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Jump to navigation. My father was a butcher. His meat market, within walking distance of our home, was just off of Main Street in Kalispell, our small Montana town. By the time I was five years old, I was permitted to walk by myself the five or six blocks from home to his market and work for him.
He would have a cup of coffee with the cook, Phil, and take down the order for the next day's supply of hamburger, steaks, pork chops, sausage and liver.
The waitress always brought me a donut and a glass of milk. I wore one too. My mother made it out of flour sacks, identical to my father's except for its size. She made me a new apron every year to match my growth.
When I put on my apron in the butcher shop, I entered the adult world. By this time I knew the story of the boy Samuel who had been "lent to the Lord" by his parents to live and work in the temple at Shiloh with Eli the priest.
My Father The Butcher - Man At Arms - My Father The Butcher parents, Elkanah and Hannah, visited him at Shiloh every year.
His mother made him a priest's robe to wear, an ephod, as he assisted Eli. Every year as he added inches to his height, she would make him a new robe to fit his newly acquired stature. I knew exactly what that robe, that ephod, looked like—didn't I wear it every time I worked with my father? Didn't I get a new one every time I had grown another inch or two? I might have been the only person in our town who knew what an ephod actually looked like.
Shiloh couldn't have been that much different from my father's meat market. The three-year-old bull that was slaughtered at Samuel's dedication at Shiloh would become the hamburgers and sirloin steaks at my father's market and provided continuity between the shrine and the meat market.
I had no idea, of course, that I was acquiring Time To Pretend - Various - Hot Party Summer 2008 biblical imagination, finding myself in the biblical story, identifying myself as a priest.
As years went on, I graduated from the "work" of putting away the donut and milk that accompanied a business transaction to the beginner's work of grinding hamburger and slicing liver. One of Dad's butchers would pick me up and stand me on an upended orange crate before the big, red Hobart meat grinder, and I in my linen ephod would push chunks of beef into its maw. The day My Father The Butcher - Man At Arms - My Father The Butcher was trusted with a knife and taught to respect it and keep it sharp, I knew adulthood was just around the corner.
I was started out on liver it's hard to mess up when slicing liverbut in a few years I was participating in the entire range of Boolsen Kvartetten - Køreturen / Puck, Muck, Mack, Jack, Pim, Tim, Tom (Shellac) operations.
I also learned that a beef carcass has a will of its own—it is not just an inert mass of meat and gristle and bone but has character and joints, texture and grain. Carving a quarter of beef into roasts and steaks was not a matter of imposing my knife-fortified will on dumb matter but respectfully and reverently entering into the reality of the material.
Hackers was my father's contemptuous label for butchers who ignorantly imposed their will on the meat. They didn't take into account the subtle differences between pork and beef. They used knives and cleavers inappropriately and didn't keep them sharp. They were bullies forcing their will on slabs of bacon and hindquarters of beef. The results were unattractive and uneconomical. They commonly left behind a mess that the rest of us had to clean up. Not so much by words but by example, I internalized a respect for the material at hand.
The material could be a pork loin, or a mahogany plank, or a lump of clay, or the will of God, or a soul, but when the work is done well, there is a kind of submission of will to the conditions at hand, a cultivation of what I would later learn to call humility. It is a noticeable feature in all skilled workers—woodworkers, potters, poets, pray-ers and pastors. I learned it in the butcher shop.
Years later I came upon the phrase negative capability and recognized that it was something very much like submission to the material, the humility, that I had had so much practice in on the butcher block. The poet John Keats coined the term to refer to this quality in the worker.
He was impressed by William Shakespeare's work in creating such a variety of characters in his plays, none of which seemed to be a projection of Shakespeare's ego. Each had an independent life of his or her own. Keats wrote, "A poet has no identity. All the while my imagination kept working on the priest theme with the slaughter of bulls and heifers, goats and sheep.
We didn't offer turtledoves, but we made up for it with turkeys. All our sacrificed animals, cut up and wrapped and paid for, would be prayed over I assumed that everybody prayed over mealsthen consumed in our customers' homes. Ours was a mostly storytelling church, but one year we had a pastor who specialized in the tabernacle, the temple and the whole Hebrew sacrificial system. He took on the book of Leviticus as his text and preached three months of sermons on it.
I was immediately interested. I was an insider to exactly this sort of world: I grew up experiencing the sights and sounds of animals killed and offered up. I had spent a lot of time by now in our local slaughterhouse and often helped with the slaughter. But after a couple Sundays of Leviticus I lost interest in what our pastor was up to. This man knew nothing about killing animals.
And though we never butchered goats, the rich sensuality of Hebrew worship was reproduced daily in our workplace. It never occurred to me that the world of worship was tidy and sedate. Our pastor had it all figured My Father The Butcher - Man At Arms - My Father The Butcher on paper, but I knew it wasn't My Father The Butcher - Man At Arms - My Father The Butcher that at all.
I couldn't help but wonder how much he knew about sin and forgiveness. He certainly knew nothing about animal sacrifices. Sacrifice was messy: blood sloshing on the floor, gutting the creatures and gathering up the entrails in buckets, skinning the animals, salting down the hides.
And in the summertime, the flies—flies everywhere. My father had four meatcutters working for him. My favorite was Herb Thiel. He had a flat, expressionless My Father The Butcher - Man At Arms - My Father The Butcher disfigured by a bad eye, milky and sunken. He didn't wear an eye patch. His face looked like a tombstone, with that dead eye engraved on it, so everyone called him Tombstone.
Mostly we got the meat we sold in our market from the My Father The Butcher - Man At Arms - My Father The Butcher slaughterhouse, but occasionally we would buy directly from a farmer in the valley. When we did that, Tombstone would go to Mack The Knife - Lou Donaldson - The Time Is Right farm, kill the heifer or pig, dress it out and bring it back to our shop.
The other meat cutters sometimes called him the Killer. I loved to go out with him on those jobs. He never talked. But I didn't mind that—there was something rakish about being in the company of a man sometimes called Tombstone and other times the Killer.
On one of these occasions we were out to get a yearling calf. When we arrived, the calf was already confined to a loading chute to facilitate our work. The farmer had a large family. When we got out of the truck, the children were all over us, begging Tombstone not to kill the animal. It was a 4-H calf and had become a pet of the farm kids.
Some of the kids were crying. All of them were upset. Emotional anarchy. In a low voice Tombstone said to me, "I'll fix 'em. As it slumped to the ground, Tombstone took his knife from its scabbard and slit the calf's throat to bleed it.
As the blood poured from the cut, Tombstone knelt down, let the blood run into his cupped hands and pretended to drink it, the blood dripping from that flat, one-eyed face. The kids ran in horror to the farmhouse 50 feet away. We could see them watching us from between the curtains. We completed our work without interference.
Tombstone wiped the blood from his mouth and chin, and we returned to the butcher shop. That butcher shop was my introduction to the world of congregation, which in a few years would be my workplace as a pastor. The people who came into our shop were not just customers. Something else defined them. It always seemed more like a congregation than a store. My father in his priestly robe greeted each person by name and knew many of their stories. And many of them knew me, in my priest's robe, by name.
I always knew there was more going on than a commercial transaction. My father had an easy smile and was always gracious, especially with the occasional disagreeable ones: Alicia Conrad, who was always fussy about the leanness of the bacon; Gus Anderson, who made my dad trim off any excess fat from a steak before weighing it.
Everyone felt welcome. He gave people dignity by the tone and manner of his greetings. Two blocks away on a side street there was a brothel. There was always a good bit of talk on the street about the whores and the cathouse and the red-light district that was a blight on the street.
But not in our place: when these women entered our premises, they were treated with the dignity of their Christian names. I remember three of them: Mary, Grace, Veronica. When they left with their purchases, there was no gossipy moralism trailing in their wake.