|A note from Mark Daul, Outdoors Niagara: Don Barone is a new guy to me and after some short correspondence, I read some of Don's articles that he wrote for ESPNsports. The stories are super great and his latest you can read below really tickled my fancy, probably because I can relate to the American Legion Post setting and some of the characters in it. In the story you will meet db's neighbor "Skip," the "barlady," 45 year old "Chip," the "Lady in Flannel," and "Jimmy Smart," the guy that don't hunt but eats vital organs...................... ENJOY!......... About the pickled eggs: "The bar lady, not in flannel, brings over what can only be described as a jar of farts, and opens it under my nose."...read on...|
|About Don Barone:
Don Barone is a feature producer for ESPN and a member of the New
England Outdoor Writers Association. Other stories of his are available on
Amazon.com. You can reach him at [email protected].
By Don Barone
Special to ESPNOutdoors.com Click on the pictures to enlarge
db does Deer ~ Or, Jimmy Smart is partial to hearts
It was like getting into a warm bed in a cold room.
You know the feeling, your 1 a.m. pee, bare feet, boxers and T-shirt scurrying down the hall.
Go, go, go... Come on... Come on... Oops, hope that one didn't wake
the kids or dog... Trot back to bed, shivering head to toe... and in one
fell swoop, sheet, blanket, and comforter, both legs swing up as you
flip to your favorite sleeping side, while pulling the blanket up all
Pool table in the middle of the room, two guys shooting and smoking, full length bar along the back wall, making a turn and covered three quarters of the right side wall: The back bar built for Seven and 7's, C.C and ginger, shots with your beer; bright yellow beer refrigerators with glass fronts and silver levered door handles, the seal creaked when opened.American trucks in the parking lot, American beer signs covered the walls. Juke box with both the young and old Elvis, the Rolling Stones before Mick got all wrinkly. Bathrooms with a hooked door latch, neon beer sign in the window, smoke floating everywhere.
This American Legion post was built for comfort, complete with moveable bar stools, so you could make your way around the bar, sitting and talking, friend to friend.
Guys in ponytails, and Chevy hats, arms with tattoos, sleeves with small American flags, jackets with their names sewn in above their heart. Wives playing scratch-off bingo cards, guys watching UCONN women's basketball on local public TV.
Flip phones with pictures of grandkids, big fish, and hunting rifles stacked in wood paneled rooms. Men and women named after ancestors, not tagged with popular names from popular name-your-kid books.
In short, it's the heartland with a Connecticut ZIP code.
Deer Tags on the Dashboard
The hunted are in the woods, and the hunters at the bar
A beer can in one hand, free hand holding a pool stick or illustrating the hunt in the air, employing the classic half-circle, "He came around back here and bang..." ending with the index finger stab coupled with the trigger pull move.
The bigger the buck, the bigger the spill on top of the can.
I'm in a BASS hat (on backwards), and Skip's in tousled hair that got combed once — likely last in 1982. My neighbor Skip was looking to join the post, likely for the $2.25 mixed drinks, and I was looking for a deer hunter.
I was talking to some guys about fishing for bass, "out by the pond back there behind the cemetery," and while stunned by that image, my ribs started vibrating, for behind me a deep voice that must have started about belt level on the guy "I been hunting since I was 15... Permit then... Got licensed at 16."
I didn't need to turn around to figure out his size — the anglers in front of me were looking up, ABOVE my head. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Skip put the C.C. and ginger down, and turned to see who let the talking bear in.
"Used an old Browning square-back, 12-gauge auto five, handed down to me by my uncle." Skip goes back to sipping, our prearranged signal it's safe for me to keep doing whatever it is I was happening to be doing.
We have another prearranged signal: if he starts running, I do, too.
And when I turn, I see a human deer blind. He's a two-seater with a ponytail — both Skip and I could hunt unseen behind him. Oh, and I'm about man-boob level to the guy.
I hear the john door unlatch, and when it opens, in the bathroom mirror I see Skip signaling for another C.C. and ginger, "more C.C. and less ginger."
This is my cue that I can start asking questions.
My eyes move up off the black sweat-stained biker T-shirt, followed
by a quick glance to check both tattooed arms to scan for any skull and
crossbones tattoos. Clear. Past reading glasses hanging from the T-shirt
top, brown and gray beard topped with biker glasses perched on his head.
Chris is a 45-year-old maintenance supervisor, "the kind that fixes things — not takes out the trash," from Waterbury, Conn. I was about to ask him about deer hunting when he started telling me about it.
"My vacation starts Friday. I always take deer season off." In Connecticut, 60,000 deer hunting permits are issued every year, "I've got a couple deer tags in the truck right now, you need to see them?"
The bar lady walks over to where we are sitting and puts a white chip down in front of me and says, "Honey, someone bought you a drink, but I didn't want to back up your coke." Hey, bartender ladies everywhere, I'm working here — give me a break.
Chris reaches out with a cigarette between his fingers, and flips over the chip, the backside says Good for one free drink.
"No sense backing up your drink and having the beer head go down... You use the chips when you are ready.
Skip has several chips in front of him.
Chris takes a deep hit, turns his head to exhale, left arm up on the bar, left leg up on the bar pole, right leg bent and back on the bar stool, right hand on his knee.
Bar-protocol for talking serious. I flip the BASS reporter notebook open, and push the white chip his way.
In the mid 1990s, the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection started a deer reduction program. Back then the estimated deer population exceeded 200 deer per square mile. With the program, it's dropped to about 20 per square mile, most of which tend to be my in back yard or on my golf course.
I say none of this to Chris, because about the only thing I took away from journalism school was this: "Shut up and listen." And write quickly.
"Things seem to be different in the woods today..." He drags, inhales, head up, blows smoke over my hat, "...a lot less courtesy out there from other hunters, dudes seem about ready to do anything to get a deer."
Inhale, blow, sip. Bigger sip.
"Deer hunting, I don't see many young guys around, and the old guys, the ones who taught me, they pretty much can't do it anymore, they were the real hunters, outdoorsmen."
A bowl of popcorn appears and, cigarette in hand, he grabs a handful, turning it over to become a bowl, his right hand takes out one at a time and pops it into his mouth, smoke curls up between the kernels.
"I don't use no stand, I walk. When the wind moves, I move. When it stops, I stop. When it turns, I turn."
I push the popcorn bowl his way.
"So, Chris, where do you hunt?"
In the frosted mirror glass behind the bar, I see Skip stop his glass midway between mouth and bar. I can't see his legs, so I don't know if I should run.
Chris is looking at me like I'm game.
He pops a kernel, takes a hit, and blows it out a little bit south of the top of my hat. "I'm not going to tell you that."
Deer ranges in Connecticut are relatively small, 100-300 acres. I think it's because of the outrageous cost of housing around here, but whatever Chris' deer hunting range is, he's not giving it up.
So I pop a kernel, and start moving the drink chip around on the bar like a hockey puck. He never takes his eyes from mine, but I can tell his nerve endings are getting twitchy.
I don't care what Skip is doing.
Chris is smoking, I'm chewing, my bowl's bigger than his unfiltered Camel. I lean forward into his personal space, "Dude, I'm pretty sure the deer don't go online."
And I guess Chris agreed, "Lets just say, DUDE, I have a private land slip and the area backs up to a state forest — Mattatuck State Forest — and the hill from hell, straight up; if you shoot it, you're going to be dragging it a long way."
And then he took a long drag. "I hunt from sunup to sundown," which in Connecticut is 1/2 hour before sunrise until sunset, Monday through Saturday, no hunting allowed on Sunday, which means Chris will be in the woods from 6:20 a.m. until 4:24 p.m.
"When I get a deer, nothing goes to waste. I butcher it myself, wrap it, freeze it, and that one deer will give us meals throughout the entire year."
And then a guy with a sailfish on his hat came up and told Chris he had to go, it was meeting time.
Sailfish guy: "If you're a member, and you don't leave the bar and go into the meeting, then you can't drink at the bar until the meeting is over. If you go to the meeting, when you come back out, your first drink is free."
So Chris gathered up his cigarette pack and matches and stood up from his bar seat. Before he reached full height, the bar lady had his drink gone, but before he turned to leave, he leaned into my personal space, and this is what he said:
"I love hunting. I have a huge library of hunting books and
magazines, that goes on a rack a quarter of the way up the wall, so when
I go sit in there on my throne, I grab a magazine and read it all the
way through, even if my feet fall asleep."
It's just me and the women.
Skip thinks out loud that they could take us. He would be right.
It's quiet during meeting time. No rules about that, it just is. The men are in a whole other room doing American Legion men stuff. They left me with their wives.
And Skip.The American Legion wives, the Auxiliary as they are called, are just looking at me, some over their reading glasses, some over the cigarette dangling in the corner of their mouth. Just staring at me.
The lady in the flannel shirt is looking at me the hardest. Even when I scooch over to get closer to Skip, she still looks at me while sticking out her lower lip and blowing smoke straight up.
Skip is getting happier by the chip.
But the lady speaks only to me. "I hunt." Period. Two words.
Skip, on the other hand, has several chip-inspired words mainly, dealing with flannel.
The woman in flannel pays him no mind. The bar lady, not in flannel, brings over what can only be described as a jar of farts, and opens it under my nose.
My eyes water as Skip shouts out, "Oh God, who let the dog in?!"
Barlady: "They're pickled eggs — 50 cents. You want one?"
Skip is sniffing around the bar like a dog who smells cat poop in his backyard.
I'm looking at eggs that must have been pickled in the Middle Ages: They've got some sort of gel stuck to the side of the plastic jar, and the whole thing smells like the time your older brother pulled his underpants over your head.
And I'm actually looking for two quarters.
Skip has pushed his seat back from the bar and has arched his back to get his nose as far away as possible... We're talking serious stink for this to happen, since Skip has spent an entire career in Navy submarines and by this time in his life he should be fairly used to smells.
But it got even him.
And through it all, the woman in flannel never blinked. "My husband is in Vermont deer hunting... But all he has seen is bald ones."
I palm one of his chips.
The lady in flannel: "If you're here to do a story about deer hunting you ain't got nothing until you talk to Jimmy."
I say nothing, I'm in Orvis flannel but I'm pretty sure that doesn't count.
The lady in flannel: "You need to find Jimmy... Jimmy Smart. He's partial to hearts."
And Skip stopped laughing.
"You rang?" Again, from behind me, "I'm Jimmy Smart."
Skip bursts out laughing, saying something about Hannibal, and I turn around to see an outstretched hand — and a mustache that goes from under a nose around a mouth all the way to the end of a chin.
And this is what the mustache is saying, "I'm not a deer hunter... I'm a deer consumer, especially of the vital organs.
Skip is looking straight ahead, because it just dawned on him that the man he called Hannibal also happens to be in charge of membership here at the post, the same post Skip is trying to get in.
And this is what the guy who votes you in said to my face, and to Skip's back. "I have four hearts in my freezer right now, if it wasn't so late I would have you over for dinner."
No. "Have you over for dinner" was a direct quote.
And his mustache was smiling when he said it.
Skip was starting to pocket his chips, when the lady in flannel said, "Yeah Mr. ESPN — why don't you interview him?"
That was when Skip pushed my BASS notebook and pen over my way and said, "Yeah, why don't you have a heart to heart?"
He started roaring again while pushing a chip the barlady's way.
I ask Jimmy some question I can't for the life of me remember because of how he answered it.
"I deliver sheetrock, and my avid hunting customers know I love the organs, so as soon as they get a fresh one, they bring the organs to me."
In journalism school this is where they teach you to have a "follow-up" question. I have none. Would you?
"I especially love the heart, liver, kidneys and tongue."
By this point I'm speechless.
"It's our traditional Christmas breakfast: I cook the heart up with some fresh baked beans... It's so good even my ex-in-laws come over to have it."
Well that's a marketing phrase for you.
"So Jimmy, if you like it so much, why don't you go out and hunt it for yourself?"
Finally a follow-up question, and it drew the mustache tight. The twinkle that was just there, was now utterly gone.
"The Tet," was all he said.
Skip sat at attention. And I looked down at the floor. Closed my BASS notebook. Clicked the pen.
"I haven't had the heart to pick up a weapon since I was in Vietnam," said the guy who was with the Army's 9th Division, The Old Reliables, as a combat engineer in 1967, and stared the Tet Offensive straight in the face.
"I've been the deer, looked right into the business end of a barrel pointed right at me...." Each word was softer than the one before.
For a moment, all there drank in silence, each finishing the sentence only to themselves.
Finally the barlady said, "Hey look Jimmy, you have the last shot in the bottle," while she poured three shots to make sure Jimmy had the last one, "the last shot in the bottle is always on the house."
Three shots were downed, the free one sat untouched.
But within moments, the Jimmy Smart cooking lesson began.
Jimmy does hearts: "De-vein it first, then slice it up like Steak-Ums; get a wok and put in some onions, mushrooms and garlic, then add the heart slices, but you have to keep them moving. Move them up and down the sides of the wok wall."
Skip is saying, "Oh dear God," I think it was the heart Steak-Ums that got him.
Jimmy does liver: "First I chill it, then I massage it to get all the blood out..."
[OH DEAR GOD.]
He continued, "...then I warm it up in a pan of warm milk, next I take a pan and make a bed of onions, mushrooms, touch of garlic, then I lay the liver down on top of the bed, never, NEVER let the liver touch the pan, because when you do that the liver becomes real tough. Don't ever let game meat touch the pan."
With that, he pushed something in front of Skip: a signed official American Legion membership card.
Skip was in. Post 33, Plainville, Connecticut.
Driving home that night, with a pocket full of chips, all Skip could do was look at the membership card in his hand.
"db how cool is this? They actually let me in..."
Cruising through the perfect New England hunter's night, I reached over and turned the volume up high, and to the CCR song, Skip and I sang — in not even close harmony:
"And I can still hear that old hound dog barkin'
Then Skip held up his newly signed card... and howled.
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