A small shrub by his driveway caught fire one day. Dan Brown looked at it, thought about it and finally decided that in some way it was the Lord telling him to do good works. (Follow along here. A burning bush in Montgomery County isn't out of the question.)
Was there something he, Dan Brown, who runs the seafood counter at a SuperFresh grocery store, could do for the world--something more than he was already doing? Yes. Here is something Brown could do: He could pick up all the road-killed deer and turn them into free venison for the homeless and needy.
The burning bush was an affirmation. "Like a little flame coming from it, from the side, I'd say about this long," Brown says, holding his hands about 10 inches apart. "My nephew saw it." ("I saw where it had burned the ground," the nephew submits.)
The story unfolds like a Gary Larson cartoon you'd tape to the fridge: stealthy animals outwitted by the glare of headlights, crafty men in flannel, the Farther Side of an America that both hunts the wild and shops Home Depot. The story has dark, twisting roads on crisp and creepy nights. In the ongoing saga of Man vs. Nature, it has brief encounters with what are not exactly the Lord's smartest creatures.
Dan Brown ("You Whack 'Em, I Pack 'Em," reads his business card) is humble, tenderhearted. All of this will either give you hope in your fellow man or gross you out entirely.
In the past five years or so, Brown has moved about 2,500 dead deer from the roads of Montgomery County. This has provided more than 100,000 pounds of meat to the poor.
For millennia, all a good hunter ever needed was a whiff of instinct and the ability to sit still. This is how the hunter hunts from home today: He'll need some sharpened knives and a police scanner. He'll need a surprisingly large roll of Saran Wrap. He'll need a spare freezer on the porch, and in that he'll need to rearrange the frozen pizzas, the waffles, the extra sticks of Land O' Lakes butter, so as to make room for God's gentle and dimwitted creatures. He'll seem to need just three or four hours of sleep a night.
It smells like a casserole inside the hunter's lodge, warm and salty. So, please, sit.
Brown--54, barrel-chested, with his thick, white hair a little mussed--is a fair marksman. Two of the four heads staring benignly from his living room wall were shot by him, including an 11-point buck with a blue ribbon dangling from its antlers. "They came along and I shot them," Brown says with a shrug. "It wasn't all that hard." The other two were hit by cars. Not every man will be as upfront about such facts, but, as Brown says, "road kill is road kill."
So we wait, with hunters' patience. He could get one call a night, or as many as three. Waiting in this wood-paneled and blue-carpeted habitat, in this plain, white Cape Cod-style house in Silver Spring that Dan Brown shares with his older sister, Elaine Burton, and his 32-year-old nephew, Matthew Burton.
Out back, three dead deer from last night's rounds hang by their hind legs from the swing set on which the neighbor's kids once dandled. The meat needs to age a tad. They are protected from the elements by an old bed skirt draped over them. Brown skins and quarters the animals outside, and chops them into steaks and fresh ground meat in the kitchen.
Some of it will go to the Baptist church agencies and some to the Catholic churches; sometimes it goes to an apartment complex for the elderly; sometimes to a program that helps teenagers on drugs (how exactly venison helps teenagers on drugs is elusive, other than it feeds them, but there you go); some goes to the firefighters at the local stations; some goes to the next-door neighbor, a plumber with a big family to feed. "We Make Our Friends and Our Enemies," reads a framed sentiment in the kitchen, "But Only God Can Make Our Next-Door Neighbors."
While we wait for fresh kill, what's on? The news, the weather: "Maybe it's gonna snow," Elaine says, cozied up on the couch and gazing at the meteorological fronts swirling across the tube, her arms folded, kempt-looking in her blue sweat suit and house shoes, her hair white and puffy, a bit of talk about her not-so-good days with the arthritis.
Another 10 minutes. Still, the hunter waits. It's dark now, and you can almost sense something in the air, if you crack open the side door and breathe it in. They're out there. Those prancing, bouncing, troublesome Bambis of a rambling, forested suburbia. Deer caught in the headlights, cliche and too true. The horrible squealing of brakes. The phwump-bump. We wait through "Wheel of Fortune": "Something theater marquee," Elaine says, as Vanna touches the letters. "GLITTERING theater marquee . . ."
Dan the hunter retreats to his lair, to his almost exactly Dan-size bedroom. He sits alone, writing something in one of the spiral notebooks where he keeps careful records of all the deer he's ever picked up. The police scanner blares its litany of domestic disorders, suspicious persons . . . then something from the park police. "Hear that?" he says. "Was that a 30-11?" He works from instinct. The squelch of static is to this hunter the same as the snap of a twig. "Yep, a 30-11. We may have something."
He calls a police dispatcher to check the location, and then he is up and heading out into the night, pulling on a heavier sweat shirt; grabbing the good knives and a hacksaw from the kitchen counter. Down the street now in his Ford Ranger pickup. Talking hunters' talk along the way: the biggest one ever bagged, the scariest one, the one that was still alive and how Brown nearly jumped out of his own skin when that big buck sat up in front of him. How to cut their throats if they're still alive but mortally injured; how to deliver a fawn by C-section if you have to. (Sure he's had to, twice.) Where to throw the guts so kids don't find them.
How to tell if it's good meat or bad.
"Usually it's good meat," Dan says, "and I hate to see it go to waste."
This is all about his mother.
She said never to waste food, and she told Dan to share whatever he had with anyone who needed it. He remembers this a lot. He remembers, growing up in upstate New York, how she had the homeless into the house for lunch. The idea of all that meat going bad on the side of the road is more than he can abide.
Suddenly he shouts and throws on the brakes: "THERE GOES ONE NOW, THERE'S TWO OF THEM!" and you grip the side of the door and watch two, now four eyes, like tiny white wafers zinging near the road through the woods. "That's how fast it can happen," he says.
One night last month he went to pick up a dead deer, and on the way home, he hit another. A two-fer.
Headed for Trouble
Everyone in Maryland or Virginia has hit a deer.
Or it seems that way, to listen to them whine about it. (They moved to apartment complexes in forests. They built houses in the woodsy-woods and talked about how close they felt to nature, and soccer parks. And yet they're always surprised to slam into a deer.) Sometimes the cars are totaled. Sometimes the drivers or passengers are killed, and this makes news. From October to December, as the rutting season turns a young buck's fancy to single-minded sprints, sometimes across highways, someone gets around to estimating just how many deer there are out there (Fairfax County officials, for example, put their deer population at 46,500 at the height of last year's rut, with 2,500 deer-related car crashes. In Montgomery County in 1997, minus Dan Brown's take, officials removed 759 felled deer from the roads.) This sets in motion a chain of bureaucratic measures, leading to various plans and pleas for herd control. (Brown, if you ask, thinks the game departments cater too much to hunters, and should require them to shoot three does before they can shoot a buck. He also favors some deer sterilization.) When things get really bad, hunting laws are temporarily loosened, and to not much avail; some extra deer are shot and animal-rights activists complain.
"They are," Brown says of the poor beasts, "only thinking of having intimate relations."
Infrequently (which is not the same as never) does someone think of eating the road-kill carnage.
"I know it sounds crazy to some people, but if the deer isn't damaged too badly, you can get some of the best meat you ever had," Brown says. "A doe will have 35, 40 pounds of meat. Anyone could just shoot a deer, but I'm more concerned about the meat, and someone who needs it."
Of course you have questions.
Here are his answers.
"About 45 minutes, sometimes about two hours, depending on how cold it is, or how much gas builds up inside them," Brown says. (In response to: How long until the meat goes bad?)
"You cut away the bruised part, but the rest is good." (Is it safe to eat?)
"There's nothing wrong with it." (Again: Is it safe to eat?)
"Nope, nothing like that. I'm going to give you some when we get home." (In response to: Diseases? Bacteria? Something, anything that could kill you from eating it?)
"For a day or two," Brown says. (How long do you hang a dressed deer from the backyard swing set?)
"No, see, that's what people think, that it has be frozen right away. What happens is that the fur keeps the meat fresh." (This, in response to one last attempt to assert the freshness concern.)
"Oh, yes. The officers give you a tag at the scene or you call it in and then go fill it out. I've got all my tags that I get from the police. You report them to the state Department of Natural Resources. I have a record of each deer I've got. It adds up." he says. (As in: Dan, is this all legal?)
"With some onions and mushrooms and a little bit of seasoning that I make myself," he says. (In response to: What's the best way to serve it, Dan? This leads to an invitation to stay for dinner the next time. He makes roasted venison with onions, which the family--Dan, Elaine, Matthew and Matthew's fiancee, Paula--eats with a tossed salad and bottles of French or ranch dressing, and macaroni with tomato sauce, and homemade oatmeal-raisin cookies. Also, he'll send you home with a few pounds of venison sausage. Fresh game gives your pathetic, one-DiGiorno, two-Haagen-Dazs freezer a whole new piquant bouquet. A night with Brown and you spend the next morning scrubbing crusted deer blood from the bottoms of your Doc Martens. You seem to taste it, bloody and raw, in the back of your throat, meaty and rich.)
Cut and Run
The cops are glad to see him, because they'd as soon not handle a dead deer. "You gonna lift that all by yourself?" one of the officers says.
"You watch," Brown says. (A doe will weigh about 80 pounds; a buck as much as 220. Brown, who stands six feet tall and weighs 225 pounds--after some health problems, his doctor nudged him down from 300--takes delight in showing the cops how strong he is.)
"Everybody knows Dan," says Bob Monroe, a dispatcher with the Montgomery County park police. "He's just a real happy-go-lucky guy. I remember I met him, oh, five years ago when he was working in the Subway [sandwich shop], and he said he wanted to pick up the dead deer. I told him the deer had been a real problem. Now we just call him when we've got one, and he always goes and gets it, no matter what time of night it is. No one else has ever come forward to do this, not in my 15 years."
The cops also appreciate that Brown will put a still-living but mortally wounded deer down, so they don't have to. Brown prefers it that way, since a bullet can waste a lot of meat. He'd rather cut their throats.
He can field-dress a deer in about five easy minutes. In the reddish glow of the truck's tail lights you catch a glimmer of the blade. "She broke her back leg," he says. He shaves some fur from the doe's belly, then makes a long, clean incision. There is the cracking of the chest, and a slow pffffft as stomach gases escape, and a mild stench. His bare hands are covered in blood. He takes out the innards in a neat, schlorp-y bundle and hurls them into the ditch. He lifts the doe by all fours and drops her into the back of the pickup. He gets in and pulls away and the entire cab smells like hot blood and stomach juices and dead grass.
The Circle of Life
He gets off work from the SuperFresh around 3 o'clock in the afternoon and as soon as he gets home, he changes into sweat pants and an old Operation Desert Storm T-shirt. In his room, he has little collections: more mounted deer heads, a stuffed squirrel; commemorative Wheaties boxes he is sure will go up in value; about a hundred movies on video, mostly mid-'80s action films. He once bought 6,000 comic books at an auction. After separating most of the superhero titles out of the piles to keep for himself--Green Lantern, the Defenders, Batman--he gave the rest to charity.
He walks out to the back yard and examines the dead deer hanging upside down from the swing set. It's almost as if they have comic-strip X's drawn over their eyes, tongues peeking out from their thin mouths. He sharpens a knife and begins skinning a buck. He saws off a doe's broken leg. "Here, smell this," he says, holding out the leg. (Go on. Smell the spot he's pointing at, a deep breath of potent musk.) "That's the scent that makes them so crazy."
A squirrel in the trees above makes angry chitchat. Like the deer this time of year, Brown remarks, the squirrels are thinking of having intimate relations, too. He tosses chunks of deer fat into the lawn. "That's for the crows. They like to take that away." (None of his neighbors have complained, even in this semi-private realm of chain-link fences between houses.)
Something for everyone: Besides the meat going to charity, the bone man will get the carcasses, which go to a rendering plant, which makes soap and perfume. The Boy Scout troops get as many skins as they need, to earn their hide-tanning badges. A German artist who lives nearby gets as many severed heads as she needs, which she buries, then digs up later for some sort of avant-garde project no one really quite understands.
And yet Brown wonders if he's giving enough. He was raised in a strict Jewish household, but along the way embraced most other faiths. The deer project can consume 10 hours a day, and he says he won't rest until the rut season is long past. He doesn't watch much TV. He enjoys living with his sister and nephew. Once he mentions having been married, years ago. Another time he mentions an ex-girlfriend from a few years back.
He was also in love with a baby fawn named May. He cut her out of her dead mother by the side of the road one night in 1997. He fed her with a bottle, watched her take her first steps. The Department of Natural Resources found out about her and so he had to give her to a wildlife preserve. To this day, he considers it one of his finest acts. The latest heartache was Princess, his 11-year-old husky/German shepherd and constant companion. She died this fall, after a long illness. She never messed with the deer hanging in the back yard, but she'd go wild for a Quarter Pounder With Cheese. He keeps her ashes on a shelf above his bed.
He takes the garbage bag full of meat back into the house and begins cutting, wrapping, labeling. He understands that the world is neither fully urban nor fully rural. What one man can do in a back yard strewn with old air conditioner units (another story, another time), what one man can hang from his swing set, might be all that a higher power has asked that one man to do. There's a lonely vibe to it, but a minor miracle all the same.
He calls back several times to make sure that whatever it is you're going to say isn't just about him. In fact, it should mention everyone but him: the dispatchers and police officers; the people at the food kitchens and the churches. He is a humble hunter. Butcher by day, superhero by night, spatters of blood on his athletic shoes. Burning bushes and good intentions, the smell of the Lord's accidental bounty in the oven.
CAPTION: Dan Brown unloads a deer killed by a car. The meat goes to charity, the carcasses provide the ingredients for soap and perfume, and the Boy Scouts get the skins.
CAPTION: "Usually it's good meat," deer scavenger Dan Brown says, "and I hate to see it go to waste."
CAPTION: Boy, am I stuffed: Dan Brown at home in Silver Spring with some leftovers.