My Father, the Butcher

We taunted Libby for always hiding behind the clothesline during Killing Time. The rest of us gathered dutifully around the chopping block and watched the hatchet sever the chicken head, leaving a spurting stump in its place. The thunk of the blade elicited sobs from the direction of the bedsheets that my mom had hung out to dry earlier in the day. The three of us could only roll our eyes at Libby’s hysterics. There was no room for a soft heart in the butchering business. 

Libby wasn’t alone in her tenderness on these mornings. More often than not, it was our mother wielding the weapon and lopping off the head in one stroke—hopefully. The hatchet was a backup plan. She originally declared that the humane way to kill a bird was to swing it by its head, which would instantly break its neck. That was the theory, anyway. But several swings of the chicken frequently just left my mother with a squawking and clawing animal in her hand, the poor thing still very much alive and probably wishing that it weren’t. So my dad was tasked with securing the chicken’s head and praying that my mom’s aim was better than her swing. He’d never lost so much as a knuckle in his decades as a butcher—a point of pride in the industry—but a squirming bird could easily put an end to that legacy.

Art by Mike Freiheit

Dad was always the unwilling participant who would avert his gaze as an animal bled out before him. On the one occasion that he took a couple of us kids rabbit-hunting in the woods behind our home, he’d half-heartedly kicked a few piles of fallen tree branches, making the barest effort to scare out any rabbits. We’d trudged around in the snow for an hour before giving up, with him having never even shouldered the rifle. Back home, he’d force himself to help with the slaughter, to corral a grunting pig or clutch a frantic bird awaiting its execution. If she ever offered him the blade, he’d claim that his hands shook too much, or that his eyes weren’t what they used to be. Yet those same hands never wavered while skillfully gliding a side of beef through a band saw. When it came time to end an animal’s life, however, my dad simply couldn’t bring himself to do it. 

I descend from a long line of manual workers. My great-grandfather, the son of a German immigrant, farmed the marshy lands of the Mississippi River floodplains at the turn of the 20th century. His son, my Grandpa George, delivered and installed residential propane tanks for the local gas company. By the time he moved in with us, wheelchair-bound and suffering from dementia, he’d lost all his fingertips and nails to decades of being smashed under several-ton barrels of propane. Those same clubbed, trembling fingers would sneak onto my dinner plate to steal french fries if I wasn’t paying attention, a twinkle in Grandpa’s eyes as he’d munch silently. 

My dad began butchering directly out of high school, in the meat department of the local grocery store. Once, we met a coworker of his from those early days, while the two of them coached my little brother’s baseball team. The man was missing one of his arms up to the elbow. “It got torn off in the meat grinder when we were teenagers,” Dad explained when I worked up the courage to ask at home later. Even I, a morbid 8-year-old, paled at the implied horror scene that must have unfolded that day. It was a rare fate to be injured quite so grievously on the job, but lesser levels of mutilation are an accepted hazard of the trade. Bending over screeching blades and churning rotors on a daily basis makes accidents inevitable. In the meat-packing industry at large, each week sees an average of two amputations, most often a finger or two.

Later, Dad briefly realized his lifelong dream of opening his own grocery store. It was the 1980s and Walmart hadn’t yet morphed into the all-encompassing Supercenter monstrosity that would invade suburban cities over the next decade. Business boomed in our tiny Missouri town—for cigarettes and lottery tickets, if nothing else. But my fervently Catholic parents quickly found themselves with four kids in five years. It became a Herculean task to both operate a business that, among other things, still had to be heated with firewood, and to find time to spend together as a family. To this day, my mom complains that they almost didn’t make it to the hospital for my birth because Dad insisted on stopping by the store to fuel the stove for the evening. I was 2 when he sold the store and took a job in the city, butchering at Sam’s Club, a Walmart subsidiary. This more routine position came with family health benefits, a 401(k) for retirement, and a modest salary adequate enough to support a wife and four children. But as the kids kept coming, we quickly outgrew Dad’s income. 

Mom began waitressing at a local pizza parlor in the evenings. Suddenly, the anticipated family time that had motivated the selling of the store was no longer there. Desperate for a less frantic life that could still sustain our large household, we left our development ranch home for 12 acres in the country, bought from Mom’s sister. As had their self-reliant ancestors, my parents were going to be farmers. A single-wide trailer would have to suffice for housing. With two bedrooms for the seven of us, Mom and Dad hunkered down in one with the new baby, while we older kids squeezed into the other room. Libby and I split a set of bunk beds; Katie and Elliott shared a twin bed along the opposite wall. 

Dad had promised that the trailer was a temporary solution—only a couple of months until he got together a down payment to build us a home. Instead, we spent all of 1994 in the cramped quarters of the trailer, in perpetual fear of Missouri’s infamous tornadoes, which had been known to flatten sturdier homes than our sagging aluminum walls on cinder blocks. When our parents finally scraped up the funds for a modular home, hauled in on a flatbed truck and assembled on-site, my siblings and I watched excitedly as our 1,800-square-foot palace arose overnight. Libby and I picked out a lavender paint color for our new shared bedroom, thrilled by the luxury of having only one other roommate. Our family moved in right in time for the start of my first-grade year, which I spent under the watch of the nuns at the Catholic grade school.

Between school fees and a new mortgage, money remained scarce. But Mom couldn’t work the dinner service at the pizza parlor anymore, not with a newborn baby in tow. Soon, she transitioned to cleaning offices and banks overnight. Dad sometimes showed up to help her clean but realized he’d need to find additional work of his own to make ends meet. He didn’t have much in the way of formal marketable skills by modern standards, but knew his way around a carcass. 

This is how the entire family got roped into slaughtering animals in our detached garage.

Weekends were never much of a rest for Dad. The hour-long commute meant leaving home at 3 A.M. and not returning until well after we kids had been dropped off by the afternoon schoolbus. After dinner, Dad would doze off on the couch until the 10 p.m. news and crawl into bed after the sports and weather reports wrapped up. In my family, “quality time” meant washing dishes together or dumping trash cans with Mom at the bank. On a lucky weekend, we’d play a family game of baseball, but more often, Saturdays and Sundays were chore days, fueled by a never-ending chore list.

One goal always loomed in the inscrutable future: developing the farm into an operation that could fully support us, rendering obsolete the need for side gigs. Dad wrestled a tiller through the rocky Missouri clay, enlisting us kids to scatter seeds of corn and beans behind him. Mom quartered old potatoes for us to dig into the earth, eyes up so they could one day bloom into new plants. Apple tree saplings lined the garden, encircled by cages so the deer wouldn’t eat them before the trees could grow beyond their nibbling reach.

As no farm is complete without animals, we soon had a couple of cows in the pasture, penned in by several hundred feet of barbed-wire fence that Dad built himself. Being the eldest, Katie was drafted to help in the endeavor. Her participation ended when a taut length of wire snapped and narrowly missed her face, leaving her with a nasty, jagged scar along her shoulder. It was my turn to pitch in when my parents constructed a shelter for the cows. Dad sent me up a ladder to nail down the corrugated roof—heights were another source of unease for him. Shipping pallets and rolls of chicken wire transformed into a pen for several hens and a rooster. 

Third grade marked the end of my days at the Catholic school. Boxes of textbooks arrived on our doorstep, signalling the newest endeavor in the quest for self-reliance: homeschooling. Mom regaled us kids with the possibilities that this arrangement might allow: field trips, sleeping in, wearing pajamas to class. But we were skeptical at leaving our friends behind to spend even more time with each other. And we understood that homeschooling meant being a bit too available when it was time to weed the garden, or pick green beans, or pluck feathers from chickens on Butchering Days.

No one could bring themselves to kill our first cow. We’d bought Annie as a baby while her twin brother went to my grandfather. For months, we nursed her with bottles of formula as you might a motherless puppy. She’d doze off in our arms while we scratched her curly white face, and her tiny hooves would slip on the laminate floor as she tested her steps in our kitchen. The intention was to someday breed her, though we later learned that having a twin brother had rendered her infertile. This should’ve been an immediate death warrant for a cow, but we’d grown too fond of our Annie. Years past her would-be expiration date, our pet cow still lived with us, leaping and galloping toward us at full speed when we called her name from across the field. We could only watch in terror and anticipation of the crash through the fence, but she’d always skid to a halt just in time. 

After my parents bought another calf to raise and butcher, we kids never again made the mistake of getting attached. Annie did, though. She became the stand-in mother of the pen, keeping company with the latest steer until he was large enough for slaughter. We’d hide Annie in the shelter and cover her ears so she wouldn’t hear the shotgun blast across the field. Upon discovering her companion gone, she’d stand at the gate and bleat inconsolably for days until we bought her a new calf to nurture. And in this way, each autumn, we restocked the deep-freeze with a year’s supply of meat.

Butchering can take several days to complete, depending on the size of the animal. Dad’s first clients were deer hunters. It was temporary work that began with bow season, followed by a few weeks of gun season. Men would roll up our driveway early on a Saturday morning, the latest kill in their truck beds. The crunch of the gravel and voices outside my window would wake me up in time to watch Dad wrestle a limp carcass up the ladder. The act of suspending the deer between two trees always took several attempts; the six-inch hooks had to catch through the back leg joints so the deer wouldn’t be torn down by sheer gravity. Sharpening knives whistled a tune overhead as the slain beast dangled there, pink tongue lolling onto the grass below, beady eyes staring blankly. We kids gathered on one side, ready to tug in tandem, while Dad’s blade sliced and poked along the interior of the animal’s silken skin. Once the skinning was complete, it’d be time for him to swear at his perpetually dull hacksaw while struggling to sever the deer head, then split the carcass in half from tail to jagged neck. We watched in apprehension as our 5’4” father clutched the slippery halves to his aproned chest and heaved them into the salvaged walk-in cooler. The bandsaw squealed sadistically as he gracefully sliced raw flesh into steaks. The feet didn’t yield enough meat for anything more useful than a dog treat, but the upper leg made for good roast and soup bones. All other acceptable scraps got tossed into the tub to grind into burger meat; venison is too lean to make a decent burger on its own, but adding pork fat contributes both flavor and moisture. My thoughts always strayed to his armless coworker as I watched Dad feed hunks of raw meat into the rumbling auger. 

My spectating ended at that point. I was too afraid to hear a scream that would mean Dad hadn’t pulled his hand back in time to avoid the nasty blade. But, he went on working. After a couple of hours, he’d call me back down to the garage—it was my time to shine. Dad couldn’t package the meat as he went, as his bloody hands would make a mess of the wax wrapping paper, so the task often fell to me. 

I’d make a deal with one of my siblings: I would wrap all the meat if they would be my Plopper. The Plopper, named for the sound the sopping meat made when it hit the table,  was a position we kids had invented to make the necessary work feel less dreary. Just as Dad couldn’t touch the waxy paper, nor could the Wrapper sully their own hands by handling the meat directly. The Plopper would wait patiently for the Wrapper to finish a package before grabbing another stack of chops or loin to center on the paper, all the while keeping one hand clean enough to label the parcel: “1 lb. Burger, Smith, 11/2001.” This process easily evolved into guessing games, from taking turns molding burger meat into balls as close to one pound as possible, to guessing how much three steaks weighed. Sometimes we set up two wrapping stations and raced head-to-head. I soon became the undefeated champion, churning out packages in nine seconds flat. Dad didn’t mind our shenanigans. He’d just hum along to the staticky AM radio, Johnny Cash and Hank Williams crooning to the constant motion of Dad’s knife.

Though my siblings and I groaned and whined when summoned to help with the butchering, I honestly didn’t mind the work. I’d zip up my hand-me-down coat and escape out into the uninsulated garage (gloveless because nine-second records weren’t set with bulky fingers.) Butchering felt like a necessary evil in our lives. If Dad was at work when clients came to pick up their meat, we kids would collect payment. Dad charged $70 to process each deer; he didn’t need more than his high school education to be a whiz at calculating overhead costs, profit margins, and diminishing returns. These details were too complex for me at age ten, but I understood that deer season always fell right before Christmas, and that a slow season spelled fewer Christmas presents and a smaller holiday meal. Fewer deer and the thermostat would remain below 64 degrees all winter. A disastrous stretch could mean a whole winter without the clothes dryer or oven. This consciousness, I suppose, made it easier to swallow my complaints and wrap my meat packages. 

I’ve never asked my dad whether he likes being a butcher, or probed his sentiments about his work. In fact, it wasn’t until I recently helped him assemble an aluminum tool shed that I first thought of him as a manual laborer. In the world of my childhood, non-manual workers were exceptions: teachers, priests, the town judge. All work was physical, a task that required muscle and elicited grunting. We were certainly grunting and dripping in the sweltering sun on that July day, my dad holding the ladder while I scrambled to the top, as usual. I watched him curse at the drill in his hands, desperate to finish one more chore before his Sunday ended and it was time to return to his paying job the next day—or rather, jobs. Even now, while the rest of his generation waltzes into retirement, my dad does overnight shifts at a second store several days a week, after clocking out of the meat-packing plant where he now works.

My dad kept fumbling the tiny screws, hobbled by the knobby, swollen fingers of someone who has spent half a century lifting, pulling, tugging, and carving. I fished them out of the grass for him, right outside my parents’ trailer, a downgrade from the relative palace where we once raised Annie. They’d had to sell after the mortgage got away from them. Driving the screws into the searing metal roof, I found myself struck by the sudden realization that my dad’s crooked fingers were his primary tools, that their skill and muscle memory had supported a wife and six children. That he had managed to remain unscathed in his work was a marvel in itself. Our lives depended on those fingers. Their loss, an injury suffered by so many in the industry, would have spelled devastation for our family. My dad was in that way a lucky man, and as a result, so were we. Though it may sound naive, only in that moment, at 31 years of age, did I truly internalize the meaning of being a manual laborer, of surviving by the work of one’s hands.

In a sense, my dissociation of my dad, the butcher, from my dad, the manual worker, is a product of my attachment to him. My dad is not his labor—at least, not entirely. Though manual labor is a beast that constantly demands to be fed—consuming time, energy, and bodies but never satiated—it ultimately remains a way of supporting oneself. Manual labor is neither my dad’s destiny nor his personality. Rather, it is the dangerous and gruesome enterprise he has been forced to take on to guarantee us, his family, a most basic standard of living.

I’ve been thinking about this more lately, as I see the term “laborer” appear across the political left’s discussions and policy debates. In these conversations, where the working class and manual laborers are heralded for their key role in sustaining and, with any hope, someday thwarting capitalism, I wonder whether we are being wise in endowing the laborer with his trade as an inherent quality. In doing so, we may risk failing to divine the person apart from the work, allowing ourselves to romanticize and sanitize back-breaking, finger-chopping labor, until the image of the laborer no longer corresponds to anything in reality. Flattening flesh-and-blood people into mere labor identities sets us up to internalize the very same capitalist mindset that we despise, that which only sees the person as a producer. 

A butcher is not a charming character in a nursery rhyme or a Richard Scarry book. He doesn’t spend his days cutting steaks because he was born with a saw in his hands—he does it to survive. My point is less to suggest a vocabulary change than one in mindset: in allowing our eyes to only see a laborer rather than a person doing labor, we erase a key distinction. Gone is the humanity behind the act, gone the harsh truth that people are coerced into these roles. Instead, we blissfully accept “labor” as a character trait or a calling, when it is still an act premised on the need to eat.
But of course, part of the left’s project should be and is to support the worker: to improve their condition, demand fair compensation, and in an ideal world, hand them the means of production. I have faith that we can do all this, while at the same time separating the person from their method of sustaining themselves. Let’s insist upon the kind of world that was forbidden for my father, a place where a worker has a right to exist outside of his productive capabilities. A world where my father can choose the shape of his hands, and where no matter his chosen path, he can be promised a restful Sunday.

This post was originally published on Current Affairs.