The Annual Cull

I hit my first deer a few weeks after my sweet sixteen party. I’d just gotten my driver’s license a few days before. It was a typical cool fall evening on a narrow bend, somewhere close by in this hollow. The chilly Southern Indiana breeze was blowing through, making the gravel road slicker than usual. A sort of freezing of the little pieces of stone in a way that they’d stick together like minute rice does if you don’t add enough water. I drove around that curve in Daddy’s yellow Ford Granada. Listening to a song from the Beatles — I think it was Let It Be. I sang along, my head barely above the wide yellow steering wheel. A taste of peppermint Chapstick on my lips.

The little doe just jumped out of nowhere. She came through the trees and some bushes, then introduced herself right quick to my large boxy headlight. I slammed on the brakes and felt the fishtailing of the backside. Daddy said later I’d kicked up a patch of Autumn leaves with the tires, which made it worse. Oh, I screamed and screamed as the car turned in circles. By the time I was done, that little deer was halfway to sandwich meat.

I felt bad afterwards. She was a mother. Her little boy came walking up to her body after I’d checked her out on the road. His tiny black eyes looked right through me. A sort of squeal from his insides and a tremble from that white fluffy tail.

I grew up real fast that day. Learned the consequences of a large automobile, and me taking too many loose risks with the accelerator. Well, I guess I learned some lessons like that. I sure did take that stretch of road behind me a little too fast this time too. Now, here’s another one, twitching on the ground off the side of my Lincoln Continental. The little squeal, although this time apparently from my radiator. The steam coming out from under the hood. A giant dent in the front bumper, which warps the reflection of the moonlight through them same fall trees.

I think I first met a deer back when I was five or six. We were in our nightgowns sitting on our living room floor playing a game of Put ‘n Take on the yellow carpet. That card game where you add pennies (we used buttons) to the pot if you got a match, and then at some point started doing the opposite by taking money back until the pot was empty. Mama always said it was me and at least three of my sisters that early evening: Marjorie, Loretta, and Junie. We were the youngest ones then except for Robby, but he would have been upstairs in the attic sleeping. The older kids either out with their friends or out of the house by then. All of us members of the old Schoettmeyer family.

Mama said she had her sewing kit out fixing a shirt that night. Daddy was probably a few drinks of whiskey deep laying on the couch. We girls were just sitting there in a circle, a warm fire in the wood-burning stove and maybe some music from the radio, which often broadcasted from the local polka club. We were probably giggling or maybe fighting over a button or two. Then, suddenly, a loud crash. A spray of glass all over us in that little room. The damn deer had plain jumped through the picture window beside the door. Must have gotten confused and thought he was running towards some warm shiny cave. He pranced around disoriented and covered in cuts of blood. We girls danced around too, all scared and screaming. Daddy thought he saw the devil that night, later blaming Mr. Jack Daniels.

It was Mama who took control. She set down her sewing kit and chased the deer out the kitchen side door. A trail of blood all across that yellow carpet. The smell of animal sweat and toilet-leavings. Daddy found the critter the next day towards the end of our gravel lane, dead. It took us weeks to get that picture window replaced. Months for us girls to stop having night terrors in our dreams (it didn’t help that the attic was crawling with a family of field mice). Southern Indiana has had a problem with deer for several years. There’s way too many of us, and way too many of them.

Of course, we Shoettmeyers weren’t the only ones getting attacked. Well, I guess attacked isn’t the right word unless you’re looking at it from the perspective of the animal. Irregardless, I remember that one weekend some spring when my friend Bette and her family were driving home from the high school basketball sectionals. Our team wasn’t worth the price of admission, but we’d all went to cheer on our school and then watched the annihilation of our little farm boys by those big players from Indianapolis. Bette’s dad made her leave that game early, I remember. Some sort of church prayer group that night, over in Millhousen. So, she loaded into the back of the family station wagon with at least two of her bratty little brothers who always seemed to have something sticky on their fat faces, whether it be ice cream or spilled soda or maybe snot.

Bette’s dad had a lead foot when it came to driving, and that station wagon was like a rusty old rocket with polished wood side panels. Bette said they were going over the crooked stone bridge at Cobb’s Fork pretty fast when they saw the group of deer standing in the middle of Millhousen Road. There were three of the hairy little white-tails, just staring wide-eyed at the oncoming headlights and frozen in place, much like our varsity squad on that basketball court that night.

Bette said the station wagon knocked two of the beasts off their feet, and the third did a ballerina spin straight into the air before landing smack dab in the center of the car’s roof. Bette got a big knot on the head from that collision, and I swear she just wasn’t right after that. A little weird twitch in her neck and moments in mid-conversation where she’d stop talking and stare blankly with a little bit of drool running down her chin. Her daddy laughed at that night for several years, and always bragged about how the county let him keep the meat from all three deer, even though I think the law back then only allowed one doe and one buck during hunting season. Well, he laughed until that head injury caught up with Bette. By the time we were in our thirties, she was in a nursing home barely able to speak her name. Soon after, she was gone.

It’s scary how quick time goes by.

My eldest sibling Alfred always had his favorite deer story, which he made sure we knew was better than any we had to tell. Alfred was 19 years older than me, my parents having started with the Catholic sex practices the first night of their marriage, popping out thirteen kids total before poor Mama’s uterus gave out in her mid-forties (she always said God gave her fourteen blessings in life — us kids and early menopause).

I was the third youngest, but still tried to challenge Alfred on the suspect nature of his story. After all, he had become quite acquainted with Mr. Daniel’s by then. But Alfred never backed down. He said anyone could hit a deer with a moving vehicle. He had knocked one down with his cold, bare hands.

I guess it happened when he was around 28, having returned from that Korean War and then setting up a farm next to Daddy’s. Alfred had quite a garden patch back then, in addition to the various corn and soybean fields. He liked to grow cabbage in that garden, for whatever reason, and made his wife Pamela cook the smelly weed twice a week.

But then one summer the deer took over. They ate through half the cabbage heads, coming out of the woods at night to make their feast. Alfred first tried to scare them off with aluminum pinwheels (ones he’d stolen from me and my sisters, which we’d picked up at the County 4-H fair). That didn’t work. Someone recommended a deer-proof fence, but he laughed off the suggestion, saying the damn animals could jump higher than any fence pole he’d met. So then one night he just sat on the back porch with his shooting rifle. Got bored real quick so he dipped into that whiskey bottle. A few rounds later he saw a whole family of spotted deer creeping into his garden patch. He shot the gun but nothing happened, then realized Pamela had removed the shells hours before (she always said he could have a gun and have a drink, but never in the same evening). He threw down the gun and went chasing after the deer through the garden, the shadows from the orange security light making it seem like there were twice as many. The deer started running in circles and trampling every other vegetable in the patch. Alfred didn’t care, he just wanted to save those last few heads of cabbage.

Alfred said he screamed and hollered and chased the deer back into the woods. But then he got knocked clear out of his boots and didn’t wake up till hours later, the moon at its highest point in the sky. He had his arm wrapped around what he thought was Pamela in bed, until he realized it was the cold broken body of a young buck. Turns out drunk Alfred and the panicked deer had run straight into each other, hitting so hard that Alfred lost consciousness (and control of his bladder, according to Pamela). The deer broke its neck. “Take that,” Alfred said, every time he told the story (in a more favorable manner). “I ran over a deer myself. Don’t need no stinking vehicle.”

Alfred was always such a character. He had that loud table-shaking belly laugh.

My dear sweet husband Phil also had his run-in with the pests. It was probably around the time our daughter Sammy was in kindergarten. It had been a rough few years for me and Phil, having tried everything to be with child. Then God surprised us with the gift of Sammy, a little baby sweetheart left at the local volunteer fire station, where Phil was captain. The County tried hard to find her parents, but came up empty. So, we eventually took her on, and that was that. I was a mother.

I think it was a summer night a few years later. I was at bingo at the Knight’s Hall with my seven sisters. Marjorie, Loretta, and Junie, of course, as well as Agatha, Rosemary, Greta, and Constance (Constance was visiting from Cincinnati, the rest of us girls never left Millhousen). We were laughing and drinking that Tickled Pink cheap wine that tasted like strawberries. A couple of us must have won a few games, as I recall a pile of cash somewhere in the direction of Agatha’s seat. But then old mayor George Harper walked over with a belt full of pull-tab tickets. He said he’d just gotten a call from the sheriff’s department. Turns out Phil drove his truck straight over a mailbox after smacking a deer sideways. I was panicked at first, until George pointed me in the direction of the house phone where Phil was laughing. “I took that damn deer fishing,” he said. I thought he was drunker than a skunk.

Course, I later heard the real story, or as real as a story from a man can be. Phil was driving towards the farm with a few buckets of catfish in the back of his pickup truck. He’d had a successful evening of fishing over there near Cobb’s Fork. Said it was easier to find the deeper holes in the creek now that the County had cleared away half the forest (for some new housing development, which never finished). I guess Phil took a turn near the old bridge, and he came upon a giant 12-point buck standing proud in the center of the blacktop. Phil hit the brakes and tried to miss it, but the animal charged his truck and they collided at thirty miles per hour. The buckets of water went flying in the air and dropped the catfish all around that deer, who had its antlers stuck under the front hood. Phil was lucky to survive that night, my dear sweet man. God sure gave him several extra lives, the old dog.

I think it was around that time the county noticed the problem with the animals. Too many deer and too many people slamming into them. The county went and got permission from the governor to do a culling, a so-called authorized hunt where the men could go into the woods on a Saturday morning and shoot around thirty-some white-tails in a mile or so radius. A way to thin the masses, since the deer had no natural predators (other than a Ford or Chevy on an evening drive). It sounded gruesome at first, and several people in town protested (mostly us ladies). But the county and old mayor George Harper persisted, and the hunt was on.

I still remember that morning. Little Sammy and I sat in front of the television watching a Puff The Magic Dragon cartoon while the sounds of gunshots came from the woods behind the barn. A constant series of pops, which scared Sammy at first until I gave her a few extra snickerdoodle cookies and told her it was just the sound of falling rain. Little love droplets from our heavenly father.

She was such a fragile little girl, that Sammy. A delicate little angel. Her hair was as red as Phil’s fire engine, and her cheeks were just as rosy. I loved her more than a man loves his football team. All the way into her forties when we lost her. A series of pain medications that she just couldn’t kick.

It’s crazy how life takes a turn now and then, just as sharp and crooked as this bend in this hollow. It’s enough to make you angry. To just go screaming in the night if you will, like Alfred went after those deer in his garden patch. But Mama taught us girls that you have to barrel through. Consider each day just as sweet as another cookie from the jar, and carry on. So here I am.

That deer still twitches near the front of my Lincoln Continental. The flashers blinking on the trees with their falling leaves. Casting everything into intermittent shades of red in this quiet cold night. I smell the crisp scent of burnt tire tread.

They decided the culling was so successful, they repeated it for several years thereafter. It’s funny, though, how it never really seemed to reduce the deer population. People kept running into the beasts at typical frequency. The collisions were so popular, it appeared other animals decided to follow suit.

Which takes me to my brother Dick, who always had to be the outlier. That man loved his dogs and chickens more than anyone I know. He was another one supporting that deep belly laugh.

Anyways, this was years before but it still proves my point. It was the night of the big dance in Judge Westerfeld’s pole barn. I was probably a teenager around then, but not yet old enough to drive that yellow Granada. People across town had been talking for weeks – the big regalia. Some kind of party that Junie, Robby, and I were too young to attend. A fundraiser of sorts for the local library, which was on its last donation. We snuck in anyways. The barn filled with bales of hay along the walls and different colored spotlights hanging from the rafters. A fiddler and a band set up in a corner. Tables of steaming potluck food along the back doors, with the smell of hot apple cider in the air. Women in long, frilly dresses kicking up their heels in the dirt at the center. Men standing awkwardly in circles wearing typical red flannel and blue jeans.

It was a simpler time back then, way before those cellular phones and internets. But it sure brought the community together. People from all different Protestant branches, and the crowd from our Millhousen Catholic Church. I fell in love that night. Not with Phil. He and I wouldn’t meet until a few years later at my cousin’s wedding. No, that night I fell in love with dancing, and it still is something I try to do now and then when no one’s looking. I wish people still appreciated a good two-step or square dance. I wish there were still places to go like Westerfeld’s barn to socialize with all the good folk.

Anyways, it was a chilly night and Dick was driving his daughters to a junior high lock-in before he headed over to the barn dance. The lock-in was sort of a slumber party in the high school gym, where the kids could play and bond under the watchful supervision of Principal Biddy (that’s what everyone called her back then, a sort of spinster lady that only laughed when it involved a kid getting spanked with a pig bone).

Dick was driving on County Road 3 between Millhousen and the school over near Westport. He saw the eyes first, reflecting in the rays of his headlights. He immediately thought “deer,” so he hit the brakes out of habit. But turned out it was young Junior Johnson’s prized heifer. She’d somehow escaped the pen and ran straight into the side of Dick’s blue van. The door buckled and manure sprayed across the vehicle windows. The girls screamed, probably haunted by that moment for years. Well, the trauma from the collision or maybe worse — arriving at the school lock-in in a van covered with shit.

I sure do miss that character. Dick, who probably was my favorite brother even though all five of them seemed to revel in making us girls miserable. Pulling our pigtails and hiding spiders in our shoes and such. But Dick would go out of his way to help a neighbor in need, whether it was lending a loaf of bread or helping rebuild a burnt-down farmhouse. That’s for sure. He was as good-hearted as any man can be. And it’s sad that the good Lord took him away a few years back.

That’s the problem as time passes. The slow loss of loved ones. The replacement of older family members with newer, distant generations.

It’s getting cold out. I think I’ll wait inside the car now until they get here. Surely, someone will drive down this road sometime soon. Just another happy accident. A deer and an old lady. The usual rhyme.

I think the most troublesome of the stories happened during my mid-fifties. Junie’s daughter Gracie had a Sunday morning paper route for that big news company up in Indianapolis. Every week she’d pick up the bundles off a truck that drove down to Millhousen around 4:00 a.m. Then she’d roll them up with rubber bands and spread them across her dashboard for easy handling. They were thick little suckers, full of inserts from the new fancy mall and grocery stores. I can’t imagine she could see the road good, driving that old Pinto she used to have. Not to mention the fog from the chilly early morning, spreading across the fields and those county gravel roads.

Now Gracie was a shy one, always was. As timid as a church mouse, and probably never spoke to a boy in her life. She was mid-20s around that time, and still working on her high school G.E.D. She lived with Junie and their three dogs, Junie’s husband having left them for some cheap casino waitress years earlier. Junie never was right in the head after that divorce, and neither was Gracie. It’s sad how us women sometimes only see ourselves through the eyes of men.

Anyways, poor little Gracie was driving down one of those less-maintained gravel roads over by Donnie Mae’s Beauty Shop, which was in the middle of the countryside on top of a steep hill. Gracie always wore coke-bottle thick glasses and had that stringy brown hair most of us Schoettmeyer girls had (if any of us had the nerve to show our natural color). They said the visibility was minimal, and she had her high beams on when everyone knows in a fog you use the low ones. Irregardless, the deer jumped in front of her Pinto near the big culvert just a few yards away from the lane up to Donnie Mae’s shop. Gracie hit the beast, and it went flying through her windshield. Next thing you know, she and the car and that animal were turned upside-down in the culvert. And that was that.

Another one gone.

It’s really quite startling when you think about it. The number of years that fly by, and the knocking off of loved ones one-by-one. It most always starts with the grandparents (mine were gone soon after I was born), and then the parents. A longer parade of time before the brothers and sisters and in-laws start to drop. Then in some instances even the children, like poor little Gracie and my dear sweet Sammy.

Of course, husbands are the least dependable when it comes to living. They’ve been known to go well before their wives in this small town. Old Phil left me for natural causes when he was 62. A little too much of the drink and his liver went out. I loved that man from here to Sunday. It left the biggest mark on my tired, old heart.

I lost Mama and Daddy in similar ways, to old age and mornings when they just didn’t choose to wake up. Alfred went about ten years after them, a victim of the cancer. Something that hit several of my siblings, including Loretta, Constance, Greta, and poor Agatha, who suffered the longest. Dick went by heart attack, as did little Robby (after too many years of party drugs that started at that fancy bible college down South). I didn’t even mention Randolph and Homer, who we lost to Mr. Nixon and that damn Vietnam War. That leaves Marjorie (stroke), Rosemary (a fall off the porch), and Junie (pneumonia just a year ago). My dear sweet sisters. Each one dropping off in sequence over a period of several years, along with various nieces and nephews (some of whom were older than me).

But that’s just the start of it. Old Mayor George Harper (shot dead), Judge Westerfeld (aneurism), Principal Biddy (ran over), Donnie Mae (sugar diabetes), and even Junior Johnson (opioids). All of them have passed into the Lord’s great kingdom, leaving me down here on Earth in this freezing cold. Me, sitting in this car at age 88. A stiff neck and bouts of mini-confusion. A tiny carcass of the woman I used to be. The last one standing.

Yes, the passage of time is the thing that hurts the most. The changing seasons and then the changing of times. Of habits (politeness switched to rudeness), community events (church fundraisers replaced with protest marches), and even ways of speaking (a friendly “hello” to that now frequent “f” you”). The things that people like, and how they spend their days, evenings, and weekends. An evolution of communication (in person to tapping on a phone), and how we socialize (used to be in person, now it’s through machines). It all changes.

I miss those times from long ago the most. The barn dances and high school sectionals. Junior high lock-ins and bingo at the old Knight’s Hall. Sunday drives through the countryside and the 4-H fair. Newspapers. A long conversation on the phone. None of that stuff happens anymore. Long since lost with the people who are no longer with us. The entire death of generations, replaced by younger ones with odd ideas. The folks I used to know when I was 16. The families. All of them gone to the soil and the hands of God. Populations of people thinned out through the mighty march of time. The sounds of their voices never heard again. Their memory likely lost. The same for me on that day I speak my last belabored breath.

It’s sad when you think about it. Terrible even. Just as painful as any run-in with these silly deer.

Well, here I sit. My teeth chattering from the creeping cold. The lights fading on my flashers from the diminished charge in my battery. The tall, skinny trees with their falling leaves. A shine of moonlight up above with the countless number of lost stars.

There’s a soft sound of footprints. Little crunching on the gravel. I look out the window and immediately fog the glass with my breath. I roll it down to see what’s all the ruckus.

Deer. At least five or six of them. A whole darn herd. Walking down the gravel road from behind me. Now surrounding my Lincoln Continental and this curve in the road amongst the forest. Each taking a whiff of the ripe smell of death from the critter at the front of my vehicle. A final salute, perhaps, to their fallen friend.

I look ahead and see the lights. Approaching slowly on the road before me. Blending into a shiny beacon. Perhaps finally here to take me home.

Featured Image: Shutterstock, oleschwander