Blood Falls on Snow

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By David Hammond

I don't kill things. Not even spiders, which is saying a lot as I'm a lifelong arachnophobe.  Sometimes I get uncomfortable even around crabs and octopi.  It's the eight legs thing.

Anyway, I don't swat flies and I don't step on roaches. I avoid ant hills

There's a reason behind my almost Jain-like aversion to causing harm to living things.

When I was 13, I had three friends, partners, many times, literally, in crime. Let's call these guys Larry, Pete and Steve, because that's their names. Larry was my best friend at the time.

We were what now might be labeled "domestic terrorists."  No political agenda, just kids, subject to an adolescent, anarchistic desire to create public unrest, frequently with explosives.

Once, we set off a larger bomb in a public park in our hometown of Elmhurst. Length of pipe, powder, waterproof fuse. The bomb delivered a deep report that shook the still winter air, very satisfying. Some old lady (probably younger than I am now) was out walking her dog. Understandably panicked, she called the police.

We'd gone back to my house to warm up. Little bit later, we went out to help my neighbor push his big black Buick out of the snow. Squad car pulls up. We're captured. We go to youth court. Our sentence is public service, shoveling sidewalks in downtown Elmhurst for X hours. The judge assured us we could just as easily have ended up in Charley Town (the youth correctional facility in St. Charles – I think it's still there). We took that as a complement; in those days, Charley Town was the Ivy League for aspiring trouble-makers, a finishing school for punks.

We were on a bad track. Eventually, some of us did go to prison. A few were institutionalized. Couple were killed. Some of us, at least Larry and me, we settled down.

Later that winter of our disobedience, we were hanging around my house again. My dad grew weary of us loitering about. He gave us a few bucks to buy a pizza at Roberto's, a storefront joint on Spring Road. Roberto's is also still there, only fancier: now it has white table cloths and a wood-burning oven, just like every other Italian place in Chicagoland.

On this cold night, the bare walls of this maybe 40X40 yellow room at Roberto's were streaked with moisture, dripping with humidity. People came in stomping feet, relieved by the heat of the creaky Fould's ovens, thankful to be indoors and ready to eat.

We ordered our X-tra large cheese and sausage. Between bites (!), we took short, hurried drags on our cigarettes (Winston for me and Larry; Taryeton for Pete; Pall Mall for Steve). We shoveled big greasy fistfuls of pie into our faces, all hands moving. We ate fast to ensure we got our fair share…before any of our friends did. It sounds revolting. I guess it kinda was. But it was also wonderful. There is nothing as fierce as the appetite of a teenage boy. To this day, I find it pleasurable to watch a young man eat and eat and eat.

Still animated by an excess of adolescent energy, we decided that the next morning, we'd go hunting. In suburban Elmhurst.

We didn't have any actual firearms, alas, but the summer before, my cousin George and I had bought Wrist-Rocket Slingshots. These were metal slings, with two lengths of highly elastic surgical tubing secured to a leather pouch. Each sling had a wrap-around support. These slings were supposed to shoot the length of two football fields. For ammo, we used cherry-sized ball bearings. These were weapons. You could kill with these toys. 

Completing our armamentarium were BB and CO2-pellet guns. 

We met up near the train tracks the next morning. 

Here's how we "hunted" (a verb that in this context cries out for air quotes): First, we'd flush "game." Rabbits and a squirrel or two would dart out. We'd open fire, such as it was. Then we'd dance about, trying to avoid being hit by our own ordnance. Clearly, we posed a much more serious threat to ourselves than to our intended prey.

The day wore on. It was cold. We started a fire. It was hot on our faces. Our feet were numb. 

Leaving the fire, we started walking along the tracks again. We caught nothing. Bravado dwindled. Steve and Pete went home. The sun was setting. The sky was blue-grey with slight pink clouds. 

After a while, it was just me and Larry walking along, best friends looking for something to kill. 

We passed a fallen tree. Larry hefted it up. He shouted, "There's something in there!" 

At last, our prey! Our blood rose hot. 

All I saw was dark fur. We opened fire, releasing round metal into the thing's body. 

The thing…was a ground hog, heavy with winter fur, maybe nine, ten pounds of animal. It was twisting in pain. Cold metal continued to land with thick thuds upon its body.  Phew. Phew. Phew. 

But it wasn't dead. It was just hurt. Bad.

Now what rose up in us was our guilt at causing this pain. We decided to put this living thing out of its misery. We kept shooting, our desire to erase our transgression making us inexplicably even more aggressive toward our victim. We felt bad, and this thing was going to have to pay for that.

As we fired into the shallow hole, we saw what was probably bedding (if a wild animal can be said to have such a thing), leaves and stuff, some half-eaten food.

We were killing this thing, slowly, clumsily, in its own house.

Larry maneuvered the sad creature into a position near a metal fence post. As he worked the post around to rest on the creature's neck, and snap it, he looked up for a second and said to me in a low voice, "This is bad. This is really bad."

He was right. We both kind of sniffled. We felt bad about hurting this animal. We felt bad about ourselves.

The animal's neck broke. Warm blood spilled on snow, steam rising as hot met cold.

We'd taken a life. Not for food, hardly for sport. Pointlessly. Carelessly. Cruelly.

Having watched that little thing squirming in pain beneath the onslaught of our childlike weapons, completely terrorized, in its own tiny house in the dirt, bothering no one, it shamed us.

We left the dead creature a few feet from his home. Perhaps his family would find him later.

Walking home, neither Larry nor I said much to each other. It's possible we said nothing. After the heat of battle, we walked, alone, silently with our own cold reflections. I'm not sure we even said goodbye when we parted ways to go went back to our own warm homes.

About four years ago, I ran into Larry at our high school reunion.  It was in an Elmhurst banquet hall.  The food was stereotypically bad: overcooked, bland, personality-free chicken and green beans. We ate with none of the enthusiasm of our youth… for many reasons.

We talked about our lives over the past decades, and about our friend, Bunky, who later committed suicide by walking into a train, on those familiar tracks. Larry reflected on the time I drove the family car into a house.  We remembered the guy, Ron, who made that bomb that got us all in trouble: "He went crazy," Larry, offered. "He's locked up somewhere."

Then we recalled our "hunt." We recollected how we'd come close to killing ourselves with our own feeble weapons, and how we'd slaughtered a warm living thing in cold blood for no reason. 

"After that," I said to Larry, "I never killed anything ever again."

With a tight half-smile, Larry looked up at me, just as he had when we stood over that limp and bloodied creature. "Me neither," he said, "Me neither."

 

 

 

 

 

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Reader Comments

8 Comments - Add Your Comment

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joe from south oak park  

Posted: February 6th, 2014 10:20 PM

I'd say this is a fairly common narrative among folks who grew up in the country, myself included. For someone who values life, killing an animal without purpose feels bad. I think that is part of the reason that sportsmen and farmers have great respect for animals and such a strong dislike for folks who poach or take game without proper harvesting.

Mike Janowski  

Posted: February 6th, 2014 5:13 PM

Very poignantly written. Made me stop and think about my attitudes towards fun, death, food and meat.

Uncommon Sense  

Posted: February 6th, 2014 4:25 PM

The squirrel was about eye height on the tree trunk. I took the stock of my pellet gun and knocked him to the ground. All I can remember is looking into the squirrel's eyes and it just stared back at me. I could just see its fright. It was really weird. I put him out of his misery with a quick shot and from that point forward, I never shot another squirrel, rabbit or anything.

Uncommon Sense  

Posted: February 6th, 2014 4:21 PM

Growing up in the south, shooting squirrels as a youth was normal. I used a 22. caliber pellet gun and had a Daisy BB gun as well. Also had the sling shots you mention. I fully support hunting for food, but I too had an experience one day as a teen shooting squirrels that haunts me to this day. I shot a squirrel climbing up a tree and I guess my aim was so good, I severed its spine and he literally was alive but stuck in place on the tree... cont

David Hammond from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: February 6th, 2014 4:01 PM

It was cruel, Wondering, but you're right, proper instruction in hunting might have resulted in an entirely different psychological outcome.

Peter from Chicago  

Posted: February 6th, 2014 3:34 PM

1. Loved it. 2. What's with the comment above that this is supposed to be a blog about food. Apparently he missed the part about the pizza, the reunion meal and appetites of boys. Have you never read Jim Harrison? That good ol' boy could write pages to his column (air quotes), THE RAW AND THE COOKED and end with a two sentence recipe for home BBQ sauce or whatever commercial bung drainage you use. 3. I have seen Hammond "kill" many plates of food. 4. Im gonna re-read it and love it again!

Wondering...  

Posted: February 5th, 2014 12:09 PM

Interesting recollection, David. Your feeling bad makes me wonder how it could have been different if you had an adult with knowledge of hunting properly. Could have satisfied your perfectly natural boyhood curiosity without the also-perfectly-innocent botching it. Your story is fairly harmless though I'm sure the PETA types will blast your "cruelty."

??  

Posted: February 5th, 2014 11:35 AM

Random thought for a food blogger. I thought you were to write about restaurants, recipes and such.

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