My son, how did you come down to this abode of darkness while you are still alive? It is a hard thing for the living to see these places … Are you all this time trying to find your way home … ?
—Book XI, “The Oddyssey”
Today my father and I begin to prepare for the Passover Seder. He instructs me in the preparation of the turkey, how to wash it and prepare the grill. As I cut open the bag that holds the turkey and remove the body, I remember the last job I had in Logan. It was 1992; I had just graduated from high school and was saving money for a trip to Israel. Jobs were scarce, so I followed up on an ad for one of the local slaughterhouses.
The windowless building stood alone, separated from the surrounding farms by cattle pens and fields. You could smell the death for miles around. It squatted on the valley, a block of dull gray concrete that rose from the surrounding fields. The south side had five truck bays and four doors, all dwarfed by the immensity of the towering walls. In my memory, the dull gray of those concrete walls is the same color as the walls I saw surrounding Birkenau.
When I arrived for the interview, I checked in at the guardhouse, then followed a painted green line through the plant to the top floor. I was hired on the spot and told one of my friends, Royal, to apply, as well.
We worked the day shift on the “disassembly” line, a multitude of conveyor belts that lined the lower floor of the plant. The carcass began its journey at the far end of the room, and by the time it reached the point where I was stationed, there was nothing left but scraps. The conveyer belt lay to my left, on it a steady stream of bones with bits of meat hanging from them. My line’s work was to scrape the meat off the bones. Yellow plastic bins lay in front of us, and we were required to fill one every hour. If we exceeded our requirement for the day, we received small bonuses. This work moved quickly, steadily.
The Mexicans that surrounded me were a community, a family of the line. I was nervous when I first started. I felt I was an outsider, not only by experience or skin color but by language, as well. Only days after I started, however, I was welcomed. When the line manager commended my work, a rise of “Arriba! Arriba, Dov!” sounded up and down the line. This was one of the greatest parts about working on the line: the sense of community, of understanding.
Sometimes when Royal, who worked on another line, was scheduled for lunch at another time, I would eat with the men from my line and their friends. Once I talked with one of these friends at lunch, and he explained the process of the kill floor to me:
“So then we take the guns. They’re .45s that are modified, with retractable bolts, and we place them up against their heads, like this …”
He cupped one hand behind my head and with the other made a gun out of his finger and thumb, placing it against my forehead. I pulled back out of instinct, but his hand was strong, and he kept me immobile.
“Bang!” he said, laughing as I jumped. The smell of his hands and the look in his eyes scared me.
“The bolt goes into their brain,” he explained. “They don’t feel anything. They shake a little bit sometimes, but not for long. After that, we string ‘em up and gut ‘em.”
He described to me how the cattle were herded into a line, then up the ramp to the second floor. He said you could hear the loud mooing, the lowing, as they tried to back away, to return to the pens. At the top of the ramp, large, plastic flaps covered the view of the inside. One by one, the cows were yoked and pulled in, the flaps closing behind each one. Then the gun was placed against its head. Bang!
Two weeks after Royal and I started work, we were offered a move to night shift, the clean-up crew, with a bonus as an incentive. Royal and I accepted. The shift began at 6 o’clock and was supposed to end at 3 in the morning, though many mornings we stayed until 6 or 7. We were given yellow plastic coveralls, rubber thigh-high boots and new lockers. Royal was assigned to one of the lines, and I was taken to the tripe room and a few others surrounding it.
Everything in these rooms was made of stainless steel, so it could be sprayed off easily. Tripe, I learned, was the stomach lining of the cow and considered a delicacy. The tripe room was thin and rectangular. A large table ran lengthwise along the wall, in front of which stood a raised grate. Attached to the ceiling was a tube about 2 feet wide that opened through to the kill floor on the second level. The hole through which this tube descended was the only opening aside from the entrance. Stomachs and intestines of the cows that were killed fell through this tube, dropping from an opening 3 feet above the table, where the day workers would cut open the stomachs and scrape out the insides. After this the stomachs were sent over to the adjoining room, where they were washed in large, cylindrical machines.
To clean the tripe room, I had to crawl into the far corner, behind the table and under the tube, onto the far side of the grate that covered the drain, and using my high-pressure hose, spray outward.
I remember the nights, crouched in that corner, blood and guts a foot deep surrounding my feet and legs. The water that came out of the hose was boiling hot, steaming the room into near invisibility. The smell of half-digested food encompassed me, and hot blood and water rained on my face as I sprayed off the ceiling and tube. Huddled in the corner, alone with death, I was afraid I could not escape, that I could be trapped there forever. I was Jonah in the whale’s stomach, bile suffocating me, the smell of acid, blood and moist, hot air thick in my nose and throat.
Due perhaps to some flaw in construction, the floor had an upgrade toward the drain at the opening of the room. 1 sprayed the organs and blood away from my corner, and as I tried to push them all out, they came rippling, crawling back toward me.
These scenes have insinuated themselves into my nightmares. Even now, five years later, I wake with these images burning in my eyes. They will mix with earlier nightmares: I stand where I have always stood, in a line in a forest, my parents ahead of me and strangers behind. I hear commands, barked in a harsh language I cannot understand. I hear shots in the crisp night air, the sudden sharp cries of the wounded as they fall into the pit that only minutes ago they finished digging. I step up to the edge of the dark hole, feel a sting, a ripping in my side, and fall, grazed but still alive. I burrow frantically beneath the bodies of my parents, of neighbors, trying to hide because I know that soon, after the rest have fallen on top of us, the guns will point toward the pit, searching for signs of life. Amid the bodies I hold my breath, still my body.
I smell the blood and excrement. I am surrounded by blood and cattle intestines. I am in both places at once, unable to escape from either.
The other room for which I was responsible was the blood lab. It usually required only minimal washing. By day it was staffed by lab techs from a center a few miles away. At first I didn’t understand the purpose of the room. In the center was a table with a square sink in the middle. Over the sink was a metal mesh and above that, a tube. Along the four walls were troughs, with mesh over them, as well. Above these troughs were hooks with strange tools. Some were hooked, and some spiraled like corkscrews to a sharp, stainless-steel point. These scared, puzzled and unnerved me. The lances and screws reminded me of the torture chambers in old movies, and finding only spots of blood against the metallic cleanliness of these tools lent more horror to the possibilities I imagined. Then one night I found a fetus on the table, lying in its placenta. It wasn’t until then that I really realized the room’s purpose.
There was a law, I believe, that pregnant cattle were not supposed to be killed; still there was a fetus room and an understanding with the inspectors. When asked, my supervisor replied, “We process so many cattle a day, and there is really no way to know on all of them.”
However it was handled politically, the stillborn young were dropped through the chute onto the metal mesh. The chute was a birth canal inverted, twisted. It made a mockery of the birth the calves should have been experiencing. In this place, dead were born from dead. After they were dropped onto the grate, the lab techs withdrew the blood from the animals (it wasn’t oxygenated yet and could be used for lab tests) and then disposed of the bodies. Once in a while, one or two were left behind.
I transferred to another area after two and a half weeks of that duty. I simply couldn’t work there anymore. I moved to the room where the carcasses arrived from the kill floor. It was a large, open room with four small grates 4 or 5 feet off the ground, with just enough space for one person to stand atop comfortably. The carcasses swung through the room on hooks and began to be carved into smaller pieces there.
One morning I worked until 8, finishing up some other people’s areas because we were short that night, then helping make the rounds with the USDA inspectors, washing any nooks and crannies where they found blood or meat. As I was gathering up my hose to leave, the killing line started. Slowly, consistently, like the brooms in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” the carcasses began filing down from the kill floor. They had been beheaded, skinned and gutted, hung on large hooks, like unwanted clothing on hangers. Between the kill floor and the processing floor was a 30-foot drop. I walked under as the carcasses began floating down, suspended by hooks embedded in the stubs of their necks.
Among the most disturbing things about the bodies that came floating by were the veins and the dye within them. Cattle used to be branded; now they are injected with dye. The dye shows on the skin and permeates the meat; even when the skin is gone, the mark remains. I stood there, transfixed by the bluish-red mix of dye and blood against the white of the meat. It reminded me of something.
Three years earlier, I had been standing in an elevator in Cincinnati, at the University of Judaism. I was 15 years old and on a trip with my father, who was traveling to various universities for research. During the days, while he studied, I wandered through the stacks in the library. By chance I came upon collections of writings saved from the concentration camps. There were some that had been smuggled out of the camps, even a newspaper that was produced inside one of them, but my hands found a collection of children’s poetry. These children’s scrawlings, some on paper, some in stone, found later, showed me how much they understood, how much they knew as they saw their deaths approach. I was broken by the sentence “I will never see another butterfly.” I was 15 years old, seeing the self-written obituaries of children half my age. I went to my father, but he was busy reading, so I hurried to the elevator to escape, to find the outside, to see the sun and feel the grass, to see it and feel it for them.
On the way down, the elevator stopped, and an old woman, a grandmother, a bubbie, entered. I tried to regain composure, to stop my tears, but I could not. I cried.
She took me close, enfolded me in her arms. She asked why I cried, and I stuttered out what I had seen. Quietly she stepped back, rolled up her sleeve, and revealed the long row of blue numbers tattooed on her forearm.
I shook myself out of the memory and stepped forward between the carcasses into the room I had cleaned the previous night. Men wearing starched, white coats stood on the grates, brandishing bright knives as long as my arm. As I watched they began to quarter the carcasses. When they finished their work, it was hard to tell that this flesh had once been a cow; by then it was only pieces of meat that needed to be separated from bone.
One night the water pressure went out, and the six of us who worked the night shift stood and talked while we waited for the pressure to come back on. Tom, one of the lifers, a tall, muscular man with a full, black beard that was always flecked with bits of gristle by the end of the night, left the room as we sat down and discussed work. Just as we began to wonder aloud if they would have to let us go home, we heard a voice from down the hall.
“Hey, guys!” It was shrill, childlike.
We turned to see what it was. Tom entered the room, holding a dead calf between his hands, like a mother lifting her child. He shook it as he spoke. “I don’t like it here much … how about you?”
The calf was still full of blood; it must have dropped after the technicians had left for the day. It must have been only days away from birth. The calf had a coat of wet hair around it, and with the exception of its eyes, obscured with a milky-white translucent film, it looked like the picture of a newborn calf.
“Hey, everyone, how’s it hangin’?”
The calf’s head lolled back as Tom moved his hand, its white eyes peering up at the ceiling, toward the room where its mother had perished, a steel bolt through her skull, only hours before.
I was stunned, sickened. Some of the others laughed; some were silent; one told him to put it away. When he couldn’t get any more laughs out of us, Tom took the calf back to the room.
For days I could not speak to him, I was so appalled by the inhumanity of his joke, the mockery of the calf’s dead body. I could not understand him.
When I was 16, I went to Iowa for the summer to take part in an acting program. I stayed with my Uncle Joe, my mother’s brother. My uncle is a generous man, silent but one of the kindest people I know. He reminds me of my mother’s father. He took care of me while I was there, giving me not only a place to live but rides into town and day trips before the program started. One afternoon after returning from the day’s classes, I began to look through the books on the bookshelf. Above them all, on the highest shelf, out of reach of the children, I found a photo album. Intrigued, I pulled out the album. I knew I was snooping, and I thought about stopping, but I couldn’t. I pulled the album down, sat cross-legged on the floor and opened it. In all of the photos, Joe was younger, with an uncharacteristic smile on his face. He wore a green army uniform and an Australian-type hat. Behind him, jungle. I had always known that Uncle Joe had served in Vietnam, but I’d never really connected the Joe I knew to the war. I knew he had been a Green Beret, a medic, and had received a silver medal for saving a friend whose chute didn’t open. For years I’d begged him to take me skydiving with him, but he told me to wait until I was older.
And here he was in the photos, strong, solid, smiling the brave smile … it seemed right. I turned the pages and was ready to close the book when one last picture caught my eye; it was centered on the page, and above and below it were near copies of the same. At first my eyes tricked me, kept me from seeing what I saw, but then I recognized the photograph for what it was: my uncle, standing with three other men from his platoon, holding one end of a long pole, on which was tied a dead man. The man was trussed up like a hog, feet and hands tied together over the top of the pole. And there stood Joe, smiling.
I tried to hide the album, to put it back in the exact position that it had been in before I disturbed it, before I discovered the secrets it held. It did not matter to me that it may not have been Joe who killed the man; I did not even think of that. Joe was there, holding his end of the pole. I clambered away from the bookshelf. Before he returned from work that day, I went through everywhere I had been, checking and rechecking what I had touched, trying to put everything back in its place.
I wanted to be angry. For days I saw bad in everything he did: the way he looked at his children, the way he and his wife fought. But this passed. I could not understand why he had done that, how he could have done it. It scared me to think that I could be related to someone who could treat life like that—killing as an accomplishment.
For the rest of that summer, I didn’t get along well with Joe. It wasn’t that we fought or that I said anything to him; it was an uneasiness, a tension. I did not know him. The man I had admired, the man I had longed to go skydiving with, was a stranger.
Some nights, huddled in the tripe room, sweat and blood dripping from my face, 1 tried to imagine what it must have been like, surrounded by jungle, wet heat, darkness and fear. I still cannot imagine what my uncle must have gone through, how it must have scarred him. I cannot imagine how he has survived, what ghosts he lives with.
If we could throw our arms around one another, we might find sad comfort in the sharing of our sorrows, even in the house of Hades.
—Book XI, “The Odyssey”
I think of Tom holding the calf I look at the others around me, laughing. Then I look at myself. Do I see, at the corners of my mouth, a slight curve? A smile, a laugh? I think back, and my memory blurs, grows fuzzy at the edges, hiding itself from my present gaze. Superimposed over this fuzzy memory is a new one. I see my face, stunned sick, looking on at the display. I want to but cannot accept this new memory. There is something in it staged, dramatized, and I cannot find truth there, as much as I want to. It bothers me that I cannot remember, that I cannot state it exactly as it happened. It forces me to see myself as one of them, one of those who can laugh, one of those I would rather be removed from.
I look back on the laughter, on the blood, and I see other images: Royal and I sneaking up on each other and blasting each other with short bursts from our hoses; Royal and I making balls out of meat and gristle and throwing them at each other; the other men in our crew showing up stoned or drunk. These were all ways we fended off the death around us. These were the ways we survived such work, such lives. Some of us succeeded, while some—like the man on the kill floor who drank cow’s blood and swallowed eyeballs to scare newcomers, or the man who became irritated with another worker and stabbed him through—did not. Was this an effect of the death around us? Maybe there was no difference in any of our basic characters, our morals, only in our time spent in this hell. If I had stayed longer, would I have done the same?
Odysseus in his wanderings must descend into Hades to hear a prophecy from Tiresias. In order to bring the spirits, the ghosts of the dead, Odysseus offers a sacrifice, pouring the blood into a trench he has dug. The ghosts rise up to feed on the blood. Odysseus speaks with the ghosts, the shades of those he knew. He sees friends there, heroes, and his mother, dead from sorrow. He sees Agamemnon, who returned home from the war expecting glory, only to be slaughtered by his wife, who did not complete his death rites, leaving him caught between the worlds of life and death. The last spirit Odysseus sees is that of Hercules. Hercules is different, though; he has divided, half of him in Hades, the other half feasting with the gods. Perhaps this division came because Hercules stayed too long in the Underworld; he came and stayed in Hades and, without knowing, left some of himself there.
What have I left behind in the stainless steel, the darkened blood, the sharp hooks? What part of me is still caught there in the corner, frantically spraying the organs away? And what of the death, of the slaughter, have I taken with me? Looking back, seeing Hercules split between heaven and hell, seeing Agamemnon caught between life and death, how do I understand Tom, Uncle Joe or myself?
Royal and I had it easy. We were able to return home every night; our stay in hell was finite. Tom could not. His life was on the night crew, soaked in blood. Perhaps in some way he was like Hercules, leaving some of himself there each night until finally he never really left, and the slaughter stayed with him in his dreams, his hands and his clothes.
Then there is Uncle Joe. How can peace be brought to his spirit? How has he had to split himself, to separate himself in order to live with what he did? Part of him slaughtered in the jungle, caught in the jungle, unable to return, and part of him here, alone and incomplete.
I have talked with many Holocaust survivors—a friend in Boise who sat on his mother’s lap as a 16-year-old Nazi soldier executed her, a friend in Israel who is the only survivor of 15 brothers and sisters. All of them were caught, too, trapped between a normal world and the memory of a world gone mad.
The ghosts of the dead speak to us, like Odysseus, through blood, and we must listen. We have a thread that binds us—a soldier, a young man, a callous slaughterhouse janitor, and the survivors. We have known the separation of worlds, the sane and insane, to one degree or another. And all of us must try to peer out across the dark water, across the river Styx to the path that would lead us safely to the other side, and home.