When I was two or three I had a yellow, plastic pull toy with red, plastic wheels. It was a bunny with large blue and black eyes. The spokes of the wheels were bent so that the toy bobbed up and down as it followed me. When I was studying to be a painter I rediscovered it in the bottom of a wooden toy chest in my parents’ basement. I used it in a series of still lives that I entitled, “Rabbit Season” that also featured a decorative wood and copper duck that used to hang above our kitchen table. (I was a fan of Warner’s Bros. cartoons.) The rabbit helped me to put some emotional juice into the paintings, which can be difficult to do with still life, by helping me to remember nearly forgotten moments from childhood.
Dad’s family were country and small town people, and my uncles and he still went back to woods and farmland in western Ohio to hunt in the fall. I visited my grandparents’ house one day in November with my father, and as I walked into the kitchen I saw Grandpa Schmalstig and my Uncle Eddie seated in wooden chairs on either side of a galvanized, metal wash tub. I was about 4. They held something gray and furry between them and I watched in horror as Grandpa John took a hunting knife and made several cuts through the dead animal’s pelt. He set the knife down, took a tight hold of its head and told my uncle to pull. The rabbit’s skin was gradually peeled away from the carcass and I could see pinkish gray muscles exposed inch by inch from its neck down to its long hind feet. Blood dripped down into the tub. Uncle Eddie grunted from the effort it took to remove the rabbit’s skin, but the last strip was finally removed when the head was laid bare. I believe that the dark, black eyes remained in the sockets. The flayed animal looked vulnerable and fragile, and it was hard to imagine that it had ever hopped in a corn field or munched on clover.
My Dad waited until I was about eleven to introduce me to squirrel hunting. He had shown me at a firing range outside of Bellbrook how to shoot a 22 caliber single shot rifle. We drove up north very early on a Saturday morning to a farm. The farmer invited us in when we arrived and gave us some coffee. He didn’t want any money for the privilege of hunting in his woods, but told us to shoot any ground hog we saw along the way.
I turned out to be a horrible stalker making too much noise as I dragged my feet through dried leaves and snapped any available twig in my path. I scared away game, got lost, and missed the one good shot my Dad and I had the whole day. My legs started itching back home that same evening, and my mother discovered that I had somehow managed to come down with a raging case of poison oak even though I had worn long pants and boots. While I was busy in my bedroom trying not to scratch my shins, I heard them conferring in the living room about my future as a hunter. My mother wanted Dad to never take me again, and he agreed without making much of an argument. I don’t think that he believed that I would ever be any good at it.
I never was invited back again, which was a great relief to me. The day in the woods had been a series of humiliations that discouraged me from ever trying again. And there was one item of business that my Dad had neglected to mention before we set out, but which was revealed about midday. My cousin Mike had come along on the hunt. He went his separate way far from my crashing about in the undergrowth, and bagged a little, gray squirrel. He came up to my Dad when we all met in a clearing and said, “Uncle Tommy, will you gut my squirrel?” It was a warm day and the meat wouldn’t keep if the intestines were given time to rot inside the rodent. My Dad replied, “It’s your squirrel,” and Mike reluctantly used his knife to cut open the furry, white belly. Then he plunged his thumb into the opening just below the ribs and pushed down hard. Gray and red, sticky glop dangled from the carcass before dropping with a quiet, mushy plop onto the ground. The smell was of warm blood and shit. Mike wiped his thumb on his hunting jacket and stuffed the gutted animal into a pocket. I knew at that moment that I would never be a hunter.
A few years later my Dad mentioned to me that he was going rabbit hunting and wanted to know if I wanted to come along. I thought that I was finally being given a chance to redeem myself, but I saw a calculating look in my father’s eyes. I asked him if I would be using a shotgun, and he told me no. He explained that I and some of my male cousins were being recruited to act as beaters. We were to walk in a line through a harvested corn field to flush rabbits out of their hiding places among the dead, brown stalks. Dad, Uncle Eddie and Uncle Jerry would be waiting at the other end of the field with shotguns in hand. I turned the “offer” down. I didn’t trust my life with these men (there were rumors of them taking whiskey flasks along on cold days to keep themselves warm), and I didn’t want to be used by my father as a stand in for a hunting dog.
We sometimes ate rabbit or squirrel for our Sunday dinner. My mother insisted on baking a chicken for those, herself included, who found the hunted meat too gamy, or who didn’t enjoy spitting out shotgun pellets and bone fragments. My Dad would pull out a cardboard milk carton from the deep freezer in the basement and set it on a kitchen counter to thaw. Inside would be a headless, skinned animal frozen in water. After the ice melted my Dad would cut up the rabbit or squirrel into leg quarters, backs and breasts, would dredge them in salt and peppered flour, and brown them in a iron skillet. They were baked until well done in the left over drippings, and I remember enjoying the taste of squirrel more than rabbit. I also remember feeling a bit uneasy whenever I took a bite because I knew exactly how they had been taken from the field and delivered to our table.
My Dad had an odd sense of humor, and enjoyed teasing us in rare moments of…levity. One of his favorite “jokes” was to tell us on the Saturday night before Easter that he was going to stay up all night waiting for the Easter Bunny. He’d have a weird smile on his face when he added that we shouldn’t expect any baskets of candy in the morning as he intended to sit in a chair by the front door with a loaded shotgun, and that we would be eating the Easter Bunny for our Easter Sunday dinner.