When the fruitcakes stopped coming, we knew Nell was dead.
I met Mike’s 2nd cousin twice or thrice removed by marriage when we were young West Point cadets. We managed somehow to earn off-post passes several weekends during our last semester at the Academy, and Nell and Dave lived about an hour’s drive away. We’d hop into Mike’s sexy red Datsun 280ZX and visit the old folks at their split-level old-folks-smelling home on many acres of overgrown land and think we were in heaven. Anything away from West Point felt like heaven.
They were educated, classy people. Discussions around their dinner table always left us young kids with things to ponder when we weren’t busy making out in the music room.
“I don’t see anything, and even if I did, I won’t tell!” Nell’s declaration still makes me laugh. I guess we’d forgotten to close the door.
After we married, Mike and I stayed in touch with them by snail mail, and that’s when the fruitcakes started coming. I remember the first year the red box arrived.
“What is it?” Mike asked.
“A fruitcake. Looks fancy.”
“Eeww. That’s not really even a dessert.” Mike has never been a dessert person, preferring a second helping of lasagna over anything that might taste sugary. “You could probably hurt someone with that.”
I’m pretty sure I re-gifted the first several years of fruitcakes that came from the Collin Street Bakery in round red “keepsake” tins. They probably got the biggest laugh at several white elephant parties. But one year I decided to honor my by-marriage relatives by keeping their gift for myself. I remember feeling guilty about opening the seal and making that first slice knowing I’d probably end up throwing the rest away.
And oh . . . my . . . gosh. It was sumptuous. It may have taken a week, but I ate the whole darned thing. I ate the whole darned thing all by myself every year for several years.
Fast forward to our assignment back at West Point about nine years after graduation, and now we had opportunities to bring our tiny tots to visit with Nell again. Dave had left this world behind, and the woman I thought was ancient when we were cadets now appeared greatly diminished. I remember chopping down our first Charlie Brown tree on her property Jake’s first Christmas when Nick was almost three. And I remember feeling sad.
The fruitcakes kept coming for years to several new addresses after we left West Point, and we kept the snail mail authorities in pocket change with our cards and letters. Nell remained active in The Arts programs in her community and would write pages about the goings-on about Warwick, which I could easily read until in her later years when her fingers must have frustrated her greatly.
And then there came no more.
(I’ll add some photos of Nell to this post when I find them).
* I was inspired to write this post by a West Point peer, Chip Armstrong, who has a loyal following on Facebook by posting the occasional word or phrase that provokes comment. Today’s word was fruitcake, and he even attached a photo of a C-ration fruitcake tin. We would eat anything as cadets, even those cans of tasteless, crumbly, cake-ish dried fruit. Can you say ‘constipation’?
When Mike’s phone rings at 2:30 a.m.—or any other cold, dark hour—I anticipate the worst. His official job title is Lake County Emergency Manager, but he also volunteers for our county Search and Rescue team. Someone’s probably lost in the mountains.
“What’s that again?” Mike’s oh-dark-thirty voice sounds confused. He flips on the light and I pull the covers over my head like a vampire recoiling from a sunbeam. “Let me ask the wife,” he continues, and now I’m confused.
“Hey, dear, you wanna go carve up some tasty elk?”
You’ve got to be kidding me, I think. It’s 2:30 in the morning and it’s cold outside and it’s warm in bed and it’s 2:30 in the morning and it’s cold outside and I’ve never carved up an actual whole elk before and I’m a little bit scared and it’s 2:30 in the morning.
“Ahhhhh . . . yeah, I guess, you wanna?” I steel myself for his response. Maybe he doesn’t wanna, and then I could say, “We could’ve had elk meat this year, but . . .”
But he says “sure.”
We stumble into warm, unimportant clothes and Ranger looks at us dazed, he stretches, shakes, turns in a circle and plops back onto his bed.
We added our names to the Sheriff’s Department Roadkill List last year after discovering it was “a thing” from another hunter and had already turned down a couple of previous calls for side-of-the-road deer when we weren’t available for a speedy response. We had no real excuse this time, and we were told it was a cow elk about a 15-minute drive away. It was my hunting season. I had a tag for a cow elk (not necessary for a roadkill) and hadn’t seen a single sign of one, probably because I was hunting up in the mountains during daylight, not along county roads at night.
As we approach the mile marker we were told she was near, Mike slows his truck and I strain my eyes to find her. My butterflies wake up. My time has finally come to put my YouTube and book-learnin’ to practical use. For the past couple of years I’d watched and re-watched Fred Eichler’s YouTube video on the “gutless method” of harvesting meat from an elk until I knew I could do it when the time came.
The time had come.
“There she is,” I point to the body conveniently lying on her side just off the road. Mike parks his truck so the headlights illuminate the scene. It’s about 3 a.m. and not as cold as it could be. She’s gorgeous. She’s young.
And she’s still warm. Her open eyes, lovey long-lashed soft brown, disinterested, nonjudgmental, show no sign of fear or struggle. I stroke the so-soft fur along her neck and thank her for what I’m about to do. A knot catches in my throat and I can’t look into her eyes again.
With two short-bladed knives at the ready, my Havalon and Mike’s Gerber, I raise her right leg.
“Here, hold this up,” I direct Mike. I take a deep breath and visualize Eichler as he makes short, fast cuts until the shoulder peels away from its blade. It works, and Mike deposits our first quarter on a clean tarp.
The right hind quarter is more difficult because of its size and the bones involved and the fact that I’m cutting near the gut. After another deep breath—I’m sweating at this point—I do exactly what I’ve burned into my brain, find the hip socket, think briefly about Mike’s new titanium hip, shake that thought from my head, and with Mike holding up the weight of it, after several more slices along the curvature of the butt bone (that’s the technical name), we have a beautiful hind quarter.
“What’s next?” Mike asks.
“Backstrap,” I say, “and I’d like to keep the pelt.”
After cutting the hide up the belly, I have Mike pull back on the pelt while I release it with quick slices from the warm body. I’m surprised by how easily it peels away. When I get over the backbone, I’m ready to liberate the first backstrap, that long, tender meat along the length of the backbone. Piece of cake.
Now I’m nervous because I want the tenderloin. To do that, I’ve got to make an incision below the bottom rib, reach my hand inside, grab it, and cut it on either end from its connective tissue. I’m afraid of puncturing the gut with my knife. Despite the headlights, we’re really working in the dark, and I can’t seem to feel what I’m after.
My hand slides between the gut and the ribs and I marvel at the warmth and silky smoothness. I push back against the abdomen and continue my search for the most prized piece, but to no avail.
“Let’s roll her on the other side,” I tell Mike, though I feel guilty I’ve failed this task. As we roll her over, a car creeps by and then speeds off toward the pass to Aspen.
“Bet they’ve never seen something like this before,” Mike says, and we laugh at what a sight we must be—nighttime knife-wielding roadside butchers eerily illuminated in the headlights. “At least if they call the police they’ll already know about the road kill notification.”
By the time the next two quarters and backstrap are liberated, I feel like I’ve just competed in a wrestling match. I’m sweating bullets. I’ve used muscle fibers that have been dormant for years. I must get the tenderloin from this side.
I reach my hand in again and hear the sound of air escaping.
“You didn’t cut the intestines, did you?” Mike jumps back with an expression of foul anticipation.
But there’s no smell. My hand probes up higher into the rib cage and I feel something flat. “I think it was a lung. You should really feel in here,” I tell him, and he does. “I think if you’ll use both hands and pull back on the gut, I can find it.” He pulls the now-bulging gut away from the backbone and my hand finds the treasure. I cut out the large-baked-potato-size tenderloin.
After bagging and storing the meat and pelt in the back of the truck, we look at what remains on the side of the road.
“We should probably pull it farther back into the brush,” Mike suggests, and this turns into no easy task. Even with all we’ve removed, it takes the two of us with arms around the weighty head to pull what remains of the cow into a place she won’t be spotted from the road.
It’s still dark when we get home and we’re stupid tired. Our garage is cold. We work together to hang the four quarters from hooks in the rafters and the place is transformed into the freezer scene from Rocky.
Ranger is happy to see us and even happier to sniff our blood-stained boots. I shower and fall into bed, knowing my real work—skinning, butchering, packaging and freezing all that meat—is just beginning.
“Bet you never thought you’d be doing stuff like this 33 years ago,” Mike says.
“Nope. Never in a million years.”
I close my eyes and know I’ll never forget a single moment from the past few hours. I’ll never forget those lovely brown eyes.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
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