Deersplitter John

Really Good at Hacking

By John O’Bryan

If you have never seen a grown deer skinned naked, then you will not understand the revulsion I felt when I saw two of them lying in the back of my friend’s truck.

The last time I had hunted for deer was long before this, in high school. After driving around most of the day with friends, we finally saw a very small deer. I jumped out of the truck with my bow and stood perfectly still at the edge of the clearing as the others drove off. The deer saw me immediately, but instead of being afraid, it walked up to me and stood staring from about ten feet away.

I couldn’t tell if it was a buck or a doe because it was so small, and I knew that to shoot it would probably be illegal—but maybe not, I told myself. I had never seen a deer while hunting. I drew the bow back, sighted down the arrow, and stared into its eyes, debating whether I could shoot this trusting animal. After a few minutes I lowered the bow, walked towards it, and it scampered off.

“Hack a leg off and get started.”  

Twenty years had passed, and I found myself standing in a friend’s garage, staring into a pickupful of dead deer, one of which I was supposed to cut up and bring home with me. I had no experience at hacking off legs or hacking anything, for that matter, and wasn’t sure how to begin.

Up until that point, my day had been uneventful. I had washed the car, helped clean out the garden bed, and was getting ready for a cup of tea and a book when my phone rang.

“I’ve got a deer here if you want it.” 

“A deer? Um. Sure. I guess. Is it cut up?” 

Jim and I had talked earlier in the week about him shooting a deer for me, but I was surprised at how suddenly it had happened.

NextGen ScrollGallery thumbnailNextGen ScrollGallery thumbnailNextGen ScrollGallery thumbnailNextGen ScrollGallery thumbnailNextGen ScrollGallery thumbnail
Chopped venison. Andy Melton.
A haunch of vension for dinner. Nick Webb.
Deer steaks on the griddle. Ewan Mundo.
Rural scene in Viola. Google Maps.
Whitetail deer standing in the Selway River. Jess Johnson.


“No. You gotta do that yourself, but I can show you how.”

“Let me get back to you in a few.”

I hung up and asked my wife what she thought. We were living paycheck to paycheck at that point and the prospect of free meat in the freezer was appealing to both of us. She told me to say yes.

“Are you sure?  I have no idea how to cut up a dead animal.”

“How hard could it be?”

I called Jim. “On my way.”

“Sweet! Bring a sharp knife,” was all he said.

At the time he was living in his sister’s garage in Viola, just a few miles north of Moscow. As I drove down the back alley to his place, it felt exactly like a drug deal about to go bad. I knocked gingerly on the garage door, and it slid open. Jim sprang out of the doorway with a knife in his hand.

“Hey, John, come on in!”

I staggered back. He grabbed me by the arm and yanked me through the door. He pulled me into the garage and kept up a cheerful banter as he led me to his pickup, on the bed of which were two hide-less, rigid deer carcasses.

Obviously, these were not fresh deer, as rigor mortis had set in. A wave of nausea washed over me but I kept a smile on my face that must have looked like the smile I made when greeting my creepy Uncle Lyman.

Once you’ve seen a deer naked there is no getting it out of your head, and unless you’ve been on the streets of a foreign marketplace and seen the carcasses of goats and dogs hanging in the stalls, with flies covering them, you will not understand the revulsion I felt. The two naked deer lay in the back of the truck with all eight legs poking straight up. They stared at me with vacant eyes. I could not meet their gaze, and looked away.

The last time I had seen a naked deer, it was hanging in my garage in Alaska. To get into our house you had to go through the garage, and it wasn’t unusual to be hit with the smell of a dead animal when you pushed through the door. Dad killed deer all the time, but I never got used to seeing the animal tied to the rafters by its hind legs, its tongue touching the cement floor.

Dad loved to kill animals of all kinds and he and friends would take a boat to different islands, drink, play cards, and kill deer. I think the limit on deer in Alaska back then was about the same as the limit on Dungeness crab. I have pictures of him standing on a boat with a huge grin on his face. There were so many deer hanging around him that it looked like some bizarre petting zoo for rotting animals.

Even though his kill ratio was right up there with the best hunters on the planet, we never ate a single piece of deer meat, ever. Mom refused to cook it because she couldn’t stand the smell of it. We had two or three chest freezers full of things Dad had killed. I’m sure Mom’s hopes and dreams were in there too, but I never thought to look.

I have no idea where the meat went when we moved, but I do know that Mom was thankful to see it in the rear-view mirror. The only wild animal I ever ate in my life was an elk steak my college roommate at the University of Idaho cooked. Elk steak is to die for…well, at least to have the elk die for. Deer is not elk.

Thoughts of those elk steaks filled my mind as I picked up my hacking device and took a trepidatious step forward. I had the feeling that in some strange way, I was making my dad proud even as I was providing for my family.

I did what I was told, and hacked a leg off. It was more sawing than hacking, but after a few stabs and judicious chops, I had severed the tendons that held the leg to the rest of the body and suddenly had a large animal appendage in my hands. Holding it at a distance, and with as much panache as I could muster, I paraded the deer leg through the garage and into Jim’s living quarters, which consisted of a bed, two puffy chairs, and a TV.

I stood in the doorway and waited while Jim opened up a TV tray and set it in front of one of the chairs. He set a cutting board on it and directed me to sit. When I draped the naked deer leg across the TV tray, it stuck off both sides by about a foot.

“What now?” I asked.

“Hack away!” 

Hacking seemed to be the theme of the evening, and these were the only instructions I was given. In Jim’s mind those two words apparently explained everything I needed to know about processing a deer. Naively, I had thought I’d need at least some knowledge of the muscle groups, but that didn’t seem to be the case.

Other than the back strap—which I was told is a delicacy in some parts of the world, although it looks an awful lot like a large tube of dark red, coagulated blood—one just has to hack the animal into manageable-sized chunks, then wrap the chunks in butcher paper, and put them in the cooler for transportation to the freezer. There is no need for precision. At least, not the way we did it.

A new episode of Jackass was playing on MTV, which seemed perfectly appropriate for someone about to render a full-sized deer carcass into freezer-sized chunks. The leg that sat in front of me was roughly at eye level, which meant I could slice through the muscles even as I watched three “adult” men eat hard-boiled egg after hard-boiled egg until they threw up.

This wasn’t my normal television fare, but I watched because I wasn’t sure what passed for normal meat-hacking television. And it turned out to be helpful. For some reason, watching grown men hack up eggs on TV was better than thinking about the TV tray hacking that was going on in front of me.

When Jackass ended, Jim switched over to Fear Factor. If you don’t remember Fear Factor, it was a show that put contestants through a series of gross or scary scenarios that chased them away until only one person remained. Then came the line, “Fear is obviously not a factor for you!” Our family loved it back in the day. Soon, the contestants were popping whole sheep eyeballs into their mouths and chewing vigorously…and then came more vomit.

This, however, was not helpful. I stared at the dead animal on my tray, and then back at the TV, and then turned my thoughts inward, searching for cheerful memories of happy times, and maybe fields of sweet-smelling flowers. What I got was a specific moment in high school when my friends and I decided to leave a boring party early.

Next to the door, a guy none of us knew sat on a couch. As we passed by, he threw up, but it wasn’t a violent thing. He just opened his mouth and vomit came out all over him. We stared as we walked out the door. We were about halfway to our cars when we all stopped.

We looked at each other and said in unison, “We’ve got to see that again!” So we went back into the house, watched the guy throw up a few more times, and then went home. I grew up in a small town, with very little to do.

If you have never experienced the pleasure of cutting up an animal that has been tenderized by hanging for an extended period of time, then you will have no idea of how grossly aromatic it actually is. It is not aromatic like those plug-in deodorizers or a nice pot of stew cooking on the stove.

It is more like basking in the aroma of roadkill that has been sitting in the back seat of a hot car. This is a distinct smell, warm, pungent, and vile. Once you’ve experienced it, you never forget it.

Suddenly, I needed a drink. I looked at the beer Jim had given me but could see no way to drink it without keeping the blood that was coating my hands from coating my face and lips. I was not far from emulating the couch guy from high school or what was happening on TV. I needed a way to keep my internals from becoming externals.

I took a deep breath. Bad idea. I changed to short, shallow breaths, holding each until I was about to black out, and then cutting furiously between breaths. In this way, I was able to finish the job.

It wasn’t pretty, but after six trips to the truck to hack off more parts, I finally had two coolers full of freshly rendered deer, wrapped in clean white butcher paper. I was coated in dead animal up to my elbows, but I had done it. I held up my hands. “Got a place to wash?”

“No, sorry. Only water in the place is in the toilet.” 

 “Good enough,” I said getting up from my chair. “I’ll just use the facilities and leave.”

I pulled the lid off the tank, rinsed my hands in the water, wiped them on my legs, and dragged the coolers to the car. His next flush might make him think he needed to make a trip to the ER, but that was my little gift to him.

When I got home at eleven that night, my wife was still awake. I opened the coolers to show her how much free meat I had procured with my own two hands. She nodded her approval with a look that Mrs. Daniel Boone must have given her husband after he brought home a grizzly bear for dinner. I may have beamed a bit. I loaded the meat in the freezer, leaving a package in the fridge for the next night’s dinner.

The following day, I came home early from work to help prepare the feast. I am no cook, not by a long shot, but, as I had discovered the previous night, I was really good at hacking things. I took the dark red meat out of the wrapper, hacked it a few times just to prove to her I knew what I was doing, placed it on a plate and handed it to her.

I had asked my Alaskan sister how one was supposed to cook deer. She knows about such things and told us to coat it in flour and fry it in a bit of oil. The flour clung to the piece of meat like a magnet. When it was good and coated, we flopped it onto the hot griddle, where it sizzled wildly.

We stood watching. As the slab of meat got hotter and hotter, a single dark bubble of blood rose from its midst and then burst onto the pasty white flour. We both stifled a scream as bubble after bubble crested, then burst, like the roiling boil of a cauldron from the bad place. My wife looked at me with revulsion, and not the kind I was used to.

It was as if we had just awakened the dead and the thing was going to rise off the griddle and attack us. She flipped the meat over and I thought I heard it scream in pain. When it was fully cooked—and believe me when I say fully—we cut it up and gave it to the kids. Neither of us could look at it, let alone eat it.

Because we didn’t have a lot of money, meat was a treat. The kids popped small pieces into their mouths, chewed a few times, and then started making that gulping, gagging sound like a dog about to vomit.

They all spit it onto their plates, except our youngest, Molly. She was the only one in the family who could eat the stuff, and I still can hear her sweet little voice in the midst of the turmoil, saying “More deer, please.”

I now understood why my mom would not cook deer. Our supply of it sat in the freezer for a few weeks, until I could get the nerve to tell Jim we could not stand it.

“Do you want it?”  I asked him.

“Hell, yes, I want it. Deer reminds me of growing up.”

“Yeah, me, too,” I said. “Me, too.”  

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John O'Bryan

About John O'Bryan

John O'Bryan was born in southeastern Alaska, moved to Moscow in 1984 to attend the University of Idaho, and never left. He is a husband, dad, granddad, photographer, and fly fisherman—in that order. John can often be found with a camera around his neck, or chasing steelhead on the Clearwater River, or fly fishing Idaho’s blue-ribbon trout streams.

One Response to Deersplitter John

  1. DeAnn - Reply


    Excellent writer. John has a unique sense of humor.
    Thanks for sharing!

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