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?
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.
A friend was talking about her father retiring the other day, and made the remark that he now loved his regular glass of brandy in the evenings. She wondered if it was a cause for concern. I asked her about the brand her sire preferred. She pondered for a moment, and ventured that it had something to do with Napoleon.
I assured her that her father was fine, and had good taste, to boot.
She looked at me askance. “I thought you didn’t drink?” she accused.
Well, I don’t consider that I do. I ain’t throwing rocks, but you can pour all the beer back into the horse, far as I’m concerned, and I wouldn’t give a nickel for all the whiskey brands in the world. Big Robert taught us growing up that, “Neill men can’t drink,” and the hard liquor I let alone. Now, I learned to drink wine with a meal while overseas on liberty. The ship’s doctor lectured us before we pulled into port about the water in foreign lands, and by golly he was right. After my first liberty, when I didn’t drink wine and refused to pay a buck and a quarter for a Coke that was a dime aboard ship, I drank the water instead. I mean, I grew up swimming in the Mammy Grudge, the Mississippi River, and various streams and lakes into which rural sewerage systems drained, and I never once got sick. I’ve drunk water from puddles and horse tracks while bird hunting in the hills and never had a problem. Uncle Tullier used to take us out to the Chandelier Islands for several days of fishing for reds and specks, and we’d drink rain water and eat raw oysters washed in the Gulf. How come some doctor thought water would make ME sick?!
The next week, when I was well enough to go back ashore on liberty, I learnt to drink wine with my meals if necessary. I saw why the Apostle Paul told Timothy to “Take a little wine for your stomach.” (That verse is cut out of most Baptist Bibles, but I grew up in the Episcopal and Presbyterian churches, so have one of those old Bibles.)
Also, on liberty in the Caribbean, I was introduced to some of the finer liqueurs, and made up my mind that, when I grow up, I want to own a banana brandy plantation in the Virgin Isles. Among those liqueurs was a coffee-flavored one, and we all know that the Dark Ages didn’t end, and the Renaissance didn’t start, until Christopher Columbus discovered America – and coffee! A dollop of that in a cup of coffee around the campfire late at night before the hunters turn in, makes for a good bedtime story.
Yet it was Frog Juice to which we were referring in the matter of my friend’s father. We called it Frog Juice back in the Navy, referring to the country it came from, and my cousin Mountain Willy, a career officer, swore by it, I assured my friend.
“But I’ve tasted that stuff, and it’s strong!” she protested.
True, I replied, but it ain’t really for tasting, or drinking.
In the classic movie “The Outlaw Josey Wales,” Clint Eastwood, on the run from renegade yankees, comes upon an old Indian, and asks if he has anything to eat. The chief reaches in his pocket and laconically says, “I got a piece of hard candy, but it ain’t for eatin’, it’s for lookin’ through,” and he holds a piece of red candy up to the sun, squinting.
Frog Juice is for the same reason, I explained to my young friend.
When you’ve come in from a day in the woods, calling turkeys, or sitting in a deer stand, all your senses on edge to detect your prey, then sit down to a meal around the campfire, and you finally relax – that’s the time for the Frog Juice. It’s better in a wide-mouthed glass you call a snifter, but those aren’t common on hunting camp. Yet it doesn’t belong to be served in a coffee cup. A jelly glass or fruit jar works well, if a regular glass isn’t available, but the main thing is, it has to be clear enough to see through. You don’t pour much in the glass, and you don’t drink it, either. Oh, maybe a wee sip once in a while, but mostly you just swirl it around and smell of it, and look through it at the fire.
Campfire flames, or even a fire of logs in a fireplace, are so much better when viewed through a glass of Frog Juice.
And the stories! Those wonderful tales of turkeys missed, of bucks that gave you the slip, of dawns in a duck blind, and the memories of the men, women, and kids that you shared these wonderful experiences with: they are better brought to mind when spoken of through the redness of that glass of Frog Juice – especially the ones who have gone on to those Happy Hunting Grounds. In the swirls of amber, you can see those faces: Mr. Hurry, Big Robert, Uncle Sam, Uncle Shag, Mr. Jay, Big Dave – all of them. They glow, and that glow gradually warms your heart.
As you rise to go to bed, you raise a toast of Frog Juice to good friends and memories around life’s campfires.
He came to us by way of a friend who knew that we have a great deal of experience out here at Brownspur in rehabilitating injured or immature wildlife. Since he originated at the farm that Big Robert used to call “The old Millsaps Place,” and since son Adam graduated from Millsaps College, playing a lot of championship baseball there for the Millsaps Majors, we named him “Major.”
Major was a half-grown great horned owl, who apparently came off second-best in an encounter with a catfish pond paddlewheel. He had major equilibrium problems when he came to Brownspur, to the point that we sometimes wondered if his owl momma had maybe had an affair with a vampire bat, or something similar. He’d be calmly sitting on Adam’s gloved hand, and would start to lean slightly forward, without noticing, it seemed. He’d lean until he actually fell over, but his claws would cling ever-tighter to the supporting hand, and there he’d be, hanging upside-down from Adam’s hand, apparently content to survey the world from this batlike position. After a few minutes, Adam would gently push him back upright, and the process would start all over again, though maybe backwards this time.
We have previously hosted and rehabbed a full-grown great horned owl, a nearly-grown barred owl, four screech owls, and two full-grown hawks, and all but one of the hawks and one screech owl recovered and were released back into the wild. At any rate, we have owl rehab experience, which needs to be done under the supervision of a vet, as per the law. Major flat needed the rehab. The first few times we tried to turn him loose, he flew smackdab into light poles and trees.
Adam took him under his wing, so to speak, and became Major’s momma in the young owl’s eyes, that was obvious. When Adam would walk out of the house in the morning or after he got home from work, we could hear Major popping his beak like a 22 rifle shot, in greeting. They had a game, in which Major would run to the corner of the pen when Adam opened it, and do a little dance, then hop aboard the extended gloved hand and ride. He loved to visit the Swimming Hole and had his own special perch in a small cypress there, from which he’d survey his family afloat, like a lifeguard. The mockingbirds who nested in the big cypress never adjusted to having an owl for a guest, and harassed Major hatefully.
We essentially emptied the freezer of squirrel and rabbit, which he preferred by far over chicken. Adam would perch Major on his hand (ungloved, after the owl showed he’d not hurt him) and offer him pieces of meat with the other hand. He’d mock-roughly grab the meat and swallow it down until he got full, at which point he’d still reach out and grab the meat, but would hold it for a moment in his beak, then drop it to the floor for Blondie, the Lab, to clean up. Eventually, Major learned to perch on Blondie’s back, but the Lab wasn’t atall comfortable with that.
My guess is that his momma had done this to get the little owl ready to leave the nest and attack paddlewheels, but he had the funniest ritual: Adam would place his finger against Major’s upper beak, and the owl would lower his head and push so hard against the finger, that if Adam suddenly moved it, the owl would fall over forward. He’d let us stroke his head, and loved for you to scratch the back of his head, but you had to approach him from the front to do it. To sneak up and reach out to scratch from behind was to invite a snap that might bring blood. An owl’s beak is a powerful weapon, like his talons. And don’t touch his (or her?) breast!
Major eventually learned to accept, but never really liked, bike riding with Adam. Not on the handlebars, though: he still wanted to be on that gloved hand. He hated motors, and after he once panicked at the approaching lawn mower, we had to mow completely on the other side of the house from him. Adam once left for a four-day visit with Mountain Willy, and I took over the feeding duties, but he was sure glad when his real momma came home!
Well, Major finally recovered, after spending the summer with us, and we turned him loose. Now and then, we still hear him popping his beak in greeting. He was a pleasure to have for a guest, except for the mockingbirds and blue jays!
We’ve all known forever that it’s a tough world out there beyond the back porch. We can’t keep cats around out here at Brownspur since the coyote population built up to the point that the wild canines run in packs regularly. Matter of fact, keeping beagles isn’t really an option either, unless you keep them penned up, and who wants to keep beagles penned up if you live in the country? The Labradors are big enough to fend for themselves, but the beagles are too small to stand up to a pack of coyotes, especially the miniature beagles we used to have.
Of course, the other side of the coin is that, since the coyotes have taken over, we don’t have the problem we used to with packs of wild dogs, which have no innate fear of man. At least coyotes aren’t a real threat to maul a person, far as I know. Watch now: having said that, someone will call to say their Aunt Lilly was eaten plumb up by a pack of coyotes last October in Goose Hollow.
Obviously, the food chain in the wild means that Brownspur bunny rabbits and field mice, as well as house cats away from the house, will be killed and eaten by larger predators like coyotes, the occasional wolf, foxes, bobcats, hawks, and owls. It’s the way the world works, ever since Adam & Eve ate the Apple. Man as a predator is also figured into that equation, though most Americans do most of their predatoring at the local grocery store. Truth be known, in modern America those of us who hunt for food are looked down upon especially by many city-dwellers as blood-thirsty Neanderthals who need sexual counseling.
We’ve gotten too far away from the last generation, when if you wanted fried chicken for Sunday dinner, Junior had to go catch a pullet, wring its neck, pick it, gut it, chop off the feet for later chicken-foot soup, and whack it up into recognizable parts for flouring and frying. Those were the days when the pulley-bone was the choice piece on the platter, and Momma would pick some lucky kid to pull the pulley-bone with her, to see which one was going to have good luck and which would get married first. Whatever happened to the pulley-bone in the buckets that fried chicken comes in today? The youngest kid used to have to settle for the parson’s nose, the last piece over the fence.
Can you imagine sending a modern teenager out to catch a chicken, kill it, and clean it for supper?
Oh, well, I didn’t start out to go there. What I wanted to tell you about was a meanie out here at Brownspur: an uncommon predator that we’ve caught killing out of Pure-D meanness, not for food or self defense.
We’re always conscious of wildlife predators out here, which includes the denizens of the yard. Of course, that sometimes includes the coyotes on a late-night pass, as well as coons, possums, skunks, and even a mink, when the peaches start falling. Those are the predators which wear fur, plus the owls and hawks, and the more-than-occasional snake. Used to be, I encouraged the blue jays to congregate around the house, because although they’re raucous, they will congregate and raise Cain when they spot a snake in the yard. Then I can get a hoe and see if it’s one of the poisonous brand which needs to be eliminated entirely, or sometimes a too-large blue runner, chicken snake, or spreading adder that needs to relocated a mile away. A big snake can make you hurt yourself!
But no more will I encourage jaybirds. Adam and Greg were out at the Swimming Hole one afternoon and noticed a blue jay swooping and fussing out by the apple tree, so they hustled over, expecting to encounter a snake.
But it was a baby dove, which was just big enough to flutter out of the nest, but needed a few hours to master flying safely. Despite the efforts of the mother dove to distract the jaybird, the blue one was attacking the little dove viscously. By the time the boys rescued it, the damage was done. The blue jay had pecked in the back of the baby dove’s skull. Had to be out of sheer meanness! I never saw that before.
So, it’s open season out here on blue jays. I am aware that they are probably a protected species, so undoubtedly the game warden will be over to visit. Yet doves are also protected under the game laws, until the season opens. Therefore, that blue jay was breaking the law itself. We held court. He was tried, found guilty, sentenced, and executed. Selah.
For years, my youngest daughter has belonged to a cult of pumpkin carvers. These young people take great pride in the production of Jack-O-Lanterns at Halloween, even to the point of purchasing special sets of pumpkin-carving tools to work with. They even have contests to choose the most intricate and scariest of their productions, which are sometimes accompanied by props, such as hers was this year.
In addition to carving a web across half the pumpkin, which really looked scary when she placed a lighted candle therein, she made huge black tarantula-looking spiders out of pipe cleaners that were clinging to the sides of the web, just waiting for an unwary victim to get close enough for them to get their fangs into. You didn’t even want to go into the same room with it!
A few days after Halloween, she set the pumpkin out on the back porch to await the sad fate of Jack-O-Lanterns the world over: I was to set it out with the rest of the garbage that week, on collection day.
That day rolled around, and I got the garbage together from the rest of the house, took it to the kitchen door, and was fixing to take it out onto the back porch, but fortunately I glanced out there first, and froze. At the foot of the chaise lounge, its black and white fur rippling softly in the morning breeze, reclined a skunk!
We have always had skunk problems in the country; comes with the territory, so to speak. Once Betsy went across the covered walkway to our guest house, “The Store,” for something at night, and when she opened the door to return, a skunk sat in the middle of the boardwalk, regarding her nonchalantly. She yelled for someone in the house (me or Adam) to come to the rescue, but I was reading in the den, with the stereo up loud enough for me to hear, which means loud enough for the neighbors to listen, too, if they want to. She ended up spending most of an hour besieged in The Store, and was sho’nuff hot at me for not coming to the aid of a fair damsel in distress, no matter that I had no idea the fair damsel was in any distress atall.
Labrador Boo once chased a skunk away from entering the back porch, but the skunk took offense and sprayed both Boo and the porch, which meant bathing both in tomato juice several times over the next week. We decided it might have been cheaper to let the skunk walk through the screen porch undisturbed. I know Boo concurred.
Yet here was a skunk apparently napping on the kitchen end of a 50-foot-long screen porch. I couldn’t get out the door without arousing it, though I could see the close screen door hadn’t been pulled closed the night before. Yet shooting him there was unthinkable. Skunks don’t take kindly to shooing, either. What to do?
I turned and went through the house to the garage door, and slipped outside there. Going to the door from the garage onto the back porch, I gently eased that door open and propped it with an anti-freeze jug. I peered in, but could barely see the black and white fur rippling on the other side of the chaise lounge. I turned and exited the garage, slipped around to the screen door from the porch onto the boardwalk to The Store, and eased it open, taking the spring loose, so it would stay thataway. Now the two doors at the other end of the porch from the skunk were open for its exit, if I could arrange that.
Okay, now I needed to open the screen door opposite the kitchen, which was only maybe ten feet from the reclining skunk. Using the rosebush for cover, I snuk silently toward the visitor, knowing that if it was aroused, the screen would give little protection from the stinking spray. For the last few feet, once I had to leave the rosebush’s cover, I went to hands and knees. Finally, I was at the screen door. I reached out and snagged the bottom of the door with my fingernails and began to ease it open, peeping fearfully at where the skunk rested as the door gradually swung to reveal the black and white fur… that from this close appeared to be more grayish. Maybe an old skunk? I eased the door more open, squinting with concentration. The fur WAS pretty gray.
Then I saw it had an orange base, barely visible.
Pumpkins, when set out unattended in the Southern heat and humidity for several days, produce the most beautiful mold, fully two inches of hair-like fungus that starts out rather tarantula-black at the base, but gets lighter as it gets longer, becoming almost white.
I gathered up the remains, for the garbage truck, then went to beat my daughter.
It was a few winters ago, and my son and a cousin were getting up early for a hunt. Adam arose in his upstairs bedroom, and stepped out on the balcony to check the weather. As he stood admiring the stars and trying to assess wind direction and temperature, he suddenly was aware of a Presence nearby.
He stepped to the edge of the balcony next to the low roof of the house. At the same point where the south side of the balcony meets the low roof over the garage and back porch, the steeply-pitched upper roof joins the low roof. In the shadow of that high roof, he discerned a darker shape, and bent cautiously for a closer look.
“Want some coffee?” I asked.
“You can use my cup,” his mother offered.
It was obvious that the boy was confused, when he realized that his parents were lying on the roof an hour before daylight on a cold winter’s morn. “What the heck are y’all doing up here?” he asked, followed quickly by, “Or maybe I don’t want to know!”
“Watching the meteor showers,” Betsy and I responded. She again offered him some coffee. He just shook his head and went back inside to wake up Cuz and bring him out to observe his crazy parents.
It was the occasion of the Leonid Meteor Shower, advertised to be one of the best in our lifetime. Only problem was, the peak of it was about four in the morning. Yet we both decided when we hit the hay about eleven that if it was clear, we’d get up to watch the shooting stars, which we’ve done often before from the roof. Usually, though, they have showered during warm weather, when the main problem is mosquitoes, not clouds. I was to be the scout, in charge of getting up and seeing if the weather was going to be clear or cloudy.
It was clear when I arose at 3:30 a.m. I headed to the kitchen to boil water for coffee, then found my thermos bottle and filled it with hot tap water to be ready to keep our coffee hot. I make the old-style boiled coffee, with the grounds in the bottom of the pot, some of which pour out into the cup, so that you dare not drink the last swallow, unless you want to chew it. Betsy says my coffee is “Good to the last bite!”
Made coffee, filled the thermos, grabbed two travel cups Mr. Hurry gave us for Christmas one year, and took them up the outside staircase to the low roof, along with a basket of apple muffins Betsy had made up. Then I snagged a big foam pad and a large 2-for-1 sleeping bag, plus two pillows, and arranged them so that we could lie on the low roof, with our heads propped against the steep roof to watch shooting stars. Only when the stage was set did I wake my sleeping bride. She slipped on warm-ups and socks, picked up a quilt from the bed, and we hiked up the outside stairs. As she snuggled into the sleeping bag and arranged the quilt, I poured our coffee and slipped into the sleeping bag beside her. She passed me an apple muffin just as a light flashed over us that I initially mistook for a flashbulb. It wasn’t. It was a meteor!
We lay there on the roof until sunup, disturbed only by Adam and Cuz. During those couple of hours, we saw several hundred shooting stars, many just brief pinpricks of light. Some, however, curved halfway across the heavens before burning out. Many times, a half-dozen were in sight at once. Just before dawn, after the hunters departed, we saw what must have been a satellite speeding over from north to south. It was a great way to start the day.
While we lay there snuggled together, drinking coffee and eating muffins, we also heard two coyote packs, one coming by right across the Mammy Grudge, less than a hundred yards away. The red wolf howled for a few moments, seemingly in answer to one of the coyote packs. A barred owl hooted almost angrily at the close pack, and as the eastern sky began to pinken, a pair of screech owls sounded off from the ditchbank.
We almost hated to leave our bedding to get ready for early choir and Sunday School, but the show was over once the sun came up, of course. I had to make a second pot of coffee. As I poured a cup, I thanked God for the show. What a morning!
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!
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?
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.
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!