Armadillo Hunting with an Old Man
by Joby Bass
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 what folks do to 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 that summer between attending classes at a small university in Arkadelphia and playing tag-along with my 85-year-old step-grandfather, Amos. Although slowing down a bit, at 85 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, mostly work-like stuff. 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 many 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.
And we went places, too. Mostly we went to one of two towns. Glenwood, the county seat, is where we shopped. Usually this was for coffee, the newspaper, or hardware. Caddo Gap, where Amos was born, is where we socialized. We went to "the store" in Caddo Gap and hung out. The only functioning business in the dying settlement, the store was a general one, still carrying a little of everything, though most of the everything was older than I was.
A long wood and glass counter ran the 80 feet along one side of the room. Our footsteps would echo hollowly on the oily wood floor as we walked towards our respective places against the counter. From there we lay in ambush for whoever might stumble unaware into Amos's need to relate. Usually he would swap shared memories with some other old man, each taking turns relating different parts of the same story. I listened and smiled.
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 always answered, humoringly I think, "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: in a car. This way you could kinda chase 'em down before they got away, sneak up on 'em. I knew that using a car to cover the two-acre hillside was 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.
At 85, though he could still work circles around most folks and talk about it, what Amos could not do was see. Though he drove adeptly at 15-20 miles per 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, bouncing 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 to the spot—just below the walking speed of most humans—just to make sure. Five minutes later, assured that indeed our prey had alluded 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. But for Amos and me they were formidable.
On we crept across the hillside. For about an hour we hunted, shotgun at the ready, two nights a week. 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. But that never came up. We both played our parts, as real and present threats to the little creatures carousing about in the dark.
Sitting there in the car one night and watching another armadillo hobble away, I realized that, rather than being a hindrance to armadillo slaughter, the car was simply what enabled the old man to do this. I realized too 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, chasing, 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 and is a professor of geography at the University of Southern Mississippi.
Ed. note: this essay first appeared in our autumn 2002 issue.