A couple of weeks ago, I attended a family event at a conservation club, the grounds of which had a large building, a shooting range, and a pond for dog races. Having attended several United Kennel Club (UKC) Coonhound events growing up, I recognized the use for the pond right away—at one end of the pond was a tree and at the other, a coop rigged to release multiple dogs at the same time. I watched so many dog races at ponds similar to these, looking at it evoked memories of weekends spent at the coon club watching water races or running around with other kids burying a treasure we had gathered inside an old coffee can. (If you’re curious what a coonhound water race looks like, check out this video.)
My husband and I were both born and raised in the United States but experienced very different childhoods. He also had noticed the pond—oblong, man-made, and obviously serving some purpose—but hadn’t quite figured out its use. As my dad and husband stood around outside, Hubby finally asked him if he knew what the pond was for.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen my father so giddy to tell stories. I’m not sure what made him more excited—having a new audience for old stories or the simple act of reminiscing in a lost age.
I’ve tried to tell Hubby about the coon hunting before, but I’ve never been able to get across exactly what it was like growing up in a redneck, coon-hunting family. I remember nights when my dad and brother would load up the hounds in the pickup truck and the deep reverberating barks of hunting dogs would drown out the noisy engine. As the truck pulled out of the driveway and rumbled down the road, the excitement followed them, leaving the house blanketed in a thick silence. I remember the dark living room lit with the flickering light of the TV, and now I wonder why I never agreed to go with them—not a single time.
How could hunting through the mall to find a pair of jeans that might pass for the hip, expensive ones I was never allowed to buy—how could that be more fun than grabbing some flashlights and running around the woods at night chasing barking dogs? Back then the coon-hunting and the weekends spent camping at the coon clubs were a potential liability when it came to my image at school.
We were so redneck that my dad wore bib overalls every day except for a couple hours for church on Sunday. (He even wore bibs when taking us kids to the beach for a swim.)
I remember once, when I was about ten years old, I asked him, “Dad, why do you where bibs everyday?” I think my hope had been that he’d realize he was, in fact, the only dad I knew who wore bibs every. single. day. But he simply laughed and said, “Because I like them,” and continued on with whatever he had been doing.
One thing I didn’t quite understand about my dad back then is that he has never tried to create an image of himself meant to impress others. I didn’t appreciate that about him then, but now it’s one of the many things I most admire about him–his conviction that an image built of anything other than one’s character is meaningless. The shallow illusions we try to create of ourselves will develop so many holes that people will be able to see through them eventually anyway. And I’ve never seen anyone so comfortable in his own skin as he is.
Back then, every time I expressed no interest in going coon hunting with my dad, I always thought I’d have easy access to those redneck things—that it would all be easy to claim if I changed my mind and wanted to embrace them later.
But times change.
My dad doesn’t go coon hunting anymore. Long ago there stopped being places available for him to hunt, and all the people he used to coon hunt with are dead or so sickly they can’t get around anymore on flat ground during the day, let alone in the woods at night. My dad doesn’t wear bib-overalls everyday anymore. Or go to the coon club anymore, either.
Now that I have the means to go to the mall and buy whatever brand of jeans I want, I don’t really care to. During my summer vacation, I went shopping with my sister and, having grown accustomed to buying my clothes at the clearance rack at JCPenny, I looked at the price tag on the clothes at the stores she took me to. I pulled her aside and asked, “Am I, like, way-cheap when it comes to clothes, or are these prices a little bit high?”
It turns out I’m pretty cheap.
Somehow, even though as a teen I saw my dad’s hillbilly tendencies as a liability to my image, he still managed to rub off on me. He gave me a staunch sense of pragmatism. I’m much too practical to want designer clothes or a Gucci bag. (Seriously, it’s just a bag. I’ll take the cheap China knock-off, and only when my current purse is falling apart.)
Now as an adult, I watch my dad get excited to talk about old stories that I never heard before, probably because I have never taken the time to ask—stories of UKC night hunts and water races and crazy hillbillies jumping in the dog pond to save their favorite hound that (unbeknownst to them) didn’t know how to swim.
Dad offered to find someone with coon dogs and a place to hunt and extended an invitation to go coon hunting next time we come home. The suggestion was meant for Hubby, but I found myself raising my hand to interrupt their conversation, practically jumping up and down saying, “I’ll go. Take me. Can I come, too?”
Though I don’t want to leave China and move back to redneck country permanently, I do want the memories back—the ones that are fading into hazy images. I remember a hillbilly in the center of the cement floor of the coon club. He’s dressed in faded bib overalls and his gray hair sticks out from his head in wispy strands. He’s telling a story and everyone is watching him. I remember his animation—the way his whole body sought to tell his story, and I remember the intonation of his voice—the hoots and laughter and sound effects. But I don’t remember his words. I want to know the story behind the man, but I don’t even remember his name.
When we are in Beijing, every so often I do something that makes Hubby laugh and he tells me that my redneck roots are coming out. Even the eggs I make in the morning are “redneck eggs”. (Little does he know that real redneck eggs are fried in bacon grease, lots of it—so much that you use your spatula to splash the grease on top of the eggs rather than flip them over. I don’t cook them that way, though.)
Yes, Hubby likes to make fun of my redneck roots, but I love them. And so does he. Oddly enough, even though he teases me, Hubby embraces the redneck-ness of our summertime even more than I do.
We love it there.
These days, I treasure our travels back home even more than the trips to white-sand beaches and Asian temples.
The place isn’t nearly as redneck as it used to be, but the little hints of that lost world make me smile—and sometimes laugh a little. Life at my childhood home seems so normal and yet, having lived in Beijing and Seoul and having spent significant lengths of time visiting other States, I know that my youth was spent in a little pocket of unique culture within the United States, the characteristics of which might seem foreign to others, even in the next county.
And so here they are—a few of this summer’s little reminders that I had returned home.
You know you’ve returned to redneck country when:
1. Your six-year-old son can now accurately identify pike, bass, perch, catfish, and bluegill. He somehow gets the idea in his head that giving the worm a massage before putting it on the hook is his secret to catching them.
2. Almost daily you hear at least one of your neighbors target practicing. It becomes so normal that you cease to hear gunshots anymore, but you know that it would make your city friends or Californian friends uneasy if they were ever to visit you here.
3. You want to carry pepper spray when you run, but you know you’re much more likely to come across scary four-legged creatures than any two-legged ones.
4. Hubby puts up a tire swing, and when one of the smaller branches gets in the way of the swing, he gets out his pellet gun to shoot it down. This seems strangely normal, though you know most people might say it’s not. (It takes twenty shots to get the branch down.)
5. You can’t keep shoes on your kids. You see this as a huge accomplishment because your city-boy son had been afraid of the grass and didn’t like the feel of it on his feet the first time he experienced it.
6. Most vehicles you see on the road are four-wheel drive pickup trucks. The men you love make fun of the poor city folk who come out to the country and get stuck in the mud with their minivans.
7. Cleaning your house and getting rid of junk means putting it out at the end of the driveway with a “Free” or “For Sale” sign on it. Conversely, every drive through the country is a potential shopping trip.
8. A night out is s’mores around the campfire in your yard. This is much more appealing than making the drive into town for a movie or restaurant.
9. People with property for sale will tell you how many deer they’ve killed on it before they tell you how many acres it is.
10. The signage on the storefront of the corner-store dwarves the store name and instead uses the space to advertise the items inside: beer, bait, bullets, and booze.
11. Your kids run around the yard in their underwear, and even your daughter would rather pee in the yard than come inside the house to go to the bathroom.
12. Your son has developed a love for bluegrass music and knows who Leroy Troy is. You know that every time he hangs out with his Papa, he’ll sing “Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy” at least once. (I like bluegrass music, too. Leroy Troy sings catchy tunes that make me giggle. I like “Five Pounds of Possum” better, but the “Skillet” song is the one my dad always shares with his grandkids.)