Writing near the south windows in full grey winter light. Movement outside interrupts my spell, draws my eyes. A large deer is halfway through a full summersault on a twenty-foot arc heading for the middle of my garden. A scene and posture never witnessed in nature. 

The deer does not land. It collides with earth. Front legs buckle in a way that spells tragedy. Neck and chin land hard. I’m up, eyes burning. No horns, so a doe. Must have caught a hoof on my fence, running full tilt. But why? She tries once to rise. Unable, she looks back up the hillside whence she came.

The answer. A huge coyote is turning away from the evil smell of the human’s house. Glorious fur. He has been eating well. Not enough snow this winter to slow his hunting. But his prey can gallop too. Faster than him. But now, a drama literally lands fifty feet from me. He slips out of the clearing.

She sees him go. My stink has saved her. Through relief or faint she collapses, prostrate. She too has eaten well. Her huge body heaving for breath. Steam rising from her flanks.

I see him. He’s merely hiding behind the first line of plant stems. Weighing the push-pull of food versus instinctive caution. Will he dash in and gut her in my sight?

There are no guns here. Because the law of nature always works. Both species carry on in the presence of the other. Sometimes in spring I find cadavers of both. But she has only one defense—fleetness of foot. And she is out of the game. If he dares break the rules, she will be the one to die today. Unless…unless she is merely stunned. I’ve seen miracles. Birds dead after bashing my windows in summer come to and fly away. If so, is it existentially wrong to protect her while she’s vulnerable. I answer by seizing my fire poker, ready to intercede with shouts and wild dancing. But she will fear me too. To not drive her to him I hover inside the French doors.

He appears for a moment in the swamp near the low spot in the fence. And turns again.

It’s breath she needed. And lying still summons death, so she tries to rise. Finally, she’s up but limping. Wheeling inside the fence. She senses the danger in entrapment too. Her push-pull. Stay stuck or jump out and into his teeth.

Her front left leg falters. Bleeding. Broken perhaps. No, it’s worse. I see it now. The pelt hangs free. He caught her on the run and ripped hard. De-gloved the leg. Muscle exposed all around. The EMT in me doubts even a vet can save her.

She collapses again where the broccoli stood. Seems resigned to stay. Resting. Pondering, in her way.

I wrestle with Nature’s justice, of which I am part. Coyotes coming after dark, breaking their own instincts to eat close to a house is wrong for them too. In our own ways, the doe and I finally agree. She cannot leave and she cannot stay. I call a game warden. She’s an hour away, she says.

I wait, fire poker by the door, just in case. At last, the doe struggles up and I pray she is well-enough to leave. But no. Before I do, she has seen the game warden. The biped form triggers her species’ bone/mind wisdom to Flee! I share a few words with this tiny human who holds a rifle as easily as I hold my hoe in summer to turn the earth out where my doe senses her few options. That must be what she ponders, her wisdom beyond words. With matter-of-fact attention, she struggles with her infirmity.

At the first shot, she bolts like a healthy deer up over the fence that tripped her. Inside, I cheer. Now free, though, she seems at ease, in no hurry to run. The next shot perplexes her sense of body. She shakes and spins, falls down. But she is up again, bad leg and all. I hate this game. My push-pull. Third shot lays her down. The tiny person walks over and finishes her. Not in the head, which would be disrespectful.

I do this all the time, she says, as she turns to get her pulling rope to take the carcass to the food bank. In her absence, I kneel next to my doe. I sense the last little life in her. And just as I did once before with a buck who had escaped a pack of coyotes only to lie down in my yard two hundred feet from here to watch his guts pour out the hole they had torn in him, I lay my hands on her beautiful body. On her perfect hide, shush her. Stroke her neck. Tell her in words she can’t understand—so for my benefit, then—that she is beautiful and that I am sorry. And that she is so beautiful.

When Workers Were Human: My Grandfather’s Decency

When Workers Were Human: My Grandfather’s Decency

My maternal grandfather died before I was born. Yet, seventy years later, I hold his story close when advocating for the plight of workers during our COVID-19 pandemic.
Researching records, the Decker family line disappears quickly in the fog of immigration. My great-grandfather John came from Germany after our Civil War. As in many cultures in those days, family names were based on what work you and your descendants were destined to do. German students among you will know that Decker (shortened from dachdecker) means roofer, and leaving his family history behind, John Decker arrived penniless in Philadelphia. He took up residence in Germantown, of course, and raised his two sons to work hard at the only thing he knew.
And work, they did! My grandfather Frank and his brother John grew Decker and Sons to be one of the largest roofing companies in Philadelphia. My grandmother told me that on the eve of the Crash of ’29, her husband and brother-in-law were running 30 trucks, each with a crew of men.
You should know their route to that elevated station came from specializing in what might be called, “roofs of the rich.” We’re talking copper and slate, roofs that last 100 years. How, you ask, did two first-generation German boys pull this off? My grandmother Helen would lovingly laugh, referring to her husband Frank as ‘the hypocrite.’ You see, Frank’s brother John was a tradesman. He could teach workers the art and ran crews to perfection. My grandfather Frank’s skill was getting the jobs. He was the quintessential schmoozer of his day.
More than once, I heard my grandmother tell the story of Frank making his rounds through Chestnut Hill, the upper-crusty region of Philadelphia, looking at the condition of roofs on the mansions there. In those days, a man could get to know everyone and Frank knew the roof of the Spinster Mary was in serious disrepair. Seeing her in her flower garden, he pulled in and said, “Good day.” He spoke not a word about the roof. Instead, for over an hour he followed Mary around her garden, listening to her spouting fonts of wisdom and adoring each plant she was tending.
The hypocrite part was that Frank didn’t know a rose from a dandelion, but he gave Mary earnest attention and praise until, at last, she became tired and needed “to sup.” As Frank turned to go, Mary said, “Oh, Mr. Decker,”—those were times of manners, you know— “while you’re here, would you mind looking at my roof to make sure all is well?” Frank may not have known a whit about flowers, but he had mastered the Venus fly trap technique of business.
We, in the time of COVID, now understand economic disaster. When the Crash of ‘29 came, businesses shuttered overnight. The numbers of people without work exploded. But there was no safety net for the working class. Families were tossed onto the reef of misfortune like rotting bales of hay. Not only that, banks, too, were closing, meaning they had no currency to return to their depositors. The money of expendable people—those we now call essential workers—simply vanished.
Having come from nothing, Frank and his brother John knew what to do. In the attempt to save the local bank and its depositors’ lives, they each deposited $100,000, a total of $3.1 million in today’s currency. Some people actually got a fraction of their savings, but the bank folded anyway. Mirroring the true nature of capitalism, Frank and John’s largesse was gone without a trace.
But the brothers were not done. For the whole Great Depression, so that their workers’ families could stay afloat. the brothers used their personal funds to pay every man his normal weekly wage, whether he worked or nor. They also supported all of their In-laws’ families, because they, too, were out of work. Of course, then as now, roofs deteriorated. Some rich people opted for copper and slate, which helped the business putter along.
The war came and a few years after victory, my grandfather was riding in the passenger seat of his automobile with my grandmother driving. She told me his left hand suddenly curled dramatically drawing his attention and his final words: “Helen, look at this.” He was dead from a stroke before she could pull over to administer his nitroglycerin medication.
John ran the business, but without Frank, times got hard. John’s sons did not quite have their father’s determination. And squadrons of confident soldiers were eager to bury their pasts by competing with businesses of the Old School. Ahead lay two decades of releasing pent-up demand. Upward mobility was the new elixir of Capitalism. Our threadbare American individualism, languishing since Manifest Destiny had run out of real estate, suddenly had a new canvas on which to paint. After John died, the company went bankrupt and was sold.
We know what has happened since. It seems like lifetimes ago that owners would care for their workers as if they were family. Somehow, today’s champions celebrate our “progress,” saying we are the greatest we have ever been. This writer isn’t convinced.