Bright neon signs glowed eerily through nights as dark as the loamy soil in the river-bottom world we lived in.

A string of mom-and-pop motels and locally owned restaurants stretched like Christmas tree lights, bait laid out on a lonely stretch of U.S. Highway 301 to catch tourists migrating from New York to Florida, and back again, as predictable as summer thunderstorms.

One such place was the Carolina Diner, a cinder-block building on the north side of Allendale, not much bigger than the sign itself, a hangout where locals passed those restless times known as the teen years.

By day it served as a meat-and-three lunch stop for county agents, insurance salesmen and passersby who wanted a taste of collard greens and candied yams.

But at night it transformed, magically, into a paradise where young boys smoked in public and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer flowed like water in a wishing well where we tossed our dreams and waited impatiently for them to come true.

Surrogate parents

My parents were wonderful people, hard workers, churchgoers, but they were not cool.

In every small town there was one couple who walked that social tight rope between responsibility and rebellion and made it look easy.

In our town, it was Ed and Marlene Mixson.

They owned and operated the diner, switching from meatloaf and mashed potatoes at lunch to hamburgers and happy hour at night.

Marlene was a beauty who smoked Chesterfields and possessed an I-mean-it look that could back down barking dogs and turn hotheads into apologetic angels in an instant.

Ed was an eternal entrepreneur who dabbled in politics and brought an air of sophistication to the farming community with a cigarette holder that placed him on par with FDR in our book.

Together they served as surrogate parents to a flock of kids serving time behind the Palmetto State's pine curtain, preparing us for flight into whatever lay beyond the darkness.

Innocence lost

Mostly, though, I remember the laughter.

It was the unlisted staple on a limited menu they seldom bothered to bring to the table.

Because we already knew what we wanted.

We wanted freedom and that fraternal feeling you get when you know everybody and everybody knows you.

On summer nights we would sit outside on the hoods of cars, underage, under-stimulated and under-whelmed by the life we yearned to leave.

Ed and Marlene were strict enough to keep the riff-raff away and lenient enough to sell a boy his first beer a few days before his 18th birthday, as long as nobody told his parents the next morning in church.

I miss the innocence of the hours we spent at the diner, pining for brighter lights and bigger adventures.

And I miss Ed and Marlene, the parents who helped guide us from adolescence to adulthood under the neon lights on those very dark nights so long, long ago.

Reach Ken Burger at kburger@postandcourier.com or (843) 937-5598.