That’s What I Like About the… North?

I was recently in attendance at a board meeting where we were collectively asked by the Lady In Charge to name some of the strengths of our group and our area. We did that, pretty positively. After several good points had been listed on the flip chart, one director, who ain’t from Down Heah, stood to compliment us: “You all are really proud of where you are from and your heritage, and I admire that.” As he moved to refill his coffee cup, he declared, “Where I’m from, I never heard anyone say, ‘Now, that’s what I like about the north!’ This is great, to be from Down Here now!” It nearly broke up the meeting.

Without being tacky about it, he had a point. Whoever heard of Northern Fried Chicken, Northern Hospitality, Northern Belles, or Northern Drawls? We’re not in the business of running anyone down, and since a self-confessed Northerner made the observation, I can’t legally be accused of prejudice here, can I?

Having said that, may I, as a white Southerner, make the observation that we get stereotyped as being racially prejudiced Down Here, but few words are written about the deep friendships between races. It’s time to lay some burdens down.

When we kept our own Viking for a year, Johan the Norwegian exchange student, he had written us for months before coming to not sweat his understanding of English. His mother taught English in school, he had taken English for nine years, and the family had spoken nothing but English for the whole year, to prepare him for his year in America. He was confident that language would be no problem.

He had never heard a Southern drawl.

Within two weeks, his confidence was shattered, and he was ready to go home to Norway. If Mike Ethridge hadn’t convinced him to try his soccer kicking talent on a never-before-seen football, which made him a jock hero, he’d have run home to Mama. Then when school started, he discovered Southern Belles, and a year later, wanted to take half a dozen girls back to Norway with him! He wrote regularly for years to thank us for our Southern Hospitality, and Betsy sent Ingrid her recipe for Southern Fried Chicken, as well as cornbread.

There was a television show where the now-infamous Bill Cosby interviewed kids. Now and then he’d get a guest who still said “Yes sir,” even in these modern times when children seem to be universally excused from manners. The “Sir-ing” child invariably was from the South. I ain’t throwing rocks: simply making the point that Down Heah, more parents seem to teach respect, manners, please and thanks.

In today’s business world, it’s getting increasingly hard for a Southern Gentleman to get along, opening doors for ladies, holding their chairs, taking their coats, and putting them on the pedestals where Southern Gentlemen are taught to place their ladies. Today’s businesswoman even shakes hands like a man, and woe betide the guy who takes a lady’s hand in the old-fashioned way, as if to kiss it, as we were taught.

The Ex-Tex lived out here at Brownspur for a while, and never ceased to wonder that the driver of every vehicle he passed on the way to town waved at him. Strangers would invite him over for supper and to “pass the time of day.” Elderly ladies offered him cookies or apricot nectar pound cake. It drove him nuts that we never locked the doors back then, or even took the keys out of cars.

They call this part of the country the Bible Belt, and I’m right proud of that. When you justify doing a neighborly good deed as “Cast your bread upon the waters – it may return unto you buttered,” it adds a certain reverence to everyday life. Seeing God act through your friends and neighbors, seeing His magnificence in the stars at night or a beautiful sunset – well, it’s just a better way to live and raise your children. And is there any other part of the country where four-lane traffic grinds to a complete halt for even a small funeral? Where even joggers, Delta Electric linemen, and lawn mowers stop and remove their caps in respect for the family who has just lost a loved one?

Lordee, there’s even a certain pride in being a Redneck nowadays!

Makes you think, doesn’t it? What if we had won the War?

Blowing Beaver Dams

One summer, a TV reporter called to ask if he might come out to film a story on blowing beaver dams. I was gone that weekend, but my son, then in college, was home. “Sure, come on out,” he invited. “Daddy ain’t here, but I’m the one who would have to do all the work, even if he was here.” An hour or so later, the reporter was pulling up in the driveway.

Adam was ready, with the .22 rifle and a backpack of dynamite. He vaulted into the open jeep, pitching the backpack onto the back seat as the TV guy flinched. “Er, I think I’ll just follow you in my van,” he stuttered.

Adam said he noticed in the rearview mirror that every time the jeep hit a pothole or water furrow, that van would drop back a little farther. Finally they arrived at the far end of the ditch, and the reporter began to unload equipment: camera, tripod, microphone – all that stuff. My son shrugged into the backpack, grabbed the rifle, and offered to carry some of the stuff. “Oh, no, that’s okay!” the guy said. “You go on ahead and get the dynamite ready. I’ll follow you.” He did, at a distance, walking the quarter mile into the hot, humid swamp on a dry trail. When they finally got to the dam Adam had chosen, the red-faced, sweating reporter set his stuff down, surveyed the area, then began to set it up his tripod in the dry ditch bottom, downstream of the dam!

The kid tried to warn him: “Mister, you don’t want to set up there, because….”

The hot sweaty TV expert interrupted: “Son, I know where to set up, okay?”

“But, Mister, if you set up there, it’s going to….”

“LISTEN, KID!” the Expert declared harshly, “I’ve been in the TV business nearly twenty years! I want to get that blast against that blue sky, framed between those green willows, with the sun at my back to light the action! I KNOW where to set up the camera! All I want you to do is to shoot the dynamite when I say so! Understand?”

And my subdued son agreed laconically: “Well, all right! Just say so!”

When the Expert Reporter had everything ready, he mopped his sweat off, bent down to peer through his eyepiece, and announced, “You may fire when ready, Son!”

Adam was really, really ready, so he fired.

It was a beautiful piece of television work, seen that night on the ten o’clock news. There’s this tremendous explosion (it might have only been a six-sticker, except for the comments of the Expert; it ended up a ten-sticker) with the rising water briefly glimpsed above the top of the dam that was making its way toward the blue sky, framed by the green willows: one could actually see the fireball of the blast, then mud, sticks and water flying upward and outward. And one particular log growing closer and closer and closer, before suddenly the camera jerks sideways. During the newscast, the reporter sported a bandage just over one eye.

Oh, my son was quick to the rescue: the reporter had noted how expensive that camera was, so he saved it first, then waded back out into the formerly dry ditch for the tripod, and finally back for the stunned, staggering Expert Reporter, who had known just exactly where to place the camera, and had pointed that out to the youngster!

And I have to give the reporter this: he reported just what happened, laughing!

The Virgin Killer Had a Baby Boy

I’ve written a weekly newspaper column for over 25 years, once was syndicated nationally in almost 100 papers, but Mercury Syndications went bust years ago with about nine months of my money, and I re-grouped closer to home, sending this column to several dozen papers in four states. At any rate, since I travel a lot on speaking engagements, one of the most common questions I am asked is, “Now, tell me again, how did that Virgin Killer get that name?”

Regular readers (surely there’s more than one!) are familiar with some of the nicknames of regular characters: Bravo Charlie, Mountain Willy, Birdlegs, Dude, Deadeye, Boateater, Napalm Morgan, Admiral Drake, and others. They usually appear in my books and magazine articles, as well.

Daughter B.C.’s best friend in high school and college was a blonde whose biological father didn’t hunt, like my family grew up doing. Once B.C. (dubbed Bravo Charlie by a fellow Navy officer on a trip to D.C.) was accompanied by Sherry on a plantation dove hunt when the girls were barely teenagers. She was shooting a .20 gauge pump that her granddad had left her, while Sherry watched unarmed. After B.C. had killed her limit, she persuaded Sherry to try shooting. Just as I drove up, the blonde stood and fired, bringing down the first bird she ever shouldered a gun at! She became famous as “The Virgin Killer,” although some readers managed to miss that explanation and jumped to their own conclusions.

Most of the several hundred kids who grew up out here at Brownspur got taught gun safety along the way, and as far as I know, there’s never been but one person who has been shot accidentally out here, and he was my yankee son-in-law. When Eddie rushed into the house with a slightly bleeding pinkie, result of a ricochet, I washed it off, put a band-aid on it, and sent him back out, assuring him that the Mississippi Game Laws did not say a word about it being illegal to shoot yankees, and as a strict matter of fact, several Neill and Colquitt forebears had made quite a career out of doing that very thing.

So, the Virgin Killer got plenty of gun training and usage during her years of feeding out here at Brownspur, because we pretty well subscribe to eating what you shoot, excusing the aforesaid yankees, or snakes, coyotes, and other varmints. I’m sure she did eat some meals with her biological parents in town, but very few, it seemed to me. We came to consider her as one of our own, and I want to say that we’ve raised a lot of those kind of kids, and I’d like to thank those parents for sharing their kids with us so much. Lordee, how they have enriched our lives! I have said many times that Betsy and I have been so blessed by the kids that our kids were raised with, especially those who nearly lived out here at Brownspur.

The Virgin Killer was one of those, of course. She and Bravo Charlie graduated from high school and college together, successfully invaded Europe, and still hold reunions in Florida, among other places. Then she fell in love with a young man named D.J., and they married in Atlanta, with her Uncle Bob and Aunt Betsy happily in attendance. From that point on, her nickname was suspect.

Sure enough, we got the call only four months after Bravo Charlie and John had presented us with our first grandchild, a boy named Sean Robert Irwin, called “Sir” because of his monogram. In Wilmington, North Carolina, the Virgin Killer had birthed a baby boy in March. The biological grandparents were assigned to travel to the east coast to inspect the kid, whom I understand will be called “Jakey Bob” after me, of course. They carried my gift, the traditional “Cartridge in a Bare Tree,” which insures that baby boys born into this family will not be gunshy. Basically, I send enough cartridges, from which the proud father may select one to fire out the window once the baby and mother return from the hospital. Works every time, and I know it will in Wilmington.

The Virgin Killer had a baby boy, and her Uncle Bob is proud to have fed her stuff like Possum Lasagna and Cold Chittlin’ Salad for all those years!

The Gun In Hand Is Merely An Excuse For Being In The Woods!

I have often said that the gun in hand is usually an excuse to go to the woods and spend time observing other things than the game for which the season is open.

Once during a dry spring, I was blinded in at the base of a huge pecan tree that grew on a ridge of mainly sycamores. Walking in dry sycamore leaves is like stomping through ankle-deep Corn Flakes! I had been sitting there calling since before the dew dried off, and had seen nothing, but now I heard leaves rustle behind me. There was a slight pause, then whatever it was started coming closer in a hurry! If this was a gobbler, he was excited about the hen behind the pecan tree. I gripped SouthPow, my left-handed Remington 870 shotgun, and prepared to swing quickly to my right, for the hurried leaf-rustling was rapidly veering to that side. When I judged it to be almost touching distance, I made my move, and swung the barrel sideways to shoot the love-mad turkey gobbler.

It wasn’t a turkey gobbler. One of the largest copperheads I have ever seen came zipping by my blind, traveling as fast as I’ve ever seen a snake move! He slithered – no, nothing can slither that fast! He sprinted – no, sprinters have legs. He sped – sounds right – by me without slowing down, and I started to shoot, since I’ve been struck by copperheads and crave revenge eternally. But then I wondered, “What the heck could be chasing a copperhead that big?!” I jumped to my feet, prepared to fire at whatever had panicked the serpent, but there was nothing behind him. I left that spot and moved a quarter-mile down the ridge, just to be safe.

During a high-water spring when much of the island was flooded, I was sitting close to a canebrake and caught a movement out of the corner of my eye. Three white gobbler heads were moving quickly in single file, perfect formation, toward the Rim, not paying a speck of attention to my calls. A few moments later, a big bobcat came bounding behind them, and seconds afterward, I heard the gobblers flush from the high bank and fly out over the water. The bobcat came moseying back by the blind with an almost-human disgusted expression on its face.

I was sitting in knee-high bull nettle on a hogback at sunup and was just fixing to make my first call, when I heard scratching. I glanced that direction to see a mother squirrel coming down a hackberry trunk with a tiny kit in her mouth. She loped by in front of me and scampered up a sweetgum about fifty yards away, where she deposited her baby in a snagged-off crotch, then turned around and ran back to the hackberry. She transferred four little ones during the next hour, and I never even made a call for my supposed quarry, a turkey gobbler.

Big Robert didn’t show up at the Ghost (our Jeep) one morning when we were turkey hunting back behind the old Still Tank, so I eased down into the woods to see was he okay. He was sitting on a log, and beckoned me to join him quietly. I tiptoed to the log, and he indicated a box elder limb twenty yards away. Two raccoons were engaged in a long slow noon-hour love-making session, and though we watched in awe, we both confessed later to feeling like peeping toms!

Betsy was in my deer stand which sat at the juncture of two old logging roads. Early that morning, a female bobcat came strolling along, stopped at the intersection, spent a half hour licking and cleaning herself just like a housecat, then curled up and went to sleep, not ten yards from Betsy. When I asked her if she’d seen any deer than morning, she curtly replied, “I wasn’t looking for any deer!”

I first knew my son Adam had matured as an outdoorsman when he came in one morning obviously bursting with excitement, but hadn’t seen a turkey. Instead, as soon as he was close enough to hear, he exclaimed, “Daddy, I saw a flying squirrel!” He had spent the whole morning watching the antics of a pair of flying squirrels putting on a show, and had never even made a turkey call.

How many people go to the woods, but never open their eyes to truly see what’s there for them, and are disappointed if they don’t get a shot?

That ain’t what hunting is all about. For most of us, the gun in hand is merely an excuse to be in the woods!

Racing With Deer

A friend of mine who is a motorcycle rider once told me of a trip he took all by his lonesome to a biker convention somewhere around Gettysburg, PA. Keith said he straddled his bike early one morning, pointed that sucker northeast, and just rode all day. The Interstate Highway System is a wonderful thing, and although I am a fast driver myownself, I have been passed by a passel of motorcycles in my driving days, which used to be pretty extensive before a broken back came back to haunt me and made me get off the road for a few years, until that was healed at a Kairos Prison Ministry Team meeting in 2003.

At any rate, Keith said he made good time, and along toward mid-afternoon decided to take a scenic route for a stretch, along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Scenic is the right word there: Betsy and I came back from the Navy thataway, and tarried at many a pretty place during a leisurely trip returning home from being in Uncle Sam’s service. Keith was tooling along with no other cars in sight, when a deer burst from the side of the highway. He reflexively grimaced, expecting a collision, but the doe turned at the side of the asphalt and began to parallel the bike. He increased speed, and so did the deer, and they raced together along that Blue Ridge Parkway stretch in a bike/deer ride that he will never forget.

I was returning home from a New Orleans Baptist Seminary Music Leaders Course in Greenwood the other night when it was so foggy, and hit a 3-mile stretch of gravel just before I got to the County Line Road. Just after I came around the curve by the Tindall barns, I caught a glimpse of movement out of my left eye, and winced as a deer appeared when I looked thataway, expecting to get venison in the driver’s side window. But the small buck managed to turn just before he hit the Mercury, and paralleled me along the side of the road, before crossing the ditch headed back into the harvested field. Then we both noticed – at about 40 miles per hour – that a light pole was right in front of the buck!

On a wet gravel road, I couldn’t do much maneuvering, so I knew if he swerved my way to miss the pole, I still had a chance for fresh venison, at the cost of fixing the car door. But the buck managed to dodge the pole, in spite of his speed. We were right next to one another ten feet apart, and I could almost see the expression of relief on his face: “Man, I near’bout hit that pole!”

That expression was still on his face as he hit the guy wire.

In the fog with headlights, I didn’t even see the guy wire, though of course it wasn’t in the gravel road either. So I didn’t actually see the deer hit the taut wire, but there was no mistaking the fact that suddenly there were four hooves in the air instead of a deer head, neck stretched out like a race horse at the finish line. In the side mirror, I saw mud fly as the buck was slammed into the ground. I braked to back up – no sense in wasting fresh-killed meat.

Just as I started to open the door, the deer began kicking, and regained his feet. He stood, in my headlights now, and shook his head just like a boxer who has arisen after taking a serious knockdown punch. I am sure that I probably shook my own head thataway two summers ago, when me and a chainsaw and a cypress knee and a Swimming Hole deck all collaborated for my fifth concussion. I conducted Choir practice wearing reading glasses for a month after that.

The little buck motivated somewhat unsteadily off across the field, and I was tempted to drive back past the County Line the next morning to see if he made it very far, or at least to witness his staggering tracks in the mud, but it was raining the next morning. I expect he survived. I can remember when me and Jimmy Moore did pretty much the same thing hitting a clothesline in Dan Smythe’s back yard, after we had released a few hens into the haybarn where a square dance was going on that night. “Clothes-lining” rates a penalty: in football, or in deer racing!

Raised Up on Eagle’s Wings!

Sunday afternoon a couple of weeks ago, Betsy had me grilling some chickens, and whilst I was involved in that, a fast-moving front blew through, a lot quicker than the TV weatherman had forecast. There were just a few scattered raindrops, then the wind switched around out of the north northwest, and picked up to 25 or 30 knots. I retreated to the screen porch, just going out every 15 minutes or so to turn and season the chicken breasts.

As I walked out the screen door onto the patio, I caught a movement up above the pecan tree that towers over The Store, our guest house, which used to serve as the old Brownspur commissary store. I glanced up, and froze. Just above the height of that tree, and a few feet over toward the Mammy Grudge, hung a hawk. He had his wings spread but was not flapping or gliding with them; he had evidently found some kind of an air pocket, or air foil maybe (I don’t know what that is, but my son-in-law is a pilot, and I’ve heard him say it, and it sounds cool) and was just flatout standing still in the air, 75 or 100 feet up. I watched him for several minutes, and he never moved a feather, that I could tell, nor did he drift backwards atall, in the face of a high wind. Awesome!

But as I watched, here came another movement above the trees on the Mammy Grudge ditchbanks, approaching the hawk from behind – a full-grown bald eagle! We’ve seen him before out here; matter of fact, he almost got to be the Guest of Honor at our last Thanksgiving Dinner, by coasting in low just above the ground and flaring up to land in a cottonwood not 50 yards from my deer stand. I had not seen a deer, but the prospect of an admittedly illegal wild turkey for the holidays made me ease my 30/06 up. Even after I realized it was an eagle, I still had to wonder briefly if eagles are white meat, like hawks and owls?

Anyhoo, this eagle had survived deer season, and had showed off for me and Betsy on the balcony several times, so we know he lives close by. Now he was apparently coming to hover with that hawk, over The Store. He flapped his great wings very slowly, and it almost seemed like he was sneaking up on the hawk. Do eagles know that hawks are white meat too?

But when the bigger bird was maybe four feet behind the hawk and still moving, the smaller predator sensed him, obviously, for he suddenly folded one wing, swooped downward in a starboard turn, and grabbed a piece of that 30-knot breeze to scoot back across the Mammy Grudge. If the eagle was stalking his supper, he was out of luck.

He was not after supper. Apparently all he wanted was that particular magic spot that the hawk had found, for he continued to move forward until he was exactly where the hawk had been hovering – I mean, I’d been watching for five minutes now! That big black bird got to the exact spot, then froze in the air, wings spread, but he never flapped again. Only thing he did differently than his smaller buddy was, he spread his wingtip feathers out, but then just became motionless – yet he never moved backwards with the wind atall. How do they do that?

Awesomer! On a Sunday afternoon, God was showing me something new again – two great birds who just hung suspended, wings spread but not flapping nor gliding in the air currents. There seemed to be just this little invisible space (to my eye, anyway) up there above The Store pecan tree where nothing was moving, in a 30-knot wind that was getting stronger.

I watched until I got scared that the chickens might get a little too brown, then when I moved toward the grill, the eagle saw me, dipped a wing, and departed off across the Mammy Grudge. Doggone, I hated to interrupt his afternoon flight!

Ever wish you had wings? There’s a song we’ve done in the Kairos Prison Ministry on a weekend with juvenile offenders: “I believe I can fly, I believe I can touch the sky….” And there’s another one which sings: “God will raise you up on eagle’s wings, bear you on the breath of dawn….” Been there; seen that!

Cotton Caroling & BONFIRES!

Back in the mid-to-late 1970s, the SBC Powers-That-Be decided that it was NOT a sin for men and women to study the Bible together, and started Couples Sunday School Classes. Since Betsy and I had been the Youth Ministry (volunteers) for nearly a decade and several young married couples had come up through our Youth Program, we were asked to start a Couples Class at Leland FBC. So we turned the Youth over to another couple and cranked off a Couples Class, using some of the techniques that had worked on building the Youth group, as well as outdoors here at Browenspur.

That first Christmas of the CCSS, I was still farming, and we took our Class Cotton Caroling. We still had some of the smaller 3-4 bale trailers on our plantation and I saved a trailerful of first picking cotton (as opposed to scrapping cotton) for the event. About a dozen couples climbed into the soft white fleece and burrowed in against the cold. Roy Smith and Charlie Murrah brought their guitars, and we drove slowly along Deer Creek Drive in Leland, with the lighted floats and Christmas trees in the Creek, singing carols. It was another 6 miles out to our home at Brownspur, where I had a bonfire ready to light in the persimmon grove. There was a little excitement when Teddy Miller, who had lost a leg when his chopper was shot down in Vietnam, got down from the trailer without his prosthesis, and cried, “Oh, no! I’ve lost my leg…again!” Several of the guys climbed back in and found where he had hidden it in the cotton.

We touched off the bonfire, and passed out hot dogs, marshmallows, willow sticks to cook them with, and hot chocolate. It was a clear, cool, starry night, and the screech owls and hoot owls joined in our caroling around the fire. “Silent Night” was never sung more beautifully! When the fire began to die down, Teddy led the charge to remount the trailer for the ride home, but the Couples Caroling gave way to Couples Cuddling for the ride back to town, everyone nestled into their holes in the warm cotton. It was a great night.

My cousin Mountain Willy once pontificated on a night in that same persimmon grove: “God does not subtract from man’s allotted time on Earth those hours spent around a good campfire or bonfire.” I’d like to think that’s true, but ain’t found that exact verse’s location in the Bible yet.

Happy New Year. Come to the Brownspur Bonfire and the MWHF Museum!

The Pillar Of Fire

I have sat in duck blinds, deer stands, dove fields, and turkey blinds, to watch sunrises for over half a century, man and boy. I continue to be amazed at the things I see that I’ve never seen before, after all those years. It happened again a few years ago.

Adam and I sat in a duck blind on New Year’s Eve weekend, even though we knew when we left the house that the pothole would probably be frozen up. It was, too. But we were already up, had had breakfast and coffee, and I had a full thermos of Slung Coffee with me. We resolved to stay for a while, at least until the coffee got drunk.

I was on the second cup, teetotally undisturbed by ducks, when the sky began to turn pinkish in the east. Adam is colorblind, so cannot appreciate the subtle nuances of a sunrise like I can, but he was at least paying attention. When a shaft of pink-orange light suddenly appeared from below the horizon, he was as puzzled as I was.

How to describe it? Well, a cloud front had come in from the west, covering about 90% of the sky. The remaining clear 10% was, of course, in the east. The sun was still below the horizon, but right over it, this single shaft of light shone straight up from where the sun was obviously fixing to emanate from. Hold your hand out at arm’s length, sticking up. Sight to the horizon over it. Now, close your thumb and little finger in. No, still too wide. Fold in your ring finger. That’s it!

The shaft of pink-orange light was just that wide, shining straight up from the as-yet unseen sun, up to about ten degrees on the clear horizon, just under that cloud bank. Only that single shaft. Now, seeing a single beam of sunlight is not that unusual, right? Everyone has seen the sun shining down like that through a hole in the clouds.

Right. But this beam was shining UP! And there were no clouds between the sun and the horizon. It SHOULD have been a bright semicircle of light, glowing pink-orange to herald the coming dawn. NOT one solitary shaft of light!

My son and I remarked on it, and tried to figure a logical explanation. Maybe it wasn’t the sunrise atall, but a fire, or a searchlight just below the horizon. As we watched and speculated, of all things, the shaft of light grew – but not wider: taller!

Now it moved its beam up onto the base of the clouds, higher and higher, until that single beam was stretching up probably 20 degrees over the horizon. More than ever now, it seemed that it was in all probability a fire of some kind. While Adam couldn’t tell the color, I had never seen a pink-orange searchlight, so it had to be a fire.

Nope – well, in a manner of speaking, it was a fire – it really was the sun. Just the very tippy-top of the sun soon glowed at the edge of the horizon, verifying that it was the source of the light shaft we were witnessing.

Yet at this point in a sunrise, it’s supposed to be a glowing semi-circular halo. This day, though, it was sure different. There was absolutely NO halo – the sun was a third of the way up, and though the sun itself was understandably bright, the main glow from it was still only that single shaft of light, now turning from pinkish-orange to faded red, then to darker red, stretching now maybe 25 degrees up over the horizon.

The sun was halfway up before the glowing shaft disappeared, to be replaced by your standard, garden-variety semi-circular halo, which became a circular halo as the sun cleared the earth briefly, before the clouds began to obscure the whole scene.

You probably think I’m going on a little too much about this phenomenon, but as I said to begin with, I’ve seen a LOT of dawns, yet never one like this.

Okay, here’s where we get to the religion part, so you can go on to the shoe ads if the mention of religion offends you.

The two of us in the blind that morning were both facing life-changing decisions. Both of us have strong faith, and have known the Creator personally. Both of our decisions involved God-based dichotomies.

Was the Creator speaking directly to us? Was He clearly saying, “Follow Me!” Was he laying it out for us at the end of the 20th Century as He did for the Hebrew children wandering in the wilderness 3400 years ago? “A Pillar of Cloud by day, and a Pillar of Fire by night”: Could that be it, just for us two Neill men?

Well, did anyone ELSE see it that morning?

The Gun Is Just an Excuse to Be There!

Last weekend of last deer season — a not-so-good deer season, for me. We’d had ‘way too much rain early in the year, which flooded the swamp we generally hunt in, and kept it flooded for over two months. That’s not a condition we’d usually complain about, but this year, instead of knee-deep water, it was 20 feet deep! That might still have been okay, but we never got ducks: too warm, in spite of having plenty of water early for a potentially great duck season.

In the Good Old Days, we’d have turned to the ditchbanks and loaded up on rabbits and quail, which had been moved out of their regular habitat by all the water. Now there are so many coyotes, that the rabbits, once hemmed up on the ditchbanks, were scarffed up by the wild canines within a couple of weeks, and the fire ants have decimated the quail population.

So, the last weekend of the season, we hied ourselves out to Cousin Jack’s place, close to the Big Hongry Territory. Early that Saturday morning I slipped across the heavily-frosted pasture toward a favorite clearing just across a little branch.

Well, “little branch” may not be a correct description. Though the water trickling down the stream was clear and less than two feet deep in most places, with plenty of sandbars to step across on without getting your feet wet, the almost-sheer banks were about 15 feet deep. I paused at the top of the bank to check out the easiest place to cross. Yet before I could move, a movement around a bend caught my eye. It looked like a bow wave of a ship, and I eased my gun up, thinking I could be back at the cabin for breakfast, if a buck just hove into view 30 yards away between those steep banks. Sure enough, brown fur was visible at the water’s edge!

Swimming brown fur. It was an otter!

We’ve always had otters in the Mammy Grudge at Brownspur, and I’ve spent many an hour watching them play. Most wild animals have a well-developed play instinct, but God gave otters an extra dose. Several times I’ve seen otter families spend hours on a mud-bank water slide, the adults obviously wetting themselves down and slicking up the banks before calling their pups to join the frolic. I once watched an otter couple make love with such abandon that if I had had a video camera, it might have been a pornographic film. Yet I had never watched one catching fish before, except for one time seeing an otter swimming away from a beaver dam with a probably four-pound bass in its jaws. I couldn’t paddle fast enough to catch it, either!

This hill otter was swimming along either side of the deeper pools, poking his (yes, it got that close!) nose into underwater pockets and beneath drift piles and around stumps, moving swiftly enough in a couple of circuits of each pool to drive the resident panicked perches into the middle. Then he’d dive into the school of fish, which would literally explode into the air, the fish desperate to escape. But the otter was too quick; he’d always come up with a perch, then swim over to a sandbar to eat it. He’d hold the head between his paws and start eating at the tail, shearing off bites and chewing them well before swallowing. When only the head was left, he’d shove it into his mouth, chew briefly, then gulp it down with his head nodding up and down, whiskers clearly visible. He caught and ate one larger bream straight down the bank from where I watched, motionless and fascinated. He never saw me.

I never got to my stand until almost ten o’clock. I watched that otter work that little branch for his breakfast for most of the morning, then when he went out of sight back upstream, I finally crossed the branch, but sat on a log close enough to see the otter if he came back.

I have often maintained that, for most hunters, the gun in hand is merely an excuse for being in the woods, observing God’s Great Outdoors close at hand. No, I didn’t get a deer. So?

“I See the Stars, I Hear the Rolling Thunder!”

One of those big fronts was coming through from the northwest back in August. While we were out at the Swimming Hole squeezing the last few drops of daylight before the mosquitoes came out, we could hear the muted rumble of thunder and see the tops of the cloud banks light up briefly. Had we been at sea, we would have battened down the hatches at Brownspur.

Before supper, I checked the e-mail and cut off the compooter, because it’s not a good idea to use these things during storms, I understand. We closed the windows and doors upstairs and in the Store, our guesthouse, and sat down to eat. By the time we finished, the thunder was almost continuous, and lightning flashes illuminated the yard.

Adam went out the garage door on the west side, while I headed out the front door, stepped off the porch, and walked out in the front yard, facing north. The rain hadn’t hit yet, but the lightning flashes were spectacular, and thunderclaps boomed right behind the flashes. I heard his pickup crank up in a moment, and he pulled through the driveway, stopped closest to me, and hollered, “Come on!”

I hustled across the yard to the tune of a close bolt strike, and jumped in the truck. He accelerated out to the blacktop, then turned off on a gravel road which headed exactly northwest. Just a few yards down the gravel, he stopped, cut the engine and lights off, and rolled the windows down. “Boy, this is gonna be a great one!” he exulted.

I couldn’t help but remember that when this kid was maybe three or four years old, he was terrified of thunder and lightning, to the point that he’d come get in bed with Betsy and me when a storm came through at night, as they so often do. This went on for a year or so, until one night when I stayed up to watch the late news and weather. A front was forecast to come through during the night, with some rough weather in it. As I cut off the TV after the sports, and went to put the cat out, I noticed that lightning flashes were already over the river, 10 miles away. An idea hit me.

I slipped on jeans and a sweatshirt, woke Adam up and wrapped him in a quilt, snagged a sack of gingersnaps and a couple of root beers on my way through the kitchen, and loaded us into the pickup. I drove a couple miles south, then turned west onto the rise of a railroad dummy line, with a completely clear view of the countryside across the cotton fields. Cutting off the engine and lights, I popped open a root beer, offered my son a gingersnap, and pointed. “Let’s watch,” I suggested.

We did that. Lightning bolts flashed from the clouds to the ground for 25 miles of western sky, slowly advancing toward us. Now and then, lightning streaks would sparkle like horizontal spider webs encompassing easily 15 miles of the front. We saw fuzzy-looking greenish-yellow balls of lightning bounce crazily between clouds. The thunder crashed and boomed in a symphony as the front advanced toward us. It was beautiful.

The first raindrops hit the windshield as we finished the last root beer and the last gingersnap. Adam was sound asleep before we got back to the house. He has never feared thunder and lightning since that night he learned how magnificent it can be.

Now, he’s kind of crazy the other way!

We parked on that gravel road and watched the storm advance, the lightning bolts from one particular cell coming directly toward our parking place. However, the first line of clouds passed over us without dropping any rain, and we were treated to the sensation of being exactly in the middle of a thunderstorm, with lightning bolts striking almost simultaneously on all four sides of us. The cell that seemed aimed at us kept advancing. Still no rain. A bolt hit just on the other side of the cypress slough, half a mile north of us. I began to count. Less than two minutes later, another bolt from that cell hit directly in front of us, only a couple hundred yards, but when it hit, it seemed to sizzle and flicker in one spot, a double strike so quick that the first one was still glowing when the second one hit right next to it. It actually blinded both of us for probably two minutes.

When we could finally see again, I felt raindrops coming in my window, and looked out. At the same time, Adam looked out his window, facing west, and exclaimed, “Stars!”

I thought he was talking about the effects of the blinding lightning, and agreed, “Yeah, I’m seeing stars, too!” But we grabbed me and pointed out his window.

I’ve never seen that before. Lightning bolts were striking out my side of the truck within a quarter mile, and stars were visible in the west, almost overhead! What a display!

We will now turn to Hymn Number 87: “My Lord Is Near Me All the Time.” The chorus proclaims: “I’ve seen Him in the Lightning, heard Him in the Thunder, felt Him in the Rain,” while verses state: “In the Lightning flash across the sky His mighty Power I see, and I know a God so great and strong can surely harbor me!” Amen.


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