All us humans need something to distinguish ourselves from the dirt. Don’t matter what it is: a human will take pride in anything. If one fellah takes pride in having traveled the world round, the next will take just as much in never having laid eyes on anything beyond what he can see from his porch. If one fellah is generally acknowledged to hold clear title to the strongest, hardworkingest and sweetest-tempered mule in the whole valley, another will claim to have the laziest, stupidest and most ornery. A fellah with the fastest horse won’t take kindly to a stranger with a reputation for gambling that rides into town aboard a sleek and feisty colt. The township’s undisputed checkers champ will generally hold a low opinion of the fellah who’s even more highly regarded as being the best damned horseshoe-chucker, or the most crack with a long barrel or deck of cards.
It’s a well known scientific fact that you can take a ragamuffin hillbilly and have him win a giant lottery jackpot and, at least until the novelty wears off, he’s gonna be as happy as a hog rooting around in hog heaven. But make it so that no-good brother-in-law of his wins a jackpot the same size or bigger, and he’s going to feel like his own good fortune has been cheapened. If he’s the sort of fellah whose pride is easily wounded and hardly mended, the other winning himself a jackpot will take all the fun out of him winning his.
Damnest thing, human pride. As far back as there’s been head-scratchers, they’ve been scratching their heads over that one. Why 2,600 years ago old Confucius himself wrote, “He who stands on tiptoes does not stand secure.” That’s right, even them ancient Chinamen had themselves a word for tiptoes. In fact, were you to investigate, you’d find that every language and dialect that has ever passed human lips has had a word for tiptoes. Like a deer standing up on its hind legs, or a jackrabbit stretching its backbone, neck and ears, or a Ki-oat perched on the tippy-top of a rock—every critter from gee-raffs to snakes—likes making itself look taller than it is. You ever see a slouching dwarf?
Because of what’s called the necessities of life, most everything under the sun is valued by the amount and importance of its utility, the resources and labor that went into making and distributing it, and its rarity. Not so with human pride. It takes no work to get some, it’s as common as fingers and toes and, regarding its utility, it’s always caused far more problems than it’s ever solved. Of all of humankind’s vexes, none has caused more vexation. If you were to make it one of the Seven Deadly Sins, pride wouldn’t sit still ‘till it topped the list.
Now, at least occasionally, we all enjoy going somebody one better. Join the fellahs in the café sipping their morning coffee and announce how the other day you saw a red-tailed hawk swoop down over your pasture and snatch up a wood rat.
“Why, just this morning,” somebody will add, “right out my bedroom window and perched up on a fencepost, I saw a granddaddy Coopers hawk. He was warming himself by stretching his wings into the sunrise, and boy the marbling in his feathers made quite some beautiful sight.” Then some other fellah will tell how while driving in he looked up through his windshield and saw four bald eagles flying in diamond formation at treetop level.
Then there’s the fellah who’s just gotta go everybody one better all the time, and the Englishman was one of them. Up in the valley to scout a site for a lumber mill and have a look at the quality of the local labor pool, if he was impressed by anything, he never let on. Dressed in a starched white collar, Derby hat and a stiff upper lip, and him being a tea and crumpets man with no taste for cider and grits, and no tolerance for discomfort and disorder, dirt and bugs, he stuck out like a Boston debutante at a Georgia moonshiner’s hoedown. Whatever he laid eyes on reminded him of something even better they had back in Great Britain, and if you were to show off something you were particularly fond of, he’d have the same thing back home only better.
And so, folks being folks and all, nobody shed a tear when the Englishman decided that, come to think of it, he wanted to take his business elsewhere. And what changed his mind became legend in those parts.
Outside town on a dirt farm lived an old widower who was the most proud of two things: his blue tick hound gal who bore him top notch hunting dogs, and his Arkansas razorback sow that regularly produced bonanzas of fat, fast growing piglets—their bacon didn’t just crackle but jumped around in the frying pan. And it just so happened that his beloved blue tick gal had up and died on him and left him with six five-week-old puppies. It also happened that his champion old razorback sow had just weaned her piglets and the old widower, not wanting to have the puppies starve, gave the sow the chance to adopt them. She did, too, just like them puppies were more of her own. And, after one day, why them puppies about doubled in size and were so happy their tails started coiling.
So the widower was sitting on his porch one morning when the Englishman, hoping to find himself some working material, came ah-strutting up the path from the road. The widower offered him the chair beside him, he took it, they got to talking and the widower let out how he was just now mourning the loss of the best and most lovable blue tick gal there ever was. Well that got the Englishman to bragging about how back home in England they’d been breeding hunting dogs for so many centuries that they had the very best kind for all occasions. Whether you were after field mice or African lions, the Englishman assured him, the English pedigrees were the best.
“Over there ya’ll got yourselves any digger dogs?” The widower inquired.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Digger dogs. They’re half Irish wolfhound and half Arkansas razorback hog. We breed them up here in these hills and mine are some of the best. Now while an ordinary pig or dog will root up worms, grubs and an occasional mole or gopher, a digger dog roots up raccoons and rattlesnakes, badgers and wolverines. If you’ve got a horse pasture plagued with a colony of ground squirrels, why you let loose just one digger dog and pretty quick there won’t be nothing left of them vermin but hide and hair. Digger dogs don’t lose nothing on the hunting side of things, neither. A full grown digger dog that’s got proper training will up and rip a bear down out a tree.”
Seeing how his house guest was mightily skeptical, the widower asked if he’d like to see some digger dogs for his own self. Allowing how he wouldn’t mind one bit, the widower led him out to the barn and there they were: six of them lined up on the teats of that old sow with their tails spinning like windmills.
Well that Englishman dropped his jaw, his eyebrows disappeared up behind his head, and instantaneously a light bulb the size of a harvest moon switched on inside his brain. Imagining himself showing off his new digger dogs to his friends back in the Faire Isle, he offered to buy the whole bunch of them right there on the spot.
But the old widower cast his eyes down and sadly shook his head. “I couldn’t stand to part with all of them,” he bashfully admitted. “But I will sell two.”
After dickering over price some, and agreeing that he’d get the pick of the litter, the Englishman handed over two $20 gold pieces and took up his prizes and squeezed them under his arms.
When the Englishman got back to town, he couldn’t resist going inside the café to show off his brand new digger dogs. Except, had he been standing there buck naked except for his collar, knee socks and hat, folks couldn’t have had anymore fun with him. Realizing he’d been heartlessly hoodwinkled and bedraggled, bamboozled and flam-snackered, the blood drained out his face like somebody pulled the plug. After letting loose with a heartrending, vibrating heave that seemed to well up out of the misty bog of his soul, he gently set his digger dogs down on the counter, gave each a single mournful pat atop the head, turned around, marched out the door and that was the last anybody ever saw of him.
–published last month in the Anderson Valley Advertiser
July 10th: Why I quit gambling, part 1
July 20th: Halfway home
Aug. 1st: Why I quit gambling, part 2