Roger and Me
This city gal knew she’d be mixing with hunters when she moved to rural Michigan. But chowing on squirrel stew with them?
By Mary Beth Crain
The other night I attended my first wild game dinner.
I recently moved to Hart, Michigan from Los Angeles, where I’d lived for 30 years. Hart is a little town of 2,000, 2,001 since my arrival. A hart, in case you didn’t know, is a kind of deer, and Michigan is Deer Hunting Central. On November 15, when deer-hunting season officially begins, all the schools close—not because it’s an official state holiday but because nobody will show up anyway.
Everybody—parents, teachers and kids—takes the day off to head for the woods. The papers are filled with stories of proud hunters holding up the heads of dead bucks. All the TV channels air interviews with big, hulking men in their camouflage, relating, with emotion-filled voices, the tale of the Big Moment when they closed in for the kill.
One of the creepiest local traditions is the dead deer parade. During hunting season, you’ll often see cars, pickups and SUV’s cruising the streets with dead deer tied to the trunks or hanging from the flatbeds. The first time I ever witnessed this gruesome display was when I was having lunch at The Bakery, the local breakfast/lunch watering hole in neighboring Shelby, pop. 1,800. I looked out the window and there, pulling up in front of the restaurant, were three cars sporting doe and bucks with wide-open eyes, tongues hanging out, and blood dripping from their mouths. I almost puked on the spot. Then three skinny guys in hunting jackets and caps sauntered in, looking cocky as hell, and everybody in the place applauded.
“What’s going on?” I asked Brenda, the owner.
“Why, don’t you know?” She looked astonished. “Deer hunting season started today, and they’re coming in with the first kill.”
I pondered the irony. If these guys had done this on my street in Pasadena, they’d either be issued citations or booked on the spot. Here, they were conquering heroes.
Now, I’ve been a city girl all my life. The closest I’ve ever come to hunting is for bargains at Macy’s. I’ve never held a gun, except the squirting variety, and as a lover of all God’s creatures, I can’t imagine killing anything, with the exception of mosquitoes and terrorists.
When mice recently invaded my kitchen, my brother set traps and I was stuck with emptying them. I absolutely could not bear the sight of these cute little lifeless bodies. I felt so horrible—after all, they were hungry and cold and just needed a place to stay for the winter, and they had babies to feed, and so what if my utensil drawers were filled with itsy bitsy mouse calling cards the size of caraway seeds? I’d rather live with them, I decided, than with the murder of innocent rodents on my conscience. And I haven’t set another trap since.
So there’s me, on one end of the animal rights scale, and Roger Simkins on the other.
Roger is a Hart institution. A big-bellied fellow with long white hair that hangs down his back, a pleasant, friendly face, and a hearty chuckle recognizable for miles, he’s been active in community affairs for years, and is a long time Freemason who’s earned the enviable title of Worshipful Master. A master hunter and angler as well, he’s won umpteen sportsman awards, and his particular passion is squirrel hunting.
Roger goes squirrel hunting every day. His collections of squirrel tails and “squirrel sticks”—sticks he’s carved and notched with the number of squirrels he’s both spotted and nabbed—are as awesome as they are grisly. Then there’s his famous photo album of game trophies that goes back 25 years, every page filled with fading Polaroids of dead squirrels lined up in rows, half-gutted deer hanging on the line, and piles and piles of trout.
While Roger loves killing squirrels, I love squirrels. They’re so adorable and playful, and I never tire of watching them chase each other up trees and across telephone wires, chittering and chattering with boundless joy.
But I also love Roger, because he’s funny and kind and has a heart as big as one of those bears lying in state in his trophy album.
Roger puts up with me, too. I thought he’d die on the spot when he agreed to babysit my Chihuahua, Truman, and I brought the dog over to his house dressed in a tiny camel hair coat I’d bought at Petsmart. It was 60’s retro chic, with a little bow under the chin, pockets with buttons, and a leopard fur collar. Truman looked like Jackie Kennedy. The only thing that was missing was the leopard fur pillbox hat.
“That dog’s gonna need a psychiatrist!” Roger growled.
Anyway, when Roger and his companion, Brenda Bont, invited me to join them and ten other friends for the annual wild game dinner hosted by the Arcana Masonic Lodge in the neighboring town of Hesperia, I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, I wanted to be social, meet new people, and get to go inside a real live Masonic lodge. On the other, my stomach was getting jumpy at the thought of roasted elk, grilled moose or stewed squirrel.
I knew this wasn’t a rational response because I eat beef and chicken and turkey and pork and lamb, and that doesn’t bother me. So why should consuming wild game be any different? Having no sensible explanation, I accepted Roger and Brenda’s invitation and, at 5:30 p.m. on January 13, found myself standing in front of a long array of chafing dishes full of exotic main courses harvested and donated by lodge members. Roger, in fact, had donated 60 squirrels for the occasion.
Gingerly I held out my paper plate and watched as jovial hunters filled it with barbecued venison meatballs, venison Swiss steak, haveline, prairie chicken, wild boar and…squirrel. When I saw those tiny squirrel bones floating around in mushroom gravy, I almost lost my nerve, but then I rallied. It was a matter of both graciousness and pride; I simply could not have a big city slicker crybaby meltdown in front of all these nice tough guys who were obviously so proud of their cooking and so happy to share it.
Joining lots of other friendly folks, I sat down at one of the long tables in the main hall and took in all the Masonic trappings. I was particularly impressed by the huge wood and leather “throne,” from which the Worshipful Master presides over meetings, which obviously dated from the turn of the century, if not earlier. At the other end of the hall, a white-haired man was playing stirring patriotic songs on the organ. I made a stab at my venison meatball as the hall reverberated with “America the Beautiful.”
Ray Oxford, a friend of Roger’s, was sitting next to me.
“Don’t you like the food?” he asked, surveying my full plate.
“Oh, yeah, it’s sure good,” I replied. And it was, only awfully rich, and there was an awful lot of it, and those little squirrel bones were still bugging me. “I’m just taking my time.”
“I love this stuff!” he enthused. “I could eat it all day and all night.”
I asked him what he liked about hunting.
“Nature,” he replied. “Being out there with just the trees and the animals and the sun and the sky…No TV, no telephones, nothing. Just me and nature.”
“Do you feel badly when you kill something?” I asked.
“Sure,” he nodded. “I feel sad.”
“Then how come you do it?”
“I love the meat!” he answered brusquely. “I never kill anything I don’t eat. And,” he gave me a pointed look, “I don’t go around bashing cow’s heads in either!”
OK. Now I admit to being something of a hypocrite. I eat meat. And if it weren’t for guys like Ray and Roger, I wouldn’t be able to. If I had to shoot an animal, I’m sure I’d become a vegetarian. But as long as we’re a meat loving society, someone out there has to pull the trigger.
The only thing I don’t understand is, how come they can do it and I can’t? How come the idea of looking a beautiful doe in the eyes and blasting her away is simply beyond my comprehension?
I’ve asked a lot of hunters that question, and none of them seem to be able to answer it. Some say they have a duty to thin the herd. Others say they grew up hunting, that it’s just a matter of tradition, a male bonding ritual they shared with their dads and granddads and brothers and uncles and cousins from the time they were taking their first steps. (That goes for women, too; plenty of gals who come from hunting families enjoy the sport.) Still others say that hunting is a true skill, and that there’s just nothing like the thrill of bringing down a wily ten-point buck.
What hunters have yet to explain to me, however, is why they take pride in killing a beautiful, defenseless animal.
I understand the concept behind thinning the herd, or hunting for food. I understand the thrill of being one with nature. But none of this explains the need to prove your manhood—or womanhood—with a bleeding carcass that you wave in the breeze as proudly as if it were the flag itself.
At the Shelby State Bank the other day, I was discussing the matter with customer service rep Jean Glover when before I knew it, everybody in the bank began putting in their two cents. Jean told how her dad and brothers let her go hunting with them when she was ten, and how proud she was to get to carry home a six-pack of dead squirrels, three in each hand. The bank manager, Mary Sue Mahan, recalled her dad entertaining them as kids by killing chickens. “The head would be squawking in one hand, and the body jumping in the other, and we kids would be clapping and yelling, ‘Do it again, Daddy!’” she laughed.
“I could never kill anything, “ Kristeen, one of the tellers, declared.
Customer/sportsman Joe Daly, who was standing at one of the windows, tried to answer my question. “Hunting is as old as the history of man. It’s a gene that’s in us.” He, too, admitted to feeling badly when he kills an animal. “There’s always that remorse. It’s part of it. But as to how or why we do it, well, I’d say it’s the warrior in us. The part of us that still has to feed the tribe.”
When I asked Roger Simkins the question, I could tell he thought it was a little silly.
“I never had a problem with it,” he stated flatly, as we sat at his dining room table, eating ice cream and admiring his squirrel sticks. On the wall behind me stood a coat rack, the hooks made out of deer hooves. In the next room, a huge bear head mounted on the wall surveyed the proceedings with wide open eyes and mouth. “I grew up on a farm, and you learned early on to separate the petting animals from the eating animals.”
A Native American, hunting came as naturally as breathing to Roger. As a little boy, he was already bringing home game all by himself, and often his family needed that game in order to survive. A far cry from my family living in the middle of Rochester, New York, where the only game my dad ever brought home was wild pizza.
What it all boils down to, I guess, is how you grew up, what you were taught, and how well you learned those lessons. Roger grew up hunting, and is today a spectacular sportsman who basically gets everything he aims at. He’s proud of his skills, and he should be. I, on the other hand, grew up writing stories and training to be a concert pianist. I’m just as proud of those skills. Each to his own.
But when it comes to mice, I do wish I had just a little tiny bit of Roger’s fortitude. It certainly is a pain, having to clean mouse business out of my kitchen drawers and cabinets every day. When I told Roger that I felt too sorry for the mice to kill them, he was kind enough not to say what I know he was thinking: “This woman needs a psychiatrist!”
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Senior editor Mary Beth Crain’s last piece for SoMA was Food and God: Cooking as a Spiritual Calling.
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