“In youth we learn; in age we understand.” - Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach
Nothing mattered to Stanley McMullen more than his dogs. When he came home from work on the Fisher Body assembly line, the first thing he did after stepping out of his faded brown station wagon, was walk to the dog pens on the back of his property. People thought he owned that car to make room for his six children, but there were steel cages in back to haul his dogs on hunting trips. There was never room in the vehicle for Stanley’s entire family, which was not a cause for concern to him since he never saw a reason for group travel. The dogs, though, had to go hunting every Saturday night in the north woods of Michigan.
The two oldest sons, Sonny and Georgie, were my friends, and I was often in their backyard playing baseball when their father game home from the factory. We always stopped throwing the ball or fielding grounders as their dad walked silently from the car to check on his dogs. The boys never even said hello to him because they knew his mood was going to be a consequence of what he saw in the dog pens. They had been given the responsibility of the twice daily feeding and watering, adding fresh hay to the crude wooden houses, and raking poop into a corner to be collected later in the week and spread across the family garden. If inspection resulted in Stanley’s dissatisfaction, the boys were often slapped around or subjected to a swinging razor strop as punishment for mistreatment of the animals.
When the gate was closed and their father began his slow shuffle up the hill to the house, his sons tried to read his face because he rarely spoke. I remember a day, though, when Sonny, momentarily unafraid, asked favor in return.
“Everything okay, Daddy?” he asked.
“Yeh.” Stanley’s answer was more grunt than word, and he did not look at his eldest son.
“Does it mean we can have popcorn tonight, Daddy? Please?”
“Can Jimmy spend the night, too, and eat with us?”
Stanley stopped and looked in my direction. I never wanted any attention from Mr. McMullen because I was certain my presence displeased him for reasons unknown, and I was confident he would knock me on the head with his fist just as readily as he did his four sons. I was equally certain he would just explain it to my father by telling him I deserved whatever he might have done to me, and no real questions would be asked.
“We’ll see,'“ Stanley said, and opened the screen door to the kitchen.
Sinewy and ectomorphic, every part of Stanley appeared lined by blood veins standing out against his skin. He ate prodigiously, but had no trace of even a middle-aged spread above his waistline. His default personality was to be grim and discontent and always on the edge of either a vocal or physical outburst. The McMullen children made it their practice to engage their father only as necessary because they feared any request might be met with a whirling hand or a threat. Their mother, Madelyn, comported herself with the same trepidation regarding her husband.
“I don’t think I can spend the night,” I told Sonny. “My mom won’t want me to because she’s working late tonight at the restaurant.”
“Your mom doesn’t like us, does she?” Georgie asked.
“How am I supposed to know? I guess she thinks your dad is too much like mine and she worries about me getting hurt sometime when I’m over here.”
Georgie shrugged but Sonny laughed. He was thirteen that summer, older than me by two years, and already growing cynical toward people and circumstances. In school, he was in frequent fights because they were the singular tactic he knew that settled arguments, generally in his favor, and gave him social stature, a lesson he had taken from his frequently violent father. Also, getting expelled did not bother him. Little was more enjoyable to Sonny than being home from school while his parents were at work and he could do what he wanted, which likely would have led to punishment if he were to be found out.
“If you don’t stay the night,” Sonny asked, “You wanna go coon huntin’ with us Saturday and do the campout?”
“Yeah, I guess so, if my dad is going.”
“My dad said he is.”
Coon hunting was a form of recreation and income for families in our neighborhood. We were all part of the Dixie Diaspora, up from the South to make dependable incomes in the car and steel factories instead of swinging hoes in the cotton fields of the Mississippi River bottomlands. Much of the culture from south of the Mason-Dixon Line had come with us in our rattly old cars and cardboard boxes of modest belongings, which meant racism traveled as well as coon hunting. Although most of the families in our little settlement, north of Detroit and near Flint, were low income even by the standards of the 50s and 60s, they were also all white. Our parents, taking on mortgage payments, and a developer, had managed to convince VA lenders to redline the location and keep out black homebuyers, and the discrimination was not easily ended. In 1969, when I graduated from a very large high school with several hundred in each class, there was not a single black student enrolled.
The McMullens were from outside of Philadelphia, Mississippi, which became the site of some of the most notorious racist acts of violence during the protest era of Civil Rights. My father, too, had spent much of his youth nearby on the Choctaw Indian Reservation near Noxapader, where my grandfather taught school and received a house and land for farming along with his modest salary. My grandparents were raising corn and cotton and nine children. Racism and hunting were breathed into a white child’s being in every image and action they observed in their surroundings. These habits and personal traits were not to be abandoned when families left sharecropping and farming to seek employment on assembly lines and in the foundries of the Midwest.
Hunting, and even fishing, remained essential to survival for families with too many bills and not enough income, and that was the overwhelming majority of us before unions began negotiating better wages and benefits. My father, who had shot humans in World War II, was likely a proficient soldier because of hunting skills he had learned and polished while growing up in the South. When money became scarce, food did, too, and the Southern men living around us were not averse to walking to the edge of the development to hunt squirrel and rabbit. A quarter mile down the narrow road from our house, a stand of great oaks and white pines rose next to a rolling pasture with a gravel pit full of water. Nobody knew who owned the land but it served as a place to harvest small game and the echoes of gunfire rattled windows on the homes where families were slowly adjusting to urbanization.
Daddy’s brothers said he was so good with a .22 caliber rifle that he could shoot a squirrel out of the air as it jumped between limbs of a tree, and even as he stood a few hundred feet distant. Squirrel and rabbit were infrequent items on our diet, though, because our mother worked as a waitress and often brought home unserved food that had spent the evening setting under a heat lamp. My mouth still waters when I see a white, cardboard To-Go box with grease smears on its sides. The McMullen kids, meanwhile, had acquired such a distaste for the wildlife that Sonny told me he often chose to not eat dinner when it was served, and slipped his cuts of meat between his legs while his dad was not looking. I thought maybe that was why he looked like Stanley’s wizened, teenaged doppelganger. There was in him, though, a broken piece of a boy that was going to make him grow crooked as a man, and I am confident it was his father who had done that damage.
My first dinner at the McMullen’s table remains one of the oddest sights ever to hit my retinas. Sonny had been told they were having the rare treat of pork chops and that if he wanted to share his with me, I could stay and eat, and spend the night, assuming I called my mother at the restaurant. Everyone, including Madelyn, who had just finished frying the chops, had to be seated before Stanley came to the table to serve. He was shirtless for dinner, and when he pulled out a chair I saw a few of his fat veins throbbing between his neck and caved chest. His gray eyes, set beneath a nearly Cro-Magnon brow, were dull and beady as he looked at his gathered family. I had never been this close to Stanley and the proximity did nothing to ease my childhood discomfort.
Pulling out his brown metal folding chair from the sagging wooden table, he stepped up onto the seat and stood erect before squatting on his haunches while he balanced a tray of pork chops his wife had provided. Stanley wore only loose, gray cotton sweatpants, cinched at his waist by what I thought were shoelaces strung together, as he placed the platter of food on the table. His knees were bent high enough to almost frame his face after he had squatted, and he balanced on the folding chair with a confidence that would have made an outsider think he was a forest creature come indoors for the first time.
“Who goes first today, Daddy?” Georgie was hungry and anxious to be served.
“I reckon it’ll be Sonny,” Stanley said. “Since he’s got company and gonna share. That right Sonny?”
Sonny raised his plate next to me, I thought to hand to his father, but instead tilted it at an angle and faced its surface toward Stanley, who promptly grabbed a pork chop with his fingers and spun it in the air across the table like he was dealing a face card in a game of poker. Sonny only had to move his plate slightly for the chop to land perfectly, and he lowered it to begin cutting off my share. The two little girls at the end of the table giggled and their father turned momentarily in their direction and they fell immediately silent. The other boys raised their plates and caught their flying chops as Stanley dealt them out to all his family with the exception of the two girls under age six. I ate my carved-off section of a chop and began trying to figure out an excuse for leaving and not sleeping over. I came up with nothing.
The McMullen’s house was the exact same size and floor plan as the one my parents had purchased with three bedrooms, one bath, a kitchen and a living room in just over 800 square feet. The four boys slept on two sets of bunks in one room, which I had not ever seen until that night. Every piece of clothing they owned was on the floor or a bed. The closets were doorless and empty, except for unmatched shoes and dirty underwear on the floors. Not an inch of the rooms floor was visible beneath the scattered clothing. I really wanted to go home to the comfort of my mother’s meticulous cleanliness but it was dark and I doubted Stanley would let me leave unless I managed to vomit on his sons’ clothes, which felt like an increasing possibility.
“Y’all can come out now.”
Stanley was calling to the four boys and me, who had been told to go spend time in the bedroom. I did not know what we were supposed to do because there were no books or magazines or a TV and it felt like we had been sequestered in that tiny space for days, though it turned out to be just over two hours. Sonny was first out the door and went straight to his dad.
“Can we make popcorn now, Daddy?” he asked.
“I reckon.” Stanley did not turn away from the TV set across the room.
“How many ‘poppers’ can we make, Daddy? Can we make two?”
“That’ll probably be enough.”
Sonny went to the kitchen alone and grabbed a plastic container of grease and lard his mother kept in the refrigerator. Two large scoops were dropped into a deep, cast iron pot and he took handfuls of seed from a can and spread them atop the fat, and put on a top. I saw him staring at the cookware, waiting for it to sizzle and start popping, and I felt sad because I thought, even then, I might be seeing the greatest happiness he ever experienced with his family. I had never recalled ever seeing Sonny smile until the moment he walked into the living room with two oversized plastic mixing bowls piled high with popcorn. He presented one to his dad and the seven of us kids gathered around the second helping, which he had gently sat on the floor across from the television.
The children consumed our popcorn rather quickly, grabbing frantically for more than our hands could hold, and when Sonny looked at the half eaten bowl on his father’s lap, he was still craving the treat.
“Can I make another popper, Daddy? We had to share too much.”
“Y’all just have what’s left of mine.”
“But it’s not very much for seven kids, Daddy. Can I just…….”
“I don’t want to hear anything more.”
Sonny fell silent, as did the rest of us, and he reached for his father’s bowl, which was gone after our grappling fingers spilled kernels across the floor. Madelyn had never said a word throughout our snacking and crunching and she stared at the rerun of “Gunsmoke,” flickering across the black and white screen, a Western that fascinated Stanley as much as my father. I recognized Madelyn’s expression years later when I came of age and assumed she was taking a few moments to ask herself how she had ended up in that cluttered and messy room with six children and a crude country boy who cared more about his coon dogs than his family’s life.
Stanley’s dogs were blue tick hounds. He said no dog was better at treeing a coon than a blue tick. You can’t teach any hound to do what they do, he liked to explain, it’s just in their blood. All six of them were howling in their cages in the back of his station wagon the next Saturday as several families set up camp on the Shiawassee River, dark, slow-moving water course that slipped across lower Michigan. The dogs must have smelled coons in the tangy autumn air because the animals of other hunters were barking with a kind of cacophonous wail between the trees and across the river while other hunters arrived in their pickups and camper trailers. By dark, a big bonfire flew at the night, adults were drinking from bottles in brown bags, and children were scrambling along the edge of the firelight, running toward the perimeter of night, eager for the hunt.
We had no idea what was coming. Sonny and Georgie and I went to the station wagon and helped Stanley leash his dogs. He said he was using a shotgun instead of a rifle because even with strong flashlights a direct hit was going to be too difficult. The dogs pulled at their restraints, which Stanley had fastened in loops around his belt. With his 12 gauge on his shoulder, the anxious, barking dogs pulled him into the black woods, and we followed. My father paid us no attention and focused on Stanley and his blue ticks. When the animals, who were, oddly, without names, smelled a coon, they were crazed, and their leashes unclipped. They ran ahead of the waving flashlights, found their prey, and chased it up a tree.
“They got us three up there, James,” Stanley said to my father. “You see ‘em?”
“Yeah, I do.”
“Ain’t that somethin'? Tell ya what, you take that one over yonder, if you can see to shoot him with your rifle. Sonny, point the light at that one on the right.”
“I got him,” Daddy said, and fired. The animal fell with a thump into the long grass beneath the trees, and the dogs had to be called off before they ripped apart the fur.
“See if I can get me two at once,” Stanley said before he pulled the trigger on his shotgun. One animal fell, and the other, wounded, still clung to the limb with its claws, which set the dogs to making a discordant noise that only barely resembled a bark. I thought they sounded like they were being tortured, but when the coon finally fell bloody from the high limb, Stanley let the dogs tear at it with their teeth until their snouts were covered in blood and there was not much left that resembled a formerly living mammal.
Stanley and my father killed more than two dozen raccoons that night. I went back, instead, toward the fire, yellow and faltering through the trees, and wrapped myself in Army surplus blankets, listening as the sound of the marauding dogs grew more distant, and I fell off to sleep. In the morning, I saw Stanley, as energetic as he had appeared when the hunt began, loading the raccoon carcasses into his neighbor’s truck bed to be delivered to his house. I assumed they were intended to be used as dog food. I was wrong. That evening, when my father and I went to look at the bounty, more than twenty coonskin furs, tails still attached and bouncing in the wind, were hanging from a nylon rope clothesline in the McMullen’s back yard.
“Why’s Mr. McMullen got the furs hanging out on the line, Daddy?” I was profoundly baffled, more than normal.
“Gotta get ‘em ready to sell, dry ‘em out, cut off leftover bloody flesh.”
“People buy coon furs? What for?”
“You seen them TV shows, buddy boy, with Davey Crockett wearin’ a coonskin hat, ain’t ya? That made ‘em popular with a lotta kids. That’s why people buy the furs. The higher-ups, too, that got money, they make fancy coats out of coonskins. Even over in Europe is what I hear.”
“Do rich people pay a lot of money for coonskins, Daddy?”
“I don’t know. But whatever they pay, I’m gettin’ half of it.”
Daddy went into the McMullen’s house and I stayed outside looking for Sonny and Georgie. My father got into a loud argument with Stanley and I took off down the street, breaking into a run. I always ran to make my anxiousness fade and clear my head, trying to understand our little world. We had electricity and running water and an oil heater in the middle of our house to keep us warm in the winter and some people in our neighborhood even had new cars, which seemed impossible to me. The country boy hunters from the woods of Mississippi still seemed to be having trouble adjusting to urban living. The market for coonskins probably was not going to be very reliable, but they could still see an animal in a dark woods better than they could the future.
I understood nothing in those days, and mostly still do not.