When I was a kid, Thanksgiving was always the big “family holiday”. We usually went to the farm that my aunt and uncle owned and had a big family dinner with them, but it was always the next couple of days that stuck in my mind.
Don’t get me wrong, though…the turkey and ham that Lucile fixed were wonderful. Her sage dressing, made from homemade breads, was the best you could find. And her pies staggered the imagination. She was an amazing cook, and she never used a recipe or measured anything.
But this was a working farm, and taking the day off on Thursday meant that we had to work hard on Friday and Saturday to make up for lost time.
We did a lot of butchering when we were at my uncle Mike and aunt Lucile’s farm back in Missouri—cattle, hogs, chickens, and even a few goats and sheep, but mostly hogs, followed by cattle.
One year, on the Friday after Thanksgiving, we decided to butcher a big hog Mike had fattened over the spring, summer, and fall. I have no idea how much the hog weighed, but he was huge. Mike was a big man, well over 6 feet, and the hog made him look like a child, not much bigger than my 9-year-old self.
Killing the hog was normally not a big deal. Mike used his old WWII M-1 rifle. One shot to the head, and it was all over. Normally…
This hog was tough. Sort of like a B-Grade sci-fi horror flick…”The Hog That Wouldn’t Die! See the US Army held at bay by the giant killer hog! See rural Missouri in a state of panic! Coming soon to a drive-in theater near you!”
The first shot, from about 6 feet away, bounced off the hog’s forehead! Being from a rural part of the country and growing up poor, I’ve done my share of hunting. I personally have hunted deer. With my own hands, I have used a 30-caliber rifle to kill a deer. Yes, I shot Bambi. At 150 yards, one shot dropped a 6-point buck instantly.
The hog just glared at Mike when shot with the same rifle from only 6 feet away.
Oh, and the hog got mad. Really mad. I can’t say as I blame him.
The hog proceeded to chase Mike around the pen. Quickly. If you have never been around hogs, they can move very fast. Just to look at them, laying there in the mud and the slop, you might think they are slow, sedentary animals. They’re not.
To go with his height, Mike had long legs. And he needed them. He made about three trips around the pen, with Herr Hog in hot pursuit. Mike was moving like, as the song said, his head was on fire and his ass was catching.
To get the full impact of this memory, you need to see the pigpen clearly in your mind…it’s about 30 feet square. Surrounding it is a fence made of 1×6 boards nailed to hand-split posts. As I recall, there were four boards from top to bottom. There may have been only three. There was one walk-through gate latched with a length of chain. The chain was nailed to a post and another nail in the gate was used to drop one of the links over to hold the gate shut.
Oh…did I mention that the mud and slop in the pen is about a foot deep? And it’s not “just mud”. The mud in a pigpen is made up of water and dirt. Mostly. Maybe. You feed hogs corn, other grains, and table scraps—any kind of scraps. It doesn’t matter. They’ll eat it. And hogs aren’t too picky about where the toilet is. So, the “mud” is a mixture of water, dirt, animal and vegetable matter in various stages of decay, and what comes from the business end of the hog. It’s slick, slimy, and it stinks to high heaven.
So, here’s Mike running for his life from the Killer Hog through foot-deep nasty stuff in the pen. He’s wearing knee boots to keep the muck off his feet, mostly. He’s carrying a LOADED 30-caliber rifle. And the hog is, by now, SERIOUSLY pissed off.
If the visual wasn’t enough, the sounds must have been an absolute uproar! I couldn’t hear them, of course, but I could see the hog’s mouth moving as he squealed like…well, like he’d been shot. I saw Mike’s mouth moving as well as he screamed for help. The rest of us were laughing hysterically. At the time, it seemed like a laughing matter.
I can’t really say how long this all went on, but it seemed like a long time. Finally, Mike managed to get over the fence and out of the pen. The hog rammed a post with his head and broke off the 8-inch oak pole flush with the ground. And then it started to snow.
Aunt Lucile, hearing the combined screams of terror and delight, came outside to see what the problem was and why we were “foolin’ around” instead of working.
Mike, covered from head to toe in specks, globs, and larger bits of “mud” told her the story of the bulletproof hog.
She sighed, yanked the gun from his hands, jacked a new cartridge into the chamber, and fired once. The hog hit the ground, twitched one time, and stopped moving. Lucile shoved the rifle back to Mike and stormed off to the house.
Now, the fun began…
Hogs are covered with a coarse hair. Ever heard of “boar bristle” in hairbrushes? That’s what it is. To get the hair off, you scald the hog in hot water and then scrape the flesh with a knife. Sounds simple enough, and in the past, it had been.
We used a 55-gallon drum over a wood fire. We would fill the drum with water and get it boiling, and then dunk the hog in using a chain hoist. Pull him out the same way. Then scrape for all you’re worth. If any hair remains, repeat as needed.
We got the water to a good, fast roll, and we hoisted the now deceased Killer Hog into the air and lowered him into the boiling water. He barely fit in the drum.
All right, class…what happens when you heat something? Anything! Water, steel, plastics, pretty much everything you can think of. What happens to water when you heat it? That’s right, class! It turns to steam, but what else does it do? Does it get smaller, so it will fit in a smaller container? No! That’s correct little Debbie! It gets bigger! We say that it expands.
Yeah…water expands when you heat it. So does steel. And copper. And wood. And hogs.
We couldn’t get the Killer Hog out of the drum of boiling water because he expanded. Mike said the “SOB done swolled up”.
The hog was cooking in there, so we had to get him out.
But that was the least of our problems…
Remember that whole thing about water expanding when it turns to steam? Do you know how a steam engine works? As the water is heated and turns to steam, the expanding steam is used to move a piston in a cylinder. Get a big enough piston and enough pressure from the steam, and you can move a train. Some trains weigh hundreds of tons. A few, thousands. The point here is, for the careful reader, that there is a LOT of energy in steam.
As we stood around wondering how to get the Killer Hog out of the 55-gallon drum, we noticed the drum bulging. My dad and Mike exchanged a quick glance, sort of like that look you get just about the time you realize you did something really stupid. Mike yelled for everyone to get away. He grabbed me. My dad grabbed my cousin Darla. We all landed behind the old 1952 Chevy pickup truck sitting nearby.
I had just a moment to reflect on much I liked that old truck. It was the kind with steps on the sides of the bed. Mike had a homemade wooden cattle rack in the back. We used to ride back there and stand on the rungs of the rack when we went to the river for a swim. It was black. Mostly. There was a lot of rust, too. Just as I was admiring the lettering on the door of the truck with Mike’s name and address, the steam reached a critical point in the drum.
The pressure had to go someplace, and there were two options. The first was that the drum could rupture. That could be either a nice, slow splitting, or it could be explosive. That’s what worried my dad and uncle.
Instead, the other possibility happened.
The Killer Hog blew out of the drum at a high rate of speed. I can’t tell you how fast, exactly. Something the size of a hog shouldn’t be moving that fast, though. It was really fast. Fast enough that the hog went maybe 50 feet in the air. Not quite straight up, mind you, because the swelling of the drum caused it to lean a little…toward the truck.
The hog went way up in the air. One of the first things that the Wright brothers learned is that what goes up must come down. I guess the hog already knew that.
We managed to get away from the truck before the hog hit it.
The tearing of metal made a screaming sound that I actually felt against my skin as the hog gave in to the relentless pull of gravity. The shattering glass flew for many yards in all directions. The snapping of the wood slats making up the stock rack made concussions that slapped my face as hard as the crack of the M-1 used earlier. The hog itself made a sort of dull thud of a shock-wave. I imagine a bag of wet cement dropped from the Sears Tower would do about the same when it hit the streets below.
Today, I know how to figure it out. Without getting mathematical on you, let’s just say that the hog, if he went 50 feet in the air, hit the roof of the truck at about 33 miles per hour.
He also weighed about half as much as the truck.
As I remember, Mike got $75 from the wrecking yard for the remains of the truck. He bought a 1963 Chevy truck for $100. Overall, that wasn’t too bad.
After picking the now badly damaged Killer Hog from the wreckage of the truck, we finished butchering with no more drama or near disasters.
But even today, every time I have bacon or sausage, I watch the skies overhead.