The single-digit or subzero cold spells are the times I remember best. Trudging out to the back field, through the arcing windbreak of leafless trees, there was no sound except the crunch of snow beneath my heavy boots. Soft tissue inside my nose and throat cringed as the icy air assaulted wherever it could reach. I opened the front of the little shed where the feed was stored and filled white five-gallon buckets with pulverized grain. Repeated trips carrying the buckets six steps up to the platform, lifting, and emptying gave me the shoulders of an Amazon. By the time all was ready, my face, hands and feet would be freezing, but my core would be sweating under my puffy insulated coveralls Then, I opened the door.
To farrow means to give birth. The farrowing house was a maternity ward of a sort. The tropically steamy atmosphere inside frosted and fogged my glasses, blinding me, as the walloping stench took away my breath. A farrowing house is built over a pit, a cesspool for swine. Adding to the pungent reek of excrement and urine was the very specific pig smell impregnated into the dander, which floats invisibly in the air and settles on every surface including my skin, clothing and every strand of hair. I was resigned to the fact that I would smell like this place when I was done. The sows were confined in two rows of crates, seven on each side facing a center aisle with a food bin and water dispenser by their heads. Heating mats on the slatted floor and hot air forced noisily out of the blower kept everyone toasty, regardless of the outdoor clime. Bars inside the crate kept the mothers from turning around, reducing but not eliminating the chance that they would lie down on their young, who milled around the perimeter of the crate, and smother them. If I found a poor dead piglet, I had to reach in and remove it ASAP. (DON’T READ THIS, YOU OF DELICATE SENSIBILITY!) Sows often chew on their own dead piglets, I don’t KNOW why, (psychosis, hiding the evidence?) but I will tell you that picking up a dead piglet is much less traumatic than picking up half a dead piglet. And on a hot summer day, having a feed bag containing a dozen whole and partial dead piglets break open at the bottom and spill out over your shoes will mark you for life. Life. (DELICATE FOLKS, YOU CAN BEGIN READING AGAIN!)
I moved down the center aisle, pouring feed into the bins, so the sows could in turn nurse their offspring, the reason this was all in place. I have never heard a pig “oink.” Our pigs either grunted or more frequently barked with a toss of the head, baptizing me with saliva and snot. It could be argued they were joyously greeting me, the bringer of food, but I think not. To reach into the crate, I had to face down their intimidating teeth and beady, glaring eyes. It was a contrast to the sight of a pile of newborn piglets piled in a warm and content heap, sleeping and occasionally flapping a delicate pink ear or tail. After feeding was cleanup when I used a scraper to break up the piles of manure, (which I called shit loudly and repeatedly inside my head,) pushing it between the floorboards into the fragrant pit below. “It’s just dirt,” as my dad said, often, in exasperation or amusement.
When the piglets were big enough, they graduated to the next room in the building, dedicated to feeder pigs. Liberated from the constraining and threatening bulk of their mothers, the young pigs scampered in pens with their friends, eating, sleeping, urinating, defecating and socializing until they were big enough to sell. With thunderous little hooves stampeding in tight circles and excited squealing in unison, the sound was deafening. Much more filling and emptying of heavy buckets, but the excrement was more manageable. All done, the door shut behind me, I breathed in deeply the silence and the pure arctic air. This was my first paid job. Every day I tended the pigs, I drew a tally mark on the blackboard in the house. Every so often I’d call Dad to account. I wish I remembered how much one hour, give or take, in the pig house was worth. I learned a lot about dirt and unpleasantness and doing the job anyway. I learned about being responsible. I learned about showering so thoroughly that no one would ever guess how I spent my after school time. This is what I do, I assured myself, not who I am. But of course it is both. “It’s good for you! It builds character,” Dad used to say, and no matter how many showers you take, character never completely washes away.