It rained the night before I was to help Earl get the pigs in his truck. The ground was muddy. The stench of the pig pen reached out to me long before I got near it. They say smell is the most evocative of our senses. I’m not sure what the smell of everything that composes the ground in a pig pen evokes, but I know I’ll never forget it.
The faded blue Chevy pick-up sat with its tailgate down, its back close to the pen. Earl, who had been looking at the pigs, turned to greet me.
The idea was simple. We had to get the pigs into truck and off to the butcher.
“Thanks for coming to help. Where’s Pepper?” Earl’s eyes smiled. He had always been amused by our dog.
“I thought he’d scare the pigs so I left him at the house.”
Pepper was a curious looking mongrel. His face was half black, half white. One ear up and one ear down. He had a broad, powerful chest. Where Pepper’s fur was white, it was silky. Where Pepper’s fur was black, well, there was almost no fur.
I think a veterinarian once told us one of Pepper’s testicles hadn’t descended, hence the weird furless, black patches.
When people asked what breed the dog was I’d sometimes say, “Australian Zweiback.”
And while Pepper was always up for going out, he was happy to stay home with my wife who brought him into the marriage.
“Good thinking, they’ll be nervous enough without him” – Earl nodded looking back at pen.
That may have been the last good good idea I had that day.
“How are we going to do this?” I asked.
Earl said we’d have to cut a portion of the fence out a little smaller than the width of the pick-up, and put some boards down as a ramp for the pigs.
“The only problem is getting the pigs up the ramp.” Earl’s eyes caught mine, “that’s where you come in.”
“I’m not as young as I used to be and it sometimes takes some doing to get the pigs to cooperate. Sometimes they need to be convinced.” Earl slow walked to the front of the truck and pulled out wire cutters.
With the fence cut, I hopped from the truck bed into the pen. My boots quickly sunk in the mud and waste. The smell got somehow got worse.
The pigs, not caring for my presence, moved away from me to the other side of the pen. I get that a lot.
Earl dropped the boards into the pen to form a ramp to the truck bed. “OK, you can get them in the truck now.” His drawl was reassuring.
I figured I’d try to shoo the pigs over to the truck using my body as a block. I’d give them no choice but me or the the ramp. It was me. With speed I never imagined a pig could achieve, the larger of the two ran at me and knocked me on my butt into the foul fecal morass.
“Be careful, they’re a little spooked.” Was that amusement in Earl’s voice?
I wiped my hands on my jeans as I got up. The pigs were making pig noises. I now believe they were mocking me in pig latin, or something.
By this time Earl had cut a fresh switch from a nearby tree.
“Try this” he said handing me the four foot limb. “It should get them moving.”
It did. It really got their attention. Pigs have sensitive skin and sensitive snouts. Needless to say they don’t like getting whacked on either.
For a minute it looked like one of the pigs might run up the ramp to escape me. No such luck.
“Don’t let them bite you.” Earl yelled as I tried to stay on my feet.
The irony of a Jewish kid from New York, who practiced Buddhism, being eaten by a pig after striking it with a stick.
Yes, Buddhism. My first wife and I practiced for a few years until we didn’t. Why? She said it was because I was looking for something. She was right.
Eastern religion and philosophy was a thing back then. While I couldn’t say I was much of a practicing Jew during my college days, the Buddhism we practiced didn’t ask for a renunciation of one’s faith.
Religious experimentation was part of the social revolution of the 60’s.
Today’s pundits like to talk about the collapse of trust in our institutions as if it’s something new. It’s about as new as each new generation that questions the last. Some generational revolutions are more jarring than others.
And as sure as the sun rises in the east, every revolution creates its own institutions. It’s the job of those institutions to perpetuate themselves. And so on.
And at the same time the fate of being devoured by angry swine flashed through my head. My feet came out from under me as if I’d been tackled by a linebacker. The best I can remember is that one pig knocked me over while the other trampled me.
They really didn’t want to become pork chops.
I scrambled from the nasty muck in which life could have started. Up the ramp, onto the bed of the pick-up and out of harm’s way. Past the point of dignity and filth, I wiped my hands on my shirt.
They say pigs are smarter than dogs, even smarter than chimpanzees. At this point they were smarter than a college sophomore. A low bar I concede, but a bar nonetheless.
“Should we just shoot them here?” I asked.
Earl didn’t think it was, “a good idea to have to lift all that dead weight into the back of the truck.”
I was beginning to understand why sophomores are called that.
Earl told me to wait in the bed of the pick-up while he went to the barn. I smoked a cigarette and pondered my education. I might be able to quote Shakespeare, but in a pinch I couldn’t keep myself alive if I had to kill, catch or grow my own food. That would change.
I wondered if someone who grew up in South New Hope would feel as lost in the world I came from.
The object in Earl’s hand puzzled me at first.
“You ever use a cattle prod?” He held the metal tube out for me to take.
It was a simple tool. When you pressed the two electrodes on the end into something the overlapping battery filled tubes collapsed, one into another, and completed the circuit. Result: a pretty jarring shock. Think malevolent shock absorber.
Earl smiled as I considered my next step. He studied me as I studied the pigs.
It was a smile I saw fairly often while I lived in Arkansas. It was a smile I didn’t understand until I grew up.
Back in the pig pen, with renewed purpose and armed with a better weapon I managed to zap one of the pigs with the prod.
The squeal was tremendous. The result was the same. Me in the crap. The pigs nowhere near the ramp. I’d been run over three times.
“You better get out of there,” Earl cautioned as both pigs stared me down.
A couple of hours had passed. I had accomplished nothing except for pissing off pigs, exhibiting my ineptitude and making a mess of myself.
Both of my parents were smart and even shrewd people. They built an incredibly successful business from nothing. It’s impossible to quantify what they taught me. But what you know has to fit where you are.
There was no calling the “super” out here.
And while I strained my brain to figure out how to get those pigs into that pick-up, I watched Earl go into the cab and come out with a paper bag (sack in the south).
Without a word to me he walked to the pen and called, “pig, pig, pig.”
They came quickly as he reached into the bag and started throwing kernels of feed corn on the ground. The pigs vacuumed the corn right up.
As they fed, Earl threw the corn closer and closer to the pick-up. It was as if the pigs were on a leash. They followed Earl’s corn trail up the ramp and into the back of the truck. He closed the tailgate and that was that.
It took about ten minutes. Maybe.
There’s no need to describe how the beasts became bacon and other tasty things. Not because I’m squeamish or because I’m afraid I’ll offend. Nature can defend the food chain. I’m just participate.
To this day, after dealing with screwing up, I ask myself the same question many people ask. “What have I learned from this?”
Sure, wear old clothes when you go rolling in pig crap. That’s easy.
Never underestimate your opponent. Your ego will make you lose every time.
I tried to overpower two animals that each weighed more than I did. Brains over brawn?
What Earl did was use the nature of those animals to win. Pigs gonna pig.
These weren’t the only things I learned in South New Hope.
Next: What I learned from taking part in a Caesarian section on a cow in the middle of the night.
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