Pig Trails and Rabbit Holes refers to the way my mind works…a curse or a blessing? Alice’s rabbit hole worked out well, right? Think of all the friends she met. A white rabbit, the Mad Hatter, a hookah-smoking caterpillar, a Cheshire cat, and the one I most emulate the March hare…as in, as crazy as a March hare…or a Mad Hatter…which is it?
I write in a world that is slightly out of focus or as a Southerner might say, cattywampus, waiting for something to occur that will send me on an unplanned metaphorical trek, twisting and turning like a wild pig trail or mountain switchback, until I find my rabbit hole. My motivation may be a spoken or written word, a song, a taste, or a smell…food maybe. I seem preoccupied with food.
Once the pig trail leads me to my rabbit hole I will pursue my rabbit to whatever lengths necessary to satisfy myself. It is maddening to live in my head sometimes. See, I’m already wondering why you have a rabbit and a hare in the same story about Alice’s great adventure. They are the same, right? No, they are not. I did not know that. Shame on you biology teacher!
Several years ago, I decided to attempt to bring my maddening thoughts under control by writing and created the blog Ravings of a Mad Southerner. It was a failure …but I’ve enjoyed the trip along the pig trails even though my thoughts are under no better control than they were seven years ago when I embarked on the storm-tossed sea of blogging.
Symbolically, the title of my blog, Ravings of a Mad Southerner has nothing to do with anger but is related to the madness experienced by Alice’s Mad Hatter or March hare…and the madness experienced by the author of the blog.
In all fairness, my madness has nothing with the production of felt hats or crazy hares at the beginning of their mating season. I get my madness honestly, I was born this way it seems.
Most of the rabbits I pursue resemble Elmer Fudd’s “wascally wabbit”, Bugs, or Gary K. Wolfe’s bumbling, Roger Rabbit. I admit sometimes I encounter monster rabbits resembling the fanged demon Kevin McCarthy pulled out of his hat in Twilight Zone: The Movie, but it is rare.
While I search for my rabbit holes, I tend to get lost. Mostly I like it that way. To quote Yogi Berra, “If you don’t know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else.”
“Like the blind man said as he wandered into a cannibal village . . .“Alright! The country fair must be right up ahead. I smell barbecue!”― John Rachel
This morning I fell into a rabbit hole that involved football and BBQ. If you have ever been to a football tailgate, you know how they are related. Southern football tailgates for sure.
Here, in my part of the world, worshipers of the religion that is football filed back into various high school cathedrals erected to their pigskin gods this past week, and college football worshipers will begin their own pigskin revival this weekend. Many worshipers will bring with them their religious trappings in the form of grills and smokers, filled ice chests, and lawn chairs.
It is time to sacrifice the fatted hog to whichever football deity you worship. Hardwood charcoal smoke and the aroma of Boston butts slow cooking will waft through the stadium parking lots and are the sacred incense of the religion of football.
I have worshipped football for most of my life and spent twenty-nine years coaching it. As a young, first-year football coach I was a clean slate. I knew not what I was getting into when I accepted the offer to coach junior high football at Gallman Junior High School and scout for the Newberry High School Bulldog varsity squad in the fall of 1974.
I was the junior high offensive and defensive line coach, positions I had played in high school…positions I found I was sorely lacking the knowledge necessary to coach. As my first varsity head coach, a big, hairy, square bodied man with the moniker, Bear, pointed out to me, “The first thing you need to understand is that you don’t know sh!t from Shinolaand learn which one you need to shine your shoes with and which one you better not step in.” An old phrase that meant I was ignorant. Yes, I was ignorant, and some might claim, “You remained that way and to this very day, step in the wrong one…every day.”
Not only was I “on the field” ignorant, but I also had no idea what off-field responsibilities coaching entailed. Cutting fields, lining fields, taping ankles, doing laundry…all fell on the heads of the younger coaches. I was twenty-three and a first-year coach, my duties weighed heavily upon my shoulders. Did I mention I was a fulltime teacher too?
Friday game nights I never saw us play live and in living color until the last game of the season. I was responsible for scouting. It was my duty to drive to the next week’s opponent’s game for reconnoitering duties and film exchange. Sundays, I assisted with film breakdown because I was the only coach who had seen our next opponent live. All the while facing five classes of seventh graders daily, five days a week, and no real clue how to teach history, either. I didn’t know sh!t from Shinola and I was learning which was which while on the job.
What does this have to do with BBQ hash? Nothing but I’m getting there.
Another duty I didn’t realize I had was the twice-annual fundraisers we ran to support our programs. Athletic programs run off gate receipts and only a few sports make money. Consequently, athletic programs run their “Sell Your Soul to the Devil for Athletic Equipment” fundraisers or allow the Booster Club to bend you over a desk. “Was it good for you? Here is the chin strap you needed. See you next week and maybe I’ll give you a second one.”
In my part of the world at the time, the midlands of South Carolina, the easiest way to raise a lot of money was selling tickets for BBQ plates with all the fixings…said fixins. A local farmer gave us a deal on hogs, a local grocery a deal on chicken and the fixins, a local game meat processor did his part and viola, fund raiser.
The kids were handed a number of tickets to sell entitling the buyer to a plate of BBQ…with all the fixins. It also gave us an idea of how much to prepare. That’s right, coaches, their wives, their teams, and any fool stupid enough to volunteer were responsible for preparing and serving the food.
Family and friends who allowed their arms to be twisted into purchasing a ticket would show up on the blessed day and pick up their Styrofoam containers and consume them where ever. This was held in conjunction with meet the Bulldogs and picture day. Everyone wins, athletics get their needed equipment and supporters get a meal. A right good meal I might add.
Unfortunately, it also requires a sleepless night of slow cooking porkers and cluckers for the coaches and then filling plates with pulled pork, or roasted chicken, slaw, pickles, fried hushpuppies, baked beans and my duty, BBQ hash smothering white rice…all without the benefit of any sleep for over thirty-six hours and a hangover from drinking too many brown likker drinks brought by one of the other assistants to help while away the hours. I truly didn’t know the difference between “sh!t and Shinola.” Ah, the stupidity of youth.
BBQ hash is a dish served over white rice, an accompaniment to BBQ served mainly in the Dutch Fork of South Carolina. Unrecognizable pig parts are cooked until they attain the consistency of mush. Unrecognizable pig parts means “don’t ask, don’t tell”. Head meat including snouts, tongue, liver, and other organ meat were primary and I guess I just told.
Sautéed onions and potatoes are added and are further cooked to death. Near the end, mustard BBQ sauce, vinegar, pepper, and hot sauce are added and simmered just long enough to give the flavors a chance to blend. That could be ten minutes or forever plus one day. Finally, you’ll stir in butter. The dish is much better than it sounds and not a dish you need to eat if counting calories or if you have an arterial blockage.
My duty? Stir the hash in a huge black, cast-iron kettle over an open fire with a wooden boat oar. Stir, stir, stir, sweat, sweat, sweat, drink, drink, drink. Repeat until the correct consistency is achieved, or you are too inebriated, tired, or dehydrated to stand. Couldn’t be dehydrated. Don’t worry, the hash will all come together on its own.
At some point during the early, still dark hours of the morning, I watched as a white object was stirred to the top of the hash. No I wasn’t drunk or dreaming. In the flickering light of the wood fire under the kettle, I watched an eyeball roll over and fix me with its gaze. This was not an unrecognizable pork part but I decided not to tell. As it sank, it seemed to wink at me as it disappeared into the ooze.
Suddenly wide eyed, fully awake, and fighting the urge to scream, I dipped the oar where the eyeball had disappeared but never found it. Later as I ladled hash on top of white rice, I worried which lucky diner would receive the prize he or she didn’t want. I also admit it was years before I ate BBQ hash again and to this day, when I do eat it, I’m careful to search each forkful before opening my mouth. Hash ought not to be lookin’ at you while you are eating it.
My thoughts were triggered by a fuzzy and out of focus black and white photograph a high school chum sent me. Our parents had been friends since the Nineteen Thirties until their deaths. My high school friend was the first girl I ever kissed. We were two or three years old sitting on top of a sliding board but that is a different story…not a very interesting one. While we remained friends the kiss didn’t quite take.
In the photo my mother and father are sitting in a prewar sedan complete with suicide doors. So young. Dad in a snap brim fedora with the brim turned up, an unlit Lucky Strike hidden from the camera. My mother’s gaze is drawn away from my father…maybe father to be. They are both looking out in the distance…maybe at their futures.
I draw a purely fictional mental picture of the next frame. My mother turning and resting her chin on his shoulder, eyes twinkling with a “Mona Lisa” smile just showing on her lips. His Humphrey Bogart to her Lauren Bacall complete with coffin nail hanging from his lip? I imagine the photo was made in the early Forties before my Dad shipped out to the Pacific. This was during their “courting” days.
It is hard to think of my parents young, fancy free, and all lovey-dovey. My father trying to be suave and debonair, attempting to sweep the red-haired fair maiden, my mother, off her feet. It must have worked. I don’t believe I made my appearance due to immaculate conception but still…my brain might explode. The thoughts of parental romance made my shoulders all shivery as goosebumps race across them.
In a family not known for displays of conspicuous affection, I don’t remember many overt displays but somehow, I knew my parents loved each other. Sometimes it is how you treat people and not just overt displays. Sometimes it is about the stories you create in your mind, stories that might be more fact than fiction.
As a child, I remember an old RCA Victor tabletop radio/turntable and the old 78 RPM records it played. There were stacks and stacks. Bing Crosby, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, and “Big Bands” seemed to be favorites. I’m sure there was a fortune in those old platters now resting in a landfill someplace.
I suspect my Mother was the motivation for the music. The old RCA Victor was traded in for a cabinet model in the Sixties and a Columbia Record Club subscription followed. She seemed to be partial to Billy Vaughn and his mellow saxophones.
I’ve created a mental image of her carefully seating a record or tuning into “Your Hit Parade” on a Saturday night. I don’t remember my Dad sitting and listening, he was more “sit and work” the crossword puzzle guy. I didn’t think my Father was much of a “Music Man” but he would fool me…something I would not find out until after my Mother’s death.
There was another musical form that caught my ear on those early 78s. Early country music…called hillbilly, Western, or Western Swing music before the late Forties when it became known as Country-Western. A heartbroken Ernest Tubbs was walking the floor over his one true love, and Hank Williams seemed to be very lonesome…so lonesome he could cry. Eddy Arnold, the Tennessee Plowboy, sang “That’s How Much I Love You” in a scratchy baritone, scratchy because of the record, not his baritone. Vaughn Monroe and the Sons of the Pioneers were desperate for “Cool Water.”
With enough imagination, I can almost see my parents waltzing to Bill Monroe’s nasal tenor singing “Blue Moon of Kentucky” while the Blue Grass Boys added their instruments. Almost. It is easier to envision my parents holding hands in front of the old RCA, listening to the Grand Ole Opry on a Saturday night date. Holding hands? Stealing a kiss?
I stood in my garden this morning thinking of my “unromantic” parents. If I had neighbors to watch me, I’m sure they would have been curious as to why I was standing so still in front of my sunflowers. My mind had taken a pig trail and followed it down a rabbit hole in between picking tomatoes and moving toward my okra.
My pig trail took me from sunflowers turning their heads toward the sunshine to “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. You make me happy when skies are gray.” It was a song my father sang to my mother, I’m sure. Not fiction, but fact. I have it in writing. I’m sure he didn’t sing it well, but am sure he sang it with feeling. Of that, I’m sure too, although I have no recording.
I knew it was “their” song. I read a letter sent from my father to my mother from somewhere in the Pacific during World War Two. I found a packet of those letters in a King Edward’s cigar box after her death. They were hidden away in a cedar hope chest, still in their unique airmail envelopes with the red, white, and blue edging and bound with a light blue ribbon. Occasionally there would be lines or words blacked out by censors. There were other lines I wish had been censored. There was nothing X rated but my Father…the romantic? No.
My father quoted the song and lamented his separation and his desire to return to “his sunshine”, an ocean and a continent away. He promised to sing it to her upon his return. Maybe he did or it might be fiction, created in my head. I like to think he did.
There was a well-used 78 record by the same title in that stack of records from the Thirties and Forties. I don’t remember the artist but suppose it could have been Gene Autry or maybe the original sung by The Pine Ridge Boys. It doesn’t matter. I just know I think of my parents whenever I hear the song by any artist and follow a pig trail when I see a sunflower.