My grandparents ran a mixed farm in the fifties and sixties. While their primary cash crop was tobacco they had enough dairy cows to warrant the milk truck stopping by and picking up a few cans each morning. They also grew corn and vegetables and raised chickens. I’m sure they did a lot of other farming too, but what I’m remembering today was pigs. Now they were not a major hog operation, they had a few sows and a boar or two. My memories of this are largely hazy because I was a baby and toddler during this period. Well it continued long past this point, but my memories I’m reflecting on today are of the period between nineteen fifty-eight and sixty-two.
That was the first four years of my life and everything has a haze of age covering it. I am unusual in that I have quite a few memories of that age and some of them are relatively clear. I’m going to talk about pigs.
Now I have had enough experience of toddlers and piglets to tell you that there aren’t a lot of differences between the two. They both need food, warmth, and a bit of love. They are usually both covered in mud and other less identifiable substances. They will also both get in trouble if you take your eyes off of them for even a minute.
I developed a lot of friendly feelings for piglets for a reason city folks wouldn’t even have realized existed. You see, for various reasons a sow will often reject one or more piglets, usually the smallest and weakest. Now, poor subsistence farmers can’t afford the loss of even one piglet if it can be helped. In those days we would take the rejected piglets into the house and bottle feed them until they could be weaned.
My grandmother cooked on a cast iron wood stove that was never allowed to go all the way cold during the winter, it was better to empty the ashes more often than to reheat all that cast iron every day. Besides, while I don’t remember it being cold most of those houses would have benefited from having all the cracks between the boards sealed, not to mention some insulation. In fact, movies and tv shows back in the day used to make fun of country houses for having newspapers plastered to the walls. They shouldn’t have, it was a cheap early form of insulation.
Since the stove was never allowed to go out it made an ideal storage space for the piglets when it wasn’t in actual use and had cooled somewhat. Some of my earliest memories were of my aunt and I getting pigs out of the oven and feeding them. Since she was only about 10 at the time it was inevitable that we should play with the babies. I learned early on that pigs made fine playmates.
They also made decent allies against my aunt’s little dog Snowball. My aunt, as is common with young girls, loved all the broken animals. I never saw her choose a pet that didn’t have an infirmity. Snowball’s infirmity was insanity. I mean that literally. While most of the time it was a friendly little purse dog it would randomly go insane and be willing to bite anything and everything in reach. Hence allying myself with the piglets.
I’m sure there were a lot of piglets over the years but I really only remember one. Well I’m sure from this distance that it is a composite memory of a lot of pigs, some of whom died. The one I can remember distinctly was a red one, appropriately called Rusty. He is the memory I have of all the bottle piglets. Chasing each other, running around, and escaping the dog together made for some good memories and a lifelong fondness for pigs. Living with an unending stream of pigs destined to die or be sold (or put in the smokehouse) left me with a basic understanding that four legged friends are a temporary interlude in life: To be loved, but to know that all such love was fleeting.
One odd factor that I was left with was a total lack of understanding of my size. When the piglets came in to the house they were tiny. By the time the shoats were sold they were much bigger than I was. For some reason this left me with the concept that I was pig sized. Apparently the pigs felt the same.
It chanced that my grandparents had one sow that was a better breeder than any other. She never had a name that I was aware of and my grandparents were not as sentimental as a small child. Now, that sow had a drawback, she hated people and attempted to savage anyone she could. Getting her pigs out of the pen was a matter of making an opening big enough for them and too small for her. Any movement of her was done by chutes and fences because she was several hundred pounds of very dangerous mean.
Well I was at that age where reason didn’t apply and what experience I had with pigs was all good. Oh I’m certain that I had a misunderstanding from time to time with some of those pigs and we fought like cats and dogs. All toddlers do that with each other and I’m sure the pigs and I were no different.
Now this next bit is very hazy and remembered as much because my grandmother loved to tell the story as because I actually remember it.
She had taken me to the barn with her and was doing something. Like all of us she sometimes got distracted and forgot me for a minute. Remember what I said earlier about taking your eyes off toddlers and piglets? She certainly got reminded. One second I was there, the next I was gone. She, of course, started looking for me. Well after a tense and frightening few minutes she found me. That wasn’t a good thing, frightening became terrifying. You see, I was in the pen with that mean old sow.
She was lying on her side feeding her brood. Me? I was sitting on her side playing with the little ones. Sow would look at me if one of the piglets squealed, but otherwise acted as if I were one that had finished feeding. My grandmother couldn’t get near the pen without the sow giving her the look that said she would come up off the ground and savage her if she came near her piglets.
I’m not sure how , but my grandmother managed to get someone to distract the hog and made a long arm and snatched me out of there.
Apparently she could have saved the heroics. I played with all the piglets as long as I lived with my grandparents.
Now there are a lot of other pig stories I could tell, like the one my parents raised for slaughter and my brother named Porky and rode like a pony, but this is enough reminiscing about this subject for a while.
(header image: Little Man and a piglet that is already as big as he is)