Thursday, October 25, 2012

Chapter 11: Indians in the House

"Mary! Look!" Laura cried. Mary looked and saw them, too.

They were tall, thin, fierce-looking men. Their skin was brownish-red. Their heads seemed to go up to a peak, and the peak was a tuft of hair that stood straight up and ended in feathers. Their eyes were black and still and glittering, like snake's eyes.

They came closer and closer. Then they went out of sight, on the other side of the house."

Pa is ready to make the bedstead when Ma tells him they are out of meat for dinner. So he leans the wood against the wall, takes his gun, and heads out across the prairie. Poor Jack is tied up so he can't tag along and spoil the hunting.

Laura and Mary feel very sorry for Jack, but Pa told them not to let him off the chain. They spend the morning out petting him and trying to make him feel better, but Jack is too sad. But suddenly Jack stands up with a fierce growl, the hair on his neck standing straight up.

Laura looks over her shoulder and sees two Indians approaching. They walk by the girls and go to the other side of the cabin. Laura and Mary wait for them to pass by the other side, but when they don't reappear, the girls realize that the Indians are in the cabin with Ma and Baby Carrie.

Laura wants to do something to help Ma, and she is about to let Jack off the chain when Mary reminds her that Pa said not to.

"But Pa didn't know the Indians would come...." Laura argues.

"He said not to," said Mary, almost crying.

It is hard, but Laura knows she must obey Pa, even though she is scared. The two girls know they must help Ma, so they run across the yard and slip into the house. Laura runs towards Ma, but then she smells a horrible smell and sees the Indians. She ducks behind the wood that Pa had left leaning against the wall.

From there she can watch the Indians as they quietly eat the cornbread Ma had made them. She sees that they are wearing black and white striped animal skins around their waists. Laura knows those are skunk skins. That is what is making the smell.

After the Indians have eaten, they say something to Ma in their own language and softly walk out of the cabin on their bare feet. Ma lets out a big sigh and hugs Laura and Mary.

When Pa comes home he has a rabbit and two prairie hens for dinner. He skins the rabbit and tells the girls he will salt the pelt and peg it to the side of the house. Then a lucky little girl would get a warm fur hat for winter.

During dinner, everyone tells Pa about their adventure. Laura says that if they had turned Jack loose, he would have eaten those Indians right up. Pa turns to Laura and says in a dreadful voice, "Did you even think of letting Jack loose?"

Laura can't speak, but Mary pipes up, "Yes, Pa."

Pa sighs and says to the girls in a terrible voice, "After this you girls remember to always do as you're told. Don't you even think of disobeying me. Do you hear?"

"Yes, Pa." Laura and Mary whisper.

First of all, let me clarify that it is not my intention to slur any race in this chapter. While it is written from Laura's perspective, a young, impressionable white girl, I am sure that the native tribes had their own choice descriptions to make about the white settlers. In sum, there was a certain lack of political correctness on both sides of the aisle in those days.

Now that I've got that out of the way....I read this chapter with growing horror at the obvious project. Of course, I could have taken the easy way out and made corn bread, but you can't take a chapter this exciting and turn it into a corn bread recipe.

No, the natural project would be to skin a skunk.

I wouldn't even have to kill one myself, because it is the time of year when a young skunk's thoughts turn to love, and the roads are littered with unlucky romantic swains and swainlets. But could I sacrifice so much, even for my literary dedication?

As it turns out, no.

There are limits, even for me, and smelling like a skunk for several weeks is well within the limits of "Ain't Gonna Happen". So the next best thing I could think of was to find a friendly taxidermist and skin something else.

I searched around a little bit. We are in a heavy hunting area, so there are a few guys to choose from, but each one had his own niche. The first one I talked to only does skulls anymore. Well, that was no help to my mission, but he gave me the name of a man in Dagmar who does other taxidermy work.

I called Ralph Summers up and found that he doesn't do skins anymore either, but he still does head mounts. To do a head mount, you have to prepare the head and shoulders of the animal the same way as any animal skin, and he just so happened to have a couple of deer skins that he was going to be working on the very next day.

"'Come on, Mary and Laura!" Pa said. "We'll skin that rabbit and dress the prairie hens while that cornbread bakes. Hurry! I'm hungry as a wolf."

They sat on the woodpile in the wind and sunshine and watched Pa work with his hunting knife. The big rabbit was shot through the eye, and the prairie hens' heads were shot clean away. They never knew what hit them, Pa said."

Alas, the animals had been skinned in the field, so I missed that lovely process, but once in the shop the hide had to be cleaned. All the fat and muscle had to be trimmed off with a knife and the the last, tiny pieces had to be scraped off with a scalpel. You can use a draw knife to clean the hide, but Mr. Summers prefers the knife and scalpel method.

Tiggy was so fortunate to be available as my assistant. She's been bugging me about being a guest helper on this blog, but I'm not sure she expected her debut to be on "Taxidermy Day". Que sera, sera. Be careful what you wish for.

Holding a salted hide.
We arrived at his shop and were greeted warmly by Mr. Summers, a gracious host who took the time to answer all my questions. Taxidermy is a very interesting, albeit disgusting, process. The steps are pretty basic. An animal is skinned, then the hide is prepared by cleaning it thoroughly and salting the hide to aid in drying.

Back from the tannery.
Then it is sent off to a professional tannery. The happy people at the tannery get to use all the smelly, gross chemicals, and you get a nice, soft hide back in the mail. The taxidermist fits the hide to a pre-made Styrofoam form, making sure to reunite the right antlers back with the right deer.

Voila! A beautiful deer mount ready to be the bane of some wife's existence.

The finished work.
It's a nice, clean process for the hunter. After the initial skinning (and let's face it, if you're going to hunt and eat stuff, you're not that squeamish), he doesn't see it again until it's respectably hanging on the wall, staring at him with a glassy, slightly-reproachful gaze. But the middle stages are not so pretty. I know this.

Yes, that's me. Aproned up in protective gear covered with bits and pieces of a previous badger, according to my host. I brought my own gloves, thank you very much. This vegetarian prefers to keep blood and guts at a distance. I'm holding a very sharp, very business-like knife that is used to trim the fat and muscle from a skin. If you're Mr. Summers, that is. For me, it's used to hack comically and ineffectively at the unyielding flesh.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. First a video where our experienced host demonstrates the art of fleshing. So quick. So easy.

"Laura held the edge of the rabbit skin while Pa's keen knife ripped it off the rabbit meat. "I'll salt this skin and peg it out on the house wall to dry," he said. "It will make a warm fir cap for some little girl to wear next winter.'"

Not so with me, my little friend. I was afraid of slicing through the skin and making a hole in someone's prize deer skin, but I needn't have worried. That knife wasn't going anywhere for me. It didn't help that I was completely grossed out by the cold, clammy, stretchy dead thing in front of me.

Tiggy did a little better than I did, but she was still pathetic compared to our host's example. I guess there is something to be said for 30 years of experience working with everything from reindeer to African Cape Buffalo.

After the first, rough cleaning of a skin, you get to the finer work. I didn't actually work with the scalpel. Somehow, after watching me flail away with the big knife, Mr. Summers failed to offer me a chance with the scalpel. But we did get to see the skin he was trimming up. It gets completely turned inside out. Did you know that deers' ears can turn inside out? Well, they can, and it is a very unattractive look, let me assure you.

From this.....
To this......
So, will I ever become a taxidermist? I'm a big believer in "never say 'never'", but I would predict the chances are pretty low. This veggie eater is glad to live in an era where flesh-free eating is both possible and practical. But I suppose I would have survived chowing down on furry little animals back then if I'd had to.


Thursday, October 18, 2012

Chapter 10: A Roof and a Floor

"Pa had taken the canvas wagon-top off the house, and now he was ready to put the roof on. For days and days, he had been hauling logs from the creek bottoms and splitting them into thin, long slabs. Piles of slabs lay all around the house and slabs stood against it."

Laura and Mary are busy every day; they are never bored. After they help with chores, they hurry into the tall, tall grass to hunt for birds' nests. They see prairie chickens running here and there, and slithering grass snakes hunting for mice. Sometimes they find soft gray rabbits huddled perfectly still in the grass. And all the time they are minding Baby Carrie so Ma can do her work. No, there is never time to be bored on the prairie.

Pa is busy, too. He is beginning the roof of the little log cabin. He begins at the bottom edge of the roof and fits a slab over the rafters, then fastens it to the roof using real iron nails that Mr. Edwards has loaned him. Nails are very precious, and if one of them jumps out of its hole and sails through the air, Mary and Laura watch until it falls. Then they must search the grass until they find it.

One by one the slabs are hammered on until the whole roof is finished. Pa makes a little trough from two slabs and covers the peak of the roof. Now no rain can get in and they are snug and warm. It is time to make the floor.

Pa splits each log down the middle using his ax and wedge to drive a long crack the length of the log. After all the logs are split, Pa drags them into the house and lays them split side up. He uses his shovel and hollows the dirt out so the round side of each log fits firmly into the ground.

He uses the head of his ax and makes little, careful chops to smooth out any rough places on the wood. It takes a long time, but when he is finished the wood is smooth with no splinters to hurt little feet. Ma tells Pa she is glad to be off the dirt and puts a nice, red table cloth on the wood table Pa had made her.

The last thing Pa does is chink all the cracks between the logs. He fills them with thin strips of wood and then plasters them with mud. No wind can blow through those thick, warm logs and Pa, Ma, Mary, Laura, and Baby Carrie are ready for winter.

Hmmmmm. Putting in a roof and a floor. Fortunately for me, though unfortunately for this blog, my house came complete with roof and floor. There's no time for me to build a roofless cabin, so I had to improvise. Thankfully, my roof is not without in need of repair.

Actually, my whole roof needs to be replaced, but the finances say that won't happen for a year or two (or three or twenty). But there were a couple spots where the shingles had completely blown off the rafters. I could have gone all Polyanna and tried to convince myself that they were skylights, but I'm kind of a diva that way. I actually want my roof to keep out the blizzards, not welcome them in.

The area to be repaired was about 3'x4', and close enough to the edge of the roof that I could just stand on the ladder for the repairs. Good news, because that meant I didn't have to try and get any scaffolding up there. But it would have been nice to have a solid platform under me. Have I mentioned I don't really like heights?

Actually, I don't have a problem with heights as long as I stay in them. It's that rapid descent from them that I have a problem with.

It actually looks much higher in person.
 My dad came out to supervise, because this may surprise you, but I don't actually know what I'm doing when it comes to roofs. My dad would do great in quality control, because if it ain't done right, you're gonna do it again.

Under his supervision, the first step was to fasten a piece of tar paper over the roof-less section. First, I used liquid tar to stick it down around the edges. Liquid tar is a very messy substance that sticks to everything, except possibly your roof. But it is very important, and in spite of its messy nature, it is used everywhere. I ended up with tar on my fingers, tar on the ladder, tar on my clothes, tar all over the ground, and tar my dad's nail gun. I even ended up with tar on my dad, a fact that was not received well by Mr. I-Can-Do-All-This-Without-Making-a-Mess.

"Pa reached down and pulled up a slab. He laid it across the ends of the sapling rafters. Its edge stuck out beyond the wall. Then Pa put some nails in his mouth and took his hammer out of his belt, and he began to nail the slab to the rafters."

Then I got to use the nail gun to tack down the tar paper and put on the shingles. Using the nail gun is exciting because it has a hair trigger. As you stretch out to the limits of your reach (because you are short and shrimpy), and gingerly squeeze the trigger while trying to stay balanced on top of your ladder, it gives you quite a thrill to have 3 or 4 nails shoot out with a noise like a machine gun. Under the circumstances, screaming can be helpful to relieve feelings.

After the tar paper was down, it was time to put on the shingles. Shingling is pretty fun. You glop your shingle up with tar, then plop it on the roof and nail it down with the nail gun. It's important to alternate the pattern of shingles so you don't end up with straight lines going up. It's also important to stick the edges down well with tar, especially around here where 95% of the year is hurricane season.

"The roof was done. The house was darker than it had been, because no light came through the slabs. There was not one single crack that would let rain come in."

My repair job turned out pretty nicely, if I do say so myself. I even did a couple of spots on the other side of the house once my dad left, but without my quality control inspector here they didn't turn out quite as nicely. In my defense, it was starting to rain, and the wind was starting to blow a lot harder. Not a good time to be up on a ladder, especially when---did I mention it?---I'm not very fond of heights.

"There," Ma said. "Now we're living like civilized folks again."

Just like the Ingalls' house, my home is really starting to come together now. Of course, it's been almost 2 years since I moved in, not one short summer season, but in my defense I have to be both Pa and Ma to my family. That does make things take a little longer. But I can still identify with the thrill of accomplishment that comes from making things better with your own hands. People who can afford to simply hire someone to do their work are sure missing out on a lot---a lot of blisters and aching muscles, true, but also a sense of competence and confidence that no amount of money can buy.