By Tony Hays © 1987
Issue: February, 1987
While I was born and raised on Blue Moon Creek, I left the comforting shelter of its singing waters and surrounding hills to follow my father and his dream of a life away from the poverty of subsistence farming. There will always be a special place in my heart for the hard working, sometimes odd, sometimes unbelievable, folk in that backwoods retreat. As a result, I go back every chance I get, and, when I do, I always stop in to see Grinning Henry Banks.
Grinning Henry (so named because of his sunny disposition and to differentiate him from all the other Henry Banks') has been an old man all my life. The most senior of citizens on Blue Moon Creek, that naturally makes him the unofficial, official local historian. This is not to say that Henry has ever written anything down. Local gossip has it that Henry can't even write. But, he is a historian nonetheless, in the tradition of the African griots who can recite the history of families and communities for generations and generations.
I recall the time I stopped by to see Henry and, in the process, learned of a hitherto unknown chapter in American history. It was a soft, April Saturday, and Henry was taking advantage of the good weather to sun himself on the porch of his ramshackle, weather beaten house. As I approached, Henry was just easing into his ancient rocker, fidgeting to keep the broken cane strips from attacking his emaciated body, clad only in a pair of worn overalls. I hailed him and he invited me up on the porch to sit a spell.
"I don't reckon you've heard about Uncle Rich's latest doings?" he asked me, the disapproval already written on his lined face. Rich was a famous local character, and I shook my head at Henry's query wondering what havoc the old reprobate had wreaked this time.
"This time he's done gone and done it. It just beats me how Rich gets himself into these fixes. Why, I mind the time that Teddy Roosevelt come up here on the creek." A stray cane strip had poked his arm and he stopped long enough to prod it back into place giving me time to hide my disbelief.
"Yes sir, old T.R. himself come up here to visit on the creek. He was a mighty hunter, don't you know. Hunted all them animals out west and all. Well, he heard about how Tennessee coon hunting couldn't be beat, and how the best coon hunting was right here on Blue Moon Creek." Now, I wasn't sure exactly what this had to do with Uncle Rich Wells' latest escapade, or what Uncle Rich had to do with Teddy Roosevelt, but I was sure Henry would tell me. And, he did.
"All the Republicans over to the county seat was happier than hogs in a waller. We never had a president visit, though rumor had it that Grant stumbled across the county line drunk back during the war. It ain't hard to see that folks got almighty excitable over it. I was a young man back in them days, and I had me some of the most fearsome coon hounds you ever did see. One day, I's setting right here on the porch, and Elwood Prater, president of the bank, came over to visit."
"Now, Elwood was a prissy thang, and dressed all duded up. Sorta a snob too, if you take my meaning. Big in the Republican party, don't you know. Elwood never had liked me any, and I couldn't figure out what in hell he came calling for. Finally, he cut through the bone and got to the marrow. 'Mr. Banks, I suppose you've heard that President Roosevelt is visiting with us next week.' I looked him up and down like he was crazier'n Aunt Effie."
"'Now, Elwood,' I said. That always made him mad; calling him by his first name I mean. 'I'd have to be blind as them mules you sell not to know that.' And he snorted around for a minute, and finally said, "Mr. Banks, as you know, the purpose of the President's visit is to engage in coon hunting. Unfortunately, the gentlemen who have been selected to participate in the hunt lack one of the essential prerequisites." I saw this wasn't getting us nowhere."
"'Get to the point, Elwood. Them big words is making me dizzy," I told him. He swallowed real big and dived in. "The point is, Mr. Banks, none of us have coon dogs. To be frank, none of us have ever gone coon hunting. A disgusting sport if you ask me."
"So, what you're saying is that you want to borrow my hounds? I asked him. Watching Elwood gulp down his pride long enough to ask was a sight worth waiting for."
"'Yes, Mr. Banks. That's what I'm asking.'" Henry spoke in a high pitched whine I took to be an imitation of Elwood. "Boy, I laughed mite near till the sun went down. Couldn't imagine any such thang as a Tennessee boy that ain't been coon hunting. Well, the upshot was that I promised him a couple of my dogs and told him the best place to start running them. Spent the next week laughing about the President coming for a real coon hunt, and the ones that was to take him hadn't been any nearer to a real coon than they had to a day's work." Henry's wife, Aunt Bessie, brought out a pitcher of iced tea about then, and we helped ourselves. Henry settled back and went on.
"Well, son, the big morning came around and you never seed the like. They was speechmaking and banners and a parade. Old Teddy was made to feel right at home. Now, he did grumble a little when they introduced him to his hunting party. But, he knew which side his bread was buttered on. So, come nightfall, the whole blasted gang of 'em headed out for Blue Moon Creek."
"I met 'em up at the head of Buncombe Holler. Just about died laughing at the get up Elwood and the rest of 'em had on. Heard somebody say they sent special delivery to New York for it. All a coon hunter needs is a gun and a burlap feed bag to bring the coons back in. Them boys had fancy vests and boots and enough baggage for a week in the Rockies. Anyway, Elwood and his buddies took the dogs from me and I pointed them up the holler. Them bodyguards of Teddy's looked me up and down, sniffed a couple of times, and paid me no never mind." Henry sipped his tea and offered me a refill.
"They set them dogs loose and I skedaddled. Figured I didn't have no business there, so I just up and went home. They waited around there for quite a spell listening for them dogs of mine to pick up the scent. Elwood and the rest of his buddies began to griping and whining, and Teddy started to looking bored. 'Mr. Prater, I was assured that this was an exciting sport,' Teddy said to Elwood. All old Elwood could do was put up a weak grin and a shrug."
"It was about then my dog, General Jackson, picked up a strong scent. He bellered and howled to the high heavens. Old T.R. got excited then. He yelled at the gang of 'em and off they went. Teddy took off at half run and the rest trailed after him. By the time they got halfway up the ridge, them bodyguards and Elwood's friends was running a poor second to Teddy. He was hot after them hound dogs."
"They crossed the ridge up above the creek and the sound of them dogs was getting stronger and stronger, and Teddy bore down harder. Crawling over the top of the ridge, Elwood looked like he'd been on the losing end of a fight with a bobcat. Them branches Teddy was whipping through had been slapping back in Elwood's face. The President's visit was wearing a mite hard on Elwood."
"The trail turned north the far side of the ridge, and Teddy cut around a big old pine and came face to face with the business end of a double barrel shotgun! The President, he came to sudden stop, don't you know, and Elwood and half the bodyguards mite near ran over him trying to catch up. It got real quiet then. The only sounds was them bodyguards reaching for their guns. That stopped when they heard two pistols being cocked in the darkness. Somebody had them all treed and Elwood begun to sweat."
"What's the meaning of this?" Teddy bellered. The face behind the shotgun broke into a big smile. 'Why boys, it's President Roosevelt hisself!' a voice said. Without another word, two more stepped out of the woods and all three motioned for the bunch to head down the ridge."
"They come up on a campfire down at the foot of the ridge, and Elwood's eyes got big as sweet, red apples, when he saw this one man sitting on a log next to the fire. This feller stood up and grinned at Teddy. It was Uncle Rich, and they had walked right up on his moonshinin' operation!"
"Now, this weren't purely by accident. I'd purposefully started them dogs out where they'd pick up the scent of an old he coon name of Moses that lived t'other side of the ridge. And, I knew that them dogs would carry 'em right through the middle of Rich's still. Them three boys that cornered 'em was Butch Buncombe's boys. Rich was paying them to tend his still that year."
"Rich being the charmer he was, offered Teddy a seat. But, Teddy wasn't having none of this. 'Sirs, I demand you release us this minute!' he yelled. Elwood was mopping the sweat off his face and he ran up next to Teddy. 'Mr. President,' he said, 'This man's a moonshiner! He'll not hesitate to kill us!' Teddy turned a cold stare on Elwood. 'Rubbish!' he said, 'Are you a coward, Sir?' And when Elwood didn't make a peep, Teddy had his answer."
"Now, Rich pulled a chair up to the fire and grabbed a jug up off the ground. 'Mr. President, I'd be pleased if you'd join me in a snort. There's some things I'd be pleasured to talk over with you,' he said. Teddy looked at Rich and started to laugh that deep bellied laugh of his. 'That man has style, Prater. I like that,' he told Elwood. Sitting down next to Rich, he reached for the jug."
"I've heard about this Tennessee moonshine. Now, I'm not much of a drinker myself, Sir, but I would like to try this. For experimental purposes only, you understand," he said to Rich. Elwood, he couldn't stand it no longer. "Mr. President, this is illegal liquor. You can't do this!" he's mite near whimperin'. Teddy turned to one of them Buncombe boys and said, "Son, if he utters another sound, kill him!" Elwood turned white as bleached flour and passed right on out. Teddy yanked the corn cob out of the jug and took a big swaller. "Bully," he said, "Bully! Now what did you want to discuss, young man?" he asked Rich.
"Well, truth to tell, Uncle Rich and Teddy Roosevelt spent the rest of the night getting drunker'n two skunks. Them bodyguards didn't know what to do, so they just bedded down. The next morning, when they was getting ready to go back over the ridge, Elwood had a set to with Rich. He threatened him with everything from jail to the hangman's noose."
"One of Teddy's aides happened to hear Elwood. He walked right up into Elwood's face. 'Mr. Prater, for reasons even you should understand, we wish nothing more to be said about last night. Mr. Wells is to be totally left alone. At the President's express order!' that aide told Elwood. Oh, Elwood didn't like it at all. But, the President was the President. So, he bit his lip and didn't say another word to Rich."
"Well, son, that's it. I heard tell, though, that just so long as Roosevelt was president, Rich would go down to the post office once a year and mail a big box to the White House. Can't say for certain what was in them packages. But, I can sure guess. Anyway, that's what happened when Teddy Roosevelt came to Blue Moon Creek a coon hunting." Henry stopped and squinted at something across the yard. "Well, look there son." And I looked down the road. A lone figure, supported by a cane, hobbled slowly along. Drawing up next to Henry's yard, the figure stopped and lifted the cane in greeting.
"Evenin', Rich". The two old men studied each other for a minute. I watched them and noted the devilish grin on Rich's face. Seeing the twinkle in their eyes, I couldn't think of a single reason to doubt the story of Uncle Rich and Teddy Roosevelt. After a while, Rich moved on off down the road, and I bade Henry goodbye till next time. To this day, though, I still don't know what Rich's "latest doings" had been. And I think I'm glad.