THERE'RE lots of customs in the South that, say, to your average Yankee virtually defy explaining. Eating grits is one. (Explicating grits I've found is for me, a Southerner, impossible.) Another's Carnivore pickupus. I see my job here being to make a necessarily brief but hopefully successful effort to shed light on this uniquely Southern phenomenon. Genus Carnivore pickupus is divided into four species: tall, short, broad or narrow. All members of the genus live for the midnight baying of hounds hot on a coon's scent wafting across an open field under a full November moon.
But first let's talk a bit about how these men (yes, they're all men; not one woman's ever been heard of among them) come to coon-hunting. Let's talk about how coon-hunting allows them to become what they really are: litt'erateurs manqu'es.
It's been pretty well scientifically demonstrated that these lost literati are born, not made.
Because they come into the world of the South, they are compatible with up to as many as 16 or 17 varieties of Blue Tick hound, can ascertain the booming moan of a ``Sarge'' versus a ``Geraldine'' more'n a mile away, can easily tell when a hound's glad just to be out romping through somebody else's property in the middle of the night or when it's seriously onto something, can tell when the lead hound's really taking charge or's just goofing off waiting for the quiet ride back home to a late night snack.
It's these sorts of things that separate coon hunters from chaff.
Just about the time a coon hunter realizes he knows most of what's to know about coon dogs, he starts practicing how to drive a three-quarter-ton pickup truck through the dead of night without turning on the headlights.
He hones the art of parking barely off a country road, as near as possible to a peace-and-quiet-loving, early-to-bed family's house so that when the hounds are set loose they make all the noise it's possible for up to a dozen or more coon hounds to make when they pick up the trail they've been brought for.
It's easy to underemphasize the coon hunter's affinity for pickup trucks. The plain fact is that the pickup is no less than an evolutionary appendage to the coon hunter himself. It goes with him everywhere. To town on Saturdays, to church on Sundays, to the county fair in September.
Wherever the coon hunter goes in his pickup truck with its tailgate almost always drooped open, he also goes with the screened hound-dog boxes in the back. Born to drive the pickup his hounds were born to ride in. It's in the genes.
Coon hunters usually go coon hunting in twos or threes. Some say that they do this just to be efficient users of the space available in the cab of the pickup. Others say they do it for protection from renegade coons. And some say coon hunters band together trying to have at least a twosome for bridge as they while away the night hours.
These reports must be labeled rumors. The truth is: The main reason coon hunters like company on their coon-hunt outings is to provide for greater vigor in the incisive discussions they have over the latest works of literature appearing in the New York Review of Books. Coon hunting, you see, is not an activity designed merely to keep idle dogs off the streets; it's also quality time for hunters, too.
As opposed to weekend golfers and tennis buffs, there hasn't been, so far, any really clear-cut fashion develop with coon hunters' clothes. They mostly wear now what they've always worn, whether coon hunting or mowing the lawn - bib overalls (oh, sure, now and then you'll see a tiny coon hound embroidered onto the bib's upper left-hand corner), steel-toed work boots that lace up past midcalf, a long-sleeved flannel shirt with Ralston Purina Chow-type checks, and a baseball-style cap with JOHN DEERE etched in big green letters across the front just above the visor. And a homemade walking stick.
The stick's used to scratch an ``X'' in the sand to let any hunting buddies who might have followed them in a second pickup know they'd arrived at a certain place first. If somehow they'd all been separated driving through the dark without their headlights on and the second pickup had arrived first, same thing, they'd have made the ``X'' with their stick.
To outsiders this may not sound like much, but to coon hunters, well, it's just one of those things that to fully appreciate, you'd have to be there.
Not unlike warfare or breathing, there's a certain rhythm to coon hunting. The hounds' bays enlarge or fade as, Doppler-like, they move first closer to, then farther from, the coon hunters parked in their pickup truck talking books or praying they won't have to beat back the aggressive advances of a humorless coon.
The coon hunters themselves ebb and flow, driving their pickup from spot to spot along the night-enveloped country road, gathering the hounds into their screened-in boxes at one place and then stopping and releasing them again a hundred or so yards later. These starts and stops continue all night 'til as if by some genetic signal, the hounds are called in and all head home. A certain rhythm.
I've never yet talked to a coon hunter who said he'd actually taken a coon home as the result of his nightingale efforts. All that time spent sitting around in the cab of a pickup truck in the middle of the night debating some hoity-toity New Yorker's review of some hotshot's new novel, what do they get from it? You wonder.
Well, the answer folks give is ``Not much.'' It's just something coon hunters do.
But that's not the true answer. The fact is, it doesn't do hereabouts to let folks know you're an intellectual. Coon-hunting is nothing more than a cover for the higher pursuits of the mind.