Three men, a coon, and a birdcage walk into a bar.

Funny thing life, it seems we spend our entire existence in a frantic effort to build long lasting relationships. Then to our dismay, discover oft times life’s most influential people are with us for an all to brief moment. They pop into our lives like a spark in a dark room, and sadly fade just as quickly.

We never know when we may encounter these folks, sneaky they are, slipping in under cover of darkness, only to slip back out without warning, leaving an emptiness in our hearts and minds.

I suppose the best we may hope for would be our lives impacting theirs in the same manner. We hope that where-ever they are, they look back upon ourselves with the same warm feelings.

This brings us to our next story. Time doing what time does, marches on. Things change, all things, I don’t like change, I need to be clear about that. Like a lot of us, I find a great deal of comfort in those old sneakers, yet I admit to maybe just a little pride in the new pair my wife picked up “on sale.” Once I get past the initial “shock” I realize I was just (in my father’s words), “pole vaulting over mouse turds.”

          Once Ma’ met the man I would come to consider my father. A crusty ol’ yankee by even the best description, but a wise man just the same. The first thing he did was throw out the proverbial “old sneakers.”

The family moved to an area in Sevier county Tennessee known as Wears Valley, it was a sleepy little area bordering the Great Smokey Mtns. National park. Little did I realize the profound effect this place would have on the rest of my life. The influence of the   people, and the much-needed guidance of my new stepfather.

I was born and raised in the mountains of east Tn. I knew the hills and hollers like an old friend, but the beauty of this place was some thing I had never experienced. The nearby towns of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg would turn into my stomping grounds. It was as close to a hillbilly Vegas as anyone could get. So much to do, so much to see, jobs were plentiful and could be had by anyone. Coincidentally this was in fact the 80’s, we all know about that period and the resulting boom in quality of life.

We were mountain folk, not used to having a great deal, not accustomed to eating every meal every day, not used to having a “real” job. Having some pocket money jingling about, let alone folding money was a new experience.

He brought us here, that crusty ol’ Yankee, his name was George, and that man made me into the man that I am today, and I owe him my life.

          George bought a 10-acre tract of land in an area known as Clear Fork, and that ol’ boy worked my brother and I like rented mules. He rented a little place over in Russel Holler while we built the house. The holler’s name sake family lived at the end of the road directly across from our place.

I will never forget my first encounter with this some-what eccentric family. The old house they called home looked like it might collapse and return to the earth at any moment. It was the perfect hillbilly homestead in every respect, exactly what most imagine for such a dwelling.

Grey asphalt shingles barely clung to the exterior walls, the roof line, including the porch had a noticeable sag about the center. Porch posts fashioned from poplar trees wore a weathered and warm grey patina, to finish the look a worn plank floor partially covered with peeling paint lay half rotten.

          On that old porch sat four worn and grey rocking chairs, and on those worn and grey rocking chairs sat the Russell boys. I use the term “boy” rather loosely, as the youngest of the group was undoubtably in his mid. thirties. All but the youngest were of an exceptionally large size and all were clad in bib overalls. Across the laps of at least two of em lay a large gauge shotgun. The boy’s favorite drink was obviously beer as evidenced by the towering pile of aluminum cans next to the house. The pile would often reach an unmanageable height, so from time to time the truck was used to drive over the pile thus making the size more manageable.

First impressions might lead a person to believe this was a group of men to be avoided, and avoided at all costs. But little did I know at the time, we would grow to be the best of friends. I soon realized that if these boys liked you, they would stop at nothing to help you, and if they didn’t, well, let’s don’t go there and just say we did.

          The matriarch of the family was Stella, an older, gaunt lady with long grey hair and maybe two teeth in her entire head. She was a fine Appalachian woman by any definition, and the toils and struggles of a hard life were easily recognized in her face and on her frail bent body. She was forever dressed in what appeared to be handmade clothes, complete with hand knitted shawl which she kept wrapped upon her shoulders.

I’m sure raising that group of boys took its toll on her, and she looked forever weary when-ever I happened upon her. But there was an ever-present spark about her, life seemed to exude from her, and she was always quick to offer sound advice or share a story. Gone is that generation, gone are the stories, the morals, and the work ethic, a simple outlook on life. I might add, the world is much poorer for it.

          The youngest of the boys went by the name of Sherrell, now Sherrell was a bit different than his brothers. He was of relatively slight stature with a long neck and hook nose. He was born with a severe birth defect which left him exceptionally crippled, both legs were horribly bent out of shape causing his arms to flail wildly as he walked, and he walked a lot, everywhere he went he walked.

He also possessed a particularly bad speech impediment; it took me awhile to learn his lingo and be able to communicate with him. His older brothers routinely treated him like a pack mule, enlisting Sherrill to fetch all manner of things for them and walk to Dewey’s store to buy boot-legged beer and such.

 The front of our house contained a large window, many was the time as we watched T.V. a bright light would streak across the back wall, then dart back and forth like a laser pointer teasing a cat. Sure enough, there would be Sherrill walking up the road in the pitch black, flashlight in hand, streaking through the trees’ but seldom upon the road, his arms flailing in the dark throwing the beam in all directions. I often wondered if the light did him any good as he hobbled his way up the gravel road.

An hour or so later that same light would streak through the living room again, telling us all that Sherrill was back from his mission. I never reckoned how those boys drank any of that beer, Sherrill shook it about so violently with his flailing arms, it had to be undrinkable. But I reckon some questions will always remain unanswered.

          My brother and I were cordial to the entire family, they were fine people in most every respect, but we gained an exceptional bond with Sherrill. He was forever at our house inviting the two of us on one of his many hunting trips. Small game is a staple with most folks in this part of the country and we seldom turned down an opportunity to get some fresh game. Usually squirrel or rabbit. but Sherrill was particularly fond of coon.

I don’t really care for coon, it’s a bit gamey for my taste. So is deer meat and bear for that matter. If you tell most hunters you don’t care for it you generally get the usual retort,” well you ain’t had it fixed right yet.”

Coon hunting is of itself an experience like no other.  Its always done at night when the coons are active, the dogs know the scent so all you gotta do is find a good secluded piece of woods and turn the dogs loose. There’s something magical about sitting in the woods and listening to the far-off drawl of the dogs, it echoes through the trees and down the hollers. Resting soft on your ears like a mountain fog. Combine that with some good friends and a thermos full of hot coffee and, well, there just ain’t anything finer on God’s good earth.

Once chased, the coon’s natural instinct is to climb, so they end up in the top of the tree with the dogs baying at the bottom. All that is required at that point is to point a strong light up into the tree and search for a pair of glowing eyes, A well placed shot, the coon falls from the tree and viola, dinner.

          One certain Saturday come to mind when I think of Sherrill, I don’t recall what my brother and I were doing at the time, but here came Sherrill. Bragging about his hunt from the previous night, and all the goings on we had missed by staying home in front of the T.V.

He started to get a little excited when it came to this one coon in particular. We just rolled it off as excited exaggeration and let it go at that. In his hard to understand tongue he was going a mile a minute and it was starting to get difficult to keep up. “Well hell” he said, (translation), “why don’t you just come on over here and let me show you, how’s that?” So off we went, the three of us, to see what all the commotion was about.

Sitting at the right side of the house was an old privy. Sherrill led us to the door and stated, (translation) “Quick come on inside.” Three, that’s right three grown men crammed into an old single seat outhouse. (Translation), “close the door behind you” he said, reluctantly I shut the door and slid a piece of wood over to lock it.

There we were, a little uncomfortable and a whole lot curious. Next to the hole sat a rather large something, it was covered with an old bedsheet, so its identity was anyone’s guess. Sherrill reached over and took the fabric by the corner and gave a quick jerk. There before us sat a rather large, very rusty old birdcage, the likes of which you may see in little old lady’s houses. But the birdcage weren’t what was remarkable, oh no, it was what was being held captive inside said birdcage what sent chills up my spine.

Inside that cage, crammed in so tight it couldn’t move, save its forearms was the biggest dog-gone coon I have ever in my life had the opportunity to lay an eyeball on, and boy howdy he was some kind of irritated.

          Sherrill thought the whole thing was just funny as hell, in his gnarled hand he held a small stick, and with that stick, was poking said coon to the point of fits. Hee-hee he would laugh through his nose while teasing the poor animal. Jus look at em heeheehee he would say, “ain’t e de ugweast fang you seen,” (no translation). All the while poking and prodding this monster of a coon.

“Don’t do that crap Sherrill” I pleaded, you’re gonna get us all hurt. “Is ok” he snorted as he looked up, “e ain’t goin no wherz.” Poke, poke, poke, after only a couple minutes the coon somehow managed to grab the stick from the ol’ boy’s gnarled hand, causing it to fall into the open hole, well this frustrated Sherrill to no end so he started poking at the poor creature with his finger. “U sumbich” he would say, still laughing as loud as he could. Dude I’m outta here I said, you’re gonna get somebody hurt. “No,” he yelled, “don open dat door.”

While he was turned and yelling at me, the coon saw his opportunity for payback. It was at this time the creature was able to sink its teeth full into Sherrill’s finger. A loud ear-splitting scream came from the old outhouse, Sherrill, racked with pain, jerked his hand back, only problem was… the coon was still attached.

          The bars of the rusty old cage gave way, the bottom fell to the floor and there we were… three grown men, in an old outhouse with one extremely agitated raccoon.

I knew in an instant this was not gonna end well for any of us. Pure and absolute bedlam ensued, in a panic we all three were trying to find the piece of wood that locked the door. The coon jumped from shoulder to shoulder, gnawing on each of us as he made his way around the small wooden interior. He ran around the walls like a circus side show dare devil, never touching the floor, but taking time to sink his teeth into whatever flesh was closest at that second. And Lord all mighty the sound that thing made, or maybe the screams were coming from Sherrill, I’m not all together certain which.

After what seemed an eternity (Einstein’s law of relativity) one of us, I’m not sure which, found the lock. The three of us fell through the door with a thud, three meaning me, my brother, and Sherrill. The coon shot up the mountain side like his tail was on fire, never to be seen again.  

Time has since erased that ol’ house. Stella went on to meet the Lord quite a while back. Sherrill passed away in a local nursing home a few years ago and I’m quite sure his brothers have all passed as well.

I began by talking of those who enter our lives and just as quickly fade away. Whether they know it or not, they become part of our memories, our stories, things that make us uniquely an individual. For the most part…I believe they leave us better than who we were before the meeting. A footprint if you will, and worthy of the telling.

Cancer is trying its best to remove these marks, but I’m blessed. I hope most are so deeply imprinted into my memories that they may survive the assault. In the meanwhile, I cherish them both good and bad, they make me who I am, uniquely hillbilly

Published by The Tin Cup Clan

Mike had never considered himself an author until in his fifties an advanced cancer diagnosis for him to worry about the legacy he would leave for his children and grandchildren. Once the treatments began he needless to say, found himself with plenty of time to put pen to paper. The result was a culmination of stories soon to be named The Tin Cup Clan. A simpler time but not necessarily the greatest of times. The story of a group of young boys trying to survive the harsh reality of coal country, poverty, and just simply growing up. Along the way friendships are formed, old town mysteries are solved, and lessons are learned that will last a life time.

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