Raising Turkeys:
Two Polish Sons in Montana

“Bought twenty turkey poults, shipped by the U.S. Postal Service from the Randall Burkey Company,” says my cousin Dan.

Dan lives off the land in a remote area of Montana not far from Libby, for many years in a trailer in the woods and, after he met Tammy, in her ranch-style house complete with bathroom, pantry, and kitchen, where he recently installed new cupboards. He generates his own electricity, grows his own food, cans and freezes vegetables and the meat from the animals he hunts in the mountains. He makes strawberry wine from the berries in their garden.

“Never seen nothing like it before–bad DNA or something wrong. We only lost one right away, which is pretty darn good. Got ‘em in August, made it through winter, seven or eight years ago; then some of the hens their legs gave out,” Dan explains as he shows me the turkey coops. “The toms had droopy head syndrome. The hens came out of it, but this spring again. Shot two that the legs gave out. Three of them, their eyes glazed over so I shot ‘em. We did butcher some toms and they were pretty nice. Their eyes turned white, they were blind, so I shot ‘em. We got three left and they’re fine. Of the twenty, half of them developed a disability over the first two years.”

We climb into Dan’s 1988 Lincoln and head for the Red Dog Saloon in Libby. “Want a beer?” he offers, pulling a bottle from under the seat. “Love my beer.”

“I did call the Randall Company, and they never heard of such a thing. I got chickens from them before and had good luck with ‘em, fifty chickens, and had ‘em for from one to four years. Some of the four-year-olds are going to have to go pretty soon, yeah. Turkeys are more temperamental creatures.”

As we return from town, Dan notes that the chicken coop is protected by “Night Guard” predator deterrents. “A grizzly went after the chickens a couple years ago.” He says that Tammy was recently stalked by a mountain lion.

“I always take my 44 with me,” he adds. “Holy mackerel! I was out hunting up in the mountains and it sounded like a stampede comin’ at me. It was a moose with a baby. I froze. I could not move. Thought that was it for me. The cow moose with a calf decided to make its home by my trailer,” Dan says. “A whole week I put up with that thing, then that doe tried to stomp on Shiloh, and it would come charging at me.” Shiloh was his dog, before he and Tammy got Kochać, the new dog he named for “love” in Polish.

In the morning, I walk alone up the hill behind their house, snowcapped mountains in the distance, to fill a plastic bag with pine cones to take home. Aspen, pine, and birch trees soar all around me. Back in the house, Dan shows me his book shelf: The Creature from Jekyll Island, Tough Trip Through Paradise, Chief Joseph’s People and Their War. He shows me things he has made, among them a makeshift greenhouse for starter plants from seed, the growing season in Montana being that short. It is spring and already he has started tomatoes, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, peppers (cayenne, jalapeño, and green), onions, and celery. His “cold frame greenhouse” consists of raised boards resting on rock slabs, with two-inch foam around the top. Every morning the foam comes off and glass goes on, or “if it’s sunny you leave it open,” Dan instructs. “I started this a month ago, five weeks, and the old seedlings from last year’s crop that went to seed are all up.”

Dan shows me his solar panels and where the buried line is located that leads to the batteries on the side of the house. “Out of an old wood stove someone had built,” he has constructed a smoker for the fish and meat he kills. He bought his wine-making equipment from a neighbor.

Dan and Tammy’s lives are lived by season. “I cut wood for the wood stove in October,” he says. “Canning is done in September and October.” May and June and July and August and September, those are the months that are “somewhat guaranteed” to be frost free. “I hunt in October and November, deer and elk–well actually “in sixteen years out here, I only seen one elk.” Deer come every year; he takes two, “which only one is legal,” and butchers them himself, then puts the quarters in the cooler, and then cuts them up on the kitchen table to be smoked or put through the grinder. “We will have some venison for dinner tonight,” Tammy announces.

My cousin Margie, Dan’s sister, rode the train to Montana with me and is staying on to teach Tammy how to sew. Tammy was a nurse before she took to the mountains. She shares Dan’s love for their mountain greenery and earns extra money by making home visits to sick people who also built homes in remote places. “Paper work was all they wanted me to do in the hospital, instead of patient care, which is what I wanted to do.” She and Dan only take jobs when they need extra cash. He works construction. There is nothing he can’t build.

Margie and Tammy are sitting at the kitchen table laughing and debating the wisdom of using metal utensils on Teflon. I interrupt with a question about the wisdom of using Teflon at all, but Margie takes mock offense and warns that steam from an electric skillet could ruin the new cupboards Dan built for Tammy.

We spend the rest of the morning transplanting seedling tomatoes, broccoli, and cauliflower into small containers and Dixie cups.

From the house, we can hear the hens cackling in their coop down the hill. “It’s a good sound,” says Dan, “it means they’re laying. They cackle and carry on and then the eggs come out and they’re quiet. That’s a big thing to come out of that little hole.” Then he adds, perhaps to remind me what a farm boy I once was, “You know, some people don’t like to eat eggs because they think they come out of the same hole as the poop. Can you imagine?” Dan is the master of the wry laugh. He dislikes, he tells me, in the following order: cruelty, government, religion, stealing, lying, laziness, and corruption and bribes and cronyism, greed. He is living his best life and wants no part of any city. He and Tammy sneer when I invite them to visit me in Chicago. “Never, never ever want to go to a big city again.”

Now Tammy and Margie are arguing and laughing about which candle wicks are best, then about whether to use fingers or tongs when mixing a salad. Margie has a dietary rule for everything, based on her blood type and the teachings of Peter D’Adamo, her new guru. The great thing about his formulas is that you don’t have to make any decisions about what to eat. Your blood type dictates what food is good for you and what you should avoid. Half the things in Dan and Tammy’s pantry are on Margie’s do-not-eat list, but always a good eater, she makes exceptions for beets and venison. Tammy shakes her head from side to side and laughs.

“We’re moving fast, maybe too fast,” Dan asserts. “The old ways are the best.” Margie points to a plug, an extension cord to the freezer from the solar power system and an exhaust system that Dan built to pull air into the insulated room to keep it at an even temperature. All summer, they store vegetables for canning, and the shelves are stocked with canned goods from the past year and empty jars waiting for this year’s crop. An ardent canner back in Michigan, Margie marvels, “Isn’t that wonderful!”

In the evening, Dan talks about his reading and asserts that the Rothchilds rule the world: “$500 trillion in wealth they have.” He and Tammy both believe that jet planes leave toxic “chemtrails” in the sky. Tammy nods in agreement when Dan asserts that “global warming and climate change is a hoax.” With a little more strawberry wine “down the hatch,” Dan says, “Then we have the moon. Why does the moon do what it does? I think the moon is a big satellite that doesn’t exist.” And then Dan and Tammy pull out the big guns, and the theories of David Icke pour out of their mouths.

Tammy then plays an old videotape of Dan and his older brothers Bill and Dave rocking and rolling in the 1970s, Dan a typical long-haired teenager. I remember the boys, my cousins, banging away on their guitars in an old shed on their father’s farm in Michigan. “Takin’ Care of Business,” the teenage Dan shouts into a microphone. “If it were easy as fishin’ you could be a musician,” they say in homage to Bachman-Turner Overdrive.

Dan urges me to learn more about David Icke, so I take one of his books to my room and read and read into the night that humanity has been genetically manipulated by the Babylonian Brotherhood, a hybrid race of human–extraterrestrial reptilians, also known as the Illuminati. I learn that England’s Queen Mother was seriously reptilian, as is anybody named Rothchild or Rockefeller.

After breakfast and chores, I figure we are going to need more beer, so into town we go, where I spot a new brew pub. “Been so long since we been to town,” Dan says, “didn’t even know this was here.” We order a beer sampler, and beer aficionados Dan and Tammy are peacefully sipping, while Margie refrains because of her blood type.

We head home for dinner and I offer to cook while Dan does chores and Margie teaches Tammy how to use the electric sewing machine. Margie tells her that she is not taking sewing seriously enough and she needs to concentrate. Then they break into fits of laughter as Tammy botches an attempt at a straight line.

Tammy offers everything in her pantry, so I whip up a quick Ukrainian-style borscht from their canned cabbage and beets, a little vinegar, some diced potatoes and shredded carrots. They all praise my creation and ask for seconds, while Dan and I reminisce about the Polish barszcz our grandmother made when we were children.

From their wild and homegrown ingredients–venison, smoked trout and salmon, potatoes, eggs, vegetables of every kind—they prepare what nutrition-conscious city dwellers would consider gourmet meals. Tammy and Dan seem to be in perfect health.

We hike every day, and one day we go out on their little motor boat to see the great Libby Dam, which has created a placid fresh water lake unblemished by lakeside hotels, cottages, or shopping malls. Halfway across the lake, the engine stops and Dan cannot get it started again. They have one paddle on board, no oars, so Dan takes the rudder, all the while trying to start the engine, while I straddle the bow and paddle us ashore, sweeping ineptly through the water, alternating from side to side. None of us can stop laughing long enough to care that we could have been stranded for hours without beer!

I have been with my cousins for a week, and now it is time to go back to the corruption and greed of Chicago, where I am surrounded by people who do not have to grow or kill their own food, where I don’t have to be reminded that as a child I could not get away from farm life fast enough and all the dead deer and pheasants my uncles threw at our grandmother’s feet to be prepared for dinner. How could Uncle Stan’s son Dan and I, son of Stan’s sister Lucy, have grown up together and become such different people?

Early in the morning they take me to Libby to catch the train. The station waiting room is lonely, an Edward Hopper painting sort of place at five in the morning. A man with no front teeth waits for the train arrival with his curly-haired blond son who asks the lady with big boots and big hair why she doesn’t have any luggage. The varnish on the benches has crackled, applied in perhaps the 1940s. The walls have been paneled with fake wood, the ceiling lowered with ugly acoustic tiles; the original windows remain, with radiators beneath. The sun is beginning to brighten the sky. The train will be late, and I have a long wait. “I don’t go into bars,” the big-haired lady announces.

A bar across the street is open, stools flipped upside down on the tables. For a dollar, I carry out a cup of coffee. The man behind the counter says the weather will be sunny today. Down-at-heel old men sit around a table reading newspapers and drinking something from coffee cups. Two step outside to smoke, the stains and rips in their pants more evident when they stand.

The big sky materializes outside the station window. Freight trains zoom by, while we Amtrak passengers wait. “The times are all estimates, sir,” the Amtrak representative snaps over my cell phone. “Let me speak to Julie,” I want to reply. Julie’s is the ubiquitous disembodied phone voice that I want to hear; she never uses the word “estimates.”

I wonder about Dan’s retreat to the mountains, about his mother, Aunt Della, and her manic depression that lasted through much of his childhood. All of it frequently was summed up by my mother: “Ah, it’s all in your head.” All in our droopy heads.

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