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The Coon Man


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Detroit's Coon Man takes orders for the holiday

Charlie LeDuff / The Detroit News

Grass Lake

There was no moon and the old fella tripped over the darkness trying to keep up with his hounds.

The dogs were deep in the forest somewhere, baying at a raccoon they had run up a tree.

The old fella picked himself up and sat for a spell on a damp log trying to collect his breath.

"Most people dies in a nursing home and give up," he said in a thick backwoods drawl, dressed in greasy hunting greens that smelled of wood smoke and raccoon musk. "I don't mind if I die out here. Least I got something to go for."

Gleamie Dean Beasley, as you may remember, is the Detroit raccoon hunter and meat salesman who modestly calls himself the Coon Man.

And these are the busy days for the Coon Man. Transplanted Southerners, who consider raccoon meat a delicacy, have placed their orders early with Beasley, expecting to have the roast beast on their holiday tables.

"I deliver for a $5 charge," Beasley informed from his secret hunting grounds here in Jackson County about an hour's drive west of Detroit. "For $25, I cook and deliver. Baked or baked with barbecue sauce. No extra charge."

Since appearing in these news pages in March, Beasley, 71, has become something of an international celebrity. He figures he has granted a hundred interviews and is routinely portrayed as an old man stranded in poverty, living off the land, supplementing his Social Security check with the sale of coon meat and pelts. He is painted as a throwback to Detroit's heyday, when Southerners migrated north in search of a factory job and a house and a car, bringing with them their music and food and habits of speech.

The reporters and chroniclers and documentarians have come from Mexico and Amsterdam and Berlin and London and New York. They have filmed him in his kitchen with the peeling wallpaper, cooking coon in his tumbledown, grease-stained stove. They have recorded him on his sagging sofa playing the blues guitar.

They came. They took. They left.

And the Coon Man remains in his broken-down, west-side neighborhood with the empty houses and burned out street lights and the wild game running through the vacant fields.

But when the ledger is tallied, Gleamie Dean Beasley considers himself a winner in life.

The Coon Man has lost some: his best dog was killed by a hit-and-run hunter, his best girl was stolen by a man he calls Slick Willy; his best coon rifle was mistakenly left behind in the woods recently as he stopped to check his bearings in a faulty compass.

It is easy to get lost in what you don't have, Beasley said. It is easy to despair about what you once had. The trick to getting through the hard times, he said, is to remember what you do have.

Beasley grew up in a shack in Three Creeks, Ark. The son of a sharecropper, he left school at 13 to pick cotton. Cotton prices went bad and he arrived in Detroit six years later in 1958.

Michigan gave him everything a man could ask. It gave him three children, five grandchildren, two great-grandchildren. It gave him a job and a house. It gave him clean water and big woods and plenty of wild game.

"I got lots to be thankful for," he reckoned. "I guess I'll stay with my family here. I made my first $100 here. I ain't never seen a Fifty or a Hundred. So, it's been good to me. So I hate to say, 'Screw you, I got all I can get and I'm gone.' A lotta people did but I couldn't do that. I couldn't run Detroit down 'cause I did better'n I ever did in my life.

"It give me a lot, Detroit. I'm not quitting it. It wouldn't seem right. Somebody gotta stay. Maybe if it was like it was, like it used to be, then I feel like I could do it. But I can't. I can't. I'm thankful for what the city give me. I guess I'll go down with it."

The baying of the hounds grew to a howl like a fiddle whining in the hills. Their call ricocheted through the night. The Coon Man stood and tapped the little compass he kept on a string around his neck.

East, it read.

He tapped it again. South, it read.

He tapped it again. Southeast, it read.

Satisfied, the Coon Man -- as sturdy as a billy goat -- set off into the darkness with his bolt-action .22.

Somebody's Thanksgiving supper was hiding up a tree.

Travels with Charlie charlie@detnews.com (313) 222-2071

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