When I was about 5 years old, we lived in a small house between Medford and Klamath Falls Oregon. My father, Grady worked bailing hay in the summer, hauling lumber in the fall and winter season working on the Horton’s prize Herford bull ranch, all while studying to become a minister.
The house was tucked between an apple orchard and an irrigation ditch which flowed across the front with a small walk bridge to the street and an auto bridge further down. The irrigation ditch, (not quite an aqueduct) served the alfalfa fields also surrounding us.
The water that percolated through it had its own fragrance, earthy, not unpleasant, its mysterious muddied water carrying what had grown and perished and surged its way to the fields to bring new life. It was mesmerizing and enticing in its lethargic flow as the occasional water skeeters danced on its surface.
The apple orchard was easily accessible to my brothers and I through a small hole in the fence, like a fluffle of rabbits we would scurry through, my older brother Garth, myself, and younger brother Larry trailing behind. We would look for the freshly fallen apples that had not yet been visited by the bug population, and would bite into them eagerly, pleasantly startled by that first crisp fanfare as our teeth sunk into them, savoring the flavor that only a gentle fall sun can inspire.
As a child it was an idyllic magical place, we had no notion that we were poor. We had love, food and warm shelter. Every spring my father would buy several cases of baby chicks, in the cardboard boxes with round holes punched out, little beaks poking out accompanied by a cacophony of peeps. We would coddle and adore them until they were old enough to run away and after that we would beware our step when we were in their portion of the grounds as we didn’t want to be scolded for tracking their droppings into the house. As a child I never made the connection that our adored chicks would be our dinner during the winter months unlike the deer.
To supplement our winter fare my father would deer hunt in the fall. One time my father took me with him, for me it was an exercise in being silent and still, something I have still not mastered to this day. We drove up into the forest, parked our car, then walked into the trees. We walked slowly and silently blending in with the sounds of the forest. After a while my father motioned to me to stop, we stopped in our tracks as a buck walked into view. My father moved a little ahead and raised his rifle and the buck seemed to look at my father with a knowing eye. It was a surreal moment. All the sounds of the forest seemed to subside, how could the forest so full of animals be suddenly so silent? could time just stand still? could the beating of my young heart not be heard? The silence was deafening, only to be broken by the sharp crack of my father’s rifle, and the soft thud of the buck slumping to the forest floor. As if on que the forest animals once again began rustling and calling to one another, to them just another day spinning on the circle of life. To me an awakening to the realities of life…or death as it were.
Once home the buck was suspended from a rafter outside the barn and dressed, all edible parts cleaned, wrapped, and from that day forth named venison and placed in the freezer. I think that because I had witnessed the buck’s demise before it was summoned to our dinner table, I have never liked the taste of venison, unlike the chickens where that connection had not yet been made. As I look back at the photo of my father standing next to the buck, I notice how thin he is, how hard he must have worked for us so that we could have the essentials we needed. I draw strength from the sacrifices he made in silence, but I hear them now, those were the hard times, those were the best times.