Traditions sometimes begin by accident, which pretty well explains how the coon dinner that C.H. (Red) Adams and his pals put on each December has come to be a tradition in these parts.

Out here in rural west Tennessee, the raccoon always has been considered a tasty treat--a ready source of meat for anyone with a gun and a steady eye. But there's a little more to it than that.

He who eats coon is per se a good ol' boy. So any male who wants to show he's worthy of the term is obliged to come out and eat coon, sweet potatoes and slaw and wash it down with ample drink. It's a sort of badge of belonging.

Union City's coon dinner began 30 years ago when Adams cooked up a raccoon on a lark and asked a few people over to help him eat it. The thing just grew and grew and this year they had to barbecue 85 of the critters for the 350 men who turned out to eat and trade outrageous stories.

"It started as a novelty," explained Adams, a cheery insurance man who has been mayor of Union City four times and on its City Council 21 years. "The second year, more people wanted to be invited, so we had three coons and 12 people. It took off from there."

By the time L.C. (Nick) Nichols, an engineer, and Charles (Buddy) Vaughn, an electrical contractor, joined with Adams as sponsors, the event had grown to 100 diners -- so large that they had to move it to the Moose Lodge.

"It's open invitation now," Adams said. "We just get a bunch of good friends together. People who may not see each other or speak for a whole year will come in here and just have a ball."

"Union City is known for real good friendship. We are more a brotherly love town than Philadelphia," he added. "We break Letter From Tennessee bread together, have some fun and everybody loves it. Cost? We don't worry about that. We get a lot of good friendship out of it."

They use so many raccoons now that Adams and his buddies have hunter-friends help them build up a store throughout the year. Then they get a caterer to barbecue the meat and they serve it in huge stainless steel pans on a buffet line. Wise diners put liberal amounts of spicy sauce on their portions.

Of course, this isn't everyone's cup of tea. There were no women or blacks at this year's event, even though it's come-one, come-all. And most of the diners seem to be from the area's upper crust.

But there were dirt farmers rubbing elbows with bankers, doctors chatting with deputy sheriffs. The area's congressman, Rep. Ed Jones (D-Tenn.), made his customary appearance, speaking with most on a first-name basis.

The big thing was the reappearance of Will Parks, a distinguished-looking man of 97 who, according to friends, "owns a world of farmland." Mr. Will, as all call him, said, "I work in the sod."

Mr. Will was in China last year and for the first time missed the coon feast. Some people were sad, fearing the worst, but Mr. Will showed up again last week with an impish grin and an appetite.

The venerated Parks remembered working as a cub reporter at the old Washington Post in 1907. He was a classmate of Joseph P. Kennedy's at Harvard and then, after graduation in 1912, went to work for John Russell Pope, the architect.

Mr. Will's modesty prevented him from revealing that he helped design the columns on the Lincoln Memorial, but Nick Nichols whipped out a $5 bill and pointed out his friend's handiwork.

Well-wishers crowded around Mr. Will, who assured everyone who asked that "moderation" was the answer to his longevity. "Heh, heh," Nichols snorted. "We moderated a little long, year before last, didn't we, Mr. Will? "

Mr. Will just smiled. You figured Nichols wasn't talking about coon meat, but then . . . maybe he was.