John Sanborn was a big man with a hearty laugh. He was my high school cross country running coach. He drove a pickup truck. I think it was an International Harvester. He wore a hoodie and a baseball cap. I remember his truck, hat, and sweatshirt being red.
The first October I went to help, he picked me up in that truck. We went to the bakery to get coffee and doughnuts in the pre-dawn light. Breakfast was done by the time we slammed the truck doors shut at his house. My teammates who were old enough to drive were already there. Mr. Bears was also there. He taught me how to type at school.
There was a block and tackle hanging from a beam between a couple of trees. It hovered over a giant barrel of water heated to a boil. I can’t remember if we stoked wood under the barrel or if we used a propane burner. Steam rose into the autumn air, crisp with frost and the smell of fallen leaves.
We took cornstalks from the adjacent garden and walked to the fence along the edge of the upper pen. We had a wheelbarrow. A big knife. Coach had his shotgun loaded with slugs. We’d lure the six or seven pigs with the leftovers of the summer garden. It was easier to deal with them in the dry upper pen. The lower pen was muddy and a difficult place to wrangle a dead three-hundred pound pig.
We watched the pigs come up and munch on the cornstalks. Coach looked left and right at us boys lined up along the fence. He lifted the shotgun and put a slug into one of the pigs right between the eyes.
My teammate Doug Poisson put the big knife into his teeth, looked at me with wide eyes, laughed maniacally and jumped over the fence making pirate noises. He ran to the pig, put it in a headlock and slit its throat. I was horrified. The pig bled out into the straw and cornstalks and mud. We took down a section of fence and lifted the pig onto the wheelbarrow. Then we were pallbearers as we wheeled the corpse down to the boiling vat. There was a cross bar with hooks at its ends attached below the block and tackle. Coach slit the flesh near the rear hooves and inserted the hooks. We hauled on the ropes and swung the animal as high as we could until we could just fit the head over the rim of the barrel and into the steaming water.
We lowered the animal and waited several minutes. We each grabbed a tool with a wood handle topped by a concave shaped disc of metal. We hauled the rope and the steaming pink carcass emerged. Starting at the highest point, we scraped the skin from the pig while it was still hot and easy to separate from the body. We had to hurry because as the flesh cooled, the skin fought back.
Then, Coach would slit the belly of the animal and gut it. He saved the edible organs like the heart and liver and kidneys.
Every year Mr. Bears asked, “You know how to cook kidneys, don’t you?”
That year’s rookies would answer, “How?”
He’d smirk and say, “You boil the piss out of them.”
I took a hacksaw and sawed the skinned and gutted animal in half. I marveled as each vertebra fell into two pieces while I unzipped the spine. I was a voyeur looking at marrow never meant to see the sun.
One kid stood at each foreleg of a half. Someone lowered the block and tackle and the warm slab of pig would drape over my right shoulder. I held the foreleg with my hands with the rib cage on my shoulder and the rear leg of the half would dangle down behind me. Half of that pig weighed as much as I did. I staggered down the side of Coach’s house and stood in the open garage. Coach stood on a ladder and ran some twine over the I-beam in the ceiling. He tied off each half through the same Achilles tendon the hooks had used. I slowly squatted down and let the pig hang from the beam. I lowered the greasy hood of my sweatshirt and headed up the hill to the upper pen with the rest of the guys. We repeated this whole process with each pig. Each year there were usually six or eight of them.
By the end of the day, the two remaining pigs were in the lower pen. I imagined the second-to-last pig asking the last pig where the rest of the pigs went. The corn in the upper pen wasn’t interesting to them anymore. The end of the day involved muckling the last pig out of the deep mud in the lower pen.
After dark, Coach dropped me off at home. I put the check for my day’s work on the kitchen counter and headed down to the garage. I wore clothes I could throw away. Pig manure and mud and blood don’t tend to wash out.
Coach donated one half to a raffle. All the kids on the cross country running team sold tickets around town. We wore nice new uniforms as we ran over hill and dale, thanks to those animals.
Fall arrives now and I think of running. Then Coach. Then those pigs. I spent a sum total of about three days of my life slaughtering pigs. One day each year for three years. I’ll be damned if I can explain why those days echo so fondly in my head.
Maybe it was because this gruesome, cyclical process shocked my teenage brain into the awareness of the seasons. Of time. In the spring, I helped Coach set up the pen and mend fences so the new residents couldn’t escape. We picked up the bread loaf sized piglets in the truck, each one in a burlap bag. I roto-tilled the garden right next to the upper pen. I hoed furrows in the warm, fragrant earth and sowed corn. I stretched my back and looked up at the greening hills near Coach’s place and listened to the young pigs snuffling and grunting over in the pen. Maybe, if I was lucky, that coming fall, Coach would let me jump the fence with the knife.
Eric Chandler is a husband, father of two, and cross country skier who lives in Duluth, MN. In his spare time, he flies airplanes. Visit http://ericchandler.wordpress.com for his published writing.