When I told some friends I'd made in New Zealand about my interest in odd and funny stories, they insisted, "You must read Barry Crump!"
So I fossicked about in secondhand bookstores to locate a copy of "A Good Keen Man," Crump's 1960 best seller (in New Zealand, that is). I finally found it - a book of stories that were plausible, if not necessarily truthful. And in it I was delighted to find a Down Under version of a familiar legend.I should explain that "fossick" is a lovely verb I learned in New Zealand. It means "to sift through a lot of trash looking for something worthwhile." Kiwi birds, for example, fossick through underbrush looking for worms, and prospectors used to fossick through river gravel looking for gold.
And Crump, it turns out, fossicked through his own experiences as a deer-culler for the episodes in "A Good Keen Man."
As a young man, Crump was a hunter employed by the government to thin out herds of deer, which had proliferated and were damaging the environment.
A man called Jim Reed, hiring hunters for the Internal Affairs Department, judged the young Crump to be the kind of "good keen man" who would kill the maximum number of deer with minimum waste of ammunition. So Reed sent him out, then hired a series of "mates" to hunt with him.
Each new mate sent out from town was invariably described by Jim as "a good keen man," and each one displayed some idiosyncrasy, the stories of which provide the book with its flow of hilarious situations.
One of them was Harry Trail, a man full of enthusiasm for new approaches to deer culling and new ways of adding spice to life in the hunters' bush huts.
"One night," Crump wrote, "I made a terrible bloomer. We'd been talking about the hawks we'd caught, and I told Harry how some young kids back home used to tie detonators on to them and let them go again."
Harry Trail wanted to see for himself the feathery explosion a mined hawk would make. So he captured a live sparrowhawk and fastened half a piece of gelignite to its leg. Here's Crump's recollection of what happened next:
"Screeching wildly, the maddened bird circled once and dived at Harry's head. With a startled yell he bolted for the hut, with the hawk flapping and scratching at his waving arms. He covered the 100 yards in record time and shot through the door. The sparrow hawk with its deadly cargo cannoned into the side of the hut and exploded."
You may recognize the theme of incendiary animals from a group of legends that I wrote about here some time ago. I recounted stories of coyotes or chicken hawks with explosives tied to them that blow up their tormentor's camper or home.
Such stories stem not from real-life sadists torturing innocent beasts, but from much older stories about villagers who set fire to the tails of animals or birds, then release the creatures as guided missiles against enemy villages.
The oldest prototype for them is a story in the Book of Judges, chapter 15, in which Samson sets fire to the tails of foxes and sends them into the fields of his enemies.
The biblical plot recurs in a modern Australian story in which a farmer sets fire to wild dingo dogs, then tries to chase them into his neighbor's fields. The fire, however, spreads into his own crops, ruining them.
It's likely that Barry Crump based the scene in "A Good Keen Man" on a version which he must have heard while deer culling.
Back in the States, Dr. Boria Sax of White Plains, N.Y. - a good keen man in his own right - has reminded me of a fable traditionally ascribed to Aesop and given the title "The Burner Burnt." The plot is based on the supposed enmity between humans and foxes, which one finds often in fable literature.
In this fable, a farmer becomes angry at a fox and soaks its tail in oil, then sets it alight as punishment. The fox, however, runs through the farmer's ripe fields of grain, setting them alight.
The Aesopian moral to the story applies to modern legends as well:
"This story is a lesson in humanity and a warning against uncontrolled rage, which often does serious harm to those who give way to it."