I spent a month in Athens Georgia one weekend.
A buddy I wrote a medical discharge for to get him out of the Navy back in 1974 while we were in the Big Blue Boat Club together, and whom I hadn’t heard from since pints were cheap, contacted me out of the blue with an invite up to his place for Thanksgiving.
The balmy, sometimes scorching heat, mosquitoes and geriatric-filled streets of Jacksonville, Florida where I was stationed was not the ambiance I remembered suitable for the Autumn and Winter holidays so, not realizing Georgia was but a suburb of Florida and the weather wasn’t much more amenable, I accepted and we firmed up plans.
Having never seen or been exposed to the stereotypical ‘Southern Fried Rock’, hillbilly, trailer, shot gun rack in the back of the pick-up truck, cousin marrying culture I welcomed the opportunity to expand my cultural horizons. Even if only by a couple of inches.
That Wednesday I grabbed a Greyhound north, scribbled a few lines enroute and a short time later found myself along with two elderly blacks, a guy who looked as if he had to borrow the money for the fare and a young couple who didn’t look much older than the new born they were carting around, crossed the state line into the great land of Ray Charles and peaches.
Show me the peaches!
The driver called out the stops as we cruised our way across the scenic, rolling country side.
I was beginning to notice a pattern.
Finally he yelled out “Athens, last stop!” and, as I was the last one on the bus, I figured it was my stop.
I grabbed my bag, stepped off the coach out onto the rural, three-way intersection and into the smell of diesel fuel exhaust punctuated by the sound of a pneumatic wrench screaming away in bay number one of the two bay garage at Bo’s Gas Station and General Post Office right behind me.
Gravel crunched as the Greyhound, along with my only lifeline to civilization, made its getaway and vanished down the two lane blacktop.
I briefly toyed with the idea of poking my head into the garage but instead took a seat on the wooden slat bench out next to the road.
Bo apparently finished removing the tractor tire he wrestling with as silence once again prevailed in the garage leaving the gently blowing breeze to tickle the tree tops which danced over the rolling hills in the distance.
Overwhelmed by the beauty of the changing foliage blanketing the long, rolling hills, despite the chill of the mountain air and with the urban chaos of Jacksonville behind me, a warm familiar feeling crept over me. The impact of serenity on my creative consciousness was refreshed and I started to relax.
Right on time my friend, Terry alias Ridgerunner, a fifth generation Georgian, pulled up in his, you guessed it, fire engine red, Ford pick-em-up truck complete with gun rack.
Some stereotypes never die.
A minute later we were tooling down the road.
“This here’s the Old Hull Road!” He proudly declared while lighting a hefty spliff, as if he had a hand in building the two lane hard top himself. I was further informed it ran right next to the ‘soon-to-be-built’ New Hull Road. An assortment of rusted and abandoned, vintage road machinery scattered along the roadside attested to his idea of ‘soon’.
We drove on for a bit before we pulled off onto a single lane macadam road which ran for a couple of miles more before turning into a dirt road which gave way to the woods where there was a dirt trail.
“We still got a ways to go but we got’sta walk from here.” He cheerfully explained. I grabbed my pack and we took to the trail.
I took comfort in knowing that if the Russkies picked that day to nuke the country, we’d have months before the fallout reached us. If ever.
I looked around at the isolation sequestered in the middle of the solitude and knew we were truly alone in this sector of God’s little acre.
As we walked down the ever narrowing game trail old military habits kicked in as I scanned for trip wires. I began to orient myself by memorizing available landmarks.
To the left, trees. Straight ahead, forest. Behind and to the right, woods. Great! Got it.
As dusk began to set in and we pushed up the trail to the foot of a mountain my mind wondered.
Here comes the part where three guys jump me, tie me up and say, ‘Squeal like a piggy, boy!’
Hopefully Burt Reynolds was in the neighborhood.
Finally we came upon a trailer in search of a park. Or one big god-damned park with only one trailer in it.
I often wondered if there’s not a couple of hermit crabs on a beach near a trailer park somewhere who peek their heads out of their shells every once in a while.
“See Herb, I told you we’re not the only ones that carried our homes around!”
Inside the surprisingly not so spacious mobile home that never went anywhere, (no wheels; chasse was up on blocks), I found the velvet paintings were a nice touch. Dogs playing poker? Now that’s just stupid! Dogs can’t read cards much less say ‘fullhouse!’
But the six Elvis statues in various theatrical poses scattered around the room didn’t clash as much as I thought they would.
As it was a special occasion I was informed the Mrs. was putting out the Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash dinner plates. However, the poster of Dolly Parton overlooking the table about to bust out of the frame was a bit imposing. One man’s opinion.
The overtly pregnant Mrs. Ridgerunner had cordially fixed supper, a local favorite, chitlins, fried chicken and grits. Remembering that chitlins were some kind of pig’s innards, the chitlins and I quickly made friends with the pony-sized hound dog curled up under the table.
It was then after dinner, sitting at the table, that I learned a lot about this area of the country, sometimes derogatorily called ‘The Deep South’.
The more we talked, the more I realized the rest of America had this part of the country all wrong.
Southerners didn’t want to stay drunk on moonshine, start fights, shoot everybody and hate blacks because they were prejudice. And they weren’t bitter about losing what they themselves refer to as ‘the War of Northern Aggression resulting in the longest cease fire in history’ or whether it was fought over the right to cessation or slavery.
They only fired on Fort Sumter that April back in 1861 because they were pissed off at the food they had to eat.
Any food that is indistinguishable from when it goes in to when it comes out is not on my ‘To Do’ list.
I made a mental note to recommend a friend up in Manhattan to maybe come down there and open a couple of Italian restaurants to help these folks learn about cuisine.
Hmm . . . chitlins pizza? Maybe not.
A long two hours later I was warmly tucked in under a pair of battleship grey, U.S. Naval hospital blankets on an Army cot stretched out in the back room. Apparently I was lucky it wasn’t hunting season. That was the room they normally used to dry the deer carcasses.
And here I thought the dark red floor boards were just a decorative choice.
It was just past zero dark thirty Thursday morning when I heard the unmistakable drawl of Ridgerunner in my left ear as I felt him shaking me awake.
This was back in my early whiskey days and I was just getting used to clawing my way out of unconsciousness, so coming around in strange and foreign environs wasn’t exactly a new experience but the sound of pigs rutting, a cow mooing along with chickens clucking was.
“Time to go huntin’!” He gleefully informed, thrusting a rifle at me.
“Hunting?! Hunting for what, V.C.?! The war’s over!”
“Squirrel! How else my wife gonna fix dinner?!”
“Squirrel! For what!?”
“For Thanksgivin’ dinner! What else?! We’s having squirrel stew! Ya’ll’s lucky, she only makes it couple’a times a year!”
“So she does love you!” I mumbled.
What was I thinking? It’s Thanksgiving. We’re in Georgia, why would we have turkey or ham for the most celebrated feast day in the United States?
Hunting squirrel was to me a bit like going out into the alley, putting down a bowl of milk and when the first stray alley cat that came along you’d shoot him and yell, “I got one!”
Seriously, squirrel hunting?! I had to say something.
“As far as I know the American tradition is turkey! You guys need a few bucks I’ll pitch in! Come on boy! Let’s get us on down to the general store and buy us a turkey!” I foolishly suggested.
“Turkey?! That’s Yankee food! We don’t eat nunn’a that down here! Down these parts we only eats what’s we kills!” Plurals are popular in the south.
After climbing out of my cot, cleaning up and grabbing my rifle, I resigned myself to the fact that we were going squirrel hunting. How could I have left that off my bucket list all these years? Another first in my recently accumulating, long line of events assuring me a win the next time I played the drinking game, Have You Never Ever?
We set out in our cleverly camouflaged jackets and trousers. Apparently people were smarter in those days. Either that or not enough hunters had killed each other yet, but orange hadn’t come into fashion when setting out to blow away little innocent, woodland creatures.
Ridgerunner knew the woods well and so knew exactly where to go to track our prey. So we headed out and walked for the better part of an hour before he declared we were in enemy territory.
As the daylight crept over the horizon and we pushed forward through the brush I looked around to stay oriented.
Trees to the left. Straight ahead, forest. Behind and to the right of us woods. Aha! Familiar territory!
I must admit I learned some valuable lessons about hunting the fearsome and wily American Grey Squirrel, known to naturalists and zoologists alike as Squirrelius Greyus Americanus.
Lessons like paying close attention to your surroundings and making a special effort when you’re in a known squirrel area where there’s a good supply of squirrel food such as berry bushes. I also learned what to do if found face-to-face with one of the deadly creatures.
Here’s some helpful hints I found to ensure your survival of what could be a potentially fatal encounter;
- Identify yourself by talking calmly so the squirrel knows you are a human and not a prey animal.
- Stand still and slowly flap your arms to make yourself appear bigger than you are. This will help intimidate the squirrel.
- Make no sudden movements. This is critical as they are known to leap literally dozens of inches and a foot or more into the air on the slightest provocation.
- Also, be especially cautious if you come across a female with cubs and never get between the mother and her offspring. She will attack!
Additionally, if an attack is imminent, drop your pack, lie down and play dead. DO NOT attempt to fight the squirrel they have sharp teeth, claws and can pee a steady stream for up to a foot and a half. Also avoid eye contact as they consider it a challenge and may charge blindly.
If approached by an angry male in the wild avert your eyes, lower your head, turn and offer your hind side as a sign of non-aggressive intent.
DO NOT RUN! If the squirrel charges you, hold your ground. Squirrels can run as fast as a race horse. DO NOT climb a tree! Squirrels can climb trees!
I once heard of a guy who while on a stroll through Central Park one balmy evening was subjected to a wild squirrel attack. Even after a year and a half of psychotherapy he was never the same. To this day he can’t eat nuts or even look at the color grey without experiencing violent flashbacks. He once s a squirrel hair paintbrush and fainted.
Squirrel attacks are rare, most of them are just curious or want to protect their food, lairs or cubs.
That morning the hunting gods were with us for we suffered no such violent attacks.
By the time we headed on back to the cave the next Disney picture would be minus a half a dozen of them thar little grey varmints which were stuffed in our trusty wicker, squirrel storage basket, both of which had the suspicious smell of fish.
That afternoon as she waddled around the cramped galley styled kitchen, more accurately waddled one step to the right then one step to the left, the incredibly pregnant Mrs. Ridgerunner seemed as happy as most people in their lives would never be. At least most people I’ve run across. Her happiness seemed to infect Ridgerunner who in turn beamed with overt contentment. All criticism aside, there’s no arguing with results!
First thing I did a week later when I got home to New York was head for Katz’s Deli and order a double decker turkey sandwich with extra relish. Hold the squirrel. As I was laying into the three inch thick sambo I overheard the couple in the next booth.
“I’d really like to try something different next year for Thanksgiving.” She said to the guy with her.
Should I tell her?