An excerpt from my essay, “On the Personal Acquisition of Meat”
The rustic Maddox cabin reminds me of the original home of Jed Clampett. The main room has a large table in the middle with a kitchen sink in one corner, a row of chairs on one side, and a wood stove in the other corner. There is a separate bedroom and a bunkhouse up in the attic. It even has an attached bathroom with running water thanks to an artesian well just up the hill, Joe’s resourcefulness, and the ubiquitous force of gravity. A bright Coleman lantern hangs from a hook on the ceiling. We enjoy the warmth of Wanda’s wood stove, and eat dinner with the ladies and three guys visiting from Missouri.
We enjoy fresh vegetables Joe had brought from Stonebridge Farm, the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) vegetable farm just outside of Lyons. Joe and my family are among the barterers who trade our labor for fresh, organically-grown vegetables. It is not a fair trade (we get much more than we give), and it is much more like an extended family project than any type of business transaction.
The men from Missouri supply the frog legs that Wanda fries in her large oval Griswold cast-iron skillet. After dinner we listen as “Coyote Joe” plays his guitar and sings cowboy songs about outlaws and love gone bad. As far as I know, only Joe can sing these songs effectively without that annoying, manufactured country twang in his voice. Believe it or not, I have heard him conjure up bona fide Italian lyrics from somewhere deep within his diaphragm during a moving opera duet. I have also watched him make his electric guitar scream bloody murder while he belted out the lyrics of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” When it comes to music, this man is as versatile as it gets. It seems appropriate that tonight we would enjoy folk and country.
But after the last song, the guys from Missouri prop up their feet, fold their hands in their laps, and start telling stories. I am not sure where this night is heading, but soon I become enthralled. Before long it becomes clear that these guys come from a verbal story-telling culture. They are good at it.
The stories we hear from Missouri revolve around redneck hunting humor, outright poaching, and downright illegal hunting practices. I am relieved to hear that the only people they laugh at are themselves, and indeed we share many hearty laughs. The source of many of their tales is an exotic species ranch in southwestern Missouri. Of course, sometimes there are escapees. These provide the basis for many of their stories.
One story recalls the time they were in their truck chasing an emu down a dirt road outside of town, and one guy leaned out of the passenger window (truly riding “shotgun”) taking shots until it fell. They had no idea where this emu came from, but figured it had escaped from the exotic species ranch nearby. As the story went, it tasted pretty good. A couple days later, one of the guys saw a notice at the video store: “Missing Pet Emu.”
But there were also wild stories about hunting lions, other big cats, and even hippopotamuses in Africa. They told us about how the animals behave, hunting and baiting techniques, and some dangerously close calls. A lesser man may have been skeptical, but I resisted that temptation and allowed them to draw me into their tales. I surrendered any attempt at critical analysis, and simply experienced it. Were the stories true? I think so, but as with many stories, the factual truth of the details is much less important than the purpose of the story and the connection that develops between the storyteller and the audience.
I remember evenings at my grandfather’s house with the adults seated in a circle with dessert and coffee in their laps. Gramps usually took the lead with tales from the old days growing up on the cattle ranch near Tremonton, Utah. He told other stories about when he was an electrician at the Keystone Steel and Wire plant near Peoria, Illinois. It was a good oral history that we heard over and over again. Gramps was the hero in most of his tales, but they always seemed to illustrate virtues he wished to pass on to his listening grandkids. But he also shared a couple stories in which he was uncertain and fearful.
His most traumatic story was about the day my mother was born. He described this day only once, during the time I lived with Gramps while attending college. In October 1935, he was unexpectedly summoned from the fathers’ waiting room only to see his wife’s limp, bloody body on the operating table. He specifically mentioned his sudden onset of diarrhea. That day a woman died giving life to the one who would give birth to me twenty-four years later. This was one of the few times I saw tears in his eyes, but the first time I knew he was a human being, and not an immortal god. The implications of offering one’s life in exchange for another resonated with the timeless story of redemption. Gramps’ story was about my grandmother, but I see Jacob helplessly watching Rachel die giving birth to Benjamin. I see Mary at the foot of the cross. This is the history that is somehow silently woven into who I become. I have always sensed that someday I will also have the privilege of sacrificing my life for another, or for the sake of something that transcends it.
Eventually, I had heard all of Gramps’ stories many times, and had most of them memorized verbatim. My dad had his own stories about growing up in Romania. When he started talking about “The Old Country,” I would lean forward trying to catch every word. Visiting other families was interesting because we often got to hear brand new stories. As I child, I distinctly remember thinking that sharing their lives through stories is what all adults were supposed to do with their evenings. Sharing one’s own personal stories is the essence of interpersonal communication, and the most effective way to share who I am. Sharing family stories is the most effective way to build bonds between family members, and to illustrate to children where they come from and what they are collectively “made of.”
But as I grew up through the 1960s and into the 1970s, it became obvious to me that this tradition was going by the wayside. Then, it seemed, we were just supposed to gather around the television set and be entranced by the stories told by Raymond Burr, Lucille Ball, Buddy Ebsen, Walter Cronkite, Lorne Greene, and the like. Now, many huddle over their personal computers surfing the internet in search of something to fill the gap in their lives. It is now a common occurrence to hear interesting stories found somewhere on the internet or on a television screen. Some of these stories are fascinating, and it may not be a total waste of time, but this is much less meaningful and much less valuable than hearing stories that come from the lives of people we actually know.
During my time working in Durango, Colorado in the early 1990s, one of the guys told a story about some of his friends (presumably) from the previous evening. It was an incredibly crude discourse, but everyone else seemed to have been there as well and chimed in, correcting the explicit dialog as they more correctly remembered it. The story was repeatedly punctuated with uproarious laughter. I felt uncomfortable and totally disconnected. “Why do I have to listen to this crap?”
I later learned that they were all discussing a television show called “Seinfeld” that was apparently very popular. I could hardly believe such extremely coarse content had been broadcast on public television into millions of homes across the country. I have hardly watched any television since I left home in 1979. Being so detached from television culture, I was totally out of the loop, but somewhat glad of it.
Needless to say, some stories are not worth repeating.
In our high-tech culture of well-orchestrated sound bytes, abbreviated text messages, and carefully edited video clips, the skill of personal story telling is being neglected. Unfortunately, our culture seems to have delegated most of our storytelling to the professionals from Hollywood, California. This cultural shift toward interpersonal detachment subtly tries to coerce us into thinking of each other as nothing more than a name on our list of “contacts” or just an icon on our social media network list of “friends.” Effectiveness, meaningfulness, and intimacy are routinely pushed aside by efficiency and convenience.
But not tonight.
Tonight in the Maddox cabin, we feel like genuine human beings, legitimately connecting with other authentic human beings through the simple act of telling stories. When I laugh heartily with others, see the glint in their eyes, and we reflect each others’ facial expressions, it becomes unmistakable that we are all fellow pilgrims, and that is something that I need to be reminded of more deeply, and more often. If Wanda and Dawn had not been there, it might have been dismissed as nothing more than male bonding.