"Well, I'll Be John Brown"

Real stories about folks who have blessed my life with the joy and fulfillment of laughter. Long may they live.

Location: Atlanta, Georgia, United States

A Southern Boy - Born In Alabama, Reared In Georgia, and Matriculated, Married & Initiated Into Manhood In Tennessee.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

"What Do They Call A Bachelor In Alabama?"

In Alabama, the state of this writer’s birth, people have long been accused of all sorts of things. Anything from keeping a transmission in the bathtub to having a closer relationship with farm animals than The Good Book will allow. To set the record straight once and for all - most folks from Alabama CAN read and write, we DO wear shoes on weekdays, and only a few of us are married to our first cousins.

Speaking of marriage, Alabama folks treat marriage like they do their football allegiances. When you marry, it is for life. However, if one chooses to be a bachelor or old maid in Alabama, it is not a prison sentence, nor a sign that true happiness has passed them by. Rather, being single in Alabama is a deliberate life choice - like pulling for either the Tigers or the Crimson Tide. Remaining unmarried is something you do because you prefer it that way, and you don’t do it half-heartedly.

Meet Franklin Hardin – a soon-to-be-forty-something bachelor still living at home with his folks. When friends asked him why he never married, Franklin always gave the same answer: “I reckon I’d rather want something I don’t have, than have something I don’t want!” And people say that Alabama folks are dumb! Pshaw!

Like Forest Gump, another Alabamian, Franklin worked when he chose to, slept and ate when he chose to, bathed when he chose to, brushed his teeth when he chose to, and, well, visited the outhouse when he chose to. “No woman – no hurry – no worry!”, was Franklin’s life creed. There was no excessive anxiety over what to wear (or what NOT to wear) when Franklin went out in public. And, no one ever questioned his choice of what to watch on TV, or what stations should be programmed into his truck radio. Franklin led the life that most men only dream of.

Clearly, with women off Franklin’s radar (and he off theirs), there was more than enough room in his life for the pursuit of passions such as deer hunting, fishing, NASCAR, and an occasional foray into the exotic hobby of noodling.

Noodling is currently legal in eleven states, and is known by other names such as catfisting, grabbling, graveling, hogging, dogging, tickling and stumping. Noodling, however, is a predominantly southern sport (some Alabamians call it an “art”) involving the catching of massive flathead catfish (sometimes weighing in excess of 30-40 pounds) by sticking one’s arm under a felled tree or other “cover” in a muddy river, lake or pond. The noodler sticks his arm directly into the catfish’s mouth and down through one of its large gills. This way, the noodler is able to gain a sufficient grip for extracting the giant fish from its watery nest. Noodlers occasionally lose fingers, hands, or, in extreme cases, even arms, in the practice of their unique sport. They are deemed by many in the great state of Alabama to be the epitome of what it means to be a “real man.”

Franklin noodled, but only when necessity ruled. For instance, if he happened up on the slick banks of a freshly-muddied catfish pond, but without his trusty open-faced fishing tackle in tow, Franklin dove in head first and didn’t come out until he struck paydirt. Or, if he found himself fresh out of chicken livers or dough-balls while cat-fishing on the Little Warrior River, Franklin again let nature take its course.

Noodling requires the considerable expending of effort, vigorous exertion of the heart and lungs, and sometimes the loss of more than a little blood. None of these particularly appealed to Franklin – especially if there was an easier way. Regardless, if his heart and mouth were “set” on a catfish supper, even if he didn’t have the benefit of Bill Dance’s favorite Shimano technology conveniently at hand, Franklin was still “gone fishin’.” At least one slimy, flat-headed, bottom-feeding, whisker-faced goomer was GOING to come out of that muddy water – either at the end of a strand of twenty-five pound test line, or with Franklin’s right forearm sticking through its mouth.

Perhaps the greatest joy in Franklin’s life was his 20 foot Glastron Bass Boat. Complete with trolling motor, depth finder, live well, built in refrigerator, and 500 watt sound system, Franklin’s boat was a “mac-daddy.” Powered by a 200 horsepower (HP) Mercury outboard motor, Franklin’s Glastron would skeet across the water at cruising speeds well in excess of 60 mph. His Glastron would outrun almost anything with a propeller, and he was proud to demonstrate this fact without reservation or apology.

At least two points of interest should be mentioned regarding the power and speed of this boat.

First, Franklin kept tucked away in the back of his truck bed an alternate hood or cover for this monster engine. However, this second cover was not properly marked with the, “Mercury 200 HP” logo. Instead, it was a Mercury 115 HP outboard motor cover. When the fish weren’t biting but the lake weather was too good to go home, Franklin would swap engine covers so that it appeared he only had a 115 on the back of his boat. Then, he would go around challenging the other bass fisherman on the lake to a race. Thinking that their rigs could easily whip a lowly 115, they almost always accepted Franklin’s challenge. Without question, Franklin won every one of these races, and usually took home a sizeable payoff to boot. Not a bad sideline income stream for this dumb, old, Alabama redneck, bachelor.

Second, being the hospitable soul that he was, Franklin always liked to take folks for a ride on his “hoss” of a boat. He had a particular affinity for inviting folks to go along who didn’t get out on the water very much. Franklin was usually on his best behavior with older folks or young children. To keep from frightening these tender souls, he would gently push his boat along the water at speeds just fast enough for a fun ride. However, with someone from any other age group as his passenger, Franklin’s goal seemed to be nothing short of causing his unwitting rider a near myocardial infarction.

In fact, Franklin had a special routine he always went through before launching his speedy water craft with “new meat” on board. As the engine warmed, idling smoothly as the boat left the dock, Franklin would ask his first-time passenger to put on a life jacket, securely fasten their seat belt, and bow their head for a short prayer. Following this, Franklin would reach under his seat and pull out a motorcycle crash helmet. Strapping the helmet on, he would flip the darkly tinted safety visor down over his face – giving him the frightening look of an alien from outer space.

Franklin would then reach under his seat a second time. This time he would pull out a brand new roll of toilet paper and hand it to his unsuspecting guest. You, as the reader, are free to guess what he was implying the toilet paper would be for.

These gestures were intended to strike mortal fear into the heart of the passenger. But, before they could leap out of the boat and back to the safety of the dock, Franklin would gun that powerful boat to full throttle. This would flip its nose upward to a ninety-degree vertical angle almost drowning the passenger in a gigantic wave of water. Before the terrified rider could regain any level of composure, the boat would shoot forward “out-of-the-hole” at speeds that would make Dale Earnhardt Jr. jealous.

The toilet paper was often just what the doctor ordered. Too, a few of Franklin’s passengers would also need a “sick-sack” before he was through with them. But, one thing never failed – Franklin’s high-pitched squeal of laugher and delight at what he had caused could be heard far above the roar of that powerful motor as it cut through the water.

Franklin’s antics as a practical joker did not stop at the boat ramp. He was always on the lookout for any conceivable way of teasing or pulling pranks on friends, family, co-workers, and even fellow church members. Two of these stand out among all the rest.

First, in the early 1980’s a new preacher came to Franklin’s congregation. He, too, was a native Alabama boy, in his mid-twenties, with a young wife and baby daughter. During the first few weeks of his tenure at Franklin’s church, this young preacher fell prey to the joker of all jokers.

It was a Saturday. The men had been asked by the church elders to show up for a work day. The young preacher took advantage of the abundance of laborers by asking for help in moving his countless boxes of books into his new office/study. Franklin wasted no time making this new parson feel right at home.

As the stream of men carrying the boxes of books was moving along in fine order, Franklin spotted a six pack of beer in the church parking lot. This beer had most likely been abandoned by loiterers the night before. Two of the beers were missing. Choosing the right moment, he picked up the plastic ring of beers, concealed it carefully, carried it in the church building and left it in a conspicuous place on the new preacher’s desk.

Franklin then went to one of the elders present on that Saturday and solicited his participation in “initiating” this new preacher. Franklin had the elder time it so that when the new preacher walked into his office carrying another box of books, the elder would follow him in, point out the beer on his desk, and ask him if this was his idea of what a preacher should be doing.

Franklin’s prank worked perfectly. The elder played along to the hilt. The young preacher was embarrassed, duly razzed, and made to understand that he should never, ever take his eye off Franklin Hardin. That joke and its effect amused a whole congregation of God’s people for over twenty years.

The second of Franklin Hardin’s antics should rightfully go down as one of the all-time greats in practical joke history!

Jethro Wigder was Franklin’s childhood buddy. They grew up in the same area of Alabama - hunting, fishing, racing cars, and getting into trouble for the better part of their young lives together. Like Franklin, Jethro had a dump truck load of common sense, but was not about to be invited to Tuscaloosa any time soon on a full academic “ride”. They both worked at the same warehouse loading trucks for a living.

Regarding their respective recreational passions, Franklin was a fisherman to the core, whereas Jethro seemed to lean a little more toward deer hunting. On weekends during deer season, if the sun arose in the east, Jethro could be found somewhere in a deer stand watching the Lord bring it on. While Franklin normally accompanied his lifelong friend on these hunting trips, he was not quite as tolerant of bitter cold as was Jethro. There were times when Franklin opted to stay at home in a warm, cozy bed instead of braving the sub-freezing wind-chill of a highly perched deer stand.

On one occasion when Franklin chose slumber over frostbite, Jethro went ahead without him. As was his custom, he arrived in the woods at about 4:15 AM. It was a beautiful, clear, late fall morning in Alabama. As Jethro trudged through the brush to reach his tree of choice, he saw by the light of the full moon something that sent even colder chills up his neck than were already there. It was the silhouette of a rare, black bobcat. Both Franklin and Jethro had heard rumors about this bobcat roaming the woods and nearby farms, but they thought it was only a hunter’s tall tale. After all, fishermen aren’t the only ones adept at exaggerations and bald-faced lies regarding their exploits.

On that dark, frigid morning, Jethro saw the bobcat out of the corner of his eye. It growled at him then quickly darted away, rustling the heavy brush and causing Jethro’s heart to race. He suddenly felt something running down his leg. Since his lower extremities were numb from the bitter cold of that morning, he had to remove a glove to feel the crotch area of his pants. “Surely I didn’t pee on myself!”, he whispered. Jethro was known to be extremely skiddish and excitable, even though he did his best to hide it. “Nope, dry as a bone,” he thought with a deep sigh of relief, “I better git up that tree before that thang comes back.”

Jethro saw nary a deer the rest of that morning. At about 10:00 o’clock he left the stand and went straight to Franklin’s house. The story he told about that bobcat would have sold many a book! Embellishing it just as he had done many a fish story through the years, by the time Jethro finished that bobcat stood almost four feet tall at the shoulder and weighed over 300 pounds. Franklin greatly enjoyed his friend’s highly emotional and overblown account of the ordeal – mainly because it stirred his devious, prank-loving mind. If Franklin had anything to do with it, Jethro would be seeing that bobcat (or a reasonable facsimile of it) again very soon!

Franklin allowed a week or two to pass, waiting for the cold, late fall weather in Alabama to further set in, and for Jethro’s memory of the bobcat account to grow stale. As their next scheduled foray into the woods approached, Franklin told Jethro he had again decided to stay at home and in his warm bed. He strongly encouraged Jethro to go ahead without him. Franklin KNEW that his friend would go. And, he also knew that Jethro would not be alone in those woods come that Saturday morning.

Franklin’s mother, Margie Hardin, was a pack-rat, and the undisputed queen of trailer park bling. She bought every tacky thing she ever stumbled across in yard sales, flea markets, and auctions. Her house was the southern, residential equivalent of Fred Sanford’s junkyard. One of these pieces of useless clutter, however, was about to be worth its weight in gold.

Near the front door in Margie Hardin’s living room stood a life-sized, ceramic replica of a black panther. Its white paws and the white markings around its mouth strikingly accented its otherwise jet black form. The panther had a vicious scowl on its face - flashing its sizeable fangs in an ominous manner. This panther was so life-like it would have frightened even John Rambo. Franklin had knocked over this “worthless piece of crap” a thousand times in his frequent comings and goings. Each time he swore that one day he would once and for all get shed of it. And, each time Margie heard him make this oath, she threatened him within an inch of his life. “There better not nothing ever happen to my precious kitty, Franklin, or you are dead meat!”, she would advise. That day was about to come.

Franklin turned his alarm off at 3:05 AM on that Saturday. He hurriedly donned his winter hunting clothes, loaded the ceramic panther in his truck, and set out for the woods. Franklin drove into their hunting land a different way than he was accustomed to so Jethro would not see his tire tracks in the heavy frost. He tracked through the woods from a completely opposite angle than normal for the very same reason. Arriving at Jethro’s tree, Franklin positioned the ceramic panther so that it was facing the open trail Jethro was certain to use. He then hid himself out of sight in a nearby thicket, and, he assumed, well out of Jethro’s line of fire. Franklin nodded off several times as he anxiously waited for the fun to begin.

As sure as clockwork, the bouncing beam of Jethro’s flashlight appeared in the distance at about 4:15 AM. Franklin could hear Jethro coming several hundred yards away – tripping over roots, mumbling obscenities out loud whenever he fell, coughing and spitting from the overflowing pinch of Copenhagen in his lower lip, and softly humming to himself the University of Alabama fight song. One of the reasons Jethro never became a world class deer hunter was his inability to be quiet in the woods. Every white-tail deer in Walker County, Alabama, knew full well when Jethro Wigder was approaching.

Franklin could hardly contain himself as Jethro drew closer to the trap awaiting him. He muffled his mouth with his gloved hand more than once to keep from giggling. His only regret was that he didn’t have a camera.

When Jethro was about thirty yards from the stand, he stopped dead in his tracks. Standing deathly still, his shaking hand trained the flashlight on the base of his tree. He couldn’t believe it! “Good giggly-wiggly,” (edited for the sake of avoiding an NC17-Rating for this book) he said, “it’s that #@%&”$* bobcat!” Jethro’s fright-filled words echoed through those Alabama woods in a much more audible tone than he was aware. He dropped to his knees, still muttering a combination of obscenities and prayers, while fitfully struggling to load his deer rifle in the dark without shooting himself.

Franklin, almost suffocating from his own intense efforts at stifling his laughter, suddenly had an idea. Being widely renowned for his considerable, God-given, talent at mimicking just about any animal sound imaginable, Franklin reared his head and bellowed a bobcat imitation that would have made even the late Steve Irwin tremble. “Rrrrrrrrroooooowwwwww!!!”, “Rrrrrrrroooooowwwwww!!!”, again and again he screeched. Each time, as he collected his breath for the next growl, Franklin couldn’t help but snicker like a kid in Sunday School. He could hear Jethro scuffling around and cursing in reaction to each of these wild screams. Franklin Hardin was having the time of his mischievous life!

Suddenly, Jethro snapped. His wildly excitable, hair-trigger imagination convinced him that the woods were somehow at that moment filled with blood-thirsty bobcats (or maybe even cougars, lynxes, and mountain lions). Now completely over the edge, Franklin’s childhood buddy swung his bolt-action 30.06 caliber deer rifle into the air and began to fire – wildly, and in every possible direction. The almost thirty rounds of magnum, high velocity, ammunition Jethro brought with him that morning were being rapidly spent – almost as if his single shot deer rifle had been an M-60 machine gun. Deadly force was zinging randomly through those dark, cold Alabama woods – almost like it was the invasion of Normandy all over again.

Franklin’s master plan had been that his jumpy friend would see the ceramic panther, think it was real, and turn and run away in mortal fear. Franklin hadn’t factored in the reaction of a wild barrage of hot lead ricocheting through bushes, branches and tree limbs all around him. “That idiot is going to kill somebody!”, Franklin moaned, as he dodged bullet after bullet flying in his direction. Jethro couldn’t hit the side of a barn on most days. His pathetic shooting was similar to the futile effort at throwing strikes of mythical baseball pitcher Nick Lalooshe (in the movie “Bull Durham”). Almost everyone and everything except the target was in danger of being hit.

On this monumental morning, however, there was a more powerful force at work guiding the errant shells from Jethro’s gun. Something from above. The Good Book promises that everyone shall, “reap what they sow.” Franklin Hardin had played practical jokes on others for many years. He had gotten away with practically every outlandish thing he had ever pulled on unsuspecting victims. He seemed far too clever to ever get caught, and almost impervious to payback. On this morning, however, Franklin’s chickens came home to roost.

One of Jethro’s last remaining shells found its mark. The bullet hit the ceramic panther dead in the middle of its chest. It exploded with a sound similar to a detonated hand grenade. Shards of jagged ceramic glass flew through the air – with a few pieces hitting Jethro’s shirt sleeve. “What in Bear Bryant’s name?”, Jethro said. He crouched, edged slowly forward, shining his flashlight on the spot. The biggest remaining portion of the poor, demolished panther statue was a six square inch piece of the top of its head – now lying right side up, and coated with frost from having been in the woods for those few cold, morning hours.

Suddenly, Jethro the dummy became Jethro the rocket scientist – in an epiphanal instant he growled, “F-R-A-N-K-L-I-N!” Jethro recognized the remnant as being from Mrs. Margie Hardin’s black ceramic panther. He also remembered telling Franklin about seeing the real black bobcat a few weeks earlier. “No wonder he told me he wanted to stay in the bed this morning!”, Jethro affirmed to himself. “I’m going to K-I-L-L that sorry #$*&!+”!”

At that moment, Jethro heard something BIG running through the woods toward him. Before he could lift his rifle in self-defense, he heard a familiar voice. “Jethro!...Jethro!...Don’t shoot!...Don’t shoot!” It was, of course, Franklin. Having heard the panther explode, he frantically came running to inspect the damage to his mother’s cherished fixture.

“You idiot!”, Franklin shouted, “You mean to tell me you couldn’t tell that this weren’t a real bobcat?...Mama is gonna’ kill us both!…There ain’t NO way we can glue this dumb thing back together again!...What in the Sam Hill were you thinking???!!!!”

Jethro stood in the dim light of the now breaking Alabama dawn, breathing deeply and glaring at Franklin. In his eyes raged the fire and brimstone of utter disgust and vengeance. He furiously declared, “That #@%&”$* panther ain’t the only #@%&”$* thing that’s gonna’ tote a #@%&”$* bullet in its #@%&”$* hide!”, as he angrily shoved his last remaining bullet into the chamber of the hunting rifle.

“If I was yuns, I would git my #@%&”$* sorry butt in my #@%&”$* truck and haul my #@%&”$* sorry butt out of here as fast as yuns can…It jest might be the last time yuns is able to sit on that #@%&”$* sorry butt of yuns for a #@%&”$* long time!!!!!!!!!!!”, Jethro shouted (showing off both elements of his fine Alabama grammatical and spiritual training). “Now, G-I-T!!!!”, he lunged at Franklin.

The majority of Franklin’s glee quickly disappeared. As Jethro raised his rifle in Franklin’s direction, he realized that his harmless prank had crossed the line - it was time to start “backing up.” With repeated expressions of regret and pleas for forgiveness (mixed with snippets of intermittent laughter) Franklin tried to reason with Jethro. ‘Put down the gun, man, it were jest a joke!”, Franklin implored earnestly. Jethro, however, was having none of it. He pointed the rifle about two feet over Franklin’s head, fired his last remaining round and shouted, “I said, G-I-T!!”

Panicking, Franklin took off in a dead run in the direction of his truck. “That fool has done lost his mind!,” Franklin screamed as he leaped over dead trees and ran full throttle through the middle of neck deep briars. Though he had known and been friends with Jethro most of their lives together, Franklin had occasionally wondered if his friend was, “all there.” He had now found Jethro’s true breaking point.

Though his rifle ammo was spent, Jethro’s fury was far from depleted. He ran after Franklin for a good long stretch firing blanks from his .44 Colt sidearm. Almost every hunter carries a pistol, sometimes filled with blanks, into the woods as a precaution. In the event of an emergency, shots fired from the pistol serve as a way of attracting other hunters who might be able to help. Jethro figured that if he couldn’t really shoot at Franklin any longer, he might as well try to make him think that he could. All Franklin knew was that this crazy fool was still right behind him, and shooting like a one-eyed lunatic.

Too, there was another surprise in store for Franklin that morning as he ran out of the woods and away from his ranting and raving pursuer. Earlier that morning, not long after Franklin had parked his truck in that out-of-the-ordinary location, one of his other hunting buddies spotted it. This deer hunting friend of Franklin’s was on his way to another deer stand not far away. Having been, himself, a victim of Franklin’s Tomfoolery in the past, he decided it was time to return the favor. He stopped long enough to raise the hood of Franklin’s truck, pull all eight spark plug wires loose, and hide them up in the spare tire underneath the rear of Franklin’s truck bed.

When Franklin finally got to his truck, he was huffing and puffing, winded and exhausted from the run, and completely drained from the morning’s shenanigans. He threw open the door, climbed in the truck cab, turned his key in the ignition and stomped the gas pedal as hard as he could. Nothing! He tried again. Nothing! Again. Not even a click from the starter! Franklin got out, lifted the hood, and felt a sinking feeling in his gut - the very same feeling he had caused Jethro earlier. And likely, the same sensation he had caused countless others to feel as he had weaved his web of high-jinks through the years. Franklin Hardin now knew exactly what it felt like to be, “H-A-D!” “Somebody done took all my wars,” (Alabamian for “wires”) he moaned.

His best friend was mad enough to kill him. His mother WAS going to kill him when she found out about the panther. He was out in the middle of nowhere on a cold, windy morning. He was exhausted from a life or death run through the woods. And now, his truck had been sabotaged. There was no one’s shoulder to cry on, and no one to blame but himself.

And so, Franklin Hardin did the only thing he knew to do. He pulled his sleeping bag out of the tool box, bundled himself against the cold, fired up some Wal-Mart brand hand warmers he kept in the glove compartment, and laid down in his truck seat to take a nap. His thought was, “I am tired, sleepy, in deep kah-kah when I finally DO get home, and now without a friend in the world. The best thing that could happen to me would be for me to die in my sleep. That way, God would be responsible for my death. Mama has always said, ‘You’d better let God kill you, ‘cause He won’t mess you up like I will!’”

Such is the life of a bachelor from Alabama. Call him, “lazy, fun-loving, maybe a little ‘touched’ in the head,” or even “blessed.” But, one thing is certain - there is no life like his. Franklin Hardin and Jethro Wigder will go down in Alabama bachelor lore as two of THE most envied men on earth. People all over the great state of Alabama still call them, and others like them, the “chosen ones.” On that frosty Alabama morning, Alabama bachelor Franklin Hardin, way out there in those Alabama woods, all bundled up and snug in his sleeping bag, tucked safely in the front seat of his truck, with a heart full of joy and merriment, could rightly have been called one and only one thing – “sound asleep!”

Roll Tide, Roll!!!!!!!!!

- David Decker