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  • In fifth grade I had my father’s stained and tattered copy of Ernest Thompson Seton’s Two Little Savages, a stack of books about the tribes of the plains, a beading loom, a Crossman Powermaster 760 air rifle, and dreams of frontiers and untamed lands. My father had a bearskin in the back closet. Its pelt was mangy and moth eaten, wisps of stuffing poked out of worn spots on the head, and one front tooth was broken but the eyes glared out defiantly from a time and place far from the quiet, leafy, well established suburbs of St. Louis.

    In the back pages of my comic books I flipped by Charles Atlas’s promises of a new body, the offer of the American Fellowship Church to certify me as a Doctor of Divinity, and the opportunities to start up mink ranches, but the ad from the Northwestern School of Taxidermy caught my eye. The ad showed a fan of manuals, all fourteen lessons written by Professor J. W. Elwood, the founder and sole proprietor. I would get one a month and everything necessary to master the fine art of taxidermy for a mere $9.95, and if the testimonials were a good indication, I would be well on the way to on an exciting career, financial independence and personal and artistic satisfaction.

    I counted and recounted my savings, gave up hockey cards and after school stops at Cantique for Waxlips, Sweet-tarts and Pez to hoard my fifty cents a week allowance. I finally sent off the application for admission to Professor Elwood’s prestigious school along with an order for the Advanced Package of materials and tools. The package of supplies arrived first; bags of excelsior, packets of assorted glass eyes, twine along with a set of calipers, measuring tape, tweezers and scalpels, all in a brown plastic case. I cleared out the model trains and the remains of a chemistry set from the corner in the basement to make room for my new business.

    It wasn’t until the first booklet arrived that I realized I had a problem. I had read through the directions for removing the skin and preparing it for its off-the-body experience. Noted the need to clean the hide completely while avoiding nicking, cutting or tearing and memorized the points to measure so the twine-wrapped excelsior and wire body would be a perfect fit. I checked my supplies of salt and borax.

    It hit me then.

    I needed a body.

    My parents were outside talking to the neighbors when I marched out with the Crossman Powermaster 760 tucked under my arm. They were busy admiring the Swisher’s new car and so completely missed my set shoulders and deadly intent. The pigeons wobbling along the side of the road didn’t pay me any mind either. Predators were scarce in Parkview, their sole survival skill was avoiding cars and all the vehicles were parked and quiet. None of them put chubby me with a mop of red hair and hunter together until the pigeon flopped its death throes in the gutter and I trotted over to pick it up.

    “Benjamin!” my mother said.

    “Benjamin?!” my father asked.

    “I need a pigeon,” I said and, rifle in one hand, bagged bird in the other, I trotted back inside to the workbench in the basement.

    I had the scalpel in hand, book spread wide open and pigeon laid out on a sheet of newspaper when my Father clomped down the wooden stairs.

    He watched as I parted feathers and made the initial incision. I worked carefully focused on avoiding nicking, cutting or tearing. Slowly the bare bird emerged. I used the calipers and tape to make a careful list of measurements.

    My Father flipped the book to read the cover. He clomped back up the stairs.

    “Taxidermy,” I heard him tell my Mother, then mumble-mumble, and then, “It’s just a pigeon.”

    While the skin rested in borax and salt I formed a body with the shredded wood and twine, checked and rechecked the measurements, bent wire for legs and wings, and chose the small and fiercely orange glass eyes.

    In the end, minus a few feathers, the pigeon stood stiffly; neck out-stretched, orange eyes glaring straight ahead, wings folded and feet planted firmly on a wooden stand at one end of the bookshelf.

    In Lesson Two I graduated to mammals. This time, a squirrel that fell from the electrical wires and wasn’t too badly broken by the car that hit it. It stood at the other end of my bookshelf; upright as a meerkat, an acorn clasped in its paws.

    Lesson Three was fish with which I was monumentally and pungently unsuccessful.

    The other lessons arrived and were stacked on my bookshelf between the pigeon and squirrel.

    When I went to college I had room for a typewriter, records, my hockey gear, and clothes. Taxidermy was left behind. The pigeon and squirrel were both moth eaten and mangy and the shredded wood stuffing poked through in spots but their glass eyes still glared out defiantly.
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