Track Three: “I Won’t Go Huntin’ With You Jake,” Jimmy Dean, 1961.
The jingle-jangle clink-clank-crush of exhausted Schmidt cans in an otherwise empty cardboard box, a pair of deer carcasses hanging from the rafters, the scriiiiiiiitch of skin peeled back from flesh; sounds and sights situating themselves among my earliest sensory memories. Death. Slow death, fast death, sustenance, nourishment. Heads and antlers propped in another cardboard box, tongues lolling out – pink, rough, scratchy, fresh – fresh flesh the smell of a fistful of pennies in your tiny little hand. I’d sit on the stoop in the garage, swinging my legs from the landing, listening to the men gossip late into the night.
All around me it was dartboards, bar stools, cussing over pool at Schwanny’s Bar after catechism. Alcoholics and cheaters turned sober-ups and settle-downs, the reproofs of discipline a way of life preserving men from the wives of other men, from the smooth tongues of the adulteress, the commandment lighting our way like a beer sign illuminating a low-class brand of bottled beer out the barroom picture window. Soon as they’d shape up, they’d slip up again.
Come Sundays, it was never church. It was the butcher shop and the liquor store for penny candy and strong Canadian whisky. Grandpa’s fishing van, ice shacks and tackle boxes, thermos full of hot chocolate and sunny cold afternoons spent skidding over lakes in hard plastic sleds.
This is who we were. Hungry for life and sausage, drunk on Windsor or redemption.
My dad’s killed a bear and a moose and some elk and caribou and deer and pronghorn and a lot of other things too. All of it with bow and arrow.
Most of that stuff is stuffed and hanging on the walls or sitting on the floor of the rec room at my parents’ home in eastern South Dakota, a room entirely dedicated floor-to-ceiling to dead animals – two whole stories filled with stories like the time Dad shot a mountain lion while dangling over the side of a cliff in the Rockies. What’s not there is at their farmhouse and hunting grounds by the Jim River, the James River, a tributary of the Missouri known as Etazipokase Wakpa by local Nakota tribes – “unnavigable river.” And what’s not there is in their cabin in the Black Hills of western South Dakota. But none of this was really all that important to me as a kid, so long as Dad kept us in venison sausage to eat on Sunday mornings. The boys I’d bring to my house when I was an adolescent would gawk at the stuffed testicles hanging from the groin of the full-sized pronghorn in the rec room. I’d feign dismay at their immaturity; in truth, I liked the attention.
My little sister and my little brother, not I, would hunt with our dad. I’ve never had any interest in shooting an animal, nor in pissing in the woods, and to be honest, taxidermy terrifies me.
I’ve had two recurring dreams for about as long as I can remember dreaming. The first is probably typical of a kid growing up on the Plains – tornadoes. I go out in my yard, look up into the early evening sky, and it’s tornadoes, tornadoes in every direction, as far as the eye can see, all touching down ‘til their swirling curling tips lick the definitionless ground, then soaring back up into the angry clouds and moving on down the line to locations elsewhere in the county, always moving northeast or so I told myself. This dream fixation might have something to do with the fact that my mom used to get a kick out of sending me out to run around the block and “Find the tornado!” every Wednesday night when the city ran its test sirens. I’d come home in tears after completing a lap. Whether this was something she actually did to psychologically damage my sense of comfort in this world, or merely a tall tale she liked to tell of never-actualized actual torture, I don’t know. It’s hard to know what’s real within the distance of so many years passed.
Tornadoes are pretty fucking terrifying, though. And yet, when I moved to Minnesota as an adult, a place where tornadoes are slightly less ubiquitous on the meteorological landscape each summer – or at least, harder to reckon with personally from afar across a crowded urban landscape – I found that I missed the terrifying fuckers, so integral they’d become to my being and sense of constant discontent and uncertainty. As a Minnesotan I’d long for the day I’d get scared into my basement once again, cowering under the pool table like we did when we were kids, ready for the roof to cave right on in. Except I don’t have a pool table in my house anymore, so if not for their relative obscurity in my new neck of the words, I suppose a tornado might just come along and kill me, rack ‘em and break.
In my other of two dreams, night after night I find myself in a cramped room, the room’s walls covered in deer heads. Fine, I tell myself. Except that the only way out of that room is to brush my face, and my body up against fur and antlers and glass eyes. An intimate assault by taxidermied animal parts. I move slowly, ever so slowly and deliberately, craning my neck and arms and leg just so, doing my best Bangles video rendition (”Walk Like An Egyptian,” right). And still move too suddenly to the right and it’s a mouthful of fur. Move to the left and an antler’s tip scrapes the back of your arm. Draw back, and you feel a cold marble eyeball pressed up against your cheek.
During my waking hours, these passive tormentors hanging up on the paneled walls of the basement followed my every move with their eyes; glassy, fixed, and yet capable of gazing upon me with resolute disinterest whether I’m sitting underneath their imposing heads, or playing in the clear opposite corner of the room.
Hunting and taxidermy? I could take or leave it. Take it if you’re feeding me venison on Sunday morning, leave if you expect me to shoot it in the cold November from the height of a deer stand then disembowel it in the middle of a cornfield. I didn’t inherit my dad’s interest in outdoor recreation. I liked music. Singers, and songs.
In late summer 1993, I was twelve and my mom was gonna take me on a date. Every year, she’d purchase a pair of buttons gaining entry to the Brown County Fair’s week of grandstand concerts, rodeo, stock car races, and demo derbies.
She’d assign my dad one night at the fair, their own date night. They’d start the evening with drinks at our house – Miller Lites for her, tea for him. That’s what he called his tall glasses of Lord Calvert and Coke on ice. They’d go to the show, go to the beer garden after the show, and come home later than promised after leaving me to babysit my sister, four years my junior, and my brother, five years younger yet. By ten o’clock I’d think to myself, “Cool. This is cool. I can stay up and watch cable in the living room – loud – and as late as I want. This is cool.”
By eleven I’d be convinced they were dead, that we were beer garden orphans. That our aunt would begrudgingly take us in, as per the last will and testament, and we’d all have to share a twin-sized bed in the basement of her home and wouldn’t get to keep any of our toys or pets and no one would ever love us again. We’d go to school with dirt on our faces and holes in our shoes and no food in our bellies. Braces and new school clothes and eventually a car and college would be out of the question. We’d be those kids who have to get after-school jobs at ShopKo and end up working there ‘til we have gray hair and our kids and their kids are working there, too. As a child, being sent away from home was my worst fear.
Around midnight, I’d hear my parents conspicuously swing open the back door. My sister, scared because there were no adults in the house and we’d fallen out of her regular bedtime routine for the evening, would have come into my room to sleep with me in my waterbed. Yes, I slept in a waterbed, even after the eighties had passed. I’d listen to my folks whisper-talking loudly in the kitchen like a pair of bad teenagers, then hear my dad clomp up the stairs.
The door would swing open, and I’d see his shadow in the doorway. I’d hear him slamming his hand against the wall inside my room.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
The light switched on. “Hey pal,” he’d grin and slur. He’d been trying to find the light switch.
“Hi,” I’d whisper, my eyes adjusting. He’d stop smiling, and get very serious as he looked down at my bed.
“Aww… your little sister’s in here with you.”
“Yep, she got scared.”
“I remember… I remember when she was just thiiiiiiiiiiiis big,” motioning calculatedly with his hand, bringing it finally to just below his chin. It’s little wonder I didn’t start drinking ‘til my early twenties; depth (and height) perception are important for things like locating light switches and assessing the height of my siblings in relation to myself. I’m short enough as it is. And for driving, which is about all I eventually wanted to do to get out of this place once I turned fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, adult. Besides, whatever it is your parents do tends to be the last thing you want to do, when you’re young.
“You kids are gettin’ so big,” he continued. “Well, g’night pal.”
He smiled sweetly, turned off the lights and walked back downstairs.
The other nights of the fair were date nights for me and Mom. I was sober date so, I’m sure, way less fun than Dad. But since she could only tear him away for one night from his typical evenings spent puttering around at his hunting shack or in the backyard or taking long drives through the wildlife preserve, she was stuck with me. The summer of ‘93, we were set to see a band called Confederate Railroad, a singer named Mark Chesnutt, and on this night, a guy by the name of Billy Dean.
“Jimmy Dean the Sausage King?” Dad cracked as we prepared to leave for the evening, packing our bug spray and smuggled beer cans for mom and a frozen koozie to hold them in.
“No, Dad. Billy Dean, not the Sausage King.”
“Not Jimmy Dean?”
“No. Billy Dean.”
“Huh. Haven’t heard of him.”
And it’s likely he hadn’t, though Billy Dean was hot stuff in modern country in 1993, his career just taking off and yet soon to reach its very pinnacle. These days, he tours around opening for Kenny Rogers.
Though based in Nashville, Billy Dean’s guitar player at the time was married to a local painter and lived part-time in my hometown, where he occasionally wrote radio jingles on the side. You can say hello, to someone you know at the Airport Cafe & Lounge. Get some home-cooked ‘vittles,’ and enjoy the view at the Airport Cafe & Lounge. Some good conversation over coffee and pie, there ain’t no better way to let the day go by.
Us small town folks thought that was pretty cool, even though we held no illusions about the view at the airport. Although the waiting zone of the parking lot was a good place to make out, to be sure, the only “view” at the Airport Cafe & Lounge entailed one of two things: a puddle jumper stopped by Gate One or Gate Two of our two-gate podunk airport en route to Minneapolis or Denver, or the giant jackrabbits rivaling those planes in size which otherwise occupied the runway. Pie was good, though. Coffee, too. The jingle guy left town eventually, but was replaced by another Nashville transplant, this time a hometown boy and childhood friend of my dad’s who’d given up on Music City, U.S.A. and come back to give us more jingles, hold public office in advancement of his falling-out-of-favor-in-my-hometown progressive political values – bless him – and run the karaoke machine at my wedding, all of which classifies him in my mind under Favorite Person status.
Jimmy Dean, not to be confused with Billy Dean, was the spokesman for his own brand of sausage, the stuff my dad would mix up with deer venison to make the best ever breakfast sausage, stuff you’d patty then fry up to eat any time of day, any day of the week if you were lucky and the freezer’s supply hadn’t dried up for the season. And who were we kidding, even if it had, Dad always seemed to have more squirreled away in his freezer at work or in his shop or at the farm.
“Dad brought you home some more sausage, Nikki,” can be classified in my mind under Favorite Words to Hear, Ever. I’d rather hear someone say “Here’s More Sausage” than “I Love You.” My love language is, after all, acts of service. Or does sausage count more as a gift? No matter, I just like meat. My love language is meat. Meat, meat and more meat.
My dad may not have known a lot about country music, but he knew a lot about meat. Meat he’d kill myself, then feed to us. I ate so much deer steak growing up, and deer jerky, and deer sausages, and deer in stew, and pronghorn in stew, and elk stew, and boar bacon, and things made out of bear, though not often; as I understand it, bear meat is not very good meat.
Dad would eat steak nearly every night when I was a kid, and decades later, pretty much still does – I pray thee, O’ Lord, that you look after my father’s heart and colon – usually after he comes home from puttering around at the farm, the farm he bought across the river from the old hunting shack he used to putter around at and not far from that wildlife preserve. Still to this day, as soon as he walks in the door at night, he mixes himself a Lord and Diet Coke – he’s diabetic now, thus the Diet, and he shouldn’t be drinking any Lord Calvert at all for chrissake. And at eleven or twelve at night, my mom finally puts his steak on the grill. I’m not sure if they eat together, or if he still commonly eats on his recliner in his room, TV stand set up between it and his bed, which is what he used to do when I was a kid, watching M*A*S*H reruns or the evening news. I think my folks party it up a little more now that my sister and I and finally my brother have emptied their nest, so I imagine they stay up chewing the fat together – literally, figuratively – late into the night, empty-nest status turning the house maybe into some sort of nonstop county fair beer garden vibe, who knows. Considering my mom’s occasionally logging on to Facebook to leave me comments about my music writing and other random musings long after I go to sleep, I assume this to be the case.
My siblings still hunt, I write about music. They post photos of their kills to Facebook – my brother’s Canadian bear or Wyoming elk here, my sister’s crossbow-slain fish or bowhunted pronghorn there. I post photos and reviews of Billy Dean opening for Kenny Rogers at the local casino. Though my brother owns some assortment of guns, semi-automatic assault (for huntin’ coyotes) and otherwise, he and my sister and her husband all share Dad’s affinity for bowhunting. I’ve been told my dad used to win awards. And the fact it never stuck with me wasn’t for lack of trying on his part, I suppose.
He used to try to get me to shoot arrows with him when I was a kid. I begrudgingly joined him at the bow range only once, and I can imagine I was an enormous brat about it. I’m guessing I was mad that I had to pee in an outhouse while we were out there, or worse, maybe on a log. Once during an outing to his hunting spot, I told Dad I had to pee, expecting he’d load me into his pickup and escort me to the nearest gas station, postfuckinghaste.
“So? Go pee.” He replied.
“Uh, where?” I looked around, unconvinced.
“Uh, how? I kinda need to sit.” At this point, I’m just wishing there was at least an outhouse, but we’re in the middle or nowhere.
“Nevermind. I don’t really need to pee,” I reported frankly.
“Yes, you do. You’re gonna pee.”
Dad dragged me over to a large log, fallen on its side on the ground in a clearing near the Etazipokase Wakpa.
I’m not sure what the Nakota word for “Pee there” is.
“Seriously, I don’t have to anymore,” I pleaded. “It went away.”
At that point, I’m pretty sure Dad yanked my pants down, forced me to sit on that log, and walked away.
Doo doo-doo, doo-doo. I sat still until I couldn’t hear his boots crunch the leaves, walking away from me. Then I slowly pulled my pants up, and walked back over to him, my bladder still full.
“Done!” I reported cheerfully.
I mean, he hadn’t even provided me with any toilet paper, what the fuck am I supposed to do with that?
Bow ranges and other outdoorsy places my dad used to drag me to always had another unappealing trait – ticks. Goddamned ticks. I was a prissy little thing and didn’t much want to pee on logs or in holes in the ground and I certainly didn’t like having ticks or leeches attached to my body. Tornadoes were only slightly better on the scale of intolerable things than leeches, which were still better than ticks, ticks being the absolute worst.
At that age, I never considered that my dad was maybe trying to bond with me. I never appreciated that these might be moments I’d someday treasure, or that they might bring the two of us closer together. Instead it was ticks. Ticks and outhouses. And my brother and sister joined him cheerfully while I stayed behind at home, listening to my Walkman, nose in a book. And I got criticized of a lot for it.
I figured it was my fault that he and I didn’t seem to bond the way he did with my siblings, that I’d chosen at the age of six, seven, eight, nine not to bond with my father, because I was too afraid of ticks and leeches and the great outdoors and there was something wrong with me for preferring in the face of all this to stay at home with a book. That it was all my fault our relationship was strained, and would continue to be marked with tension for years to come. I didn’t realize at the time that Dad wasn’t my biological father, and just maybe that had a little more to do with it than ticks, leeches. That our relationship was far more complicated than the lack of understanding existing between one who enjoyed peeing in the woods, and one who did not. More complicated than I ever could have wrapped my young brain around, that maybe it was even too complicated for him to wrap his brain around. And that maybe it still is.
No, I was convinced I’d screwed it all up on account of ticks, and that I’d chosen intentionally as a very young child not to be close with my father. That he didn’t like me, because I was afraid to pee outside and I was afraid of ticks, goddamned ticks.
So I didn’t take up hunting like my brother and sister did, even though my atypical right hand/left eye dominance meant I pretty much kicked ass at archery in gym class. Instead, I stayed home. I read books. I kept to myself. And years later, I’d find that time and time again, I’d go out of my way to try to connect with the men in my life, try to please them, especially the ones who least deserved it. Maybe because I’d never felt I’d been able to please my father. Or maybe because I felt like they deserved it! No, definitely not that.
Consequently, I also learned I can shoot the shit out of a handgun!
Come on now, I didn’t try to shoot any of these guys. I’m not actually like that. Surly, sure, but not quite like that. Because of my dad’s affinity for archery – and the fact that’s all they’d let us get our hands on in gym class – I didn’t learn how to shoot a gun until my late twenties. I’d recently begun dating Alex. Did I go out of my way to please Alex? Sure, I did. But luckily, he didn’t ask too terribly much of me, other than to be as kind to him as he was to me, and he was usually pretty kind.
We’d been together a few months, and had plans to hang out on a Saturday night, which by that point meant we’d also be spending Sunday morning together. Randy called me up, and asked if I’d hang out with him on Sunday.
“I can’t, I’ll be with Alex,” I told him, feeling bad saying no to anyone, ever.
“Cool, I’d like to meet him. Let’s all hang out.”
I was thinking this was a bad idea. See, Randy had met Alex, though he didn’t remember having done so. I was with Randy at a bar, and he was drunk. Alex was there, and trying to ask me on a date. Randy kept interrupting him, calling him a pussy then laughing. Just over and over again. “You’re a pussy!” Laugh. “You’re a pussy!” Laugh. “Pussy!” Laugh. Alex, as a result, was not terribly fond of Randy.
“Um, okay…” I acquiesced, though I knew it probably wasn’t the greatest idea in the world. I asked Alex, and he said it was fine. “Okay. That would be okay. Where would you like to meet?” I asked Randy.
“Hm, let’s get brunch – “
“- and then go to the gun range.”
In all the years I’d known Randy, he’d never asked me to the gun range. This is the kind of stupid thing a guy would suggest, of course. So we met up for a Hillbilly Brunch at a bar in Northeast Minneapolis. This was what Randy and I had taken to calling dirty Bloody Marys and hashbrowns fried with peppers, onions and cheddar, covered half in gravy, half in hollandaise, and it seemed I suppose an appropriate meal to eat with my new “pussy” boyfriend and Randy before heading out to the northern suburbs to shoot guns with the both of them. And after brunch, we headed to the range, a sprawling establishment located in the lower level of a strip mall.
I shot better than both of them, blasting to hell an Osama Bin Laden target with a Glock while they shot into the clear blue yonder all around the zombie targets they’d chosen. Then we got drinks next door, my new boyfriend realized my old friend Randy posed no threat to him at all, and the whole pussy thing was just Randy being a dumbass drunk. And although it was fun to shoot these guns, I was reminded that maybe I should learn better how to say no to people, even if it meant that maybe they wouldn’t like me. Some people are taught as kids that friends who won’t be your friends because you tell them no are no friends at all, but that’s a lesson I guess I’m still learning.
My dad couldn’t drag me back to the archery range, but I spent many summer nights driving through the wildlife refuge with him. He would assign me the task of counting deer, I suppose so I had something to concentrate on, something that would keep me quiet and still in the back seat of the pickup. If Rule #2 of these trips was not to peek around the back of the truck while dad was refilling his “tea” – because it usually meant he was actually taking a pee – Rule #1 was Don’t Talk So Much. My mom would later tell me they used to ply me with sunflower seeds on these outings, not to keep me occupied, necessarily, but to keep my mouth occupied, keep me quiet. I guess I was a chatty kid, but it’s kind of hard to be chatty when you have a dry mouth full of salty shells.
Dad would take us to the coolest places on our drives. We’d go to abandoned, allegedly haunted farmhouses, guiding us around bone-dry cowpies and lifting us through long-gone picture windows, rapping suddenly on walls and doorways, giving us a start as we’d cautiously approach a broken-down piano, or try to peer through a hole in the floor. He’d drive us over the “singsong bridge,” the name he’d given an antiquated pass spanning a narrow creek streaming out of the river. It groaned when you crossed it, and we’d roll down the windows of the truck so we could whine along.
I counted thousands of deer, never at once, but a few dozen at a time. I think I found these trips only slightly more tolerable than trips to the range and the hunting grounds. On the plus side, modern restroom facilities were more abundant as we traveled down these roads – though only barely – and ticks easily avoided if you stayed in the pickup.
Most importantly, these landscapes, the stuff Dad knew about, the places he would share with us, all of it was so cool, the kind of stuff you only see growing up in this part of the country. But then again, Dad had a temper that might flare at any moment. It rarely did, probably only a couple dozen times over the course of so many drives, countless family trips, over so many years. But it was the not knowing when it would that made every trip just a little bit terrifying.
The thing I liked better than the long drives or the times spent trekking through fields was deer season. During deer season, Dad was rarely around, so I could do whatever I wanted without worrying I might get yelled at. Dad was grumpy a lot of the time when he came home from work, and I fear his demanding personality, his propensity for crabbiness and misanthropy has creeped its way into my own demeanor as an adult. I’m working on it. I’ve had to navigate making the people around me walk the figurative eggshells I had to negotiate as a child.
Deer season also meant Mom felt more inclined to take us to McDonald’s for dinner, since she didn’t have to cook. This is the same reason I liked it when Mom traveled on her monthly business trips – Dad would take us to McDonald’s, too. Well that, or he’d make us goulash, so it was kind of a crapshoot. Holy shit, did I love McDonald’s, and holy shit did I hate goulash. I’d surreptitiously dump it in my little sister’s bowl when he wasn’t looking, and she’d gulp down my helping of ground beef, elbow noodles and tomato paste, Dad never the wiser.
My favorite memories of deer season, though, are of when Dad or one of his friends would take a deer after a night out in the fields or sitting in the tree stands. He and his friends would come home after dusk, back the pickup into the garage, and unload their haul. Cans of Schmidt beer would get cracked open, and they’d hang the deer by its hind legs from the garage rafters.
I’d sit on the stoop and listen intently as they peeled the skin and fur away from the carcass with sharp, short knives, rough motions chopping at the sinewy parts until the outer layers pulled away, making the sound old photo albums make when you peel the cling film away to expose the pictures underneath. Kwwwwwwooooooosh. The deer’s head and antlers would get propped up in a cardboard box on the floor, the fellow’s tongue usually hanging out, a soft, scratchy pink.
Dad’s friends would crack jokes. “Hey Nikki, that’s Bambi you know.” “Hey Nikki, we got Bambi’s mother this time.” “Hey Nikki, hope you’re not waiting for Santa this year, ‘cause now he doesn’t got a full set of reindeer. Check his nose – maybe this time we got Rudolph.” The whole ordeal filled the garage with an appealing aroma of fermented lager and the metallic smell of blood as I’d sit on the steps and watch, swinging my legs off the landing, hanging out next to Mom between beer runs, listening to Dad’s buddies Barry and Jim and Brad and Paul swear long past my bedtime.
Pulling packages from the freezer wrapped in white butcher paper, the type of animal, cut of meat, and date of the kill written in black Sharpie, we’d eat deer meat all year long. Or longer, if it fell to the bottom of the freezer. A few years old? No problem. “Good ‘til it’s gone,” is Dad’s mantra. As long as it still looks and smells and tastes like meat, I suppose. Dad would have it processed into all sorts of end-products – steaks, sausages, salamis, even hot dogs, which is a recent addition that I just served to my friends at a Sunday night backyard BBQ. And deer bacon, I guess it’s a thing.
My dad and brother load me up with venison whenever I visit home as an adult. My garage has accrued a vast collection of coolers this way, since I never remember to bring one with me for refilling on my yearly trips to South Dakota. My friends who didn’t grow up eating the stuff think it’s quite exotic; I’d like to introduce them to the chislic and summer sausage of my youth, but first off, I don’t like to share. And second, Dad’s rule about “Good ‘til it’s gone;” I once had a bad run with some antelope backstrap that was maybe pushing five years old – I know. Which furthermore may have thawed and refroze when a roommate didn’t shut the freezer door tight. And which I maybe cooked a touch too bloody, figuring it’d taste better that way, and it did. I shit blood and sweat through sheets and cried and wailed and flailed in my bed for two whole days and probably should’ve been hospitalized. Only a madwoman would subject her friends to the possibility of this but mostly, I just don’t like to share.
I didn’t always get along with my dad, and still don’t. Our bond was strained, a fact I now attribute to a number of factors, some common to girls and their fathers, others unique to our own relationship, none actually having anything to do with ticks – I know that now that I know better.
But my memories of deer counting and deer meat, singsong bridges and Schmidt beer are ones I cherish today, as I grow older and understand things with the perspective of years behind us. These memories are an important connection to my youth, my roots, and my father, and a reminder that in spite of it all, whether he was knocking me upside the head or dragging me along to the archery range, he contributed to who I am. For as simple as this life may seem – days spent skidding behind four-wheelers, nights spent having average conversations with everyday people in bars, we’re complicated people. We do complicated things for complicated reasons.
It’s been a hard reality for me to square, but I guess it’s what makes us human. The dreams of childhood that keep you up at night, good or bad, tend to stick with you for life, for better or for worse.