Jeff Shearer tell us a delightful story of when he was young for our November 2017 collaboration with One Voice Nashville.
Outside of Portland, Oregon there’s a town called Beaverton. And within the town of Beaverton there’s a group of 400 houses in a place called Marlene Village. That’s where I was born. It was a community built to provide homes to all the veterans who had returned from World War II. For a six year old kid – Marlene Village had everything. Three doors down was a neighbor who built boats in his garage and would let us watch, which was safe, because he used no power tools. There were trees to climb when the neighborhood German Shepherd chased me on my bike because our Cocker Spaniel back home was in heat, and the German Shepherd’s hormones couldn’t detect that I didn’t look anything like a Cocker Spaniel.
In the summer, after the road patching crew made their yearly pass down our street, we took off our shoes and socks and popped hot tar bubbles with our big toes. When a house on the corner caught on fire, the neighborhood moms herded all of us down the street to stand on the curb and watch the flames until a single firetruck arrived just in time to save the last standing wall.
Marlene Village had everything a six year old could want. And on Saturdays, that was important, since every kid was expelled from the house after breakfast with a single command: Go Play. Followed by a reminder: And be home by supper.
On one particular Saturday, I led a group of kids across the creek that separated our backyard and the wheat field that bordered our village. I was six. They were younger, mostly four and five. This meant that I automatically was the leader. I showed them the rocks to step on to avoid getting bit by the crawdads in the creek. I led them tromping through the wheat fields to a place we called the woods, a stand of pine trees that could provide hours of entertainment in games of hiding or in random discovery.
I had climbed the thickest tree I could find while the others played. I must have been about ten feet off the ground when looking down, I spotted what looked like a deer. It was perfectly still. I have since learned that thanks to our primitive ancestors, as humans we have what anthropologists call Attention Bias. If there is anything that looks like prey or predator in our line of sight, we have an incredible ability to pick it out, while an inanimate object, even a precious one, will go undetected. I stared harder. It was a deer! A very silent deer. It had antlers, a nose like a chunk of coal, long reddish brown ears, and eyes that were so intent they looked frozen. I took inventory. Antlers, nose, ears, eyes. But there the similarities stopped. Wasn’t there supposed to be a neck? And legs? And a tail? This deer had none of those. I remember thinking. This is my lucky day. There is no way this deer can run away. My family were not hunters, so I had no idea how a deer’s head suddenly would appear in the woods without the rest of its torso. But I did know that I had to scramble out of that tree and claim my prize before any of the younger kids stumbled upon it.
The feeling of discovery was intoxicating. The smaller kids ran up to me as I lifted up my finding. They all wanted to pet the deer. They wanted to know what all the flies were excited about. They asked me what I was going to do with it. I thought about that. But there was only one answer: Take it home to mom.
The journey home was a lot longer than that morning’s trip to the woods. For the next half hour we trekked over fallen trunks and through clumps of pine needles. We stomped across the furrowed wheat field, the deer looking like it nodded each time it bumped from one furrow to the next. I dragged it by the antlers, first the left, then the right, then the left again, a single vacant eye constantly looking heavenward. My small army followed me, swatting at the flies with their sticks. I had a single thought: Now I know what it feels like to provide for the family. It had to be in my genes. This was some vestigial urge from a distant Neanderthal ancestor: “Take this home. This is supper.” The feeling was exhilarating. To know that we weren’t the descendants of some ancient group of mambly pambly foragers and gatherers. No berries and nuts for this tribe. No — we came from solid stock. We were hunters!
During the trek home, I imagined the surprise on my mom’s face when I presented her with this trophy. It would be a look of joy, followed by what – yes — an announcement of a family celebration. I pictured the envy on my older brother’s face and the stunned look of awe from my younger brother. My sister would say this is just like the Pilgrim’s first Thanksgiving. My dad would then march us all down the hall to help me weigh the deer on the bathroom scale.
I had reached the creek. My arms ached from all the dragging, but there was no way I was letting the blood thirsty crawdads get anywhere close to my deer. I hoisted the head up until its ears touched my shoulders, and found the best rocks to ford the creek. It took three attempts to climb the far bank that led up to our back yard. On my third attempt I figured out that turning the head upside down allowed me to dig into the crumbling dirt with the antlers, letting me move up the bank in small six inch steps, like climbing a glacier with an ice ax.
I crossed the yard and pulled the deer up the two steps to our back door. I tried not to let the screen door slam. I looked around the corner. My mom’s back was turned to me as she stirred something in a boiling pot of water. I pulled the deer across the linoleum floor and set it right in front of our chrome and formica breakfast table. I knelt down on both knees and pulled back on the antlers to make sure the eyes were looking up at my mom.
“Hey mom. Look what I brought home.”
Her reaction will be forever imprinted in my mind. I remember hearing the spoon bounce off the ceiling. She threw both hands into the air. I stared as her mouth lost the last trace of her smile and morphed into an O that kept growing into a bigger and bigger O, until it looked identical to the mouth of the deer, and from her mouth came a long, low primordial groan. The bigger her mouth got, the bigger my eyes got. But then the groan gurgled to the top and formed a word. GET… and then another word… THAT……followed by THING followed by OUT… OF…MY…KITCHEN!
I was sent to my room without supper that night. Which gave me time to try to figure out what had happened. I had come home a provider. The highest tribute that you can make to your family. And my gift, by offering, had been rejected. Was my own family, after all, descendants of a tribe that had never developed into hunters? Was I the only one who not only could see a wild animal camouflaged in the woods, but also the only one who appreciated the significance of that discovery?
I was still up when my dad came in to explain to me why we don’t bring deer heads home. I had heard my mother’s voice earlier that night as she relayed the story to him. Every sentence was punctuated by “What was he thinking?” Toward the end I had caught the words “Bury it.” Then her voice grew softer. I couldn’t hear her final command to my dad.
So, now, as my dad finished tucking me in, he asked me if I knew what a souvenir was. No, I said. “Oh, he said. Well you’ll find out in the morning. There will be one on top of your dresser.” He turned out the light. I heard his footsteps as he moved down the hall. He knew I wasn’t going to wait until morning. I slipped out of bed.
For the rest of the night, a pair of sawed off antlers lay next to my pillow, and I dreamed of the look on my classmates faces when the teacher called on me for Show and Tell.