Della and Boss were his pride and joy. And my Uncle Mel was so proud of his dogs – and so sure they could not be topped – he bet a month’s wages on it…and lost.
(Ed Note: After a year’s absence from Press Pros, we’re happy to welcome the return of outdoors writer Tom Cappell, whose style and reminiscences of hunting, fishing, and the nature has been a popular addition to the Press Pros pages for the past five years. One of the country’s best story tellers of days afield, enjoy one of his latest…sponsored by our friends at Olde English Outfitters, in Tipp City.)
It all started the week of the Missouri agricultural exhibition show, back in the early 60s, a yearly event outside Jefferson City where all the new tractors, plows, rakes, and gadgets were on display and for demonstration. Uncle Mel wouldn’t miss one of those things for the world, and he hadn’t missed one since he’d married Aunt Floy.
It wasn’t that he was a big farmer, you see. At best, his 258 acres outside Amlin were plenty for him to tend, and he and Aunt Floy made a comfortable existence on a big truck patch each summer. Uncle Mel was known for his sweet corn and cantaloupes, the best you could find for miles. And on top of that, he had about forty head of beef herefords and made his extra money on the sale of feeder calves.
But the reason he always went to the agriculture expo was for the sheer entertainment of it – hanging out with friends and neighbors and the talk of crops that always exceeded the actual yields.
And, there were the sideshows and the ‘carnies’ – the four-armed man he took me to see when I was eight years old. I had nightmares for weeks afterwards, but Uncle Mel just slapped his thighs and laughed and assured me it was something I’d never forget. He was right.
One year there was a calf with two heads. Another year it was a talking bird – something everyone went home talking about. The bird recited the Gettysburg Address, and when it was done it got a standing ovation.
On this particular year the big attraction was an act called ‘The Monkey Man’, a man from somewhere out East with a real live monkey that he claimed was smarter, and more intelligent, than anything the state of Missouri had ever seen.
“You men out there are proud of your hunting dogs,” the Monkey Man would bark. “But you haven’t seen anything until you see the instinct and intelligence of this ape.” And that’s all the hook he need for his act.
That monkey was impressive. He could climb a pole, of course – nothing to it. But then he’d turn around and climb it upside down.
He could take a pitcher of water and pour himself a glass, then drink it without spilling a drop.
He could eat with a knife and fork. Why, there wasn’t anything this monkey couldn’t do, the man claimed, and to prove it, he pulled out a deck of cards and dealt two hands of five-card draw. Poker! Well, no one knew how he did it, but somehow that monkey motioned for three cards from the deck, drew a pair of aces, and beat the human’s hand with a full house – and three aces!
The encore was this. “Any of you men out there who think you have a huntin’ dog that can outdo my monkey…step forward,” the Monkey Man challenged. “He’ll prove you, and your dog, wrong.”
There was a murmur in the crowd, which by now numbered about fifty. And at the head of the line, making the loudest murmur…was Uncle Jeff.
“I got a pair of black and tans that your monkey can’t beat,” said Uncle Jeff. Boss and Della are the two best ‘coon dogs within five hundred miles of Jefferson City, and I’ll bet you a hundred dollars they can track and tree, and hold a ‘coon long enough for me to shoot it out of the tree better than your damned monkey.”
The room got noisier for a moment, then went almost silent as the Monkey Man addressed Uncle Jeff.
“If you can produce the hunt I’ll take your challenge,” he said, staring at Uncle Jeff with a crooked grin. “You tell me the time and place. A hundred dollars is a right good payday for us – better than carnival pay and tips.”
It was a good payday for Uncle Jeff and Aunt Floy, too, because this was the early 60s and a hundred dollars back then represented about 10% of their net income from all those melons and sweet corn…just about the sum for taxes on the farm.
“I ain’t worried,” said Uncle Mel on the drive home, about an hour distant from the expo. “And that blowhard’s hundred dollars is going to make a right nice Christmas surprise for your Aunt Floy,” he assured, grinning his own crooked grin.
Before he left the show he invited the man and his monkey to come to the farm for a coon hunt along Shaner’s Creek, down in the bottom land that bisected the back third of Uncle Mel’s 258 acres. Della and Boss never failed to produce along that creek, and Uncle Mel was certain that they’d come through again. On a Saturday evening the Monkey Man and his Simian friend showed up in their ‘Monkey Man’ station wagon…to go coon huntin’.
It didn’t take Uncle Mel’s dogs long to hit scent and open up with their familiar bawl. “They got a hot trail,” yelled Uncle Mel, as he took off down the creek and through the sycamores after Della and Boss.
And within a quarter mile they treed, standing on their hind legs as they stretched up the trunk of a large pin oak tree, baying and searching the top branches for that coon. Uncle Mel took out his flash light and scanned back and forth, fifty, sixty, seventy feet up, looking for a pair of tell-tale eyes shining back into the light.
“The trick is to shoot the coon out of there before he taps the tree,” Uncle Jeff told the Monkey Man. “And Della and Boss know when the coon’s tapped the tree and moved on.”
‘Tapping’ the tree meant climbing into an adjacent tree at the top and escaping without the dogs detecting. A smart old raccoon does this routinely, but Uncle Mel wanted to close the deal right then and there.
“I can’t see him,” he shouted to Della and Boss, who kept up their barking and trying to shimmy up that tree.
“Please,” said the Monkey Man after a couple of minutes. “Let me show you a better way. May I have your pistol?”
Uncle Mel carried a little .25 caliber Smith and Wesson, double action, and at the man’s insistence he finally handed him the gun without questioning how he was going to use it. The Monkey Man took the gun, checked the chamber and cylinder, snapped it shut again and handed it to the monkey. He never said a word, but just motioned up the tree and the monkey went up the tree in a flash, pistol in hand.
“Hey, that’s my pistol,” Uncle Mel objected. “And that monkey isn’t trained with a firearm. What the…..”
He never got a chance to finish. Kr-r-r-rack, the little .25 barked from the top of that pin oak, monkey, gun, and coon obscured from everyone’s sight. Then…kr-r-r-rack it went again, followed by the sound of not one, but two big boar coons tumbling down through the branches – boogity, boogity, boogity. Thump…thump, they hit the ground a moment later, and right behind them, scaling down the tree like he’d come down the pole at the expo…here came the monkey, pistol in hand.
“Well, if that don’t take it,” said Uncle Mel, hat in hand as he scratched his head in amazement.
“If the object is to take the coon, and not just chase it,” said the Monkey Man, “…I think my monkey just whipped your dogs about a hundred dollars worth.”
They were big ones, too, and back then a healthy coon skin fetched about eight dollars from the local fur merchant. But sixteen dollars hardly made up for the hundred dollars that Uncle Mel fetched from the can above the feed bin when we got back to the barn.
He’d been taken by the ‘Monkey Man’, and for years after that he’d still go the farm expo to see the show. He even ran into the same man later on, but with a different monkey. But he’d learned his lesson.
Better, and cheaper, to enjoy the show…than be part OF the show!