Jeff Shearer—Hunters and Gatherers

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 51- When I Was YoungBeaverton 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.


Jeff Shearer – Tennessee Pride

Here’s Jeff Shearer’s funny story about the day he worked in a sausage factory. He told this story for September 2017’s theme “Nashville”. 

I received a call from the temp agency the first week I arrived in Nashville. Until I found a teaching job, I told them I’d take anything they could offer me. I scribbled on a notepad:

Job category: General Labor.

Job location: Tennessee Pride.

49-NashvilleThey had actually said Odom’s Tennessee Pride, but the name Odom meant nothing to me. I was headed to Tennessee Pride. Maybe it was a Cultural Event. Tennessee Pride. Maybe it connected to football.

Instead, when I walked through the doors of Odom’s Tennessee Pride, I was met with the sounds of grinders, tumblers, stuffers, linkers, emulsifiers, and macerators. All the sounds heard in the process of making sausage.  I had never before or since heard of a macerator. It’s unique to 2 industries:   sausage making, and sewage management.

My first indication that this was not a job sweeping floors was when the supervisor handed each of us first timers a steel gauntlet and said, “Try this on for size.” I was still trying to figure out why we would need only one metal mesh glove, when he then asked: “Any of you have a problem with the sight of blood?”

We were told to count off by twos. I will forever be indebted to the number two. The number ones were sent to the delivery room. I thought he meant delivery from the plant.   He meant delivery to the plant, where the live product becomes a no longer live product.

I was spared the delivery room.  I was sent to the cutting room. There I was given a five minute lesson on how to use an electric knife that looked like an ice cream scoop. A constant line of huge femur and scapula bones rolled toward me. The meat on these bones was gone. My job was to remove anything remaining from the bone.  Anything.  When my 10 gallon tub filled up, I was to then empty my carvings onto a high speed conveyor belt that sent all the product through a set of flapping plastic doors. Whatever happened on the other side of those doors I will never know, but the sound was a cross between a bowling alley and a room full of bouncing rubber watermelons.

I lasted one hour and 5 minutes in the cutting room. After failing a remedial lesson, it was decided that I was not cut out to be a deboner. A virtuoso deboner can roll 10 pounds of fat per minute onto the conveyor belt. I was averaging — just under two.

Over the next two hours I also failed to make the cut as both a seasoning blender and a cold salvage operator. Three strikes before lunch usually means you don’t get to stay for lunch. But Tennessee Pride was determined to provide me one more opportunity to prove that I had what it took to succeed in the world of sausage. I felt like I was back in junior high on the football sideline. “We’re going to send you in, son. Now don’t blow it. We believe in you.”

And that’s how I made it to the packaging room. The final step in production. Here, I was given the task of climbing several feet above a slow moving conveyor belt with twenty pound casings of frozen sausage.  I then loaded each roll of sausage into one of 4 metal cylinders that sliced each roll.  This process produced perfectly round quarter inch thick sausage patties. I was shown how to adjust the speed. Below me, two lines of women faced the conveyor belt, 6 on each side.  And each woman had the task of shuffling 12 patties into little white boxes marked “Ready to Cook. Real Country Breakfast Sausage.” As fast as they completed a pallet, it would be whisked off to a refrigerated truck bound for distribution. The whole operation was seamless.  This was the epitome of a well-defined process.  The timing was crucial.  And I discovered I had a key role in that timing.

But I also discovered very quickly my innocence in production line protocol. Because in a job that to the uninitiated looks like it’s ruled by uniformity and monotony, once you are inserted into that process, you quickly see that there is unspoken dynamic at play.   I had always thought life on an assembly line must be mindless – that you could simply endure the 8 hours by listening to an internal playlist of your favorite oldie goldies. Oh, it’s five oclock already? I was just about to listen to Johnny B Goode.   I had always assumed a slow day was a good day.

The 12 women on my line relieved me of that notion. And they did that without ever saying a single word. They couldn’t. It was too loud. We all wore ear plugs. They could have all yelled at once and I never would have heard them.

No. It was the body language.

While I was happily peeling the plastic off the tubes of frozen sausage and guiding them into the metal slicers while mouthing the words to a favorite song,  I looked down to see 11 heads all turned toward one woman. She was small, much older than the rest, and had the face of a tired owl. There was a unanimous expression of “do something” in their eyes. The owl-faced woman then looked me straight in the eye. She tilted her head to the end of the line where the last two women only had 2 patties between them. Sure enough. One of my feeder tubes was empty. I quickly fed a new sausage roll into the slicer. When I glanced back at the line, all was fine. I tried to give the women a look that said “Small oversight. That won’t happen again.” But nobody looked my way.

Twenty minutes later, I noticed the youngest of the packers glancing up at me. Just for a second. Then it happened again. And again. Flirting, on a sausage line? I was trying to figure out a way to make a face that read, “Sorry, girl, I’m spoken for,” when she turned to Owl Woman and raised the same eyebrow she had raised at me. The Owl gave me a look with both eyebrows raised, shot a glance at the conveyor belt, and cocked her head as if to say, “Really?” I then saw that the patties were stacking up, and each woman was having to reach downstream for patties that were slipping by them. I found the speed adjuster and spun in down. But I went too far, and in no time the Owl was swooping her eyebrows up, up.   I split the difference on the regulator, and the 12 woman soon fell back into their regular rhythm.

For the next 5 hours, I was a nervous wreck.  I studied each move the women made, looking for any hint of annoyance or stress.  No more oldie goldies. It was like driving a car on a windy mountain road with cliffs on both sides. It took me forever to figure out that the gestures on the woman closest to my station.  Too fast.  No, too slow.   No, too fast.   I spent nearly an hour desperately trying to find a calibration that synchronized with her gestures, until I found out her gestures were the result of some sort of facial twitch.

Five minutes before the shift ended, a man with a clipboard and a red hardhat came by. He put the clipboard in front of the older woman. She took a quick look at the clipboard and then back down at parade of patties. The hard hat man raised a thumb in front of her as if to ask: “Is everything OK?” Oh-oh, I thought. All the women looked at me, and then watched  the older woman as they finished their remaining boxes. The older woman took her time in responding –as if her work was more important than the question in front of her. The man still had his thumb up. The older woman never lifted her head, but I believe there was an almost imperceptible glance in my direction. It might have been a blink, but my gut felt it was a glance. Then she nodded at the man, and he put a checkmark on his clipboard and left.  Our shift was over.  The next shift of workers slipped into place, and we all headed home.

That night I dreamed about sausages. I found myself with 11 other patties in a small white box. It was cold. And as the lid was being shut I was yelling “There’s been a mistake. I don’t belong here!  You don’t understand. It’s all a big mistake.   I’m an English major!” But my voice was drowned out by the noise of a hundred machines and belts and moving parts.

In the morning the phone rang. It was the temp agency. Back to Tennessee Pride, I asked?

“No. We’ve filled our quota there. Here’s your new assignment. Write this down.”

I grabbed a pen.

Job category: General Labor.

“Ok. Got it.”

Assignment: Event setup

“Event setup. Got it.”

“Yes, I know how to get to West End.  Say again.   A bar on West End?   Oh, I see.  I see.  A Bar Mitzvah. At West End Synagogue.”

In the back of my mind I could still hear yesterday’s endless noise of the sausage slicer.

“I’m on my way.”