An American Coon Tale

By Joshua R. Quong  

Of all the game animals in the United States, the raccoon is the most American of them all. According to myriad internet sources, vetted and unvetted, raccoons (or coons as they are more commonly called) are native to North America. Coons have been here in fair abundance even before the Country was the Country. Though not the main source of food for early Native American tribes, coons were a catch-as-catch-can meal and also used for their fur. Early European explorers to the New World hunted coons with scenting hounds for sport as well as meat. The first president of the United States and father of our country, George Washington, kept some of the first dedicated coon hounds. Much later in our country’s history, coons were there to help struggling families during the Great Depression by providing meals, pelts, and a few dollars in the selling of both. 

In the early 1900s, my paternal grandparents immigrated to the Mississippi Delta from China. Assimilation into their new country was paramount and nowhere was this more evident than in the naming of their children. Along with traditional Chinese names, they also made sure to give them good strong American names like Alfred, and Betty Lou, and Ray Joe … my father. 

Of all my grandparents’ children it seems Daddy was able to immerse himself fully into the outdoors more so than the others. Most of his adventures and misadventures were done at night when all the labor of the day was at an end—frog gigging, trot lining, and of course … coon hunting. Thus, it made perfect sense for my father, a first-generation Chinese American, to introduce his boy to the American outdoor tradition with a coon hunt. 

Before I can remember ever seeing a coon that wasn’t in a book or cartoon, I saw coon tracks. They stretched along the short banks of a water furrow which drained the fields around our house that my father’s childhood friend, Roy Ross, farmed. My sister and I were scooping up minnows and small crawfish to use as fish bait when Daddy pointed to tiny handprints pressed in the mud and said, “Those are coon track, kids. They like to wash their hands before they eat, just like us.” 

I was five years old, and it was a Friday morning when the idea for my first ever hunt was broached on the morning ride to catch the bus. Before I exited the truck to hop on the bus, my father said to me, “We’re going coon hunting tonight, boy.” Oh, how that red and blue plastic mat was particularly uncomfortable that day as I lay looking at the ceiling tiles in my kindergarten classroom during naptime. Who could rest one’s mind, body, and spirit in the hours prior to what was sure to be the greatest coon hunt in American history? 

When I got off the bus at the end of the school day I could hardly keep it together. I thought we’d get home, pull on our boots, and head straight out to wherever in the wide world coons lived and lurked. Not so. There was still daylight left and a handful of chores to do before supper. The wait for night was excruciating, but when the time came, I was ready. 

To be fair, we had no coon hound. We had no hound at all actually. Just a hodge-podge of yard dogs that barked at folks who drove down our road. What we did have was a second-hand spotlight to which my father had affixed a metal “L” bracket that served as a rest for his Marlin lever-action .22 rifle. He alligator clamped the wires of the spotlight to the battery of his ’81 GMC Sierra, and we tipped down the turn rows in the cool darkness with nary a light except the oblong beam Daddy would sporadically flash in the crooked limbs of the pecan trees that grew in the bottoms of the turned-over bean fields. 

“There he is, boy,” my father said and then he turned off the truck. “Let’s go.” 

He had me ease out of the truck after him on the driver’s side to make sure there was no slamming door to foil the operation. I stood there in the pitch of night at the edge of the field while Daddy strapped the red rectangular battery of the wheat light around his waist and donned a blue miner’s helmet to which the lamp was affixed. He plucked the rifle from the gun rack in the rear windshield of the truck and emptied a small box of Remington Thunderbolts in the zipper pocket of his work worn coveralls. 

We struck out trudging through the gumbo with no lights save the smattering of stars above us. At some point the ground grabbed one of my black rubber boots, and I stepped out of it, planting my sock foot in the mud. After digging the boot out and pulling it back over my muddied toes, Daddy hoisted me up onto his shoulders and packed me in the rest of the way. 

Suddenly we stopped, and Daddy clicked on the wheat light. 

He scanned the branches of the ancient pecan, painting every bend and bough. Then in the main fork where the massive trunk split, he paused the beam. Two yellow glinting orbs peered down at us. Daddy quickly turned off the light 

“Ok son … he’s up there in the fork of that tree. I’m going to put you down now and get you set up to shoot.” 

I had shot this rifle a few times at cans and cardboard boxes, but in the blindness of night the lever and hammer were foreign. My father took care in placing my hands on the rifle and reminding me that once I’d lined up the bead of the open sights, to squeeze the trigger, not pull it. He faced the tree and got down on a knee. All I had to do was stand behind him and take aim at the coon while he rested the weight of the barrel on his shoulder with the muzzle of the rifle a safe distance forward of his face. Once we were positioned Daddy threw on the light again. 

The amber eyes were still there, and I could faintly make out the white bands of fur that outlined the black mask. Daddy reached back and cocked the hammer of the Marlin. 

“You ready, son?” 

“Yes, sir.” 

“You see him?” 

“Yes, sir.” 

“Aim between his eyes.” 

“Yes, sir.” 

“Whenever you’re ready.” 

It was then that the blinding shaft of light was too much for the bandit, and the coon began to climb out of the fork and up the tree. All that could be heard after the crack of the rifle was scratching claws, a thump of ground, and the rustle and splash through leaves and puddles which grew fainter and fainter. 

“Stay here,” my father instructed as he took the rifle and ran toward the pecan tree. The beam of the wheat light cut frantically through the darkness and then set to work on a trail that led away from the tree–and away from me. I could feel my feet getting cold, especially the one foot that I had gotten wet, and I began to wriggle my toes inside my boots. I wanted to holler but couldn’t. My father and the light were beyond sound in a stand of trees at the edge of the field next to a swamp. The light had abandoned its ground hunt and was now diffused among the skinny limbs of willows and small cypress trees. The search was over when the light of the lamp and the squelch of Daddy’s boots drew near. 

“I think you missed him, son,” he said. “Couldn’t find any blood and can’t see where he dipped off into the slough … let’s get you home and cleaned up.” 

The next morning, after a night of boyhood heartache and tears, my father came into the house and told me to “cut the cartoons off” and come outside. I was still in my “A-Team” pajamas when I saw Mr. Roy’s powder blue F-150 in the yard. He and Daddy were propped against the tailgate talking. 

“You lose something, boy?” Mr. Roy asked. 

I stepped up onto the bumper of the Ford and pulled myself up to peer over the tailgate. There in the bed of the pick-up, laying in the blade of a rice shovel, was my coon; waterlogged and stiff. Roy had fished it from a drainage ditch that ran alongside his bean field. “I thought it was a piece of old carpet someone chucked out of their truck,” Mr. Roy said. Daddy then gave me a pop on the head as a reminder to thank Mr. Roy for his efforts. 

“Ray Joe, you need to get this boy down to the dump to practice on some rats,” Mr. Roy said and both men smiled before Roy drove away. 

Never one to waste anything, neither materials nor time, my father set to the task of dressing the coon. I remember looking up at him from my Chinese squat next to the gut bucket as he sliced the soggy hide. He showed me how to cut out the glands he called “kernels,” and told me that you should always leave a paw on a dressed coon you’re going to sell to prove that it’s not a cat or small dog. Then there was the baculum … with the carving deftness of a surgeon, my father produced what appeared to be a half-dissolved candy cane from the fleshy innards. 

“This was a boar coon, son. Here’s his pecker,” Daddy said. “Folks pick their teeth with this thing.” He then told me to go inside and get some work clothes on and that he’d finish dealing with the mess. 

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In the years since that first hunt, I’ve often wondered if anything in my grandparents’ journey from the Far East to the Deep South could have ever prepared them for the hunting and fishing adventures their son would partake in and then later pass down. For along with the cornucopia of coon hunting stories, there are also adjacent capers concerning random raccoon encounters; and characters like one of my father’s best friends who wore a bronze plated coon pecker on a gold chain to the casinos. Whether or not my grandparents could have foreseen that a small masked American mammal would be a conduit into the American Dream and their place and legacy within it is neither here nor there. What is clear is that the coon has provided more than just meat and fur, but also a canon of stories that has woven, like Chinese silk, our thread into the patchwork of American culture. 




From the FE Films Archive


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