SKILL on the water and on Price Street

With friends in Vietnam and on Navy ships throughout the world, Mills Lane IV continued to maneuver minesweepers out of Charleston and negotiate renovations on his “plush little pad” at 14 Price St. in Savannah on weekends he could get away.

He wrote to several friends that he looked forward to his extended cruise in the Mediterranean.

The USS SKILL, 1967

“Following the chaste example which I set during my Cambridge youth, my Navy sexual experiences have been limited so far to several exciting haircuts and one especially vigorous shoe shine, so I’m hoping that this cruise, far away from the Lane Banking Tradition and long enough away to spare me any diseased shame, will provide an opportunity for that.”

While he praised the food on his ship – honeydew melon, hare, duck, and lobster – all was not smooth sailing as supply officer on the USS SKILL in 1967.

“We flunked our annual supply inspection.… In addition to a vast collection of errors and omissions, we committed the sin of purchasing unauthorized pretzels and corn chips and charging them to the government as potato chips, for which we have a contract. From the government’s view, we were helping to corrupt a Navy supplier: from our view, we were just using money appropriated for the ship for foods the crew wanted. Anyway, we did deserve to get nabbed, since we had not bothered to hide the loot and since … according to our records, SKILL had consumed more than two hundred pounds of potato chips in two weeks.”

It was not only the inspectors who were dissatisfied.

“My morale had a strong set-back last week. My men all put in transfer requests because they were unhappy and our supply department reports were late beyond reason.… The Captain cornered me between the port side and the motor whale boat and told me how disappointed he had become with Ensign Lane’s performance as supply officer.… The supply department seems to rush from crisis to crisis. The Captain is convinced that I am too much in the hair of my men, harassing the troops; but he is wrong, because my real fault is not demanding proper performance and just letting the men do the job on their own, a kind of negative leadership.”

In another letter he explained it slightly differently.

“The captain feels that this lowly and youthful Ensign has grown too familiar and friendly with the troops and he demands that I be cool, distant, and aloof.… Partly because I’ve been taught that to show temper is a sign of weakness, partly because I’m essentially an affable, gentle civilian at heart, and partly because I’ve enough outside interests to keep all this military business in perspective, Ensign Lane has found it hard to frown, growl, and grow tense over trivial incidents.”

Since he confessed his weaknesses in letters to family and friends, his mother would update him on house restorations in Savannah and then scold him for his Navy shortcomings.

“It worries me that you have taken a reprimand from the Captain so lightly. I think your mind has been wholly on the house – and your job in the navy has not gotten the attention it requires. Now that your house is pretty well completed – you must do the best job of anyone aboard SKILL. You must work for commendation and make up for a poor start.

“For heavens sake, start doing a good job for the Navy and your skipper.”

By the time his minesweeper headed to the Caribbean, things were looking better.

“We are now at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, an island of democracy surrounded by a sea of despotic Communism. Though there is much raw concrete and haze gray Navy paint surrounding us and not many palmy shores and native dancing girls, it is exciting to have my first trip away from our native shores to foreign parts.

“Things have picked up considerably now, since I have passed the captain’s threats on to my men and now we seem to be able to turn out the work. I’m standing watches alone now on the bridge, alone responsible for the safety of the ship at night when the other officers are asleep. Yesterday, with considerable help, I made my first landing at the pier. I’m sure you would be impressed to see this young Lord Nelson and John Paul Jones, standing proudly on the bridge, coolly and confidently commanding ‘Right standard rudder! All ahead two-thirds.'”

The ship also gave him plenty of time to think about his place in the world.

“I will definitely travel as long as money, endurance and respectability last. But after that I must decide whether to become a bankerish titan of corporate finance in my family tradition or a well-to-do ne’er-do-well or something in-between. Educated people must struggle with vague aspirations, hoping for some usefulness and meaning to their lives. Everything in me cries out for a gentle, cultivated life with time for good friends, good works and the pleasures of the mind; but everything I’ve been taught tells me I have an obligation to face the world, not escape from it, and to compete and make my mark.”

One of his friends wrote about seeing his father’s name in Time and Newsweek. One article was urging a wait-and-see attitude on recently elected Georgia Governor Lester Maddox and the other commented on the banking and financial situation at the time.

Mills IV used 14 Price Street, brick carriage house, left, as his Savannah retreat

Meanwhile his mother, Anne, continued to work on Maddox’s gardens at the Georgia Governor’s mansion and Lane projects in Savannah. She wrote to Mills IV about architect John Lebey having troubles with the city fire marshal – and the plans had to be changed on Troup Square. She met with Lebey and Oscar Hansen who was assisting with the Rainbow Row houses. She wrote that Mills Jr. thought they could get $6,000 each for houses on Barnard Street, and she wanted Mills IV to look at rough plans for the Cohen row houses that Lebey had drawn.

She also made sure to hide the liquor from the help at 14 Price St.

“I put your whisky in one of the cupboards – too much temptation out where you had it. I returned one bottle of Beefeaters Gin to you because we had had a couple of drinks out of yours.… Then, I discovered that one drink of Bourbon is out of your Bourbon bottle – but I did not switch that bottle in spite of the fact that it had been opened.”

His mother was just as detailed listing particulars on the nuts and bolts of Price St. that would be ready for his inspection, including shutters, security lights and décor. Landscape designer Clermont Lee had been on vacation, “but has your garden on the drawing board. I called Jim Williams about the Catesby prints – which we have held too long. He says it is OK to keep them until your return. He also brought you two chairs over, which I took up to the bedroom. John [Lebey] is beginning work on the balcony and front door shelter.”

There were (Mary Comer Lane) Mama Lane’s watercolors for the bedroom and Christopher Murphy art to hang.

Mills IV wrote to his Harvard friend, Lincoln Borglum, that he was refurbishing “an old carriage house into a den of carnal corruption and civilian civilization. It is being planned with a prominent spot for the Stone Mountain plaque in mind.”

Lincoln is the grandson of Gutzon Borglum who had started the Stone Mountain carving in Atlanta. He was best known, however, for creating Mount Rushmore, which his son, James Lincoln Borglum completed. Mills IV asked his friend for casts of the Stone Mountain coin eagle and an early scheme for Mount Rushmore.

“I plan to move in, right behind the carpenters and right on top of some still-remaining sawdust and plaster. I’ve collected … some fancy French cooking gear, and three cases of wine for a nascent wine cellar.”

It was the perfect retreat: “A narrow brick building about 15 feet wide, it has one living room, one bedroom and bath, plus a garden in back. I’m feeling a little guilty now, since I have splurged on some very fine furniture and furnishings, including some outstanding Chinese lamps and Chippendale chests and Persian carpets.”

He thought one friend “would call it the Pussy Palace. I do not.”

Mills IV still had the big Mediterranean trip in front of him, but he was already thinking about the years ahead: “Active duty ends in September, 1969. I’m planning now a real orgy of a trip, a Grand Tour of Europe imitating the young men fifty years ago. Though there is only one remote marital possibility in view, we could make it a Wedding Trip instead. Then I’d return from the trip for Christmas and begin work at the bank on January 2, 1970, in Atlanta.

They were not the best laid plans.

Rexanna Keller Lester is working on a book about Mills Bee Lane IV and his preservation legacy.

For more on architecture and the history of the South, click on the “Books” tab at the top of the page.

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