by Martin Melville
Dad had a fondness for spotted hogs. I’m not really sure why, he just did. I was about ten when, many years ago they moved over the mountain. The small town is only about ten miles from mom’s parents, but real estate cost about half what it did on the other side. It was their first house. The price was right and they liked the quiet setting near the edge of town, so they bought the place with cash dad had saved. Other people were scared of the mountain, especially in winter. But the DOT put more salt, cinders and plow-time on that mountain than they did on the whole rest of the county. It didn’t scare them.
The house is easy to find. Just turn off Main St. Go back past the closed skating rink and the junk yard, out towards the valley. Take the next fork to the right. It’s only one lane, and you’ll not really be sure whether it’s paved or gravel or just potholes. Be careful as you come around the corner of the garage. It’s a 90-degree turn and you can’t see what’s coming towards you because of the garage. The 911 address is Willow St. but the locals call it Pigturd Alley. It seems that the last owners always kept a few pigs. Even though they didn’t live there any more (owners or pigs), the name, unflattering as it was, stuck.
It’s a 2-story frame place with faded blue aluminum siding. You can tell it’s faded because where the kitchen shutter fell off it’s a lot darker blue. The roof is tin. If you’ve ever owned a house with a tin roof, it’s magical when there’s rain falling: anywhere from the plink or tap of the first drops of a light rain to the deafening roar of a downpour in a thunderstorm. Three bedrooms (four if you really need the fourth one). Big country kitchen with a woodstove. There’s enough room for the cook and for everybody that’s watching. You know how the kitchen is the real gathering place in a house.
Part of the culture of living on that side of the mountain is self-sufficiency. It would be wrong to think that this is the back to the earth crowd. The ones who poach a deer now and again get a wink and a nod: acknowledgement of need. Half the county is on disability or unemployment, so it’s more necessity than romance that causes them to be like that. A large vegetable garden with the usual tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, green beans and squash yields plenty for the summer and enough to can. Out the valley are Amish-owned peach and apple orchards. Home-canned peaches and apple sauce are hard to beat.
Not being vegetable-tarians, as my sister who was 5 at the time put it, and not being ambitious enough to “grow a beef,” but still wanting to impart important lessons about life in general and food in particular, they set out to procure some chickens and a pig or two. As I said, for whatever reason dad had a fondness for spotted hogs. He’d grown up around Durocs and Hampshires, on his grandma’s farm in Iowa. They’re sort of the plain Janes of the hog world and he said he thought the spotted ones “looked neat.” They seemed to him to have more personality- -or perhaps that should be pigonality.
That sentimentality was to be dad’s undoing. The neighbor across Willow Street drove truck for a hatchery and he had access to their grade-out chicks, ones that would be runts or not have hackles suitable for high-priced trout flies to go fishing with. He offered to bring them a dozen or so chicks. They accepted, seeing an opportunity to teach us about the importance of caring for living things. It turned out that a couple were a breed of fighting chickens. They pretty much had free range of the place and would attack the neighbor kids by flapping their wings and leaping forward with their spurs in attack mode when they came over to play with my sister. So it wasn’t too long ‘til the neighbor kids wouldn’t come to our house; she had to go to theirs. Still, attack chicken security had its advantages. They were as good as a “no trespassing” or “beware of dog” sign for keeping visitors, both wanted and unwanted, at bay. In addition to the attack chickens, we got a dozen mixed roosters and hens. Supposedly they’d been bred to be butchered at 6 weeks, but nobody told us and when we finally did take them out to an Amish friend to get the job done, some of them dressed out at ten pounds. This first lesson on animal husbandry lacked something.
On the other side of the mountain, where Mum-Mum and Grand-daddy lived, there was a small livestock and produce auction which my sister referred to as the pig show. Farmers brought extras to sell: animals who were often ill or misbehaved ones they didn’t care to cure in whatever way was necessary. The auction employees, mostly teenagers given a cattle prod, let the animal(s) into the pit where the buyers, seated on wooden benches in a steep semicircle, could watch them. Then using the cattle prods as motivation, they politely asked the animals to act lively. It was like a tawdry one ring circus. Dad and my sister Liz (Lizzard when I wanted to get under her skin) sat through a couple of hundred veal calves and some sheep and some goats ‘til they brought out 4 shoats. There was a white one which was maybe a China, 2 that were black and white like Hampshires, and a spotted one. After a brief bidding war with one of the regular buyers, he bought them for $15 apiece. There was a crate in the pickup, just in case their foray was successful. The pigs, all about 10 pounds, went in the crate for the ride home. There they spent the night with a bit of hay for bedding.
Mom’s a plump, large breasted woman of German descent, built, as they say, like a brick outhouse. Pretty much a no nonsense but very loving parental unit. My sister and I had figured out that “yes” usually meant just that; "probably" meant yes too; "maybe" meant probably and "no" meant maybe. Only vehement utterances of “No. What did I say,” especially if preceded by both our first and middle names really meant “no.” So when Liz asked dad if they could go to the pig show and get a pig, and the answers were probably and maybe, she knew things were favorable.
Mom and dad had grown pigs before without problems. The standard logic was that if you put a strand of electric fence about six inches above the ground, the pigs would come rooting along, bump their wet snouts into it, and, being sentient and irritable would shy away from said negative stimulus (electric fence). Sure enough the first three did exactly as they were expected to. The spotted one, though, when he hit the fence, he went out over. The chase was on.
Down Willow St. he went. Onto Maple. Past porches and houses and little barkey dogs. Pig in front, dad fifty feet behind. On the left was an elderly couple sitting in a glider swing on their front porch. On the right, a guy mowing his grass, smoking a pipe. Looking left, then right he waved, panted, and yelled “looks like fun, don’t it?” The chase continued. Those little pigs can really run. Dad’s in pretty good shape because he’s a lean thirty-something and because he logs in the mountains. It keeps a fella in shape. But he wasn’t gaining on that pig, and if this was a Paul Bunyan tale, you can bet he’d be going still. But after a few blocks the pig made a strategic error, turned right, and got tangled up in a forsythia bush. If you’re going to try to escape you should, as they say, plan your work and work your plan. Nonetheless, it was a pretty good effort for being spur-of-the-moment.
Dad might have won the battle, but that wasn’t the end of the war. Dad reached in and none too gently, extracted the pig from the forsythia bush and proceeded to chastise, excoriate, and otherwise let the pig know that he was none too happy about this behavior. He carried him to our house under his arm and put him in the chicken house for the night. We figured maybe he wasn’t expecting the fence or didn’t see it. Pigs don’t have great eyesight, you know. So I helped nail some boards on the outside of the fence posts. There’d be no doubt about where the fence was. He must have gotten the memo about the fence, ‘cause for a while he stayed in the pen. For a while. You’d have thought life was good. All the food you can eat plus table scraps. A nice piece of yard to root in. The pig begged to differ. Perhaps the wider world was calling to him. Next thing you know, the neighbor called on the phone, “your pig is out. That spotted one.” By now at least the spotted pig realizes that this is home. His pig-buddies are in the pen asking in pig-ese how he came to be out there. He’s grunting back “’twarn’t hard. You should try it out here. Lots of good rootin’ out here. Garden up there. Peonies over there. Good soft earth, great for rootin’.”
Dad found some goodies, table scraps, and lured him into the chicken house. Then the fence got another row of boards and another strand of electric fence. Now the fence is about two feet high. That ought to keep him in dad and I thought smugly. It came to being late summer and we’d told my aunt we’d come visit her on Cape Cod. The family was going to be away for a week, so dad made arrangements with the neighbor to feed and water the pigs and the chickens while we were gone.
We got home from the cape late Sunday night. Next morning, dad looked out his bedroom window (which faced the pen) and there were no pigs a-tall! The search was on. All the neighbors knew was that they were gone. Chickens were still there. Pigs were gone. The search was broadened. Eventually, towards the bottom of town, someone recalled. I guess maybe it didn’t bear any particular notice that a clique of pigs was roaming the town: “So those were your pigs? We weren’t sure who they belonged to. Yoders from out in New Lancaster Valley saw them going like they was going somewhere. They was coming down the street. Yoder figgerd they should be gathered up so’s they didn’t make pests of themselves. Root up somebody’s flower bed or somethin’. He’s got ‘em in a crate out at his place. So he does.”
Dad was something. He had stories he loved to tell. While most of his life he’d been a logger, (a college educated logger, he liked to point out), he had an office job for three years. The story went that when he applied for the job they were checking his references. At some point they mentioned to one of the references “seems like he marches to a different drummer.” The reference reputedly gave a snort and said “Hell, He doesn’t even have a drummer.” Maybe like Ferdinand the Bull? Or a certain pig we know?
Dad took the pickup truck and I rode with him and we went out to Yoder’s and gathered the pigs up. Another layer of boards and another strand of electric fence was added to what fence was already there. That made the fence about three feet tall. It wasn’t long ‘til the spotted pig was out again. He mostly stayed in the yard, but it became a pretty regular thing to round him up and put him back in the pen. No one could figure out how he was getting out. If you think about pigs and how they get around and how they’re built, well let’s just say jumping isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. Maybe the chicken house door wasn’t getting latched. After all, the chicken house shared a wall & door with the pig pen. Or maybe they had rooted a hole under the fence. Under seemed a lot more likely than over. So the bottom of the fence was staked down & some chicken wire added on the outside. No way he was going under. And great attention was paid to keeping the chicken house door latched. A slide bolt lock was added, just to be sure about that.
Christmas came on a Saturday that year. Dad got some new blue jeans. Next morning ( I heard this from him, and the aftermath backs it up) he’s sitting on the edge of his bed looking out the window that overlooks the pen. Mom’s just waking up. He said the pig started down nearest the house and ran diagonally up across the pen. Ta-rump! Ta-rump! Ta-rump! And jumped the fence! Three feet! That’s taller than the pig himself! If I hadn’t seen it myself, if you’d’ve told me that’s how he’s getting out, I’d’ve called you a liar.
But I saw it happen. That’s what he said later. He grabbed the first thing he could find to put on: those new jeans. Came roaring down the stairs & outside. By now the pig’s pushing 200 pounds, and he can’t run as fast or as far as he could for that first chase, when he was little. There was a brief chase, sort of an odd mud-dance with both of them doing the do-si-do in the yard because the surface was thawed and the ground underneath was still frozen. Remember, dad’s only about 150 pounds. So though the chase was short, and he did successfully tackle the pig, the actual outcome was a stalemate. Neither one could move. They just laid there in the mud, out of breath. Dad knew that if he loosened his grip on the pig, there’d be another chase.
I’ve heard it said that wrestling with a pig in the mud is like arguing with a truck driver. After a while you realize that the truck driver enjoys it. Dad was there. After a while the neighbor who had gotten us the chicks saw what was going on and came over. Dad’s still not sure what happened, but he says he heard a voice “from above” saying it’s OK. I’ve got him. The pig was indecorously reintroduced to the pen. Dad was mud all over. There was a hole in his new jeans.
A week later, he and mom were in bed in the morning with the radio on. The announcer came on and announced “there’s some pigs loose in Milroy, not too far from the bar on Main St. If they’re yours, you should go round them up.” Dad sat bolt-upright in bed and hurried to the window. One. Two. Three. Four. Even the spotted one was in the pen. Dad said it was nice to know they weren’t alone in the world. Someone else couldn’t keep their pigs in. You’d think they’d know better. Ha!
By now it was near time to take the whole lot to the butcher, an Amish place out the valley. Besides, with it being cold in the winter, the pigs were spending more energy on staying warm and less on adding weight. Like I said, my folks had raised pigs before, and getting them to the butcher had apparently posed its own set of problems. True to form they came up with their own, um, creative solutions. For instance, one time they got the pigs all in the pig house and nailed the door shut, then loaded the whole thing on the truck with a fork lift. Many of the locals did their own butchering but dad confessed to being too soft hearted to take another animal’s life, at least without giving it a fair chance. So hunting was OK, but he couldn’t kill the pigs. He felt they (at least the other 3) trusted him. Somehow it was OK to load them up & have someone else do the deed….
So to get around the getting-them-to-the-butcher problem, they had been fed in an old livestock trailer. The idea was that they were used to going in there, so when the time came “all we had to do” (watch out any time anyone says that to you) was throw some food in there & slam the door. It didn’t quite work like that, but after some coercion, seduction, collusion and other deceptive tactics they loaded on the trailer and were ready to go.
The butcher shop had grown with an addition here, another there, but in no particular order so that it gave the impression of a six-year old’s tree house schmutzed together. Different roof lines, different building materials. The lack of architecture was the architecture. It was a sprawling one-story complex. Retail sales in the front. Receiving around back. No master plan but quite functional. Not too different from the owners. (Long range planning around here means what we’re having for lunch). A tall, lean, reddish-bearded Amishman wearing a black felt hat, white linen shirt and brown canvas pants directed dad to back up to the cattle chute.
A problem presented itself immediately. The door on the trailer was about two feet wider than the cattle chute. And there was a space about a foot and a half wide between the trailer fender and the building. Dad pointed out these flaws in the plan. “Oh.” Says the Amishman, “Well we’ll just have Eli stand here at the back of the trailer and you stand there beside it and look wide. Those pigs will go right in there. I’m sure of it.”
The back of the trailer swung open, showing the pigs a scene different than they had left. They were tentative, even reticent about venturing into these new surroundings. “I dunno, Verne. Somethin’ ain’t right. Smells like trouble to me.” one grunted to another. Slowly they came out of the trailer and started down the ramp into the slaughterhouse. The spotted one started too. Then the pig knew what was wrong. He smelled death. He hung a U-turn faster than a pig his size should be able to, blew on by Eli and drew a bead on dad, the only thing between him and freedom.
There was dad. All 150 pounds of him noisily flailing his arms, crouching in his foot-and-a-half wide space between the trailer and the building, doing his level best to “look wide” as the Amishman had instructed him. The pig got his timing right and blew through dad’s roadblock like he was in a Hollywood movie. He went right between dad’s legs going for broke. In that narrow little space, dad’s feet went out from under him and he fell forwards, towards the pig’s rump. That was as much tackle as there was to be had. Out across the gravel parking lot they went. Dad facing backwards on a running pig, arms around the pig’s belly. Hooves clattering on frozen stones. Grunting! Squealing! Rodeo! Yee-hah! Amishmen running around trying to “look wide” themselves. After a bit he cut a hard right. Dad lost his grip and fell off. The pig wasn’t quite high enough, and dad got a “hen of a bruise” on his knee. I guess it was about the funniest thing those Amishmen had seen in a long time. Have you ever tried to catch a pig when you’re laughing so hard you can’t see or run straight? It took another hour. Dad was angrily shouting that they should just give the pig a lead tablet and finish the job, limping around on his bunged up knee but they did finally get that pig rounded up. For the last time.
Ah, my father the oppressor. Maybe the gentlest, kindest man I’ve known, but a pragmatist, too. The pigs were bought with the intent of teaching us about life and where food comes from. Definitely a success on both counts, though the lessons might not have come off exactly as planned. And you know, my parents haven’t had any more pigs since.