Nothing is quite as unsettling as a dead deer being dragged through the living room.
The year was 1980-something, and my stepdad was not a particularly good deer hunter. However, for what he lacked in aim and patience, he made up for with fortuitous rural opportunism.
Nature scoffed at his yearly attempts to procure venison from his family’s rural Wisconsin woodland property. While deer were constantly hanging out near the deer stands during the spring and summer, they were nowhere to be found during the late fall when the hunters donned their blaze orange and doused themselves with the scent of deer urine. If a foolish deer were to ever wander into his range, there always seemed to be a gang of vigilante squirrels that would trigger the alarm, sending the graceful animal on a serpentine run back into the deep woods.
However, as fate would have it. a serpentine run and a tire iron would change everything.
While my brother and I watched “The Muppet Show” at our step-grandparents’ home, a skittish doe was running from an unseen threat when she was hit by a van along a rural wooded road. The van’s driver stopped his vehicle after the collision and saw she was horribly wounded by the encounter. Like a good citizen, he went to alert the local game warden about the animal.
My stepdad and his sister just happened to pull up on the scene as the van’s tail lights faded into the darkness. The doe bleated out in pain and struggled to breathe, and my stepdad recognized the need for the animal to be humanely released from her misery. He grabbed the only tool he could find in his car’s trunk, a tire iron, and with one mighty swing, her suffering ended.
That’s when opportunism kicked in.
My stepdad and his sister hoisted the deer’s warm carcass into the car’s trunk and quickly drove home.
Home was his parents’ frame house in the Wisconsin woods. We visited every month. My stepdad’s father built it himself, and it had the basic necessities – a bathroom, kitchen, three bedrooms and a wood-burning stove. The floors were simple plywood, because, as my step-grandmother proclaimed, they were easier to clean. Because of the house’s proximity to the Wisconsin wilderness, creatures such as mice and ticks freely roamed from room to room. While the house was a bit hygienically challenged, my step-grandparents were genuinely nice, albeit rugged, people who would give you the shirts off their backs. They raised their family and lived off their land by raising goats, growing vegetables and making syrup from the woods’ maple trees.
They also hunted.
And taught their kids to make good use of tire irons.
I saw the car’s headlights make their way to the back of the house. A few loud thumps later, the back door opened and my step-dad entered the house, pulling the dead deer by its hind legs across the plywood living room floor. The doe’s eyes remained open, its tongue lolled from its mouth, and blood, mud and fur from the blunt force trauma left a smeared path as the body was pulled across the floor.
Meanwhile, Kermit the Frog sang from the grainy black and white television set.
The door to the basement was across from the sofa where I sat. My step-grandfather opened the door and helped my stepdad slowly descend down the rickety steps to the subterranean dirt-floor cellar below.
The deer’s head smacked against the wooden steps.
Once in the cellar, the two men wrapped a heavy chain around the animal’s legs. The chain, which was attached to a pulley bolted into the ceiling, slowly lost its slack as the deer’s body was hoisted vertically. (Apparently, there was a recurrent need for a ceiling-mounted pulley in the cellar.) The men made fast work of processing the meat. A long cut to the underbelly released a gush of entrails and blood onto the dirt floor, creating a sticky, metallic-smelling mud beneath the men’s feet. Unaccustomed to the sights and smells of meat’s reality, I made my own contribution of soured milk and half-digested cookies as I watched from the steps.
An hour later, a tray of venison steaks made its way upstairs. A large bucket of other fleshy parts did as well, and it was quickly mixed with spices and rice and ground into deer sausage. Despite my nausea and Bambi flashbacks, I held the casing while a tabletop machine pushed the mash into its new sleeves. Somewhere along the line, the men carried the stripped carcass back up the stairs and out the back door. The scraps were left in the woods for the wolves, vultures and other creatures, but the family’s Lab-mix had first dibs on one of the legs.
We ate a few of the steaks the next day, and although I cried, I reluctantly admitted I preferred the meat over the emotionally-detached beef my mother purchased from the grocery store. I also came to understand the need for responsible hunters (and guys with tire irons) to reduce the wild deer population. While deer are beautiful and graceful creatures, too many of them can quickly destroy the balance of their wooded ecosystems, leading to starvation and disease for them and other animals. The experience also taught me to respect the animals that provide our food, and while I was too emotionally involved to hunt, I did learn everything there was too know about fishing.
To my credit, I’ve never dragged dead fish through my living room.
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