Chasing Billy Coleman

If you live in the southeastern United States as I do, you likely recognize air conditioning as perhaps man’s greatest invention. Aside from this modern marvel, the written word in book form runs a close second. After all, air conditioning makes it possible for those of us who live down here to sit and read in the first place. But, books have made a lot of things possible too. Somewhere around 130 million books have been published since humans developed the printing press. If you are a voracious reader, you may get through 6000 of them in your lifetime. Whether you like books or not, trust me, there is a book out there for you.

Books have spawned civilizations. They allow us to step into someone else’s experience, learn the secrets of the universe, travel the world, and can stir the spirit. They can even heal wounds and  help us discover things about ourselves. The first books I recall aside from comic books were a book of Disney Stories based on American folk tales—Paul Bunyan, John Henry, Pecos Bill, etc—and a set of Childcraft Encyclopedias. These were good for hours of entertainment with vignettes on historical figures like Davy Crockett, Harry Houdini, and Benjamin Franklin. I read them over and over.

When I was in the 5th grade, our teacher, Mrs. Loyella Ryals introduced me to a book that would change my life and it came along at just the right time. The book was Wilson Rawls’ classic tale of a boy and his dogs, “Where The Red Fern Grows”. As Mrs. Ryals read this book to our class, it came to life in my mind and filled me with something that I don’t even know how to describe. Hearing the story of Billy Coleman and how he worked to save money to buy his two coonhounds, Old Dan and Little Ann, the relationship Billy had with his Grandpa and the life he lived among the hills and river bottoms of Oklahoma, swept me into a world I could relate to, yet longed for. It seemed to me that Mr. Rawls had written that book just for me. After the first day’s reading, I went straight to the library and checked out a copy. Not long thereafter, my mother gave me a copy of my own. I literally read that book 13 times over the next three years.

This period coincided with my parents’ divorce and oddly,  ‘Where The Red Fern Grows’, perhaps more than anything else, helped get me through that disruption. Through this story, I escaped into a world of sycamore trees, panthers, coons, and the depression-era Oklahoma hills chasing Old Dan, Little Ann, and Billy through the bottomlands away from the stress and heartache of my fracturing family. That summer, Mama and I left our house, my Father, and my paternal grandparents in Cordele, Georgia and moved to her hometown of Moreland, about an hour south of Atlanta, where I was surrounded by a large extended family—more grandparents, my mother’s sisters Kate and Sally, and Sally’s husband Bill, who raised bird dogs.

We moved into my grandparent’s house and later to a house on the other side of the county with Aunt Kate before settling into a house on my grandfather’s land near Moreland. Aunt Sally and Uncle Bill had just built themselves a house across the pasture and our modular home was built on the site of the single-wide trailer in which they started out. Since it was just across the pasture and Uncle Bill hadn’t yet gotten around to building a permanent pen for his bird dogs there, the dogs remained, for a short time, in our backyard.

During the day I roamed the woods behind the house, imagining that I was Billy Coleman. The old pond in which my grandfather and his brothers learned to swim was just below the house and back pasture at the edge of the woods. There I fished, explored the pond’s banks, searching for coon and opossum tracks in the soft mud at the pond’s edge, and ran free like some wild thing across the surrounding 20 acres of oak and hickory forest. That little patch of woods seemed as big as all outdoors to me.

At every opportunity I would tag along behind Bill. He sometimes let me help him with odd jobs around the place—repairing the barb-wire fence, planting a garden, and cleaning out dog pens. Bill seemed to enjoy the woods as much as I did and would often walk there in the evenings with the dogs. When he let me help him with his two English pointers, Buck and Molly, I was in a state of euphoria.

Buck was a big liver and white pointer, tough as a strip of raw-hide, with symmetric liver markings on his head and one big spot on his back. Buck was so tough, he leaped from the back of Bill’s moving truck one day onto a paved road, rolled a few times, got up, and started fighting the dog that had been chasing the truck. He was the quintessential raw-boned pointer—solid muscle and not one ounce of fat. Molly was smaller, almost solid white with a few brown flakes scattered over her coat and on her left ear. She was more graceful and had more finesse than Buck. To me, they were Old Dan and Little Ann.

During the summer we would take the dogs out and let them run in order to keep them in shape. When we first let them out of the pen or dog box, they would run around and poop and pee everywhere as bird dogs seem to enjoy, and then take off like a bolt of lightning. This was during the early to mid 1980s and in winter, though quail populations were declining rapidly, we could still find a few coveys behind the house and along the adjacent power line in the grown-up blackberry thickets. Sometimes we would even take the dogs to hunt cutover timber land owned by paper companies. It often seemed that we would just drive around, find a place, and start hunting without permission. It never seemed to bother Bill, so I didn’t let it bother me either.

My job, as the dogs were worked, was to move into the brush at which the dogs, noses filled with the scent of birds, were pointing to flush the birds out. Their loud, rattling flutter, one of the varied evolutionary defenses designed to startle a predator worked on me most of the time, even when I was expecting it.

If we were working young dogs, Bill would stay back with them, “styling them up”-stroking the undersides of their raised tails, keeping them pointed straight and tall or teaching them to hold still with the command of “whoa” or to “back”, allowing the lead dog who first located the birds to take credit for the find.

As I moved past the dogs to flush the birds, every muscle in the dogs’ bodies would be tensed and twitching with expectation. If one broke its point, Bill would yell, “WHOOOOOAAAA…you dern fool!” or something else a little more forceful and more colorful.

At some point, Bill let Buck breed Molly and they produced a litter of 5 or 6 squirming bird dog pups. If you’ve never seen an English pointer puppy, this is what God had in mind when he invented the dog. For the first few weeks they roll around with little, fat bellies and flopping tails. As they reach the age they can move around and play on their own, they become all ears, paws, and tail with that most heavenly of scents—puppy breath.

I became infatuated with bird dogs and would spend hours perusing issues of Bill’s American Field magazines, even though they were mostly just filled with dogs for sale, field trail winners, and the names of newly registered bird dogs. Registered bird dogs usually have fancy official names like “Montague’s Hickory Whiplash”, wherein the dog will be commonly called “Hick”. Buck’s registered name was “Sentry’s Buckshot”. The Field Dog Stud Book keeps a record of breeding lines and publishes the names in the American Field, which dates back to 1874.

One day as we were shoveling dog poop over the back fence of the pens, Bill informed me he was making me a gift of the puppy he had been calling “Rock”. Rock was a wriggling ball of muscle, with a little fat tummy, a motorized tail, tiny sharp teeth, and the best puppy breath you ever smelled. This puppy breath mixed with the aroma of the cedar shavings Bill placed in the dog house for them produced a scent that will live forever in my memory as that of bird dog puppies and happiness.

So, Rock’s official name became “Sentry’s Rockman” and Bill registered him under my name. Outside the names listed in the paper beside my Little League team photo, this was the first time I ever saw my name in print and I got a lift from it. This was better than being one of many in a list of Little Leaguers. This was the American Field announcing to the world that I was the official owner of a registered bird dog!

Most of my time with Rock was spent in his puppy years. I still helped Bill with the training a little as he grew but Rock quickly became too much dog for me to handle. Pointers are a combustible ball of energy and can run for miles without slowing down. Among bird dogs, pointers generally “run big”, covering a lot of ground quickly. Rock was no exception. So, for all practical purposes Rock remained Bill’s dog but I am forever grateful for Bill’s gesture at a time when I needed it.

During this time I discovered that “Where The Red Fern Grows” was Bill’s favorite book too and this made me love it all the more. My aunt Sally gave him a hard-back copy for Christmas one year and whenever I was a their house I would take it down and browse through its familiar lines, even though I had nearly memorized it word for word. There was something about holding it in my hands that just made me feel good.

               Around the same time, I discovered the 1974 film version of Where the Red Fern grows on the old WTBS station. It starred Stewart Peterson as Billy, Jack Ging as Billy’s father, and the great James Whitmore as Grandpa. I enjoyed the movie but in a sense it threatened to change the image of the characters and story in my mind.

               The book’s author, Wilson Rawls, served as narrator and as a consultant on the movie, which was filmed in the same Ozark hills where Rawls grew up and set the story. So, it was certainly an accurate representation of the book. Still, to me, it was my story, and I preferred to keep things in my head as I had imagined them. The book helped to shape my outlook on life, family, and my love of nature and I still return to it for a read once every four or five years.

               Later as an adult, I learned the story behind the story of “Where the Red Fern Grows” from an internet article on Wilson Rawls. I learned that the story that had so touched my life and that of thousands more almost never saw the light of day and even after being published, was almost lost forever.

               Wilson Rawls was born poor in the hill country near Scraper, Oklahoma. He never had much education but he was given a copy of Jack London’s “The Call of the Wild” as a child and developed a love for reading and books. He became an itinerant carpenter and handyman, worked construction from South America to Alaska. In his spare time, Rawls wrote stories on brown paper grocery sacks and any other scrap piece of paper he could find. Lacking any formal schooling or knowledge of punctuation, spelling, or grammar, Rawls was ashamed to show his stories to anyone and locked them away.

               In an attempt to hide what he considered his failures from his fiancée Sophie, he burned all of his writings, including the original manuscript of Where The Red Fern Grows. When Sophie learned about this, she asked Wilson to re-write one of them again. Within three weeks he wrote a 35,000 word draft of what would become the book we know as Where The Red Fern Grows. Sophie helped Wilson, with the grammar, spelling, and punctuation, and with her help, the manuscript was first published as a three part series called the “Hounds of Youth” in the Saturday Evening Post, beginning in March 1961. Later that year, the story was published in book form, by Doubleday under the name we are so familiar with today.

               As the book’s popularity grew during the 1970’s, Wilson Rawls criss-crossed the country speaking to children and teachers at libraries and schools. Today, you can listen to Rawls’s voice preserved on YouTube as he gave one of those speeches. The sound of his loose drawl is like listening to your grandfather tell his life’s story. Rawls’s story is quite a story. A story that should be more well-known.

You can hear him explain what books have meant to him throughout his life. You can hear him explain that even boys like him, who aren’t interested in much of anything but hunting, fishing, and the outdoors, can find books that relate to them. How books can open up new worlds for children. How he got his education from simply reading the books that interested him.  He tells the inspiring story of how he, a boy who grew up as a poor uneducated loner from Oklahoma, who made his living as a carpenter, who bummed around the country as a hobo for 3 years, felt the urge to write. How he would go into the woods and fields and just write down the things he heard and saw around him, and he would put those things, the things he knew into his stories.

               He tells of carrying those old manuscripts around with him as he spoke at those schools to show children they could accomplish their dreams if they wanted them bad enough. He told the children that if they try, really try, and they have a little help along the way, as he had from Sophie, they can make it. No one does anything in this world alone. Rawls explains in his speech how the book languished on bookstore shelves for six years and was almost taken out of print until one literary agent fought to publicize it as a children’s book instead of an adult book. After that, librarians, teachers, and school children made it a bestseller and then a classic. To this day, since it was published in 1961, Where The Red Fern Grows has never been out of print.

               At the end of his speech, Rawls tells the story of having struggled to fully understand those lost years of his, hoboing around the country, working odd jobs, and writing in his spare time.  He tells of one little boy who came to hear him speak and how after the speech, as he was signing books, that boy lingered at his side. Finally the boy reached out and touched his elbow. Rawls looked down and smiled at him and then the boy went off on his way. He said, at that moment he knew those 40 something years of life he thought he had thrown away were worth it. The answer to it all was found in the touch of that little boy. A little boy who just wanted to touch the man who wrote that story.

               You can have J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter. I’ll take Wilson Rawls and The Red Fern. Perhaps its strange for a person to so identify with a book that it shapes so definitively who he becomes, but that’s what happened to me with Where The Red Fern Grows. Then again, its not so odd. That’s what books are supposed to do.

               Where The Red Fern Grows is inter-twined with my life. I return to its pages often and every now and then read it cover to cover, yet again. I never tire of that voice. It goes with me about my days. It is part of who I am.

In the book’s last paragraph, Wilson Rawls wrote, “The story went on to say that only an angel could plant the seeds of a red fern, and that they never died; where one grew, that spot was sacred.” I rarely get the chance to wander the pasture and woods behind Aunt Sally and Uncle Bill’s house anymore. That is the landscape that became the setting in my head for the book’s storyline. But, part of that story is my own and it extends far beyond. Whenever I do make it back to that pasture and those woods, I half expect to find a red fern growing there where an extended family, a litter of bird dog pups, the land, and a book helped heal a little boy’s broken heart. Thank you Mr. Rawls and thank you Sophie.

©2019 Lenny Wells

One thought on “Chasing Billy Coleman

  1. Well done, Mr Wells. A warm and gracious tribute and remembrance of your own enviable past. I enjoyed your memoir.


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