Ludowici Squirrels

 

(To the Chapmans, who treat me like kin...and for Joanne, the pin-up pride of Ludowici)

 

"Hunting I reckon very good

To brace the nerves, and stir the blood:.."

--Matthew Green

 

"Squirrels!" I say. "I can kill squirrels at my bird feeder."

"Not Altamaha Back Swamp squirrels, you can't!" snaps the chief.

Dougherty County Police Chief William R. Kicklighter is used to having his way. He pouts if you don't jump flatfooted on every idea he comes up with, articulating acute impatience with his favorite explicative, "My damn!"

"I ain't driving to the other side of Georgia to hunt rodents when I can shoot rats at the dump," I say.

His gastropodous lip creeps out."Some of my best memories are hunting swamp squirrels during the Great Depression."

"Bullshit! You were five years old at the end of the Great Depression."

"It lasted longer in Long and McIntosh Counties. Anyway, what else you got to do?"

I tell him I stay home Thursdays to watch for the garbage truck.

"My damn!"

Then I tell him... what the hell. Kicklighter is from Ludowici, Georgia, famous for tile production and speed traps. In the early 70's when he was a GBI agent, Governor Jimmy Carter told him to get over here and clean up gambling, prostitution, election fraud. Con men were fleecing Yankees along U.S. 17 in clip joints where you could gas up, buy pecan pralines and a Confederate flags, get your alternator sabotaged, and lose a few thousand dollars playing punch board or razzle-dazzle. Con men worked in cahoots with corrupt law officials who bought power with high-jacked trucking cargo.

Maybe these old Georgia boys were still pissed off about Sherman's firebreak to Savannah, but robbing Yankees was still against the law, even in costal Georgia, and it was an embarrassment to Jimmy and Lillian. "Nobody tried to outsmart the tourists," Kicklighter tells me. "They'd out-dumb them." A New Jersey couple would pull in chuckling at a sign advertising FRASH BALD PEENUTS--heh, heh-- and lose their nest egg to a slick hick in overalls with a ripe belly and a toothpick in his mouth. If they complained to the law, a deputy would lock them up for gambling. Melissa Fay Green covered all that in her wonderful book Praying for Sheetrock.

Ludowici, Jesup, Guardi, Darian are in the part of Georgia that looks like Georgia's supposed to. Flatwoods, swamps, blackwater rivers, coastal marsh, where the salt air blows wind shadows across the marsh grass and sculpts the twisted live oaks dripping Spanish moss. You pull up to a house, folks make you set your feet under the table, their way of banking against hard times. When they run out of luck, somebody will feed them they've fed before. Kicklighter is understandably anxious to return to his youth for a couple of days.

Crossing the piney woods of the coastal plains, I flash back to boyhood visits with Uncle Charlie Hinson in Hazlehurse. In those days the pine trunks were skinned in shapes like arrow fletching, the yellow meat scabbed over with waxy sap. I remember Uncle Charlie's timber boots hook-laced to his bald knees. Our privilege was to unlace his boots and tug them off when he came in from tending cups. I remember the blue dents in his marble calf where rattlesnakes had popped him. "Aw, the buzzboys mostly stays out your way till you change your pattern," he'd say. "Then you find one ever fifty yards." Uncle Charlie would wiggle his freed toes and we'd skedaddle backwards. "Y'all come back over here after the first frost and hunt dare," he'd say in the way of goodby as Sister and I piled into back seat of the family Buick. "We'll hunt ever day but Sunday." He'd cut his eyes merrily at Mother. "We get drunk on Sunday."

"Turpentiners were a pretty tough lot in those days," Kicklighter affirms. They'd boil the coffee till it floated a ax wedge, then spit to scald wild hogs that roamed through camp, but wait till you meet Hughes and Elton."

Hughes Chapman's cabin is cedar inside and cypress out, cut from swamp timber and made into boards by his cousin's portable saw mill. A gasoline generator cranks out surging electricity and there's a tin roof to sleep under when it rains. When it doesn't rain, acorns drop--plap--or the wind scratches the limbs with sweet static. The tin expands and pings in the morning sun.

"This swamp has been owned and hunted by Chapmans since we run off the Indians," Hughes says. Elton, his son-in-law, stands alone by the fire. He looks like he might be descended from one of the Indians they overlooked. If anybody's a match for a Ludowici squirrel, this man is. He routinely wades armpit deep in frigid swamp water stalking bucks, bears and Russian boars.

Altamaha River Back Swamp squirrels, they warn me, are different. They don't scamper and play. They zip through the treetops like grizzly synapses, lashing neurotic tails and screaming like monkeys. To call them, Hughes Chapman pares off a piece of palmetto stem, splits it, and inserts a reed made from the blade. He blows it and the squirrels come to the high-pitched squall like rats to a Pied Piper, maybe to attack. Ludowici squirrels have no natural predators. Even bobcats and panthers have learned that more calories are invested to subdue one than the scrawny flesh renders, and a wounded Ludowici squirrel is reputed dangerous.

Variously bred hounds trickle centripetally from the outer dark to our bonfire, Walkers, blueticks, beagles, razorbacks and curs. Shy dogs, lean bitches, boar-dogs and gyps. Somebody took drunk," Hughes explains, "and turned the dogs out. We stand around, swapping lies. An amateur boxer in his youth, the white-haired Kicklighter walks on his toes, which means he can't hold still without shuffling and box-stepping. He told me once: "You get caught flat-footed, somebody'll knock you slap to next week." Inspecting a crime scene or hearing a lie, he waltzes to silent melodies. Or maybe to music installed intercranially 35 years ago by a Marine pug who caught him flatfooted. We scratch, spit, grin, and sip whiskey listening to the hounds strike, trail, babble and bay--BAR-ROOP--running through the night like brushfire. Man, if life gets any better than this, I'll be scared of dying.

I listen to stories of knife fights and killings and of the open range and livestock fenced out, not in, of spring roundups to castrate and mark cows and hogs in the flatwoods. Instead of branding, the feral animals' ears were notched, some rustled with such serial and diverse frequency as to have no ears at all. The infamous Sheriff Poppell claimed every hog in Long and McIntosh counties. I you wanted to know whose hog it was," Hughes explains, "you could look up under the tail. If there was a circle under there it was one of the sheriff's hogs." Every hog with a meat asshole, it was said, belonged to the law. We talk of cane grindings, syrup kettles, dip vats and turpentine stills; of stump whiskey; of banking sweet potatoes and cooking off cracklings, and lard, chitterlings and lye soap. Screwworm that ate the side of the deer's faces off. "When I was coming up, we fed the dogs sweet potatoes," Hughes says. "They done aw right on it, but if you was behind one that farted, it turned you off the road."

"We was too poor to have dogs," Kicklighter says.

They turn in and chat from their Army sleeping bags and blankets, their voices transfigure into cartoon bubbles from the ends of olive drab swaddling.

"You've eat chicken feet, ain't you Bill?"

"No, I don't recall ever eating any chicken feed." Kicklighter, like every middle age Southerner, is deaf from a lifetime of shotgun blasts.

"Naw, chicken feet, not chicken feed."

"Oh sure, I've ate chicken feet plenty of times."

After they realize I'm listening, chit-chat gets better. "My grandma, you'll recall, had size-nine hands. She'd spread the dough for a cathead biscuit by wrapping it once with the back of her knuckles and you could eat it like a tea cake."

"Yeah," Kicklighter agrees, "When Granny slapped you, you stayed slapped."

They talk of family feuds and a clan patriarch who, under the guise of making peace, bought his rival a shot of whiskey then slit his throat quick as a cat when he lifted his chin to swallow. How kinsmen coming to his aid slipped in the blood and how the slit throat lived to shotgun his adversary through the whore house door, wounding him and killing the girl.

"Yeah, those families been at it since before I was born. Before my daddy was born," Hughes says.

At midnight I get up to go to the bathroom, then remember with the generator off and the toilet bowl is iced over and I'll have to go outside. I bump down the hallway where as my eyes adjust I can see vapor plumes blowing like teakettles from Elton's and Hughes' sleeping bags, the ends I assumed to be the heads. Their breath, maybe because of stump whiskey fumes, glows blue in the moonbeams.

"While you're up," growls Kicklighter, "How 'bout getting me another patch."

"Patch?"

"Cover!"

I feel my way around the cabin until I find a stack of cotton quilts, pealing a couple from the pile. I hand one to the chief on the top bunk. He grunts in perfunctory appreciation as I burrow back into my mound on the bottom bunk shivering.

"You rattling the bed," says Kicklighter.

As soon as I'm tucked back in good, he says, "My damn! I dropped my patch. Hand it up here."

I lean out and pat the frosty floor, accidentally finding a bottom corner of my own patch and handing it up to Kicklighter, who snatches all my cover off. "You ungrateful old bastard," I squall. "I get up to get you some cover and you swipe mine.

"Turn a-loose," he bleats, "I got it."

"Let go, you got mine."

We saw the quilt until Kicklighter yanks me to a sitting position but tumbles from the top bunk. We both crash to the floor, tangling into covers, invectives and flailing legs. "My damn!"

"What's going on over yonder?" cries Hughes. "Hey, we don't have no bullshit at the hunting camp!"

The next morning I limp on the edges of my feet to keep my flat insteps from sticking to the frosty floor. Supper has solidified, like pecan pralines from a Ludowici clip joint, into frosty lard. Kicklighter rises, yawns, and grabs his scattergun.

"Well, gentlemen, I believe I'll go down to the Back Swamp and kill us up a mess of cat squirrels," he says. His hunting vest ponderous with shotgun shells, he disappears into the tangled green wall at the edge of the swamp to stalk his quarry and we sit on the porch listening to desultory gunfire that sounds like the tail end of the Tet Offensive. Finally he staggers out with a dozen squirrels. Hughes and I skin them while the Chief, who says the excitement wore him slap out, takes a nap.

Hughes whacks off the paws at wrists and ankles. He lops off head and tail and skins the truncated rodents neatly, piling mousey scraps like merkins, while hot oil pings in the fish-cooker. When he flicks water in the pot, there's a crack like a .22 short. It's ready.

When squirrel flesh hits hot pig grease, it twitches and draws up, compressing sinew and fiber. We gig at the fizzing lumps with a barbecue fork, merely bobbing them fat, unable to skewer them with tines. We hunt up some tongs.

At supper, Kicklighter recounts the hunt. "I was shooting them out the top of a water oak with low brass eights," he tells us. "They'd hit the ground running, so I swapped out to magnum fours and got to killing a few."

Hughes is chewing, his temples working. There's a piece of purple meat left on his plate that looks like the corner torn off a motor mount. "You might ort to stuck with eights," Hughes says. "When they carried that off, you should've let them go ahead on."

"Yes," nods Elton, "I believe I'd pass on a squirrel who run off with a load of birdshot. Maybe downsize to number nines and cull down to the younger ones."

"Well, this squirrel's slap full of shot," says Kicklighter spitting shards of gray metal into his plate.

"That ain't shot," says Hughes, "that's your fillings."

"My damn," says Kicklighter, tonguing a molar.

Camp food is simple and substantial. I learn to eat eggs scrambled with rice and sour cream mixed in grits. We eat fried sweet potato chips, fried venison, fried squirrel, and fried wild pork. One night. Hughes' wife Evelyn and his pretty daughters Tammy and Joanne come out to the camp to fry up a mound of Brunswick shrimp the size of a fireant bed. Most Ludowici ladies are tight-mouthed around strangers, but not redheaded Joanne, who grins cute as a coon, cutting up. "This is great!" I tell Evelyn.

"I'm glad you could eat it," she says.

After two or three days when I step of the porch into the dim sun, grease trickles from the corners of my mouth. I know when I get home, I'll leave a rainbow slick in the bathtub, and my cardiologist will claim he can hear the fat sizzle as it drips upon my hot heart.

We run out of grits and molasses and drive to Brown's General Store, where I'm fascinated by strange tools hanging on the wall. There are hacks, saws, scrapers, hatchets, yokes, chains, cups, broad axes and bull tongue plows, brown with old rust. There's one medieval implement with iron spikes that looks like something left over from the Inquisition. Kicklighter calls it a weaning cap. I try to imagine fitting the devilish thing around a cow's udder without getting trampled in cow flop.

"Naw, it goes on the calf's head," Hughes explains. "The cow kicks it walleyed when tries to nurse."

"My damn!" says Kicklighter, shaking his head.

Early one afternoon Hughes hauls me on a four-wheeler into a pristine tupelo and cypress swamp. I shinny thirty feet up a bay tree in my climbing stand. I don't see a deer, since the dogs have run them all to South Carolina. This stretch, he assures me harbors no squirrels, but time stands still in this gloomy place. It's sweetly eerie to hunt all day without hearing a horn or an internal combustion engine in the cathedral hush where men escape all stratifications of labor. Here Hughes doesn't man the graveyard shift for the pulpwood company that his beloved river, where Elton doesn't work for his wife at Ft. Stewart, where I don't grade English papers for apathetic teenagers, and where Kicklighter doesn't give a damn for law and order. I blow vapor through my fists and watch woods wrens puff against the cold.

At dusk Hughes bounces back down the trail to pick me up, standing on the pegs. We ride down an abandoned logging road, mud spattering our shins like flat OD paint. Suddenly we stop. "Hogs," he whispers, dismounting and lifting his shotgun from the handlebar rack.

With shoulders hunched collar to cowlick, he tip-toes through the tupelos, carrying his gun like a suitcase, his other hand held out for balance, fingers splayed. He disappears into green tangle at the water's edge.

Squinting, I see concentric silver ripples and spot two black boarhogs shaggy as bears. They slosh forward, bobbing for crawfish in hock-deep water, their trombone heads wagging and dipping as though connected by springs. Grunts leak out with each step-- RUNK, RUNK, RUNK.

A cypress trunk grows a rusty limb as Hughes barrel eases from behind it. My heart stutters. I hold my breath. There's a thunderous blast and white smoke. One hog collapses. The other glares balefully and starts my way. I draw my feet up, squatting on the saddle, holding the handlebars with white knuckles. "Shoot, dammit, shoot!" Hughes drops the second hog as peripheral buckshot boils the water. We load up the hogs and creep home, the tires rubbing the inside of the fenders.

Well, It's finally my turn to enter Back Swamp alone to pursue Ludowici squirrels. My moment of truth. I'm infected with congenital and archetypal blood lust, anxious to enter the catharsis of the kill. Kicklighter holds open my vest as Hughes offers a ritualistic dollop of stump. "When you knock one down," he warns, "be careful walking up on him. A squirrel dies wide-eyed, so if his eyes are closed, watch out. He'll be playing possum to pull you in. If you ain't sure, shoot him again. If his eyes are open, touch your barrel to his eyeball. If he winks, shoot him again."

"What if he just twitches?"

"Shoot him again."

When I leave the cabin armed with a .22 Colt Woodsman, my hosts' jaws drop. "You better take Elton to back you up," Hughes advises.

"Not me," said Elton, "I'm hunting hogs this morning. I ain't feeling up to no squirrels." Elton's black eyes framed in beard blaze with wild temerity.

"Save a bullet for yourself," Kicklighter warns.

"That's a good one," I laugh, but nobody smiles.

"Don't let dark catch you down there neither," cautions Elton, pointing toward Back Swamp with his thumb and tongue.

The red oak I'm sitting under soon begins twitching with life. Squirrels materialize, crawling through treetops like gunmetal maggots. I blast one, which tumbles from a branch and lands in a squat in dry leaves. It's an old squirrel fringed in hoar, his frosty hackles bristling, he glares with demented onyx eyes, screaming like a power-steering pulley belt, leaving me unhinged, a limp .22 pistol in my hand. It starts toward me hissing, arching its back and lashing its tail, its orange incisors dripping acid. "Help!" I scream, steadying the Woodsman with both hands, realizing with horrible clarity that the squirrel is not mortally wounded, that I've merely barked him, blasted branch instead of rodent.

How I manage even to graze the squirrel with a second shot is beyond me. The barrel of my Woodsman vibrates like a tuning fork, but the bullet somehow plows a crimson furrow through the mousy velvet of its skull, invoking screams like a power-steering pulley, screeches that clabber blood. I've seen squirrels scratch fleas with blurred haunches, a motion faster than the reflexes of the human eye can register. This rodent scrambles up me and catches my hair, running in place to scratch out my eyes, biting me on the bridge of the nose. It's amazing how far you can sling a cat squirrel when you're terrified.

"What happened to your face?" Hughes asks back at the cabin.

"I don't know; it was quick. That's either where the squirrel mauled me or where I dove into the dammit-vines and catclaws to get away."

Hughes dabs moonshine on my eyelids and the bridge of my nose, which looks like it's been stabbed twice with a screwdriver. "My damn!" Kicklighter says.

"I'd rather hunt hogs than squirrels," I confess after Elton retrieves my abandoned pistol. Elton's hog is hanging from the gambrel, dripping syrupy blood from its slotted nose.

"Aw, squirrels ain't so bad after you get the hang of it," grins Hughes. "Maybe you can start out on chipmunks and bears and work your way up."

(end)

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