Our first foray into the world pigs caused us to learn - and learn fast - and easily replaced goats, cows, and chickens as our favorite farm animal. This is the story of those first pigs, Tamale and Enchilada from furrowing pen to freezer...
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One of the first farm related trips I made in Disle (my 88 Dodge Ram Pickup of which much has been written) was to pick up the first little piglet. I drove Disle 45 miles into work that morning. It was an overcast morning and the sun was just peeking up over the Arkansas River as I parked, illegally, I admit, in one of the patient lots at the hospital where I worked. I did not have a parking pass on Disle and had never registered her with the campus police so they had no idea who she belonged to, and the only way they could figure that out would be to run the plates through Little Rock Police Department. But, that cost them money so I felt I was safe.
One of the many things I love about Disle happens to be the lack of communication she throws my way. For instance, modern vehicles talk to you from the moment you unlock the doors. It may be a simple, short beep and flash of the lights to let you know, that yes you did push the unlock key on your pendant and the unlock did occur as it was meant to. Then start the car without fastening your safety belt and it will constantly remind you - "Hey reprobate - fasten seat belt, hey reprobate - fasten your seatbelt" and even though most cars won't verbalize this in your particular language the message is quite clearly stated, incessantly with the "beep beep beep - beep beep beep". Some cars will even turn on your headlights when ambient light grows too dim or if the windshield wipers are turned on and the vehicle will also, again with an annoying machine gun series of beeps, that you've left your lights on as you exit the car - or the car will simply turn them off because it knows you are too stupid to do so yourself. Disle has none of these features. You fasten the seatbelt or not and no fanfare from Disle at all. She respects me and assumes I am an intelligent human being. No need to keep harping on all those things she thinks I should do, she's just happy go lucky. I can almost hear her say, "You know what? It is what it is. I'm good if you're good."
This day of all days, dark, overcast, and just early enough in the morning to need headlights before setting arriving at work, and just light enough to be able to see that they are on, I decide to drive her into Little Rock, park illegally, to pick up some pigs. Needless to say, Disle did not inform me that my headlights were on when I exited the cab, nor did she take matter into her own hands to turn them off because I had failed to do so. She also refused to start when I got back to her at the end of my work day - the temperamental old tart!
I had rolled up a pair of overalls and had laid them on the seat that morning so I would have something to change into, figuring I would be chasing and catching my own piglet that afternoon (more on that later). Remember, I was illegally parked at the hospital and would face a $25.00 fine if security found out about it. Incidentally, multiple parking violations would eventually lead to an employee's termination, especially if that employee insisted on parking in a patien/visitor lot. I knew that the security officers had portable jump starting kits they carried around with them. But to call them dressed in my business clothes would expose me as a patient parking vulture and subject me to the fine I had to find a way to work my way out of the situation. Of course, I did what any one would have done in this position.
I crawled into the cab of Disle and slyly, in front of God and everybody, succeeded in stripping down to my skivvies and sliding into my coveralls without too much commotion and I do not think any one saw what was going on - at least no one ever brought it to my attention if they had. I am sure, if someone I knew had seen me make this attempt at changing clothes in broad daylight in a single cab pickup they would have never let me live it down. Once clothed in my "farmer disguise", I rolled up my business clothes and laid them on the seat disguising them as well as I could. I then called the security department for a jump. In a few moments they had Disle started and I could be on my way. The officer looked at me a little askance and I could see the question forming on his lips - "you work here?" - but my appearance, the run down state (then) of Disle, and my pseudo-southern drawl made the words stop before they came out.
"Thankee officer," I drawled, keeping up the deception, "gotta go pick me up some hawgs!"
A quick sigh of relief and a quick pull of the gear shift into drive and then I was on my way.
Disle and I pulled out onto I630 heading east made the sweeping left exit up and over I30 and entered this interstate right before reaching downtown Little Rock and the Arkansas River. Over the bridges, a bumpy ride, past the Clinton Library, extended out over the bank of the river like some single-wide built by a lottery winning hill-billy, to my right, the RiverMarket and Amphitheater on the left. Once across the river we proceeded straight ahead, which exits I30 as it makes its way towards I40 and Memphis, and made our way up State Highway 107, one of my favorite roads for some reason. Even though it was no longer the winding strip of two lane blacktop snaking its way up north towards the Air Base it still had a lot of memories for me. Once cleared from the stip malls, grocery stores, and small time car dealerships, we passed through Gravel Ridge, Cardinal Valley, and other small towns, past Little Rock Air Force Base, and almost to the Highway 5 cutoff that takes one to Cabot. Just before the highway was the road I was looking for, Apollo Road. I turned left off the highway and then a quick right on to Zeus Road, dirt, gravel, and red Arkansas clay.
I had seen the add in the Arkansas Democrat Gazzette:
"Tamworth-Hampshire cross piglets $35 - Zeus Road, etc". I called the number and set up the deal.
As I pulled into the drive way I realized that the people I would be visiting were not the well mannered, organized, hobby farmers I thought they were when speaking to them on the phone.
The drive pulled into a barren patch of lawn shaded heavily by large oak trees. The archetypical large hound dog trotted out to the truck braying with every step. At about the same time, Jethro and Cooter, brothers, hairy, thin, shirtless, a cigarette clamped between the fore and middle fingers of their right hands which simultaneuosly held a frosty Coors Silver Bullet cans open, probably half empty. They had slipped on their knee high muck boots so quickly that their trouser legs were all bunched up around the tops. One of them, Cooter, I think, pushed back, with his left hand, the brim of his RiceLand Foods camouflaged ball cap, stained with sweat, slop, and chainsaw grease,
"You here bout them pigs?"
There's one thing you'll need to know about me that is important to this story. I sometimes tend to adopt the accents and mannerisms of the people I am talking to. I am not mocking them, it just comes naturally, and I find that I meet with great success when I do this, because the person I am dealing with assumes I am just like them.
"Yup!" I said in a natural midwest Arkansas drawl.
"Got one left and momma's pissed." he answered.
Of course, I said what any intelligent farmer would say at this point, knowing that an inbred or unhealthy animal makes no meat, has multiple health issues, and will cause more stress on the farm than they are worth, and knowing that I needed to see the hog first, to make sure the animal was healthy and had all its parts - in the right places...trust me on this - it has happened before - I said,
"I'll take it."
"Awlraight. It's a little girl." Cooter said. Jethro had failed to speak a word this whole time.
"Awlraight, " Cooter started again. "Here's what we gonna do. Momma's pissed. This izzer last baby. She gone be mean.", swig of beer," You got a crate right?"
I nodded. "Well then, put down yer tailgate dere and pull the crate out own it and open dat dere door lak this." He did it for me. And now we were set up to receive the hog.
"Now gimme dat thirty fav dollers and you climb on in that truck. Me and Jethro gonna go get the hog. You stay in the truck, cause momma gonna try to come troo dat fence back dere. Jethro and me gonna come running, slam baby pig in de crate, flop up de tailgate and head to de house quick as we can. You stay in de truck. Ok?"
What could I say? I mean, I said, "okay" and hopped in the truck as Jethro and Cooter left the scene along a path that circled up under the trees into the back yard, where, ostensibly, the pigs were kept. I waited just a few minutes and began to think that I had been had. I broke the two cardinal rules of animal purchases. First, I failed to inspect the animal. Second, I handed over cash before I had the animal secure in the truck. The risk of this all too trusting process of buying an unseen animal for the former is you may end up buying a deformed, retarded, or somehow evil creature that will destroy your farm and your dreams, and in the case of the latter, once the money exchanges hands, if the animal escapes, the seller can legally say, "well you bought it, you catch it!". That's if they just don't disappear around the back of the house while you sit in your cab wondering if they are coming back at all.
I sat for what seemed a few more minutes until I decisded to get out of the truck to go find the guys. Just as I reached for the door handle I looked at my rear view mirror and saw Cooter, closely followed by Jethro, holding a little black piglet, which was squealing as loudly as the two men were. They were running full tilt towards the back of the truck, powered on by the little pig in Jethro's arms, the wild screeches from the little pig's momma shaking the trees and the foundation of the single wide trailer, emanating from the pen behind the house. Come to think of it, Jethro and Cooter were screaming just as loudly. The looks of extreme terror on their faces made me think twice about exiting the relative safety of the truck.
Jethro threw the pig, head first, into the crate sitting on the tail gate. Cooter slammed the door shut and locked it. Then with a blinding speed, and a grace that belied their rough exteriors, they lifted the tailgate and slammed it shut, then ran straight to the house, up the steps, and into the house. I started Disle, slammed her into reverse, backed into the drive, slammed the transmission into drive and threw up a cloud of dust as I stepped on the gas. I pulled up to Apollo road just as a large, red and black, momma hog, sprinted in that coiled, ball of undulating muscle, that is the pig, into the front yard, squealing and wailing the whole while.
I turned left onto state highway 107 and then left on state 64 in Vilonia, stopping at a gas station to get a drink and a snack. It was, after all, now 5:30 PM and I had not had anything much at all to eat all day. I was the main attraction of the middle-of-nowhere gas station just east of Conway. People pumping gas left the nozzles running into their gas tanks to walk over and take a look of the cute little piglet locked in the large dog crate, making pig like noises, and I am sure, without a clue of what her destiny would be.
Another 45 minutes and I pulled into the drive of Shamrock and Thistle Farm.
*** Warning: The following paragraphs contain considerable amounts of onomotapoeia.***
While I was on my adventure at Cooter and Jethro's Single Wide and Hog Farm, Patt and the kids were busy building a pen for the new piglet in a corner of our garden. The idea was to use the pig as it grew as a kind of tractor to till the patch while fertilizing it at the same time. The piglet was a ball of muscle and energy about as wide as a basket ball and about as tall as a large terrier when I picked her up. The plan was to construct a 16' by 16' pen out of cattle panels and they had it all ready when we lunked the dog crate with the 45 pound piglet inside down the hill to the garden. We were so excited, the pig was too. When the crate started shaking as I carried it towards her new home, she started oink-ing, grunt-ing, and squeal-ing, all sounds foreign to the farm. Upon hearing the strange sounds from this oddest of animals, chickens started clucking, goats started braying, cows started mooing and as they lined up along the fence to the garden to get a glimpse of this strange new animal our excitement grew much like the teenage pianist, used to practicing a piece unobserved, suddenly finds herself in front of an audience.
We set the crate down inside the pen and opened the door. Patt was ready with a jug of fresh cows milk which she poured into the trough. The little black piglet burst out into what she thought was the wide world and sucked down the milk with rapid fire slurping and gurgling.
At the time we had an all white Jack Russell Terrier named Lightning because of the lightning bolt that zig-zagged across his black nose. We dropped him in the pen and the dog and the pig became fast friends. The pig rooted here and there into the soil and I envisioned a well weeded, naturally tilled and fertilized patch of the garden. Incidentally, to this day, when the soil is gently turned to lay out the beds every year we can still smell the particular smell of hog on that patch and it is so well developed that it has become our permanent asparagus bed.
We hung around a bit to watch our new animal get used to her surroundings and to make sure there were no holes she could get out of. After several minutes we realized she had no intention of escape, confining herself to the center of the pen and the milk filled feed trough.
Satisfied that the pig was secured we made the walk up the hill to the house to wash up for dinner, ironically, a pork shoulder that Patt had been roasting all afternoon. The dining room table, in our small house, was wedged between the carport and backporch doors and the single bar-countertop that segmented the kitchen from this space. One end of the table was up against the sill of the window that looked out onto the back yard. Patt and the three boys sat two on each side, and I held the position of honor, the head of the table facing this window.Just as we sat down to eat, I looked out the window and saw a small, dog sized black shape scurrying up the hill behind the shop (which eventually would become our home after the fire in 2010). The shape disappeared behind the 400 square foot building. I think it was here I let out one of those bad words basically decent people learn when they move to a farm. We all jumped up to chase the pig which somehow had squeezed through the fence bordering our neighbors cattle farm. The little pig ran into the huge 30 acre pasture, apparently taking great pleasure in her freedom and the tall green grass.
Our new little pig, less than an hour into her stay on our farm, had escaped the pen in the garden, the garden fence, the fence which kept our cows away from the house, and the fence that kept animals on our property and went on the run. We sat back down to eat and decided from henceforth and forever more, this pig would be called Tamale. And giving up hope of ever eating one of her pork chops, we ate the store bought roast. The story does not end here, however, because by the time we had finished dinner, I happened to look out the window again, and I noticed Tamale slowly trotting back down the hill, crossed the two fences and make her way back into the pen we had built for her. Apparently, she felt the fresh milk, and the friend she had made (Lightning) was too much of a draw for her. And she gave up freedom for the security of what promised to be a peaceful life on Shamrock and Thistle Farm.
It was this incident and several others like it over the course of the ensuing years, that taught us, probably, the most important thing to know about raising pigs. They are smart. Don't let the looks, the mannerisms, and the noises fool you. The word 'swine', in the English Language, connotes a disgusting, boorish, dullard. This is inappropriate at best. Pigs will not test a fence while you are watching them. They know, you are watching them, and they will find all sorts of things to keep them occupied, to fool you into thinking they have a lack of interest. It's like a husband in the mall who sneaks a look at another woman in a tight sweater by positioning himself so his wife can not see his lingering stare. It gives the husband plausible deniability if he is caught. The pig, will eat, root around, lay down in the middle of the pen in an effort to communicate to you - "master, you have given me such a nice home, why would I want to escape?". It is only when they have lulled you into this false sense of security, do they escape, or root up the beets in the garden, or lift the gate off its hinges, or get into the chicken feed, or any number of mischeivous possibilities.
With Tamale, as she was eventually named, settled back into her new home and we plugged the holes in the cattle panel fence it became evident that she would require a companion. Pigs are friendly, social creatures, so, excited about getting into the pig business we searched the want ads of the Arkansas Democrat Gazette to find other young piglets for sale. This is how we came to own, Tamale's new friend, the cute, red and black Duroc mix hog, named Enchilada.
Patt and I loaded the large crate with which we brought Tamale home just a week before, in to the back of her station wagon for the trip. It was a "farm" southwest of Benton Arkansas advertising piglets for $35.00 each. Upon arriving we should have known better than to go ahead with our plan of getting a friend for Tamale. The "Farm" was fenced, completely on all four sides of the property, with old washing machines, dryers, and refrigerators. Not a pretty sight, but perhaps, the "farmer" deserves some credit for re-purposing these broken down appliances. The farmer saw us pull up and came out of his home, didn't bother to introduce himself, but led us to the hog pen, also fenced with used appliances. The small lot wherein he kept is flock? of hogs - what do you call a group of swine anyway?- was filled with mamas and a great number of piglets, some scurrying around and squealing, others, less motivated, lay on the hard dry compacted earth.
"Well, get in there and pick you out one!" the farmer drawled.
Hmm. I thought. For $35 I figured this guy would catch one for me. But not to be embarrassed by asking him to get one for me, I jumped in the pen and chased down an active, healthy looking young male. After a few minutes securing him in my arms I crawled back over the "fence" and headed to the station wagon.
"You want'em fixed?" the farmer asked
"Yeah, I was going to ask you about that. Can we do that now?"
"Sure! Just hold him up by his hind legs and put his head between your knees to hold'em still."
I did so, arms raised up to chest level, the piglet's legs outstretched. The little fella's head clamped securely between my knees. The farmer whipped out a razor blade from his overall breast pocket and made a quick slice to Enchilada's back end, reached in a grabbed the parts and ripped them out of the hole. Enchilada made not a sound. I put the piglet into the crate, locked it up and paid the farmer.
The farmer put the parts onto a saucer and exclaimed, "There's breakfast tomorrow morning! Nothing better to go with fresh eggs!"
We drove home. I am not sure who was more traumatized, Patt and I, or the little pig. But he made little noise all the way home.
We housed Enchilada in a small crate in our workshop (which is now our home) to give him time to heal up from his "surgery" before putting him in the garden pen with Tamale.
After a couple of days we noticed the little pig wasn't eating and he felt warm to the touch. He was soiling his crate with some of the most foul smelling stuff, and he refused to drink. We did everything we could think of - cleaning his cage, force feeding him water with electrolytes, and cooking up special meals that we hoped would entice him to eat. But he kept getting worse.
We ended up taking Enchilada to a local vet you had an office in a singlewide trailer along the banks of Harris Brake Lake. A quick examination revealed that the farmer had cut deep into Enchilada's stomach cavity in search of his boy parts. Apparently the little piglet was born Cryptorchid, which means his testicles had never developed on the outside of the body like they should. Instead of dropping they remained inside. Over the past few days, Enchilada had been dying a slow death from infection caused by the deep cut into his bowels. The vet cleaned the wound up, flushed out the cavity that had grown rancid, sprayed the area with a yellow aerosolized antibacterial spray (something every farm should have on hand), and dosed him with a strong antibiotic. He gave us several more doses with instructions to give the pig a shot on a regular scheduled for the next 11 days. We did so and the feeling of guilt we experienced every day when sticking him with that needle eventually subsided as we saw him get more active and happier looking. One wouldn't guess it from looking at them, but one can tell if a pig is happy or not by simply looking him in the face. When the course of antibiotics was finished and Enchilada started making happy pig noises and happy pig faces we turned him loose in the garden pen with his new friend.
For the next 7 months Tamale and Enchilada had a very happy, healthy life. The work they did for us in that little patch of garden is still bearing fruit today many years later as our asparagus beds are really established and producing some of the biggest, tastiest spears I've ever eaten.
Then we ate them. It is the proverbial circle of life...