The sounds of a truck could be heard far off in the distance as it rolled along the narrow gravel road towards my grandparent’s small two bedroom farmhouse. The crackling sound of tires crunching gravel soon gives way to a plume of light brown dust jettisoning from the rear of the truck like fighter jet exhaust. My uncle Luke, Aunt Betty, cousins Rachel and Larry along with coon hounds Old Blue and his brother have arrived in the Thorn Gap community. An evening of country fried chicken, home grown vegetables and some of the finest deserts known to man will soon be enjoyed by all.
For generations hunting had been a long standing tradition in the Harris family. Hunting was done more out of necessity and than for sport. The family raised, grew, trapped or hunted most of it’s’ food. Two crops were grown, Strawberries in late spring and Tobacco in the fall along with the sales of eggs from the Harris hens, provided needed cash to purchase the other necessities.
My father had broken free from that mold in his move up north. He provided the necessities for his family also by using his hands, but not to grow corn but to grow cars.
I had not yet reached my teen years but this evening would be one I would remember the rest of my life. I loved the outdoors and my father had taken me squirrel and rabbit hunting several times. These trips to the woods always took place in the daytime. But tonight would be different. I was about to be initiated into a secret society known as “the coon hunters.” I would see, hear and learn things that only can be seen, heard and learned when you become a full fledged member of “the coon hunter’s” society.
My Uncle Luke was a legend in the coon hunting world. His expertise in coon hunting and the training of coon “hounds” was known and respected all over the southeast. He won statewide competitions with one of his coon dogs being pronounced as best in the state of Tennessee. (Shortly after receiving a trophy, check and recognition, he refused an offer by someone many miles away to buy his dog. The dog went missing a few days later. He never saw the dog again and I’m sure someone “many miles away” enjoyed the prow hunting skills of my uncle’s dog” at a greatly reduced price – free.)
Supper being ended, we waited for the sun to cross the imaginary finish line on the horizon which would turn the daylight into darkness. As the shadow of the small farmhouse marched slowly across the gravel road behind us, the starting pistol was fired for beginning of the evening hunt with my uncle’s words; “OK fellows, let’s go.”
An unusual wave of emotion rolled over me like an incoming cool tide sinking quickly into dry sand. This was it. My coon hunting experience was about to begin. The three of us piled into my uncle’s pickup truck with coon hounds in tow. The dogs were pacing with anxious anticipation in the back of the truck. We rode at a steady clip into unknown regions of darkness. Further and further we drove, occasionally turning from one dirt road to the next. Finally the quiet cry of worn brakes and the slowing of the truck signaled the beginning of the contest. One of Uncle Luke’s fellow hunters had already arrived. He had one of his coon hounds with him also. I slid across the bench seat and followed my dad out the passenger door; the tail gate had already dropped. As I neared the back fender, I caught sight of two airborne blue tick hounds in mid flight on their way to match cunning and instinct with whichever coon would become the “coon of the day.”
Uncle Luke talked to the dogs like they were human. “Ok boys” he said, “Go get him” “You can do it.” They responded with “dog talk” like he was one of them. After coming to a mutual understanding, the dogs were released. They disappeared quickly into the surrounding woods.
I stood quietly taking in the sights and sounds of the night. The base voices of dueling bullfrogs echoed back and forth across the valley. Crickets and tree frogs join in the harmony of nature’s chorus. A distant owl seemed to ask over and over again “who, who, who’s there?” The crackle of orange white sparks bounced above the small campfire we’d built to keep us warm. Lightening bugs seemed to ricochet over the landscape like a giant nature pin ball machine.
We stood around the fire and I listened quietly to the men talk. They discussed the weather, politics, crops and a litany of other man things. Now I must admit as a young boy I was not quite prepared for some of the conversation I heard. I discovered that coon hunters have special language all their own. They reserve it in most cases just for the duration of the hunt. My father was the only man present who probably knew the language but chose not to participate in the communication of it. I heard words that I’d heard a few times before in school and other places, but never so many in one place at one time. Words that I knew better than to repeat for fear of the wrath of mom.
My uncle Luke stopped in mid-sentence. “Listen…..” he said almost in a whisper. “They’re on him.” It got quiet around the campfire. We could hear dogs barking in the distance. Each dog had a unique bark. Uncle Luke identified each dog by name as their steady barking alerted him to where they were and what was happening. It was amazing how he gave us a play by play of the race between the dogs and raccoon. “They’re trailing him” he said. We listened as the barking intensified and moved strategically first here, then over there, then back the other way crisscrossing the surrounding hills and valleys.
The sound of the chase was something to hear. The harmony of the dogs with their individually pitched barking sounds echoed back in cadence. First one, then the other, then the third dog. Uncle Luke even told us the order of the pursuing dogs based on the cadence of their barking. He spoke up “they got him treed.” The barking cadence had changed. I wouldn’t have recognized it on my own. The orderly follow the leader style barking had given way to a random faster paced louder barking. You could hear an excitement in the dogs.
Something had happened and I was about to find out what. “Let’s go” uncle Luke said. I’ll admit it now but would have died first back then, I was a little scared. Off we went in the darkness. We were heading into the woods with all its strange sounds. We couldn’t see but a few feet in front of us. My uncle had strapped a carbide light to his forehead and used it give a small gas type glow to light the pathway in front of him. He led the way and I followed close behind him and my dad behind me. I didn’t realize it then, but by keeping me between the two of them was their way of protecting me. Poisoness Timber rattlers and copper head snakes were prevalent in those Tennessee hills. The woods were full of rock crevices and sink holes. I was “a babe in the woods” and these veteran outdoorsmen had grown up in them. I took big steps and tried to stay in my uncle’s footprints. On we marched. Up one side of the hill and into the next valley, on and on. I took two steps for everyone one of my dad and uncle. It seemed like hours but the sound of the dogs grew closer and closer. My uncle’s sense of direction in the dark woods was unbelievable. He led us directly to the hounds.
He took out a huge spotlight that he carried with him for such an occasion. The hounds were barking and jumping up against the base of the tree. We all looked skyward following the light as it sliced through branch after branch searching for the raccoon that we knew must be up there somewhere. My heart was pounding and my blood racing. I had mixed emotions. I had enjoyed the hunt up till now. I knew the dogs had worked hard to get us to this point. We’d worked hard and navigated difficult terrain to reach the summit of the hunt. The climax of the hunt was the kill. I just wasn’t sure I wanted to see something die. Deep down I dreaded the thought of seeing the animal shot and falling from the tree.
We looked from every angle. We moved around the tree shining the light again and again. We simply could not locate the raccoon. There were other trees close by and wild grape vines connecting many of them. After the dogs had “treed” the coon, he evidently had moved from one tree to another and gotten away. I had mixed emotions at that moment, but learned a valuable lesson that night. I learned that the “kill” was not the most important thing that took place on the hunt.
There were a number of important things that took place on the hunt. The first thing was the value of quality time spent with a father, his son, his son’s uncle. The proof is in the memories. This story relates an experience that is almost 50 years old, yet as real today as if it had happened a week ago. The sights, sounds and smells are as fresh today as they were way back then. A second important thing is the simple pleasures of the hunt. The warm fire, the comradery of the hunters, the sound of good dogs working hard to please their master, and a little boy taking another step on his way to manhood.
My Uncle Luke passed away a few years back and my dad will turn 80 on his next birthday. We all are the sum total of what we have seen, experienced, and how we’ve been influenced (good or bad) by others. I was fortunate to have had many good people around me and in my life.
Many make the mistake of thinking that the measure of success in life is how much education we have, what we possess, or what positions we rise to. They too miss the important thing. I remember a little about the ride home from the hunt. After making sure the fire was out and the dogs were settled in the back of the truck, we climbed back in the cab for the ride back to Grandpa’s house. I was a tuckered out little boy. As we drove along those country roads, I sensed that I’d just experienced something special. There I sat, secure between my uncle and dad. I slowly drifted off to sleep not recognizing the lessons I’d learned and the great impact that experience and many similar experiences would have on my life.
Learn a lesson from a not so young coon hunter. It is not what we hold in our hands that makes us happy; it’s what we hold in our hearts. It’s not the “kill” (achieving success) that truly makes life worthwhile. It’s learning to enjoy the journey. The simple things that we often take for granted are the very things that make life worth living. Quality time with family, the comradery with friends and co-workers, noticing and appreciating the hard work and dedication of those who are trying to serve and please us, helping our children navigate the difficult waters of growing up, these along with many others are some of the things that bring satisfaction and contentment.