The alarms were wailing when the mortars began hitting the earth.
Then Kevin McDonald was blown out of his truck, he said.
“Next thing I knew I was being medevaced to Landstuhl, Germany,” McDonald said.
He was “morphine-ed up,” but he could see that the soldier next to him had been shot in the chest.
When the plane landed, he was rushed on a stretcher to a bus that brought him to the hospital. The German hospital stabilized him and he was flown home to Alaska, where doctors slid titanium rods in his lower back and neck.
“When your first mortar siren’s going off, you’re under your desk, praying, but after doing that for a while you kind of relax and it’s weird how your body, your brain, accepts that,” said McDonald, who recently opened a taxidermy business off Kalifornsky Beach Road. “But when you get back, you realize it’s not normal.”
He was mortared 40 out of the 60 days he spent in Iraq, he said. But after being hit, and after 20 years and four months in the U.S. Air Force, the 42-year-old Soldotna resident has retired to his one-man taxidermy business, Reel Deal Taxidermy.
And it was a natural transition. He has always been artistic, always hunting, always in the outdoors, he said.
“It’s pretty neat that I can work and be in a stable environment as opposed to wartime and worrying when the next shell’s going to go off,” he said.
Over this past summer, McDonald gathered his friends and his family — his mom even flew from New York — to help him build a 20-by-16-foot workshop in the far corner of his girlfriend’s property.
Now two friendly Labradors patrol the workshop’s perimeter. Inside a mounted grizzly bear and wolverine sit on a table. Next to them folded bear skins. On the walls painted fish.
Walking sticks sit in the corner next to the door, one with relief-carved salmon, another with a wood-carved hummingbird and painted flowers for his mom. And many wood carvings, birds, fish and old and bearded faces carved in thick bark.
All the animals in his workshop he said he killed during his military career. All of them, he said, have memories.
“Everybody wants to brag about what they killed and they always have a story,” he said.
Hearing the stories that come with his customer’s bear or fish is what he finds so rewarding, he said.
“I think everything in life happens for a reason,” he said.
He is fortunate to have his business now, he said, right before bear season, to keep him busy after all the war he has lived through.
“Staying busy’s the key to healing,” he said. “Staying busy’s the way to get back.”
He said his little taxidermy workshop is a shelter for his recovery.
Because McDonald is disabled, he cannot work as a police officer or other typical post-military professions, he said. So he spent almost all his military savings and poured it into his business, he said.
Now, he said, he just needs clients. His only customer so far is his friend, Kasilof’s Scooter Hackett, who shot earlier this year Boone and Crockett Club’s 28th Awards Program’s second largest brown bear.
He said what he can offer his future customers is cheap pricing and precise work.
“Here’s the deal,” he said, “anyone can be a carpenter, but only a few can do the finish work.”
In the seven years he has been learning taxidermy, he said he has seen many other taxidermists produce poor-quality mounts that eventually disappoint their customers. He said the finish work — the stitching and the fine details in the animal’s face — is why his work is superior.
“It takes an artistic knack,” he said. “There’s a lot to taxidermy. The average person thinks you can just throw it together.”
He said he is able to charge less for his work because he has no overhead, and his mounts are more precise simply because he insists on investing the time to perfect them. For example, he said, he will repaint a fish five or six times until he gets the color it needs.
“I take a hell of a lot of pride in my work,” he said. “People will feel much better in dropping off a fish if you take pride in your work. You’re just wasting your time if you do something half-assed.”
It has been about three years since McDonald left the military, and his taxidermy business has helped him transition back to civilian life, he said.
Until he recovers more from the mortar explosion, he said his taxidermy service is the only line of work for him — but it’s the perfect one.
“If I’m having a bad morning and can’t get out of bed, I don’t need to call and tell them I’m going to be late,” he said. “I’m by myself and I enjoy what I’m doing. If I can hook a person up that wants a mount, that’s what it’s about.”
McDonald’s business email is email@example.com.
Dan Schwartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.