Today’s guest post was written by Don Casada.
The rabbit that got away – and one that didn’t
Don Casada, December 27, 2020
After raining all day on Christmas Eve, the temperature plummeted from 50 degrees to below freezing in short order, and just as it was getting dark, it set in to snowing hard. The wind was coming out of the southwest, as it normally does here in these old mountains that are the backbone of the Smokies. On a streetlight down below the house, the big flakes of snow could be seen flying past on an almost horizontal course.
It wasn’t a big snow – two to three inches – but it was a pretty, if cold (9 degrees) one to wake up to on a White Christmas morning. I take care of the grounds of the Bryson City Cemetery and like to share photos from that lovely spot with members of Friends of the Bryson City Cemetery, a non-profit organization, particularly those whose hearts are still here in the mountains, but they’re now living elsewhere. So I drove across town and up Schoolhouse Hill to the cemetery grounds and got a few photos to share.
A gravel driveway leads up into the cemetery from the paved road which encircles it. I parked near the entrance and walked down the pavement and up the gravel drive to take the pictures. As I was going back down the driveway, I saw a squirrel come bounding down the paved road. I was too slow to get a photo of the squirrel, but it occurred to me that including a photo of the prints it left might be of interest.
I was shocked when I saw them. Instead of looking like squirrel prints in snow that I’m used to, they looked for all the world like rabbit tracks. The only thing I can think of to explain it is that the snow on the pavement was very thin – only a bit more than a dusting, and less than ½ inch – and there was some rough ice underneath. The squirrel was bounding about three feet at a jump, and my surmise was that when it landed, with the combination of very thin snow and ice underneath it skidded just a bit. Thinking back on it, I don’t think I’ve ever watched a squirrel travel like this one – just a steady, unhurried pace of three foot jumps, without pausing whatsoever.
I included the photo of the prints (see the last slide in the set at the link below) and asked for thoughts on what made them. As I expected, br’er Jim and another couple of folks said they were left by a rabbit. If I’d not seen it with my own eyes, I’d have bet the farm that it was a rabbit.
As I thought about this, memories another day, about 60 years ago, when it was about as cold (although without snow) came to mind. I thought maybe Tipper’s readers might enjoy hearing the memory.
One of the joys of winter as a boy was our regular Saturday rabbit hunts from the Saturday before Thanksgiving until the end of February, with a few extras during the holidays.
One of the things I miss most about those days are the sounds. Sounds, like smells, embed themselves far more deeply in my memory banks than do sights. I remember what the whistle at the plant where Daddy, like many others in the county, worked sounded like when it announced that it was noon – time for dinner – or 3:30 – time for the day crew to go home. I remember the smell of the butterfly bush which stood next to the shed at Grandma’s and Grandpa’s place. Several years back, my wife and I were in England, where I was teaching a class, and made a day trip to Stratford upon Avon, Shakespeare’s home town. When we got off the train for the short walk into town the smell of a butterfly bush nearby immediately transported me back across the ocean to the place that I call home.
God not only gave us the senses of sound and smell – He wired us so that they linger. That’s one of what Archibald Rutledge called “Life’s Extras” in a short little book by that title. If you’ve never read it, do yourself a favor and find a copy. You can read it in a few minutes, but it’ll give you thoughts to consider for a lifetime.
But back to sounds….
When all is quiet, I can still hear the fevered melody (don’t tell me that dogs don’t know how to sing harmony) of a pack of beagles with names like Lead, Lady, Chip, Dale, Trail, Drum, Buck, Baldy and Queen taking off up the hill and getting completely out of hearing, leaving only the sound of occasional rustling of the wind through broom sedge and briers and maybe some young beech trees which can’t bear to let go of their leaves until they’re pushed off by new growth in spring.
Then, from away off the backside of the hill, you’d faintly hear their voices; Chip’s bark, which was a little rough around the edges followed by Dale’s bugle cry, and you knew the rabbit was on his way back. I can’t explain how exciting that is to a youngster; you have to experience it to understand.
But perhaps the sound I miss most from those hunting days is something I paid too little attention to – the conversations of the men. It was good-natured banter that often was turned in a way so as to teach, without us youngsters having the first clue that we’d been enrolled in class. There were lessons about how bad ways lead to bad ends, and vice-versa. But education came in various forms, as the following tale reveals.
One Friday night we camped in a cabin way up on Caney Fork in Jackson County. It was cold as whiz – down into the single digits. I remember laying huddled under the covers in the upper part of a bunk bed while Claude Gossett, Daddy and a Freeman fellow got the day started loading the wood stove to where it glowed a dark cherry red and began to warm the frosty air in the cabin. That was followed in short order by the smells of bacon and eggs, pancakes and coffee.
Breakfast over and the sun rising above the horizon, we set out on the business of the day. The fellow who owned the cabin had told Claude that there were an awful mess of rabbits on his place, and he wasn’t lying. We had one up within the first few minutes, but the race didn’t last long – he went into a groundhog hole. That first race was repeated over and over. There were plenty of rabbits, but there were also plenty of groundhog holes, and every single one of the rabbits we or the dogs rousted out of its bed wasted no time before finding itself a hole.
After this had happened maybe half a dozen times, Claude got so disgusted that he decided he’d put an end to that. He broke down his double-barrel twelve gauge, laid it aside, retrieved a stick and with the combination of the stick and his hands began digging at the hole where the dogs had trailed to.
I was about nine years old and wasn’t deemed old enough to carry a shotgun, but they let me carry a BB gun. It was something akin to a training bike, I guess – it let me feel like I was part of the group while keeping me from getting hurt (or hurting someone else).
Well, I’d never seen anything like a grown man digging for a rabbit in a groundhog hole, so went over just to watch. I had the BB gun resting in the crook of my arm, with the barrel pointing at the ground, just like I’d been taught to do, as I watched Claude digging and pawing.
After he’d pulled away a couple of wheelbarrow loads of dirt, he laid down on his side, and stuck his hand way back in the hole. In short order he said “I’ve got it!” But in far shorter order, the look on his face said he didn’t have it – it had him.
You may not believe this, but I saw a fifty year old man levitate that morning. He came back down to earth about ten feet from the hole. While in mid-flight, he let go with a couple of choice epithets that were, at that time, new words to me. That was part of the educational process, I reckon.
Claude commenced to hopping like cottontail never could. He yanked the glove from his right hand, flung it aside and after shaking his hand frantically for a spell, stopped to examine it. I retrieved the glove that he’d flung; a couple of the fingers were torn and had a little of Claude’s blood on them.
Apparently groundhogs will accept visits from neighborhood rabbits, but if two is company in a groundhog hole, three’s a crowd, and there was no room in the inn for Claude’s hand, so the whistle pig had let him know he wasn’t welcome.
Once he’d sort of recovered his wits, Claude looked for something to vent on and I was convenient. In his gruffest, most grizzled tone he exclaimed “Don’t point that gun, son, you’re liable to shoot someone!”
I’ve got a long list of events that I want to see replayed on Heaven’s DVR; that’s one of them.
Daddy and Claude were, for decades, hunting and fishing buddies. That was one of many stories Daddy loved to recount. Br’er Jim reminded me of another one which, like the one just told, he wasn’t along on, but heard Daddy chuckle about.
When I was first allowed to go along hunting, I guess I was around eight years old. I had no gun, and to keep myself entertained would often trail along behind the dogs. I guess I begged and pleaded enough that Daddy finally got ahold of a second hand BB gun for me to carry. I practiced shooting it at the house, and pock marked several silver dollars that my maternal grandparents had given me to save, pretty much destroying their value.
The first hunt where I carried it, Daddy made me stay with him. At the time I must have thought it was so he could help me to get a shot. In retrospect, I realize it was to keep an eye on how I handled my new weapon and teach me how to handle it in general as well as when doing things such as crossing through a barb wire fence
We got up some rabbits, and by nine o’clock, Daddy had shot one. He wore a Duxbak hunting coat which had a capacious game pocket in the rear. Rabbits almost always have fleas, so instead of immediately sticking it in his jacket, he carried it by its feet in his left hand. This was standard practice; after a few minutes, the fleas will depart.
It wasn’t long before the dogs got another rabbit out of the bed, so Daddy found a good spot to wait and laid the rabbit down on the ground near him. I’ll let Daddy take over with the telling here.
We’d been there about five or ten minutes when all of a sudden behind me I heard “ker-plunk” – the sound of that BB gun going off. I’d told Don not to be shooting that thing just for fun, and asked him what he was doing. He said “I got him, Daddy – he was about to get up and run off, but I got him!”
It could be that rabbit had twitched, but more likely, I just imagined he twitched. Whatever the case, I made sure he didn’t get away.
And Daddy made sure I never lived it down.
I hope you enjoyed Don’s post as much as I did! It is truly amazing how smells become interwoven in our memories.