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April 1969

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The Grandstand Passion Play of Delbert and the Bumpus Hounds



" 'MAH-REE ELENA, yore the answer to mah prayer...' " The familiar twangy moan of old Gene Autry seemed to be coming from next to my ear. It was the first time I had ever dreamed in sound. Or was I dreaming? "FER CHRISSAKE, WHAT THE HELL IS THAT RACKET?" The bedsprings clattered in the next room, as my oId man cursed and leaped out of the sack, his feet thumping the floor in the dark. Instantly, I was wide awake. " 'MAH-REE ELENA... .' " It was even louder, now that my mind was working again. The tinny plunking of a guitar cut through the darkness. My kid brother sat up in his bed across the room from me and began to whine, his usual reaction to any outside stimulus. A guttural grunt of intense pain, followed by a high-pitched bleating wail, as the old man once again unerringly cracked his big toe against the leg of the dresser. He had done this so many times in the past, in the dark, that all the varnish was now worn off the leg, and my father's toe was permanently shaped like a small tennis ball. "Now what?" My mother joined in the chorus, her hair curlers rattling in the gloom. " 'WHEN IT'S TWAALAHT ON TRAY-ULL...' '' Autry had launched into another favorite of simple-minded millions everywhere. "What the hell time is it?" muttered the old man. He was always an aggressive sleeper. Sleep was one of the things he did best, and he loved it. Some look upon sleep as an unfortunately necessary interruption of life; but there are others who hold that sleep is life, or at least one of the more fulfilling aspects of it, like eating or sex. Any time my old man's sleep was interrupted, he became truly dangerous. "It's almost three-thirty. Who the hell's playing those goddamn records at threethirty?" Someone was, indeed, playing records at full blast. It was then that we first became aware of another sound - one that was to become more familiar and ominous in the weeks to come: a kind of snuffling, scratching, moiling, squealing, squishy turmoil. "'... THAT SILVUHH HAI-UHD DAH DEE OF MAHN...''' Doors slammed. Twangy voices argued indistinctly. Gene Autry keened on and on. The snuffling squeals rose and fell. The old man reconnoitered silently through the bedroom curtains. "HOOIICKK-PATOOOEY!" Something juicy splatted against the side of our house. "Holy Christ'" The old man hissed a rhetorical comment to no one in particular. "GRRAAAHHKKK! BROWWK'" A window-rattling burp boomed out over the scratchy Gene Autry disc. My mother was finally galvanized into action. She had fought a lifelong battle against obscene noises of every variety. I could hear her pattering feet, as she joined my father at the window. "Who are they?" she asked, after a pause to survey the scene. "Damned if I know!" the old man answered; but I could tell from the sound of his voice that he knew trouble had arrived. Big trouble. The Bumpus crowd had moved in next door and was already in business. Ours was not a genteel neighborhood, by any stretch of the imagination. Nestled picturesquely between the looming steel mills and the verminously aromatic oil refineries and encircled by a colorful conglomerate of city dumps and fetid rivers, our northern Indiana town was and is the very essence of the Midwestern industrial heartland of the nation. There was a standard barbershop bit of humor that said it with surprising poeticism: If Chicago (only a stone's throw away across the polluted lake waters) was Carl Sandburg's "City of the Broad Shoulders," then Hammond had to he that city's broad rear end. According to legend, it bore the name of a hapless early settler who had arrived on the scene when the land was just prairie and Indian trails. Surveying the sparkling blue waters of Lake Michigan, he decided that Chicago, then a tiny trading post where land was free for the asking, had no future. Struggling through the quagmires farther south, for some demented reason now lost to history, he set up camp and invested heavily in land that was destined to become one of the ugliest pieces of real estate this side of the craters of the moon. Indeed, it bore some resemblance to the moon, in that the natives were alternately seared by stifling heat in the summer and reduced to clanking hulks when the fierce gales blew' off the lake. Our founding father set the pattern of futility for all future generations. My old man, my mother, my kid brother and I slogged along in the great tradition. The old man had his high point every Wednesday at George's Bowling Alley, where he once rolled a historic game in which he got three consecutive strikes. My kid brother's nose ran steadily, winter and summer. My mother made red cabbage, peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, meat loaf and Jell-O in an endless stream. And I studied the principal exports of Peru at the Warren G. Harding School. Delbert Bumpus entered 'Warren G. Harding like a small, truculent rhinoceros. His hair grew low down on his almost nonexistent forehead, and he had the greatest pair of ears that Warren G. Harding had ever seen, extentending at absolutely right angles from his head. Between those ears festered a pea-sized but malevolent brain that almost immediately made him the most feared kid below sixth grade. He had a direct way of settling disagreements that he established on the second day of his brief but spectacular period at W. G. H. Grover Dill-our number-two-ranking thug, right behind Scut Farkas, who stood alone as the premier bully of all he surveyed-challenged Bumpus to a showdown the first time he laid eyes on those peculiarly provocative ears. It was recess time and, as usual, we milled about aimlessly in the stickers and sand hills of our playground. It was too early for baseball; football had been over for months; we didn't have a basketball hoop; so we just milled. Spotting Bumpus in his worn blue jeans and black turtleneck-tiny, close-set eyes almost invisible under a thatch of jet-black, wiry hair-Dill opened negotiations, his own slitted eyes glinting in anticipation of a little action: "What's yer name, kid?" Bumpus pulled his head lower into the turtleneck and said nothing. "I SAID, WHAT'S YER NAME, KID?" This time in a loud, trumpeting voice that alerted the rest of the school ground that spring had come and Grover Dill felt the sap rising. Bumpus, a full head and a half shorter than Dill but built along the lines of a fireplug, ' muttered: "Bumpus." It was the first word we had heard from him, his accent redolent of the deepest Kentucky hills. "BUMPUS! What the hell kind of a name is that? Holy Moses! Didja hear that? Bumpusl What kind of a name is that?" Dill's humor, while extremely primitive, was refreshingly direct. He began to sing in a high, feminine voice: "Bumpus Schlumpus, double Crumpus - " He broke off, advancing on Bumpus, sandy hair abristle. "D'ya have a first name, runt?" Farkas watched with Olyxppian disinterest as his protege moved in for the kill. Schwartz huddled next to me, ashen-faced, while Flick attempted to blend into the sand. There wasn't one of us who had not, at one time or another, been dealt with by Farkas or Dill. "I said, what's yer first name, kid?" Bumpus, backed up flat against the school wall, finally spoke up: "Delbert." "Delbert! DELBERT'" Outraged by such a name, Dill addressed the crowd, with scorn dripping from his every word. "Delbert Bumpus! They're letting everybody in Harding School these days! What the hell kind of a name is that? That must be some kind of hillbilly name!" It was the last time anyone at Warren G. Harding ever said, or even thought, anything like that about Delbert Bumpus. Everything happened so fast after that, that no two accounts of it were the same. The way I saw it, Bumpus' head snapped down low between his shoulder blades. He bent over from the waist, charged over the sand like a wounded wart hog insane with fury, left his feet and butted. his black, furry head like a battering-ram into Dill's rib cage, the sickening thump sounding exactly like a watermelon dropped from a second-story window. Dill, knocked backward by the charge, landed on his neck and slid for three or four feet, his face alternating green and white. His eyes, usually almost unseen behind his cobra lids, popped out like a tromped-on toad-frog's. He lay fiat, gazing paralyzed at the spring sky, one shoe wrenched off his foot by the impact. The schoolyard was hushed, except for the sound of a prolonged gnrgling and wheezing as Dill, now half his original size, lay retching. It was obvious that he was out of action for some time. Bumpus glared around at the hushed faces, then spit a long stream of rich brown tobacco juice onto Dill's left tennis shoe. The buzzer sounded for the end of recess, but it was the beginning of a new era. That's the way the whole Bumpus crowd was, in one way or another. Overnight, the entire neighborhood changed. The Taylors, a quiet family who had lived next to us for years, had moved out and - without warning - the Bumpuses had flooded in. There were thousands of them! The house seemed to age in one week. What had been a nondescript bungalow became a battered, hinge-sprung, sagging hillbilly shack. I remember only brief images of various Bumpuses. They never mixed with anyone else in the neighborhood, just moiled around, hawking, guffawing, kicking their dogs and piling up junk in the back yard. They drove an old slat-sided Chevy pickup truck that was covered with creamy-white bird droppings and a thick coating of rutted Kentucky clay. It had no windshield and the steering wheel looked like it was made entirely of old black friction tape. It roared like a tank, sending up clouds of blue smoke as it burned the sludge oil that the Bumpuses slopped into it. It seemed to be always hub-deep in mud, even though there was no mud in our neighborhood. Old Emil Bumpus was kind of the headman. He was about eight feet tall and always walked like he was leaning into a strong wind, with his head hanging down around his overall tops. He must have weighed about 300 pounds, not including his chaw of navy plug, which he must have been born chewing. His neck was so red that at first we thought he always wore some kind of bandanna. But he didn't. He had an Adam's apple that rode up and down the front of his neck like a yo-yo. His hair, which was mud-colored, stuck out in all directions and looked like it had been chopped off here and there with a pair of hedge-trimming shears. And his hands, which hung down to just below his knees, had knuckles the size of pool balls, and there was usually a black, stringy bandage around a thumb. His hands were made for hitting things. The Bumpuses weren't in town three days before Emil cleaned out the whole back room at the Blue Bird Tavern one night. They said somebody had given rum a dirty look. Another time, Big Rusty Galambus, who had heard about that incident and felt his reputation was at stake, busted Emil's gallon jug over the back of his head. They said that Emil didn't even know he'd been hit for a couple of minutes, until somebody told him. Then he turned around, stood up, looked down at Big Rusty and said: "Ah'd be mo' careful with that thar jug a mahn ef'n ah was yew. Ef ah didn' know bettuh, ah mighta tho't yew was spoilin' for a fight." There was something about the way he said it that persuaded Rusty, a scarred veteran of the open hearth, who had once hoisted the back end of a Ford truck with his bare hands when the jack busted, to apologize and say that the jug slipped. Emil let it pass; after all, he had 9000 more jugs at home, of all sizes and shapes, sitting on various window sills. We wondered what they were for, until we saw the Bumpuses carrying in pieces of copper tubing-and until we got our first whiff of a mighty aroma from their basement that overpowered even the normal neighborhood smell from the Sinclair oil refinery a half mile away. It got so bad at times that starlings would sit around on the telephone wires back of the Bumpus house, just breathing deeply and falling off into the bushes and squawking. From time to time, there would be a dull explosion in the cellar, and a Bumpus would run out of the house with his overalls on fire. One afternoon, with a snootful of whatever they were making down there, Emil came reeling out onto the back porch. He was yelling at somebody in the kitchen, his deep molasses drawl booming out over the neighborhood. "WHO YEW THANK YO' TAWKIN' TEW?" With that, he grabbed ahold of the back porch and pulled it right off the house. He just grabbed the porch and yanked it out by the roots: "AAAuuuggghhhl" From that day on, the Bumpus house had no back porch, only a door about eight feet up in the air and a rusty screen. Once in a while, one of them would jump out-and land in the garbage. And every so often, one of the skinny, red-faced sisters would fall out accidentally, usually carrying a pail of dishwater or chicken innards. "Lawd a'mighty, Amy Jo, ef'n yew cain't watch them clodhoppers a yourn, we gonna have to chain yew up!" Another raucous round of, harrooping. They sure loved one another. From the day they moved in, the house was surrounded by a thick swamp of junk: old truck tires, barrels full of bottles and tin cans, black oil drums, rusty pitchforks, busted chicken crates, an old bathtub, at least 57 ancient bedsprings, an old tractor hood, a half-dozen rotting bushel baskets overflowing with inner tubes and galoshes, a wheelbarrow with one handle, eight or nine horse collars and a lot of things that nobody could figure out-things that looked like big tall water boilers with pipes sticking out. For some reason, they loved wire; they had all kinds of it - chicken wire, baling wire and rolls of barbed wire, just sort of lying around. And in between the big stuff, there was all the little stuff: sardine cans, old batteries, tire irons, old blue tin cups, corncobs, leather straps and a lot of tire pumps. They were always bringing home license plates, which they nailed up by the basement door. The Bumpuses went to the city dump two or three times a week-like art patrons to a gallery - to stock up on more of the same. The sea of wreckage spread like a blight onto the surrounding yards, first an ironing board on our lawn, then a bicycle tire in our bushes, then a few odd corncobs on the front porch. And one day, a gust of wind covered my mother's flapping laundry - her pride and joy - with a thin, indelible coating of chicken dung, pigeon feathers, rabbit fur and goat droppings. After that, her jaw was grim, her eyes thin slits of rage, every time another burst of hawkings or blattings reminded her of the Bumpuses. The night my old man tripped in the dark over a rusty radiator in our back yard, causing him to drop his bowling ball on his left foot, didn't help things, either. He grabbed the radiator and flung it into the dark, back into the Bumpuses' yard; it crashed into the rubble, and for five minutes, an avalanche of sound rumbled on and on, like Fibber McGee's closet. Emil stuck his head out of the kitchen window, quickly followed by the barrel of his trusty shotgun. When the old man stood his ground, Emil hissed, "Sic 'em, Luke!" Instantly, 17 dogs roared out from behind the garage. The old man barely made the kitchen. A few days later, Schwartz, Kissel, Flick and I were trudging up our driveway when Flick stopped in his tracks, pointed and said, with a touch of delighted wonder, "Hey, look at that funny little house." "Yeah, look at that little moon on it," replied Schwartz, likewise with some wonder. "What the hell is it?" Junior Kissel chimed in. Suddenly, Delbert Bumpus shot around the side of the house, dodging his way through the junk yard like a broken-field runner, and hurled himself headlong into the tiny pine shack and slammed the door, disappearing from our view-but not, unfortunately, beyond our earshot. It was then that we found out about little houses with moons, a new concept for all of us. Devout believers in eternal verities and ancient traditions, the Bumpuses obviously distrusted newfangled, citified contraptions such as that white-orcelain doohickey beside their upstairs bathtub, which didn't get much use, either-except, rumor had it, for the aging and storage of white lightning. From that day on, there was an endless stream of Bumpuses beating a path through the back yard at all hours of the day and night. The outhouse also solved for them the problem of what to do with last year's Sears, Roebuck catalog. With the Bumpuses - and the outhouse - came the rats. They must have brought back a couple of thousand from one of their trips to the dump. Emil would squat out in back and pop at them with a long-barreled single-shot .22. You could hear the ricochets bouncing off the oil drums, and then Emil yelling: "Gahdamn, Ima Pearl, ah missed that varmint agin." "Emil, yew kin go out huntin' after supper. It's time we et." The Bumpus hounds, who had their own problems with an even larger population of ticks and lice, had no interest at all in the rats. Once in a while, you'd see a hound sprawled flat on his back in the dust, legs spraddled, ears spread out, mouth hanging open, tongue lolling, sound asleep in the sun, with a rat lying beside him like they were the best of friends. The rats had no such nonaggression treaty with the Bumpus chickens, whom they ganged up on now and then, but their losses were too heavy to make it a regular thing. The Bumpuses had mean chickens. One big gray hen with a ratty tail and demented yellow eyes chased Schwartz all the way to school one day and waited in the playground for him to come out at recess. He wisely cowered in the locker room. They also had rabbits - and pigeons. For some reason, hillbillies dearly love pigeons. They kept them in chicken-wire pens when they weren't out dive-bombing our yard and roosting on everybody's laundry. And the Bumpuses had one animal nobody could identify. It was kind of round, with blackish fur and claws. It weighed about 30 pounds or so, and Mrs. Kissel told my mother it was "a swamp bear." Nobody believed her, until one time it tried to eat Mrs. Gammie's Airedale, Rags, who had a nervous breakdown and had to be sent to the country. But the only atrocity it ever actually committed was to devour all my mother's iris bulbs. Emil used to holler at it once in a while, when it got to chewing on the truck tires. Its name was Jack. The three goats never gave anybody much trouble; in fact, they kept our lawn mowed for us. They didn't smell too good if you got downwind of them on a warm day, but nobody complained about it - what with all the other indescribable smells that drifted our way day and night. My old man would peek out of the kitchen window with a Montgomery Ward spyglass to try to see what the Bumpuses ate when they were all squatting around the trough in the kitchen, with a yellow light bulb hanging overhead amid the wriggling flypaper. There was one smell that really used to get him. He could never tell what it was - a kind of smoky, greasy, gamy animal scent. Then one night he got it. He was watching them wolf it down, the way they always did, slurping and crunching, throwing off a thick yellow spray. "By God, they're eating possum! That's what it is. Possum!" My mother, who was always interested in cooking, asked: "Possum, what's that?" A Field & Stream subscriber, the old man immediately answered, "Possum - you know, it's kind of a big rat." My mother, who was putting tomato paste on top of our meat loaf at the time, dropped her spoon and ran into the bathroom. After that, she didn't ask much about what the Bumpuses ate. "I wonder where the hell they get it?" the old man continued. "I never heard of a possum around here." Where they got possum was just another of the Bumpus mysteries. Every five minutes or so, someone threw something out the back window into the yard. My mother would be standing at the sink, peering out the window that looked right into the Bumpus house just across the driveway from us. A soggy paper sack filled with coffee grounds and apple cores would sail out and land amid the rubble. "Tch, tch, just look at those pigsl" She was right. We were living next door to a tightly knit band of total slobs, a genuine gypsy family. The Bumpuses were so low down on the evolutionary totem pole that they weren't even included in Darwin's famous filmily tree. They had inbred and ingrown and finally emerged from the Kentucky hills like some remnant of Attila" the Hun's barbarian horde. Flick said that they had webbed feet and only three toes. It might have been true. Delbert Bumpus, the runt of the litter, came to school about three days a month. It was three times too often. Whenever he showed up, there would be a lot of yelling, and they'd throw him out. Delbert never played with anybody and he hardly ever talked; but he spat a lot. Since he lived with the goats and rabbits and chickens, he didn't smell exactly like the rest of us, either - and we weren't any bargain." One time, Miss Parsons, our gym teacher, made the mistake of putting Delbert in a volleyball game. I guess they never played volleyball in KentlIcky, because at first he didn't seem to understand what was going on. But when he got the hang of it, everything changed. He stood there, watching them knock the ball back and forth, for maybe five minutes, and then somebody hit one toward him. He left the ground about three feet and gave the ball an overhand shot that sent it screaming over the net; it caught Schwartz just below the left eye and knocked him flat. Bumpus' side cheered. Miss Parsons said, "No, Delbert, you mustn 't hit it that hard." Bumpus spat on the gym floor and glared at her for a minute, and then growled, "What the goddamn hell is this game 'spose ta be about?" 'While Schwartz crawled around on the floor, crying, Miss Parsons-who taught Sunday school at the Baptist church tried again. "You mustn't use those bad words, Delbert. Now, let's begin the game again, shall we?" Miss Parsons believed in law and order. Schwartz, who had been removed to the nurse's office, trailing blood, had been replaced by Roger Beanblossom, who, at the age of seven, was already six feet tall. Beanblossom, famous for his serve, sliced a whistler right at Bumpus, who stopped scratching just in time to slam the ball back over the net. This time, he got Jack Morton in the pit of his stomach, knocking the wind out of him like a deflated beach ball. He slumped to the floor, the color of Cream of Wheat. "No, Delbert." Miss Parsons was back in the fray. "Here, I'll show you." She tapped the ball delicately into the air, to show how the game was played. Bumpus, watching this exhibition, came out with a line that soon became legend at Warren G. Harding School. "Who the hell wants to play a goddamn silly girl's game lahk that?" Miss Parsons, now beet red and faced with a question many of us had privately asked, since volleyball was a hated game among the males of the school, could do only one thing. "Delbert Bumpus, you go to the office this instant!" Picking his nose, Delbert slouched toward the door and muttered, with classic simplicity: "Screw you." And he left. It was lucky that Miss Parsons didn't know what he meant by that, or there would have been real trouble. He was kicked out of school for only a week. Then there was the time Miss Shields opened up the day by reading us a chapter of Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy. Miss Shields, our second-grade teacher, was tall and thin and wore rimless glasses. She was a very kind lady, who believed that all children were basically good. "Boys and girls," she began, after setting the book down, "are there any questions?" Bumpus, who had never asked a question, spoke up. He had a very deep voice for a kid; already, it sounded a lot like old Emil's, rich and phlegmy. "Yeah." That was all he said. "Oh, you have a question, Delbert?" asked Miss Shields, obviously pleased. She felt at long last that she was reaching him. "Yeah." He was a kid of few words. "Well, what is your question, Delbert?" "Was this guy Raggedy Andy a bohunk?" "What was that?" Miss Shields was caught off guard. "Mah Uncle Cletus knew a bohunk onc't named Andy." Miss Sqields, who did not know Delbert Bumpus the way the class did, gamely replied: "Well, no, Delbert, Raggedy Andy was not of Bohemian extraction. He was a doll." "Well, ah'll be goddamned," he snorted. "What was that, Delbert?" Miss Shields felt the class slipping from her grasp. "You mean a doll that walked aroun'? "Delbert, you mustn't use words like that in class. Yes, Raggedy Andy was a doll who walked around, and so was Raggedy Ann." Delbert snorted again in disbelief and, as he sat down, said in a loud voice, "Ah nevah did heah such a crock a hog drippin's." "Delbert," said Miss Shields with an ashen face, "report to the office this instant!" We waited for him to say what he usually said when he left the room, but I guess he liked Miss Shields. He just stalked out and went home. The only time Delbert ever said anything to me directly was one day when I made the mistake of throwing him out at first base. He looked at me real hard for a long time and then said: "Doan' worry, piss-ant, ah'lI git yew someday." Little did I dream at the time what form his revenge would take. Delbert was the only Bumpus kid in my grade, but they infested Warren G. Harding like termites in an outhouse. There was Ima Jean, short and muscular, who was in the sixth grade, when she showed up, but spent most of her time hanging around the poolroom. There was a lanky, blue-jowled customer they called Jamie, who ran the still and was the only one who ever wore shoes. He and his brother Ace, who wore a brown fedora and blue work shirts, sat on the front steps at home on the Fourth of July, sucking at a jug and pretending to light sticks of dynamite with their cigars when little old ladies walked by. There were also several red-faced girls who spent most of their time dumping dishwater out of windows. Babies of various sizes and sexes crawled about the back yard, fraternizing indiscriminately with the livestock. They all wore limp, battleship-gray Tshirts and nothing else. They cried day and night. We thought that was all of them - until one day a truck stopped in front of the house and out stepped a girl who made Daisy Mae look like Little Orphan Annie. My father was sprinkling the lawn at the time; he wound up watering the windows. Ace and Emil came running out onto the porch, whooping and hollering. The girl carried a cardboard suitcase - in which she must have kept all her underwear, if she owned any - and wore her blonde hair piled high on her head; it gleamed in the midday sun. Her short muslin dress strained and bulged. The truck roared off. Ace rushed out to greet her, bellowing over his shoulder as he ran: "MAH GAWD! HEY, MAW, IT'S CASSIE! SHE'S HOME FROM THE REFORMATORY!" Emil grabbed her suitcase and Cassie, the ripest 16-year-old ever to descend on northern Indiana, kissed her father in a way that clouded up windows for blocks around. "Mah Gawd, Cassie, yew sure filled out!" he boomed, slapping her none too paternally on the backside. Maw Bumpus, drying her hands on her apron, yelled from the porch: "YEW GIT IN HERE, CASSIE, AN' LEAVE YORE PAW ALONE. LEASTWAYS TILL WE'VE ET." After that, my father stepped up his spyglass work considerably, since they had no window shades and Cassie liked to dress very casually around the house. She also liked to lie in the swing on the front porch and suck jawbreakers when the weather was hot. On Saturday nights, even before Cassie arrived, a roaring fleet of old cars would park around the Bumpus house and a mob of slope-browed, slack-jawed friends and relatives would crowd into the place. All night, paneless windows needlessly flung wide, a thunderous square dance would shake the crockery for blocks around. Hawking and spitting and swilling applejack, they yelled and sweated and thumped up and down, while old Emil sat in a corner and sawed on his fiddle. On those nights, hardly anyone dared leave their homes. These parties always ended one way-with a sudden crash, a prolonged scuffle and then: "Ef'N YEW LAY ANOTHA FINGA ON MAH WOMAN, AH'LL SLICE YEW UP LIKE HOG BACON!" "YEW AN' WHO ELSE, YEW SONOVABITCH!?" Followed by screams, crashing bottles, running feet; then a distant wail of sirens. A tremendous roaring of ancient motors, a cloud of gravel and they were all gone, leaving a trail of blood and sweat behind them. Then there were the dogs. They had at least 745 dogs. Now, our neighborhood had always had dogs - walkingaround, ordinary dogs, with names like Zero and Ralph. Once in a while, one of them would knock over a garbage can, but they were dogs that knew their place. The Bumpus hounds, on the other hand, didn't seem to be dogs at all, or maybe they were such total dogs that no one knew how to handle them. They were the most uninhibited animals you ever saw in your life. They had absolutely no sense of privacy. They did everything in the bright sunlight, and I mean everything. They were just a great churning mass of tails and tongues and flea-bitten bodies. You could almost see the smell. On a warm day, a sort of bluish-greenish-yellowish haze hung over the Bumpus house, and even the haze had fleas. Every day, one of the Bumpus women would swing down from the back door to feed them. She strode amid the slavering pack, carrying a greasy dishpan full of obscene table scraps and chicken gizzards. "COME AN' GIT YO' VITTLESI" The mob would charge, rolling over her in a tidal wave of heaving flanks, bloodshot eyes and mangy fur. Snarling and squealing, they stormed over the Uttered back yard, a heaving ball of yapping curs. The Bumpus woman, fastidiously shifting her wad of tobacco from one side of her mouth to the other, would then kick her way through the pack and back into the house. They dug holes continuously - under the porch, in the back yard, in the middle of our scrawny lawn and under the car. Five of them took up residence beneath our garage. They slept there in shifts 24 hours a day. Every time the old man would drive the Olds in, we'd hear under the floor: "ROWFF OUFFF ROWWFF!" and they'd run in mad circles around the garage. "Shoo! Beat it! Lemme alone!" my father would shout, as he hopped up and down amid the hounds, fighting his way toward the kitchen door. 'We'd see the eyes of the Bumpus family peering out, waiting for him to make a wrong move. They were a real hillbilly family when it came to their dogs. You could say anything you wanted about anybody in the family, but you didn't dare insult one of their dogs. You didn't say anything against Old Blue or Big Red. All the dogs-with the exception of those 17 named Luke-were named either Big Red or Old Blue. Half a dozen times a week, my old man would come sprinting up the back steps just a stride ahead of the leader of the pack-a wiry, scarred battler named, of course, Big Red-baying the way Kentucky hounds always do when they've got a bear up a tree. Every time this would happen, there would be another wave of juicy guffaws and wheezy backslapping from the Bumpus mob. This really burned the old man up. After a hard day at the office and the Olds' acting up again, fighting off Big Red to get into the kitchen really got him. He'd sit at the kitchen table, his face sweaty, gulping down a bottle of Atlas Praeger. Finally, after catching his breath, he'd say, "Goddamn it, did you see what those lousy hounds did to the hedge?" My mother, who had long since given up caring, always shrugged her shoulders and continued stoically scouring her pots. When there was a full moon, the Bumpus hounds, feeling some ancient canine urge, would treat the neighborhood to a nightlong serenade. "OwwwwwOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO. WOWOOOOOOOOOOooooooooo. Yap yap yaoooOOOOOOoooooooooo." One after the other, they would take solos; then, after a blessed moment of silence, a full chorus, 15 or 20 strong, would howl to the inconstant moon: "Yipe yipe yaaWOOOOOOOOooooooooo. Ow Ow OWOOOOOOOO. OOOOOOoooooooWOWOOO WOW! WOW! WOWOOOooooooo." All over the neighborhood, in darkened bedrooms, hairs rose on reddened necks, children whimpered in fear. The Bumpus hounds bayed on, interspersed with Gene Autry -" 'MEXICALI ROSE, KEEP S~HLlN ', AH'LL COME BACK TO YEW...' " -and the running commentary of the Bumpuses themselves: "HOICK-PATOOEY." Months went by. We were in a state of siege. Only after you've lived next to a family like the Bumpuses can you understand how anyone could carry on a lifelong feud with his neighbors. My mother and father were just standard type people. The old man would flip his cork once in a while when the furnace went on the fritz; he'd threaten to blow out his brains when the White Sox traded away the only ballplayer they had. But he never got mad enough to throw rocks at people - not until that fantastic day when the rumbling volcano of his temper, roused from dormancy by the arrival of the Bumpuses, finally erupted. Every three or four months-roughly three times a year-we would make a major food investment. I suppose rich families don't even think about this kind of thing, but ordinary families in those days spent their lives eating canned corn, meat loaf, peanut-butter sandwiches, oatmeal, red cabbage and peas. In such a home, the great meals that came along every few months stuck out like icebergs ill the Caribbean. Buying a turkey was a state occasion. The entire family would go to the market to inspect all the turkeys; they'd discuss the relative merits of each, press the breastbones down, wiggle the legs, until finally they 'd take a vote and decide on this particular 12-pounder, which is borne home with honor and prepared for the big day, like a virgin for the sacrifice. It's a ritual almost as cherished and time-honored as the moment when the tribe hunkers around the ceremonial campfire to devour it. For weeks afterward, the theological debates continue: "That was a very good turkey. Very good." "It was almost as good as the turkey we had in Thirty-three." "But it wasn't quite as tender as the one we had in Twenty-nine. Actually, this year's was a little dry." These feast days are always associated with major holidays: turkey for Thanksgiving and Christmas, roast chicken for birthdays and, in our house, Easter always meant ham. My father was totally ape over ham. The week before Easter, usually on Friday night, he'd say, "I'll tell you what let's do. What do you say we all pile in the car, drive down to the A. & P. and pick out a great big ham for Easter?" He said it almost nonchalantly, but his eyes would be lit with a wild and ravenous light. It was no small thing he was suggesting, since "a great big ham" meant about half his pay check in those days. My mother almost always would come back with, "Well, gee, I don't know. Can we afford it this year? We can always get a nice little pot roast." "Ah, come on! What the hell. You only live once. What do you say?" And she would always relent. Quivering slightly, he would throw on his coat and rush to the door. He could already see the ham half eaten, rich and red, weeks of magnificent pickings. Nothing goes with Atlas Praeger like cold ham after a session at the bowling alley. We'd race to the A. & P. All the hams would be laid out, wrapped in white paper, some marked Armour Star, others Swift; not to mention. Hormel. There were always great arguments as to which was really best. These were not dinky little canned hams but weighty monsters smoked darkly and tied with greasy, twisted l wine. The old man would go up and down the case, poking, peering, hefting, sniffing, occasionally punching, until, eventually, the ham was isolated from the common herd. Somehow, it looked a little different from the rest. It was our ham. We would leave the market with at least four giant bags of groceries, our fare for the week: loaves of Wonder Bread, Campbell's tomato soup, Ann Page pork and beans, eggs, a two-pound jar of grape jelly, fig bars, oatmeal, Cream of Wheat-real people food and the ham. The ham. When we got the ham home, my mother immediately stripped off the white paper and the string in the middle of our chipped white-enamel kitchen table. There it lay, exuding heavenly perfumes - proud, arrogant, regal. It had a dark, smoked, leathery skin, which my mother carefully peeled off with her sharpened bread knife. Then the old man, the only one who could lift the ham without straining a gut, placed it in the big dark-blue oval pot that was used only for hams. My mother then covered the ham with water, pushed it onto the big burner and turned up the gas until it boiled. It just sat there on the stove and bubbled away for maybe two hours, filling the house with a smell that was so luscious, so powerful as to have erotic overtones. The old man paced back and forth, occasionally lifting the lid and prodding the ham with a fork, inhaling deeply. The ham frenzy was upon him. After about an hour, the whole neighborhood knew what we were having for Easter. Finally, the next phase began. Grunting and straining, my mother poured off the water into another pot. It would later form the base of a magnificent pea soup so pungent as to bring tears to the eyes. She then sprinkled a thick layer of brown sugar, dotted with butter, over the ham. She stuck cloves in it in a crisscross design, then added several slices of Del Monte pineapple, thick and juicy, and topped it off with a maraschino cherry in the center of each slice. She then sprinkled more brown sugar over the lot, a few teaspoons of molasses, the juice from the pineapple can, a little salt, a little pepper, and it was shoved into the oven. Almost instantly, the brown sugar melted over the mighty ham and mingled with the ham juice in the pan. By this time, the old man, humming nervously to himself, had checked his carving set several times, to make sure the knife was honed, the fork tines sharp-while in the oven, the ham baked on and on, until late Saturday night, when my mother finally turned off the gas, leaving the oven unopened and the ham inside. She said, as she always did, "Never eat a baked ham right after it's baked. Let it sit in the oven for twelve hours at least." All night long, I would lie in my bed and smell the ham. The next day was Easter: Easter eggs and chocolate bunnies and all that. But the ham and only the ham was what really counted-not only for itself but because it always put my father in a great mood. We would play catch tomorrow; he would drink beer and tell stories. For once, the Bumpuses would be forgotten. Who the hell cares about a bunch of hillbillies, when there's baked ham on the table? I lay in my bed, awake, the dark, indescribable aroma of ham coiling sinuously into my bedroom from the kitchen. In the next room, my father snored lustily, resting up for the great feast. Immediately after breakfast the next morning, while my brother and I crawled around the house, looking for Easter eggs, my mother turned on the oven to heat the ham ever so slowly. This is important, she told us. The flame must be very low. By 1:30 that afternoon, the tension had risen almost to the breaking point. The smell of ham saturated the drapes. And on my trip down to Pulaski's for the Sunday paper, I found that it could be smelled at least four blocks away. Finally, at about two o'clock, we all gathered around while my mother opened the blue pot - releasing a blast of fragrance so overwhelming that my knees wobbled-and surrounded the ham with sliced sweet potatoes to bake in the brown sugar and pineapple juice. We usually had our Easter meal around three. Everything was timed carefully around the ham and the Parker House rolls. About 30 minutes before H hour, my mother took the ham out of the oven and laid it out on a big sheet of wax paper, right in the middle of the kitchen table, to let it cool a bit and set-the thick, sweet, brown molasses and sugar oozing down over the sides, the pineapple slices baked brown, the cloves like tiny black insects soaking in the hot ham gravy. Easter that year was the way all Easters should be but rarely are. Spring had come early, for a change. There were years when winter's hard rock ice was still visible along the curbs. Blackened and filthy, coated with steel-mill grime, until late in May. But this Easter was different; gentIe breezes blew through the kitchen screen door. Already the stickers in our yard gave promise of a bumper crop. The air was balmy and heavy with spring passion about to burst. The spring sunlight slanted in through the kitchen window and bathed the ham in a golden, suffused light, just like any good religious experience should be lit. The old man was in an exalted state of anticipation. Whenever he really got excited, he would crack his knuckles loudly. On this fateful day, he was popping them like a set of Brazilian castanets. He had on the new white shirt that he had gotten the week before at J. C. Penney. While the ham sat basking in our gaze, my mother busily spread the lace tablecloth on the dining-room table and set out our best china. which was used only three or four times a year at the maximum. My father picked up his carving knife again, for one last stroke on the whetstone. He held the blade up to the light. Everything was ready. He went into the living room and sat down. "Ah." His eyes glowed with the primal lust of a cave man about to dig into the kill, which would last us at least four months. We would have ham sandwiches, ham salad, ham gravy, ham hash-and, finally, about ten gallons of pea soup made with the gigantic ham bone. When it happened, he was sitting knee-deep in the Chicago Tribune sports section. I had been called in to wash up. My mother was in the bedroom, removing the curlers from her hair. My Aunt Glenn and Uncle Tom were on their way over to have Easter dinner with us. Uncle Tom always gave me a dollar. It was going to be a day to remember. Little did I suspect why. I had just left the bathroom and my kid brother had just gone in for his fumigation, when suddenly and without warning: BLAM! The kitchen door flew open. It had been left ajar just a crack to let the air come in to cool the ham. I rushed to the kitchen just in time to see 4293 blue-ticked Bumpus hounds roar through the screen door in a great, roiling mob. The leader of the pack - the one that almost got the old man every day - leaped high onto the table and grabbed the butt end of the ham in his enormous slavering jaws. The rest of the hounds-squealing, yapping, panting, rolling over one another in a frenzy of madness -pounded out the kitchen door after Big Red, trailing brown sugar and pineapple slices behind him. They were in and out in less than five seconds. The screen door hung on one hinge, its screen ripped and torn and dripping with gravy. Out they went. Pow, just like that. "HOLY CHRIST!" The old man leaped out of his chair. "THE HAM! THE HAM! THOSE GODDAMM DOGS! THE HAM!!" He fell heavily over the footrest as he struggled to get into the kitchen, his' voice a high-pitched scream of disbelief and rage. My mother just stood in the dining room, her face blank and staring, two aluminum hair curlers still in place. I ran through the kitchen, following my old man out to the back porch. The snarling mob had rolled across the back yard and was now battling it out next to the garage, yipping and squealing with excitement. Occasionally, one of them would be hurled out of the pack, flipping over backward in the air, to land heavily amid the barrel staves and sardine cans. Instantly, he would be back in the fray, biting and tearing at whatever moved. The ham didn't last eight seconds. Old Grandpa Bumpus and a dozen other Bumpuses stuck their heads out of various windows, to see what all the yowling was about. Without pausing to aim, he reared back and spit a great big gob of tobacco juice - a new long-distance record - right into the middle of the pack. It was a direct hit on our ham - or what was left of it. He whooped wildly, wattles reddening with joy, spraying tobacco juice in all directions, while Cletus, his dim-witted grandson, yelled from the basement door: "GAHDAMN, GRAN'PAW, LOOKA THEM HOUN'S GO! LOOKA THEM OL' BOYS GO! HOT DAMNI!" Delbert, meanwhile, circled around the roaring inferno, urging them on, kicking dogs that had given up back into the fray. Suddenly, he looked up at where I was hiding, a sadistic grin on his face, his hair hanging low. Our eyes met significantly for a fleeting instant and then he went back to kicking. A paralyzing fear gripped me. I remembered! That time I threw him out at first! Was this what he meant? Was I responsible for this tragedy? Oh, God, no! I slunk back into the shadows. Bumpus women, their lank hair streaming down over their red necks, cackled fiendishly. Emil Bumpus, who had been asleep under the front porch, came reeling out, trailing his jug of white lightning. He took one look and practically passed out, wheezing and harrumphing and gurgling with hilarity. My old man just stood stock-still on the back porch for a long moment, and then he blew his stack. I had never seen him do anything before that came near what he did now. We kept bottles on the back porch to be returned to the grocery store. He reached down and grabbed a milk bottle. His face white with rage, he wound up mightily and, with a sweeping, sidearm motion, hurled the bottle against the side of the Bumpus house with a deafening crash. Grandpa Bumpus stopped in mid-spit, a big juicy gob hanging down over his chin. Emil dropped his jug to the ground, eyes lighting up with joy. This was back home for Emil. He was in his element. Turning around as if to run for his shotgun, he paused when he saw the old man standing there unmoving - radiating the clearest and most beautiful rage I'd ever seen in my life. I cowered next to the railing on the back porch. Even the dogs felt his hatred. One by one, they fell silent. The bare, shiny bone of the ham lay in the sun. Big Red licked his chops. After a long, pregnant moment, the old man turned, walked back into the kitchen and slammed the door. He stood for a minute by the kitchen table, looking down at the big sheet of wax paper dripping warm ham gravy. The heavenly aroma still hung heavy in the house. The old man just stood there - and came as close to crying as I'd ever seen him come. Finally, he spoke, in a low, rasping voice: "All right! OK! Get your coats. We're going to the Chinese joint. We're going to have chop suey." Ordinarily, this would have been a gala of the highest order, going to the chop-suey joint. Today, it had all the gaiety of a funeral procession. The meal was eaten completely in silence. That was the beginning of the bitter Shepherd-Bumpus feud. Relentlessly, the old man beleaguered the Bumpuses at every moment. He had tap-dancing cleats put on his shoes, which proved to be quite a nasty surprise to Big Red the first day he tried his usual ankle grab and caught a cleat behind his left ear. The old man took up tobacco chewing and arched long, undulating gobs onto the Bumpuses front porch when the wind was right. Every time the Bumpuses cranked up for a Gene Autry record festival, the old man countered with In a Persian Market played at full blast on our Sears, Roebuck Silvertone phonograph. He took to throwing beer bottles out of the kitchen window and hurling coffee grounds onto the roof of the Bumpus truck when it bellowed by, taking the Bumpuses down to pick up their weekly relief check. He put bottle caps and tacks in the driveway and laughed uproariously every time one of the Bumpus women fell out the back door. He planted stickers in the cave that the Bumpus hounds lived in under the garage and look to jumping up and down on the garage floor late at night, when the hounds were asleep. Once he even bayed at the moon louder than all the hounds put together. I still remember the startled look on Big Red's face when the old man let out a long, drawn-out, quavering howl that he had learned from 20 years of watching Tarzan pictures. The only trouble was that nothing he did - but nothing - made the slightest dent on the Bumpus way of life. They didn't even seem to know he was doing anything. The bottle caps and tacks he threw in the driveway never even scratched their feet, horny-hard after generations of shoelessness. The only thing that came of it was that we got two flats in one day on the Olds. His pitiful tobacco juice added as much to the sea that the Bumpuses themselves produced as a raindrop in the ocean. Nothing he could do had any effect. One night, he told my mother he had concluded that the Bumpuses planned the ham raid, the dogs carrying out their orders like guerrilla fighters. He hinted that he had something up his sleeve that he was working out in the basement that would really settle the score once and for all. He was biding his time. The Bumpuses, meanwhile, went on with life as usual. There wasn't much they could do to us that they hadn't already done without intending to. Grandpa Bumpus jacked up his output of tobacco juice a little, but the rest of them just went about their business - collecting junk and piling it in the yard, tossing potato peels out the window, brewing moonshine, hollering, hitting each other and scratching themselves. Then one night, without warning, everything changed forever. I awoke suddenly about three A.M. with a strange feeling that something was wrong. It was. For a couple of minutes, I couldn't focus my mind; then, gradually, it became clear to me that something was up. I heard my father in the next room. He had apparently awakened about the time I had. He said hoarsely to my mother, "Hey, wake up!" Then a long period of silence, while he listened in the darkness. We were always having alarums and excursions, but this was really different. The bedsprings squeaked and the old man's feet pattered across the bedroom floor; the usual thump and groan of excruciating pain as he stubbed the foot of the dresser. A rustling silence as he peered through the curtains into the blackness of the night. "Shhhhhl" Another pause. I waited, scared and anxious in my bed, my kid brother mewing softly across the room. "I'll be damned!" the old man said aloud in wonder. "You'll never believe it." "Believe what?" whispered my mother, who had gotten up and joined him. "Just take a look out there," he said with disbelief. "They moved out! They're gonel" I realized why I had awakened. For the first time in many months, the sound of Gene Autry records had ceased; the continuous whine and yelp of the Bumpus hounds had been silenced. Everything was--quiet. My father sniffed noisily. "The smell is gone. Even the smell is gone!" It was true. The air in my bedroom was clear of cabbage, dog urine and corn whiskey for the first time in six months. The next morning, the truth was there for all to see. The Bumpuses had packed up and moved on, leaving behind a sagging shambles of a house, the back yard rutted and ground to gray dust by the endless clawings and scratching of the Bumpus dogs and the Bumpus chickens, with great, tangled rat's nests of rusting junk and weather-beaten barrels, and smelly gallon jugs and empty bean cans that told everything there was to know about the way the Bumpuses lived out their days. They just ran up a big enough rent bill and then moved out in the middle of the night. We never heard another word about them. At first, my father seemed to be glad. Then, about a month later, a nice old couple moved in next door and soon had the house and yard looking like an illustration for an insurance company that sold retirement plans to nice old couples. They went to bed every night at 8: 30 and had a canary as a pet. One night at supper, after a couple of beers, the old man finally said it: "You know, they cleaned out just when I was going to hand 'em my crusher. I'll bet they did it on purpose." He got kind of moody for a while after that. We never found out what he had planned.


Additional Comments:
This story was reprinted in the book "Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories And Other Disasters", and formed some of the storyline for the movies: "A Christmas Story" and "My Summer Story"


Copyright: 1969 Playboy Magazine

Where Shep Made Reference To This Subject
Photos:


April 1969
Playboy - Cover


April 1969
Playboy - Pic


April 1969
Playboy - Playbill