How a little love and a box of 20 Mule Team Borax can soften death’s sting. An excerpt from Kevin Kling’s book The Dog Says How.
WHEN I WAS IN THE FIFTH GRADE, we moved to the country. I didn’t like it in the country. It was quiet, and I didn’t trust the quiet. Mom said not to worry, it was only my imagination, but that seemed to make it worse. My imagination? Good Lord, then it could be anything. My brother loved the country. He had a bow and arrow and played a game in the front yard with the neighbor kids where he’d shoot an arrow up into the sky. Then, while the arrow turned around in the air and sped back toward earth, we’d test who could stay in the yard the longest. One time, he shot an arrow over our heads, and we were all standing there, looking into each other’s eyes and pretending “there’s not an arrow over my head.”
“Well, there’s not one over mine.”
Finally, my spirit cracked and I ran for my life into the adjacent woods. The arrow came down right beside me and stuck in a woodpile.
“I got it,” I yelled out.
And when I went over and pulled out the arrow, there was a chipmunk stuck on the end.
I said, “Steven, look.”
He said, “Hey, I wasn’t even trying.”
As a kid, my brother, Steven, had the look of an angel; he carried the look of innocence. People refused to believe an evil genius walked among them. Except for that Halloween when he went as the devil, wearing one of those plastic masks and flammable suits they sold at the five-and-dime. After we got our candy he simply smiled and said, “See you in hell.” Like “See ya later.” It was very disconcerting, like he had been given information.
Another time we were hunting with guns in the woods. (Somehow we were given guns.) Mine was on safety, like it was for the five years I’d been hunting. And my brother, whose gun was definitely not on safety, was looking for an animal—something, anything to shoot at. All of a sudden this wood duck came flying through at 50, 60 miles an hour, screaming through the woods. My brother caught it out of the corner of his eye, whirled, and fired from the hip, missing it by a mile. But the noise scared the duck. It swerved, hit a tree, and died.
So we’d bring these animals home. “Look, Ma! Look what we got today!” We were like cats.
Finally, after a few years of this my mom said, “Oh, you boys. All right, I can’t stop things from dying around you. It’s going to happen. It’s a given. But I can give you an appreciation for these animals.” So she enrolled us in a taxidermy class.
Taxidermy. Taught by Mr. Damyanovitch. Mr. Damyanovitch didn’t teach taxidermy through technical know-how. No, Mr. Damyanovitch taught through a method called love. He would tell us about the duck. He would take the duck and lay it on the table and pet it, and tell us how it lived, what it liked to eat, and where it came from. Then he would part the feathers, and he’d make a slight incision and open up the duck. He would say, “See boys, it’s just like taking a little man out of his suit.” Then he would take the 20 Mule Team Borax and pour it inside.
“Liberally with the borax, boys. Liberally with the borax.”
He would put in a body and sew it shut, and preen the feathers back over the incision. Next, he would put wires in the feet, paint the feet and the bill, put in the eyes, set it on a log, and say, “Now go to it, boys.”
So we’d dive into our practice chipmunks with all the love our little junior-high fingers could muster. When we got done, our little chippers didn’t look quite as good as his duck. But, after a while our chipmunks started to iron out okay. And over time, they got better and better. My brother seemed to have found a calling; he got really good. Steven started doing things with animals that the animals themselves would do in the wild if given the proper training. Incredible poses!
Now, at the same time, we were in a Boy Scout troop—“Troop 584, good scouts are we.” And we would have this yearly competition called “The Brookdale Show.” The Brookdale Shopping Center would sponsor this show made up of Boy Scout displays. All the troops around the city would put on displays and each of us would try to win the blue ribbon, and every year our troop won the blue ribbon with “winter camping.” We set up a pup tent and piled drifts of fake plastic snow and stacked some logs with a spinning light bulb behind them, like a fire, except for the orange extension cord running to the nearest outlet. And every year this lame presentation won the blue ribbon. The Brookdale Show was two weeks away. My brother and I had been waiting for this day. I got up in front of the troop and said, “Well, men, we can do winter camping like we do every year, and probably win another blue ribbon. Or, if you’d rather, we could do . . . taxidermy.”
“Taxidermy? Taxidermy? Taxidermy, taxidermy, taxidermy, taxidermy, taxidermy!” The kids were on their feet, shouting, “Taxidermy! Taxidermy!” A father leapt up and said, “I think we should do winter… ”—too late, my brother stepped in front of him and said, “Now go out and get those projects!” Zoom, the place was empty.
The next day, in the woods, you could hear guns calling out in the distance, “Pop, pop…pop.” Kids trying to get their “projects,” projects at any cost.
They’d shout in the car, “Swerve, Dad. A project!”
The next week, in the middle of the troop meeting room, there was this big table full of animals—projects—one for each child. Steven and I taught them how to stuff with love. And they went to it. But we forgot that when we started into taxidermy, we couldn’t turn out works of art either, and, of course, the early projects were turning out kind of awful. We thought, “We don’t have time to train these kids. We’ve got to think of something.”
So, if a chipmunk didn’t turn out quite right on one side, we’d have him lean against a log, so you couldn’t see the problematic side. Or we would paint a rural scene and set the animal in it, hiding what had gone wrong. Or if an animal turned out really off, we would have the log as the main part and a tail coming out from behind the log like “he’s behind there, somewhere.”
Meanwhile, my brother was kicking out incredible, beautiful projects. One day he brought in a squirrel that had met its end kind of bad on the right side. And then he brought in another squirrel that had met its end kind of bad on the left side. My brother took those two squirrels, put them together, and made what we called “the quilted squirrel.” Perfect. One stitch up the front, one down the back. It didn’t matter that one was male and one was female. They fit! We put that one in front. We were going to win for sure.
And then a kid named John Stoner came in. John Stoner had a plastic Hefty garbage bag over his project.
“What’s under the garbage bag, John Stoner?”
“You’ll see at the end of the meeting.”
“What do you mean?”
He said, “It’s an unveiling.”
We didn’t know what he was talking about, but we did know that it was going to be good. John Stoner had been coming in with squirrels that had nothing visibly wrong with them—they looked perfect. We found out later that he was catching them in a Have-a-Heart Trap—a live trap—putting them in his garage, shutting the garage door, starting his dad’s car, and asphyxiating the squirrels. One day his mother came in, saw her son in a running car in a closed garage and said, “John Stoner, what are you doing?”
He couldn’t say he was asphyxiating squirrels, so he said, “Uh, nothing.” They sent him off for psychiatric care. But, before they shipped John Stoner out, he came to our meeting with a bag over his project. At the end of the meeting, he walked up, grabbed one corner and then another and . . . it was beautiful! John Stoner had taken four of those perfect squirrels and stuffed them to perfection. They were sitting around a log playing poker. He even had visors on their heads and the skin of their arms rolled up like sleeves with garters. They had cigarettes that smoked and the eyes on the squirrel with four aces were rolled back like, “Whoa! What a hand!” Oh, John Stoner.
We put his piece up front and, with the help of Mr. Damyanovitch, we made a slide-show presentation, “How to Stuff with Love”—with the theme from Doctor Zhivago as background music. We had the slide show, the quilted squirrel, and John Stoner’s poker-playing critters. We were going to win for sure. We set up at the Brookdale Show and said to all the people walking by, “Look at this! Look at this!” Most people looked shocked, quickened their pace, and averted their eyes; others blocked the eyes of children; some simply shook their heads; and a few shouted in anger, “Look at that! Look at that! You kids should be ashamed of yourselves.”
So the next year we did winter camping…and won a blue ribbon.
Kevin Kling is a Minneapolis playwright and storyteller. He will discuss and sign copies of his new book, The Dog Says How, at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul on October 2. For details, call 651-290-1221.