==================The first time I ate beaver was in late February of 1965 at Camp Pickett, VA. I have to confess it was the foulest thing I have ever tasted. I had expected something sweet for although I was a brand spanking new Ensign direct out of NROTC at Cornell, I had done some reading on the subject. I was sorely disappointed, as were my fellow classmates who had stayed up to enjoy the feast.
To explain: I was at Camp Pickett with Class 33 of UDTR, now known as BUDS (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL) Training that began on 28 December 1964 at Little Creek, VA. We were down to 44 men by that time, having started with 157 that stayed around long enough to get name tags sewed on the ragged fatigues we wore. I know that’s not the official number, but there was a lot of pressure at that time to reduce the number of dropouts, and I guess the Instructors figured it was better to fudge the numbers than make training easier. Anyway, we were the survivors of Hell Week and sent off to Pickett for two weeks of weapons, patrolling and survival training.
We did a crawl course to teach us the basics of avoiding booby traps. The Instructors set off a 20# shaped charge, turned skyward, before we started, just to give us the idea that tripping the booby traps might be unwise. The object of the exercise was to follow a manila line threaded through the woods, across a creek and under a bridge, avoiding the many booby traps along the way. They were rigged with flares, M-80s, and rockets just to let you know you were “killed”. No 20# shaped charges. I went though with Lt. Rik Trani, my swim buddy at the time. We were “killed” five times and thought it was pretty funny. A few years later, Rik was killed by a booby trap in Vietnam. The memory of our lightheartedness haunts me still.
We did a lot of weapons training with M-60s, grease guns, sawed off Ithacas and handguns at pop up silhouettes and we were all packing M-1s for the patrolling exercises that we seemed to do day and night. Setting up an ambush on one of the other patrols was a daily favorite, although we did a night assault on a radio tower, including loading it with dummy demolitions. The final problem was the assault and demo of Kennedy Bridge located about 18 miles cross country from our camp. The route was defended by the Instructors at road crossings and they were protecting the bridge with machine gun nests. It was an overnight hump through the bush packing the explosives and weapons, and when we had successfully completed our mission (“The firing assemblies better pop, Gentlemen…”) we had to E and E our way, in pairs, back to camp. We left before dark and straggled in the following afternoon.
I kept waiting for the survival component of the camp-out to materialize. Mostly it seemed like an exercise in starvation. We were eating WWII C Rations and they were not giving us nearly enough of that. There was little time to do the hunting and gathering shit I had expected. You see, I figured that as a former farm boy who had once had a trap line, and was schooled in hunting and fishing, that this would be a snap. I had once actually caught a rabbit in a snare, so I envisioned myself living fat on rabbit. I’d brought along wire for snares only to discover that there were no rabbits. Never saw a track. I’d also brought along a trotline, a series of hooks on a base line that could be left out for long periods. I imagined pulling in strings of fish that I could share with my grateful classmates. If there was a fish in the lake, I never saw him. Some of my classmates had resorted to rummaging in the local dump site for discarded C rations.
We were living in pup tents set up around a communal fire pit while the Instructors were ensconced in a snug cabin nearby. They were not enjoying the bracing weather of early spring in the mountains of Virginia…. rain, snow and freezing nights. We quickly learned that leaving your sodden boondockers out during the night required thawing them out over the fire before you could get them on in the morning.
One night, after a hard day of patrolling and a meager dinner of C rations, I headed down to the lake to check my trotline. One of the things I had failed to anticipate was the dearth of bait in the frozen ground. But I had improvised with scraps from our rations. The trotline was bare, as usual, and as I was resetting the line, a pick up truck pulled up beside me. Instructors Clements and Hammond climbed out of the truck and shined a flashlight in my face. “Uh oh,” I thought.
“What are you doing down here Mr. Draper?” One asked.
“Just checking my trotline,” I responded, wondering if they were going to fuck with me.
“No Instructor.” I noticed that there was a distinct smell of whiskey in the air and that they both seemed a more than a little drunk. ‘Must be Hell fighting off the cold inside that cabin,’ I thought.
“Check this out!” Hammond said, lighting a cigarette and waving his flashlight toward the bed of the pickup. We walked to the side of the pickup and Hammond shined the light into the bed. There lay the shining corpse of a skinned beaver. It was huge, maybe 50 pounds, and clearly male, for he had balls on him the size of Florida grapefruits. I figured the impressive gonads were the manifestation of this critter being in the beaver equivalent of the rut.
“Where’d you get him?” I asked, completely forgetting Trainee/Instructor protocol.
“The Turk shot him,” explained Clements. “Saw him swimming in the lake and shot him in the head.” I looked at the head. The military round had not done much damage. The Turk was an observer at our training class… an exchange deal with their special forces and a really scary dude. I think even the Instructors were wary of him. One look at him and you immediately thought, ‘Stone-cold killer.’
“You want it?” asked Hammond. I could not have been more surprised if he had invited me into the cabin for a cocktail and a chat by the nice, warm fireplace. Instructors do not do nice things to Trainees. Ever. And to me, this was FOOD! I had read stories of trappers living on beaver and didn’t recall any complaints.
I looked back and forth at Hammond and Clements not believing they were serious and wondering if it was some kind of trap.
“Go ahead, take it,” said Clements. I didn’t wait for them to change their minds. I struggled to get the carcass out of the pickup and hanging on to the broad, flat tail slung it over my back. Calling out my thanks, I started trudging up the hill to the camp. Fresh meat!
Nearly everyone was asleep when I arrived at our camp, including my tent-mate, Henry Light. Hank was a fellow officer, one of the eight remaining from the original 22 that started Class 33. That’s not the official number, either, but I know because I was #22, the lowest ranking Ensign in our class. I woke Hank up to hold a flashlight while I gutted out the beaver and our activity roused a few others who were curious about what was going on. Hank asked, “Where did you get this thing?”
“I caught him on my trotline,” I responded, thinking no one would believe that. “I couldn’t get him in so I jumped in and stabbed him with my K-bar,” I added, thinking I might as well make it ridiculous. He looked doubtful but…. there was the beaver. Where could it have come from? No one would have believed that the Instructors would give it to me. They would never give us fresh meat while they were attempting to starve us to death. No way. No one ever questioned the hole in the beaver’s head or the fact that I brought him to the camp already skinned.
By the time I finished gutting the beaver and washing it out, we had a small group of hungry Trainees anxious to roast up some fresh meat. Someone built up the communal fire and one of the guys broke out a bottle of bourbon. The Instructors had carefully searched our gear for food when we arrived at Camp Pickett, but had overlooked bottles of whiskey. I guess they figured we needed it for medicinal purposes. I sliced off chunks of beaver meat and a half dozen of us sat around the fire roasting meat on sticks like at a summer camp weenie roast. While waiting we were all sipping bourbon out of C rats cans and feeling all right with the World. It quickly became obvious that beaver meat laced with spring time hormones was inedible. It was the foulest thing I have ever tasted–before or since. It made the black snake we’d caught and boiled a delicacy by comparison. No one went for seconds and we all drifted off to our sleeping bags.
The next morning we went off on patrol and left Mr. Beaver hanging in a tree. When we returned we found that a dog or coyote had visited and chewed off a front leg and part of the shoulder. That pretty much discouraged anyone else from sampling beaver meat. I trimmed up the chewed on parts, hoping I’d figure out how to get some nourishment out of the damn thing. Eventually I tried boiling the meat, dumping off the nasty water and re-boiling with a few wild onions we found down by the creek bank. It was edible. Barely. I figured I could have eaten one of my boots given the same treatment.
Later, we actually did some survival training. The Instructors gave each pair of guys a domestic rabbit…. cute little unsuspecting critters. The object of the exercise was to kill, dress and eat the bunnies. A lot of guys having grown up in the city had never dealt with the more gruesome aspects of how meat actually gets into those cellophane packages. It was a learning experience. We also smoked some meat. The only “game” we could find were some robins that were dispatched with a 22 pistol and, of course, we had the beaver. Actually, the resulting beaver jerky wasn’t that bad. Maybe the drying process got rid of the hormones. Quite a few of us munched on beaver jerky on the long trek to Kennedy Bridge and back.
I never told anyone that the Instructors had given me the beaver. I doggedly stuck to my story of catching it on my trotline. If anyone doubted my story they never mentioned it. Maybe they just wanted to forget eating that particular beaver.