Swamp Memories

a writing by Leslie M. Owens

Someone once asked me “if you had 24 hours left to live what would you do”? Without hesitation or pause my answer was “I would go possum hunting”! “possum hunting”? was the startled reply. “Yes, Possum hunting” .
Now why, you probably ask, would someone want to spend the last 24 hours of their life hunting possums? The answer is simple, it brings back happy childhood memories.

You see one of my favorite activities as a young boy was going possum hunting with my father (paw), in the swamp. I would pad barefoot behind him with my brother and sister, quiet as mice, we would watching and listening to the soft nocturnal sounds of the swamp. The chirp of crickets and the thrum of the frogs singing would mesmerize us like a lullaby. The warm dampness surrounded us like a cocoon, and the mist rising from the swamp hid us as we stalked our prey.
We would watch Paw in mute anticipation of that single hand rising, telling us that he had spotted something. Our hearts racing we would hold our breath, anxiously dreading what was coming, but yearning for the excitement of the hunt.
Now, Possums are tricky critters, they come out at night and hide in the trees eating little tree bugs, snails, snakes and such. They can’t see very well but Paw would say they could hear a butterfly whisper in a thunderstorm.
Then Paw’s hand would raise up silently stopping us in our tracks, this was his signal. Slowly and carefully he would raise his rifle, with the ease of life-long familiarity, to aim at his prey. The roaring crack of his rifle would cast a deathly silence on all life around us. It was the deep primordial silence of self-preservation, bred through eons of the hunted. Then the crash of a possum or other critter falling out of a tree would break the silence and galvanize us to action. As soon as the critter hit the ground me or Dewey would would run barefoot, lickety split, grab it up and run it home as fast as possible for Maw to cook up, the fatter the critter the better.
There are many different ways to make possum and Maw knew all of them. Paw always said she was the best darn possum cook in the swamp (this always made maw blush). She would cook them up with a big ‘ol mess of collard greens, jalepenos and okra, or she would stuff them with sweet ‘taters and roast ‘em until they were tender and sweet. The best was her possum pie though, whooeee, that pie would just melt in your mouth it was so good. Every year during the Gator queen festival maw always baked a special batch of them for the pot luck and folks just couldn’t get enough of ‘em. In fact one year Grogi Donago and Sue Ray Boone got into a fist fight over the last slice. Sue Ray beat the livin’ stew out of Grogi but ended up letting him have the last slice since he had knocked out her last tooth during the brawl. This was the beginning of a romance that they attributed to Maw’s cookin’. It was said that if a single Gal gave a slice of Maw’s famous possum pie to a single feller he would fall madly in love with her. The proof was that immediately after the festival Grogi asked Sue Ray to go with him the next Saturday to the hog wrastlin’ at Purdy Bean’s hog farm. Wasn’t two weeks later that Grogi was visiting her paw to offer a hound dog, and a jug of Crazy Polly's finest hooch for his permission to marry her.

We lived a fairly carefree lifestyle in our shabby little swamp house shaded by huge old sycamore and cyprus trees. Paw supported the family like most swamp men, runnin’ a little moonshine, hunting, fishing, selling gator skin belts, raising a few hogs and chickens as well as hornswoggling any strangers or revenuer men that came along.
Maw, a bright, cheerful chubby lady ruled her kitchen with an iron rolling pin. No one crossed Maw in the kitchen or they might end up laid up in bed for a week after she knocked them upside the head with her cast iron skillet. Her kitchen was her pride and joy. In the center of her kitchen was her most prized possession, a huge gas cook stove, with an oven and a grill. It had a water reservoir, a grease catcher and most importantly it didn’t use firewood. This was something seldom seen in the swamp back then. Paw had gotten the stove for her from the sears and Roebuck catalogue as a wedding present and even had a gas pipeline installed so she wouldn’t have to haul firewood.

Paw was a small grey haired, dour looking man, with a perpetual frown . Crease marks furrowed his brows and his eyes appeared hard as marbles. His hands were calloused and, his shoulders rounded from years of hauling gator hides, moonshine jugs and hard work. Remember the old saying “appearances can be deceiving” in Paw’s case appearances were very deceiving, Paw was a jokester. He used his dour grumpy appearance to his advantage, looking at him no one would think he had an ounce of laughter in his entire body. In actuality his tricks, jokes and just plain tomfoolery were the stuff of legends. Many of his tricks and jokes had become so legendary that it was very common at community gatherings for folks to tell stories about the time Bugger Coon showed some younguns how to train swamp rats to hide stuff and they had the rats hide hardboiled eggs in the hens nest during the hottest summer months. Or the time he filled the empty moonshine jugs back behind the general store with jalepeno juice and sold it as special half price radiator liquor. That stuff could burn a hole in cement and gave a whole new meaning to rotgut.
None of the stories were told more often than the one about the time Paw had labeled his moonshine, ‘Portugese Grape juice’ and offered it to couple of revenuer men, as a refreshing drink when they came sniffing around looking for an illegal still or a hidden mash barrel. He got them rip roarin’ drunk, and convinced them that the swamp rats were stalking them and were hiding jars of moonshine in the upper branches of the ancient cypress trees (he still had a couple trained rats hanging around from the boiled egg incidents). Those revenuer men were climbing trees setting rat traps in the branches for weeks.

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