As Phil Griffin pulled up alongside Old Bailey Road in Okatie, his passenger asked if his fare for the trip across the Broad River would still be $40.
Griffin, 64, barely had time to answer yes before he felt a blunt object slam into his head, just behind his ear.
Disoriented and incredulous, he turned and said, “Man, why’d you hit me?”
The teenager was already lifting his hammer again.
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Griffin, of Burton, remembers using his arm to block the blows, though they came anyway, striking his face again and again. He couldn’t see through the blood in his eyes, but heard his attacker get out of the car, the doors automatically locking behind him. A few seconds later, Griffin’s window exploded, and the assault continued with stones from the side of the road.
Griffin, owner of Maude’s Cab Co., and a local rhythm-and-blues musician, says he doesn’t know how he managed to drive away, blindly, down Old Bailey Road after the attack on the last Sunday in September. A mailman found him and called for help as Griffin sat in his bloodied van.
“I was just saying to myself, ‘Why? Why?’”
As he waited, Griffin called his wife, local painter Diane Britton Dunham, and told her he was hurt.
She said he wasn’t making much sense, so she called 911, as well, from another phone.
She stayed on the line even after her husband stopped responding, and a dispatcher told her an ambulance was on the way.
“I couldn’t hang up,” Britton Dunham said. “I just thought, ‘What if he comes back. What if he needs me?’ ”
BACKING UP A MUSICIAN
On Monday, nearly two months after the Sept. 28 attack, Phil Griffin played his guitar before a crowd of friends and supporters at ARTworks in Beaufort, a black fedora covering the prominent scar across his forehead.
In the audience were friends of the couple, collectors of Britton Dunham’s paintings and people who didn’t know Griffin at all. The concert and silent auction raised about $3,000 to help pay Griffin’s medical bills, according to friend and organizer Susan Madison.
“I didn’t know that so many people really cared,” Griffin said.
About 40 people donated artwork for the auction, including artists from as far as Chicago. Beaufort writer Mary Ellen Thompson, who helped plan the event, donated about a quarter of the auction items from her personal collection.
Richard Darby of the Sometimes Later Band coordinated a round-robin concert for the evening, with performances by The Sweetgrass Angels, Jan Spencer, The Warsaw Island Boys and Mahoganee.
“After that fundraiser, I understand why we stay here,” Britton Dunham said. “I understand this is the most beautiful community.”
REFUSING TO STAY DOWN
Before Monday night, the couple spent a lot of time behind the locked doors of their Burton home, too scared to drive their cab or walk their dog, Delilah, at night.
Even after the suspect in the September attack, 18-year-old Shykeim Wright of Grays Hill, was arrested in late October, picked up in connection with a Jasper County burglary, they couldn’t shake the trauma.
Griffin’s attacker knocked loose most of his teeth and fractured his face from his forehead to his mouth, Britton Dunham said. “The plastic surgeon said it was like corn flakes.”
Griffin underwent extensive reconstructive and dental surgeries, in which his face was rebuilt with titanium plates and the bridge of his mouth temporarily wired together. He has lost two front teeth so far.
Though the wires were removed, his gashes healed and his strength returned, some fear remained.
Britton Dunham didn’t want Griffin to drive his cab anymore, but it’s not in his nature to sit back when there’s work to be done, he said Thursday, reaching across his dining room table to nudge a woven placemat straight.
The 64-year-old has fixed up the bashed and blood-stained van and is taking fares again, though only from trusted customers.
“He said, ‘No, I’m not going to let (the perpetrator) do that,’” Britton Dunham said. “‘I’m not going to let him take this away from us.’”
Griffin believes Wright, whose case is pending, was after a ride and some money, though the cab driver only had about $30 in his pocket that Sunday morning.
He wishes the teen would have simply told him he couldn’t pay.
“Some people think in this life you’ve got to take what you want,” Griffin said.
‘HAPPY TO HAVE ANOTHER DAY’
Griffin was raised to believe in hard work.
His father and uncle built a cab company in the 1950s, with his mother, Maude, taking over in 1999. The Maude’s Cab Co. name stuck when Griffin became the owner in 2000.
The business has allowed him to support his music and Britton Dunham’s art. Their Burton home is filled with her vibrant paintings depicting black life and culture on the Sea Islands.
“We were just sort of looking forward to retirement,” said Britton Dunham, 59.
However, Griffin enjoyed his job, and for those who were regular customers in his maroon van, he became more of a friend and therapist than a driver.
Morgan Waters, who met Griffin about three years ago when she needed the occasional ride to work, said he’s generous with advice and favors.
“You can have the worst day and you can step into his cab, and he can turn your day around in a heartbeat with just a smile,” said Waters, 32.
Waters had heard Griffin play for the first time a few days before he was attacked, when he stopped by her and her fiancé’s home and tuned their guitar and piano.
When their guitar was in working order, the musician made up a song.
“It was just a little ditty, but it was so beautiful,” Waters said.
On Thursday, Griffin cradled a Les Paul guitar, which he calls his sweetie, his sugar. He said he’s amazed he’s alive, let alone still making music.
“Thanks to the good Lord, I’m still here,” he said. “I’m just happy I have another day in my life to live.”