I read somewhere that the average person changes careers five times in his or her life. That seems like a lot of changes, but when I think about it, I suppose it takes a lot of luck to make the right choice the first time out. I know I wasn't so lucky.
When my brother Dan and I were kids, for Christmas each year my mother bought us subscriptions to magazines like Outdoor Life and Field & Stream. There were ads in the back of every issue for fishing lures (usually claiming to be so effective they were banned in nearly every state except the one we lived in), deerskin tanning services, gun cleaning and blueing solutions, and various money making opportunities, such as gunsmithing lessons, worm farming for fun and profit, and one we could not resist: Taxidermy Lessons.
"Earn Extra $$$ In Your Spare Time," the ads read, "No Special Skills Required. Even Ordinary School Boys Can Learn to Mount Fish and Game Animals through the Northwest School of Taxidermy Omaha Nebraska J.W. Elwood President." This sounded like just the career we were looking for, my brother and I, two ordinary school boys, always in need of extra $$$. The little cut-out form in the magazine asked for your name, address, and age. I was 10 at the time, my brother was 8. Although we were genuinely ordinary school boys, we weren't sure if they meant elementary school boys and so, worried that we might not be taken seriously, we padded our ages to lend credibility to our application. Nervously, we entered our ages as 12 and 10, and sent away for this vital career information.
An envelope arrived six to eight weeks later, as promised in the ad, and as we poured through the brochures, we entered another world. There were photos of a gray factory-like building that was supposed to be the school, plus examples of the finest taxidermy we had ever seen: stuffed heads of moose, elk, and deer as well as full-body mounts of antelope, zebras, and tigers. There was a wide variety of gift items and novelties made from animals and animal parts. Otherwise wasted animal components, they said, could be made into rugs, lamps, ashtrays, gun racks, waste baskets (from discarded elephant feet), and other wonderful and useful products. We could learn to make card-playing frogs and rats, jackelopes, and furry trout, guaranteed to draw smiles and earn extra $$$ for graduates of the course. There were testimonials and pictures included from successful alumni, like Mr. Clydie Wilbur, Successful Taxidermist, of Gravity, Iowa. Something about Clydie's hairstyle and wire-rimmed glasses were odd-looking. He seemed quite a bit older than any schoolboys we knew, but he certainly looked ordinary enough, and we were hooked.
Tuition was one dollar per lesson, one lesson per month. This was the late 1950's, when dollars and months occurred at roughly the same intervals in our lives, but by rationing our purchases of penny candy and fish hooks, we were able to commence our lessons, and fell behind in payment only once in the first three months.
The lessons were printed in pamphlets with old-fashioned type, on thin, glossy paper. There were a few grainy, gray photographs of completed mounts scattered throughout the text. Crude line drawings of generic looking birds and mammals showed where to make the critical incisions, and how to fashion natural, relaxed-looking bodies from baling wire and tow (a material with which, to this day, I am not familiar.). A tool and supply catalog was conveniently included along with the lessons, so we could purchase the highly specialized surgical instruments (mentioned in the lessons) which were "essential to the professional taxidermist." The pictures and names of these tools were macabre: eye hooks, brain spoons, bone saws. But their prices were even more horrible than their names and we were never able to afford more than the most basic arsenal, hoping to improvise whenever possible with regular tools such as my father's screwdrivers, Mom's scissors, and our own Boy Scout pocket knives.
There were other odd necessities available in the catalog: arsenic, borax, excelsior, curved needles, and glass eyes. Every kid in the fifties, for some reason, seemed to know the names and relative toxicity of several deadly poisons. (This unnatural and useless knowledge was probably a by-product of movies and the Cold War.) Arsenic was one of the most familiar of these. We joked that perhaps we could use it to finish off any subjects not quite dead enough to tolerate stuffing, but I privately worried (having lied about our ages) that we might be in over our heads with arsenic. Luckily, the J.W. Elwood Supply Co. provided its own brand-name alternative, Calorax ("Less harmful to pets," they said. Less harmful to ordinary school boys, we hoped.), to arsenic and we were spared further complication to the increasingly daunting task ahead of us.
We knew Borax was a type of soap hauled in wagons, pulled by mules, advertised by Ronald Reagan, and sold in every grocery store. These materials, we surmised, were used as preservatives. We understood this necessity well from earlier unsuccessful amateur experiments in taxidermy. But excelsior was a mystery substance, along with tow, apparently used as a stuffing material. (It should be noted here that real taxidermists do not use the word "stuff" or "stuffing" in reference to their craft. We were rank beginners, as yet unacquainted with professional jargon, and to be truthful, "stuffing" seemed more within our reach than "mounting".)
We felt certain we could find suitable, but less expensive, substitutes in discarded furniture or old Teddy bears. Our first lesson began with a "pigeon or similar bird." Maybe in Omaha they had pigeon markets, or something, where you could walk in and buy a dead pigeon, wrapped and ready for mounting. I personally have never seen a dead pigeon. We watched the local flocks fly around old Washington School across the street from our house all summer, but not one bird looked likely to die. Not that we wouldn't have instigated one's death, but, in the first place, it would have been tough to kill one with a BB gun, the only weapon we possessed. In the second place, even that was too risky. Once, through the screen, from our upstairs bedroom window, I shot a robin in the front yard with my BB gun. To my shocked dismay, there must have been a dozen witnesses to its flapping demise, including my mother and our family cat, Buster, who was having more luck that day than I was.
And so we waited. And we read our lessons, which arrived and advanced, inexorably. After the bird lessons, came the small mammals such as squirrels. Looking back now, I cannot imagine who would ever want to mount a squirrel, or why, but the lessons showed us how to do it, and so we watched the squirrels as well as the pigeons, and we waited.
The lessons become more serious: foxes, bobcats, deer heads, and eventually, full-mount elk, bear rugs, wild boars, lions, and even horses. One chapter featured a disturbing photo of Roy Rogers' horse, Trigger, presumably mounted according to the instructions in the text. It had never occurred to us that cowboys usually lived longer than their horses, let alone that they might pay us to stuff them. And still we waited for pigeon casualties.
One Sunday in October, Scotty Buckner called to tell us he'd shot an owl while squirrel hunting. We did not ask why he shot the owl, we knew why: because it had allowed itself to fall into his gunsight when squirrels had not. And so, ironically, through Scotty's and the owl's bad luck and the squirrels' good luck, we got our bird.
Scotty, as well as most of the rest of the school, knew we were taxidermy students and offered us his owl for mounting. We were a little disappointed not to have killed the owl ourselves, but agreed to accept it as our first commission, the fee to be determined later. We took it, still warm, from Scotty and asked him how he wanted it mounted, wings up or wings down. We would have liked to mount the owl attacking a squirrel with wings up, claws out, but we knew that this was reaching and settled on wings down, claws wrapped on a branch, as when Scotty fired.
I remember spreading newspapers on our upstairs bedroom floor, tossing out the cat, laying out the instruction book and our tools: the eye hook/brain spoon combination tool purchased from the J.W. Elwood Supply Co., a hacksaw blade bonesaw from Dad's tool box, a pocket knife, plenty of borax.
We read step one. Begin the cut at the vent. We laid the pigeon lesson next to the owl and vainly searched its body, hoping to find a vent-like aperture known only to taxidermists. Eventually we resigned ourselves to the all-too-familiar identity and location of this so-called "vent". Not that we were the least bit squeamish. Taxidermists are not squeamish. It was more the indignity of having to begin this cut, and our careers, with our hands in owl shit.
Things proceeded more or less according to plan, Dan holding the owl, me cutting, until we reached the neck and head. The instructions said to cut from the vent, and up the breast, to the base of the neck. Then we were supposed to peel the skin off the body and over the head, something like pulling off a sweater. This apparently works fairly well on a pigeon, although we never actually proved the point. This owl had a neck roughly the size of your index finger and a skull the size of your fist.
We were discussing our problem when Ma poked her head in the bedroom door, letting Buster, the cat, back in and asked how things were going. She was remarkably tolerant of such goings on, but we were in a dilemma at this point and felt a little awkward under her scrutiny. Buster disappeared under the bed. Ma kept her distance, wavering between a snicker and a grimace at the mess on the floor. Then one of us noticed the lice. At least, I think they were lice; hundreds of tiny brown bugs had abandoned the owl and were scurrying over our hands, heading up our arms, looking for a new, warm home.
Ma's attitude changed for the worse, and so did ours. She shrieked, we dropped the owl and our tools, and began frantically flailing our hands, flinging owl detritus, lice, and borax around our bedroom in an attempt to thwart the hoards before they reached the safety of our armpits.
When Dan dropped the owl to shake off his lice, Buster pounced from under the bed, seized the half-skinned owl in his mouth, and raced past my mother standing in the doorway. The owl's naked, bloody, half-skinned body was much bigger than Buster's mouth, causing him to wheeze as he ran, leaving a trail of feathers, bits of owl goo, and probably lice as it flopped behind him down the stairs.
Ma screamed at the cat which caused him to further panic as he came off the stairs and into the living room where my two very non-taxidermist sisters were watching TV. When Buster appeared, gasping and struggling to hold onto his grisly prize, my sisters were struck speechless for perhaps two full seconds.
Thereafter ensued such a chorus of panic and disgust that Buster dropped the owl, which in fairness to my sisters, no longer resembled an owl all that much. It looked closer to a bloody, feathery squid with claws where its head should be. My sisters ran retching and screaming after Buster and out the back door.
By the time we got the cat, the owl, my sisters, our lice, and my mother more or less under control, our enthusiasm for taxidermy, my sisters' enthusiasm for just about anything, and my mother's enthusiasm for ordinary school boys were all but exhausted.
We didn't finish the owl. Well, I guess we finished it alright, but we never mounted it.
My brother actually went on to make his living as a taxidermist for awhile, and through him I learned that a lot of real taxidermists actually did get their start with J.W. Elwood and The Northwest School. As for me, my career as a taxidermist pretty much ended with that owl, and it was several weeks before I sent for information on worm farming.