Flugtagging It

“The Coast Guard ran us off from out there,” said a man stumbling a bit, but grinning. “So we parked our boat and here we are, Flugtagging it, baby.”

There are things in this world that are such a mystery that the sheer attempt to explain them leaves the describer in a mental cramp, their brain vapor locked by the thought of what they are trying to relay. That’s where I am with Flugtag.

Let me try to get the simple stuff out of the way first. Flugtag is German, best I can tell, for “flight day.” Red Bull, the energy drink, came up with the idea. On a Saturday in September, there were five Flugtag events around the world. One was in Washington D.C. last Saturday. I was there. Here’s what happened.

Twenty-nine teams of people – some dressed as firemen or ducks or cavemen – brought their homemade flying machines to push off the deck of a giant aircraft carrier-looking platform next to the Potomac River. Some planes looked like eagles, one looked like the Lincoln Memorial, another resembled a skate ramp. It was a menagerie. Teams had to push their planes off the 30-foot high deck and see how far they would fly. Once push came to shove, however, most just tumbled off the edge into the water like fowls hit with bird shot by Uncle Si.

About five contestants into the competition, the rain started, hard and blowing like a side slice from the Virginia side of the river. People began to run. Flugtag continued until the last Mylar plane fell into the drink. And two flew quite well.

“Some people have more time and money than sense,” said a woman who claimed she drove all the way from West Virginia to see the spectacle. “I was married to three just like them.”

“I have a new idea for you, brother,” said a wild-eyed young man double-fisting two cans with familiar bull logos. “And this is free marketing advice, dude. Instead of RC Cola and a MoonPie, how about chasing a MoonPie with a Red Bull?”

“Red Bull and a MoonPie,” I smiled. “I’ll be sure to tell my boss back in Chattanooga. “He’s always looking for new ideas.”

I gave him several MoonPies and he proceeded to live up to his idea until they were all gone.

“Next year y’all should build a big MoonPie flying machine and push it off the deck at a Flugtag somewhere,” said his girlfriend. “MoonPie. Flying. Get it.”

“Yes, I think so,” I said. “The moon is in the sky, right? Like flying?”

She looked at me quite confused.

“Generation gap, perhaps,” I said.

She looked at me more confused, so I quit talking and decided to listen. Some of the things I heard in the crowd were almost as interesting as the people pushing two months of hard work off a platform in a driving deluge. And then I heard the thing that made me know I had come to the right place.

“Hey, yall, watch this!” yelled a big old boy wearing a shirt emblazoned with language I cannot write here and pointing towards the Flugtag aircraft carrier in the distance.

A woman looked over and smiled.

“Ah, the national anthem of the American redneck sung just before something bad happens,” she said.

She was, of course, from Alabama. Later I found the big old boy, now in a different shirt.

“War Eagle!” he yelled.

I felt at home.

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The Football Fight

In Louisiana, back up in the canebrakes and crawfish swamps, there are places where you can get a beer and a beating for $2. And you might get the beating before the beer shows up if you start talking too loud and too fondly about Nick Saban. That’s how football season is down here right about now when it is still too hot to be called fall. Besides, football is not a season anyway, unless your insuance agent gave to a messed up calendar back in January. We play football pretty much 24 months out of the year. And some of us are so passionate we have pop knots up side our heads to prove it.

I know a woman in Alabama who had a whole dress made of houndstooth back in the 1970’s to honor Coach Paul Bryant. There’s a man in Florida who had Steve Spurrier’s face tattoo’d on his forearm. Since the Old Ball Coach is now in South Carolina, he is probably rethinking that decision. I asked him why he did not tattoo Urban Meyer on his other forearm. He just looked at me like I was stupid.

A couple of weeks ago, just before a storm blew in from the Gulf, I drove into a little place just big enough to throw a boubin ball through a hole in a cypress board wall that was painted purple and gold. Sure enough, there was the beer for $2 dollar sign above a picture of Les Miles, Archie Manning, Huey Long and a church fan with Jesus smiling in a bass boat next to what looked like a hunting dog. The beating was not far behind.

As I admired that church fan and prepared to ask where I could purchase one, two big boys got into a heated argument about LSU and Arkansas. As I waited for some fried fish, they started cussing and swinging. Between the purple wall, their largesse, and me I figured my fish sandwich was going to be a victim. I was wrong.

I heard something behind me and when I turned around to look, it was a fist. It hit me right in the ear. And if you’ve even been hit in the ear by anything, you know it hurts. How a fist could work its way out of their fight and onto my ear is a mystery, but there it was.

I abandoned my wait for the fish sandwich and bent over, heading towards the ripped screen door, so as not to get hit again. And I got hit again, in the other ear.

I’m a peaceful man most of the time, but that was about all I could take. After spurning the desire to swing a metal chair across the bug-eyed grappler’s faces, I went out to the the truck instead, ears swelling while I grabbed two boxes of MoonPies and returned to the thumping building, peeping in about the time the LSU guy’s head bounced off a cooler, the front of his torn t-shirt splattered the color of Saban’s Tide, which he would not have liked at all.

As they flailed and cracked their skint knuckles on chipped teeth and busted noses, I started lobbing MoonPies through the door like grenades, a technique I saw on “Saving Private Ryan.” One box into it, they stopped fighting. I waited outside next to the door, afraid to look it since I was out of ears. Feeling pretty proud that my MoonPies had the power to calm a couple of 300-pounders in full head-smacking mode, I turned to walk away; going over the various ways I would tell this wonderful story of how MoonPies stopped a fight. The wonderful story, however, lasted about 3 minutes before they started up their sweaty fist swinging all over. So I tucked the second box of pies like a handoff, ran across the oystershell lot, cranked my truck and figured all I had done was provide some halftime snacks for their football fight. Which is not the happy ending I had hoped for. But that is how football season plays out around here. Sometimes good intentions turn into swollen ears and wasted MoonPies. A week later I had to drive back through on my way home and could not help but stop by to ask the owner about the outcome of the altercation ­– and, if I’m honest, to check on the Jesus fan I wanted.

As I gingerly entered the front door, there sat the two big boys, scuffed-up, lips split, eyes puffy. They were drinking beers and laughing about Miley Cyrus. The beer was still $2, but apparently the beating was not on the menu today.

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The Girl at Big Bear

Her liquid reflection put her silhouette in wobbly contrast with the sky holding down the mountains around the lake suspended 7,000 feet above California east of Los Angeles. It had not rained for weeks. August wildfires ate up acres, houses and lives. A dog stood at the end of the dock watching two men load beer into a cooler on a pontoon boat, cheap fishing poles secured to the awning with tangled line.

“I love Big Bear more in summer than in winter,” she said. “I love the families, not the snowboarders. Well, I did love one boarder a couple of winters ago, but he never came back. Just as well. He smelled.”

Melancholy eyes, fierce lips, auburn hair falling down her back in a disheveled beauty that felt right at home up on top of the world in a place so languid and unhurried that a speeding boat cutting a white slice on the lake seemed out of place. She could have been twenty, but may have been thirty. My age meter was thrown off balance by the altitude. She reminded me of my sister when we were young, having no governor on her mouth. Me being a stranger did not tone down her opinions, many of which I’ll leave out of this telling. I do have to keep a job.

“Those men over there are drunk and should not be out here,” she said.

“You know they’re drunk?” I ask.

“I suspect it,” she said.

Full of moral absolutes, she was not shy about sharing them.

“Let me tell you something,” she said, “idiots don’t like it when you call them idiots.”

“J.D. Salinger said something close to that,” I said. “I believe he called them morons, however.”

“Let’s talk about Salinger,” she said, latching onto a conversation she had clearly been wanting to have with someone for a long time and had yet to find anyone willing to engage her – until now. I immediately wished I had never brought up the reclusive author and tried to change the subject to something closer to my heart.

“Or barbecue,” I said. “Any good joints up here?”

“Joints?” she said.

“Barbecue restaurants,” I said, wanting to be clear since earlier in the day I had caught a whiff of something skunky over next to a group of people who appeared to be waiting for snowboarding season to start.

“My mom makes great barbecue,” she said. “You should come to our house and she’ll work some up. She’ll love your accent.”

I could smell an attempt at matchmaking that felt as funky as the snowboarders’ aroma.

I made a lame excuse about having to get back to Georgia for a MoonPie meeting and got in my truck and she stopped me, leaning into the window, her face frozen in stern tension.

“A man that will concoct some lie about MoonPies is not worthy of my mom’s barbecue,” she said. She examined my face like a student in a biology class looking at a dead frog soaked in formaldehyde.

“You are right,” I said, letting the admission burst out in hopes that honesty would work. “Georgia is a long ways from here, yes, but I do have a meeting there about MoonPies at some point in the next month. So it wasn’t a total lie. I was just handling the truth carelessly enough to get out of your attempt to use my affliction with barbecue to hook me up with your mother.”

A grin spilled down her face starting with that tussle of auburn hair, moving down those melancholy eyes and rolling out of her fierce mouth.

“So I guess Southern liars can mend their ways,” she said.

“Only when barbecue and MoonPies are involved,” I said.

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Dog Day Afternoon In The Backyard

This is not a MoonPie story. This is about a dog, which, if we’re all honest with each other, is even better than a MoonPie. Sam Campbell over at the Chattanooga Bakery would agree with me on this one. I hope. And if not, my dog still loves me. That is because God invented dogs when he realized how screwed up humans turned out to be. The Big Guy was trying to put something on earth he could be proud of. And considering my luck with women, I have to say he did a bang-up job with dogs. My dog is sitting here next to me as I type this, as he loves to do, watching each word appear on the screen.

Rudy often looks at me with an intensity that feels a little uncomfortable, as if he is examining my sincerity or morals or ethics. It may be none of those things. He may just be wondering when the food is coming or why I’m not rubbing behind his ears. Dogs are more observant than people. Everyone knows dogs have a better sense of smell than we do, but I believe they can also see our intentions, our failings, and our goodness. They love us despite our faults. Try that with an ex-wife. This is why my best friends are dogs, Rudy especially.

On a walk last week out behind the house down towards the coffee-colored creek, he seemed nervous as I approached two trees, tall loblolly pines with thick trunks leaning up a gentle hill. In a way only dogs can do, he saw the situation before I knew there was a situation. I was oblivious.

A grunt eased down and out of his fuzzy snout and his body lowered and I took a step too far and it hit me like a hammer in the neck, then in the arm, then the ear.

Yellow jackets are tiny; they live in holes in the ground and come out with an attitude that is about 1,458 times bigger than their size. They are aggressive and will chase you. I mean chase you like Bo Jackson did Brian Bosworth back in the day when he hit that old Oklahoma boy so hard that the big Sooner’s tail pad landed ten yards back in the end zone with his rear end still attached.

The business side of a yellow jacket is almost invisible, but the impact of a sting is like another pro football metaphor: being beaten by Ray Lewis holding fistfuls of hypodermic needles loaded with ghost pepper juice.

Rudy attacked them. They attacked him back, knocking him down in a full run, his writhing Jack Russell torso rolling down the hill, legs churning to gain purchase in the weeds and pine needles, yelps and barking and gnashing teeth snapping the air, hoping to snag a few tormentors.

Running back up the hill towards the house, I swatted and slapped at the swarm, both horrified and impressed by their tenacity. Next to me, however, ran something more impressive: a small dog, even more tenacious than the flying demons, willing to take sting after sting to distract them and protect me. Rudy sailed into the yellow jackets. If he was afraid – and I am sure he was – he did not show it. With each sting he wailed and came back at them.

At one point, ours eyes met and it was as if he was cussing in dog language. I am pretty sure I was cussing in my Southern drawl, which had sped up, considerably from my normal drawn-out syllables into a gumbo of bad language thrown into a verbal blender.

The yellow jackets scored on me six times before I tumbled through my back door into the floor, kicking and flailing. They tagged Rudy for five. I slammed the screen so hard I broke the hinge, breathing hard as yellow jackets caromed into the mesh, thud, thud, thud.

Then I felt one up my pants leg. Another score. More language. More barking. Ripping off my jeans and throwing them out the door, I danced a James Brown number until I was sure no more were on me. Rudy pounced on the straggler and bit it in half, the butt end of the bisected yellow jacket still trying to hump its poison into whatever came near.

We sat in the floor together, swelling and hurting. He pushed his head into my side and closed his eyes. Despite his pain, he licked the red whelps on my arm for an hour, ignoring his own wounds. That is why a dog is my best friend. And that is why I am his.

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Sunday At The Silver Dollar Pancake House

Brown mountains flecked with evergreens rise in the distance pushing away from the Pacific Ocean towards the east. This is Southern California where the Eagles sang about a hotel and Tom Petty wailed about free falling out into nothing and country music sounds like Alvis Edgar Owens, Jr. after people started calling him Buck.

Southerners stretch across this landscape just like they do in Mississippi and Georgia. You may see Morgan Freeman around here. You might hear an old sports fan still talking about Bo Jackson playing for the Raiders when they were in LA, not to be confused with Lower Alabama. You might have somebody driving a $100,000 sportscar mistake your accent for Billy Bob Thornton in “Sling Blade” and tell you so to your face.

I am far from home today, but I feel perfectly at home once I get to the Silver Dollar Pancake House in Corona, California and snuggle up to a pile of fluffy dough covered in maple syrup next to eggs drenched in Tapatio hot sauce and bacon not too crispy, but limber enough to impart the full effect of the hog.

A short, tanned fellow sits beside me at the counter, head down, the weary look of a man who had worked hard every day of his life and would likely continue.

“You a pancake specialist?” I say.

Ignoring me, he chews his hash browns and sips coffee, staring at the counter.

I’m used to being ignored by busy people, so I try another, more direct route after noticing a logo with trees on the pocket of his shirt.

“Excuse me, sir,” I say pointing past his face and out towards the morning California sun, “those Eucalyptus trees aren’t native to this area are they?”

He takes his time, swallows and sits down his cup, turning at the waist towards me.

“You must be from the South, with that accent,” he says. “I drove through there about 20 years ago heading to a job in Mobile, Alabama. I was a pipe fitter then.”

“I know Mobile well,” I say, about to mention the big MoonPie drop on New Years Eve, but he cuts me off.

“Oil rigs,” he says. “Been a lot of things in my life: plumber, construction, welder, truck driver, landscaper. That’s me now. Rich people have a lot of vegetation here. Needs tending. Run a 23 man crew. I’m Hector.”

“Mike,” I say, holding out my hand.

His hands are so thick with callouses it feels like he is wearing roughed up gloves. I remember when my hands were like that before I got lazy.

“Been a few things myself,” I say. “More than I care to remember. And may be a few more before it’s over with.”

“Building our résumés,” he grins.

The waitress refills our coffee and takes a few dishes and calls us both honey again, perhaps for the fifth time.

“You guessed right,” I say. “I’m from the South. Yes sir.”

“Me too,” he laughed. “South California. Born in San Diego, raised in Santa Ana. Live in Riverside now. Over here in Corona doing a commercial job.”

“Working on Sunday?” I say.

“Work all the time,” he says. “Already put in 3 hours this morning. Several more this week over in Irvine and down in Laguna Beach. Following the money.”

“Nixon,” I smiled. ” He said to follow the money.”

“I don’t think Nixon said that since he was the one following the money,” he laughed. “I think Deep Throat said that.”

“It was Deep Throat who told Woodward and Bernstein to follow the money, yes. Now I remember.”

“Nixon had a real nice house in San Clemente just south of here back then,” he says waving towards the south. “I know a fellow who worked his place for a while.”

“I’m driving cross country,” I say. “Work for MoonPie.”

“The little cookie snack.” he says, one eyebrow jutting up on the word cookie.

“We’ll, there’s a cookie in there with some marshmallow and covered in –”

“I know what a MoonPie is,” he smiles. “My grand kids probably don’t. Haven’t seen any in a while.”

“I can remedy that,” I say. “Got some in my truck.”

“What brings a MoonPie man way out to California?” he says.

I look out the window. A family comes through the door, deciding to wait for a table in the dining room instead of sitting at the bar seats next to the door with no wait. A lot of thoughts want to come out of my mouth, but I fight them back.

“Ain’t business, really.” I say, being more honest with a stranger than I meant to be. “Friend of mine died and I thought I’d drive out to see him one last time at his funeral. But they cremated him before I could get here. So I paid my respects to his family and a jar of ashes and figured to drive up towards Big Bear. Never seen a lake so high off the ground.”

He nodded. Neither one of us said anything for a while as he finished off his coffee with a loud slurp.

“You asked if I was a pancake expert,” he says. “I’ve had my share. This place opened in 1922. It’s been a Mexican restaurant and a Chinese place. For the last 60 or so years it’s been a pancake joint. As good as they come, if you ask me.”

“They are mighty fine,” I says. “Better than all those pancake houses in all those beach towns across the South.”

“I don’t know about that,” he says. “I guess I’m a lot like this place.”

He gets up and lays down enough cash to cover both our breakfasts.

“I guess we all are. Different people at different times,” he says.

“How about those MoonPies for your grandchildren?” I say, thanking him for paying the tab.

“Are they chocolate?”

“Chocolate, vanilla, orange, strawberry, banana, mint, peanut butter, you name it.”

“Oh well, Strawberry, I guess,” he says pursing his lips as grandfathers tend to do when trying to imagine what their grandchildren might want.

“I’ll give you a box of each flavor,” I say.

“It’s like this restaurant,” he says. ” Like you and me. Changing all the time.”

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The Stump Island Drug Dealer

If you live on an island, you better have a boat. That’s not just my opinion. I’d say it is pretty much a fact. But not everyone subscribes to my way of thinking, as I found out recently on a little misadventure in the Gulf of Mexico.

“Sometimes islands just sprout up in places where there was no land before,” said Quandry Jones, a man on a deep sea fishing boat for the first time whose first two names sound more like a dilemma than two thirds of a moniker.

“Look yonder!” yells a man who couldn’t have been more than 4 feet tall, but dragged a mustache that seemed 5 feet long.

He was pointing to a scraggly, treeless stump of land poking up into the lead gray February sky off to our left. I don’t know if that is starbord or leeward or heyworth. I paid good money to a man whose job it is to know that boatiferous language. And if you’re an English teacher, yes, I made up that word over there. When I get to a place where I need a word, but don’t have one, I make my own. I learned that in shop class.

Anyway, back to stumpy island. It had to be the only land between Destin and Mexico, at least to my limited knowledge of geography, especially geography that might change while you’re adjusting your bait and maneuvering your pole and wondering if you’re the only sober man on what could be described as a boat if you were a refugee fleeing a small island like the one we were chopping towards. The goal of the rusty and dented vessel and its captain, a horribly sunburned man named LaMoose from Canada, was to extract at least 40% more money from us than the cost of beer, gas and the boat payment.

The closer we got, the scragglier the island seemed. Right on the edge leaning towards us was a whiplash tree, or so I thought until it became the shape of a bearded man flailing his arms and screaming words that the fine folks at MoonPie would rather I not use on their corporate nickel.

“That feller right there is crazy,” said a mechanic from Georgia, one of our paying passengers and a terrible fisherman, despite his incessant lying about his skills. “Look at his face. That’s the face of a mad man.”

He should know. His face fit the same description.

Squinting to see the skinny man, it occurred to me that he looked just like Lyndon Johnson, the former President of the United States, if LBJ had lived long enough to pretend to be one of the Z’s in ZZ Top. Lyndon, as I was already calling him in my head, was presumably in trouble and totally alone on an island the size of a couple of 18-wheelers. The whole scene was surreal, like those album covers from the early 1970’s. LaMoose picked him up and he drank 4 bottles of water almost without taking a breath in between. I gave him a box of chocolate MoonPies and he ate every one of them in about two minutes.

He said his name was Conjunctivitis. We all stopped and looked at each other.

“You know that means pink eye, don’t you?” said Quandry Jones. “Very contagious situation, son.”

“Should have left him on the island,” said the mechanic from Georgia. ‘I’ve caught enough stuff in my life. I don’t need no conjunctivitis. Pink eye either.”

LaMoose questioned him. “Why are you on an island that doesn’t exist?”

“Drug dealers took my boat and throwed me in the water and left me to die,” said Conjunctivitis. “I’ve been here for 6 days, I think. Lost track. Bad storm last night. Nearly drowned. That island won’t be here in a week. It’ll peter our under the waves, guaranteed.”

“Drug dealers left you here?” said the Georgia mechanic.

“No,” said the stranded man through parched and swollen lips. “They left me out yonder in the water. I swam over here.”

“What is your profession?” asked Quandry Jones, sounding weirdly formal and professional himself, a dialect that did not fit anything I had seen him do or say since getting on the boat.

“I was a drug dealer too,” said Conjunctivitis. “But I stopped.”

“When?” asked LaMoose.

“When they chunked me overboard and a big old fish down there gave me the Jonah lookover,” said Conjunctivitis. “Figured I was swallowed for sure. Then I saw that ugly island and it saved my life.”

The whole story sounded fishy. The more I thought about Jonah going back to Ninevah to tell his swallowed-by-a-big-fish story, however, I figured that would be much harder to believe. It was a quandary, just like Mr. Jones on our boat.

We headed back in since we were all fished out and a little nervous. LaMoose called the Coast Guard and gave them the details of what happened. They were waiting at the dock when we got back and they had a whole different story.

Seems Conjunctivitis was no drug dealer. He was just a runaway husband from Panama City. His name was Lownardo, a name that was almost, but not quite as strange as Conjunctivitis, which he’d just made up after seeing a medicine bottle wash up on the beach of his temporary island. Worse, Lownardo’s scorned wife was waiting there too. As I left heading back to my truck, she was calling him names that made both Conjunctivitis and Lownardo seem downright respectable and normal.

As of this writing, I still don’t know how he ended up out there in a place that probably won’t even be a place in two weeks, but I imagine he wishes he were back on that nasty little clump of salty peace.

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The Philosophical Pig Farmer

“Nothing is wasted on a pig,” said Mr. Lemmons, a pig farmer by trade and a rural philosopher by calling. “If they were in our place, they’d return the favor.”

He didn’t explain exactly what that meant, but I took it to mean they would enjoy eating us as much as we enjoy eating them. Mr. Lemmons thinks in circles like that.

“We should recycle everything but our stupidity,” he once told a crowd outside the state capitol. The crowd was gathering to hear a local politician, but ended up listening to the overall-clad Mr. Lemmons spin yarns about the deeper meaning of why we should be kind to one another whether we go to church or not.

For a man with a 6th grade education who raises animals to get slaughtered and eaten, Mr. Lemmons is sort of a barnyard Yoda. He sees both sides of the fence and treats his pigs better than many people treat their children.

“I got a big screen TV out there in my barn,” he said when I saw him last fall. “Sometimes me and the pigs just watch football. I don’t reckon the pigskin part bothers them too much since they don’t know the ugly details, but they do love to watch Tennessee win, which has been a little while, sadly. I feed them butterbeans, peanuts, pecans and turnips too when they’re in season. I love turnips myself, so I figured they would too. I eat what they eat. We share.”

Last week when I dropped by, his wife Carmella said he was in the barn with his pigs.

“Probably playing poker with ‘em,” she laughed.

She wasn’t kidding. I found him sitting in his nasty recliner with a deck of cards spread out on a folding table with earpods listening to his iPod.

“You like Bruce Springsteen?” he said before singing in a mournful voice that had a little Ralph Stanley in it. “Mr. State Trooper, please don’t stop me. Please don’t stop me. Please don’t stop me.”

“You and your employees here playing poker?” I asked, waving my hand towards the smelly pigs.

“They don’t exactly play poker with me in the traditional sense, but they send me moves through ESP. We communicate. You know what I mean? Telepathically.”

He looked into my eyes, his own eyes wide and marveling at the possibility of my gullibility.

“I got you some MoonPies if you want them,” I told him, changing the subject.

“Bring ‘em on in and let’s see how the pigs like ‘em,” he said. “I know I could go for a couple.”

I brought in 6 boxes and he took one out, ate it and said, “Toss a few over here to my best friends. They’re special. They’re my bacon hogs.”

Above them on the wall was a risqué calendar featuring Miss Piggy in what appeared to be a bikini.

As the big pigs chomped down on banana MoonPies, Mr. Lemons pointed at the grunting and oinking and slurping. Then he started to stomp his old dirty boots and yodel loudly, the sound echoing against the galvanized walls. Within seconds, a really large hog began to make a disturbing sound that gave me the willies.

“Hog yodeling,” he said. “Bet you didn’t know hogs could yodel, did you, Mike?”

“No sir, I did not,” I said. I didn’t know what to say after that either.

That’s the biggest hog I got. I call him Jubal Early, you know, after the Civil War general. I’ve studied a right bit about the Civil War, and I think he kind of looks like Jubal Early. Don’t you think so?”

I examined the big hog. As I recall, Jubal Early looked a lot different, but Mr. Lemmons has his opinions and he’s entitled to them. It’s his hog anyway. He can think what he wants to about that subject.

“Mike, are the people you work with back in Chattanooga interested in innovation?” he said thoughtfully.

“I guess they are,” I said.

“Then hear me out,” he said. “Bacon flavored MoonPies.”

He paused. If I had a nickel for every time somebody suggested a flavor for MoonPie to try, I’d be the Warren Buffet of Rednecks.

“Think about it. Everybody loves bacon. Bacon is mighty tasty. You ever met anybody who doesn’t like bacon?”

I thought for a minute and looked over at old Jubal Early finishing off the last MoonPie. He wouldn’t look at me.

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Noodling Until The Cows Come Home

I went for the noodling, but what happened was much stranger. JP, the noodling expert met me at a big lake in Mississippi. He explained a few pointers about how a man shoves his arm or leg into a catfish’s sandpapered mouth, waits for the chomp, tugs the rope and gets pulled out by somebody up on the surface. I knew the basics, but I assumed that in 2013 there would be a more sophisticated technique involved.

“It’s still called hillbilly handfishin’’” said Josh, standing next to his boat, which he mainly uses for wakeboarding these days. Giant speakers silently facing backwards lurched above us.

“I keep the music off until I catch a big one, then we crank up some Toby Keith to celebrate on the way home. I might even wakeboard a little too. You like wakeboarding? We can give you a nice wave and drag you a little while.”

I declined the wakeboarding offer since I didn’t bring my swimsuit and I mainly came just to see the noodling. That’s about the time I heard the mooing.

Josh looked over towards the shore and a herd of cows were grazing. All but one, that is. Josh saw it first, the cow’s head barely above the water, bellowing an opera tune, all the other cows looking dumbfounded.

“Change of plans,” said Josh, and he turned to boat towards the cows and started talking on his cell phone.

We nudged the cow toward the shore with the front of the boat as a big Chevy truck with a winch pulled up. A short man jumped out, unhitched the hook and started for the water. Soon he was neck deep in the lake next to the cow somehow attaching the winch around the cow’s torso behind the front legs. Josh was in the water with a rope tied to the front of the boat and soon between the boat and the truck and Josh and his winch buddy, the cow made it back to the grass, where it wandered off as if nothing had ever happened.

By this time it was getting dark, a couple of beers were consumed, a couple of MoonPies were eaten, and a fence was mended. Josh sat in the boat seemingly no less upset than if he’d noodled several big catfish instead of a cow.

“Looks like there ain’t gonna be no noodling today,” he said. He motioned up towards the speakers. “But Toby Keith could do a little singing if you like.”

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Fishing With Carl

Carl sits in the front of his boat, eyes closed, taking deep breaths, sniffing the breeze coming from the southwest. He claims he can smell the fish swimming under the boat. His nose guides him across the river from congregations of fish that seems to swim away just as he gets there.

“I used be better at tracking their aroma,” he says. “My smeller has gone the way of my hearing and eyesight the last few years.”

“What kind of fish did you used to sniff out?” I say.

“I was pretty good with bass and catfish,” he says, “but my nose went for brim more than my tongue ever did. Sadly, I’ve started sniffing out turtles, and I ain’t no fan of turtles either.”

The clouds ache across the hills to our west like stains on a giant cotton shirt blowing on a clothesline, rippling here and rolling there. Somewhere in the woods upwind, hamburgers are grilling and a dog is barking excitedly, the arfs echoing off the corrugated aluminum walled boathouses hanging over the water on the riverbank.

“Hear that dog?” says Carl. “He’s got sumpin tree’d out yonder. Probably a squirrel. I need a good squirrel dog. Mine died last year. Benny was a legendary hunting dog. Fellers used to come to the house trying to buy him off me. You imagine that? A man selling his best friend? Benny was with me 12 years before the eye cancer got him. Still miss him hard every day. Hurts to talk about it. Change the subject, will you?”

“How long have you fished this river?” I ask.

He sits silently considering my question as if I have asked him to solve a complicated math equation. Or perhaps he is still just missing his old four-legged friend. Hard to tell from his twisted face, which always looks caught between a tortured thought and a happy twitch.

“Forty one years,” he says. “My daddy helped build that dam north of here. The lake up there fishes real good too. When they paved the roads around here, folks from town put up all these fancy houses, ruined the views. Who needs a 5,000 square foot second home? Not me. I caint hardly take care of the little Jim Walter I got. It needs painting. Thanks for reminding me.”

“I think you reminded yourself,” I say.

Carl lost his job a few years ago and now he grows what he eats in his little garden, or he catches it in the river or lake. He loves to roast squirrels and small birds he picks off with his old .22. Fishing, however, is pretty much his full time job now.

“Lost 34 pounds since my wife died,” he says. “You remember Queenie don’t you? Her given name was Flora, but she was my Queenie. She could cook, boy I mean. Cook like a four-armed chef from New Orleans. Worked all those years at the cold storage plant. Cancer got her too. Been five years since I put her in the ground next to our first little boy, Quinton.”

The words leave him and stay gone for a while. He doesn’t mention how Quinton died and I don’t ask. In the face of so much loss and sadness, he still smiles a lot, even though it looks like most people’s frown – a result of a life spent facing the hot sun and cold wind. A fish dips his cork and his mood lifts.

“There it is,” he says, the tortured face cracking open to reveal two missing teeth. “A little late, but no worse for wear. I never smelled this one.”

A big catfish glides out of the water as he tugs the line. The setting sun is trying to push the clouds off into a peach and purple horizon as music cranks up at a big lake house acroos the water. Teenagers laugh and yell and dance on a dock. Carl watches them as he tucks his fish into his dirty ice chest.

“You remember when you wuz that age?” he says. ” I remember when I wuz. I finally got out of ‘Nam. Queenie and me would ride up to the store listening to the Rolling Stones, get us a Dr. Pepper and some MoonPies. We’d bring our transistor radio down here to a secret little place and dance on the rocks next to this same river, just like them kids over there. She loved to dance.”

Carl stands unevenly in the boat for a few minutes tapping his foot to the kids’ music. The Black Keys belt out “Lonely Boy.” In a few minutes the familiar strains of the Rolling Stones singing “I can’t get no satisfaction” raft across the water from the party. Carl’s head starts to nod to the beat.

“I could smell that one coming,” he says, grinning. “Just like a fat dinner bass.”

I hand Carl a MoonPie and we sit in the dying light. I imagine he is thinking about Queenie and Quinton and Benny. Perhaps for a few minutes the music brings them all back to him and no matter what Mick sings, Carl can, indeed, get some satisfaction.

 

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Why I Don’t Own a Mule Anymore

Every time I turn around, somebody I know is talking about an animal. It never stops. Southerners are obsessed with animals.

I was in Tennessee yesterday and this woman was going on and on about her dog. She talked about it more lovingly than she talked to her husband. And he knew it too (the husband, that is).

This ol’ boy in Georgia has a pet chicken that he carries around with him in his truck and he talks to it constantly – like a chicken is paying attention. I can tell you from having chickens that they don’t pay attention, no matter what you say to them.

Mississippi is filled with cat people and some of those cats don’t even have a name. Arkansas is the same way. I know a rancher in Texas with 39 cats. He complains he has a cat problem. He’s not fond of cats at all, but he says they keep the mice away. I’d say he’s got a mouse problem.

Louisiana has citizens who purposefully harbor gators as pets.

I know a man named Cleve in Florida who has 3 pet snapping turtles and I can guarantee they are not returning his affections.

A woman in South Carolina has a pet catfish. A catfish. If I had a pet catfish, he’d be looking over his shoulder every night about dinnertime.

This month in Southern Living as well as Garden and Gun, Rick Bragg and Roy Blount are talking about animals. They write about animals all the time. One of them or both has said, and I can’t remember which one, that you have to have an animal in your story. Well I do today. Several actually.

I saw a woman in a grocery store beat a man over the head with her purse a few months ago for saying he was an animal lover – said he loved them fried, roasted, boiled and grilled. Despite the fact that he was talking about certain animals people normally eat, it was not a smart move. After she took a good whack at him, she went over and bought a pack of chicken breasts. I kid you not.

I love my dogs and they love me back. One of them, Rudy, a Jack Russell, cost me $300. I had to sweet talk the owner into selling me one of her puppies and he was the lucky winner. Since then, that rascal has extracted thousands more from me in various ways: vet bills, food, chewed carpet and furniture. But I still love him. He’s worth every Andrew Jackson I’ve spend on him. In many ways, Rudy is the best friend I’ve ever had. And that, I believe, is why Southerners love their animals. We want friends. And it seems we specifically want friends with four legs, which is why, in my humble opinion, chickens and catfish don’t make good pets.

“There’s just something about that extra set of legs that makes me love my horse more than my parakeet,” said a girl in Florida two weeks ago as we were in a feed store talking about four-legged pets and why Southerners in particular have so many pets in general.

“My daddy has a mule too,” she said.

“We had a mule when I was a kid,” I said woefully.

“A mule is not a pet,” said the feed store clerk, a man pushing 80 years old. “I’ve knowed a few mules in my time. Mules are like mean people. Who wants a mean person as a pet?”

Nobody.

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