Fall Smells & Sounds

Lyme Disease victims almost never reach REM sleep, so I am a usual light sleeper, and don’t dream. Rapid Eye Movement stage of sleep is when most dreaming takes place, so I knew I wasn’t dreaming when I awoke in the middle of the night last week, and faintly smelled woodsmoke.

Having been through two costly house fires, I am especially attentive to the smells associated with house fires: woodsmoke and propane or natural gas, which smell similar to me. Without moving, just trying to extend my nose outside the light blanket we were sleeping under with the windows open, I was pretty sure I wasn’t smelling wood afire that belonged to me and Betsy. This had a twang of campfire smoke maybe, and was pretty far off, smelt like.

I have read that when a person loses one sense, other senses grow more acute to compensate. My hearing has always been poor, since early bouts with ear infections, plus shooting right-handed shotguns left-handed. Naval gunfire might have contributed as well. Whatever, my smeller seems more sensitive than other folks’ olfactory talents. But I clearly heard at this point what had awakened me: a screech owl sounded off again from the persimmon grove across the driveway.

There just ain’t a better fall sound than a screech owl’s quavering cry, that some of the little predators can stretch out longer than they look like they’d have breath for. The owl in the persimmon tree was answered by another from back toward the Mammy Grudge ditchbank, behind the house. Screech owls not only make wonderful pets, but they seem friendly in the wild, often coming to perch close to a campfire and enter into the conversation at night. I drifted back to sleep, thankful for the serenade, blending with nightsongs of crickets, frogs, and katydids.

Investigation the next morning revealed unto me that the woodsmoke came from behind a neighbor’s house, across the pasture where we’d dragged up broke-off pecan limbs after Hurricane Harvey’s winds. As I figured that out, I was standing under a vine-covered hackberry tree, and the smoke smell mingled with the tangy odor of possum grapes hanging from the vines. I just made a trip with a couple of friends to visit a burn-victim friend in Memphis, and Betsy had sent us off before daybreak with a bag of biscuits slathered with pear honey or muscadine jelly, along with two thermoses of my Slung Coffee. JuBaby made the remark as we breakfasted on the road at sunup that he gussied up his muscadine jelly with juice from possum grapes: “Gives it a little tartness,” he boasted. I had never heard of doing that, though I’ve eaten lots of possum grapes.

The smell of woodsmoke and possum grapes also mingled, as I crossed the yard, with the aroma of ripe persimmons. Uncle George Vickers, a former resident of Brownspur, used to make persimmon beer that he aged in buried kegs. I have also eaten persimmon bread, but it takes a LOT of persimmons to get enough pulp for that or persimmon preserves, because of the many large seeds in the fruit: as in the old country saying: “He was shiverin’ like a dog passin’ persimmon seeds!”

I didn’t shiver that badly, but I did experience that delicious little dancing across my spine that my grandmother used to say was “A goose just ran over your grave.” I breathed: woodsmoke, wild grapes, fallen persimmons, the scent of ripe cotton before defoliation, the heavier odor of harvest dust from corn and beans being combined down the road. Betsy had just finished a making of pear honey back in the kitchen, and I had tested it with my last cup of Slung Coffee, the empty cup still swinging on my finger. It was a cacophony of autumn smells!

It was missing one thing. I thought I’d go back into the den and take my left-handed Remington 870, “Southpow,” out of the gun cabinet, picking up a couple of shells. There was a squirrel that needed a scare out on the Mammy Grudge ditchbank, for Betsy begrudged him the pecans he was invading her yard to pilfer, when he should have been content with the pignuts in his own back yard. The smells that were missing from this almost-perfect-smelling morning were the combined aromas of gun oil and burnt gun powder. I figured to make it perfect!

Top Shots, and how they get there!

A younger friend recently asked his Uncle Bob for his endorsement in applying for one of these TV reality shows, entitled Top Shots, or something similar. His reasoning was that since Brownspur had been quite a large part of his upbringing, who might better be qualified to testify to his marksmanship?

Who indeed?

This youngster (anyone under fifty is one of those) and his own late Daddy and Uncle grew up out here in the country, and like most Southern boys, was introduced to firearms – and their safe use! – at an early age: if one counts the plastic Cowboy-&-Indian cap pistols, even when the boys are still in diapers. His grandfather made for me and his Uncle, who was just older, wooden rifles that shot rubber straps cut crossways from inner tubes. That same grandfather shortly impressed upon us with his belt that only discarded tubes should be used for ammo; we had gotten into the farm shop inventory of new tubes. That was one of our first lessons on gun safety!

Probably that next Christmas came the ubiquitous popgun, which shot a cork inserted into the end of the barrel. When the cork disintegrated from frequent use, we found that green plums that spring made suitable substitutes, even achieving much more velocity. Our principal at school confiscated those type weapons after a math teacher was targeted between temple and eye, and in a locker room session with class boys proved how much of a welt those plums could raise upon bare bottoms at a ten-foot range, one of the most unusual punishments meted out to us.

Then came the BB Gun: this was when daddies, uncles, coaches, and even female relatives seemed to constantly harp on safety, and as I recall, any adult was qualified to administer licks if and when they were needed to enforce gun etiquette. Future “Top Shots” learned safety long before accuracy!

But if the Top Shot survived BB Gun ownership to the point that he was allowed to “hunt” with one on his own – two other rules were, “You gotta clean and eat what you shoot,” and “Do NOT kill a mockingbird!” – he soon learned the basics and value of accuracy, graduating to a .22 rifle. When contests were held, the bullseye concept was well understood, and no future MVP or Heisman trophy was esteemed more than that small dot in the middle of a paper target that signified the champion of the day, and could be presented to Dad and Mom before supper, with proper accolades bestowed.

Later on, the .22 rifles graduated to deer rifles, and eventually to elephant guns – on the theory of “My gun’s bigger than yore gun, and makes more noise.” I have a vivid memory of this young man in question standing with his comrades on a gravel road bridge shooting offhand (without a rest) at floating gallon jugs over 200 yards away with a rifle calibered in .458: big enough that the youngsters would not permit their left-handed-shooting Uncle Bob to even shoulder the gun, because rifles that big are engineered with a “cast-off” recoil that could literally break the neck of a southpaw shooter. Though this particular skinny kid could not have weighed 140 pounds then, he shot round after round, sinking jugs with only iron sights, and at every shot, he was shoved backwards two feet on the gravel!

Shotguns followed the same progression: the cut-down .410, then the .20 gauge, then the standard .12 gauge, and some even went on to .10 gauges. My son turkey hunted with a loaned .10 gauge once, and told me, “Daddy, .10 gauge hunters go out in pairs, so if one misses, then the other can hold his gun on him and MAKE him shoot again!” My cousin Mountain Willy, the family gun nut (“turning money into noise”), once showed up with an .8 gauge, which shot a solid slug to stop charging elephants. One needs to have a charging elephant close at hand to be motivated to shoot that gun!

Here again, boy standards point toward practice to achieve accuracy; the kid who comes in from a dove shoot having expended two boxes of shells to down his limit, is likely to have to clean everyone’s doves, then wash dishes after supper, while his buddies brag on their Top Shots, and make fun of the one who shot the most shells.

However, like in any endeavor, practice can only take one so far. Some are born with the Top Shot Ability, but never develop it. Some, like Mac and Adam, do both.

Outdoor Commercials: Dogs, Guns, & ATVs

Over a decade ago, I was associated with a Delta television station in several capacities, the most enjoyable of which was been the production of commercials. The success of my very first one I owe to an Ole Miss friend, Joe Camp, who produced the popular “Benjy” series of movies. Joe told me that his dog trainer had confided to him, “You can make a dog do anything with a pound of bacon and a microwave!”

A local shoe store wanted an ad for a Hush Puppy Trunk Sale. Betsy had a restored antique trunk upstairs, and I knew a lady with a month-old litter of bassett hounds. The rest was easy, with Joe’s advice. I bought a pound of bacon and got access to the lady’s microwave. We used bacon to get the dogs in the trunk and the lid closed. Then we used bacon to entice them scrambling out, going after the shoes. I’ve never done a more fun ad!

It was here at the house we did an ad for a glass company, part of which involved glass bursting. I used my .22 pistol with ratshot loads, and it worked perfectly for the water glass and a glass table. However, for the scene in which a sheet of window glass is supposed to break, the ratshot only made small holes in it. Finally, I went for a shotgun.

We were filming on our west balcony, and had the sheet of glass (4X4) propped up across the outside door, with the camera set up on the south side of the balcony. I was inside, out of sight. It was the day before Thanksgiving.

Betsy was downstairs, in the kitchen, on the east side of the house. She had gotten used to the faint “Pop!” of the .22. She did not know I now had a shotgun. Back upstairs, I loaded up, got the camera guy ready, then realized I needed to be far enough back for the shotshell pattern to expand, to get a really spectacular picture of bursting glass. No problem: there’s a long hall leading to the balcony door. I just backed down it 30 feet and told Landry to yell when ready. He yelled. I fired. It was, indeed, a spectacular shot of bursting glass. It was also a spectacular shot of the sudden appearance of a somewhat perturbed apron-clad wife, who was not prepared for an explosion directly above her propane stove!

We shot another commercial out here at Brownspur that attracted the law. It was an All-Terrain Vehicle ad, during a dry summer and fall – mud was scarce. However, I knew of a spring-fed mud bar down in the Mammy Grudge behind the house and downstream 300 yards. It was certainly suitable, for we stuck the machine and ended up having to take another couple of ATVs down there to get it out the next day. We got back to the house hot, sweaty, and muddy. I used the fire hose to clean the ATVs: most of the mud bar had come back with us through the ragweeds. Betsy made sandwiches.

We were loading the ATVs on the trailer, but the cameraman had another shoot, so he cranked his pickup to let the air conditioner begin to cool, shook hands around to say “Bye,” and scratched off. Just then a black helicopter appeared overhead, hovering.

The truck took off down the road, and the chopper headed right after it. I knew it was a narc chopper, and that they thought the path to that muddy spot in the Grudge led to a marijuana patch. We laughed at their ignorance, and then the ATV guys left for the dealership. Just as the chopper reappeared from following the cameraman for a mile. The helicopter swung around and took off after the truck and trailer of ATVs.

I had on cutoff jeans and a tee shirt, and was filthy, so I headed across the pasture to the Brownspur Swimming Hole. I was nearly there, when the narc chopper landed in the pasture. Two men in black jeans, tee shirts, and boots got out, as the pilot shut down the rotors, and one called, “What have you guys been doing, back there between those ditchbanks?”

Just as innocently as I could, I replied, “Making an ATV commercial, sir.”

“Right!” one snickered. “We’re gonna have to check that out.”

“Help yourself,” I offered. “I’m gonna be in the Swimming Hole here.”

The pilot eyed my muddy, sweaty person and the cool shady water under the huge cypress. “I’ll be at the Swimming Hole with him.”

He never said pea-turkey to me, but the agents showed up an hour later, hot, sweaty, and muddy. One whistled at the pilot to crank up the helicopter. They boarded and took off, with never even a “Good-bye.” Making commercials can be dangerous!

Screech Owls & Wind Chimes

I was sitting out on the porch the other day having lunch, enjoying the cooler fall weather. There was a gusty breeze, the sun was bright, and all-in-all it was one of those days you consider to be perfect. Last Mother’s Day, we had gotten Betsy some of those big wind chimes that are calibrated in different pitches, and we’d not really appreciated them in the summer, when few breezes blew. Today, though, they were playing a tune!

Then I heard a different tune. Which was not particularly unusual when you have several different-pitched wind chimes, but it wasn’t quite in harmony. I sat up and tried to concentrate as it sounded again.

Cross my heart, there was a screech owl in the back yard – and he was singing along with those wind chimes!

This was at high noon, now. It’s common to hear screech owls out here at Brownspur, and we have raised several of them – matter of fact, seems like I just did a column on them a month or so ago. Yet the time to hear screech owls is at dusk and dawn. They’re nocturnal birds, as are all owls, and they sound off that quavering cry all night long, if you want to stay up and listen to it. Betsy has even sent me outside to shoo owls away from the pecan tree over the bedroom window, because they had awakened her with wee-hour serenades. But high noon? No way!

Yet this owl was talking right back to those wind chimes, one of which was at almost the same pitch as the owl’s voice. Question is, was the owl calling because he thought it was another owl, or just because he felt moved to join in the music?

I voted for his joining in the music, and sat back to enjoy it. He called for nearly an hour, from the same tree, sounded like. It was great!

We’ve lots of times sat outside at dusk and called up both screech owls, with their quavering “whooo-ooo-ooo-ooo,” as well as barred owls and great horned owls with their standard “Who-who-who cooks for you?” We even raised some of the latter, great horned owls Major & Howland, and a barred owl named Stoney. We’ve never had pets as interesting as the little screech owls, though: Hoot, Don Quixote, Gordo, and Monfred.

First time I ever heard one imitating wind chimes at high noon, however.

We’re used to the Brownspur mockingbirds imitating sounds, especially before duck season and turkey season, when we are practicing up on the calls. If you’ve never heard a mockingbird quack like a duck, you still have things to learn in this life.

One of the worst mocker imitations I ever heard was after I had spent all day printing out letters to bookstores about a new book I was publishing. It was a beautiful fall day, and the windows were wide open, one of them a double window right behind the printer. The feeder was on the blink, so I was having to hand-feed each sheet of paper into the printer, and it would make a high-pitched “Beep-beep-beep” after each sheet went through. I was used to it, until the next morning early, when I was just sitting down with my first cup of coffee. The first couple of times I head the printer beeping, I didn’t take notice, and then I thought I’d just forgotten to turn it off the night before. When I went to refill my cup, I checked the printer. It was off, but just then the beeping started again.

The printer’s beep sounded just like the smoke alarm!

I spilled coffee as I sprinted upstairs – no smoke there. I ran down the outside stairs to check the Store, our guesthouse – no smoke there. I puffed into the house – no smoke in the sewing room or pantry, where the hot water heaters are. The beeping had stopped now, and I collapsed into my chair before it started again.

It was after I made that panicky circuit once more that I heard the beeping begin again, and traced it to the corkscrew willow by the patio. A mockingbird who nested there had apparently listened to that printer all day before, and was now imitating it, not knowing that it was an exact replication of the smoke alarm!

After we came home from the Navy, complete with a genuine cuckoo clock, the clock hung in the den right next to the doors onto the side deck. Those doors stayed open most of the year, except for the dead of winter, and we all were so used to the clock’s cuckooing that we never noticed the mockingbirds were imitating it until a dozen years later when the clock quit. The mockers continued to cuckoo for years!

So, are the mockingbirds fixing to start imitating wind chimes and screech owls?

Whatever. We can stand it, as long as nothing is burning!

Dry Season Doves

With last year’s dove season opening up, everyone else was looking for feed fields to try their luck on Opening Day, but I had other ideas. August and late July had been exceptionally dry, and we had of course been spending afternoons and weekends out at the Swimming Hole in the pasture next to the house. I couldn’t help but notice how many doves came over, flared, and then swooped down to water at the edge of the Swimming Hole.

So, after all the youngsters had left the house headed out for a sunflower or corn field, I sat around with an extra cup of coffee, then slipped on my swim trunks and a tee shirt, grabbed Southpow, my left-handed Remington 870, a shell vest, and strolled out to the pasture. I settled in a comfortable chair by the west end of the Swimming Hole, loaded up, and sure enough, here came the doves. I had to pick my shots, so as not to sprinkle my house or the neighbor’s house, but that was no problem atall.

Time the youngsters got in from the field with maybe two limits total between the four of them, I was through breasting out my limit, had them washed, and marinating in Dale’s Sauce for that night’s supper.

Used to be, we’d have 100 hunters for Opening Day. Back in the old days, if a farmer had a 25-acre milo or sunflower field, surrounded by 20,000 acres of cotton and green soybeans, he’d have a concentration: all the doves for 20,025 acres would be feeding in that little field, and they’d stay for a week or two, providing you didn’t shoot it out, and you let the doves come in to feed unbothered after you and your guests had limited out.

Then twenty years or so ago, the corn market suddenly exploded in the Delta, and instead of that little sunflower or milo field being surrounded by 20,000 acres of cotton and green soybeans, it was adjoined by 12,000 acres of corn, 2,000 acres of cotton, and 6,000 acres of early short-season soybeans. The corn and beans were combined about two to three weeks before Opening Day, and then instead of the doves on 20,025 acres having one feed field, they now had 18,025 acres of feed fields. No one could keep a concentration, because there were too many other places for doves to go. The best hunting nowadays seems to be late sunflower fields during the second season, after the grain fields have been harvested and cultivated.

So, heading out to the water hole was a natural thing to do and I was successful, though it would not have worked for more than a couple of hunters, who would be careful about where they shot.

Late in the season, Big Robert and the Dead Duck Club men would hunt the banks of the Mammy Grudge canal, back behind the house, where doves were coming to water. Uncle Shag used to have a favorite stand close to a locust tree: everyone knows how doves love to light in thorn trees. I once saw Uncle Shag get a triple on doves, though why the second and third birds didn’t panic when he dropped the first one, I’ll never know. They just kept on loafing toward that limb.

Sammy, Little Dave, and I went out to that same canal one December after a freeze. The water was still running in the canal, but the mud was freezing on the banks, and the icy mud was freezing on the legs of the doves as they came to water. It would collect into ice-mudballs until they couldn’t fly more than a few yards. We shot them like quail for the first few minutes, until we realized what was wrong with them, and how many doves were affected. It was awful, but they would have never lived through the night anyway. We took sticks and whacked our limits in the head before dark. When we went out early the next morning, there were hundreds of dead doves, and the coons, possums, skunks, bobcats, and coyotes – plus tame dogs and house cats – had mopped up on the feast.

Water Hole doves are a good bet for a hot, dry first season. But here’s one piece of advice from the Brownspur Swimming Hole Hunt: Do NOT discharge a 12-gauge shotgun straight up at a dove, while floating on an air mattress!

Wasps on an August Sunday!

Sunday was a wasp day!

This ain’t a religious column, either.

Walked into church before Sunday school, and right there in the hall, a lady wanted to know what was the best thing for a wasp sting, because the janitor had gotten stung several times by those big ole man-eating red wasps, and she remembered a recent column on sting remedies. Meat tenderizer was the remedy she was trying to recall, but the day after that column came out, an insurance lady across the street caught me to say that Elmer’s Glue worked just as well: put a drop on the stung place, let it dry, then peel it off, & presto: no pain. Your call.

But after church some of us walked around and discovered two more huge nests, one of red wasps, a second of those smaller striped yellow & black guinea wasps. Betsy got buzzed by one of those, but didn’t get stung. Someone went after the bug spray in the church, but we skedaddled.

After lunch, I changed into trunks and headed for the Swimming Hole, as usual, glancing at the thermometer on the way out of the porch: 102 in the shade! Lordee, this has been the hottest summer I can remember, although I’ve had Lyme Disease, so have a medical excuse for forgetting. One day last week that in-the-shade thermometer was 105 degrees! Yet the water coming out of my well into the Swimming Hole is 68 degrees, so I was headed for a comfortable place for my Sunday afternoon nap, floating on a net & air mattress that lets you recline half submerged. No better place in the world to be on a hot afternoon!

However, the sun was burning through my eyelids, felt like. No problem: my Grunk cap (Granddaddy Uncle Bob got shortened to GrandUncle, then Grunkle then Grunk) was hanging on one of the smaller cypress trees by the pool patio. I waded out to get it.

I grabbed it, lifted it off the branch, and it was full of red wasps!

My cousin Mountain Willie was a calm, controlled man who advocated never panicking in a situation where one is surrounded by stinging insects. “Just calmly back away and don’t let them sense fear, and they won’t sting,” he used to say. He’s dead now (not from wasp stings), but passed away before he convinced me of the value of remaining calm when a wasp nest is revealed unto me closeby.

There were probably ten plastic chairs, a couple of canvas recliners, four small end tables, and a couple of buckets on the patio behind me. I cleant those suckers out in a hurry; seems like I fell continually for five minutes before I reached a metal table and chairs that offered a firm support to stop falling, far enough away from the wasp-inhabited Grunk cap. One of the metal chairs against the table had a kid’s tee-shirt laid across it to dry. Someone left it while we were gone to Texas, and I hung it across that chair only a week ago to dry out.

When I grasped that shirt-covered chair back, another dozen wasps boiled out from under the shirt – they had built a nest there in a week’s time! I ran for the water. One sting on the right ring finger – no rings – and one below the right knee, which is a good place to get stung, since I don’t have much feeling there after the doctor cut out the gangrene in that leg.

When the buzzing settled down, I hied me to the house for some bug spray, returned, and used up most of the can on the two nests I had discovered, then sprayed under tables and chairs, just in case. I lifted the lid on the plastic garbage can out there, to toss the empty spray can.

Would you believe there was a wasp nest under that lid??!!

Two more hits, one on the forehead, one behind the ear.

I did have another can of spray back at the house, plus some meat tenderizer.

Okay, it’s Sunday: tell me again: just why did the Good Lord make wasps?

I know: that ain’t Neill’s Department – ‘way above my pay grade!!

Wrong-handedness Can Be Dangerous!

I was doing some storytelling at a Youth Art Camp once up at the Bologna Performing Arts Center at Delta State, and during lunch happened to sit across from a co-ed counselor. Since the next day was scheduled to be Friday The Thirteenth, the subject naturally got around to bad luck. Some people don’t believe in luck, good or bad, someone pointed out. The co-ed heard me mutter something like, “Yeah, and you ain’t got over 24 broke bones, either.”

She reached across the table to catch my eye and mouthed, “You’ve got 24? Why, I’ve got 14 myself!”

“Were you in a bad car wreck or something?” I asked.

“No, I’ve just been a klutz all my life,” she shrugged. “Is that how you got all yours – in a wreck?”

“Nah, I broke four vertebrae in a wreck right after I got out of the Navy, but I mostly just break one, maybe two at a time on a regular basis. I’ve also had 14 major joint injuries besides the 24 broken bones,” I noted. “Plus six concussions, being struck three times by lightning and five times by poisonous snakes, and a few other little things like Malaria, West Nile, Zika, Lyme Disease and 2 brown recluse spider bites. Some folks obviously don’t believe in bad luck, but I ain’t planning on getting out of bed tomorrow for Friday The 13th.”

The co-ed agreed: “I’m planning on being especially careful tomorrow, but I have to work with these kids. I’ll keep my fingers crossed the whole day, though. Wonder why some people have good luck and some have bad luck?”

“Well, let me ask: are you right-handed, or left-handed?” She held up her right hand in answer. “Then, when you were young did your parents switch you from your left hand? Like, sort of trained you to be right-handed?” I continued.

“I don’t know,” she shrugged again. “I was adopted when I was eight, so I have no idea what my biological parents might have done when I was a baby. Why do you ask?”

I shoved across a scrap of paper and handed her my pen. “Write ‘Mary had a little lamb’ on that for me,” I requested. She frowned, but did that and shoved the paper back to me. I nodded in understanding: her letters slanted almost backward for a right-handed writer, just like my own writing does.

“See, your writing shows a tendency toward left-handedness, even though you are writing right-handed. It’s a right-brain function. When I was an infant, they told me that my left-handed mother declared that she was not going to raise a child of hers to be wrong-handed in a right-handed world. So whenever I’d pick up something with my left hand, she’d take it away, put it in my right hand, and spank my left hand. She meant well, I know, but a medical study released five years ago shows that people who have been changed from one hand to the other, for any reason up to and including amputation, are ten times more accident-prone than the general population. I’ll bet you were changed when you were young too.”

At this writing, I don’t know if the girl made it through Friday The 13th okay or not, but I survived it. But here’s the point: if your kid shows a left-handed tendency, let him or her alone with it. It’s okay. The Bible even speaks of left-handed warriors, so it would seem that southpawism is God-given, an assertion that most baseball managers would agree on, I’m sure. Matter of fact, left-handed pitchers go at a premium these days, so if your little boy is a lefty, give him a baseball in his crib! He just may put himself through college thataway. Mine did.

But if he’s a righty, don’t change him over, either. The curse works both ways. Whatever handed your kid is, let it be. It’ll save lots of money on casts and stitches during his or her lifetime. If I was a betting man, I’d have bet that all the rest of the people at B-PAC that day couldn’t have come up with nearly 40 broken bones between them all, like me and the co-ed across the table had!

Practicing for Dove Season!

We had a weekend’s worth of fun with both grandsons at the Swimming Hole, which is The Place To Be in the August heat. Water comes out of my well at 68 degrees, and we keep that valve cracked in August.

Uncle Dee had a couple months ago introduced water pistols to the youngsters gathered at the Swimming Hole, and Grandson Sir (Sean Robert Irwin, but the last initial goes in the middle, for monograms) had appropriated them for our water play, sneaking up on his Grunk (short for Granddaddy Uncle Bob) to splat me, or both of us sneaking up dog paddling on objects in the pool. On Saturday afternoon, the thunderheads threatened from a distance, and the snake doctors (dragonflies) just swarmed in the humidity, all around the pool, pasture, and nearby yard. Sir immediately saw the opportunity for target practice, and informed me of the plot. We refilled our guns and advanced from the water to the shade of an oak, where it seemed the biggest congregation of snake doctors (also called mosquito hawks) hovered.

Whether one is a grown-up or not, one cannot shoot a water pistol at a target without making the standard “Kiirr, kirr, kirr” imitation of a gunshot. Doots (Betsy’s Grandmother name) was tending Nil (Neill Leiton Irwin: ditto on mongrams) in the shade of the big cypress by the Swimming Hole, and they were initially started by the barrage of water-pistol shots from close by. “You can’t hide from me!” bellowed Sir at his prey (where’d he get that?). I actually got pretty close to several snake doctors with my first shots, and began taking more careful aim, thinking that dove season is only a few weeks away, and this was a less expensive tune-up than shooting clay pigeons in the pasture, like we usually do, “Turning money into noise,” as Mountain Willy used to call it.

“I’m outa bullets!” the leader of our posse called (he actually had a stick horse that Doots had made, complete with eyes, nose, mouth, ears, and mane sewn on a stuffed-sock head). “Back to the water!” he ordered, and we charged back into chest-deep water to reload. Moments later, he directed another charge into the midst of the enemy, firing at the darting insects, who after several successive forays seemed to catch the spirit of things, and actually looked like they were darting into our shots – or maybe our lead angles were just getting better. Sir was obviously catching onto a sense of ballistics!

When I was a kid, we gained our understanding of ballistics from whacking with sticks the bumblebees that hovered and darted about the cypress barn, houses, and commissary store on the plantation. Brer Beau was good enough for college baseball, having trained on bumblebees as a youngster. I whacked my share too, but the right-hand, left-hand thing got me. I made my mark in football.

Which I now was beginning to remember from my youth, too: we had to run and practice in the August heat to get in shape for the season, and Sir was a whole lot less tired than I was after a few dozen windsprints from pool to pasture and back to reload – which I began to stretch as long as I could, to the distress of my posse leader: “Come on, Grunk!” he urged.

Thankfully, the snake doctors were attracted to the pool as the afternoon waned, and we were able to designate a target-rich environment over the water which I, as a former Navy Gunnery Officer, was able to appreciate a lot more!

Much later in the afternoon we gravitated to BB gun practice, shooting at cans that did not hover and dart about. Yet I had to wonder: how could we market commercially this practice for getting ready for wing-shooting, which is right around the corner? Does Remington make a water-shotgun?

If not, here’s an opportunity for new businesses!

But lighten up on the Grunk, as far as pasture windsprints are concerned!

Lyme Disease in the South (this’un’s long)

It was summertime, and I was driving through town with my truck window down, when a lady from church hailed me. I pulled over, and she sashayed up to the truck. “You know, you’re always writing about Lyme Disease? Well, I’ve found out how to keep the ticks off. You need to tell all the hunters about this!”
I’m always ready to admit my ignorance and acquire new knowledge, so I pulled out my pen and a notebook. “Shoot!” I said.
“My husband and I were over at the lake this weekend cleaning up the yard, and when he showered that night, he hollered for me to come in there. He was covered up with ticks! We picked over a hundred off of him, then I took my shower and we checked me for ticks, but there were only a few on me. Know what the difference was?” she demanded.
Now, I have noticed lots of differences between men and women, which don’t even include showers. Mental pictures were bouncing around in my head, but I suppressed them and replied innocently, “No, Ma’am. Why?”
She hiked her skirt a few inches. “Panty hose!” she crowed triumphantly. “I had on panty hose, and he didn’t. Obviously, ticks can’t get a grip on them and sure can’t get up under them. You tell those hunters to wear panty hose, at least until it frosts!”
Now, I generally try to stay away from empirical statements like that, but she said to tell the rest of y’all. No, I ain’t tried it myownself. It’s a little late for me to prevent Lyme.
Over 30 years ago, I apparently got bitten by a tick, or maybe cleaned a game animal that was infected with Lyme Disease, and got it into my blood that way. At any rate, I contracted Lyme Disease, and it went after me arthritically, if that’s a word.
Whatever, I got it, and it went to the bone — and joints! With at least 24 broken bones and a dozen other joint injuries, I was an ideal host for Lyme arthritis. Since it was normal for me to hurt, especially in the wintertime, no one thought anything about it getting worse. I didn’t even go to see the doctor, not for the arthritis, anyway. When I did mention it, while in the office for something else, his reply was to be expected — indeed, my own mother had said the same thing: “Son, you just played too much football; you’ve got terminal arthritis: it ain’t gonna kill you, but you’re gonna die with it!” By the tenth year, I was taking a couple dozen painkillers — aspirin, Ibuprofen, Tylenol, BC Powder, whatever — a day during the wintertime, when cold weather made the pain and stiffness worse.
Then I was assigned an article on Lyme Disease by a national magazine, which I turned down, initially. I told the editor, “I don’t do that kind of writing; you call Neill, you get humor!”
“Fine,” he agreed. “Write us a humorous article on Lyme Disease, and we’ll pay you a thousand bucks for it.”
“I can do that!” I exclaimed, and went to researching.
It was like one of the old cartoons, where someone snaps on a light bulb. After two days of research, I suddenly realized, “Dad blame! I’ve got all these symptoms!” I got out of the computer as quickly as possible, jumped in the truck, and headed for the hospital. Bear in mind that this was in 1989. I walked up to a nurse and demanded, “Take some blood from me and test it for Lyme Disease!”
“What’s that?” was the response.
No one had really heard of it down here. It was supposed to be a Northeastern thing. The sickness was first misdiagnosed as an outbreak of juvenile arthritis in and around the city of Old Lyme, Connecticut, back in the early to mid seventies. Further testing revealed that the disease was being caused by a spirochete bacteria, which actually invades the human cell, making it extremely hard to knock out. While one of the main vectors for Lyme is the deer tick, the bacteria has been found in all types of ticks, and most blood-sucking insects, like mosquitoes, horseflies, fleas, and lice. These other hosts, however, can only transmit the organism by going almost directly from one victim to another host, whereas ticks can keep it in their systems for weeks. An outbreak of Lyme in Philadelphia was traced back to fleas from the highly Lyme-infected rat population in that city. Killing the rats cured the Lyme epidemic.
One can also contract Lyme from the blood of an infected animal, and research has shown that an animal is six times more likely to have Lyme than a human. The symptoms are the same: fatigue, depression, arthritis. Interestingly enough for a dog man, it’s hard to tell when a cat has Lyme, because “cats are so lethargic anyway,” as one vet put it.
I spent six weeks gathering information on Lyme Disease, but was unable to find a doctor who professed to know enough about it to treat it. In desperation, I finally called the Lyme Borreliosis Foundation in Connecticut and asked for the closest doctor to Brownspur that they knew would recognize, diagnose, and treat Lyme Disease. There was a Dr. George McCullars in Mobile, and I said, “Fine, that’s close enough,” and headed South. Indeed, I did have Lyme, one of the highest positives he’d ever seen, and he started me on long-term antibiotics. I took 200 mg a day of Doxycycline beginning in late June, and didn’t come completely off of it until April, but it knocked it out, though the organism will always be in my blood (and I’m not supposed to give blood any more). Almost a year later, he told me in wonder, “You’re the only tertiary Lyme patient I know who has apparently been cured.” I will always have the sleep disorder, and short-term memory loss (which they now believe is connected), but I haven’t had an aspirin for arthritis pain in years! Oh, I still have places that hurt, especially where the pins are, but not all over, all the time, like before!
Let me insert right here, that if you are placed on long-term antibiotics, you will probably experience intestinal difficulties. See, the antibiotics kill all the bacteria in your system, and there’s some good-guy bacteria in your intestines that belongs to stay there. If you will drink buttermilk or eat active-culture yogurt, it will reculture those good-guy bacteria, and you’ll be a lot more comfortable. Another tip, for victims with the sleep disorder: I take a couple of benedryl when I go to bed at night. Knocks the edge off just enough for me to get some decent rest. The memory loss can be helped, too. Once after an article on Lyme, I received calls from three ladies, one in Michigan, one in Oklahoma, and one in Florida. All three recommended something called Lecethin for the memory loss I had mentioned. The very next day I was walking into a store in Greenville, and a lady stopped me. “Aren’t you that Neill boy, that writes?” she asked. I admitted that. “Well, I read that article on Lyme Disease, and if you’ll take Lecethin, it’ll help that memory problem.” I told her she was the fourth lady in a week to tell me that, but I didn’t know how to even spell it. She got out a pencil and paper, then said, “Wait. I’ve enjoyed your books and articles for years. If you’ll let me, I’ll go back in here with you, and buy you your first bottle!” She did, and I highly recommend it, after fifteen years on it.
I wrote a syndicated weekly column for 25 years, and since 1990 worked in at least a couple of columns a year on Lyme Disease in papers, plus numerous magazine articles. I’ve gotten calls from as far away as Michigan and New York about Lyme. Several years ago, a pharmaceutical company offered to underwrite a book on Lyme, and I got about a third of the way through with it, when the company had some financial difficulties and dropped the project. I’ve given seminars to doctors in hospitals on Lyme, for as much as $1500. When I was president of the Southern outdoor writers, I arranged the testing of our members and wives by the Centers for Disease Control, as a control group of Southern outdoors men and women. They predicted we’d be only 5 to 7% positive, “and those will be the guys who have hunted and fished in the northeast,” but we were 28% positive by one test, and nearly 42% by another! Seven of the past eight presidents tested positive and were symptomatic for Lyme Disease! That’s really the first time they began to consider that Lyme was not just a yankee ailment.
Out here at Brownspur, where there are only five families, we’ve had five diagnosed and treated cases of Lyme. Two were caught early, and treated correctly with heavy antibiotics, and they got completely over it. The other three of us have lingering problems, mine being the least damaging. Only one of those cases apparently came from a Brownspur tick. Three of the victims knew they were bitten by ticks from other regions, like east Mississippi, north Arkansas, and north Tennessee.
In other words, I know what I’m talking about on the subject, though I’m not a doctor.
It is my considered opinion that some insurance companies, HMOs, and medical organizations have decided to cure modern Lyme Disease by changing the parameters. In their defense, it is hard to diagnose, even harder to cure, and requires long-term expensive treatment. Its symptoms mimic fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, even the early symptoms of multiple sclerosis. Medical experts warn against using long-term antibiotics, which are essential to successful treatment, because that may build up resistant strains of bacteria. I understand that.
But I also understand the disease. I know many victims who have gotten frustrated trying to get help for Lyme, and have just picked up and gone to Connecticut for treatment and advice, where the modern version of the disease was first diagnosed. And if the victim is a youngster, I have gotten to the point of recommending that myself. If caught early (when the tell-tale “bullseye” rash has shown up) it can usually be cured by a month’s worth of antibiotics, but if the patient has had it for several months, or even years, then it’s going to take months of antibiotic treatment to get remission. So what if that builds up resistant strains of bacteria? If the victim is in constant pain and cannot live a normal life, then should not one cure the pain, even at the risk of creating another possible problem?
Again, I am not a doctor! But I’m an educated victim, because I had to be to get mine under control. In one recent year, no fewer than six doctors from three states have called me for Lyme facts (two for their own symptoms, and one for his grandson’s!), and several have sent patients to me for the purpose of rash identification.
Obviously, the best advice is to take precautions against contracting Lyme. Avoid areas of tick infestations. Spray a good repellent on your britches legs and socks, around your belt, on your collar, and on your wrists and sleeves. Wear rubber gloves when cleaning game. Watch your pets for signs of lethargy or arthritis. Check for ticks when you come in from the fields, and be sure your family does the same. Notice any unexplained rashes, especially rashes that appear to red and circular in nature. Only about a third of Lyme victims apparently have the telltale “bullseye” rash, but if antibiotic treatment is administered immediately after that rash is noticed, then complete recovery is very likely. Be alert for cold and flu symptoms that hang on longer than they ought to, for stiff neck (the unBiblical kind), arthritis, chronic headaches, extreme fatigue, blurred vision, memory loss, and sleeplessness.
And I highly recommend husband and wife showering together. Look closely for obvious ticks, but also for the smaller variety, described as “freckles that move.” Take your time. One can’t be too careful for Lyme Disease!


Newcomers to the eastern side of the Mighty Muddy may be surprised to learn that we didn’t have armadillos here originally. They migrated in less than thirty years ago. Rumors that the “armored possums” were stocked in the Delta by Federal Fish & Game biologists in order to take some of the Road Kill pressure off of native possums may or may not be true. I never personally saw a uniformed biologist turn loose an armadillo.

Hunting on west-side Mississippi River islands, I grew up with the hard-shelled little hole-diggers, and have seen horses hurt legs by stepping in their burrows. There used to be several civic “Armadillo Festivals” featuring barbecued, fried, and fricasseed armadillo meat, until it was discovered that the little devils carried leprosy, at which time such festivals came to an abrupt halt. The meat tastes a lot like pork, barbecued.

The kids used to make a game of catching the surprisingly fast scuttlers on The Island, riding around in the Ghost (a 1948 Jeep) until they’d filled a couple of croker sacks. Then they’d take them out to the River in a boat to teach them to swim. I had repeated the old wives’ tale that they can’t swim, but hold their breath and cross rivers walking on the bottom. The kids proved that false, establishing that ‘dillos swim like pigs, with only their snouts above water (depending of course on how far they have to swim!).

Once they came up with some luminous spray paint just before Halloween, and scared several club members plumb sober when glowing spooks kept appearing in the headlights’ gleam. A few were so shook that I advised the kids not to mention that they were the culprits for a couple of years. Some folks have NO sense of humor!

Howsomever, the armored possums did manage, walking on the bottom or otherwise, to cross the Mighty Muddy, and become established on this side of the River. They regularly dig up flower bulbs, root under the pecan trees, and burrow into the yard. Here at Brownspur, they have been ruled fair game, and until the government places them on the Endangered List, we encourage their annihilation, at least around the houses and pasture. Yet it was by accident that I came up with the perfect Armadillo Trap.

Betsy and I had been cleaning out The Store, our old commissary-turned-guest- house, and saved a thick glass top from an otherwise-deceased cabinet. We toted it out of The Store, and lacking a better place, leaned it against the Tallow tree outside the kitchen window. The glass was about five feet long and two feet wide – or, high, when you lean it against a tree. There it still sits, until she decides where to put it permanently.

The other night I picked up the Slung Coffee pot, and stepped outside to toss the grounds. Without cutting the lights on, I walked out and let the screen door slam behind me as I flung the used coffee grounds out. I was startled by a commotion in the fern bed beneath the kitchen window. As I looked, an armadillo, disturbed from his digging up fern roots by the slamming door, darted out of the fern bed to escape me, his sworn enemy.

He had a clear path across the yard to the fig tree, as far as he could see.

Armadillos, as noted, are surprisingly fast, and their acceleration from a standing start, even when not scared by a slamming door, is even more amazing.

This ‘dillo emerged from that fern bed like the proverbial striped ape, or scalded dog, or streak of greased lightning, or even bat out of Hell. After all, he had to cross 50 feet of what appeared to be unobstructed yard.

I once walked slap into a patio door which Betsy had just cleaned, so I can somewhat appreciate the armadillo’s predicament. “WHOP!” he hit that sheet of glass!

To make matters worse, Betsy had recently trimmed some limbs from the Tallow tree, and had left the aluminum extension ladder propped up only a foot from the glass.

“CRASH!” the armadillo rebounded from the glass into the ladder. Dazed, he eyed again his seemingly clear escape route, and accelerated like a pro fullback.

“WHOP!” “CRASH!” “WHOP!” “CRASH!” resounded from the darkness as I widened my eyes to try to see as much of the action as possible. “WHOP!” “CRASH!”

Finally, the concussed armadillo staggered around the corner of the glass and headed across the yard. I was laughing too hard to pursue.

Adam found him the next day, dead as a doornail, just short of the fig tree.

We decided to leave the Armadillo Trap right where it is.


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