I used to raise pigs.
We lived on a small, five-acre farm, just off Division street
between Portland and Gresham, and rented another 15 acres from
a neighbor. Dad was trying to raise Angus cattle and for some
reason, when he went to buy some weaners to clean up the garbage
and have a little pork some day, I forked over twenty-five
bucks and bought an eight-week old female myself.
out to be one great sow. Her second litter came in at seventeen,
her third nineteen. The average for a Yorkshire was supposed
to be eleven. I’d
never heard of one doing better than mine, although I suppose
if I looked it up I’d find it wasn’t a record. I
never did make much money off her though. Dad took his share
and charged me for all the grain she got. But I learned a thing
or two. Not that I’ll ever use it. I don’t ever plan
on living on a farm, and it wasn’t just because of
the pigs. I hated the work. All we ever did were chores.
I wanted a little fun in life.
When Elsie had
her first litter I was out in the shed with her. We’d built a little shelf-like
thing around the sides about a foot off the ground so she wouldn’t
crush the babies when she flopped over on her side. The first
time she had piglets, I had to rescue one that she bit. I thought
he’d die, she left a scar down his whole side. You have
to be careful the sows don’t eat them. If they develop
a taste the first time, they’re ruined forever. They think
the babies are rats or something. Most people don’t
know pigs love meat.
I delivered the
babies by myself the first few times. Dad was usually off
at his weekday job in construction—or
if he was home he’d be preparing a sermon and didn’t
want to be interrupted. He left most of the farm chores to
Richy and me.
When the piglets
popped out, the first thing I had to do was pull the mucus
out of their mouths and get them to breathing. Once the
sow had delivered them all, I tied and cut the umbilical
cords, then took some clippers and snapped off their needle
teeth so they wouldn’t cut the
sow’s teats. That was the hardest thing I’ve ever
done. Some of the teeth would snap, others would shatter. It
wasn’t pleasant but after one squeal, the second you set
them down by a nipple, they seemed to forget it. And Elsie was
happy. One sharp bite and she’d have kicked their heads
off without even meaning to.
see why I was thinking about pigs.
Reta Jane had
disappeared the minute we arrived at her uncle’s place, telling me to sit down
while she took care of something. I figured she had to go to
the bathroom and I was going to ask if I could use it after her,
but she didn’t come back for a long time. The couch I was
sitting on was a dilapidated old thing covered with a tattered
bedspread. Probably came from Goodwill. The shade on the lamp
was a cheap red cardboard. It was dented and torn near one of
the seams. Someone had turned that part to the wall but it was
a feeble attempt to hide what the rest of the room couldn’t.
They looked awful darn poor.
Her uncle Fred,
coming in from outside, didn’t seem surprised when he saw me. He was a burly, unshaven
fellow with red eyes, and the first thing he said was, "You
Reta Jane’s boyfriend?" I could smell the whiskey
from where I sat.
"I just, uh, brought Reta Jane
here," I said, choking on the words. I hoped he wasn’t
drunk. He looked mean as a cornered rat.
know. She said she had something to take care of."
He looked at
my clothes. "You
just get off work?"
I nodded. "At
the cannery. Gresham Berry Growers."
"Maybe you can give me a hand.
I got two hogs to get to the butcher tomorrow and if I wait
till the morning it’s going to be one pain in the ass
to load them by myself. How about helping out?"
I shrugged. I
really want to, but what could you say? I got to my
He said, "You
like roast corn?"
"Roast corn?" I’d
never heard of it, and coming out of the blue his question
set me back.
"Yeah, leftover corn on the cob.
We can have Reta Jane fix us some in the oven. You ain’t
never had roasted corn?"
I shook my head. "Don’t
"Well, come on. Let’s get
done and you can try it." Fred turned around and bellowed
for Reta Jane, and she shouted something from a back room. "We’re
going out to load the hogs," he yelled back. "Fix
us some roast corn for when we get back."
Jeez, it stank. Pig manure everywhere.
A pen barely big enough.
Pigs are clean
animals and if they’ve
got the room they always crap off in one corner. Cleaner than
cows. These were Yorkshires, just like mine, and should have
been light white with a little pink skin showing through, but
they were so dirty they looked like Spotted Swine or some other
breed with a black hide. They just didn’t have enough
"Been rooting in the mud," Fred
said. He’d backed a Chevy pickup up against the ramp
leading to the pen.
Yeah, right. He called it mud. It
was more like a manure pile. I felt sorry for the hogs.
"You get in behind them and drive
them my way," Fred said. "Then we’ll see
if we can shove them up the ramp."
a pan of corn meal just inside the tailgate but neither
pig wanted to climb the ramp. They were big suckers, a barrow
and an old stag, which is a castrated boar, not the
best meat. Each one must have weighed close to three hundred
pounds. Fred had penned them up and grained them for
too long, but now was no time to tell him that.
I was glad I had work boots on. The
mud was a good six inches deep.
Fred handed me a club, a sawed-off
piece of broomstick for stirring slop buckets, and I got in and
started swatting the barrow in the butt. It squealed and tried
to get away, and before I could get it over to the chute I fell
two or three times myself.
How was I going to explain that when
I got home? Now I was going to have to do a quick load of laundry
before falling asleep.
Fred was standing
just outside the chute giving his pig call—"Here, suey suey, here,
suey suey"—over and over again, but it didn’t
seem to do much good. I wondered if he was enjoying himself.
Stoked up on liquor and giving his pig call.
I tried to push
the barrow up the ramp, with him grunting and snorting,
got him halfway and then he lurched forward, squealed like
he was having a cavity drilled out without anesthetic, and
leapt off the side. You’d have
thought he was walking off the plank of a pirate ship or crossing
a catwalk over the Grand Canyon. It just didn’t want to
go up that ramp. Finally, after about ten minutes of work and
another three or four tries, we got the one hog loaded and tied
down so it wouldn’t get away while we tried for the
That stag was
one mean son of a gun. He knocked me on my butt more
than once. I could hear Fred grunting and swearing. He was
down in the mud now, too, trying to help. When we got the
hog to the ramp, each step was like pushing a ton of bricks.
The stag huffed and fought and we worked like the dickens
to keep him lined up. Suddenly he let out a piercing
shriek and pitched forward onto his snout. He snorted once
or twice in panic, keeled over on his side, and started bouncing
bitten through an electric wire.
"Holy mackerel!" Fred said. "He’s
having a heart-attack."
say anything at first. I was breathing hard and trying
to hold the shaking body on the ramp. I could smell his crap,
even above the ripe stench of the pen, as his bowels
loosened. I had to wipe some off my hand on the edge of the
"Here," Fred said, "help
me slide him on up into the pickup."
The ramp had
cross boards tacked on it and it wasn’t easy to slide the hog but we finally got
him into the bed. "Gonna have to bleed him," Fred said. "He’s
dying. Can’t ruin the meat. You wait here."
and five minutes later came running up with a big butcher
knife. "Here," he
said, handing it through the side slats. "I’ll
hold him down while you cut his throat."
Fred came around
to the back and made it up the ramp, his feet unsteady. "Just
cut his throat."
I clenched the
knife, feeling sick, and stared at the old hog. It was in
its last throes now. Maybe it’d be a kindness to kill it quick. I started to saw at
the bristly flesh, hoping I’d find the jugular before
the stag felt much.
"Come on," Fred said. "Cut
the dang thing. Put him out of his misery."
I started sawing
hard then, and before I was through I’d slit its throat from ear to ear. Fred
told me I’d just about decapitated the hog.
"Pew—ee," he said,
as he was latching the tail gate. "We stink like the dickens.
Come on, I’ll hose you down."
I followed him into the back yard,
stumbling over a saw horse in the darkness, and stood there while
he turned the hose on. I started shaking when the cold water
hit me. Blood, manure, and mud flew everywhere. It took a long
time before I felt clean and then I did the same to him.
The warm breeze
was starting to feel cold and Fred saw me shiver. "Come on inside," he said. "Roast
corn’ll warm you up."
"Shucks, that don’t
should take off my clothes and wring them out."
"Suit yourself if you want, but
like I said, it don’t matter. Reta Jane can mop up
after us. Earn her keep for once."
I caught a glimpse
of myself in a mirror when we went into the house.
I looked like a half-drowned rat. Reta Jane was nice enough
not to laugh, and she had the best ears of corn waiting for
us I think I’ve ever eaten.
Boiled the day before and now roasted in the oven until
the kernels were bursting with flavor. We slathered butter
over them and dived in. Man, that was good. I finished
three cobs all by myself and then said I oughta be going.
"Can you take me to the Polar
King?" Reta Jane asked me, and I looked at Fred who didn’t
say anything. He was on his third beer in the last fifteen
I nodded. She’d already asked
me before, so this must be for Fred’s sake. "It’s
on my way," I said. "If your—" And then
I shut up. I was going to ask Fred for permission but it didn’t
look like he had much control. That surprised me. He had thick
arms like a plumber and I could see him getting mean with her
if he wanted to. But like I said, he didn’t seem to
care. And he was just her uncle, after all.
Outside, I started thinking about
getting the car seats wet and what dad would say in the morning
if he got in to go to work and got soaked.
"I’m too wet," I told
Reta Jane. "This is my dad’s car and he’ll
kill me if I soak the seat."
She touched me
on the arm. "Want
to walk a bit? The breeze’ll dry you off before too
"Just up the road," she
said. "No place special. Come on. We can talk.