Fighting For The Neck

By Michael Richmond

Three Italians taking turns shooting a farmer’s lamp post with a bolt action 12-gauge shotgun isn’t something that you hear about often these days.  After being accused of sneaking into a fallow deer farm for a third time, these boys felt defending their reputations required a loud expression.  Most people can’t fathom taking up arms to defend a position, let alone defend it with a bolt action shotgun, but the first half of the 20th century was truly a different time with vastly different characters; they were calloused.

Being shipped off to Europe or the South Pacific didn’t allow the young men of this country (for the purposes of this story, Millbrook, NY) much of a chance to enjoy their youth as the cowboy gunslingers they had always envisioned. Search the internet archives of Millbrook’s local newspaper and you can find countless articles highlighting the names and efforts of 1st and 2nd generation Italian-Americans shipping off to foreign lands to fight the last World War. Many of Millbrook’s young enlisted men were from Fondi, Italy, sent back to fight an enemy from which their parents had recently fled. After taking a few moments to digest the depth of their sacrifices as teenagers, you can begin to forgive them for their rebellious ways.

The reputations of these three brothers were mirrored in their nicknames:  “Quiet Al,” “Chick,” and “The Hawk.” Although “Quiet Al” was an accurate moniker for his lack of participation in conversation, it wasn’t congruent with the audibility of his actions.  Al exemplified Teddy Roosevelt’s maxim: “speak softly and carry a big stick.” The Hawk got his name after winning a bet that he could read a random word written on a baseball that was thrown at him. Chick got his because he seemed to always be in the shadow of The Hawk. These personalities carried over into every aspect of their lives. If Quiet Al wasn’t working in his upholstery shop adjacent to his home, he was competing with his brothers while chasing pheasants and deer, dead-sticking for eels or telling old childhood tales. These brothers were always together, until they weren’t.

The Hawk spent his time during World War II as a tail-gunner. It’s possible to attribute his hardness to any one of the three times his plane was gunned down overseas. Chick stayed stateside as a Tech 5 with the US Army. Al served in the South Pacific assisting in the construction and destruction of bridges and infrastructure. Men who sacrificed during WWII should have been granted a life of prosperity in perpetuity. But in the US, the politics and economics of the 1970s didn’t make life easy. Squirrel pot-pie was a regular dinner in any one of these homes and the brothers mostly fed their families with things they killed, caught, or grew themselves.

Among their reapings were chops and roasts saved for special occasions and holidays.  At the top of these prized cuts was a mature whitetail buck’s neck. A Christmas or Easter neck roast was more of a trophy than the antlers and second to the roast was the story. Whoever killed the largest buck was able to host a holiday gathering directly proportional to the size of the deer’s neck, especially when their necks were swollen during the rut; the larger the neck, the larger the party. To them, accompanied by the roast were the bragging rights of how many mouths it fed. This silent competition eventually and unfortunately led to The Hawk and Quiet Al getting into a fight that lasted the rest of their lives.

One November day, Quiet Al went to The Hawk’s house to celebrate and butcher a deer. The process was the same as ever, skinning and breaking meat down into their favorite cuts while drinking cans of Schaefer beer. There is—though not always agreed upon—an amount of meat that the host is allotted even if it wasn’t from his kill. Two men appreciating each other’s help while simultaneously thinking about all of the annoying shit the other has recently done and how that affects their share is a normal internal conversation. But that day while throwing punches and hurling insults over who deserves this deer’s neck, these brothers couldn’t look past the undeservedness of the other and they never spoke again.

Sitting in his old work truck at the top of a vineyard overlooking a deer drive, I asked my grandfather, Quiet Al, why he didn’t attend The Hawk’s funeral. He assured me when he died he’d have plenty of time to work things out with him in heaven. I’m not sure they’ve worked anything out yet but Quiet Al has since passed away so they definitely have the opportunity. Now, everytime I pick up the bolt action 12-gauge my grandfather left me, I cherish the memories of sitting around his table during the holidays. Flashes of pouring anisette into our coffees after a big holiday ham dinner are still clear. But looking back, I can’t remember ever eating deer neck at Al’s house.

From the FE Films Archive

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