Dad had come back to the church as part of his reunion with Mom, but we didn’t talk about it. It was just presented as a fait accompli. Dad bought me a brown tweed suit and Florsheim tassel loafers and then it was church twice a day every Sunday, but he wasn’t really into Bible discussion, per se. We didn’t talk about his new job selling building components for Peachtree Door, and I don’t believe I ever saw the inside of the office he got on Centre Street after he gave up his apartment. We didn’t talk politics or sports or catechism and never, ever, not even once discussed my schoolwork. We never talked about why Brett would shoot at Joe (missed) with a .22, or what to tell the folks around Crooked Lake about why Dad basically ducked them the rest of his life. I never went to him with a problem about girls or anything else. Our house was loud and chatty and crackled with gunfire, but we never talked about those things.
What we talked about was animals.
I knew that other families were not like this. I had been at friends’ houses where the parents swore openly at President Carter on the TV, or the daughter defended her drug-dealer boyfriend, or kids shouted at their father for being a drunk. Those topics were impossible in a Kuipers house.
I was riding out to the new house one night on my third motorcycle when a big buck whitetail came out of the ditch on the run and jumped clean over me, one of its back hoofs smacking my metalflake orange helmet with a sharp TAK! as it went over. Life is a series of near misses.
I told Dad and his first words were, “How big was it?” He hustled me out to the Jesse and asked me to show him the spot, and he put some flagging tape in the tree there. I guess so he could talk to the owner about hunting that spot. But he never asked me if I was okay or whether I ought to be driving motorcycles. Whenever I’d start to tell the story, he’d hijack it and say, “He thinks it was an eight-point, and it went into that little bit of pines there by the house down the road. Now, I talked to that guy and he said he’d seen it,” etc., etc.
It wasn’t Dad’s fault, exactly. He and his brothers had learned that the way to avoid conflict with Henry—or anyone else—was to immediately talk about wildlife. It was neutral territory. Nonemotional. I cannot exaggerate the degree to which this subject dominated our lives, at the expense of any other topic that concerned human beings. Like a blue-hot star, the observation of nature stood at the center of the clan, and everyone’s orbits fell continually toward its gravity. There were no family arguments—unless they were about knowing the difference between a teal and a widgeon on the wing, or the amount of drop on a .300 Win mag at 400 yards. Any subject that would generate feelings fell into this devouring fire and was made smoke. No one asked what books I was reading, because Kierkegaard made them nervous. Years later, no one ever asked what was up with Joe; the implication was it was better to know nothing about his drinking or drug taking, even if he died. That way, no one would have to feel embarrassed about it.
Since animals and the way they lived were the stand-in for everything that could not be said, family cohesion among the Kuipers was actually very high. But how Nancy stood this for two dozen years, considering the other things that needed to be talked about, I don’t know.
As one of my cousins put it, “The family’s interests are sort of an inch wide and a mile deep.” At a mile deep, however, the expertise in the room was formidable. And there was nothing that the uncles valued more than good intel on game or weapons or tanning hides or making jerky or, holy of holies, secret hunting spots. With my five sets of uncles and aunts, 16 first cousins, and Grandpa Henry and Grandma Gertrude, we were 33 people at the Kuipers Christmas talking as fast and loud as we could about whether the grouse were in high cycle, and that was before the cousins started having babies like crazy and not counting any straggler relations. God help you if you didn’t have a take on this year’s Juneberry crop.
No one escaped this stricture. At a family dinner one year, Grandpa Henry replied to a political comment with, “Well, the Democrats are Communists, and so allied with Satan.” One of the uncles immediately countered, with a bowl of mashed potatoes in his hand: “Dad, the elk herd is doing so good up by the Pigeon River that they’re going to start issuing licenses on ’em again.” Grandpa glowered at the obvious denial of his bid, but that door came down, heavy and impenetrable.
Bruce may have known how to fly fish and how to catch mink, but in this company he was still intimidated. These stories were the life of the whole family, and he had learned to defer to Dale and Vern and Mike, who all spent a lot more time afield, and principally to Dale.
Dale’s work as a Baptist missionary took him to Thompson, Manitoba, where he served for pretty much his whole career. Before he had a church building there he held services out of his house. Thompson is a nickel mining town at the end of the paved road going north, and he ministered in town and to the Cree villages farther out over muskeg and tundra. He was popular in those villages even though he could only reach some of them in winter, when he’d drive his station wagon over ice roads marked by pieces of pine tree. His oldest, Lisa, is my age and told me she loved making these trips with her dad, because he’d go as fast as he could along the ice roads and then slide out, with the car spinning into the snowbanks. She loved the way people responded to her dad. The tribespeople trusted Dale because he’d drive out with supplies and drive back with a kid headed for juvenile court or high school or a mother who needed medical attention. On at least one occasion a kid with a badly broken leg lived with Dale and his wife, Sandy, and their five kids for a month or two until he could go home.
He hunted moose out in the swamp and would take the family on the mining train out to a friend’s fishing camp at Standing Stone, where they would catch stringers of walleye so endless that my father raved about them as a quasi-religious experience after his own trip there. Dale was a powerful man whose brush cut and charismatic smile always reminded me of Muhammad Ali; he was also an old-school snake-oil salesman who would blubber over you with snot coming out of his nose if it meant he could add your soul to his tally. When he shook your hand he’d hold it for a long moment, and then he’d try to put some God on you with that smile of profound mischief, like the two of you had already agreed that you were going to come over to his side. “God has a plan for you,” he’d say to me.
Dale did what the other brothers could not: he seamlessly merged his love for the creation with his religious fervor and made it okay to talk about God.Animal stories had to save us. It was all we had. That, and hillbilly “hold my beer” stories about the neighbors.
“I went out ice fishing on the lake by us,” Dale said one year in his raspy voice, always hoarse, I guessed, because the rougher the town the louder you had to yell to keep people thinking about the Lord, “and, boys, a wolf come out of the trees, and started coming my way a bit, to where I was sitting on my bucket, but she wouldn’t come all the way over. She watched me for a while and then she left.
“And the next time I was out there, she came back,” he said, his eyes gleaming, “and she came a little closer than before and I said, ‘Hallelujah.’”
The brothers and cousins had circled round, and he paused for effect and looked each one present in the eye. “And then I caught a nice walleye and I wanted that fish for the pan and I never told Sandy”—he raised his voice then so Sandy could hear him, and some of their kids who were in the room—“I never told Sandy I threw that nice fish to the wolf. And she took it and trotted off. Heh heh. Boys! I said, ‘Lord, let me catch a mess of fish so it’s not just the wolf that’s going to eat tonight!’
“I went fishing pretty regular and she always came out, and I’d throw her a fish. Until one day she got close and I lay down on the ice and she got the message and she come over. She was taaaallll and she was wild and she stood across the hole from me but she did not take her eyes off me and I got a picture.”
“And then I threw her a fish. I was thankful for the fish, but God sent the wolf, too.”
For all Dale’s TV preacher boo-hooing, lying down on the ice was an act of humility before the wolf. How many could do it? Dale was forever raising bear cubs in his garage and sending us joke trophies like a taxidermied moose nose. The fact that he was the minister of Burntwood Baptist Church made him the de facto leader of the whole Kuipers clan, and even Grandpa Henry deferred to him. He wrote rhymed poems about his ministry and animals that were published in church publications and Sunday morning bulletins all over the country, which my father saved in a file.
Sandy was from Holland, Michigan, and she didn’t want to live on the edge of the boreal void her whole life, but she was as deeply involved in the ministry as Dale was, and they both tied their usefulness to the raw wilderness. It seemed God was needed more in the wilder places. My mother and all my aunts were living some version of this. Vern’s wife, Sally, and Jack’s wife, Jane, both hunted pretty seriously and enjoyed it. Mom even tried sitting in the blind once with Bruce, but he was so put off by her presence there that she never did it again. My aunt Rita, a year or two after she’d married Mike, told me at one of the family gatherings: “I don’t really like going out in the woods, but if I want to be with Mike, that’s what I have to do, because that’s where he is.”
Animal stories had to save us. It was all we had. That, and hillbilly “hold my beer” stories about the neighbors. When we all lived in the big new house in the woods, dinners were excruciating unless Joe, Brett, or I could whip up a show about the guy down the street mistakenly gunning his snowmobile up the woodpile and hanging it from the eavestroughs. Dad would generally eat his dinner in total silence while we tried, and when he was done eating, he’d look at Mom like none of us were there and complain, deadpan, “No dessert?” No dinner she ever cooked was good enough. But if we could get him laughing, the night would be saved.
The story of Dad’s crown fire was an instant classic and would usually have us in tears. Or the rabbit Dad bought to train our beagle that immediately bit the dog and started chasing it around the yard. Dad wasn’t prickly about being the butt of the joke. He would forget the details in between tellings, so every time he heard these tales he would be dumbstruck.
“Remember my underwater hunting apparatus with Terry Purk?” I started one night at the table.
“Yeah, with the air compressor?” Brett said.
“Yeah, Terry and I wanted to be able to spear rock bass, and we had that three-pronger trident spear with a long handle, a frog spear I guess, but you could never see anything from the dock that you could hit. We figured that if we could stay underwater we could lurk in the darkness under the dock and just stab fish when they came by.”
“Oh, ha ha ha, that is a good one,” Dad started. It was just that easy to steer him away from evil.
“So we wanted to make like a diving helmet out of a bucket or something, but then we realized we didn’t need one. We just hooked the garden hose up to the air compressor, and then duct-taped the other end to the top of a snorkel—”
“Oh Lord!” said Dad, already wiping his nose.
“—and you’d crank that thing up and the air would come blasting out of the purge valve on the snorkel, so all around you the water was like boiling and this froth would blow your mask off and everything. From up on the dock it looked like a submarine was going to the bottom. But we’d be down there like Poseidon, armed with our trident.”
“HAW HAW HAW!”
“Oh, but that air!” Mom said, making a face.
“It was full of oil. It tasted like car exhaust. We couldn’t stay down very long because it made you dizzy. We did see fish, though. Some big ol’ fish would come by, but none of them ever came close enough that we could poke it.”
“HAW HAW! How could you get enough arm speed to throw the spear?”
“Well, you couldn’t. It was always like slow motion. Your best bet was to try a kind of straight-ahead jab.”
“Gosh, you’d think Marge would say something about that air,” said Mom.
“Oh, HAW HAW! You probably could have died of carbon monoxide poisoning!” roared Dad. “Ach du lieber! Ha ha ha!”
Mrs. Purk was one of the lunch ladies at school. She never said anything about not using the compressor. What the hell, this is what kids did. And I don’t think we knew anything about any carbon monoxide or whatever.
“Oh Lord, you boys are crazy,” Dad said, beaming, and then he went downstairs to get into an episode of The Love Boat all by himself, feeling he had the greatest family in the world.
Dad asked me once at the dinner table what my favorite story in the Bible was, and I gleefully told him I loved the Witch of Endor. He never asked me again.
“The New Testament makes such a big deal out of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead and then the resurrection, but the Witch of Endor makes it clear that pagan people did that kind of stuff all the time,” I went on. My brothers were listening keenly.
I combed through the Bible obsessively looking for evidence of God in the many rather than the one—the powers of nature, the talking donkeys, the small gods, which are all over the Bible like so many chalk outlines of bodies on the street.
The story is in I Samuel 28, when Israel under King Saul was about to be destroyed by the Philistines. Saul needed battle advice but Jahweh wouldn’t speak to him, so he disguised himself and went to a witch in the town of Endor. He asked her to “bring up” the beloved prophet Samuel, who had recently died. I loved this story so much because, no matter which modern translation you read, her abilities are completely unremarkable: she brought up Samuel out of the ground without any difficulty, and he stood in the room and barked at Saul, “Why have you disturbed me?” Evidently it’s torture to be among the living once you’ve tasted again the original dust.
King Saul goes out of his way to assure the witch that God is not displeased with her, and even though the Lord is generally wrathful she wouldn’t be punished. Rather, Saul needed her and the old pre–One god ways. And she seems nice. When she figures out this visitor is really the king in disguise, she insists on killing a fatted calf and making bread and feeding his whole entourage, because it’s clear he has starved himself with worry. And he eats.
“It’s so normal,” I said. “He sits down and eats with her.”
“Ha ha! Oh boy! I don’t know,” said Dad.
“Well, I like to read stories like that,” I said.
“Okay. Well,” he said, and he got up to read the paper. End of talk.
Excerpted from The Deer Camp. Used with permission of Bloomsbury Publishing. Copyright © 2019 by Dean Kuipers.