By Mel Tharp © 1988
Issue: October, 1988
Even the most outspoken critic of Herman Kupps agreed that he was an honest, hardworking man. "Hogman," as he was called because his primary source of income came from raising pigs, paid his bills. No one would contend with that statement. "Hogman's word is gold," his neighbors would swear.
Yet, Hogman had an inordinate number of critics around our neck of the woods, especially among the female segment of the population. If Hogman was without a friend among the ladies in our area, he had only himself to blame; for he had a tongue, the vileness of which would blanch the cheeks of a veteran mule skinner. He was irreverent and blasphemous, and men of the cloth shunned him like a yellow fever epidemic.
Opinions were about equally divided as to how Hogman would eventually meet his destiny. Some vowed that he was doomed to eternal perdition, while others predicted that something would happen to turn this foul-mouthed sinner to the straight and narrow.
We had another controversial character around during this Pre-World War Two era. Ike Ambrose drew a lot of controversy, not because he was a profane man, but because of his penchant for elaborate practical jokes.
Some of Ike's tricks were truly funny; like the ball of string classic. The trick went like this: Ike would go to a large city and choose a block in the busiest section of town. He would wait with his ball of string until some well-dressed man came along. This was usually some pompous-appearing gentleman preferably attired in a tuxedo. Ike would stop the man and go into his spiel, explaining that he had been commissioned to do a survey of this particular city block. "The earth here is suspected of having a break in the continuity of its rock strata," he would painstakingly explain. "Consequently, an earthquake is very possible."
Once he got the man's attention with his dire pronouncement, he had him in the palm of his hand. "My assistant has been called away on an emergency," he would continue. "If you would be so kind as to give me a few minutes of your time, I can go on with my survey. If you will just hold on to this end of string, I'll walk around the block with this end of string and I'll be able to get a reading. It will only take two minutes." When the man agreed, Ike would simply go around the corner and find another dupe to hold the other end of string. Ike would then vanish from the scene.
On the other hand, Ike had another joke of the not-so-funny genre. Point of fact: It was downright sadistic. He would get on a local bus; one that made stops at all stations along its run. He would choose one of the stops along the route, say for instance, Whitesville. He would make note of a store sign like, FARMER'S FEED STORE, DON FARMER PROP. The next town along the route happened to be Cloverport. In Cloverport Ike would get off, buy a postcard and address it back to Don Farmer in Whitesville. On the card he would scribble this message:
"Dear Mr. Farmer:
Ask your wife who kept her company the last time you were in Cloverport."
Of course, Ike never knew what ramifications this little shenanigan caused. But he could always dwell upon it in sadistic glee. What if Mr. Farmer was a jealous man and already suspected his wife of infidelity?
There were people around town who yearned intensively for something to happen to bring Mr. Kupps and Mr. Ambrose down a peg. They were sure it would happen, and it did, but no one in their fondest dreams could have conceived that it would happen simultaneously.
Many swore later that it was foreordained by God. At any rate, it came to pass in late October of that year, about a week before Halloween.
It was one of those lovely fall afternoons that seemed custom-made for storefront loafing. A contingent of local whittlers had encamped in front of Osborn's General Store for a debate on every conceivable subject from world affairs to Monroe Austin's sick cow. On this particular afternoon, the subject of the moment was religion.
As was his wont, Hogman was expressing some very negative philosophy concerning the church, preachers, and religion in general. Present at the assemblage was Koy Ball, a deeply religious man and a deacon in one of the local churches. Koy was aghast at the torrent of expletives spouting from Hogman's mouth.
"Herman, you should be real careful," Koy warned. "It scares me to hear you set there and take the Lord's name in vein. You might find it difficult to get into the kingdom of heaven."
"Who cares," spat Herman. "What do they do in heaven? The way I hear it, you just set around and sing hymns and play harps all day. I don't care much for hymns and I sure don't like no &%$#* harp music."
"Hogman," another man ventured, "I wouldn't be one bit surprised if you get a knock at your door some night and find the old devil waiting to take you off to hell."
"Let him come," Hogman boasted, "I'll whip him right back into hell where he come from."
Standing on the outer fringes of the group, Ike Ambrose listened carefully to this exchange of views. An embryo of an idea was already sprouting in his brain. Old Hogman was ripe for a visit from an important personage and all that remained now was to see that the person of rank was properly dressed for the occasion.
The following morning Ike hopped a bus for Owensboro some thirty miles away to do some shopping of a special nature. He found what he wanted in one of the shops specializing in costumes for people with esoteric tastes. What he bought was a demon costume, replete with full regalia of horns, tail, and symbols of the nether world. Only the pitchfork was missing and Ike had that item in his barn.
On this night Hogman went to bed early. He had no wife, so there was no one with whom he could talk. He tried to listen to a barn dance program out of Chicago, but his old battery radio was too weak to receive the signal. Finally, in disgust, he snapped off the set and after a few choice oaths aimed at the inventor of such a %$#* contraption, he went to bed. In a few minutes, he was sound asleep.
Hogman was a sound sleeper but something was disturbing his sleep. It was a monotonous, droning sound. He rolled over and tried to close out the sound by putting a pillow over his head. It was no use. The sound was louder now and it was just outside his window. It was a sort of singsong cant, but now Hogman could distinguish words.
"Herman Ku-u-u-pps, I have come for you," the voice droned. "Open your door. Your time has come."
"Some X%6+#%% beggar coming to my door at this time of night," he swore as he jumped out of bed. "Well, I'll give him some bread that's to hot to eat."
Hogman was ready for anything, be it man or beast, that dared disrupt the tranquility of his rest. He was not, however, ready for the fearsome figure that stood before him when he opened the door. Old Lucifer himself stood there resplendent in red and black; shiny pitchfork at the ready.
Now it should be noted that Hogman was not a true atheist. Living alone over the years, without aid or comfort, and struggling to make a living against great economic odds, had embittered him. He was given to blasphemous outbursts, but he hardly knew what the words really meant. He had been raised by religious parents, and now seeing the devil face-to-face brought back many memories of preachers speaking about sinners roasting in eternal torture.
"Herman Kupps, you have been weighed in the balance and found wanting," Ike pronounced the awful judgment. "You have cursed in the presence of woman and children and deacons. Come with me to your fate."
If Hogman had never known terror before, he knew it now. He was like a condemned man standing on the gallows floor. He was ready to bargain anything for his soul.
"Please, Mr. Devil," he begged pitifully, "I just sold some hogs, and I got eighteen dollars of the money left. I aimed to use it to buy me some new fence, but I sure will give it to you if you'll just let me go."
"You can't buy me off with money. The hour is late but maybe there is still a chance for you. Now you know I like entertainment. If you could please me with a good dance, I might just let you off."
Without further ado, Hogman broke into a clumsy, stumbling imitation of a clog. Before he had cut more than a dozen steps, Ike stepped forward with his pitchfork raised menacingly. "Stop!" he ordered. "That's the worst excuse for dancing I've ever seen. Maybe you could try prayer. If you could show me some good sincere praying, I might be inclined to show mercy."
If Hogman demonstrated a lack of articulation and skill in sending up a prayer, he certainly made up for it in zeal. "Oh Lord, I know I've done some tall cussing. But I won't do it again. I won't cuss in front of anybody if you'll just save me. I won't even cuss in front of my hogs." It seemed like Hogman's prayers for salvation lasted for hours. His knees felt blistered from kneeling on the hard ground. Finally, he rose and stood before the master of darkness fully expecting clemency. He was in for a cruel disappointment.
The devil was unmoved. "I've heard better praying from drunken fiddle players lying in a ditch," Ike said caustically. "Let's go."
Now, strangely, deep inside, from the ashes of Hogman's charred pride, another emotion was coming to the surface. He was getting angry. He had degraded and humiliated himself to the very innermost depths of his being in an effort to save his soul to no avail. Now, if he had to go, why not fight every step of the way? What did he have to lose?
"I reckon I'm ready to go, Mr. Devil," he said meekly. "If you'll just let me step inside and get my hat, we'll be on our way."
Ike graciously acceded to Hogman's last wish. He intended to walk with him down the road for a little way and then reveal his true identity. What a laugh he and the community would have when they found out how Hogman had abased himself before the very devil he had sworn he would whip all the way back to Hades. He smiled when he pictured Hogman fitting his shapeless old hat to his bald head for what he considered to be his final journey. Imagine his surprise when Hogman returned moments later brandishing a double-barreled shotgun fully loaded and hammers back.
"Wait Hogman!" Ike shouted, jumping backwards. He was ready to reveal himself and call the whole thing off but Hogman was having none of it.
"No, you wait!" Hogman snapped back. "You been doing all the talking, now I aim to do some. Let's start by seeing how good you are at cutting a pigeonwing."
Ike tried his hand at tripping the light fantastic but as might be expected, it didn't impress Hogman.
"I've seen better dancing from a one-legged rooster with corns," Hogman scoffed. "Let's see how good YOU are at praying."
"Hogman, don't you recognize me?" Ike pleaded, ripping off his devil mask. "I was just playing a little joke on you."
In the end Ike didn't have to do much praying, but he was forced to do a powerful lot of cajoling and pleading in order to keep Hogman from fulminating his hide. Finally, it was tacitly agreed that the score was even and both parties also concurred that it was probably in their mutual best interest to shelter the public from any knowledge of the affair. It was only later that both men told of the incident and seemed to have a lot of fun in doing so.
Ironically, there was a positive side effect to the whole business. Hogman toned down his profanity and Ike was never again so prone to subject people to pranks that might cause them physical pain or mental anguish.