Written by: Ryan Schwalm
R. Lee Schwalm was a lifelong butcher and the inspiration behind Leeway Films.
He was a hardworking, kind, tough and a warm presence. He was never the long-winded grandfather telling tales that no one relates to, nor was he the hard-ass porch sitter shouting obscenities to kids on their phones. He was mostly quiet, reserved and needed to be kept busy. He did, however, have the world’s greatest one-liners that would have outwitted God.
He started butchering from the age of 16 and later started his own business. The butcher shop, as it came to be called, was attached to his house in the middle-of-nowhere Pennsylvania. I’m sure early on this was a year-round business for him, but I mostly remember him working during deer season, which was late November til a little after Christmas. Deer season was his lifeblood, and the only time he closed his shop during deer season was the day I was born in December. Even after my grandmother passed away, Pap kept working every year during deer season.
In 2013, severe life changes took hold of me and I moved back home to Pennsylvania, reluctantly leaving behind the life I had been creating for myself in Chicago for nearly a decade. I fought tooth and nail not to, traveled to Los Angeles, back to Chicago, was rejected from one job interview to another and, inevitably, was left with no option other than to return to the one place I swore I’d never return to. I struggled to figure out what direction my life would lead, what I would do for work, who I wanted to be — nothing felt right. I was 27-years-old, living in my parents’ basement in an area where change is fervently rejected. I became the cliche of my generation.
Pap, whether realizing my isolation and heartbreak or sensing something greater, asked me to help him in the shop during that winter season. I had resigned to the fact that I had no options and took up any work I could get. Being older now also made me want to experience working in the shop. My dad, my brother and nearly every other relative worked in the butcher shop except me. Being older, I felt ashamed I never did work in the shop. I had asked him if it’d be ok to film some of the shop and him working as well. I think anything that would have gotten me to join him he would’ve agreed to.
While the camera was out and rolling, he pretended it wasn’t there. Every now and then he’d say something to me, one of his quippy remarks that made me smile, but mostly he just kept working. I can still smell the smokehouse, ground coriander from whole seeds, the years upon years of deer meat that filled the air in the shop, the sounds of knives being sharpened to a nub, the smokehouse fan whirling away, the sausage stuffer filling links and rings and sticks; an entire lifetime of this compressed culture inside a tiny workshop attached to a house.
I remember being elbow deep in sausage meat, filling the stuffer for ring bologna and thinking how different my life had been only a few weeks ago. Here I was in the most rural of rural places having left the third largest city in America filling an air-compressed canister full of raw deer meat. He came over to me and began to explain how to stuff the meat properly only to find I was doing it properly. He then said in a thick Pennsylvania Dutch accent with a quirky smile on his face, “Ya knaw Rahyn, your not as dumb as ya seem ta be,” then laughed and patted me on the back. The only thing that kept me who I was, kept me intact, was Pap and working with him in the butcher shop.
That season was the last he ever worked. Apart from only one other neighbor that would occasionally come to assist, it was mostly just me and him working side by side in the shop. He passed away that following September at the age of 79. It felt as though he waited all those years just to have me come and work with him. There were days he called and asked if I would come up to help only to realize when I got there, he really had nothing for me to do — almost as if he just wanted my company.
I never intended to do much with the footage I captured of our time in the shop. But after he passed, I created this video. He meant and still means so much to me. He was my grandfather, my lifelong euchre partner and the only relative I seem to take after, both in looks and personality. Naming Leeway Films after Pap does no justice to him at all. But he and filmmaking seem to be the only things that make up who I am.