One More for the Road

Doo Dad’s serves seafood to go and community to stay

by André Gallant

Larry Geter counts cars. Lois Geter counts frog legs. Each measures the pace of Friday lunch rush at Doo Dad’s, the couple’s roadside food stand in Woodbine, Georgia. Vehicles line the shoulder along Kinlaw Road, where a candy-striped tent sheathed in white plastic stands on the Geters’ driveway. Customers wait inside their rides, doors open, listening for their orders. Under the tent, the Geters, seventy years old and married for fifty, conduct the show.

“I got him and him.” Larry points at an idling pickup truck, then at a tan sedan skirting the drainage ditch. Dressed in a blue plaid shirt and black slacks, he cranes his body through the service window to assess current volume. At times, the motorcade extends from the Geters’ house north to the intersection with US Highway 17, the coastal route that once defined this quiet part of northern Camden County, before an interstate bypass shuttered its gas stations and barbecue stands.

Doo Dad’s catches eyes. Years ago, the Geters painted their home flamingo pink, and the glow registers all the way to the highway. They stake tall yellow flags, with red letters proclaiming seafood, along the curbs. Some days, Atlantic winds off the salt marshes ripple the flags. Others, humidity weighs them down like soaked beach towels.

Larry knows how to attract and entertain a crowd. He made a name for himself around Camden as a James Brown impersonator in the 1980s and 90s. He dressed in a white suit and black cape to strut the camel dance, funky chicken, and boogaloo at retirement homes. Larry never charged for his appearances; he calls it an honor to dress as his idol. He no longer imitates the Godfather of Soul, but he keeps laminated photos of himself in full regalia posted around Doo Dad’s.

Larry eyeballs a motorcycle he hasn’t accounted for yet. He realizes it belongs to a leather-clad regular reclining at a picnic table. He checks the small spiral notebook he codes with initials and numerals to tally orders for oysters, pork chops, chicken livers, and pork chitterlings. He missed something. Larry calls back to Lois to drop another frog leg.

Lois tells him they’re running out. Frugal with words, she lets Larry run his mouth with customers. A flour-dusted apron wraps her indigo shirt and pants, and her gaze pivots between stations. She bathes and dredges butterflied shrimp through egg wash and flour—these will become what regulars call “three-and-a-half-bite shrimp”—then plunks them into deep fryers, where cornmeal-battered conch fritters and armies of okra catch their garlicky crust.

Larry discovers a fresh bus tub of dressed legs. Minutes later, Lois answers the call: Frog leg down!

“Fred, we got you in the grease,” Larry yells to the biker.

The business that now thrives on the Geters’ lawn developed over years. Doo Dad’s began as a hobby, indulged during weekends and vacations. They catered high school football games and car shows, traveled to bike rallies as far away as Kansas City. Attendees to any public event around Camden County expected a meal prepared in the Geters’ mobile kitchen. While this corner of south Georgia has weathered decades of booms and busts, the Geters and their fried fish have remained constant.

For years, change couldn’t find Camden County. Then, all of a sudden, it couldn’t be stopped.

Slave labor built wealth in southeast Georgia via rice and cotton harvest. Timber and turpentine took over after the Civil War. The Gilman Paper Company opened a mill in 1941, and a smokestack skyline materialized along the North River, enveloping the region in its trademark sulfuric stank.

Larry worked at Gilman for thirty-four years. Lois worked across the state line at a mill on Amelia Island, Florida, for thirty-eight years. Just about everybody else they knew depended on mill work. Few complained, except about the smell.

Over the years, Larry learned about food and its effect on people. On the Geter family homestead, which Larry can spy from his pink front porch, his father, Robert “J” Geter, ran a fish fry-slash-juke joint in a wood-sided outbuilding. Dance tunes pulled people in from Friday night until sermons called on Sundays.

Kids fished for bream and whiting in creeks; the catch wound up in J’s sandwiches. Groups boated out to barrier island beaches for “sanding” sessions, when five people worked a 100-foot seine net. They’d cast out into breaking waves and return with enough shrimp to fill bucket after bucket. A few hours’ labor produced enough to sate a neighborhood.

For most folks, these traditions—from juke dancing to sanding—remain as memories only, set adrift by the moment that revolutionized Camden County.

In 1979, the Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base opened near St. Marys. The arriving fleet of underwater warships—which brought 5,000 seamen, technicians, and their families—transformed this place. “I used to know everybody,” then-Mayor Alvin Dickey told The New York Times that year. “Now I don’t.”

The population more than doubled by 1990 and grew by almost fifty percent over the next decade. Chain restaurants and mini malls filled in the roadsides between towns, and farmers let fields go fallow in favor of subdivisions. Eventually global forces came into play. A Mexican corporation bought Gilman in 1999. By 2006, bankruptcy ended Larry’s run at the company, along with hundreds of others who were also laid off. Developers renovated the old mill houses; the soot disappeared from lap siding and the smell evaporated. Newly arrived naval workers bought those same houses at four times their previous value.

For years, change couldn’t find Camden County. Then, all of a sudden, it couldn’t be stopped.

A cosmopolitan-country divide now defines Camden, explains Gordon Jackson, a reporter for the Brunswick News who’s covered Camden County since the early 1990s. New transplants live in the city, while the old guard claims the countryside. On Kinlaw Road, Jackson says, longtime residents tend to resist Camden’s so-called progress. They believe that preservation can guide the county forward. Not everything needs development, the argument goes. It’s nice to know your neighbors. And the best food often comes from their front yards.

Not long after the mill closed, the Geters made their front yard a permanent post. The name they chose honors the neighborhood. On Kinlaw Road, when you spy someone you recognize, whether you know them well or not, you holler at them, “Hey, bust-eye!” or “Hey, doo-dad!” The latter sounded a little more polite. Doo Dad’s became a beacon, just like J’s before it.

The Geters’ deep influence on Kinlaw draws people close. Old friends and relatives stop by on leisure drives, just to say hi. Younger regulars collect the pink-and-blue rubber bands that encircle Styrofoam clamshells—Larry’s signal for a complete order—around their gear shifts, where they accumulate like tree rings. They mark time. And some regulars fear that’s running short.

They wager that as economic development improves or demolishes—depending on whom you ask—the vestiges of small-town life in Camden County, front-yard fry shops, like the juke joints that preceded them, won’t endure. The Geters’ age adds to the worries that Doo Dad’s may close. Nobody around here wants that to happen anytime soon.

While the Geters planned to retire from the mill, they never expected to stop working. They believe in staying occupied. “You’re going to get old one day, and you’re going to need something to carry you on,” Larry says. In other words: Find your Doo Dad’s.

A recent scare put this counsel to the test. In 2017, during an event in Orlando, Larry cut himself while repairing a trailer tire and developed a staph infection. The bacteria spread through his body. He lost consciousness. “I didn’t know nobody for three days,” he recalls. He closed Doo Dad’s for a year while he recovered. When he reopened the tent in the spring of 2018, traffic backed up Kinlaw Road. Today, the trauma lingers—Larry walks with a cane when not in the kitchen and takes breaks on a wooden stool by the register. But when the next customer drives up to nab a whiting plate, Larry springs to the ready.

Toward the end of the lunch rush, Lois shakes bronzed shrimp from a fry basket into a clamshell. She adds conch fritters to the mix, and a condiment cup of her creamy hot sauce.

Larry tucks in a scoop of french fries, closes the lid, and looks for the person who ordered them. He grabs a referee whistle and leans out the tent; he locates his target across the street and gives the whistle a blast.

“Tan sedan! Your food is ready!”

Tickets cleared, Larry and Lois walk back to the house to sit a spell. Their respite won’t last. Car tires crunch pebbles in the driveway and a horn toot draws the Geters back to the kitchen. From there, they oversee Kinlaw Road, the place they call home.

André Gallant is a journalist based in Athens, Georgia, and the author of A High Low Tide: The Revival of a Southern Oyster from the University of Georgia Press. Learn more at www.andre-gallant.com.

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