Stewart not only lived in a déclassé neighborhood; he engaged in a déclassé form of hunting. Possum hunting lost class when the southern gentility, aping the British as usual, took up fox hunting. That left possum hunting to poor folks in need of food. After they caught a possum, they fattened it for a few weeks, butchered it as they would a pig, boiled it, baked it, and served it with rich gravy and sweet potatoes.
What would Miss Rose say if Stewart brought a sack of possums to her kitchen? Unimaginable!
I started going possum hunting with Stewart when I was about eleven--old enough to be allowed out at night, not old enough to have my thoughts on boys. The season began about 8 p.m., when nocturnal animals began to move about. Sometimes we stayed out until dawn. What possessed my father--so beset by fears--to permit his young daughter to stay out all night? Was he not prey to his usual imaginings: I might break a leg, drown in a creek, be bitten by a snake, get lost? It must have been my mother Uvvy--who had no fears--who gave me permission to go stumbling through the woods with Stewart, a couple of his men friends, my aunt Elizabeth, and a couple of country boys who spoke respectfully to Mr. Stewart.
Sometimes we were joined by one of Stewart's girls (the term "girlfriend" being not yet in vogue). The girl might have been a clerk in the Purse and Gloves Department of Loveman's, a secretary at Alabama Power, or even a post-debutante eager for a colorful adventure to describe to her married friends.
All of us trailed after Jim, a big black man who Stewart jokingly called his Master of Possum Hounds. If there was no moon, the only light in the deep forest came from the carbide miner's lamp that Jim wore on top of his cap.
Stewart's hounds, Old Bess, Steamboat, and a pup named Bugle Ann, excited and eager, almost dragged Jim into the woods. Finally Jim unsnapped the leashes. Unlike bird dogs, possum hounds don't rush off; they amble around for a while, sniffing, snuffling. In no time at all, Bugle Ann piped up. Jim was unmoved; he knew his dogs. The pup, he told us, was running a cottontail. Bess and Steamboat, too wise and experienced to be taken in by a rabbit, had not emitted a sound.
We waited. Finally, a deeper, mellower sound. Jim pronounced, "That's Steamboat."
When Steamboat spoke, that meant possum. We stood silent, listening to the rhythmic baying as the hounds circled through the woods, closer, then further away, then closer again. Suddenly their tune changed, becoming choppy and frenzied. Jim announced, "They're lookin' him right in the eye. Let's go, chillun!"
We followed Jim unquestioningly, through blackberry patches studded with briers, branches as big around as Stewart's arm, down into muddy sinkholes, up hills slick with pine needles. Elizabeth and I, being regulars, zipped along. Much to our amusement, the town girls stumbled and fell.
We found the possum clinging with its little black feet and long tail to a limb of a small tree, its mouth open in what looked like a silly grin. Jim chained Steamboat and Bugle Ann to a sapling; in their excitement, these hounds might tear the quarry to pieces. Bess would treat the possum more gently.
Jim shimmied up the tree and began to shake and jerk the limb. The possum fell to earth with a thud; it tried to fool us by playing dead. Jim plopped the first catch of the night into his gunny sack. Off we went, dogs, men, boys, girls, in search of a second possum.
Usually we bagged three before Stewart put his lips to the bull's horn, took a deep breath, and summoned his dogs in for the night. The country boys headed for their beds. Jim departed, a sack of possums over his shoulder. The rest of us, muddy, bedraggled, and tired, cooked wieners and boiled coffee over the fireplace at Stewart's cabin. Privately, the city girls vowed never to accept another date with this man.
On Monday, Stewart made his rounds downtown. He boasted, "Caught three possums Saturday night!" His acquaintances expressed amazement. A receptionist at Bell Telephone Company enthused, "Oh Stewart, I wish you'd take me possum hunting sometime."
Ah, a new audience! Stewart set the date. He really loved possum hunting--being in the woods at night, listening to the music of the hounds. But even more important, Stewart loved being talked about as a possum hunter. How odd! How romantic!
Virginia Van der Veer Hamilton (1921-2016) was a professor emerita of the UAB history department and the author of numerous books and articles. "Possum Hunting" is adapted from her memoir, Teddy's Child: Growing Up in the Anxious Southern Gentry Between the Great Wars. Reprinted with permission from NewSouth Books, Montgomery, AL. For more information, see www.newsouthbooks.com.