I have been reading a lot of nostalgia about “hog-killing days” which always came in November.
Well, well and good, I guess, but I have a problem with that. I made the mistake of getting emotionally involved with the pigs/hogs. I remember one named William, and he even slept with me when he was little. Then, I get up one morning in November with a “spitting snow” blowing and William is hanging upside down in the front yard.
Papaw had already shot him and Ode Bryson had cut his throat and it looked like it was all over for William. I took a screaming fit (I guess I was 9) and told the whole crowd that they were heartless murderers and announced my intention of not keeping company with them any more. I went to the barn and crawled up in the loft and proclaimed my discontent to the world. My grandfather finally came and opened the feed room door and said, “GarNell, git out here and help us butcher this hog.” He waited a while and then he said, a bit more kindly, “GarNell, don’t be womanish. These men can hear you.” He waited some more, and said, “This is life, boy. That pig is going to feed us. Come on, now.” And I went, watched Ode remove William’s innards, and watched my grandmother set up her rendering pole on the back porch. William got separated, with his head over on the porch and his feet in the kitchen sink. I listened to a lot of talk about tenderloin and what a great meal the brains and eggs were, but all I saw was William who had slept with me, William who actually used to play with my dog, the two of them running in circles in the yard. Oh, yes, I learned to help and I guess that I learned to accept it as a part of what life is really like.
I’m 79 now, 80 come January 20th, but gosh darn it, you don’t butcher your friends. And yeah, I’m still womanish, I guess.
All of this talk about hog killing has reminded me of Harry Crews. Harry once announced that he intended to write his autobiography and he thought it would take about three books, but he only did one. He said that dredging up all of that heartbreak messed him up, and he couldn’t write for about 10 years afterwards. But in the middle of the one book, which is a classic, called “Childhood,” Harry remembers a hog-killing. Harry’s family lived in a lot of tar-paper shacks in north Florida or southern South Carolina and he remembers a November morning when they dug the hole for the barrel. (In Western North Carolina, we didn’t dig a hole, but put the barrel up on bricks or rocks and built a fire under it.) Harry’s father dug a hole as deep as the barrel, built a fire in the bottom of the hole and lowered the barrel down on the fire. As a result, the barrel stuck just a bit above the level of the ground.
Harry is about 9 years old and he’s playing “crack the whip” with his playmates and he flies off the end of the whip and goes into the barrel – into all of that boiling water. He said that he remembers a sound like a siren and then he realizes that he was making the sound. One of the hog-butchers grabbed little Harry by his overalls and lifted him out of the barrel and stood him on the ground. Harry said he remembered watching the skin unroll on his arms along with his fingernails and someone called his mother and she came running with a bed sheet and wrapped Harry in the bed sheet. Of course, Harry stuck to the sheet and his skin came off. This incident marked Harry for life and his arms and face were always marked by those scars. Harry said that he was so ugly as a child, he decided not to fight it and took to wearing leather jackets and wearing his hair in a mohawk. Later on when he was the head of the English department in a small college, he still dressed the same way and when he cashed his monthly check at the bank, he always enjoyed watching the guard watch him, since he looked like he was part of a motorcycle gang.
One more Harry Crews story and I will hush. Harry said that as poor as his family was, they were still the only family in the row of shacks where he lived that got a Sears catalogue and that the other kids would come to his house to look at the catalogue. Crews said that the catalogue was the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey” to those kids, and he would sit on the porch steps and turn the leaves of that catalogue and they would make up stories about the people in the catalogue. This kid with this baseball bat got in a fight with this kid 20 pages over who has this football and beat him up, but this man here with this new underwear on, he stopped the fight since he is the father of the kid with the baseball bat. This would go on for hours. He said that one of the things that bothered his playmates when they looked at the catalogue was the fact that everybody was perfect. Where were the scars? Harry said that when he was growing up, everybody had scars – or a missing tooth or finger. He said they decided that they had scars, but you couldn’t see them. The scars were under their clothes. Harry said that when he decided to be a writer, he decided to write about those scars that you couldn’t see.
Please go read some Harry Crews, maybe “The Gospel Singer” or “Feast of Snakes.” He also has a wonderful short story about the elephant that was hanged in Tennessee called “The Day That They Hanged Alice.”
I’ll stop now, but stay tuned.