my mom coming to the hospital to see me.” Palmer said. “She didn’t know my legs were cut off because they were propped up with a sheet covering them. The doctor said, ‘He will be all right without his legs.’ After hearing that, my mom immediately fainted.
“I stayed in the hospital rehab unit until the day before Thanksgiving. That day, my wife picked me up and brought me back to Orangeburg.
“When I came home, my life was in disarray. I was still in a lot of pain as I made the adjustment without my legs. Along with being in bed, the bed sores developed.
“Each day, I watched television until my wife came home for lunch. I really looked forward to her coming home. After a while, it became boring. This was the way I lived every day until I made up my mind to start playing music again.
My doctor wanted me to try a set of prosthetic legs, but they were very uncomfortable for me to stand up straight and keep my balance. Therefore, I decided to cut off the leather cuffs and use it to fit on my legs like a shoe.
“I drew up a plan to use the cuffs to cover my knees to help me to walk like anybody else. Then I carried them to my doctor. He looked at what I drew up and said, ‘If you feel that you can learn to stand up and keep your balance, go for it.’
“Then one day, I tried standing up on the bed and then realized I could walk on my cut-off legs. I was leaning all kinds of ways and after a while, I was able to find my balance.
"Some weeks later, my good friend Willie Lyles came over to see me. I asked him to help me out of the bed to the floor. I was wobbling trying to stand up but, I did. Then, I tried one leg at a time and before long, I was able to keep my balance.
“While making the many adjustments in my life, I enrolled into the vocational rehab program here in Orangeburg. Mr. Willie Thompson was my counselor. With his assistance, I started feeling and seeing progress day by day.
“In 1971, I graduated from Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College in watch making. From there, I set up a repair shop in my house for all types of watches and clock repairs.
“During this time, I started working to build my drum-playing skills back to where I was before the accident. Not having my legs, I would sit on the floor and use a drum practice pad to help build my weak points and keep up my rudiments. I practiced each and every day.
“Then I came up with an idea that would allow me to play the bass drum and the high hat cymbal even though my left leg was longer than my right.
“I contacted Sam Still and he made the extended legs that I had designed. It took me some time to get it together but; I knew I had to work hard to overcome my situation.
"In 1971, Bobby Houser and Josh Johnson gave me an opportunity to play along with their disco group,” he said. “When they had a gig, I performed behind the music that they played.
“Since I lost both of my legs, most people thought that I would never perform again. I just refused to accept my physical condition as being the end of my playing days.”
Palmer also performed with the Herman Daniels Band for a short time. His next step came when Orangeburg’s jazz master, Skipp Pearson, recruited him to perform with his jazz group.
In 1972, he became the leading force in forming the Vibrations Band and Show that included Willie Lyles, Allen Johnson and Richard Reid.
As for the accident, he said, “I have been able to block that out of my mind over the years. Since then, I have had a good 50 years of living with my physical condition that I was left with after the accident. I take that as being a bonus in my life.
"I am happy and very thankful as I move forward in living my life.”
Richard Reid is president of the Orangeburg Historical and Genealogical Society. His mission is researching Orangeburg history, with a particular emphasis on the role of African Americans in that history.
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