by Terry Hargrove
Something less than 228 hours to go.
I found a gypsy. That is, I think she was a gypsy, although she maintained she was Lithuanian. I offered to escort her to the train tracks, which was obviously a Lithuanian idiom I didn’t know existed, because it meant something altogether different than the sum of its parts. We made a quick exchange of funds, and I ran, her Eastern European “conductor” right behind me.
For those of you who think I’m making light of a situation I consider as serious as any I have faced, let me point out that this very morning, I read an obituary of some poor individual who died yesterday. He was 55. He seemed fine yesterday, but now he’s dead. I felt fine yesterday, but today I woke up with a cold, that I am sure will turn to pneumonia and put me in the ground in just a few days.
Maybe I should look to my writing as a way to put this in perspective. This is a column I wrote for the no-longer-existent Pictorial Gazette. It’s seasonal, but it’s not about Christmas.
This tale is not for the squeamish. I should begin by saying how much I have enjoyed the Connecticut restaurants that serve this area. How far I have come from Tennessee, where on cold months like this, I have prepared my family’s food the way our ancestors did: track it, kill it, eat it. And I’m not talking about venison, rabbit, or squirrel (each very tasty if prepared correctly). No, I’m talking about the other white meat, pork! In 1979, I helped my in-laws during what was for them a yearly holiday tradition, and one I haven’t heard anyone up here mention: hog-killing.
I had never killed a hog before. Not on purpose. I don’t count the one I hit with my truck. To me, pork was always easily found in the meat section at the grocery store. Oh, sure, I knew where sausage came from, but it was one of those things I didn’t dwell on, like the ingredients of hot dogs or my uncle who had to leave the country. That all changed when my father-in-law asked me for help in preparing the hogs for the supper table. I didn’t know what that entailed, maybe giving the squealers a bath or last rites. I didn’t even know he had pigs, 25 of them, and that they had been in the pen next to his house for over a year.
It was the end of December (it has to be cold to kill hogs) when every relative of my wife’s showed up armed with knives and honing stones. The mystery swine were there. I’d not seen them before, but that morning they were lined up at the fence, taking it all in, staring at us across the vast gulf that separates the eaters from the eaten. One especially large sow caught my eye. My father-in-law said her name was Jam Pot, and she was a legend in that part of the county. Jam Pot was five years old, and had managed for the previous three years to escape the hog slaughter by disappearing before the first knife fell and reappearing a few days after all the help had left. I liked Jam Pot. By looking into her eyes, you could see that she was full of craft, the Odysseus of her kind.
I heard lots of things that morning I didn’t understand about how few people actually did their own slaughtering these days, and who would get the chitterlings and did anybody want the heads for cheese. I found the last part particularly disturbing. Apart from Jam Pot, the hogs were all one or two years old and some of them weighed over 200 pounds. A fire was lit under a bathtub-sized tank of water, the knives were arranged with lethal propriety, the chains were set, the front end loader gassed up, and off we went to gather up the hogs. That was when the hogs took off.
But they were penned so there was little room for maneuvers and none for escape. We’d get five or so in a group and herd them to the barn. Now, pigs are smart animals, much brighter than horses or cows, and humans have learned how to take advantage of the their natural curiosity. Once pigs are in an enclosed area, one of the humans will stick a rifle barrel into the barn. The pig will eventually go over to look down the barrel. He has to know what that thing is. The human will pull the trigger and the pig will fall. This sends the other pigs into a frenzy, but God has blessed the pig with the attention span of a teenager, so after a minute or two, another pig just has to see what was in that barrel that caused old Gracie to fall so quickly.
I was horrified, and I’ve left out the more graphic parts of the morning. Let me just say that no matter how badly you’ve cut yourself shaving, you have never bled like a stuck pig, because I’ve seen a stuck pig and I never want to see another one. By the end of the day we’d shot, boiled, de-haired, and cut up 15 hogs. Only ten remained, including old Jam Pot.
You probably know where this is going. That night, I opened the gate and allowed the last ten survivors to escape. Old Jam Pot led the way. I went home smiling. True, there were some lingering concerns about what a fast moving car might do to itself if it met one of the pigs on the highway, but I reassured myself that with wily old Jam Pot leading the way, their escape was guaranteed.
So you can imagine my surprise when I arrived the next morning and saw all ten of the pigs lined up at the fence. The gate was still open, nobody knew I had sprung the swine. But they all came back, even Jam Pot. In fact, I’m fairly certain Jam Pot led them back.
I didn’t confess to any of this until several years after the hog killing. I never went back to another one, but I do still enjoy pork. And I think I know why Jam Pot led the hogs back. Jam Pot and the other pigs went into the world and found it to be a very scary place, especially at night. So they came home. It’s all part of the agreement we have with our livestock. They get the benefit of living a disease-free, predator-free, natural disaster-free existence, and all it costs them is one really bad day. But the last day is going to be bad no matter where you are, so maybe it’s best to take it and get it over with. I told you pigs were smart. I honored Jam Pot in the only fitting way, and she was good to the end and her honey baked end wasn’t bad.
So if anybody out there still kills hogs, let me know. I don’t want to help, but I do want to record a vanishing way of life, and I’m eager to find out what can be done with a pig’s head. Hogs are still being butchered, but I’ll bet the good folks at the processing plant don’t name them like we did. And we can all learn a lesson from Jam Pot. The Supreme Court ruled Oregon’s assisted suicide law isn’t unconstitutional. So like Jam Pot, when our time has run out, even if we can’t pick the barrel, at least we can pick the day.
I was wrong. This didn’t make me feel better at all! Jam Pot learned that the world is a scary place and, as Prince Hal told Falstaff, we all owe God a death, but like Falstaff, I’m going to bellow that bill is not due yet!
This week is full of history for me. Tomorrow is the four year anniversary of my brother, David’s, death. I can hear him laughing at me. Yesterday was my wedding anniversary. I’ve been married to Nancy for 15 years. She got me a $30 i-tunes gift card. I have to use that before I leave this earth.
Follow my countdown to personal Armegeddon at www.unemployedadventurers.com.