Glenwood, Arkansas, probably sounds rural to you. It is. The hillbilly half of Arkansas is kind of Southern -- sweet tea comes with supper (maybe fried chicken, squash, and okra), and mistrust, a three-syllable word, is how folks feel about outsiders. It's also kind of Appalachian hillbilly. A geographer who grew up in Arkansas says that the state is culturally split, a diagonal divide running from northeast to southwest. He says the two parts are (1) hick -- the hill-less half in the southeast that once grew tons of Southern plantation cotton, and (2) hillbilly -- the other half. The two halves, he says, are also hygienically distinct. People are either 'pickers' or 'blowers' (referring to the preferred method of sinus management), and the two vary along the same line that divides the state's hills from its flatland. I spent the summer of 1988 in the blower/hillbilly half.
I split my days between attending classes at a small university in Arkadelphia and playing tag -- along with my 85-year-old stepgrandfather, Amos. Although he was slowing down a bit, Amos could still work circles around most people and talk in even bigger circles, usually about how he could work. Amos and I did lots of stuff that summer. We grew seven gardens, as he saw it. (I saw it as one garden with some grass strips running through it.) We picked fruit. We cut down a tree. We made a rock garden (that made eight). And we spent hours puttering around on the mountain roads of Montgomery County, me staring through the bug-smeared windshield of his hell-and-back Ford pickup as he drove.
I guess ritual is a sort of psychological cement, perhaps a type of meditation. The Bodhisattva may live today in rural Arkansas. Though I never quite nailed down exactly when it would happen, I learned soon after moving in that twice a week -- every week -- Amos and I were going armadillo hunting. They tore up the garden, the flowerbeds, and the lawn, he said. They had to be dealt with.
Sometime after dark -- after supper but before ice cream -- he would put down his newspaper and magnifying reading light. Turning in his recliner to look across the house at no one and nothing in particular, he would say, 'Well, mum, I reckon me and my partner'll go get the armadillos.'
My grandmother, who I think was humoring us, always answered, 'Alrighty. Y'all kill a bunch.'
'Oh, don't you worry about that. We will. We will. Won't we, partner?'
How could I not say yes?
Twenty minutes later, there we were in my grandmother's new Buick: a .410 shotgun in my lap, spotlight in my hand, and the old man at the wheel. This was the best way to do it, Amos told me. This way you could kinda chase 'em down before they got away, sneak up on 'em. I knew that we were using a car to cover the two-acre hillside so that Amos wouldn't have to walk and risk falling down in the dark, but I agreed with him. Yep, we'd sneak up on 'em, run 'em down, and kill 'em all.
Though Amos drove adeptly at 15 to 20 miles an hour during daylight hours with only the occasional crash, the dark was more of a challenge. Creeping along with his foot firmly on the brake, we scanned the grassy hillside with the headlights and the spotlight, seeking our prey. Though I could have easily scanned the entire yard with one sweep of the light from the back porch, onward we crept.
Finally, down by the fence next to the woods, I spotted one of the 'little armored ones' rooting around in the grass. I aimed the light and perked up. 'There's one!'
By the time I got him oriented and he got the car pointed in the right direction, taking off at a speed that wouldn't even let the speedometer needle bounce, the armadillo was long gone, bounding off through the barbed wire fence and into the dark of the pine trees beyond.
'Whoops,' I said, as if surprised, 'got away.'
'Sneaky bastards,' he replied. Then we continued apace -- just below the walking speed of most humans -- to the spot, just to make sure. Five minutes later, assured that our prey had eluded us despite such stealth, Amos reaffirmed, 'Yep, them're sneaky bastards.'
Now, though armadillos have only been in Arkansas for a few decades, they have been around long enough for people of all ages to figure out that they are not 'sneaky bastards.' In fact, if anything, armadillos are 'stupid bastards.' Any kid in the rural South can tell you that armadillos are both fun to chase and easy to catch. They are nearly blind and just as deaf. To catch one, you simply run it down and grab it by the tail, avoiding contact with its claws, which supposedly can give you leprosy. We did it all the time as kids. Occasionally some teenagers would catch one and then turn it loose in the high school as a morning treat for the administration. Nevertheless, for Amos and me they were formidable.
On we crept across the hillside. Two nights a week, we hunted for about an hour, shotgun at the ready. We never killed one armadillo that whole summer. But we tried like hell. At least Amos did. I guess I just helped him try.
I'm sure he knew that, nearly blind and driving slower than I walk, he could never have run down an armadillo in the car, even if he could have seen it. That never came up, though. We both played our parts as real and present threats to the little creatures carousing in the dark.
Sitting there in the car one night and watching another armadillo hobble away, I realized that killing armadillos was not important to anything. They rooted a few holes in the grass and flowerbeds, but they did no real damage. But if he wasn't hunting them from the car, the old man would have been sitting in his recliner, staring at the television, and dying perhaps a little more quickly. So we tried our hardest, spotting them, chasing them, and missing them every time. Then we parked the car back under the carport and, feeling somewhat more alive, told my grandmother hunting stories over bedtime ice cream.
Joby Bass grew up in a small town in north Louisiana. After many miles and several careers, he returned to the South and now works as a geography professor at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg. Reprinted from On the Page (Summer/Fall 2005). Subscriptions: $10/yr. (2 issues) from 245 Central Ave., San Francisco, CA 94117; www.onthepage.org.