“Boomer” Winfrey

Varmint County Correspondent

“I miss the good old days,” Doc Clyde Filstrup sighed as he pondered whether to fold or call Judge Hard Time Harwell’s hundred dollar raise in the weekly poker game in the back room of Doc’s clinic. 

“Exactly which ‘good old days’ are you referring to, Doc? The good old days when the Hockmeyers and Haigs were still feuding and keeping you busy patching bullet holes and knife gashes?” Sheriff Smoky cut in.

“Maybe it’s the good old days when Doc could still charm the nylon stockings off the ladies. Rumor has it that when he was young, a third of the babies he delivered was his to begin with!” Archie Aslinger added with a hearty guffaw.

“You nincompoops. I’m talking about the good old days when we weren’t all sitting around this card table on New Year’s Eve because we had better things to do, like traveling to a bowl game or going deep sea fishing down on the Gulf.”

“Well shoot, Doc, we can’t help it that the Vols haven’t been to a New Year’s bowl in over a decade. Kind’a takes the fun out of a good bowl trip when your team ain’t invited,” Archie replied.

“Besides, if you’ll recall, the last time Smoky, Clyde Junior, Little Hair Pennywell and me went to the Fiesta Bowl, we all ended up mugged and robbed down in Mexico and had to pay a coyote to smuggle us back across the border,” Colonel Hugh Ray Jass recalled.

“Well if you hadn’t slipped down there to carouse and drink while your wives went on a shopping spree in Phoenix, you wouldn’t have had to pay that coyote. You could have simply reported the crime and waited for the U.S. Consulate to arrange for you to re-cross the border legally,” Doc observed.

“As it turned out, that coyote recognized Sheriff Smoky. He had been busted in Varmint County a couple of years before with a van loaded with illegal farm workers up on the interstate. Didn’t he take y’all way over in New Mexico and dump you out in the desert?” Archie asked.

“It was Texas, and I don’t want to talk about it,” retired Sheriff Smoky T. Bandit dourly declared.

“That reminds me. Did you ever repay that old buddy of yours, the Sheriff in Gila County, for that unmarked police car you borrowed that got stolen in Mexico when you was robbed?” Archie needled, having found Smoky’s sore spot.

“Yeah, I sent him a pile of crap Camaro that Hiram Potts seized from a meth dealer. Took him three months to get the smell out and he ended up junking it,” Smoky replied.

“Well, if I recall he wasn’t exactly neighborly when you called him from Mexico to report his car stolen and asked him to help us get back in the country before our wives found out,” Colonel Hugh recalled.

“Nah, the sonuva#*%! cussed me out and hung up the phone! Let’s talk about something else.”

“Well, we don’t need a winning football team to go on a deep sea fishing trip, and we haven’t done that in years either,” Doc pointed out. “Surely we’re not all getting too old to sit on a wooden bench with a fishing pole and drink beer!”

“Don’t you remember, Doc? The last time we went fishing down in Florida, they had changed all the size limit laws and we had to toss everything we caught back in the drink,” Archie reminded everyone.

“Oh, I remember it quite well. There was a pod of porpoises circling our boat and every time I’d catch a nice red snapper, the captain would declare it an inch too short to keep and then feed it to those porpoises.”

“Oh yeah, that was the trip old Elijah Haig went on,” Hard Time Harwell recalled. “Elijah caught one grouper that the captain declared too short by half an inch. Elijah just reached and grabbed that fish by the tail and the head and jerked, then told that captain to measure it again.”

“I remember that. The fish was four inches over the limit after Elijah broke its backbone with his bare hands. The captain didn’t say another word to Elijah all day, just let him keep whatever he hooked!”

“Florida ain’t no fun since they started getting all finicky about their size limits. A fella can’t bring in a decent day’s catch anymore,” Archie added.

“Hey, we could all go to Mexico and go fishing. I’ll bet they don’t have any size limits down there,” Colonel Hugh suggested.

“Bite your tongue, Judge. I’m never going back to Mexico,” Smoky replied as the whole table rocked with laughter.

Varmint County, like much of the region, is strictly Big Orange Country when it comes to rooting for a college football team. Unfortunately, the Tennessee Vols haven’t given their fans much to cheer about in recent years. The county, situated as it is along the Kentucky border, also has its share of Big Blue fans, but then the University of Kentucky has seldom given its football fans much reason for optimism.

Not so, now that the basketball season is in full swing. More than one fistfight has broken out at the Dead Rat Tavern when Tennessee meets Kentucky, whether on the court or on the gridiron. In the old days of the Haig-Hockmeyer feud, the fistfights often led to gunfights. The Hockmeyers originally migrated into Varmint County from Kentucky, and tend to be true to their roots when it comes to cheering for a team.

The Haigs, on the other hand, moved in from Louisiana shortly after the Civil War and consider all Kentuckians to be “carpetbaggers” since that state never seceded from the Union. (For true southerners, historically speaking there is no such thing as a good Yankee.)

So it should come as no surprise that while the Hockmeyers tend to keep to themselves when it comes to mixing in polite society, old Caleb Hockmeyer manages to donate a few thousand from the clan’s lucrative illegal activities to the University of Kentucky each year, along with purchasing a block of mid-court season’s tickets to Wildcat basketball games.

Elijah Haig, on the other hand, shares some of the profits from his government corn whiskey/jet fuel contract with the University of Tennessee, along with a block of mid-court season’s tickets to Volunteer basketball games.

Once the two old men decided to bury the hatchet and end the family feud, it was only a matter of time before Elijah and Caleb would come to an understanding about Wildcat-Volunteer basketball games. Half of Caleb’s seats to the game in Lexington go to Elijah, while half of Elijah’s seats in Knoxville are reserved for the Hockmeyers.

Miraculously, the two clans manage to attend the games together without spilling blood, but that doesn’t mean the two groups co-exist peacefully. The taunting and cursing keeps fans sitting nearby in a constant state of terror, expecting these rough hillbillies to start shooting or stabbing at any moment.

Of course, under the watchful eyes of the family patriarchs, the younger Haigs and Hockmeyers threaten and bluster, but maintain the peace. Once, when a posse of UK ushers threatened to remove two young Haigs, the Hockmeyers rose to their defense and the ushers retreated.

While a select few get to attend the games in person, most fans watch the action on one of the trio of extra-wide screen TV sets at the Dead Rat Tavern. There is no “keep the peace” agreement at the Dead Rat, so Sheriff Hiram Potts always keeps a half dozen deputies available for riot control during the annual Tennessee-Kentucky football game and the twice-annual basketball contests.

Everybody in the county, not just the Haigs and Hockmeyers, seems to square off on one side or the other for these occasions. Lawyer Philbert McSwine is an exception. Philbert always enjoys being on the winning side, so during the football season he sports Tennessee orange. As soon as the football season concludes, Philbert changes to Wildcat Blue and White.

Another person with mixed loyalties is Lady Viper basketball coach Penny Haig. Penny was heavily recruited by the Lady Vols and probably would have transferred from her small school to play for Pat Summitt if not for a career-ending injury. Her little sister Chloe, on the other hand, has just signed a scholarship agreement with the Lady Wildcats.

Chloe has to get her grades up and take a couple of non-credit remedial courses at Burrville Community College before she can qualify academically and actually put on a Kentucky uniform, but this leaves Penny and the entire Haig clan facing a crisis: “How can we cheer against Elijah’s youngest granddaughter?” 

The community’s divided loyalties are also evident at Doc’s weekly poker games. Doc Filstrup, Clyde Junior and Colonel Hugh are Tennessee alumni and always show up clad in orange. Clyde Junior always wears an orange tie from the beginning of the football season until March, while Doc prefers his orange suspenders.

Judge Hobert “Hard Time” Harwell, on the other hand, graduated from Kentucky in pre-law and always wears his Wildcat monogram smoking jacket to card games. Lawyer McSwine wears Kentucky blue during the basketball season and mindful that he must practice law in Hard Time’s court, settles for a neutral white shirt and red tie during the football season.

Archie and Sheriff Smoky show their Big Blue and Big Orange loyalties, respectively, while the occasional other players such as Pothole Perkins and Sheriff Hiram Potts tend to remain safely neutral.

“Gentlemen, I’ve got an idea!” Doc finally proclaimed at the New Year’s Eve poker gathering. “Next year Tennessee’s men are slated to play in the Bahamas during the holidays, and the Kentucky women are playing in the Junkeroo Jam, also in the Bahamas. Chloe Haig might be on the team by that time.”

“Doc, are you thinking what I’m thinking?” Colonel Hugh cut in.

“There are no size restrictions on fish in the Bahamas, gentlemen.”

“And they’ve got casinos!” Clyde Junior added.

“The wives can keep busy shopping,” Sheriff Smoky pointed out.

“Between Elijah, the Hockmeyers and Penny Haig, we should be able to get all the good seats we need.”

“This sounds too good to be true. Something is bound to go wrong,” Archie Aslinger observed.

“The Bahamas aren’t Mexico, they’re more like extensions of Florida.”

“Yeah, Florida with no limits on fishing, casino gambling and Cuban cigars,” Doc concluded. “What could possibly go wrong?”