Chris Epenshade: Chasing the Wrong Scent (essay)
Southern Legitimacy Statement: I grew up in the North Carolina Piedmont from the seventh grade through college. I was fully immersed in classic Southern pursuits including hunting just about everything, fishing, trapping muskrats, frog-gigging, arrowhead collecting, and high-speed, dirt-road driving.
Chasing the Wrong Scent
In my neighborhood, most evenings found us playing basketball at Rob’s house. The court – actually a concrete pad for their Winebago – was next to the kennels for his dad’s coon hounds. A couple of nights a week, we would watch the hounds get all worked up, as Rob’s dad backed the Bronco up to the dog trailer.
Fast forward to a summer camping trip on the Yadkin River. It was four of us teenagers, being pretty much left alone for a week. One of the advertised highlights of the week was that we were going to coon hunt one night. The highlight actually turned out to be watching three cat-fishermen with a faulty gas cap on their motor and a lit kerosene lantern set fire to their boat. Everybody was alright, and we added a new quotation to our arsenal; “god-damn-it Weasel, I told you to keep your thumb on that vent hole.” Weasel was maybe seven years old.
Alas, on coon-hunting night, Rob’s dad was pissed. His best coon dog, Jake, had jumped a deer and was chasing it through the county. “Wrong scent, got a bad line.” Jake, the blue tick, was compounding the problem by ignoring the frantic cussing and whistling of Rob’s dad. Said dad was getting irate that his champion hound was running a deer, and that his champion hound was ignoring his calls. All of this in front of his son’s friends (who really couldn’t care less). It was getting late, and Rob’s dad was eager to go. He knew Jake would wander in eventually, so he left the dog trailer, and instructed Rob at length on how Rob should severely whip the hound with a leather lead upon Jake’s return. Even as a teenager, I could see that this was wrong on so many levels.
I had gone coon hunting one other time with Rob’s dad, Rob, Billy, and Mister Something. We had all been hearing about Mr. Something for years. He lived over in Clemmons (notorious in teenage lore for its truck stop prostitutes), and was supposedly the best coon hunter in North Carolina, if not the world, to hear Rob tell it. Mr. Something also had champion coon hounds. Now, I expected him to be an athlete of the woods, but instead found out that he was a nasty, fat, redneck. The big joke for Mr. Something and Rob’s dad was for Mr. Something to claim he had forgotten his flashlight, and he therefore needed to take mine. So, I spent the night trying to see in the fringes of the lights of everybody else, occasionally running into a sapling or greenbrier. Funny, right? Of course, we were also subjected to a stream of racist, sexist, and homophobic “humor,” at which we were expected to laugh. Indeed, if we didn’t laugh sufficiently, Mr. Something would feel obligated to explain the joke. “You see, the niggrah didn’t really steal the chains and try to swim across the river. He was wrapped in chains and thrown in the river. That’s what makes it funny.” The best parts of the night were when we were crashing through the brush to get to a treed coon, and Mr. Something had to stop his banter to save his breath. At the end of the night, Mr. Something returned my flashlight and commented “Done good.” I guess that was meant to indicate that perhaps I was accepted into some brotherhood, a brotherhood I was not really eager to join. I suspected that Mr. Something was really disappointed that I had not hurt myself or made some spectacular mistake that he could share with his buddies for years to come.
Meanwhile, back at the Yadkin, Jake indeed wandered into camp the next morning, sheepishly. Rob did his duty, and severely thrashed the hound. Of course, animal behavioralists will tell you that punishment well after the misdeed does no good at all, and only confuses the animal. It would have been a psychologist’s dream assignment, documenting the damage done to the hound, to the boy, to the hound-boy relationship, and to the father-son relationship. Rob’s dad arrived later in the morning, commended Rob for beating the hound, got the trailer, and headed home.
Probably 30 years later, my sister was updating me on news from the old neighborhood. It turns out that on many of the occasions that Rob’s dad had loaded the hounds and disappeared for the night, he was actually going to see his mistress. I envision the disappointed hounds sitting in the trailer in the parking lot of some apartment complex. Some nights, apparently, it was not just the hounds who were all worked up and ready to go. It was not just the hounds who followed the wrong scent, a bad line. We can only hope that the ex-wife’s divorce lawyer gave Rob’s dad the court-room equivalent of a thrashing with a leather lead.