Updated: Dec 4, 2020
Moon Sunn has made a careful study of every watershed lake built in north Mississippi and has fished most of them. When I was young, I remember a trip to fish one of these lakes near the small community of Duck Hill, Mississippi. I must be a little discreet because most of these lakes were posted but Moon believed they belonged to the citizens because they were built with State and Federal dollars, meaning his tax dollars.
It was early spring in Mississippi and had been raining buckets for several days straight. We drove the old yellow Dodge down a lengthy logging road spinning, swerving and gunning it through mud holes just barely avoiding getting stuck in the absolute middle of nowhere. Finally, we arrived at a locked gate. That’s when you get your fishing stuff together and hike as far as necessary to get to the lake. That day the lake was very muddy, the color of an orange milkshake. The fishing was going to be beyond challenging. Moon disappeared leaving me on the levee where I cast in the same spot hundreds of times. Finally, I gave up and simply doodled in the mud to avoid boredom.
He reappeared hours later, wet from head to toe with a couple of nice bass tied to a nylon string on his side and announced, “I’ve found some clearer water toward the back of the lake. Get on my back.” The overgrowth around the lake was so substantial that walking there would have been like hacking through the Amazon jungle, so we took the easier route.
Away we went, Moon swimming with one hand, holding the rods out of the water with the other, the fish still tied to his side. Stopping, treading water to catch his breath, we angled for the other side. I held for dear life. Finally feeling the mucky bottom, we waded out under a canopy of large oak trees some still holding their brown leaves from last summer's growth. At water’s edge we startled an enormous boar coon that quickly ran and scampered up one of the oak trees.
“Man, that’s a big coon. Shane, how would you like a coonskin cap?”
I don’t know what came over him, he never stopped fishing to do these sorts of things. Although, Moon still considered himself the reincarnation of Jeremiah Johnson and I suppose a coonskin cap for his son was a good way to prove it. Or maybe he felt a bit guilty we had exerted so much effort to get to the lake and our chances of catching any more fish that day were slim.
“Stand right here, and I’ll go get the .22 out of the car. Hold this stick and whatever you do don’t let that coon come down that tree.”
I never once considered the implications of standing alone in the middle of nowhere or the fact this wasn’t standard operating procedure for most fathers and sons. Moon had to swim back across the lake, hike back to the car to get the .22 and then make it all the way back again. The coon stayed put but the fear of being alone in the woods holding a stick at the base of an oak tree welled up inside. I pushed it down. Finally, more than hour later I was relieved to hear the ‘swish, swish’ of the water as Moon waded out holding the .22.
“I got the gun, but I could only find three ‘cart-tre-ges’. Is that coon still up there?”
“Yeah, but he climbed higher.”
We walked out a distance from the base of tree in order to get a better shot. I put the gun to my shoulder and leaned against a young sapling to steady my aim.
“Put it on his head, take a deep breath, let it halfway out and then gently squeeze the trigger.”
My first shot hit the coon in the stomach. The tip-tip sound of blood droplets falling from high above rattled the dry oak leaves in front of us. Nerves weakening, my next two shots were clean misses.
“Daddy, we don’t have any more bullets, what do we do now?”
Moon believes with religious zeal that every animal is sacred. So, there was nothing to do but finish what we started.
“Pick up your stick, that wounded coon is gonna’ try to come down that tree and if he does you hit him with it. I’ll drive the car to the nearest town and buy some more .22 ‘cart-tre-ges.’ Whatever you do, don’t let that coon out of that tree.”
Now the situation was bordering on insanity, but real convictions exist for times like these. I should have protested but didn’t. ‘Swish, swish’, Moon waded out beginning his fifth swim across the lake. I held my stick trying to hold back tears. Late afternoon turned to darkness and weird sounds filled the woods as water birds and other critters heading for roost all sounded like they would love nothing better than a young tender boy for dinner. Increasingly terrified, I thought, “If only I was a better marksman this wouldn’t be happening.”
Beginning his descent down the tree, at repetitious intervals the wounded coon let out hair raising moans at repetitious intervals. Tightening my grip on the stick I tried to muster any remaining vestiges of bravery, warm tears streaming down my face. Squinting to locate the coon in the moonlight, I circled and beat the base of the tree with my only friend, the stick. The loud whops intermingled with my own moaning and crying stopped the coon’s advance. He stayed put on a large branch twelve feet above the ground.
It turned colder, hours passed and every terrifying explanation for why Moon wasn’t back wedged their way into my young mind.
“He’s stuck somewhere on that muddy road”, which at least offered some hope he’d return.
Darker explanations entered my mind in rapid succession.
“He was killed in a car accident on the highway and not one soul knows I’m out here alone.”
“He cramped up and drowned from all the swims back and forth across the lake and his lifeless body is floating somewhere out there in the darkness”. Feasible since we hadn’t eaten a bite since early that morning.
Between sobs, I screamed as loudly as possible, “Daddy…. Daddy!”, my voice reverberating through the timber and echoing back to me.
I only stopped long enough to carefully listen for any far-off muffled reply. Nothing! My voice grew hoarser with every successive attempt. “Are my ears playing tricks on me?” Several times I was convinced I heard the familiar ‘swish-swish’ of Moon wading to shore.
“Is that you?”
No reply, only the vacuous sound of the darkness.
“Oh, maybe it’s just a beaver busy at its nightly work or the two fish splashing still tied to a bush at the water’s edge.”
Finally, I screamed again, listened and thought I detected a distant faint reply. I waited a few minutes tried again. This time the reply was more audible, and I said to myself aloud for reassurance, “That’s him, that’s him!”
Tears of fear became tears of joy when minutes later I heard the reassuring sound of Moon wading ashore. I quickly wiped them away. He walked up to the tree carrying a six-volt flashlight and a box of .22 shorts he had managed to keep dry on the swim by putting them in his hat. Overjoyed I propped my friend, the stick, against the tree.
“Sorry it took me so long, I had to drive all the way to Winona to find any rifle ‘cart-tre-ges'. Where’s that coon?”
“He’s right there on that limb.”
He shined the flashlight upward and the coon’s two yellow eyes peered down at us.
“Let me get behind you with the light so you can see how to aim.”
A bit shaky from the cold, the fuzzy lines between fathers and sons, life and death, even the racoon’s sacrifice all converged within me. I focused the rifle sights, inhaled, exhaled and squeezed the trigger. With a loud plop the coon hit the ground. We walked over, Moon scanning the light back and forth on the dead coon.
“Perfect shot you hit him right between the eyes. That’s a big coon, he’ll make a fine hat. You hungry? I’ve got some food in the car.”
Suddenly I had never felt so hungry in my entire life. But we still had to swim the lake with a dead coon, a .22 rifle, two bass, a six-volt flashlight and a box of .22 cartridges. Moon had wisely taken the fishing gear back to the car on one of his previous trips. We walked to the water’s edge and while I held the flashlight, Moon took out wads of string from his pockets.
“A man can never have too much rope or string.”
He cut a section of string and tied a loop on each end. Securing the front and back legs, he made another loop and adjusted it, so the coon fit snugly around his neck, resting on his shoulders. He wedged the rifle barrel in the flashlight’s handle opening, pushed it down and secured it with string. He put the box of .22 cartridges back in his hat. He tied the fish back on his beltloop. Holding the rifle and attached light in his right hand high above the water, he waded chest deep out into the cold water.
“Shane, climb on.”
Wading into the frigid water, I wrapped my arms around Moon’s neck resting my chin on the dead coon’s wet fur. Off we went, Moon swimming with one arm, holding the rifle in the other, kicking with both feet. I was shivering from head to toe when we reached the other side, but warm inside.
“Walk fast and jog a little Shane, it will help you warm up.”
We made it to the gate and mud-caked car. Moon started the engine and turned the heater and fan to high. As we bounced, swerved and spun back down the muddy road I felt the sensation of my cold extremities coming to life. We reached the pavement and with the car still in motion headed for Ackerman, we dined on cold fried chicken and potato logs smothered in ketchup. Food had never tasted so good. I was soon sound asleep. I don’t even remember walking into my mom’s house in the wee hours of the morning and crawling into bed.
During the following days Moon kept me abreast of his progress on the coon-skin cap. After school, on certain afternoons he would stop on the street in front of our house in his yellow Dodge car and honk the horn. I would run out and sit in the passenger’s seat and receive all the updates. He meticulously skinned the coon and created a homemade paste out of who knows what in order to soften and tan the hide.
One day the horn honked, and he arrived delivering for me a coon-skin cap Daniel Boone and Jeremiah Johnson would have been proud of.
I regret I no longer have the cap. For several years, I wore it proudly fighting furious battles between Indians and pioneers, the envy of all my neighborhood pals. We built a stick fort and somehow during a tussle my cap fell between the stick fort and the large log we built the fort beside. I searched and searched, finally becoming convinced one of my envious friends had lifted it.
Years later when my attention had changed from Indians and pioneers to girls and football, Moon was off again to Alaska looking for his dad. Me? Missing mine. I thought about the cap and the formative adventure we had together that had produced it. I walked down to my old childhood play area, the remnants of the fort, a rotten pile of sticks. I glanced over toward the old log and laying there slightly underneath it, I noticed something white. I knelt and pulled up the decaying remains of the coon-skin cap, completely ruined.