Bill Tinnin, the Dean of the Delta
by Billy Johnson
A lot has changed in the Delta in the last 75 years. Farming has gone from using mules to three hundred horsepower tractors guided by satellite technology. Kids have gone from shooting marbles and flying kites to using cell phones and video games. The deer population was only a fraction then of what it is now.
But there is one thing that hasn’t changed; Bill Tinnin is still hunting coons. In his lifetime he’s seen the sport go from nearly nothing to being really big. Then it has gone back down again. Coon hunters are a special breed to start with. The heart of the sport is the dogs the hunter’s raise. That relationship between a hunter and his dogs is what coon hunting is all about.
I’ve heard Bill Tinnin’s name in hunting circles all my life. I’d been waiting to meet him and it was worth the wait. It’s been said that walking is good for your health. Walking the woods behind his dogs for 75 years has kept Mr. Tinnin in good shape. At the ripe old age of eighty-five he is still hunting. As a matter of fact he bagged a trophy ten point buck this past deer season.
Mr. Tinnin has a sharp mind and he is a virtual walking encyclopedia when it comes to coon hunting. He was born in Inverness in 1924. His father raised bird dogs and coon dogs. He became interested in hunting as a young boy.
“We mostly hunted possums to start with. Men worked for 50 cents a day during the depression and coon hides were worth a lot of money. People just about wiped the coons out. It wasn’t until the late ‘40’s that we got a good population of coons back in the Delta.” Mr. Tinnin recalled.
In the early days Mr. Tinnin could walk from Inverness and hunt most anywhere he wanted. Coons destroyed corn patches and stole chicken eggs and folks wanted you to hunt them then. But now it is a different story.
“So much of the woods I hunted have been cleaned up and folks are real touchy about their hunting land. Now coon hunting has mostly died out around here and trophy deer hunting has taken over. There’s really not much hardwoods left in our part of the Delta,” Mr. Tinnin said.
As a young man he hunted with a carbide light, a .22 rifle, and an axe. He’d put on a pair of hip boots and follow his dogs all night. In the ’60’s and ’70’s coon hunters started riding mules. Later four wheelers replaced the mules. “Mules are a lot of trouble. You got to feed and water them and keep them up in a dry place. They take a lot of time to tend to,” Mr. Tinnin remembered.
Through the years coon hunters upgraded from the old carbide lights to the wheat lights that coal miners used. They are bright headlights with a wet cell rechargeable battery the hunters wear on their belt. Mr. Tinnin got the dealership on wheat lights and sold them all over the world. He sold $50,000 worth of lights in one month in the early ’80’s. He’s got letters from people from places like Brazil and Alaska that he sold lights to. He later designed a brighter light he sold called “The Tinnin light”.
He has fond memories of his many friends and all the years they hunted together. “We made three TV shows for Mississippi Game and Fish Commission and one for Paul Ott. John Weathersby helped with the shows. He hunted with us, but liked to stay in the road a lot. Chris Potter from Hollandale helped with one show. We did one on frog hunting, too.” Mr. Tinnin said.
In the late ‘50’s he started deer hunting at Catfish Point Hunting Club. They had a good turkey population that was being thinned by an overabundance of coons. Well, in eleven nights Mr. Tinnin, his hunting buddies, and their dogs bagged one hundred and two coons.
Mr. Tinnin raised deer dogs and ran them on Catfish Point. His scrapbooks are a virtual history of that club where he hunted nearly thirty years. He has many photos of his hunting buddies like Dr. Lewis Farr, and Pee Wee Horton, but it was one photo that really got my attention.
It was a picture of a sign in the woods at Catfish Point that said “Tinnin’s Waterloo”. It is a good picture and has a good story to go along with it. “Well, they got me good that time. We were always pulling tricks on each other. They put a stuffed deer and hide in a tree top where I was going to be hunting. I saw it and shot it. It looked so real. It was a lot of good people in that club and we had a lot of good times.” Mr. Tinnin recalled.
For a man who’s spent his life raising dogs, Mr. Bill didn’t hesitate answering the question of which one was his best dog. “It was black and tan named Ben. That dog was the best I ever had. It got cancer and died when it was nine years old.” He remembered.
He and his partner, Bill Bennett put on “coon-on-log” contests all over the country. It was good entertainment at fairs and field trials that people really enjoyed. “We had a guy from Ohio that would send us real big coons with some weighing up to 25 pounds. He’d send them down on the train. We’d use those in these contests. Your dog would have a minute to knock the coon off the log. We never made any money at it, but we had a lot of fun,” Mr. Tinnin remembered.
I had looked forward to meeting and interviewing Bill Tinnin, but was anxious to pick his brain as well. I was not disappointed. I’ve always been interested in nature and somebody that’s hunted 75 years thoughts on that subject are of keen interest to me.
“Well, nature has a way of taking care of itself. Habitat changes and the animals change with it. I think everyone has the instinct to hunt. Some are just more interested in it than others. What man does affects nature. When catfish farming got big in the Delta, these birds came in here to feed on the catfish. Those birds like frogs, too, and they really cut down on the frog population in the Delta.” Mr. Tinnin said.
Flipping through all the articles that have been written about Bill Tinnin over the years made me realize that no one article could tell his story. It is enough material to write a book. There was one article in American Cooner magazine entitled “Legends of the Sport” that really portrayed his love of the sport.
What is a legend in the hunting and fishing world? To me, a legend is a person who’s passion is for that one particular thing that they do. It is a person who preserves the traditions of what they do and passes it down to the next generation. In Bill Tinnin’s case it is many generations. It is a person who’s earned the respect of his peers and hunting buddies.
The Delta has produced many nationally known sportsmen who I consider to be legends. Dock Cavender was known for his crappie fishing. Tom Walsh and Herman Caillouet are known for winning the world duck calling championship in Stuttgart. Sonny Rich is known for his trap shooting. In the coon hunting world, Bill Tinnin is nationally known.
He is a modest man that is thankful for the good health he’s had to still be hunting at the age of eighty-five. He’s proud of the dogs he’s raised, the friends he’s hunted with, and a lifetime of memories from thousands of nights of running his dogs. In the words of the old timers, Bill Tinnin is much man. Anybody that can catch a falling coon with his bare hands ain’t afraid too much. Anybody that loves to hunt and fish can only hope and pray to one day be where Bill Tinnin is: still at it at the age of eighty-five years old.
Hurricane Gordon has came and went, so I went out to the Swimming Hole to do a final cleanup and pickup out there. Once it gets too cool to swim, I get all the pool paraphernalia gathered and stored for the winter, and bring Betsy’s plants in to winter on the back porch. All this requires a pickup truck, so I backed mine up under the big cypress and began to load it.
Lordee! The mosquitoes were about to carry me off! Of course, I was dressed only in shorts and tee shirt, so they had a lot to eat on: a Brownspur smorgasbord. I was so busy swatting that I dropped a potted plant, which promptly became an un-potted plant, and I could see this wasn’t going to work without me getting in trouble with Betsy. But as I retreated, fighting a rear-guard action, I could see that the skeeters weren’t coming from the water, they were swarming from the high grass. See, with the hurricane early fall rains, I had not mowed the pasture and around the Swimming Hole in a month.
So, I hied me back to the house and cranked off the lawn mower. The pasture was nearly knee-deep in crab grass, so I set the mower up high and attacked. Swarms of mosquitoes arose to do battle! Since the day had warmed up considerably, I had shed the tee shirt and just had on shorts – before I had mowed back to the Mammy Grudge ditchbank, I was covered with insects! Not only were the mosquitoes ubiquitous, but some type of small moth was also holed up in the high grass. I retreated again.
Back to the house for jeans, and an old faded blue cotton shirt with long sleeves. Started the mowing operation again, but once again the insect army rebuffed me. I had sandals on my feet, and that was not an option – I had to head back to the house for socks.
Once more into the fray I mowed, and again the bugs beat me back. Not only did I have to go back for a cap, but I rigged up a headband under that to protect my forehead and ears, then stuffed a bandana handkerchief up under the hat to hang down over my neck, tying it under my chin. Still the mosquitoes came after me in droves.
They were alighting on my light blue shirt sleeves, and sometimes punching through to the skin underneath, so I had a good contrast for scientific observation. These were not our standard-issue Delta mosquito: the brownish, buzzing outfit we all know and are prepared for. These skeeters were larger, and they were black. They seemed to have a white stripe diagonally down their sides, and I swear they were even hairy! Not furry, now, but hairy, like the hair on a dog stands up when the canine is upset or scared. I have raised Labrador retrievers out here for years; have we bred up a mutant cross between a mosquito and a Labrador?
Certainly these monsters were able to bite through a cotton shirt, like I once saw Polar Bear, our light-yellow Lab, do with a stranger who tried to get in our house, not knowing that I was home with no cars around, and that a grinning dog was also a biting dog – that’s in the Bible somewhere, I think. Lordee, surely these mutant mosquitoes weren’t grinning, too? I tried to watch more closely, and, by golly, I think they were! Grinning giant hairy mosquitoes – I once more retreated to the house and found the skeeter scoot left over from turkey season. I sprayed all over and headed back for the pasture on the mower.
I swear, the Deet did discourage the mosquitoes from biting me, but the dadgum little moths loved it! It was like moth perfume – soon the moths were so thick around me that at times I could barely see the front of the mower! By now, it was getting toward dusk anyway, so I cut the lights on. That was worse! There were so many bugs rising in front of me that the lights reflected off of them and totally obscured where I was trying to mow. I couldn’t see grass, trees, or even the Mammy Grudge ditchbank, until I realized I was mowing uphill!
Tell you how bad it was: I was having to stop for bullfrogs. Big bullfrogs had come to the pasture from the Mammy Grudge and the Swimming Hole to feast on the insects I was stirring up mowing, and they were so full, they could hardly hop out of the way! Can one get West Nile Virus by eating froglegs from mosquito-eating bullfrogs?
I’d chainsawn, split with axes, hauled & stacked about a cord of wood all by myownself, after a storm, so now I was mostly in a clean-up, finish-up mode, cutting up mainly some chinaberry logs that were semi-still-standing.
I broke my back – four vertebrae, two of them crushed – a long time ago when I hydroplaned a pickup, so bending to cut logs is painful for me. In this case I had whacked off a chinaberry tree that was holding up a larger chinaberry that had been twisted off by the winds, three years ago. I’d been waiting on it to fall, but Betsy got tired of waiting. Naturally, when I cut far enough into the smaller tree, the larger one it was holding up forced it to break off, and they both crashed down. Fresh chinaberry burns well, and is a pleasure to split, yet after I finished with those two, two smaller pecans, and a couple of hackberries, I was whupped!
So, I still had two chinaberry logs which were to some extent still attached to their stumps, one log sticking out about twelve feet at knee height, the second one sticking out about fifteen feet at waist level. Those were my targets for the next Saturday, and I wasn’t even going to have to bend over atall!
I whacked up the smaller one first, then turned to the larger one, which had been blown over for three years. At the point where it had twisted and split, it had a hollow that extended up into the trunk, but not as far as where my first log cut was going to be. I was on my third waist-high cut when suddenly, to my horror, I saw blood and flesh appear on the saw!
Unless one is a producer of horror movies, blood on a running chainsaw is a very bad sign, especially when you, the chainsawyer, are the only one present on the scene. I instantly cut the saw off, over halfway through the tree.
Blood on a chainsaw also usually means pain somewhere, but I could feel no pain, which didn’t necessarily mean anything, at least initially. Lyme Disease left me with little sensation on the outside of my right thigh, and knee reconstruction left me with a dead area above my left knee, so I immediately assumed that’s where the painless blood and flesh had come from. I stepped gingerly back and looked down. Thankfully, there was no blood, or even a rip in my jeans, on either leg.
But my right hand was crushed years ago in a cotton gin lint cleaner, then had third degree burns on it two decades later, so it doesn’t have much feeling either. I eased my gloves off, thinking that if I left my severed fingers within them, maybe they’d be easier for the doctors to re-attach. But I still had eight fingers and two thumbs outside the gloves, and they all wiggled when I tried that, nor were any of them bleeding. I checked my feet – no blood, no cuts on my sneakers.
Now I looked more closely at the bloody mess on the chainsaw blade, to see that there were actually guts thereon! I jerked open my shirt – nope, not none-a me! Finally, I grasped the chainsaw and worked it free from the log.
The hollow whereinto I had just sawn was the den of at least one snake!
I picked up the axe and whacked open the hollow, keeping my distance in case this was a poisonous snake – one can only imagine the danger involved in taking a chainsaw to a stumptail moccasin! Nary stumptail: this was obviously a chicken snake, which seemed to have been about four feet long, although it was in several parts by the time I got it out, and I didn’t try to reassemble it to measure.
You can bet that I looked into that hollow before cranking my saw again. But you can also bet that I didn’t crank it until I had sat on the ground and begun to breathe normally again. Blood on your chainsaw: that’ll make your heart beat fast!
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 a hot & humid summer! 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 Nawth Caihlinuh, 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!!
I did a speaking and book-signing event last month is a community whose local newspaper has run my weekly syndicated column for most of these 25 years. A lady buying a book complimented as I was autographing it, “I think your best column was about your foreign exchange student’s comment about the bump in the road.” Gee whiz, that was maybe 20 years ago!
Others asked me to relate that story, so I reiterated that Johan, our personal Viking, had noted a highway sign on one of our trips, which proclaimed the warning, “Bump Ahead.” Sure enough, we then hit the bump before I had slowed down enough. Rubbing the top of his head, Johan observed in a puzzled tone, “In America, you haff a bomp in de road, you put op a sign dat say, “Bomp”?
“That’s right,” I replied as we gained speed again. “What do y’all do in Norway?”
“Vell,” he declared vehemently, “In Norvay, ve fix de bomp!”
We all got a laugh – and maybe a lesson? – as I then recalled that our Viking had been volunteered as one of the South’s earliest high school soccer-style kickers, playing in the first football game he had ever seen. That team won the state championship, and he probably still holds some of the kicking records there. He only missed one – his first extra point – because no one had told him that the other team would surge forward to try to block his kick: he had only practiced with a center and holder before the game, and Washington School scored first. He had gotten permission to play from his parents after assuring his mother by long distance that “no one will try to kill” him, in just his role as kicker.
Johan actually learned to drive on a tractor. He had been too young to drive in Norway when he came to Mississippi for a full year, and it was in his contract that if someone reported that he had even sat behind the steering wheel of a car or truck, he was gone back to Scandinavia pronto. Yet there was no mention of a farm vehicle, so I put him on an International 1066 pulling a harrow on a land-planned 200-acre field, once I’d taught him the essentials of driving it. He still holds the Brownspur record for hitting the left lock-brake and spinning around at full speed, without flipping the tractor! That was before I attached the harrow.
That was back in 1984-85. Once we got e-mail out here at Brownspur, I struck up a fairly regular correspondence with our personal Viking, who has only come back to visit once. After graduation from high school in Mississippi, he went on to college, a year as a Norway ski-paratrooper, then on to medical school in Germany, marriage to a Swedish girl, two kids, and a doctor’s career. But about three years ago he wrote me that his foreign exchange student experience had been so good that he wanted his whole family to have that same opportunity, so he had volunteered for one of those “Doctors without borders” organizations. He and his wife, with a ten-year-old son and an eight-year-old daughter, were assigned to a medical practice in the Australian outback for a full year. They all enjoyed it so much that he extended for six months, when the year was up!
It was nice to know that he had enjoyed Mississippi so much. During that year he not only played football (that was before Southern schools had soccer teams; that sport was still suspected as being vaguely communistic then) and drove a tractor, but he hunted doves, ducks, deer, and turkeys; handled the family wild pets, such as screech owls, raccoons, possums, and a full-grown great horned owl; enjoyed our Swimming Hole in the pasture; and discovered Southern Belles, three of which tried to go back to Norway with him when the year was up!
Johan affected us for life, too: I still get my Vs and Ws mixed up, as in “Wolwo” or “Wolksvagen” or “VereVolf” or “Wampire.” In return, his letters still include an occasional “Y’all” or “Ain’t.” Betsy still hangs out the Norvay wreath at Christmas on our door, saying “Velcomen.”
Having our own personal Viking here at Brownspur was a great experience, for both families, even with a few “Bomps in de road” along the way!
We were flying-fishing along, quietly working a popping bug in and out among the willows and cypress knees, picking up a slab bream now and then, being kind of quiet and laid back on a late summer morning. Earlier, at daybreak, we had motored up to a little pothole that we could only get into at just the right river stage on this oxbow lake. Beavers had built a substantial dam across the little channel we used to enter the pond, and when we reached the dam, I had stepped off the bow on the boat onto the stick-and-mud structure, and boosted the john boat across, then jumped back in. Now we had fished all the way around the pond, had an ice chest full of big bream, and were ready to slide back across the dam, motor down the channel back into the lake, and cross over to where our truck was parked.
As we approached the dam, I reeled in until I had just enough line out to hook the popping bug onto the reel guide, sticking the little black dropper fly’s hook into the cork handle. Big Robert had taught me to use a black fly about eight inches behind the popping bug, and often I’d bring in two bream on the same cast. I laid my rod in the boat, grabbed the side rails, and prepared to step out onto the dam to boost the boat over. Then I saw one of the strangest sights I’ve ever seen: a big purple-colored bream that probably weighed over a pound rose silently above the other side of the dam, flopping its tail and looking at me sideways. I mean, the fish was on its side! I stood to get a better look.
And wished I hadn’t. The big bream was sideways, all right. It was being held thataway in the mouth of one of the biggest water moccasins I’ve even seen. The snake’s head was almost a foot out of the water with its prize in its mouth, but the bream was so big that, looking straight at it, I couldn’t see the snake holding it!
Needless to say, I did not step out of the boat onto that beaver dam. The snake finally noticed that its path was blocked by our boat, and turned to head the other way, swimming away from us head-high with the bream in its jaws. My question the rest of the month was: where was that snake when I had jumped so nimbly onto the dam at first light?
I was wade-fishing once in a shallow pond, casting a fly back toward the bank. When I’d hook a bream, I’d string it onto the nylon stringer I had tied to my belt. I learned that technique fishing for speckled trout at Chandelier Island, then unlearned it when a shark chomped down on Big Robert’s stringer of specks. St. Peter is not the only mortal man to walk on the water, though it’s better to water-walk by faith than fear. Big Robert pulled that shark halfway up on the beach.
Anyhoo, I was picking up a bream pretty regularly when my stringer snagged on a stump or underwater brush top. I jerked it loose without looking, but it didn’t release, so I jerked again. That time, it jerked back! I looked behind me to see a moccasin with a mouthful of my bream, attached to my belt by a nylon cord, which subsequently proved strong enough to pull a couple dozen big bream and a four-foot snake slap up onto dry land. I mean, I was a long way from the water when I finally got my belt off to drop the stringer! Bad thing was (for the moccasin) that the fish seemed stuck in his throat, and he couldn’t spit it out to bite me, when I returned with a limb to end his appetite problems.
I used to fish with a guy who loved to aggravate a snake by casting just past its head with a popping bug, then jerking the lure back across the serpent to set the hook. He’d play the snake just like a big fish until he had it close enough to whack with a paddle, breaking its neck. I didn’t think it was near’bout as much fun as he did! Nor did the snakes. He finally got cured of the habit when he hooked a really big moccasin on his fly rod, and the snake instantly charged his boat! One doesn’t want any viper in the boat, much less a big moccasin that’s mad at you personally. The guy jumped up on the middle seat and held the fly rod as far out as possible, but the snake bent the rod double trying to get to him. It took a 300 magnum to settle that! Luckily, a nearby fisherman had his rifle close by in his truck, and heard the cries for help. From the fisherman, not the snake.
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?
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!
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!
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!