By Jake Lunsford
We lived a feral existence, surrounded by wilderness, in a place that no longer exists, and a time that will never be again. I saw my first bear track there, and slept fitfully beneath the branches of a long-leafed pine where turkeys roosted, depending on their lofty awareness to alert my brother and me to the bruin’s approach. The night train’s distant whistle marked the witching hour, and a kerosene lantern lit the way to railroad tracks we would follow home. And always, there were the hounds.
I was eleven, my brother was eight, and I don’t know what my parents were thinking. We roamed freely, the creek bottoms and pine forests as wild as our young imaginations. Our family owned little land, but it mattered not. There was no concept of private property, and posted signs just meant you couldn’t bring down the raccoons and squirrels your dogs treed on the other side of the fence. The audacity with which we approached farmhouses miles from home would terrify today’s generation of helicopter parent. But we feared nothing, and were rewarded for our gregariousness with glasses of cool sweet tea and invitations to “stop on by anytime.”
My mama kept a large dinner bell atop a fence post in our front yard. If you were close enough to hear it, you might get a warm meal if you ran fast enough. If you were beyond its resonance, well, wild muscadines and blackberries were good enough for the coon, and therefore good enough for the coon hunter. It was a time of plenty, and we immersed ourselves in its bounty.
Like all boys of wayfaring age, our wanderlust was stoked by an old man with nothing better to do than spin yarns and plant the seeds of adventure in our fertile minds. My grandfather’s rocking chair was his spindle, and Southern Appalachia was his distaff. In that chair, and of those mountains, he weaved epic tales of Ole’ Blue, a three-legged hound, battling a raccoon on the thin ice of a frozen river, and of a friend who dared tempt fate in the icy waters to pull him from certain death. When the yarns spun too wildly, my grandmother would send us, man and boys alike, to the barn with admonishments of, “don’t go puttin’ ideas in those boys’ heads, you old fool.”
But my grandfather played the role of elder, and he gave me his stories. If blood is thicker than water, stories are thicker than blood. You see, he and I were the family bastards, brought in as collateral from other marriages and relationships gone wrong. We found kinship in one another, the old man and the boy.
I remember distinctly the tipping point when those stories became too much to be lived by someone else. Mrs. Beatenbough, my sixth-grade English teacher, gave me a book. Wilson Rawls, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and Oklahoma native, wrote the first draft of Where the Red Fern Grows on the backs of used paper grocery bags during the Great Depression. That he was once imprisoned for stealing a chicken in New Mexico only lent him credibility. The story of Billy Coleman, joined with the wild yarns of my grandfather’s youth, lit a fire in me.
My grandmother saw the flame, and instead of stomping it out, she gave it oxygen. It was she who was the real culprit. Beneath her sun-bleached yellow bonnet and white curls, she was born of the mountain. She knew what we were, and wanted us to be it to the fullest. It was she who got us the hounds.
The two pups came from my grandmother’s employer, a kindly man who owned a fish house adjacent to my grandparents’ sweet potato farm. At the Red Minnow, smells of fried catfish wafted among the drawling conversations of farm families gathered together in what felt more like a church social than a place of business. Years later, it burned down under suspicious circumstances. We all missed the catfish, but were glad the old man never hurt for money in the years before his passing.
Our pups were the spawn of grand nite champions, but we didn’t know what that meant. From the first moment they bayed the fleeting locusts in our back field, we just knew they were going to be fine coonhounds, and we houndsmen. And so it was.
Crockett writhed with muscle beneath his white coat, one large black spot on his rump and a white blaze between his glowing yellow eyes and drooping black ears. He was a killer, no two ways about it. His wrath was fearsome to behold and his voice boomed like rolling thunder. Pepsi was his sister and littermate. Of similar color, but smaller build, she preferred my brother to me and did not hunt for blood, but for pleasure. Hers was a delighted pursuit and joy rang in her short and quick trail bark.
Our first winter we hunted with reckless abandon. Our missed morning classes were met more with teachers’ interest than disapproval, and we rolled into spring gaunt, with bloodshot eyes, and clothes torn of briar and bramble. We’d had a real education, learning lessons in those bottoms that would become the foundation for all of life’s future adventures. But most of all, we were happy.
There were other hounds in years to come, some better, many worse, but none like the two whose voices led us into those first years of freedom. But like all things, this too shall pass.
I left home two decades ago, called by war and kept by circumstance. My brother, too, left the piney woods of our piedmont home and settled on the white sands of the Gulf. Neither of us have the time, nor the space, for hounds whose souls would surely die absent the immensity of freedom their desire to follow a trail requires.
I have bird dogs now, and still find joy in watching good dog work. Yet there is something more gentlemanly about them, less raw, than the scarred and muddy hide of a hound in full throat, body half-submerged in an icy Georgia swamp and voice echoing into the night.
I see the difference most at fence crossings. My spaniel’s approach, the one I have instilled in him, reflects the profundity to which attitudes about property have changed. He sits patiently at the gated corner as I unlatch the chain and allow him through, permission granted, respecting the process.
One gap over, the ground is scraped bare by the repeated crossings of mesopredators, the raccoon and opossum, the skunk and fox, that have combined with the twin scourges of disease and habitat loss to decimate once mighty quail populations. Absent are the tufts of muddy hair and strips of faded blue cotton left behind by hound backs and boy knees raked across sharp barbs in hot pursuit, permission assumed, if even thought of.
But the difference is most acutely felt as loss; cultural, traditional, and generational. Unfettered freedom, the assumption of one’s permission to roam, tamped down and trimmed along the edges. It’s been replaced with, if not a lesser version, then a tamer one. Those hounds would pay no more mind to my spaniel’s whistle than I paid to my mother’s bell when it competed with the call of forest and stream. So much of that is gone now, the magic eroding faster than I can count the grains of falling sand. First the assumptions, then the hounds, and now the quail. Maybe I am next.
The rivers don’t freeze over anymore, and probably won’t for many lifetimes to come. Gone too are the friendly smiles and sweet-tea from cattlemen met wandering their fencerows, shotgun or rifle in hand and a bag full of squirrels. The crop lands and timber tracts that formed the wilderness of my childhood are subdivided now, and trespassing signs are backed with cold stares from faces bearing no resemblance to the farm families of my youth. This is growth. This is progress. That is what we tell ourselves.
The truth is that there are too many people now, and not enough space for us all. They come from the cities, looking for solitude, and in so coming tarnish the treasure they seek. But who can blame them for desiring the bounty we have so long held secret? Certainly not I, a son of Eden. Yet the compliment of emulation saddens me, for I know what it means.
I look at my children, four sons budding with life, and I pine for the days before the twin “blessings” of economic prosperity and social mobility laid low the “poverty” of living small lives in even smaller places. I see the hypocrisy in my sentiment, but how desperately I want for them the loose rein and faraway boundaries that made me a lover of that place.
The quiet conversations of whispering pines still exist there, awaiting interpretation. Still too, rushing waters flow between banks where treasures of crawfish await the groping hands of young children and raccoons alike. But the night sky now rings hollow in the absence of hound voices, and is too dark without the glow of kerosene lanterns shining back at the stars. Property lines now form tight boundaries around the wanderings of each, new norms extinguishing old pathways.
But blood is thicker than water, and stories are thicker than blood. Like my grandfather, within me lie yarns yet to be woven. I have my own spindle and distaff too, leaning there in the unswept corners of memory. In my tales there will be rocking chairs, and rivers, old men and women born of the mountain, and hounds. There will always be hounds.
Major Jake Lunsford, USMC is a native Georgian currently hunting and fishing in Rhode Island while serving as Commandant of the Marine Corps Fellow at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs.