Passing It Down
I came up on him without his being aware that I was there. I stood in the timber back of him watching. He was making rough going of dressing out the elk he had shot a while ago. In fact it was obvious he didn’t have the faintest idea of what he was trying to do, nor how to go about it. As near as I could tell he hadn’t even bled it yet and I had heard his first shot almost an hour earlier.
I’ve been called a hard man many a time in my life and I guess that’s so but I’ve always believed a man should stand on his own hind legs and if you don’t know how to do something, it’s up to you to learn about it. If you screw it up, strive to do better the next time. We, as a society, have taken away too much of the opportunity for people to learn from their mistakes. Yet as I debated not offering to help him I recalled a time when I was in his same position only I was a lot younger than he was now.
I didn’t dress out my first couple of animals, my dad did. I was seven years old when I shot my first deer. I didn’t have a tag but it was fall deer season, we lived on what we raised, foraged or hunted and this little spike stood in the middle of the two track lane while we stopped the truck, I opened the passenger door, got the rifle out, fiddled around with jacking a shell in the chamber and then pulled a sight picture resting the gun between the door frame and cab of the truck. It took me forever to get the sights lined up, my dad later told me he thought I had froze up with buck fever but the truth is with my poor eyesight I was having trouble seeing the front and rear sights and getting lined up on the buck. After what seemed like an eternity I pulled the trigger and watched the deer crumple in its tracks. I had broken his neck just in front of his shoulders, which is actually where I wanted to hit him.
I felt no elation at the act, just a calm acceptance it was over. I had seen death many a time and had already been helping dispatch domestic stock for slaughter not to mention running varmint control so in some respects it was kind of a let down. Dad said that deer had been made for me otherwise it wouldn’t have stood there staring at us for the nearly ten minutes it took me to finally shoot him.
As I expressed dad dressed it out, we tossed it in the back of the truck and after it hung for a week or so we cut it up on the dining room table.
The next two years I didn’t hunt. In fact I didn’t do a whole lot of anything extra other than keeping up with basic needs and school. I was recovering from surgery. It’s not worth stringing out the details but it set my physical growing back a bit. When I hit ten or eleven I started playing catch up and the next couple of years I really put on the size and strength.
The year I was ten was almost a repeat of my first deer except I had new glasses and the deer was just about twice as far away, a touch over a hundred yards this time. The same gun, a Winchester model 94, did the job again.
My third deer came when I was eleven. Dad was gone somewhere and I saw a buck standing in the tree line back of the pasture. One thing you didn’t do was get one of dad’s guns out without permission. There was a cranky old guy named Vern Harvey that lived in a cottage just across the road from us and I knew he had a gun, I found out later he had several guns. I was actually one of the few people he seemed to get a long with or at least tolerated. I suppose it was because I carried his dog home one time after it had been clipped by a car. He really like that dog and fortunately it made a full recovery. After that he always at least said hi to me.
Well I went over and knocked on his door and when he answered I asked to borrow his gun. I didn’t realize it at the time but I had kind of broken an unspoken rule, you didn’t ask to borrow guns. He let that mistake slide and asked me what I wanted the gun for. I simply pointed across the field where the buck was still standing. He stood there for a moment or two rubbing his chin with his hand and then he turned on me like a duck on a bug and asked “Do you know how to shoot?”
I answered in the affirmative and after another moments pondering he walked into his house and came back with a Savage model 99 chambered in .250 Savage. He stood looking at me for a moment more and then handed the gun to me and told me not to shoot myself or anyone else, “oh it’s dead on at a hundred fifty” he tossed in at the end.
Man that was a sweet feeling gun. I would dearly love to have it today. I walked across the road up to our fence line and potted that buck at a later paced off distance of one hundred sixty yards. The deer dropped with one round, a quartering chest shot. I walked out to the deer and after making sure it was dead walked back and handed the rifle to Mr. Harvey. I should say I tried to hand it back to him. He looked at me and said I could bring it back when I had it in the same condition as when I borrowed it. Then he asked what I was going to do with the deer. When I told him I was going to wait for dad to get back he called me a foul name and said I was going to ruin the meat that way, go home, get a knife and meet him out at the animal.
Well I went in and rummaging around came up with an old hunting knife and walked out where he was standing. From watching and helping slaughter animals I knew what was supposed to happen but I didn’t know how it was actually done. I started sawing on the hide on the leg and after a minute Mr. Harvey called me another foul name and told me to cut its throat before anything else.
I was starting to get a little irritated with him calling me bad names but I moved up to the deer’s neck and started sawing on it up there. “What have you got? Shit for brains?” he yells at me. I looked up and I thought he was going to have a heart attack. Also, somewhere in the old man manual for dealing with kids there has to be a chapter that is titled, What have you got, shit for brains? I heard that so many times growing up it became a sort of badge of honor to have that comment hurled in my direction because it meant I was at least trying and all old men used it when you screwed up. Guess what? I now use the term myself and looking in the mirror I guess I’m an old man.
I looked up at him and started to make a smart ass response but instead a simple honesty slipped out, “I don’t know what to do” I told him. He stood there for a minute just looking at me. I suppose in just the same way I was looking down at the back of the young man in front of me sawing on the leg of his elk.
He reached down, took my knife and ran his thumb across the blade. “Damn boy, I could ride on this all the way to New York and not put a crease in my ass. What did you do, cut steel with it?” He reached in his pocket, pulled out a small stone and in a few minutes had put a serviceable edge on the blade, then showed me how to cut under the hide to open up the neck and after that how to make sure I cut the carotid artery.
He then took the time to show me how to eviscerate and skin it, explaining as he went what was being done and why. With my dad it was mostly hold this or get out of the way. In my dad’s defense he was interested in getting the job done, not teaching the fine points of gutting and skinning an animal to a kid.
After the guts were out and half the animal was skinned he handed the knife to me and had me skin the other side. Once the legs and head were dropped and the hide was off all the way he showed me how to bone out a quarter of it in the middle of the hide so I didn’t get it all messed up with dirt and grass. As a final act he told me it was only honorable to offer the person who helped you, a quarter of the animal in good faith.
We packed three quarters of it over to our place and hung it in the shop. The boned out quarter went to his house. After we washed up he took the time to show me how he liked his gun cleaned. He was a pretty nice old guy after all.
I moved down the hill and ask the kid if he could use some help. At his yes I reached for his knife and just like had been done all those years ago ran my thumb across the blade. “Damn boy, I could ride on this all the way to New York and not put a crease in my ass. What did you do, cut steel with it?” I already had my stone in hand and I’m pretty sure I heard Mr. Harvey chuckling somewhere there in the background.
Yep, how to freehand sharpen a knife or gut and skin an animal, start a fire and camp cook, use a compass and read a map, a few, of a small hand full, of basic skills every kid should know. There is a whole education, outside of regular schooling that is no longer being taught. Or maybe no one is interested in any longer, I don’t know.
One time I got invited over to a fellows place by his wife when they were going to slaughter a couple of beef. You could translate that invite as a cry for help. You know, I wish people would be up front about it and just come out and ask “Hey, would you come over and help us slaughter?” but no, folks got to play word games with it I suppose. I didn’t know them very well but had been friendly to the wife one time when she asked if her nieces could come out and see a horse or two when they came from back east to visit.
I was tempted to tell her no but I could read desperation in her eyes so I said “Sure, what’s for lunch?” When the day came I got there about the time they were trying to kill the first steer. In order to get the animals they wanted they had cut out five or six other animals with them and had them penned in a corral. Instead of killing the steer where he stood they ran him out the gate and then chased him all over hell and gone, shooting him three times before someone managed to make a kill shot with a rifle from about forty five yards. Man that meat was going to be jacked up some.
Anyway after fiddling around with chains for awhile they finally got the animal in the air off a loader bucket and I just stood watching for the first few minutes to kind of get a feel for the men. It seems there’s always one expert in every bunch and I wanted to know who the players were. They had enough guys all they were going to do was get in each others way. There were four guys, the husband, a brother in law, some friend and the expert and then myself so I guess they had five guys.
The expert took over and with that many hands in the pie I never even bothered to get my kit out of the truck. It was a real zoo. I don’t think any of them really knew what they were doing. That animal was on the ground, back in the air, back on the ground, lifted back up and at one point dropped. At another point one of them remembered they hadn’t cut its throat and they put it on the ground again to do that. The expert was barking out orders left and right and half the time they were contradictory commands. Fortunately there was a pretty good layer of snow on the ground so it wasn’t getting totally wrecked from being down that much.
Eventually they got the belly opened up and this gut mass starts trying to roll out. Only problem was they hadn’t split the brisket yet. So here’s three guys, trying to hold the guts up, while the fourth guy is trying to run a bone saw up against the mess to get it split. Trying to hold those guts back like that is about as effective as trying to hold back the sunrise. Like I said it was a real zoo. I suggested maybe they ought to let the animal back down on its side to make it easier than trying to work against the weight of the guts. They decided that was a good idea so that poor animal was down on the ground again.
Finally the guts were on the ground and the animal was back in the air and the four of them went at skinning the animal like school of piranha on fresh rabbit. Something I absolutely hate when skinning, especially a hanging animal, is having someone else trying to skin on it at the same time as I am. You’ll be working and just as you put your knife to the hide they tug or jerk on the other side of the animal and your knife ends up through the hide or meat. Worse is when it causes you to stick yourself.
They started trying to kill that animal at nine thirty in the morning and it wasn’t quartered and hung until damn near three in the afternoon. I hadn’t done much more than offer moral support and observe but there really wasn’t anywhere for me to fit in and I didn’t feel like getting into a fight with the expert.
They were vacillating on whether they wanted to start the second steer. Everyone was tired and the husband was torn between having help and putting off doing the second animal for fear of running out of daylight. The desire for help won out and they decided to go ahead. A couple started for their guns while the other two were going to cut the other steer out and I finally spoke up and said hold on.
I went over to the hay stack and pulled off a couple flakes of alfalfa and tossed them on the ground right inside the gate then walked over to my truck and pulled out my .22 rifle. The stock in the corral had moved up to hay by then and I put the steer down with a single shot from the .22 by aiming over the gate from about eight feet away. He dropped right in his tracks. I put my gun away and got my kit out and unrolled it on the top of a handy barrel. I sent one of them to bring the tractor over to the gate and by then the death kicks had pretty much stopped. I slipped inside the gate, opened the hide on his back legs from his hooves to above the knees and cut off the legs below the knee’s. Next I stuck a pair of S hooks between the achilles tendon and the leg and hooked them to the chains and the steer was in the air. I opened the hide on his neck from the brisket to his jaw bone then reached in and cut the arteries on both sides of the neck.
He was left to hang for several minutes until the majority of the blood drained. The guy on the tractor backed up through the gate until it was over fresh snow and I set to work. Lowering the animal until the tail was in reach, his penis was cut loose and with a quick cut around the bung hole the whole works was tied off with a twine and pushed through the pelvic opening. The hide was opened from the bung, between the back legs to just before the diaphragm. A quick bit of work with my bone saw split the brisket and then just a touch with the knife blade finished opening the hide on the belly and the whole gut mass started rolling out. I reached in and pushing down on the guts cut everything loose and after cutting around the diaphragm and cutting the esophagus off just behind the tongue everything was on the ground. They didn’t want to keep anything so I cut the kidney’s out and tossed them with the rest of the offal.
While this had been going on the expert was going through my kit and I finally told him to leave my shit alone. My slaughter kit varies based on circumstances. On this day it consisted of a primary set of a skinning knife and a breaking knife, which I was wearing, an identical set of backup knives, a five inch green river style skinning knife, a natural stone finish stone, a home made smooth steel (made from a piece of deer antler for a handle and a broken off 3/8’s diameter long shank drill bit shaft), a bone saw and a few feet of garden twine. If I was going to be working where there was equipment for lifting an animal, I threw in the four S hooks. S hooks or a gambrel makes it a lot easier to handle an animal, especially when halving or quartering it. Obviously if I was planning on processing an animal in the wilds some of this gear would get left behind.
The expert, feeling a little deflated I suppose at seeing as how in twenty minutes I, by myself, was past where they got gotten in about two or more hours and wanting to become king of the hill again started to make pokes at and ridicule my steel. He couldn’t understand how a smooth steel was going to sharpen a knife and kept commenting on how it wasn’t going to get the job done. When he asked if I wanted him to go get his, a real sharpening steel, I finally told him to shut his mouth.
By this point I already had the hide off around the hips, over the flanks and the tail skinned out. When the others started to step in to help I told them no, stay out of my way. With the hide hanging by a point on each hip it didn’t take long to get the rib cage skinned out around to the back bone from each side. I finally reached for my steel, the first time since starting the skinning and it really raised some eyebrows when I steeled my knife backwards from how everyone else steels a blade. It only took a couple of licks on each side and I was back in business for the rest of the job.
The hide over the front shoulders was opened up some and then cutting free the hide on the hip the hide basically pulled by its own weight off the spine all the way to the front shoulders. It was only a few more minutes effort to open up the hide down the inside of the front legs and break the knee joints, skin the front shoulders up the neck to the head, cut through the neck just behind the skull and drop the whole mess on the ground. They didn’t want the cheeks and weren’t going to keep the brain so I was done.
A quick glance at a watch and my total time from kill to stripped, one hour thirty seven minutes and this was on an animal that would probably go around 825~850 lbs on the rail. There’s folks that are faster than me but there’s a whole lot that are slower than me. At that point I let them into the steer to split the back bone and started cleaning up my gear.
Though the basics are the same there’s some difference between processing an animal when you can hang it compared to when you have to do it all on the ground like with wild game. Body weight will load the hide differently and it takes some subtle changes in style to skin an animal when it’s flat on the ground. Another factor is usually wild game is considerably smaller than domestic stock. As to which is easier, a hanging animal or one on the ground, it all depends on which you do more of and get comfortable with.
While it only took hitting the steel once to keep my knives up while skinning the steer, what’s interesting is that even though having a much smaller carcass size, I’ll have to hit the steel a lot more skinning hogs than beef. A few weeks back (in current time) we slaughtered nine hogs one day and by the time we got done I was into my back up knives. Steeling them and even spending some time on the finish stone wasn’t enough to keep going with only my primary knives.
With one exception, and that was when I was a young lad and did nothing more than sit on a coral rail and watch we’ve always skinned hogs rather than scalding/scraping as it seems faster for us. Those nine hogs I mentioned above, from start to hanging on the rail it only took a hair over eight hours, that includes capture, kill, wash, eviscerate, half hour transport drive to the meat cooler/freezer, skinning, carcass cleaning, splitting and on the rail. That’s not a production meat cutting operation time but for a couple of country kids that’s pretty damn fast, a lot faster than scalding/scraping from what I can tell, but like I said I have no practical experience with scalding/scraping hogs. I suppose if you have the knack for it, it would go pretty fast.
Having a knack for things, that’s something that is really hard to teach. I’ve seen folks pick up on one thing lickity split and never catch on to doing something else. Some people can do almost anything and others can’t seem to find their ass with both hands. There’s a phrase that goes “You need to know the tricks of the trade.” A lot of jobs that seem difficult aren’t all that hard if a person knows a knack or trick for doing it. Just about everything I’ve ever done has gone easier when I discovered or was shown the trick for it.
We were picking up hay one year, hundred and twenty pound, wire tied alfalfa. You just about couldn’t grab a wire on the things so using hooks was your only option. We were in the middle of haying season, sixteen hours a day, or at least dew off to dew on, seven days a week. The guy helping couldn’t take the hours or hard work and up and quit. So after a quick call to the owner he said he’d get some guys up the next day or two, his son had a couple of body builder friends they were going to bring out to help, cool my heels until then. After six weeks of haying I’m burned down to little more than bone and whang leather and these two kids show up and damn they’re huge. These guys had big muscles bulging all over the place. I’m not the smallest person around yet I looked like a pipsqueak next to them.
We get on the hay truck the next day, we’re using a ferris wheel to bring bales up to the deck and these two kids kind of shove me out of the way and start manhandling the bales. And I really mean manhandling, they were even grabbing bales in a bear hug. They would pick up and move a bale couple or more times each before they would get it into place. They would have the driver bring bales up the ferris wheel too fast, then have to stop and dig out before they could continue, again handling bales multiple times. It only took a few hours and they were completely shot. We didn’t even get one load up in that time.
Normally it would take me right at seventy minutes to load two hundred twelve bales. I told the driver I wanted a bale up the ferris wheel every twenty seconds, any slower and I was standing around, any faster and I was getting buried. If he screwed it up I beat the hell out of the top of the cab with a hay hook and in an old truck cab with no head liner I guarantee I got his attention. A bale would come up the chute, hit the platform and I’d grab it with a single hook before it stopped moving and guide it with a knee and hook right where I wanted it. It was only when working towards the far back of the deck I would have to grab on with both hooks. I finished out the load and we headed to the hay barn. I put the two of them in the barn and I fed the elevator. Pretty soon I was putting six bales on the elevator, running up the stack, pulling four bales while they pulled other two then jumping back to the load to do it all over again. One of them said when he grew up he wanted to be just like me.
Now both those kids had me beat for size, body mass and pure strength but they didn’t have any common sense about how to handle hay and I outworked both of them combined. They only lasted a couple of days and went home. I finally put my wife in the truck driving for no pay. Because she was a woman they wouldn’t pay her but I was hauling at sixteen cents a bale and had to fix my own breakdowns, so I needed to move bales. I hired a local kid to feed the elevator and I did the stacking. In a sixteen hour day I could make three bills, which for those days for farm work was pretty damn good.
On a whole different note, one year I was cruising through the Colorado Rockies on a bike, motorcycle, not bicycle. I was riding a jap riceburner, a KZ1000, damn I miss that thing, the stories it could tell. Anyway I got hooked up with six other kids that were cruising through the same area and ended up camping together in the middle of nowhere. Other than tents and sleeping bags they didn’t have much of anything and my road kit was real skinny.
To save on clean up I would make a chili dog by opening the top of a can of chili, stick a hot dog or two in it and warm the hole thing up over an open fire. When it was hot I would fish a dog out with my knife and pour some of the chili out of the can, using a pair of pliers for a can grabber, on a slice of bread. I did the same thing with cans of stew, eating it right out of the can. I always saved and carried an empty can or two, washed out of course, for things like soup, that took the addition of a can of water to prepare, so I had room for the volume that wouldn’t fit in one can. I had a little wire grill that folded flat I used to cook hamburgers and other meat on. My whole kit back then probably didn’t weigh more than two or three pounds.
Heh, one time I was cruising through Utah heading north from the Grand Canyon and stopped a little ways back from the edge of the road to fix some dinner. About the time my dogs and chili were ready this Utah trooper pulls in to where I’m at with his car lights flashing. I thought oh, hell what was I going to get jacked up about.
He was pretty cool about it, told me I couldn’t have an open fire where I was but had really stopped to warn me about stopping to help a gal on the road. Seems she would act broke down and when someone would stop a couple of others would spring out of hiding and rob the poor fool that stopped.
I told him my dinner was almost ready and I would make sure the fire was out, thanks for the warning. He was eyeing my cooking arrangement and said he’d never seen anyone do that before, was it any good? I offered him a chili dog and after vacillating for a moment or two he accepted, besides he told me with a grin, he needed to stick around and make sure I put the fire out. We shot the breeze for nearly an hour before he went back to patrol, he was a pretty decent guy and had some interesting tales of his own to share.
Back to those kids in the mountains, here we are in the absolutely freaking middle of nowhere and they didn’t have a single pot between them. They had eaten dinner on the road so they were set for that night but all they had for the next morning was some eggs and a loaf of bread with no way to cook them. I don’t know what they thought they were going to do with them. I was of a mind to leave them to their own devices but the two girls were complaining about being hungry. It appeared none of the guys knew their ass from a hole in the ground so I offered to help them out.
I pulled some smaller rocks out and showed them how to fashion a keyhole fire ring and get a fire going. It took a little searching but I found a nice flat piece of slab rock and manhandled it over to my fire and set it over the notch to make them a griddle. As it warmed up I broomed the flat off with a pair of gloves and warned them to watch out in case a flake of rock chip shot off as the rock heated. Once the rock was good and hot I poured a little oil out of my kit on it and fried them eggs and made them toast. They had never seen the like before. If anyone reading this thinks the story sounds familiar, you had a Canuck with you that sliced his hand really bad with my knife and one of you had to rush him to a hospital for stitches. This would have been back around the fall of ‘77 or ‘78.
I guess the point of that tale was knowing some tricks to make do with little or nothing, and sharing that type of knowledge and skill with others.
Four of us were standing around jawing with each other watching one other guy work. He’s a young kid in the bend of a fence buck trying to tension some braces so we can string wire and I’ll be damned if he doesn’t have three left hands. “Damn boy, what have you got, shit for brains?” I step over and grab a stick off the ground show him how to place one end of it between the wires and start twisting it around and around to tighten the them. At the very last I hook the long end of it against the top cross rail so it doesn’t come unwound. Once he sees how it’s done he finishes the next three up fairly fast.
I suppose somewhere in the past I was taught that but I honestly don’t remember someone having to teach me how to use a lever. Toss in a block (fulcrum) and I had moved things way beyond what a person could do by brute force alone. It is such a basic skill I wouldn’t think to actually have to teach someone about it.
One time I got roped into being a boy scout master. That’s not true, I was actually instrumental in forming the troop and I still have some of those young men come up to me years later and talk about our time together. When we first started it, the parents were coming by with all kinds of craft ideas for us to do. Finally I called a sit down meeting with the scouts and the parents and expressed we were going to be doing outside activities where the kids learned woods and outdoors skills. If they wanted to do crafts there was a Brownies troop down the road they could join and I would pull in my shingle, the craft ideas stopped coming.
We were planning on doing this fifty mile hike through the cascades in the middle of August. In order to make the cut to go they had to read a compass and map, show proper knife handling etiquette and start a survival fire with one match among other things. I had them running drills in their sleep to hear them tell it. On the night of the big test the scouts and some of the parents all got together back of the building we met in and they all did fine in basic compass and map skills, only one kid had problems with handling a knife and that’s cause he thought he was some kind of knife thrower. The survival fire session went a little south. Some asshole (that’s me) decided to toss in some realism. The kids are all grouped up getting ready to start with their little piles of tinder and some adult supervisors holding fire extinguishers by their sides. All of a sudden, in a crystal clear evening, it starts raining. I had strung out about four hundred feet of hose with spray nozzle and started dousing everyone and everything. They naturally complained but when I told them mother nature was a cruel bitch and didn’t care about their sorry asses in the least they got to work. All but two of the kids got their fire started and the rest clustered around the two having trouble and we ended up with everyone having a fire going so I said everyone was ready to go on the trip.
One of the parents asked about the boys that didn’t get the fire started with one match, how come they got to go. I expressed the boys had learned a better lesson, team work, cause that’s what was going to save their ass if they got in trouble in the sticks, not starting a fire with one match.
There were fourteen, maybe sixteen scouts and three adults besides myself if I recall correctly. It was blistering hot and dry summer for that region, we were about twelve miles in and the kids were starting to feel their packs and the heat. It became so bad a few of them folded up and couldn’t keep going carrying their pack. We broke down some of their gear and spread it out around the others and I actually ended up with two partially loaded packs strapped on to my pack and carrying one in my arms, but back then I tougher than all get out.
Everyone was wanting to stop but I told them it only a few more miles to where we were going to camp. There was a grassy meadow next to some small ponds fed by springs where we could get watered up. Well when we got there, the grassy meadow was there but the ponds were nothing but sun baked mud flats. Even the springs that fed the ponds had dried up. Everyone, including the adults started to get in all excited over what we were going to do about water because we were miles from the nearest help.
I told them, hold on, getting in a panic wasn’t going to do a thing for them. After getting them calmed down a bit and I whipped out a small pack shovel and had to dig to a depth of three feet before hitting the water table. Then we had a problem with the water being loaded with iron. The kids all took turns dipping water out of the hole to fill a pan top side. I made them wait while it settled out and then filtered it through my purifier. Over the course of the evening everyone was able to re-hydrate and fill their canteens and water bottles. Most of the delay was waiting for the dipped water to settle.
One of the adults and several kids came up after we ate that evening and said they would never have thought to dig in the pond bottoms for water. My reply was that’s why we were out here, to teach them skills like that.
And that right there is part of the problem, too many of us old timers have let younger folk down by not yanking them off their electric leashes and making them get out and do something. Once we’re gone, all that accumulated life experience and knowledge goes with us and where’s the purpose in that?
Yet, they have to be willing recipients of the effort. I’ve had kids be beyond rude at my suggesting they tag along and learn some of what I know. How to reach them is the problem and the answer eludes me.
I better wrap this one up.