Mississippi's roadways in spring are breathtakingly beautiful. I don't know who first decided to use red clover along the shoulders and drainage ways of the roads but it was a good decision. To top that big hill, whose hollow forms a gentle curve on Highway 98 northwest of Hattiesburg when the clover is blooming is inspiring. Maybe not "purple mountain's majesty," but certainly deeply carpeted crimson splendor. The red blooms of this soil-saving ground cover are amassed in such quantities as to rival the robes of Solomon.
The goldenrods in fall equally match the glory of the spring's red with mustard-colored scepters held aloft at ninety-degree angles to the terrain. The goldenrod and clover are rarely ever messed with, not even bush-hogged, as an hour spent among these two will bring on hay fever and a quick trip to Piggly Wiggly for more Kleenex.
There's a lot of something else you see on the roadways in the South year round: dead armadillos. Alive, I think they're as cute as the next critter occupying the planet with us, as long as they're not digging for earthworms and grubs in the yard. Dead, they make a great stink and attract buzzards. They're drawn to the roads, driven (pardon the pun) by their hunger and the easy meal of insects to be found on a sun-warmed road on a cool night. And then they get smashed flat like a fritter.
Some armadillo corpses manage to stay relatively intact and roll to the shoulder to remain there with feet pointed skyward until the local carrion-eaters come and move them so Mama's dogs can drag up the putrid shells. I think someone at Mississippi State is working on a formula to predict the population of armadillo in a given area exponentially based upon insect/earthworm availability multiplied by proximity to a roadway, a roadway being defined by it's ratio of width to depth of asphalt to y-equals-cars traveling in x-equals-time.
A lot of Southerners go out of their way to run over an armadillo in the road. I don't do that, although the urge to hunt, track, and destroy armadillos flashes feverishly hot in my blood at the sight of them. I come from a long line of armadillo hunters, the greatest of them for all times being -- Mama. She hates them. I use the term "hate" with all gravity here. As children, in Mama's house, you didn't hate anyone of anything. It was too severe a term for anything in God's creation and even now, I don't let my (almost) grown sons say "hate" either. We always did and still do, use phrases like "I intensely dislike," or "I really can't stand," or "It gets my gall up." This doctrine was so deeply ingrained in us that we did not and do not say "hate."
If anyone anywhere ever truly hated something, Mama hates armadillos. And they hate her, too! She's forever referring to the hateful things digging under her clothesline, or the hateful things, messing in the turnip patch, or the hateful things keeping her awake by being outside her bedroom window. I expect the feeling is reciprocal.
She hunts them. She hunts them down. With a focus and singleness of mind equalling Olympic athletes and the determination of Sir Edmund Hillary she tracks and exterminates every armadillo that enters her property, or at least comes messing around the house and yard. Like a cold-blooded assassin she executes them for trespass against the Perlena with her trusty .410, one shell in the barrel and four in the clip, just in case he jumps and she misses.
While a few armadillos can be seen in daylight (mostly dead) they are generally nocturnal. That means to hunt them successfully, Mama must go out at night.
She is one well-equipped nocturnal hunter. She has everything she needs: a headlight, a firearm, and ammunition. Over the years, several of her children have bought her different styles and designs of headlights for her nighttime hunts but she still prefers the adjustable elastic band-type, like the miners wear on their safety helmets in miner movies, with the lamp in front, long cord attached to a big batter clipped to a belt. Except Mama doesn't have a miner's safety helmet. She doesn't wear a belt. The armadillos come in the yard around ten at night, so she's usually in her gown. Where DOES that battery go?
Let me tell you of one night some years ago. The month was June. The family and I were down visiting Mama for a long weekend away from Oxford. The weather was remarkable; a cool snap had come through. The humidity was down to fifty percent and night time temperatures were hanging in the low seventies. We were sleeping in the corner bedroom with the windows up, a cool breeze rattling in the magnolias. I was awakened by the sound of multiple little feet stomping-tromping through the summer-shed magnolia leaves. Somebody or something was outside! A little more tromping and then, through the bedroom window, I see a beam of light moving purposefully across the ground in determined arcs. OH! It was Mama, hunting the armadillo that had invaded her territory for its last time.
Mama was in all her array. The headlight was on her head, its power supply secured around her waste by a non-wearable pair of pantyhose: battery knotted in the waist end, and the legs tied around her midriff. She did indeed have her gown on, along with her old garden shoes, discarded sneakers from a granddaughter. The presence of the faithful little shogun is implied. At this point I must remind you that Mama is a country dweller and this is not improper behavior on her behalf when everyone is supposed to be asleep and the nearest neighbor is a half-mile away.
The four legged tromping started again. Without warning the .410 is discharged, followed by three rapid whacks to something that sounded rather hollow. Not only had Mama shot the armadillo, she was now beating it with the barrel of the gun to make sure it was dead, ammunition being expensive and not wanting to waste a precious resource in shooting the hateful thing again. She said later that she had picked up a stick to beat the dead armadillo with, however; the time lapse between the shot fired and the whacking contraindicate this. Must have been a pretty close stick.
I called to her from the window, "Mama, did you get it?" In her most precious kindergarten-teaching voice she replied with a question, "Oh, did I wake you up?"
With fits of giggles, which are not uncommon at Mama's house, we went back to sleep. The next morning there was a carcass to be hauled off down the hill and Mama had carved one more notch in the stock of her shotgun, which now looks like fine cross-hatching.
Oh, yes, she may seem the ideal grandmother type: soft voice, gray hair, big lap, good cook. In reality she is the all time great surreptitious hunter of armadillo. Maybe Mississippi State could hire her to help with that formula...