Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life - Neil Strauss (2009)
Part IV. SURVIVE
Make sure you push the knife all the way through,” Mad Dog ordered. “You don’t want it to suffer. If there’s a bleeding goat running all over here, I’m going to shoot it”—he patted the .45 on his hip—“and then I’m going to shoot you.”
This was horrible. I didn’t believe in killing things. Even if I was serving on a jury for the trial of the worst mass murderer in history, I still wouldn’t be able to condemn him to die. I don’t want anyone’s blood on my hands.
Evidently, Mad Dog felt differently.
As he’d promised when I’d first called him, he was going to teach me to slaughter, skin, butcher, and cook animals. And in Mad Dog’s world, there was only one way to learn—and it wasn’t from books.
I brought Bettie to the hanging tree, straddled her, and removed the leash. She bowed her head and started eating grass and twigs on the ground, unaware this would be her last meal.
“Hold your hand around its mouth and pull the head back to expose the neck,” Mad Dog yelled at me.
I was scared shitless. As Tarkovsky said, it’s human nature not to do anything irreversible. And there was no going back after this. Of course there are people who hunt for sport regularly, but using a knife was so up close and personal.
I pulled the blade out of its sheath and touched it to the side of Bettie’s neck. “Here?” I asked Mad Dog.
Bettie lifted her head from her meal and began to wriggle away. She was beginning to sense something was wrong. “Yes,” Mad Dog yelled. “Just do it. Tighten your legs around it. Grip it strongly.”
I still had a choice. I didn’t have to kill it.
“If you didn’t take this goat from the farm, what would have happened to it?” I asked.
“It was raised to be food.”
I turned to Katie. I decided to let her be the ultimate moral arbiter of this.
“Is this wrong to do?” I asked her.
“No, because there might come a time where you’re hungry and you need to kill something to eat,” she replied. I was surprised to hear those words come out of her mouth. She was beginning to understand what this was all about.
I was only fooling myself if I thought that by eating meat almost daily, I wasn’t participating in the slaughter of animals. Just as I’d always fooled myself by saying my morals prevented me from voting to sentence anyone to the death penalty. The truth was, I didn’t mind other people killing my meat and sending mass murderers to the electric chair. I just didn’t want to take responsibility for it myself.
If I wanted to become a survivalist, if I wanted to become a man, if I wanted to make Ayn Rand proud after finally finishing Atlas Shrugged, then I’d have to start taking responsibility for myself and my actions. And if I was ever in a survival situation—whether I was hunting deer or forced to live off mice—I would need to know how to do so as efficiently, safely, and painlessly as possible.
In order to honor Bettie in some feeble way, I promised myself I would use every part of her: I’d eat her. I’d wear her. I’d make her bones into tools. I’d name my first daughter after her.
Something was wrong with my head.
“Now,” Mad Dog said. “Push your knife all the way through and cut the throat out.”
I asked Katie to wait in the car.
My stomach grew light and queasy, my throat tightened with nausea, my head began to spin. I’d come this far. I had to do it. No, I didn’t have to do it. I didn’t have to do anything. I could just keep it as a pet. But I was going to do it anyway. Why?
I squeezed my legs tightly around Bettie’s flanks, then grabbed her chin and pulled it up. She wriggled a little but remained docile. I can’t recall whether I closed my eyes or not, but the next thing I remember is pushing the knife straight through the side of her neck in one thrust. As it emerged on the other side, something between a scream and a gurgle pierced the air. It was the worst, most horrifying sound I’d heard in my life. I had to end this.
I pushed the knife straight forward, but it got caught on something. Bettie was gurgling more violently now, struggling to break free from the grip of my knees.
“Push through!” Mad Dog yelled. “Push it through!”
I needed to finish the job. If I made Bettie suffer any more than necessary, I’d be even more of an asshole than I already was for doing this. I pushed as hard and straight as I could. I felt the knife tear through something thin and tough, then it emerged from the front of the neck. Blood poured over the knife, over my hand, onto the ground. Bettie’s gurgles grew more shrill, more terrifying.
I saw Katie in the truck, her eyes closed and her hands over her ears.
I released my knees and Bettie fell forward. Mad Dog stuck his knife in her throat and sliced deep inside, severing the connection between her head and her spine to make sure she didn’t feel any more pain.
Sweat beaded on my body. Saliva burned the back of my throat. The blood on my hands began to turn sticky.
“Why won’t that noise stop?” I asked Mad Dog.
“It’s just a fluting sound made by air rushing out of the trachea,” he explained, always coldly rational.
I looked at Bettie’s legs. They were kicking against the ground. I was worried she was still alive. “That’s just a nervous system response,” Mad Dog said when he saw me staring. “Look at the eyes. It’s dead.”
“Did I fuck up? Was there something wrong with my cut?”
“Your execution cut on the goat was done as well as it could possibly be done,” he said, clapping a bloody hand on my back. “That was a mortal wound. I want to personally congratulate you on a nice clean kill.”
But I didn’t feel proud in that moment. I felt vile.
Fortunately, Mad Dog kept me too busy to dwell on what I’d just done. That would come later.
As he gave me instructions, I cut Bettie’s tendons and firmly lashed them to a board I’d tied to the tree earlier. Using a bottom branch as leverage, I hoisted the board up to a higher branch, until Bettie was dangling upside down from the tree. Then I took my knife and cut a slit from her anus to her solar plexus.
“Get the fascia away, but be careful not to puncture anything and get it all over the meat,” Mad Dog instructed, as if the slightest error would ruin the precious protein.
I peeled the skin away from the muscle tissue connecting it to the gut bag, then slowly sliced the bag open, careful not to puncture any organs. Outside of an earthworm in biology class, I’d never looked inside an animal before. It was amazing how well-organized everything was—all these basic shapes hanging around each other in perfect geometry, like a tidy closet. It made me believe in God, who I hoped wasn’t watching right now and waiting until I died to punish me for it.
I could just imagine eternity in hell, doomed to getting my throat slit over and over by an angry goat.
Mad Dog talked me through the disemboweling, yelling at me whenever I came close to infecting the meat with goat guts. I found the bladder—a little balloonlike bag half-filled with urine—pinched it closed, and cut it loose. I found the intestines—a dangling strand of sausages—squeezed them, and slid my fingers toward the open end until Bettie’s last shit was complete.
One by one, I pulled Bettie’s organs out of her body and onto the ground. I cut loose the heart, still warm in my hands as I lifted it out of her chest. Then I severed the lungs, peeled away the liver, and, lastly, removed the esophageal and tracheal tubes near Bettie’s neck. This wasn’t just a lesson in survival, it was a lesson in biology.
In Bettie’s throat, I saw a green, compressed ball, which brought me back to reality. It was the grass and twigs she’d been chewing as she’d died.
I tried not to think about it. All I could do now was make sure I ate and used every part of her.
And named my first daughter after her.
People kill animals every day. Why was I being so sentimental about it? I had to think like Mad Dog: she was a protein source, like a PowerBar with legs.
Katie emerged from the truck and tentatively peeked at the carcass. “You should have gotten a less cute goat,” she scolded Mad Dog, and then turned away. I wanted to talk to her. I was worried she’d feel different about me after this.
I made bracelet cuts around Bettie’s rear legs, then spent the next ninety minutes carefully skinning her. I wanted to make sure the hide came off in one piece, so I could turn it into a rug or a hat or a miniskirt for Katie.
When I finished, we dropped the skin, with the head attached, into a garbage bag. I now had a skinless, headless, organless goat on my hands. Mad Dog told me where to cut, and I removed the legs, then cut through the spine and removed the rib cage and neck. I brought the remnants of Bettie to the chopping block, cut her rear feet off with an axe, and dropped the last section of meat into a garbage bag.
I was disturbed by how quickly life became meat. This was necessary knowledge, I reminded myself. This was what man did before Safeway and Kroger and Peter Luger Steak House.
We cleaned the area, left Bettie’s organs in a pile for coyotes to eat, and climbed back into the truck.
Mad Dog blasted AC/DC and yelled over the music, “Welcome to the circle of life. You’re no longer just a bystander or a parasite. You’re actively in it. You’ve demonstrated the ability to kill to feed yourself. The other side of the coin is that you also have to learn how to nurture and grow things to replace what you take out of the environment.”
I was glad to hear Mad Dog say that and to know survival wasn’t just about chopping down trees and killing animals. “A survivalist is also a conservationist,” he continued. “If you just take, you’re like a locust.”
After dropping the hide off to be fleshed and tanned, we returned to his workshop, started a fire in the backyard, and dropped Bettie’s front legs onto the grill.
Finally, with the same knife I’d used to slaughter her, I ate her. In spite of all that trauma, it was the freshest meat I’d ever tasted.
Before I left, Mad Dog wrapped the rest of Bettie in black garbage bags for me to take home, then handed me an axe to keep and a well-worn book called A Museum of Early American Tools, which he said would help me build a workshop at home. “You’re the last civilian I’m teaching, you know,” he said. “After this, I’m just going to do special training for the military.”
“Thanks for being so patient with me.”
“I thought it would be worse.” A smile spread under his mustache. “But with a little more experience, you’ll make a fine survivalist.”
I was going to miss Mad Dog. In three days, I’d grown a lot under his tutelage. Not only was I now prepared to start the weekly practice schedule I’d made after Tracker School, but I’d probably surpassed Spencer when it came to preparing for hard times. Though I wasn’t sure if being more extreme than Spencer was necessarily a good thing.
As I sat on the plane, clutching the wrapped goat meat in my lap, Katie turned to me.
“Are you traumatized?” she asked.
“Strangely, no. Are you?”
“Yeah, a little.” She looked away. “It was really cute. And I’m like a Capricorn.”
“Then why did you tell me it wasn’t wrong to kill it when I asked?”
“I said that because I knew that was what you needed to hear,” she said. “But inside, I was thinking, Yes, it’s wrong, because it’s a cute little thing with a heartbeat.” She paused and thought further. “The only reason she let you hold her was because she trusted you. That’s fucked up.”
Now I was traumatized.