The Panting Hart

June 17, 1998

When I was a boy, my older brother used to get knife catalogs. I oogled the pirate cutlass with the “knuckle duster” grip for close work on deck. My sibling, on the other hand, craved the switchblades because he was in a James Dean phase.

But one knife from that catalog keeps coming back to haunt me. It was a “deer slayer” for German hunters in the Black Forest who used dogs to bring a panting buck to bay and then finished it off in person with a long blade to the heart. It was called “Der Hartzenboomer” or something. (My grasp of German is limited to helles and dunkel.)

I personally would rather eat Cheetos, take a nap or read P.G. Wodehouse than slay a deer, but the image of this knife will not leave me alone.

The first uninvited recall came about a year ago. I was talking to a young man who works for a local brewer. He is all muscle, a farm lad and devotee of the simple pleasures. Out of the blue, he informed me that his idea of fun was running through the forest chasing down deer and killing them with a knife. What a conversation stopper. Of course, while speechless, I flashed on Der Hartzenboomer.

And then, this past weekend, I went to Abbie’s piano recital in a nearby church. Up front, a young man worked his way through two short tunes, and then embarked on his finale, a scaled down version of “Ode to Joy.” He played three notes, and paused. He played the same three notes again and again and froze. His piano teacher read the tea leaves and stepped forward with the sheet music. The shaken performer found the right notes, began again and finished, but was burning with shame when he returned to his pew. He began silently crying, bravely sniffling rather than accepting a tissue. Eventually, however, he began to calm down. He grew quiet. And then another young boy went up, sat down, and played “Ode to Joy” like a dashing young Beethoven. It was a cruel thrust; I could feel the knife slide between the ribs, hear the first boy’s ragged intake of breath, and flashed on Der Hartzenboomer.

And then, yesterday morning, I went in to see my boss to give my notice. I had accepted a job with a firm in Skaneateles, and was leaving his company for the second time. With a dry mouth, I gave him the word. He blanched. He sagged. Der Hartzenboomer.


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