"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The story of Earl Hutchins

This is one of the many short stories I have written based on our travels to the Deep South:

Earl Hutchins
My name is Earl Hutchins and I own the Hutchins Run B&B in Ehrhardt, South Carolina. It’s about as much of a bed and breakfast as the Southern Pines Motel, a sorry piece of lumber that’s only good for pussy and sour coffee. There’s not much reason to stay at my B&B either unless you’re duck hunting or lost. We’re about ten miles into the woods from the nearest town, the accomodations are only fit for shooters and dogs, and despite the second “B” in B&B, there is no breakfast. I keep the name just to attract any strays that’re travelling from Georgia to the Low Country.

When strays roll up to the Southern Pines and hear the screen door of the motel bang open, they keep the car running; but after two hours on an empty swamp road without a sign of human habitation, only witchy-looking dead cypresses, snakes slithering out of the swale, and yellow eyes in the underbrush, they’re just relieved to see another human being, even if it is Rasher Hadley. Most people around here just take any room that Rasher has available except the ones with holes in the roof. It’s too much trouble to fix it so he just poisons the coons that crawl in there and shovels them out before they get to smelling too bad. Most of the regulars who bang on Rasher’s door at two in the morning couldn’t care less which room they get, and wouldn’t care if he gave them one with dead racoons still in it. Besides, these ol’ boys are so drunk they can barely manage a few minutes of dog humping before they pass out, so they doubly don’t care what room they’re in.
The Northern strays are different. They want to see the room before plunking down their money, and since Rasher is not one to plump the pillows and leave chocolate kisses on them, one poke into one of these nasty animal dens is enough to send them down the road to my place. “You might try the B&B about five miles south”, he suggests, the “B&B” the only scintilla of hope the strays have that my place will not stink of old truckers and fish pussy.

I’m 6’7”, 82 years old; and people say I look like John Brown from Potawatomie, Kansas – a crazed man and crusading abolitionist who killed, burned, and savaged his way to Harper’s Ferry as though he was liberating Jerusalem itself. Even the thought that I look like that delusional, marauding Yankee is ridiculous. I am the great-grandson of a Confederate major and slaveholder; grandson of a boy who witnessed Sherman’s depredations from the very window of his bedroom and watched his soldiers burn the barn, slaughter the cattle, rape his aunt, cut the slaves loose, and sledgehammer every piece of furniture in the house looking for silver; and son of a father who fought the vile arrogation of power of the Federal Government until his dying day.

When the strays pull in here most of them are already thinking they’re going to get buggered by some toothless old hillbillies, eaten by bear, or abducted by some fire-breathing Rebel maniac like me; and I don’t do one thing to disabuse them of that notion. I’m tall and rangy, and mean-looking most days. I don’t often bother to flatten my hair down or put in my teeth until dinner. If I’m outside I usually have my shotgun with me – we’ve got all kinds of squirrels, field rats, racoons, skunks and every other kind of animal that’d rather nest in my attic than in the woods - and I always travel with at least three dogs, mean looking creatures themselves.

Hell, half these strays come down South just to meet somebody like me. They’ll have nothing to report if they don’t meet some old reconstructed segregationist. The website for a B&B in Jackson highlights the segregationist past of the owner. He has renounced his evil doings and made the proper amends, but he’s smart enough to know how to titillate the Yankee tourists with a few well-chosen quotes from Robert E. Lee or Jefferson Davis and make a few oblique references to “certain” Southern organizations he belonged to. There’s nothing like confirming old prejudices, and ol’ Bill Harris is one of the best at getting people to do it.
I had one couple drive up here a couple of years ago. As soon as they rolled up the drive I knew that the license plates said Virginia, but the car wasYankee.

“Where’re y’all from?”, I said.

“Virginia”.

“Yeah, I can see that”, I said, “but where are you from?”

As soon as I said that I saw them get that dry-mouthed panicky look. One of my dogs came busting out of the brush behind them, and they jumped like they’d been stuck. And who comes banging up the dirt track in his truck but Bud Lickens who’d been repairing the duck blind down by the lake. It was a miserable hot day and Bud looked like shit. His shirt was all ripped from tearing through the blackberries; his pants were wet like he’d pissed ‘em; and his hat was all slimy and mashed in like some ol’ dog had been chewin’ on it. ‘Course Bud had a pickup, and it was beat up and caked with mud. The windshield was just a gummy slime. He hadn’t cleaned it in weeks and he had just smeared the bugs back and forth with his wipers.
“So”, I said to the tourists. “I asked you where you all are from”.

Well, they hemmed and hawed. The wife said she was from Virginia, but saw that I wasn’t buying any of that, so she amended herself and added “Northern Virginia” which of course isn’t any more a part of Virginia than Massachussetts, and the husband said he was from Connecticut which I knew was right because of the way he said it, sounding like a sticky tappet.

Fortunately for the tourists, my wife came along about that time, and you could see the relief on the their faces. “Whew”. Couldn’t be that bad if the toothless old bugger has a wife and there’re women’s things in the house.

“Earl, are you boring these folks with your War stories already?”; and “Bud, you look like you been chewed up by a thresher. Don’t you ever change your clothes?”

“Not when I’m working, m’am”, said Bud.

Whatever spell I had been putting on those Yankees had been broken by Bessie and by Bud m’am’n her left and right; so I figured I would calm things down, get them settled, and take them over to the museum later. The museum is the Hutchins Run Historical Archives and is meant to set the record straight, at least for this corner of South Carolina.

I firmly believe that the War between the States was most definitely not fought over slavery; and that the Constitution was violated not by our secession – it was never outlawed by the Framers – but by the Union’s unlawful insistence on abrogating the rights of the states. I believe that slavery was an economic system like any other, and that Africans were enslaved no more than indentured laborers in Europe. Who ever talks of the evils of serfdom? And didn’t the system lead to the modern city-state and European civilization itself?
Now I also happen to believe that Africans made particularly good slaves – strong enough to pull a horsecart, simple enough to pick cotton, and smart enough to do what they were told; and that’s what capitalism is all about, matching labor to capital.

I could hear ol’ Bud banging the last nails into the duck blind. He’s always made a big deal about hammering nails. Likes to whack them in so hard the report is like a rifle shot. He’s also proud of the fact that he can pound in a four-inch nail with three strokes. I get a lot of duck hunters in the Fall that sit up there in that blind. Most of them live around here, but enough come from the coast to fill my cabin rooms and one or two of the guest rooms upstairs in the main house. My wife has whinged about this for years, duck hunters clumping up the stairs in their boots, dinging the bannister, and leaving hair and spit in the sink. Hell, they’re hunters, not damsels in petticoats.

I like my duck hunters. They’re all friends or relatives of mine. None of us have strayed too far from our roots. Our families never had the wealth of the Low Country planters, but we were never crackers either. We worked the land and made a good living off of it. We all managed to go to school; many of us held elected office; and most of us got into business. Now, most of these friends are getting old and creaky, and I’ve got to push half of them to the blind, prop them up good so the kick of the shotgun won’t skid their wheelchairs into the reeds; but it’s still a good group.

I don’t mean to scare people, just scare some sense into them. At least I give them credit for even venturing this far south. Most Northerners are either afraid of getting lynched down here or hanged as traitors when they get back. There’s not one in a thousand of them that can shake off their own prejudiced schooling. The greatest civilizations the world has known – Greece, Rome, and Egypt - had slaves. Who do you think built the Acropolis, the Coliseum, and the pyramids at Giza? Ours was a legal, acceptable, permissable economic system which had existed for nearly 5000 years. Why were we singled out?

Slavery is just one of the prejudices Yankees come down here with. Hell, they’re prejudiced about everything. Every gun they see is for shooting niggers. Every pickup truck is meant to carry good ol’ boys to Klan meetings; and every deep-fried chicken, catfish, or pork chop is God’s own manifestation of an inferior, gummed up race of cretins.

My wife keeps after me to let the past be. “After all”, she says, “it’s been almost 150 years”. She says that the older I get, the more I do resemble that wildman John Brown. “You not only look more like him, you’re sounding more like him too”. I know she’s only teasing me, knowing how much I hate the bastard. She thinks I’m some kind of Don Quixote, ranting and raving about the Old South; or worse, an old, cranky man who’s starting to spill soup on his overalls; but wrongs must be righted. Clarity and objectivity are as much a legacy of Greece as slavery.

I saw the Yankees whispering to themselves over on the verandah of the cabin, probably trying to work up the gumption to tell me they’ve decided to keep on heading to the coast; but like most couples they can’t agree and have to bicker. He’s saying to her, “Honey, it can’t be as bad as you think. It’s just a B&B, and besides his wife seemed nice enough”; and she’s slicing back at him with “I don’t want to spend one more minute here with that racist and his creepy friend. You never know what they’ll do”. Or words to that effect. I saunter over to them, work up the biggest, dumbest shit-eatingest grin my toothless choppers can manage and say, “Y’all enjoying the evening? Shore is pretty in these parts, isn’t it?”

They ended up staying, and I took them through my museum and the slave quarter ruins; out to the battlefield, the breastworks, and Confederate grave. I always end up the tour with a visit to my gunhouse – a fine collection of antique muskets, carbines and rifles from the World Wars, and M-16s and AK-47s from Vietnam; and my own assortment of shotguns, deer rifles, thirty-ought-sixes for boar, and some fancy .22s with carved stocks. Now why anyone would carve away on a little squirrel-plinkin’ pea shooter like the .22 is beyond me, but it’s all part of my game with the tourists. Not even the most rabid anti-gun Yankee can leave entirely worked up after I tell them about the pea-shooter and how it was the gun my son used when he and I went out hunting when he was nine and how we bonded on the trail.

There’re always a lot of tears shed at the slave quarters. They’re not much more than a pile of wood now. I haven’t bothered to keep them up since I learned early on that a Yankee tourist will practically kneel down in front of anything having to do with slaves. Most of them give me a sideways glance when we’re there, sins of the fathers and all that; and like I said, I don’t do a damn thing to disabuse them of that notion. If I’m up to it, I will give them my Time on the Cross lecture – the book written by two Jews on the economics of slavery which won a Pulitzer Prize. Slaveholders treated their slaves right, they say, just like any good businessman would. Slaves represented thousands of dollars of capital – capital which could yield high rates of return on investment if it was productive. For slaves to be productive – and reproductive – they had to be fed well, clothed, and housed decently. Not only would they work well, but the chances of their running off were much less; and resale value would go up.

As you would expect none of this falls on receptive ears. Most of the tourists figured I made it up anyway. In their view it is genetically impossible for a rural Southerner to even even read or write let alone make his way through a book on economics. Which is why I have to work up a good appetite for strays before giving my speech.

My guests left the next morning. Paid me in cash, which I knew was because they didn’t trust me with their credit card, figuring I would use it to buy Klan robes or defraud them somehow. Like my wife says, the War between the States was fought 150 years ago so why not leave it. I’m an old man, dribbling on my shirt and forgetting where the hell I put my teeth. Maybe she’s right, but goddam it, every time I get one of these Yankee ignoramuses down here, the sap rises and I feel like pissin’ off a bridge.

Hutchins Run was settled in 1820 by my great-grandfather who had come from Virginia where he had been farming tobacco. He had a small plot of land which was getting tired, and he was sick of selling to the Carter family and their merchants and always in debt to them. When the Carters moved to the more fertile land of North Carolina, my great-grandfather trekked inland to homestead at Hutchins Run.

With his wife, three children, and five slaves he travelled by steamer to Charleston then by horsecart and mules over some of the worst, swampiest, buggiest, snake-infested terrain in the South; but when he got to Hutchins Run he was happy. The land – some 300 acres – was high, dry, well-watered, and not far from a trading post. There were few problems with Indians, and other settler families close enough to help out but not too close for comfort. He, his family, and the slaves cleared the land, built the cabin I now use for the B&B, and started farming.

The house we live in now was built by my great-grandfather in 1845. At that time more land had been cleared, and the family raised dairy cows and some beef cattle. The number of slaves was around 15 which never changed until the War.

My grandfather was born and raised in that house and saw everything destroyed by Sherman’s army. Reconstruction was a bad time for all of us in the South; and maybe the only consolation was that my grandfather never had to sell his land because of debt, nor had any Yankee carpetbaggers or freed niggers attempting to appropriate it.

Our land was farmland, but hard duty land – not the flat fields of the Northern Neck or the lands east of the Shenandoahs where my folks had settled; and certainly not the Mississsippi Delta. It was hilly and rocky, and every acre cleared was an acre of sweat and blood. For a hundred years harmony prevailed. Plantation owners lived in Aiken, Charleston, and Georgetown; farmers like me developed the rural inland counties; and poor whites and colored picked cotton and worked the tenant farms. Labor and capital were in equilibrium. Society was structured, predictable, stable, and peaceful. Then came Civil Rights. Northerners finished what they started in 1860. They got what they always wanted, and our magnificent Southern society is no more.
About a year ago Rasher Hadley and my wife started conspiring against me and told me it was about time I stopped scaring people off with my ranting about the South and start filling up the empty rooms. “Earl”, he said, “You’ve got to stop whaling away at theseYankees about niggers and civil rights. Hell, ever time I hear your Time on the Cross speech I feel like crucifying you myself. Now, me and Bessie have got ourselves a good idea”.

Well, it was a cockamamie idea, bringing Northerners down here to hunt, but Bessie insisted I shut up for once; so I listened to Rasher spin his confabulation. “Earl, it can’t fail. I don’t care whether you’re Northern, Southern, Chinaman, Jew, or Arab – every man wants to shoot and kill something, but most of them up North have been so wussified they just can’t admit it. And even if they got up the gumption to go shooting, the whole town would know about it and would piss all over them when they got back. We’ll bring them down here and they can blast away to their hearts’ content and nobody back home’ll be any wiser. Hell, you’ve got an arsenal back there in that gun room. You might as well put it to good use.”

I never figured Rasher for any kind of serious thinking. He was always over at the motel or drinking with the Randall twins; and here he comes up with an ironic twist to beat them all. Putting the idea into practice was easy – the lodge was ready, the guns were all oiled and cleaned, I laid in a supply of ammunition – except for one thing, the Yankees. They picked up the shotguns like they were contaminated or they were worried about getting fingermarks on the barrel; and because a 12-bore is downright heavy, after a few minutes the guns began to sag like low limbs on an oak tree. Worse yet, none of the hunters had the shoulders to hold those guns level, and they drooped and swayed so much that if anyone pulled the trigger, they would have blasted a hole in my dog or in the side of the duck blind.

On the first day I got them used to angle and recoil – aiming and firing at the level the ducks would be coming in and holding their ground for the recoil. Shooting at imaginary ducks is nothing compared to the real thing, and Rasher suggested that we hook up the old skeet shooting trap to heave rubber ducks instead of clay pigeons. They’d come out a lot slower and the hunters would have a nice, fat target. The first couple of tries the trap whanged and rattled with the effort and the ducks plopped into the water only a few feet from where they were sent off. Finally Rasher got the calibration and balance right, and sent the rubber ducks whistling off in front of the hunters. The first three of my hunters missed completely, but the fourth got a clean hit and shredded the rubber duck. Bits and pieces flew in all directions like a fireworks display. We had let the dogs fetch whatever made it through the fusillade, so on the last blast the dogs tore off into the water looking for the dead duck. They paddled and circled around in the soup of blue rubber bits until they realized that whatever was floating around in the water wasn’t duck, and came ashore.

The hunter was grinning like a little kid. This was the first time he had ever shot anything moving, alive or not, and he was all goofy smiles.

“Rasher”, I said. “These Yankees aren’t ever going to learn how to hunt. Hell, there’s buckshot in half the trees around the blind, a bunch of tuckered out dogs, and only one hunter who’s happy – and that’s because he shredded a rubber duck.”

“Now Earl, calm down. This kind of thing takes time.”

“Takes time? The only chance of one of these hunters shooting a real duck is if a whole flock of them comes flying over and they fire a cannonade into the midst of ‘em. Hell, sometimes we quack away on a tin horn for days trying to fool one duck into thinking it’s a good place to land.”

“Why Earl, haven’t you ever heard of stocking? We’ll buy a whole bunch of ducks from the farm down at Allendale, drug ‘em, set them out on the water in the morning before the hunters get up, stir them up and voila. Those Yankees can blast ten of them before they get airborne. Haven’t you ever heard of those hunts in India where the natives tie up a goat, cut his throat just enough so’s the blood will attract a tiger, and then fire away from their perch in the trees? Same principle, same result. You’ve got to remember tourists are not like other people.”

Tourists are definitely not like other people and a lot dumber for sure; and I put up with the ersatz hunters for one season only. My very last group never progressed past the rubber ducks, and asked me if they could take a shot at my chickens which were pecking seeds out of old duck shit down by the pond. They would pay me; they were sorry to inconvenience me, but they just wanted to see what it was like to put a load of buckshot into a real bird. I told them they were crazy, and after that went back to my old routine, my old buddies and my Northern strays.

One year I got a whole slew of Southern history tours to visit my museum. Some search engine must have misfired, because I got school teachers from Ohio and Pennsylvania who were not ready for my unsanitized, unexpurgated, and completely unfiltered history of Bamberg County. At the end of the summer I got a visit from the South Carolina Historical Society who said I was serving up an unauthorized version of events, my apologia for slavery was intolerable, and if I was going to have a public museum, I had better toe the party line.

I asked them since when did the State rule by diktat, reminded them that freedom of speech was still enshrined in the Constitution even after years of Northern assault, and that private property meant just that: if you don’t like it, get the hell off.

“Haven’t you learned anything from the rubber duck episode?”, Rasher Hadley asked. “All you focussed on was the negative – how the Yankees couldn’t shoot straight, had pigeon shoulders, and wanted to pump a load into your poultry. You never saw the potential.”

“What potential?”

“Why, the potential of the dumb, Earl; and it’s been staring you in the face for years. Those Yankees loved the guns and the killing, they just couldn’t do it right. Your problem is you keep looking at them as failed Southerners.”

He said the raid by the South Carolina Historical Society was a good thing. “Nothing like negative publicity. Now you can play up what you’ve known all along – these Yankees are all ‘Oh no, please don’t’ but want the shackles, chains, and whips you’ve been giving out for years. All we have to do is tinker with the website”.

We never got the flood of tourists that Rasher Hadley predicted, but we got our share. “See, I told you”, he said. “You get to do what you like – rant and rave about slavery – and the tourists get to whip themselves like they were on the via dolorosa.”

There was something balletic about Rasher’s logic – the Yankees hated slavery but yet they loved it; they hated me, but I excited them – all psychological pirouettes and jetees; but that ol’ boy was on to something.
It turned out that Rasher Hadley was right, and after we repositioned Hutchins Run from duck hunting to Civil War history, we were full up. We ran the gamut from college professors loaded for bear and ready to take on the unreconstructed South; to moderates who wanted “to see both sides”; to downright Northern crackers who finally could rant and rave about jobs lost, miscegenation, and niggers on TV. The college professors thought they would have an easy time of it when they saw me come out in work overalls and a big chaw of tobacco stuffed in my cheek; and by the time I had softened them up with all the syrupy Southern cliches I could cook up I had them boxed in and stymied before they could even sort out my defence. When we got around to the museum, I was ready to strike. Not one of these so-called academics had ever read George Fitzhugh, Thomas R. Dew, or James Henley Thornwell, and if they had, they dismissed them out of hand and forgot what they read. I regaled them with providentialism, evangelical revelation, economics, and the Bible. I won’t say I whupped them, but they came stumbling out of the Wilderness bleeding and bruised.
“Don’t shame ‘em”, said Rasher. “We want them to go back thinking they have met the reddest necked, cornholing, Bible-thumping nigger-hater on the planet and won.”

“What’s the point then? They thought that before they came down here.”

“Earl, you’re a slow learner. Even when the Jews came face to face with Jesus Christ’s own right hand man on the road to Damascus, they still wondered what the hell he was talking about. Dialectics, Earl. You have engaged the enemy. Remember the principle of dumbness.”

At about this time the law descended on Rasher Hadley and threatened to shut down his motel unless he fixed the roof and got the racoons out of the rooms. “I don’t care what you do with that rathole of a flophouse after you go out of business”, said the sheriff, “but as long as you’ve got one guest staying there, you’ve got to fix it up”.

“Bill”, Rasher said, “will you kindly tell me why what goes on in one room of my motel can possibly have an effect on another?”

“Because, you ignoramus, those racoons’ll chew through the wiring and short out the whole place. What if one of your regulars turns on the light to take a leak and short circuits himself ?”

“That’d be more of a charge than they got all night, I reckon. The peckers on most of these ol’ boys ain’t good enough for pissing, let alone tapping pussy”.

The Southern Pines never got the overflow that Rasher expected from my B&B. I did have more business than before we started the duck hunting and history schemes, but not enough to fill the rooms in the main house let alone the motel. I for one am happy to get back to my own duck hunters, and I know Rasher is more content with his cracker pussy hounds, broken-down whores, and racoons. Neither one of us will understand Yankees. Even with all Rasher’s pyrotechnics, we could never predict what they wanted or why, which makes us bad psychologists, bad historians, and downright bad tour operators.
“Contrary to popular opinion”, said Bessie, “some people definitely do not get wiser as they get older.”

No comments:

Post a Comment