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Slackjaw by Jim Knipfel

Blood on the Lawn

We were killing off another perfectly good Saturday afternoon at the tavern--Morgan, our pal Gary, and I--telling lengthy, increasingly incoherent stories. Some of them had punchlines, even points to make. Most did not.

When Gary told us about what it was like to grow up the son of a butcher in Jersey, and the fact that the back of their station wagon was always coated with dried blood (which, he freely admits, may go a long way towards explaining why he's the way he is today), it got me to thinking about something I hadn't thought about in years.

When I was a kid in Green Bay, my family lived just off the corner of Allouez Ave. and Libal St. at the bottom of a long hill. Though there were stop signs at the intersection, most people ignored them. You get to the bottom of the hill with a good head of steam worked up, and who wants to stop? As a result, I looked forward to fairly regular collisions to brighten up my days.

Come to think of it, that may go a long way towards explaining, at least in part, why I'm the way I am today.

About a mile down Allouez Ave. was the Packerland Meat Packing Plant, one of the largest slaughterhouses in the area. To me, it was kind of like the Wonka factory. You always heard stories about the place, various bloody rumors, but no one could actually name anybody who worked there. Except for the active smokestacks, there was never any sign of human activity at the slaughterhouse, except for the trucks.

All day and all night, the cattle trucks arrived and left at regular 15-minute intervals. And until they opened up I-72 when I was in high school, every one of these trucks passed by our house.

I never actually saw any of the cows in the cattle trucks as they brought them past our place, but I could hear them. As the trucks would brake to a slow stop at the bottom of the hill, you could hear all the cows inside shuffling and stumbling against one another to maintain their balance. So every 15 minutes, you'd hear the rumble of the truck, followed by the squeak and groan and pssshhhh of the brakes, followed by the stmbl-stmbl-stmbl of the cows inside. Apart from their hooves, they never made a sound.

I became obsessed with the stumbling cows. I would lie in bed at night--my window faced the corner--waiting and listening for them. In the summer, I would eat my lunch on the front steps so I could watch for them. At one point, I even wrote a country song about them titled, appropriately enough, "Stumblin' Cows." I remember one verse:

They don't really say much, they just sorta mumble
They don't really do much, just stand and stumble
Life in the big truck, surely be humble
Life's tough for Stumblin' Cows.

It went on like that for awhile. By the time I stopped working on the song, it had something like 20 verses, all of them equally dazzling.

Just as the full cattle trucks would come down the hill every quarter-hour, the empty trucks would head back up the hill on pretty much the same schedule. Those weren't nearly so interesting. That is, they weren't until one overcast, humid summer day when I was eight.

Like I mentioned, accidents at that intersection were common enough that, by the time I was eight, they were no big deal, and I got a little thrill each time I heard one.

The accident on that summer afternoon was different, though. I was in the backyard, doing something stupid like chasing bees with a whifflebat, when I heard the first blast of a car horn and squeal of tires. Thing is, they didn't stop. Even when the inevitable explosion of glass and metal finally came, that didn't stop. It just rolled on and on through the thick air. There was another sound mixed in with it, too--a low, mighty thunderous rumble unlike anything I'd heard as part of the little fender benders I was used to.

It all went on for so long, that by the time I got around the corner of the house to see what was happening, it was still happening. Well part of it, at least. The two small cars--both upside down, one on top of the other, crushing it, the tires still spinning--were up against the small house kitty-corner from us. And the empty cattle truck was on its side across the front lawn.

What had apparently happened, it was determined later, was that one of the small cars was trying to pass the other as they sped down Libal St. towards the intersection. They sideswiped each other, and both slammed into the cattle truck that was heading up the hill. The collision with the truck sent the two cars rolling over each other across the lawn until they hit the house and stopped. Then the truck went over, and its wooden trailer split wide open.

As passing cars stopped and neighbors (including my dad) scrambled across the street to see if there was anything that could be done, I realized for the first time that all those "empty" cattle trucks heading up the hill weren't empty at all.

Spilling across the lawn from the ruptured truck was a festering mountain of torn cow skins, entrails, bones, and blood. All the refuse that they couldn't make any use of at the slaughterhouse was packed back in the trucks and sent off to...where? I had no clue. That's not what I was thinking about at the time.

While my dad and the guy across the street pried open the passenger side door on the bottom car and tried to pull a screaming woman with a huge gash in her forehead from the wreckage, I took a seat on the curb and surveyed the gut pile. It was monumental. I'd never seen anything like it before. Skulls and leg bones and intestines and flaps of brown skin slopped together across the neatly trimmed lawn in a mountain of mind-numbing carnage. At least it was mind-numbing for an eight-year-old.

Because of the heat and the humidity that day, the stench of fresh cow guts and blood rose from the wreck and slowly spread through the neighborhood like a noxious fog. I noticed people covering their mouths and noses, but somehow it didn't bother me at all. I was too fascinated.

I sat there for an hour, staring, surveying, as the paramedics showed up and got the passengers out of the cars. Nobody died, though there were some hefty cuts and a few broken bones. The driver of the truck walked away unharmed. I sat there until it was time to eat.

It took them a couple days to finally separate the cars and haul them away. They had an easier time with the truck and used bulldozers to scoop up all the guts. Thank God I wasn't in school. That allowed me to sit on our front steps and watch the entire operation.

Looking back on it now, I realize this might've looked a touch peculiar to an outsider--young kid in short pants watching, just a little too intensely, a bulldozer scraping guts off a lawn. But my folks understood.

Thing was, I was never much concerned with where they were taking the entrails. Never even thought about it. They knew what they were doing, I figured.

In time, the day of the accident faded from memory, though my obsession with the stumbling cows remained unabated. I still listened for them every night. And I kept a vigil for them (though it was more for myself) on the night before that damned highway was supposed to open and take all my stumblin' cows away from me. Lit candles, raised toasts each time they passed, sang my song. Until the mosquitoes finally drove me inside about midnight.

It wasn't until I was telling this story at the tavern the other Saturday that the final piece of the puzzle finally clicked into place. Something I never, ever considered before, until it quite unconsciously spilled out of my mouth.

"Yeah," I said, "We had a slaughterhouse about a mile down the road on one side, then, if you went up and over the hill, just on the other side, down by the river, you had the Reimer hot dog factory.

The hot dog factory. Of course.

It was a perfect set up. Cows come down the hill, go to the slaughterhouse, get bonked on the head and cut up. Everything that can't be used is dumped back into the trucks, sent back up the hill, and delivered to the hot dog factory, where they were turned into the franks that were sold at Lambeau Field during the Packer games. I always had a couple of them when I went to Lambeau. Reimer's were the best because they had unusually thick casings and were extra spicy.

We went back to our beer after my story was done, and the conversation moved on to something else, and then something else again. And even though I'd had a big lunch already that day, I suddenly found myself with an insatiable craving for a Reimer's dog with mustard.