WARNING! Do not read this while eating!
After writing about one of my favorite watering holes when I was younger, I had a few people ask me to write to about Homer’s brother, Joe. I blogged about Joe’s brother, Homer, last November. If you thought Homer was one-of-a-kind, you didn’t know Joe. He was far beyond what you have ever seen.
As Dave Berry would say: “I’m not making this up.” That is probably the biggest reason why some former Vailians (people who used to live in Vail, Iowa) wanted me to pen this. No one would believe it. [I never noticed how much Vailians is similar to villains. Huh!]
Almost anyone living in a rural area will know what is meant by a rendering truck. For those who don’t know, a rendering truck is a truck used in the process of transporting deceased animals to a rendering plant where the carcasses are used to create byproducts.
For years, the rendering truck driver in the Vail, Iowa, area was Joe Devaney.
Joe drank a bit. Actually, Joe was impaired all the time. I don’t believe I have ever heard anyone talk about a time when they had seen Joe sober. A faithful Catholic, Joe never missed Mass on Sunday mornings. He wasn’t actually sober then. He sat in the back with the rest of us who fulfilled our weekly obligation out of fear of our mothers, and then continued long after out of habit.
At communion time, Joe would stagger up to the front of the church to receive the blessed sacraments. As church etiquette goes, everyone should have been praying, most symbolically with their heads down, but a stray eye couldn’t miss Joe coming up to have a eucharistic minister hand him a host, which he chomped on as if it were a Ritz cracker. Next, he would waddle over to the minister with the wine (blood of Christ). He would take a huge sip. Anyone in line after Joe passed on the wine, if there was anything left. Except for choir members. None of them saw Joe drinking from the chalice.
The reason why no one wanted to follow Joe in drinking from the chalice had nothing to do with his occupation, nor his permanent condition. No, it had everything to do with the fact that Joe chewed tobacco. It was unusual to see Joe without a dribble of tobacco-stained dribble running down his chin. He may have had a wad of Red Man chewing tobacco in his cheek at the time of communion. I doubt anyone wanted to know for sure.
Nonetheless, Joe would be wearing clean overalls, a neatly pressed flannel shirt, and have his thinning hair neatly combed. The red baseball went on his head after Mass and never came off until next Sunday.
Meanwhile, during the week, Joe was someone to avoid. His overalls would be dirty, and they would smell. What would you expect from a guy who manhandled dead cow, sheep, and pig carcasses all day long? I believe he may have even soiled his overalls a time or two. Rarely did he wear gloves.
I have heard from some friends of mine a few stories that I cannot verify, but knowing Joe, I attest to their truthfulness:
- Joe was known to sit on a dead cow eating his lunch prior to loading it in his truck;
- There was a corner intersection somewhere out in the country where farmers would bring their diseased or dead animals, drop them off in the ditch and when Joe Devaney made his rounds, he would collect these animals and throw them in the back of his truck. One day a farmer was on his horse checking his fields. He tied up the horse and started walking the fields to check the crops. Joe came along and saw the horse without a rider and shot it and put it into his truck! (Often, a farmer would leave the animal in the ditch still alive so Joe would have to shoot it because they just couldn’t do it.)
- Occasionally, a stray dog would show up in town. Someone would complain and the city officials would tell Joe. He would find it, shoot it, and throw it in the back of his truck with the other dead animals. He shot more than his share of someone’s pet, but I don’t think he ever knew it.
Homer’s had a good-sized room in the back with two large round tables for playing cards and a pinball machine in the corner by the entrance to the bar. If you heard the back door slam, you needed to look up. Homer’s brother, Joe, would come by and ruffle the hair of the guy sitting nearest his staggering route through to the front. You learned never to sit on that side of the table. You also learned to tilt the pinball game quickly and move on.
Daily, except on Sunday, he would stop in Vail and go to his brother’s bar for a shot of whiskey with a dead carcass or more in the back of the truck. If you were anywhere within one block of where his truck was parked, you smelled it! He tried to park it in the shade, but some fool working downtown would beat him to the shaded parking slot in the alley. It served them right to have the window rolled down a bit.
Joe also owned a windowless building in an alley off of Main Street. He aptly called it the wool shed. It wasn’t a shed as you might picture a shed; it was a solid brick building no larger than an average one-car garage. He used it to store wool. Wool was stored in burlap bags that were over seven feet in length with a circumference of about four feet. He used the building to nap, often. During summer months, it was hot as hell in there. Yet, it didn’t bother him. It didn’t bother him to store a bottle in there, either, and take a nip upon waking. He once offered me a drink from the bottle. I was walking down the alley. 1) Hot as hell; 2) tobacco juice around the rim; 3) the obvious stench surrounding us? I turned down the invitation.
Marvin’s Provisions was a wholesale meat distributor in Vail. Naturally, once meat is cut up it produces unwanted products like bones, tallow, fat, etc. These byproducts were tossed into large 50-gallon drums, and Joe would pick them up on a regular basis and dump them into the back of his truck. Many times, there would be a dead animal or two in the back. The bones, fat, etc. was dumped on top. No matter whatever truck needed loaded or unloaded, Joe’s haul took precedent. You can understand why at this point in the blog.
I worked at Marvin’s during three years of high school, and for a while after I graduated. In the early days of working there, I would punch out after work and go back to the slaughter house portion of the facility and watch Joe slaughter. I wanted to learn how to butcher pigs, cows, and sheep so that I might be able to take over when Joe quit slaughtering.
Marvin’s began as Marvin’s Market, and part of the retail store was a locker service. You could rent a locker (approximately 4’ x 3’ x 2’) in the huge freezer in the back of the store. Lockers were used for storing frozen food when people in town didn’t have a deep freeze at home, or needed additional freezer space. Part of this business was slaughtering, butchering, processing, and freezing. I was fascinated with the slaughtering part of it. I watched Joe every chance I could. I knew I could do it all, except for shooting the poor animal. However, I was psyched to overcome that struggle if I ever had the chance.
Joe didn’t get much for slaughtering. He may have received $10 and the hide. I am sure the hide was worth much more than the $10 at the time. As far as I know, as drunk as he might be, I never saw him cut himself, or damage a hide. I did assist once in a while, but Joe was faster without help.
A sow he was butchering once carried about 5 or 6 piglet fetuses. Joe was going to dump them into the barrel with other non-edibles, such as lungs, when I asked if I could have them. He never asked what I was going to do with them. I wrapped them individually in freezer paper and placed them in the sharp freeze section of the freezer. The following morning, before I had to catch the bus to school, I made a stop at Marvin’s and picked up the frozen piglets. I was proud as hell bringing them into Sister Carlyce, the biology teacher, hoping that someday we could dissect the pigs rather than earthworms. I never knew what became of those critters, but I’m going to assume that she couldn’t use them because they weren’t soaked in formaldehyde.
Marvin quit slaughtering before I graduated from high school. He focused his investment in growing the wholesale business. The only chance I had to slaughter after that was working for IBP in Dakota City at the age of 18 on the kill floor. I can still butcher, but you’re gonna pay me more than $10 and a hide if I accept.
Joe died at the age of 67 in 1973. He never married. He was a corporal in the U.S. Army during WW II. I learned a long time ago that many men served their country in the military, and you never heard a word about it while they were living. You know only when he is given a military honor at his funeral. I wonder if Joe suffered from PTSD.
Surprisingly, to my knowledge, or to the knowledge of anyone I know, Joe was never arrested for driving under the influence. The rendering plant on the east side of Carroll was over 20 miles away, and he had to drive through Carroll on busy Highway 30 to get there. I do know, however, that he received a speeding ticket once. I heard him complain about it. Can you imagine a law enforcement officer wanting to walk up to the driver side window after pulling over a rendering truck? Joe’s rendering truck?
Acknowledgements: Thanks to my sister, Kathleen, Terry Murtaugh, and Dennis Mohatt for their contributions to this blog. After publication, there may be more stories to post about Joe.