By john van becay
Growing up, we lived below a meat-packing house, in fact on the other side of the tracks from a meat-packing house.
It wasn't as bad as it sounds, it was merely the placement of the two buildings: Basin Pack, a commercial establishment next to the highway; and ours, a house near the river, downslope from the slaughterhouse – with a railroad in between.
Until about 1960, and only then because of some government mandate stopping the practice, Basin Pack dumped its waste – blood, sewage, offal – into the Animas River. The pipe crossed our property and dripped thick black blood into the river. Some days, it smelled pretty bad. Our sewer emptied into the Animas as well. So did hundreds of others, then the rivers were the sewers. Living along a river in the West only became fashionable in the mid-20th century. "Run flush the toilet. Farmington needs a drink!" kids would shout at each other.
The D&RGW, Durango's then-obscure train, ran between our house and Basin Pack. It was a real railroad in those days, one that put its back into its living. A minor branch ran to Silverton hauling supplies up and ore back as well as a few passengers. By the mid-20th century, the tourist part of the Silverton run was beginning to take hold. The main line south from Durango past our house hauled freight into town and lumber and other resources out – from Durango to the world. It passed by our house twice a day, once going to town, once coming back. The engineers knew us and blew the whistle at our crossing.
In the 1950s, the Durango city limits were at the present day Sonic drive-in. The highway south clung precariously to the side of the mountain above the river until it reached the present day Wal-Mart where the river plain widened. The only remnant left of that original highway is what we call Sawmill Road. There, businesses – Randall’s Auto, Weidman's Sawmill and Basin Pack – sprang up. It was the only place wide enough. The road's official name was Highway 550-160, but that was only used on radio broadcasts or in the newspaper. It was the highway south of town. That's all the name it needed. Its mailing designation was Route 2. Our house was 1-C – Route 2 Box 1-C. There were no zip codes. Our phone number was Ch 7-0921, Ch for Cherry. In the mid ’50, a newer, straighter, wider highway was built on fill carved from the mountain above the old road. For about 30 years, this new road was the only highway running south from Durango. Now it is Highway 3. Much later, the present highway was built across the river through Bodo Park. But back then, it was Bodo Ranch, owned by Archie Bodo, or more familiarly, "jackrabbit flats." We hunted rabbits there at night from the back of a bouncing pickup. But that's another story.
Basin Pack didn’t start as a packing house. Steve Simon, a local rancher, built a sale barn – a place to auction livestock – on the site in the 1940s. Sales were on Thursday at 1 p.m. Animals being auctioned were held in corrals between the sale barn and our house. The sale continued through the afternoon. Often they were still loading animals after dark. The yard lights would blaze late into the evening bathing our bedrooms in light. The rest of the week, the building was empty. To further the building’s use – it already had the bleacher-style seating and a snack bar for the auction – on Saturday night, Simon brought in professional wrestlers for staged matches. Folks made an evening of it. It was a popular event while it lasted. A few years later, a fire destroyed the building. Rising from the ashes, built of cement block this time, was Basin Pack, a meat-processing plant.
Children become gradually aware, first of their individuality, then of family members, then of places and other people, and finally of relationships. My sister Gretta and I knew from the beginning that Basin Pack was a special place for our parents, especially our father, Frank Becay. Dad's cousin, Jerry Horvat, worked there along with two younger guys, Frankie Schoser and Paul Simon – Steve’s son – and maybe one or two other butchers. Jerry, being older and a master at his trade, ran the butcher side. Paul handled the business end. Dad and his cousin Jerry were tight. As a result, everyone there treated our family with great regard. I couldn’t keep them straight. I constantly confused Steve and Paul. If that wasn’t bad enough, I had trouble recognizing our cousin Jerry from the other meat cutters. In my defense, they all wore white jackets with paper caps cocked to one side. One time, I called the wrong guy “Jerry.” It embarrassed me so I couldn't speak to anyone there for weeks. Sometimes, after Basin Pack closed for the day, they had a card game. If it was Thursday, men from the weekly livestock auction just down the road would attend. Sometimes it would go all night. Paul would clean up after the game, yawning and bleary-eyed, and open the doors for the next day’s business. The card game of choice was Pitch.
Basin Pack was a slaughterhouse but also sold meat by the pound and a few groceries. When mom ran out of some essentials, she would call my sister and me. "Here's 2 dollars. Run up to Basin Pack. Get a pound and a half of hamburger and some baking powder. You understand?" This felt important and I wanted to help.
"Tell me what you're going to buy."
"Half a hamburger and baking soda."
Mom blinked. "Powder ... baking powder."
"A pound of baking powder...," my voice trailed off. I looked at my sister. She was no help.
"Oh dear John," said my mother. She wrote something on a piece of paper. She put the paper and the money in an envelope. "Give this to Jerry, or Frankie or Paul."
"Which one is...?”
"Never mind. Just give it to anybody who works there."
"Can we get a coke?" it was our generic term for soft drink.
"Yes, but only two. And don't drink them up there. Bring them back here." My mother was a frugal sort. The two sodas would be split between her, my sister and me. "Now come right back. I need those things."
We started for the door.
"Put the envelope in your pocket."
We hiked up the road (our extended gravel driveway), and then down into the parking lot of Basin Pack. Even for those pre-building code days, Basin Pack was unusual, walls of cement block painted red with a silver curved roof. A bell tinkled above the door when we entered. It was dim and cool inside with shelves lined with unfamiliar things. A low hum of machinery filled the air. Weekly specials were handwritten on butcher paper and taped inside the windows. In summer, there might have been a fly climbing the glass where light peeked through. There probably was a commercial display or two, a counter stand or metal sign proclaiming the virtues of Red Man chewing tobacco or offering flat tins of Kiwi shoe polish. If there were no other customers, it would take a moment before one of the men would appear from the back, wiping his hands on a blood-stained apron. His face lit when he saw who it was. We couldn't keep them straight but they all knew who we were and they all looked out for us. We were shy around them. I handed the fellow my envelope.
Keeping us safe was one thing; a chance to horrify us, quite another. Butchers run to a black sense of humor, and Jerry had a keen wit. It made a lethal combination. Once Gretta asked him if he had seen her missing cat. Jerry pointed to a skinned cleaned rabbit for sale in the meat case. “Does your cat look like that?”
The grocery part of the store operated from behind a butchers' case of glass and chipped white enamel, taller than we were, that stretched most of one side of the store. Inside the glass, shallow enamel pans lined in paper and propped at an angle held the meat, blood pooling at the low end. This was at our eye level and bore some scrutiny. The case was brightly lit. U-shaped staples with cardboard labels were stabbed into the meat. The meat case intrigued me. Part of it was cold to the touch, part of it warm. On top of the case, eye level for an adult, an elaborate meat scale held center stage. I loved to watch the expert way the men weighed the meat and the scale did its work. The men put a sheet of tissue-like paper on the scale and plopped the meat on top. They were never more than an ounce or two off. Numbers staggered on a cylinder spun inside the scale. The scale not only weighed the meat but calculated the price, all mechanically, no electricity required.
Our salesman folded our purchase into waxed butcher paper in four economical moves. It took about three seconds, and it would not leak. They always gave us a 1/4 pound more than we paid for. They scribbled on it with a grease pencil. At the end of the counter was a mechanical cash register, a bulky brass ornate thing that clicked with every lever pushed, whirred and rang a bell and ejected the cash drawer when the black and white metal signs popped up with the price.
Jerry, or Frankie or Paul, handed us a paper bag with a heavy package of meat and a red and silver can of baking powder, and finally, most importantly, the change. Basin Pack had the chest type of soda pop dispenser. Inside the sliding lid were tracks that held the cold bottles by their necks. We examined the colorful bottle caps, made our choice and dropped in a coin – a nickel? a dime? – then slid our prize, the sharp crimped caps poking our fingers, around the track to a gate that would allow the bottle its freedom and us sweet, cold refreshment. The bottles of Coca-Cola were the small 6½-ounce size made of thick green glass. Nehi grape and orange were larger, I think but didn't pack the punch of Coke. It was a vexing choice.
I never saw the animals killed, but I heard them. The cattle were shot with a .22 rifle in the back of the head, slumping to their knees, I imagined, and probably quickly dead. At supper one night, my brother took a bite of beef tongue and winced. He fished in his mouth and extracted the .22 slug that had killed the animal. The cow eats lead and we spit it out.
The hogs were altogether a different matter. Perhaps their skulls resisted the .22 so a clean kill was not as likely. Or maybe they were more dangerous. Some of the customers who brought in hogs for custom slaughter wanted the whole hog back, including blood and entrails. The hogs were immobilized in a tight pen. A rope or chain was slipped around their rear legs and with a block and tackle they were jerked off their feet upside down, twisting and squirming. A quick stab in the throat – the jugular, not the windpipe – and the hog was left hanging, upside down, to bleed to death. The gush of blood over the animal's eyes and in its mouth as it thrashed and turned, the hot pain in its neck, shocked and horrified it. It squealed in terror, its voice loud and high, piercing at first, but diminishing as its life's blood ran down its jaw and into a pan. Gradually the hog bled out and the squeal slowly died away. It took a minute. The sound seemed to hang in the air after it was over. It bothered me as a child and writing this it still kind of bothers me. Any protest was met with derision and flawed logic. "You like to eat, or don't ya?"
Most of our meat came through the Basin Pack. If we didn't buy theirs outright, they custom butchered an animal, ours or someone else's. During hunting season, they did a large volume of custom butchering of deer and elk. When I was a little older, Dad took me along to visit behind the scenes. The back, where the meat cutting was done, contained thick, scarred wooden cutting tables, knives, saws, cleavers, basins of gore, and the smell of blood and raw meat. Adjacent to the cutting room stood the meat lockers, room-sizes refrigerators, with thick wooden doors, where whole carcasses swung on hooks. It was cold and eerie. I had a fear of being trapped in there. The cutting room seemed safer.
Nearby was a smoke room, its warm spicy smell escaping when the door was opened. Along one wall were stacked cardboard buckets filled with lard for sale. Memories are slippery things ... were the floors slick? A little treacherous to the foot? Was there a swinging light bulb or two casting moving shadows to light the grisly scene? It could have been real nightmare stuff. We never gave it a thought. The killing was chilling, the cutting up, not very.
The bare rafters and walls were coated in years of grease. Rolls of white butcher paper and brown tape hung close at hand. Buckets lined the walls, none of them empty. A deep galvanized sink provided steaming hot water. A large vat of hot liquid removed the hair from the hog carcasses. A gray mop stood in a corner. Rags from white to nearly black lay around. The middle of things were clean, the edges, not so much. The place was kinda smelly and greasy and a little cold, but most of all, endlessly fascinating.
"Stay out of the way," Dad said, which included the unspoken, "and be quiet." Dad and I would watch the men cut up a carcass. They worked it without speaking, unbelievably quick. Their knives danced, appeared, disappeared, glinting a moment. The long thin blades seemed alive. It was mesmerizing to watch. Frequently, they used a steel or whetstone to touch up an edge. A few practiced strokes, backhand, forehand, and it had regained its razor edge and they returned to separating meat from bone. It seemed an intricate ballet, all knives, hands, and chunks of meat. And the sound – steel slicing flesh and scraping bone – there is no sound quite like it. We watched, at the edge of the cutting room floor, as they reduced a carcass, chunk by chunk, carving it up, tossing it onto a growing mound of meal-sized entrees in the center of the table.
When they took a break, Dad joined them for a smoke. They exchanged inside talk about I know not what. I was mostly ignored. Occasionally, one of the men would indicate me with a jut of the chin and apologize for an expletive used or a juicy tidbit that would have to wait. "Not in front of the kid." The apology was not to me. The apology was for any embarrassment I might have caused my father.
Jerry would disappear into the meat locker and return with a white package of freshly butchered prime rib, cold to the touch. It belonged to some customer. It was often big game the client had brought in. Sometimes it had their name scrawled in black. You didn't get 100 percent of your meat back. It was part of the vig of doing business. "Tell Adeline to cook that tonight,” Jerry would hand it to Dad. Dad would hand it to me. Mom burned the wrapping afterward.
We generally ate high on the hog but sometimes a little lower down. We ate every part of the animal except the digestive tract and lungs – heart, tongue, brain, liver, kidneys, feet, joints and all the cuts of meat graced our table one time or another. Hamburger, steak, roast, we had so much red meat, mostly beef, from Basin Pack, or from my mother's family farm, that we grew tired of it. Chicken was a treat for us.
Behind Basin Pack stood gray weathered corrals left over from the sale barn days. There were far more corrals than needed. The few that were used held the animals for a day or two before slaughter. They had troughs for feed and water. We would climb the rails, wary of splinters, hang over the top and peer inside at the doomed cattle milling around, tails swishing. The ground was hoof deep in manure. For the first decade of my life, flies and the smell of raw sewage were never far off. We probably threw pebbles at the broad, slow backs below us. I regret it now though I doubt it made any difference. The steers didn't pay it much mind. Perhaps they had bigger concerns. Still.
"Gawddammit! Get down from there!" a familiar voice would bawl. There was a segregation of animals, cattle here, hogs over there. We were strictly forbidden horsing around the hog pens. I don't remember where the loading chute was, though they had to have one. These were elevated ramps with fenced sides and an open front. Their mouth was pickup bed height. They were used to load and unload livestock. They were called loading chutes, but in this case, unloading chute was more accurate. This was a one way trip for these animals. Something I never figured out were the missing parts. Where were the hides? The hooves? The heads? Where did they go? They could have gone to a rendering plant. Or a landfill. Or some back road arroyo. I never found out.
Gradually we grew apart, Basin Pack and us. The front grocery declined and was discontinued, though I think they always had candy bars and cokes. Safeway and City Market cut into their business. They concentrated more on custom meat cutting. The corrals were demolished. In their place, the sawmill next door stacked green lumber to cure. The railroad past our house had been abandoned. I was nearly grown, other things interested me, and I didn't pay much attention. Jerry went to work cutting meat at City Market. Sometimes we saw him there. Basin Pack, so much a part of my early life, became more and more peripheral. It was a slow process, like colors fading in the sun. Something in your life from earliest memory, something you experienced every day, you take for granted. I had graduated and moved away to college. Basin Pack became scenery, something from my past that had always been there. Where was it going?
In 1980, I contracted a chronic acute illness. I was living at home with my parents and niece Charlotte, who was attending Fort Lewis College. Charlotte and I got along well and played lots of jokes on each other. I could not work. I was on heavy doses of prednisone, a potent steroid. Prednisone controls inflammation, as it is supposed to, but it has some evil side effects, insomnia being one. I slept in fits and bouts. I was hyper with drug-induced energy or jagged with fatigue. One night, for the first time in many, many nights, I slept like a newborn. I was under nature's anesthesia, pretty much dead to the world. In the morning, I staggered downstairs, drugged, for a change, with sleep. The family was gathered in the kitchen. They were eyeing me, sizing me up – for something. They glanced at each other. Finally, Charlotte broke the news, "John, Basin Pack burned last night."
"Yeah, right, Charlotte. Nice try. You expect me to believe that?"
"No, really, look." Through the tall living room windows, I could see a trail of smoke. I was completely disoriented. What? How?
"They fought it all night," mom said. "They couldn't put it out."
"Why didn't you wake me?"
"You were sleeping so soundly. We didn't want to disturb you when you were finally getting some rest."
It was devastatingly true. From the rubble drifted wisps of smoke. "It was all that grease, everything coated in grease," said my father. "Nothing could put that out."
Dad was right. Over the decades, the grease had permeated the interior, perhaps inches deep. Once ablaze, it was not to be denied. Fire trucks as far as Cortez were summoned to pump water on the inferno. It was a futile effort. It burned until it burned itself out. And it burned hot. There were cement blocks left, cracked from the heat, a few lengths of blackened pipe jutting at odd angles, and not much else. Fire crews concentrated on preventing its spread to nearby lumber stacks, the rest of the sawmill, and our house.
I was incredulous ... the moan of sirens, flashing lights, the squawk of radios, revving engines, slamming doors, shouts and commotion, the roar and crackle of flames casting their lurid light. Dozens of men fought this fire for hours, maybe a hundred yards from my bedroom window. I never heard a thing.
And just like that, Basin Pack was gone. And I slept through it. That might have been its final gift – not to disturb me with its demise. To this day, I wonder at its part in our lives and mourn its fiery end, though going out in a blaze of glory was certainly better than slowly going broke, moldering for a few years, then being razed for a new commercial endeavor. Not to worry, like everything else in Durango, Basin Pack was replaced by a modern business, but its end seemed more honorable, like burning an old flag instead of throwing it in the trash.
They never did determine the cause of the blaze. There was nothing left to trace. It was likely faulty wiring. I like to think it was arson. But I could be wrong.