There was a time in my life when I felt I was among the nation’s most essential. As a Marine Infantryman, part of America’s so called 911 force. I strutted around like a bantam rooster, puffed chest and ridiculous haircut included. I deployed twice to Iraq, where I stared at that never-ending epic people had been writing about since Homer, a poem scratched on animal skins whose stanzas are punctuated by blood, pride, and screams. My psyche was pecked and scarred but my feathers remained relatively unscathed. When not trying to dodge bullets and bombs, when not filling sandbags or standing post, I strutted through the war, gaining a near insane level of self-confidence from the simple exercise of surviving circumstances I probably shouldn’t have. There was a price though: just as my grandfather used to tell me before he left this shitty world: “Nothing comes for free.” I left pieces of my soul in the desert, small gouges and divots torn and ripped out by that most essential eviscerating essence that books and movies can never quite broach: reality. But I made it through the war upright. My internal strut intensified.
The flightless bird that thought himself a great and powerful golden eagle survived the war, walking around as if entitled to something more than what had already been so graciously given. I survived when so many didn’t. I could wiggle all my toes and fingers. But I felt owed, entitled to a feeling of essentialism. I conveniently overlooked the fact that so many had done so much more than me. In my mind’s eye I was of the most essential breed. But to my surprise and dismay, the strut didn’t pay my bills in civilian life. My dog tags were not a guarantee of an instant line of credit. Once I left military life, where food and shelter are provided by our dearest Uncle Sam, I had to get a job.
At first it was septic tanks. Literal shit tanks. But I had experience in the shit business. Ask any GWOT grunt and they will have a story about stirring smoldering fecal matter with a t-post. I put together septic systems for my dad’s construction company, and I was damn lucky for the work; a paradisiacal playground in comparison to dragging 55-gallon drums of poo across a Forward Operating Base. But through a strange turn of events, and a backyard smoker, I transitioned into the world of BBQ and catering. I like to think I transitioned from the back of the house to the front of the house. The allure of the craft of BBQ was its rarified air. And the ability to eat your homework of course. Somewhere along the line, BBQ turned from hillbilly delicacy to the hipster holy grail of peasant food. Both poor and rich beckoned for all things smoked. In the PNW, good BBQ is about as common as actually spotting the flesh and blood sasquatch that adorns every other Subaru’s rear window. I could absorb myself in the craft of smoking meat, and relish in the glory that was serving 500 people the best BBQ that they had ever eaten in their lives. It was the details that lead to success or failure, an echo from my time among the grunts. Just as I memorized the machine gun bible, I memorized time, temperature, and procedures. I slept little and worked just about as many hours as a grunt at war. The grinding nature of our efforts kept moving us forward. There seemed to be no end in sight.
My brother and I started Nordic Smoke BBQ and it took us all the way from a tiny hiccup of a Palouse town in Eastern Washington to national television. We stood starstruck as a culinary banty rooster, famous for bleached hair and a love of gastronomic excess, ate our food and smiled for the camera. We made briskets and ribs at the cyclic rate, the two of us feeding thousands. Life was surreal. Everyone wanted us to cater their event, we turned away business because we just couldn’t keep up. We were essential. The strut intensified. I mean, I broke bread with the Mayor of Flavor Town for God’s sake. Business boomed.
Then I started hearing words like pandemic and Covid-19. We kept working though, smoking briskets and feeding the masses; groups of 150-300 the norm. Then came the phrase social distancing, and our governor with the strong jaw and slight lisp told people to disband. Groups of more than 50 were deemed illegal, the number shrinking each day until we were told to get inside and lock the doors. Soon the phone calls cancelling jobs rose in the cacophony of pandemic. Our fully booked book began to unbook itself. Our business grew feverish and developed a cough, then self-quarantined. The smoker went cold, my brother and I hugged each other, against doctors’ orders, and went home, not knowing where the next paycheck would come from. That essential strut left my feet as I limped home.
Caterers were the first commercial casualty of the war on Covid. My job…my business… I…were deemed nonessential. Panic and fear were the first emotions. Then anger, some denial sprinkled in for good measure. It was the complete confection of the grieving process. But after my pity party ran its course, after the streamers were swept from the dance floor, and leftover chocolate cake thrown in the garbage, I started to see glints of silver shining through my depression.
We are all together. The kids are officially home from school. I wake every morning with my wife and we have coffee together. We are all healthy, my parents are safe, and there are plenty of books on the shelf that need reading. Once I crawled out of that cramped den of depression in my head I realized we had a roof over our head and there was still food in the pantry. We are fortunate. There is time now, more than we know what to do with.
Though I have been branded useless by the government, at home I have been promoted to English professor and physical education czar. I’m woefully unqualified for both positions, but that is the beauty of exile. We are all stuck with whatever we have lying around the house, in this case that happens to be me. My wife is in charge of mathematics and home economics. We cochair the animal husbandry program, as the goats and pig haven’t caught on to the fact that the world around them is crumbling.
I have been deemed nonessential as Covid-19 spreads its infectious tendrils through our nation. I have been ordered to stay home. I can follow orders; I’ve done that before. So, I’ve shrugged off the unessential and immersed myself in the only essential role that matters to me anymore: trying to be an okay dad and a decent husband. My hope is that this pandemic will strip away what is nonessential to us all; the hate, the division, the back biting. There is a chance my business will be taken off life support and rolled into hospice care during the waning months of Covid, but that’s okay. As I can clearly see now, it is nonessential. Life will go on. Good brisket is a luxury, a wonderful fatty luxury, but a luxury just the same. There are other businesses and other jobs out there to pay the bills if the worst happens. My family is healthy, we still laugh every day, and as of now we still have toilet paper in the pantry. Life is surprisingly okay during the pandemic when you focus on the essential.
Kacy Tellessen served as a machine-gunner with Second Battalion, Third Marines from 2005 to 2009. He lives in Spangle, Wash., with his wife and two children.