Besides being a trapper, my father was also a hunting guide, mainly guiding nighttime racoon hunts. This was a popular sport in Illinois during and after the Depression. Besides being a great way for men to get together at night to swap jokes, wade through bogs, and chase baying hounds, if a coon met its demise, they could also acquire a pelt worth one dollar. Farmers welcomed coon hunters too and for two reasons: racoons love corn and can devastate a corn field, and they also love fresh chicken and are clever enough to open a chicken coop’s hook-and-eye door lock.
My father had a reputation for being one of the best hunting guides in the area. Papa also had his own well-trained redbone and bluetick hounds that served as lead dogs. Men who wanted to train a green dog, a young untrained hound, would contract with Papa to go on a hunt.
When I was about four years old, I listened as Papa described to Mama details of such a hunt. And from his descriptions, I conjured up images of dogs running through the woods, of Papa telling men to stop and listen when the dogs treed a coon, of Papa describing the sound of dogs singing, of Papa blowing his hollowed goat horn to signal the dogs to return.
“Please, please, let me go with you,” I begged. Then I added, “Ted and Steve got to go.”
“Pinky,” Papa replied. “I don’t think your little legs are long enough to keep up with the dogs once they start running a trail.”
“I can ride on your shoulders,” I persisted.
“Well, I don’t think you would really like it,” Papa replied.
“Oh yes I would. I know I would,” I asserted.
“If you get tired, you can’t complain. I have to stay with the men and dogs.”
“I won’t complain,” I promised.
Papa looked at Mama, and she nodded.
So on a hot August night, I found myself holding Papa’s hand while he and three men walked their hounds to the edge of a cornfield and turned them lose.
“Go get ’em, Blue!” Papa commanded. “Show ’em how it’s done.”
The dogs quickly disappeared while yapping into the cornfield.
Though the night was moonless and dark, the men turned off their flashlights and stood quietly listening.
Shortly afterward, the dogs started baying wildly, and Papa said, “They’re running one.” And when he heard Blue’s deep baying change to more rhythmic howling, he announced, “It’s treed.”
Papa quickly lifted me to his shoulders and started to run with the men in the direction of the baying dogs. He held my ankles as he ran, and I leaned down close to his head to avoid being slapped in the face by branches. Flashlight beams danced wildly reflecting tree trunks and men stepping over logs and pushing back brush.
Blue’s distinct deep baying guided the hunters to a large elm tree. The dogs circled the tree baying wildly and jumping against its trunk. When flashlight beams searched the tree’s high branches, a large racoon was illuminated, its eyes reflecting the light.
Then I noticed for the first time that one of the hunters was carrying a gun, a 22 rifle. I watched as he aimed at the racoon, and I heard a shot. The coon fell from the tree instantly, and just as quickly, the hunters grabbed the collars of their hounds, and Papa yelled, “Back Blue! Back!”
It all happened too quickly!
When Papa lifted me from his shoulders, I walked to the dead racoon.
One of the hunters said, “Wow! It’s a big one! Maybe Jaffe will pay a dollar fifty.”
I knelt next to the coon and stroked its soft fur and whispered, “I’m sorry.” I swallowed to keep from crying and looked up questioningly at Papa.
He lifted me gently, “Let’s to go home,” he said.
Part of the coon hunting tradition was participation in Coon Dog Trials. These were events where hunters got together to test their best dog’s ability to track and tree a coon. The summer of 1955 a Coon Dog Trial was held at a tavern close to a wooded area near Plano, Illinois. Hunters from around the state, some from neighboring states, arrived in pick-ups with hounds in truck beds: redbones, blueticks, redticks, black and tans. There were a few large beagles, but most were heavy jowled, large boned, long tailed, long eared, sleepy eyed gentle hounds. Men came mainly to meet old friends, swap stories, drink beer, but prize money also attracted them to the event. Ted and I accompanied Mama and Papa on one of these outings, but only one.
The Coon Trial proceedings were well established. A fake trail was made by dragging a dead racoon from a starting point down, around, up and through a wooded area, eventually hanging the carcass in a tree located near the starting point. A pack of four or five hounds would be set loose on the trail, and the first dog to find the end-point tree was the winner. Such trials were run throughout the day.
The culminating trial was for hounds that qualified by placing in pre-trials and involved a live racoon. This final trial was designed not only to test trailing ability but also obedience. The plan was that late in the afternoon after all the day trials had been run, a coon would be released at the edge of a wooded area, and towards evening, the owners would meet at the release site with their qualifying entries and set their hounds on the trail. Then the men would follow the dogs, and after the coon was treed and shot, an experienced hunter would watch to judge how well the dogs obeyed. Did the hounds immediately go to their masters when called or did they rip at the racoon and cause pelt damage?
As the afternoon dragged on, Ted and I wandered around the grounds petting and talking to hounds that seemed especially friendly while Mama and Papa visited with other hunters and their wives and watched as trials were run. We were the only children. There were some teenagers, but no kids our age. I was five and Ted was seven. Like me, Ted knew all about coon hunting. Papa had taken him on a hunt, and like me, afterward he felt badly for the racoon. He even cried.
During our afternoon wanderings, we explored several sheds behind the main building, and in one of the sheds, we found a cage holding a live racoon. It was adorable. After poking bits of grass and scraps of paper into the cage, we hurried back to Mama and Papa and asked if they would buy some popcorn, which they did, and we returned to the racoon. It loved the popcorn. We laughed as it poked its long black fingers through the cage wire and gently took the kernels we offered.
“You’ve got such soft fingers,” I whispered. “Feel its fingers, Ted. Aren’t they soft?”
We watched as it washed the kernels in its water dish.
“Don’t do that!” Ted scolded. “Look, now your popcorn’s soggy.”
We must have been watching and talking to the racoon for quite a while because when Mama came walking around the building she said, “Oh. There you are. We were wondering where you were.”
“Look at him, Mama. Isn’t he adorable?” I asked.
She nodded, smiled a sad smile, and added, “Just stay around.”
“Judy,” Ted said quietly. “You know what’s going to happen to him, don’t you?”
We stood silently thinking about the fate of treed racoons.
“Oh, that’s awful!” we whispered simultaneously.
Then, also simultaneously, we looked at the clip lock on the cage. We didn’t say anything. Just nodded to each other. Ted undid the lock and I swung the door open.
“Hurry! Run!” we encouraged. And within a matter of seconds the racoon had escaped into a grove of trees.
Ted and I closed the cage door, latched it, and quietly continued to a shed where we climbed a ladder up to a low-ceilinged attic and rummaged through boxes filled with old clothes and magazines. Eventually, we returned to Mama and Papa and were given a root beer to share.
“So, what have you been up to?” Papa asked.
“Nothing,” we replied.
Suddenly there was a commotion!
“It’s gone! Someone let that damn coon out of its cage!” a tall man blurted from the side door. “An’ it weren’t no accident. No coon would latch its cage after escapin’.” Then he added, “An’ there’s popcorn kernels in its water bowl!”
While looking at Ted and me, Papa turned to Mama and said, “I think we better go.”