Between Anger and Piety: How to Field Dress an Antelope

J.D. Phillips

Chapel Talk, Wabash College

March 17, 2005



Part 1. Prelude to the hunt.

For my fifteenth birthday my father, somehow, managed to get two antelope tags for the early Wyoming rifle season—one for him, one for me. And so it happened that just before sunset on a cool September night in 1979, we threw our gear into the back of Dad's truck and headed west across Nebraska on U.S. Highway 20. I drove; dad slept. I was fourteen. I drove through the night, made it across the lonely Sandhills, all the way to the western edge of Nebraska, until just before dawn when I couldn't keep my eyes open any longer. I pulled off the highway and slept. An hour later the blazing morning sun woke us and I could see that we'd stopped at Fort Robinson, the military installation where the Ogallala Sioux warrior, Crazy Horse, was murdered while trying to escape from government custody in 1877. I made myself believe that it was a sign that I'd stopped here. I'd always admired the Plains Indians, especially the Sioux; I grew up in Sioux City.


I knew this land well; I used to fly fish on the nearby White River with my dad and brothers. Not far from here was the place that I saw, for the first time, my father look weak and scared when my brothers and I caught a Prairie Rattlesnake and surprised him by holding it up to his face. He jumped with genuine fear. This pleased us immensely. I'll have more to say later about fear, and its close relative, anger.


Dad drove us the rest of the way, across the border into Wyoming, through the pine bluffs and scree, onto the high plains at the edge of the Great Basin, and into the dusty little cow town of Lusk, Wyoming. We stopped in front of the only diner on Main Street to meet Dad's friend, Floyd Compton. We would hunt on his ranch. I remember ordering breakfast that morning; there was no menu, you just ordered "breakfast" like the rough old ranchers and hired hands did who ate there everyday. The waitress brought me a plate of scrambled eggs and poured me a cup of coffee just like she did with all of her customers. I'd never had coffee before. It was the morning of my fifteenth birthday. It wasn't easy, but I drank the whole cup. I knew that Dad knew, but he didn't say a word. He let me play at being a man.


After breakfast all three of us climbed into Dad's truck and drove out to Gene's property. It was a big ranch. Ten thousand acres, maybe more. Floyd told us where he'd seen a herd of antelope the day before, and where he thought they'd be today. He told us where he'd pick us up at sunset.  Dad and I stood there together in the wind, silent, our packs and guns at our feet, watching Floyd drive away in Dad's truck.


Part 2. Books and anger.
[This section is still in draft / outline form.] In this section I talk about anger and tradition and about how anger is unique among the emotions in that it demands to be verbalized. I talk about anger and logos and what it means to be a college. Ultimately I talk about books and reading.


Part 3. The hunt.

Let me pick up my hunt narrative where I left off. Later in the day, a few hours before sunset, after many miles of hiking without seeing an antelope, my father and I climbed a mesa, and there, in the distant haze of a valley to the northeast, maybe seven miles away, was a tremendous herd of antelope working their way south, feeding on the rich grasses of the valley floor: knotweed, prairie clover, alfalfa, lupine, buckwheat, rockcress. Twenty miles beyond them we could see a thunderstorm lighting up the north end of the valley. There was a hint of snow in the air.


My father took his hat off, wiped his brow, didn't say a word. He was hatching a plan. (I can still see this image of him today, clear as a bell, like it was yesterday. He was younger then than I am today, but he seems much older.) We would separate. I would go to the butte two miles to the southeast; Dad would circle back to the north, to an arroyo I couldn't see (I wondered how he knew it was there). The herd was on the move; we'd wait two hours, 'til just before sunset, and hope for a good shot. We wouldn't be able to see each other at that point; we'd be alone, miles apart.


Before we set off, my father handed me his gun—a bolt action Remington .270, a marvel of craftsmanship, outfitted with a Zeiss scope, a marvel of engineering. Other than his house, surely the most expensive thing my father had ever owned. All his friends envied it. I'd never shot it before. Heck, I don't think I'd ever held it before. Dad took the sorry old .30-06 I was carrying and said calmly, downplaying any significance in the gun exchange, "You'll be breathing heavy and your heart will be racing. From all the walking. You'll only get one shot. Don't take it until your heart slows down. Don't rush. The sun will be behind you. The herd won't see you. The wind is from the north; they won't smell you. You'll only get one shot; take your time."


Two hours later I was climbing the last fifty yards up the butte on my belly, through the sage and mesquite, over the rocks and the dirt. Sweating and breathing hard, I poked my head up over the rise and the valley opened up before my eyes, like before, but bigger, more immediate now. The herd was still there, closer, but still too far for a good shot. There were only a few minutes of daylight left. I was disappointed; I'd have to wait until tomorrow.


I didn't see him at first. Years later I still remember how startled I was when I finally noticed him. A buck, a huge buck, away from the herd, standing sentinel on the rock outcropping across a deep gulley, a mere 100 yards away from where I lay. It took my breath away; I dropped my face to the ground. He turned his head and looked directly at me. But he didn't see me. The setting sun was behind me; it blinded him. My heart was racing. I couldn't catch my breath. I waited 10 seconds, 30 seconds, a minute. But my heart was still racing and my breath was still fast. The buck hadn't moved; he was still looking directly at me. So I rested the butt of the rifle, dad's cherished Remington .270, on my shoulder, and put the buck's chest in the crosshairs. I remembered my father's advice: I breathed in deep, held it, slowly exhaled, then squeezed the trigger. The shot echoed a sharp report over the brush and through the gulley. In the distance, I saw the frightened herd bolt en mass to the north, toward my father's arroyo. But my buck was still standing, staring at me. I thought I'd missed. But then it dropped; a cloud of dust rose up in its place. My shot was true.


I clambered down the gulley, then up the other side, a wave of excitement washing over me. The big buck had fallen where he stood. Didn't take a step. It was a perfect shot; pierced his lungs and heart. In the fading light I could see no blood, save for a small trickle by the exit wound, no bigger than a dime. I'd have to field dress him in the moonlight.


Do you know how to field dress an antelope? Here's the standard technique, the one I used that night, twenty-five years ago. First you roll the antelope onto its back; his legs will stick straight up in the air. Then you puncture his hide, right at the pelvis, with the blade pointing toward his chest. Be careful not to dig in too deep, lest you rupture an internal organ, which will make the rest of your work particularly unpleasant. Feel with your knife until the tip of the blade rests between the hide and the membrane that wraps around the organs of the gut. Then cut through the hide in a straight line toward the rib cage, again being especially careful not to dig too deep and rupture an organ. It will surprise you how easy it is to cut through the thick hide. Now, if you've been steady and cut true, spread the hide over the belly, like opening the entrance to a teepee, revealing the hopefully still intact organs of the antelope's gut. It will look like a mold of thick gelatin; there will be a thin plume of steam; there will also be a sharp, but not overpowering, smell, with a surprising hint of sweetness fortifying the much stronger bitterness. Now comes the hard part. Roll the carcass on its side and trace the blade of your knife behind the entrails, along the back wall of vertebrae and ribs. Don't forget to roll your sleeves up; you'll be in past your elbows in blood and guts. And please remember the most important part: don't rupture the organs; the stench, texture, and sight of ruptured guts will take you by surprise; the bile, undigested grasses, and other unsavory juices will make you gag. Now, in a quick motion, flip the carcass upright, and project the innards out and away from the carcass. It's important to do this quickly, lest the blood and entrails soil the rest of the carcass. Then move the carcass clear of the steaming heap of guts—there'll be about 15 pounds of it—and let the residual blood seep out. Ideally this should last at least an hour, lest your truck look like a crime scene. And that's it. You've field dressed an antelope; job done.


But now, twenty-five years later, I think there might be other approaches.


Part 4. Books and Inquiry.

[Note: this section is in draft / outline form.] In this section I talk about the space between dogma and tolerance, i.e., the common ground of inquiry. So anger and piety are with respect to tradition—you're either angry at it or you're devoutly pious toward it. And again, between these two there is room for inquiry.


Hunting is a good example of something you do just because your daddy did it. And most folks are either pious as hell about hunting or they absolutely hate it, just like a college faculty is about old books. So this talk is really about books, not an antelope hunt with my father.



Part 5. After the hunt.

Let me close by returning to my antelope hunt. After field dressing the antelope, I dragged it a quarter mile in the dark, to the edge of a cow trail I could just make out in the moonlight, and hiked the five miles out to the dirt road where Floyd was waiting for us. He'd been there for a few hours, and when I found him, just before midnight, he was passed out in the cab of my father's truck, piss drunk. When I opened the door, he lunged at me in a frightened, drunken stupor, fell face-first and landed in a heap in the rocks and dirt. He looked old and scared. He was too drunk to stand. I don't think he knew who I was. I pulled him up and helped him back into the truck, then drove back out over the bumpy five miles of cow-trail to retrieve the carcass. I had to stop twice so that Floyd could vomit. There were two coyotes scavenging the entrails when I found it. I chased them away, but I don't think they minded. They'd had their fill, and I think they were ready to play a bit, maybe even have a little sing later; the moon was high in the sky now. After loading the antelope into the back of the truck, I circled around the valley, and an hour later found my father asleep by the side of the road. He too had gotten a buck. Turns out that mine was the second biggest taken in the state that year.


My memories of the rest of the trip are less vivid. I remember sleeping on the dirty floor of a cheap motel; I remember helping Floyd stagger out of a bar the next night; I remember the pearl-handled revolver the bartender showed me that he kept hidden under the cash register in case, as he put it, "those god-damned Indians get too drunk;" and I remember taking Gene's daughter to a dance at her high school and watching the awkward teenage cowboys trying to dance to the disco soundtrack from Saturday Night Fever in their boot-cut wranglers, oversized rodeo belt buckles, and Stetson hats. The only thing I remember about the drive home was stopping for gas at the Rose Bud Indian Reservation, and how the Indians gathered around the truck to stare sullenly at the two antelope. Unlike Fort Robinson three days ago, there was no sign.


I hope you're not wondering about what I now think of that hunt twenty-five years ago. It's not important what I think about it, and besides, I'm not going to tell you anymore than this: Between anger and piety there is room for inquiry. And that, my friends, is how you field-dress an antelope.