We rose early on this cold winter morning. Maw and Paw did the same at the foot of the hill. Today would be one of the biggest days of the year for us, and the adults had planned for it for months now. Both households started with a hearty breakfast of biscuits and gravy with sausage, eggs, jam, and oatmeal. We ate more than usual for there would be no more meals cooked today.
We all piled into Daddy’s truck (quite a tight fit since king cabs had not yet been designed!). His .22 caliber rifle already hung on the back window. He struggled to change the gears without elbowing Libby as we rode the short distance to the foot of the hill. We spilled out of the truck and and scurried into Maw’s kitchen.
Paw stood ready, dressed in his faded overalls. He never buttoned the waist flaps, and they lay open exposing the white long johns underneath. The ear flaps on his fur lined winter hat hung down, and he was just sticking an arm in the sleeve of his heavy winter barn jacket. Daddy, in his brown insulated hunting coveralls, was also dressed for the cold. Carrying his .22, he followed Paw outside. Maw had already cleared the kitchen table and was intently scrubbing it down. Mom joined her, scrubbing the kitchen counters. Libby and I, too young to be of much help at this point, ran to the living room where we shed our winter garb, grabbed the deck of cards, and dealt out a game of Slap Jack. We would both go outside soon enough, but not until IT was over.
And, so, our big day began. As Libby and I started our second game of Slap Jack, I fervently hoped our hands would smack the cards loud enough to cover the sound of the one life-taking shot. Although I knew it had to happen, my soft heart would not let me watch nor did it want my ears to hear.
It was a while in coming, but when it did come, the loud, clear sound rang in my ears. BANG!!! The short, distinctive shot cut through the morning air, echoing off the hills. My heart jumped into my throat, and I had to swallow hard to get it back down. I never let on that it still beat like a drum inside my chest as Libby and I continued to play. I wondered how her heart felt. I wondered how Daddy’s heart felt.
Out in the barnyard, Daddy and Paw stepped up to the motionless hog to make sure the bullet that was buried deep in its brain had done its job. It had. The hog lay dead. It was time for them to set to work. It would be some time before I could bring myself to go outside even though I would devour the meat later on. But until the dead animal could no longer be identified as a once breathing life, I wanted nothing to do with it. Still, I knew what was going on out there.
Out there, Daddy and Paw moved the hog up the hill from the pig pen to the apple tree where a large oil drum with a fire burning under it and boiling water inside it waited to welcome the carcass. Libby and I got up and peeped through the door window just in time to see part of the large body protruding from the barrel. Steam rose all around it, carrying the sickening wet odor of the hog’s skin with it.
A heavy rope hung from the large branch next to our tire swing. In a short while, the hog would hang from the rope, and Paw and Daddy would take large knives and scrape the loosened hair off its body. One of them would slit its throat, allowing its blood to flood the earth underneath. The blood would quickly coagulate into a gelatinous consistency in the cold air and would set there as a stark reminder of what had taken place until Daddy and Paw’s work ended, and the chickens and dogs came to lap it up.
I knew all this would happen, but this cruel part of living on a farm was hard for me to accept, so I dragged Libby back into the living room to play a game of War. That seemed appropriate since it felt like a war was raging in my gut. As we played, I tried to keep an estimate of the time so that I would know approximately when I could go back to the door to look out. It would be a while for there was much to be done before Daddy and Paw’s work would progress to the point that I could feel comfortable going outside.
Our game dragged on, but I was glad. Playing cards with Libby took my mind off the gruesome goings-on out in the barnyard. Eventually, though, we tired of cards and headed down to the basement where a fire was burning in the wood stove and a table had been set up with a grinder clamped to one end. The adults would work late into the night to work up the meat from the hog, ending with grinding the sausage here in the basement.
Back upstairs, Maw and Mom were sterilizing jars that would hold most of the meat from the hog except the hams and side meat which would be salted down and put in the meat house to cure. Most of the meat would be cold-packed in various forms, but there would be some left over. Mom and Maw would freeze part of the liver to be cooked with onions later, and part of it would be mixed with scraps left over from everything else, including meat from the head, to make scrapple. The fat would be rendered and made into lard, and Maw would even separate the lacy fat along the intestines that she called the sweetbread shawl and use it in some way. Finally, there were some parts that only Paw would eat, including the brains. He fried them up with scrambled eggs and gobbled them up. Maw would cook the feet, and he would strip them clean. He also thoroughly savored what everyone I knew called “mountain oysters.” By the time they were finished, hardly enough for a mouse to eat would be left.
Libby and I messed around in the basement for a while, but the itch to be outside soon took over. Back up the stairs we scampered, and I ventured over to the door to take a look. Anything that resembled a hog had disappeared, and large pieces of meat covered the makeshift table on the level ground. Daddy and Paw worked quickly, cutting the meat into pieces that could be handled easily. I looked over at Libby and asked, “Wanna go outside and play?’ And out we went It turned out Paw had saved the bladder for us, and taking a straw, we blew it up to about the size of a small basketball and then tied it with a string. We played with it until both we and it were worn out.
By this same time tomorrow, life would be back to normal in both homes, and the shelves in Maw and Paw’s basement would be replenished with clean jars of canned sausage and tenderloin. I would push the killing part of putting food on our tables out of my mind and enjoy each bite of what was once the pig that reminded me of Wilbur in Charlotte’s Web. Life on the farm was not always pretty, but then again, life itself is not always pretty…