Steve Johnson wiped the sweat from his forehead with the back of his sleeve. He’d never worked this hard in his life. As the spring temperatures warmed, Steve began to wonder if he would survive his job through the summer. His girls seemed to be doing well enough. The youngest, previously a bit pudgy, was now rippled with muscles. Her job running a hand mill was at least as hard as Steve’s job slaughtering cattle and hogs. The poor girl had to put her entire body into turning the crank on the mill. She never complained but had asked for a pair of gloves after her first day. Steve had taken one look at her blistered hands and traded his daily food ration to one of the deputies for the smallest pair of leather gloves he could find.
The two older girls had excelled in the kitchen. Their mother had always been a “foody”. Her ability to whip up a tasty dish without a recipe had rubbed off on her girls. They had built themselves a bit of a reputation for taking the blandest of ingredients and turning them into a savory dish popular with nearly the entire camp.
The thought of the girls’ mother slowed Steve’s hand. His de-boning knife trailed down the spine of the steer he was butchering. Steve wondered if his wife was still alive or if she had consumed all of her Ambien at once and quietly slipped into a coma and then quietly passed away.
One of Steve’s co-workers nudged him. “Hey, what’s up with you, man?”
Steve blinked his eyes with a start and got back to work. “Nothing. Just wondering where my wife is these days.”
Steve hadn’t told his story to many at the FMC. As far as he knew, none of the men from the camp who had been at the market that fateful day had told anyone either. They seemed like the sort that understood that discretion was the better part of valor. Steve was thankful for that. The events of that day were embarrassing at best.
After pausing for a drink of water, Steve took a few moments to sharpen his knife and got back to work. He was nearly done with his third carcass for the day. That was his quota. Every day – no matter how much or how little time it took – Steve was responsible for skinning and butchering three beef carcasses. When he arrived each morning, one carcass was already hung waiting to be skinned and quartered. Once that carcass was quartered, Steve would de-bone it and slice the meat up into the various cuts. Another person would take the cuts and pieces to be ground and begin grinding – usually right about the same time that Steve’s second carcass arrived. Another person would take the better cuts directly to the kitchen for roasting or grilling for that day’s food.
Everything in the camp was clean and efficient. Mayor Hood insisted on it. Food contamination, as well as other bacterial or viral infections, could easily take out the entire camp. Hood’s deputies stopped by the slaughtering area frequently to ensure that those working with the camp’s meat were washing their hands and handling the meat appropriately. Anything that was dropped on the ground was taken to a decontamination station where it was thoroughly washed. Once the meat made it to the kitchen, the cooks were required to ensure that it reached an internal temperature of more than 160 degrees.
After he finished up his third carcass, Steve cleaned up at the wash station. As he washed up, Steve once again found his mind wandering to his wife. Their marriage and home life had been no bed of roses prior to the crash. Things certainly went even further downhill quickly afterward. Still, Steve realized, he had cared for Rhona. She was, after all, the mother of his three wonderful daughters. There had been good times.
The dinner bell interrupted Steve’s reverie.
“What can I do,” he wondered aloud as he made his way toward the chow line. “She’s gone now. One way or the other, she’s gone. I need to leave her … and her memory behind and find a new life.”
Steve’s youngest daughter caught his eye with a wave. She had finished in time for a hot dinner as well. Steve was already in the chow line but he joined his daughter at the rear of the line. As with most things that could potentially cause trouble, there were strict rules against cutting in line or allowing someone to join you in line. It was perfectly fine for you to join them – at the back of the line – but anyone found “cutting” was removed from the line and not allowed to re-join it until the next line. So, if you were caught cutting in the dinner line, you got no dinner. Your next opportunity was the breakfast line.
Very few people cut in line at the FMC.
Those who served food in the chow line were allowed to eat prior to serving. Those who prepared the food were allowed to join the chow line as soon as their work was done – just like everyone else. There were only two meals served each day – breakfast in the morning and dinner in the evening. Anyone who wanted a lunch or snack had to purchase and prepare their own food.
Steve and his daughters were gradually building up credits from their daily work. Each person’s daily work – if they achieved their quota – granted them access to the shared resources of the camp – things like food, sanitary items and medical supplies. In addition, each person earned a few extra credits each day that they achieved their quota. Steve and his daughters’ goal was to move out of the large, shared men’s and women’s tents and set up a family tent. The girls were excited about the prospect of a little more privacy and Steve was eager to have his family back together again.
They were very close to having enough credits, but there were no tents available in the camp. Steve bemoaned the loss of the huge three-room tent that the family had used on their infrequent camping trips.
“Whatcha thinkin’ about, Dad?” Steve’s youngest took his hand as they shuffled forward in the line.
“I was dreaming about that big, three-room tent we used to have,” Steve squeezed his girl’s hand.
“The Jeep tent?” her eyes went wide.
“Yeah, wouldn’t it be cool to have that now?” Steve smiled and stroked his daughter’s hair.
“Ooh, yeah! That would be so cool. That thing even had like dressers to put your clothes in.” The excitement in the girl’s voice was obvious.
Steve rubbed his chin. Two years ago, if he had asked his three daughters if they had wanted to go camping, the response would have been lackluster … if he got any response at all. Things were so much different now. They were so … pure. Steve wasn’t sure if that was the right word, but it felt right as his little girl put her arm around his waist and hugged him.
So many layers had been stripped from the world over the last several months. So many distractions … gone. Sure, there was still ugliness – maybe more than before – but somehow what had happened was not as much innocence lost as it was family found. What really mattered now mattered so much more. What was really important was more important than ever. It was difficult but it was good … in many, many ways.
Steve returned his daughter’s hug as tears welled up in his eyes.
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