A Trip to Union County for Raised Hackles and Flying Feathers

In Restless Native by Chris Wohlwendleave a COMMENT

The Game Club’s schedule listed eight months’ of meetings, every other week. Some events were “cock,” others “stag,” a couple were designated “short heel.” At the bottom of the card, in boldface type, was a warning: NO DRINKING ALLOWED.

The club’s meeting place was a large barn deep in the woods of Union County, circa mid-1970s. I had picked up the schedule as my three companions and I paid our $2 entry and went into the barn. The event was a cockfight, illegal but still to be found in East Tennessee.

My introduction to cockfight culture had occurred several years earlier, courtesy of the father of one of my sister’s acquaintances. In his East Knoxville backyard, he had shown me a couple of roosters that he was conditioning. He told me that he didn’t fight them but was helping a friend who did. The subject was interesting enough that I wrote down what he had told me when I returned home, figuring that I might want to write about the subject at some point.

My decades-old notes, refreshed by Internet searches, reveal that a stag is a bird less than 2 years old, a cock older than 2. A short heel is a steel “knife” about an inch long that is attached to the bird’s foot to replace its natural spur, which has been cut off. My source had made me a gift of a pair of spurs that he had recently trimmed off so that he could substitute needle-like steel “gaffs,” more deadly than the knives. And he pointed out the rooster’s hackles, the feathers on the back of its neck. When the hackles are up, he said, the bird is anxious to fight.

My notes and my spurs had been filed away when I left Knoxville in 1972. It was on a visit back when a friend told me that two of his coworkers had invited him to a Game Club meet. I was asked along and we made arrangements for the next event. When my companions and I entered the barn, we found a raucous crowd sitting on benches, about six rows ascending around a circular pit. Two men, holding their birds, were perched on the concrete-block wall that defined the pit, preparing to turn the roosters loose.

As we looked around, we realized that, despite the admonition against alcohol, many of the attendees had obviously been drinking. There were numerous trips outside to vehicles parked in the field surrounding the barn. No drinking inside, maybe, but what you did out in the field or in your truck was your own business. After a refreshment break, re-entry to the barn was not a problem.

The birds were matched by weight, and their owners carried them around the edge of the ring, letting the bettors take them in. Bets were yelled out: “Ten on the blue!” “I got $50 on the roundhead!” “Who wants $20 against the hackle?” A couple of men were circling just outside the pit, noting the wagers, making sure that the bettors knew who had responded to their calls.

Wagers made, the first match began with the two roosters rushing at each other. Feathers and blood were soon flying. During breaks, the handlers wiped blood away and breathed into the cocks’ mouths.

After a while, one of the birds was unable to continue and a victor was declared. Money changed hands around the barn and the next match began. Soon, the “drag pit,” behind the bleachers, was occupied with barely alive birds that could continue only sporadically. Once they had expired, the dead were carried outside. I didn’t inquire about their disposal.

After a couple of hours, we decided we had seen enough. Later, my friend, a grad student who was working part time in medical research, said his friends were getting up another trip to the game club’s meeting. Did I want to go?

I declined, and he admitted he had no interest, either. He had decided that his acquaintances were a bit odd and didn’t want to hang out with them anymore.

“They’re dieners,” he said.

What’s that, I asked.

“They help out at autopsies,” he explained.

Chris Wohlwend's Restless Native addresses the characters and absurdities of Knoxville, as well as the lessons learned pursuing the newspaper trade during the tumult that was the 1960s. He spent 35 years working for newspapers and magazines in Miami, Charlotte, Louisville, Dallas, Kansas City, and Atlanta. As an editor, he was involved in winning several national awards. He returned to Knoxville in the late 1990s and now teaches journalism part-time at the University of Tennessee. His freelance pieces have appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and numerous other publications.

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