Dad awakened me long before the light showed on this cold winter morning. A norther had arrived during the night; by morning it was cold and clear, ideal weather for hog killing. The men in the neighborhood had concluded the approaching storm was suitable to provide the three cold days needed for the vital curing process.
We were town people, in our view distinct from farm or country folk, yet the population of 214 made the distinction fuzzy at best. Dad, the town’s Methodist preacher, was provided a parsonage, which consisted of a house, a small barn, a pasture, a vegetable garden, pig pens, milk cows, and chickens.
Along with deciding if this particular weather front was a “killing front,” the men of our neighborhood also decided what family would kill and ensure that everyone had help enough.
Knowing that hog killing time was approaching precipitated standard preparations: scalding barrels to sterilize them, collecting firewood, cleaning cutting tables, checking the heavy-gauge wire loop for the block-and-tackle, and other chores. With the decision that hog killing was to be the next day, an air of excitement prevailed. I had tended both the hogs to be killed, and went to their pen for a final feeding and a sad goodbye. Of course, I knew all along this was to be their fate, and never questioned it. On farms, there is a gentleness and a genuine caring for all the animals, yet the necessity for sacrifice of meat animals is accepted as part of the reality of life. Then I went to bed early, for hog killing begins early indeed.
Dad came into my room and gently shook me. “Time to get up, son.”
I pulled on my shoes by the wood stove Dad had stoked. Jackets and caps were welcome, for cold weather was part and parcel of hog killing. While Mom fixed a hearty breakfast, I went out in the dark and lit the wood fire under the big barrel. With two hogs to be killed, sausage made, and the lard rendered, an early start was necessary. After getting the fire going under the water drum, likely with ice on top, and once again checking everything for readiness, I went back inside to Mom’s breakfast of hot biscuits, sausage, eggs, and gravy. It was just daylight when Dad and I finished breakfast, put on coat, hat and gloves, and went out to continue getting ready. Neighborhood men would arrive soon.
The cold bit into my unprotected skin as we stepped out into the clear night of an early January morning in Arkansas. Just as we came out of the house, Dad, without a word or having previously mentioned anything about it, tapped my arm with the handle of the “sticking knife” and motioned for me to take it.
I had not given a thought to being chief of hog killing at this time, though I fully expected, as did all my friends, to be selected in due time. I had no time to be nervous and that was no doubt Dad’s intention. With so much needing to be done, there was little time for the reality that I was “in charge” to settle in.
The owner of the block-and-tackle arrived, and went inside to get coffee while we bustled about, stoked the fire, honed the cutting knives again, prepared the killing pen, and checked the gun. One after another the helping friends quietly slid into what was a well-understood procedure. As each arrived, he would stand for a moment to observe and then ask, so it could be heard by all, “Who has the knife?”
One of the men present would give a slight nod in my direction – both had probably known of my selection from the previous day’s meeting – and the person who asked would say something to acknowledge my position.
“Looks like you’ve got things well in order. Two good hogs this year, biggest will go 225–250 pounds, I reckon. If you like, I’ll set the scalding barrel a bit deeper, Joe?”
My only response would be an affirmative nod. For me to give instructions to these far more experienced men would be rash and foolish, and that I would disagree or countermand something they suggested was unthinkable.
When the water was near boiling, the first hog, enticed with food, was brought from the pen. It was led to a sturdy makeshift pen near the killing area. Finally the reality of having the knife settled in. My mind had dwelled on the forthcoming ritual since my dad’s tap on my arm two hours previously.
Someone handed me the gun, a .22-caliber, single-shot rifle, with the caution that the safety latch was on. The hog was positioned so I could put the gun through the wire fencing for a proper shot. The placement of the shot was critical, exactly between the eyes and slightly above a line connecting them. It must be accurate to within a quarter of an inch for a clean kill. All talking and movement stopped, a shushed expectancy prevailed. I well knew this was my test. Over previous years, I had been shown why the shot had been successful or missed the vital mark. If an old-timer missed the mark, there was lots of good-natured kidding. Not so with first-timers though. Then the comments were supportive. “Tough luck, she moved just as you shot.” Or, “Good shot, sometimes it doesn’t work, even when you hit right on.”
So it wasn’t fear of ridicule that haunted me at this time, but the reality that the man with the knife was required by custom to climb into the pen alone with the still thrashing hog and “stick” the hog in the jugular vein so the blood drained quickly. The urgency for a clean kill was real and pressing, for it was no light matter to struggle alone with a 225-pound hog to reach that vital point with the knife.
Though my first shot appeared to be well placed, I knew instantly it was a fraction too low. I turned and handed the gun to a bystander, took the knife in return, and climbed without hesitation into the pen with the squealing and thrashing hog, struggling to avoid those sharp hooves.
Tradition prevented any help whatsoever from the bystanders; they remained attentive but completely silent. Unbeknown to me, Mom and my sisters were watching apprehensively from a window inside the house; she felt that her youngest son, me, thirteen years old, was far too young for this dubious honor. I’m uncertain whether Dad had talked the decision over with Mom; likely he had kept if from her as he had kept it from me.
Somehow I managed to get the knife inserted, although I had been roughed up considerably. Once the successful jab had been made and I backed away, a cheer-like response, expressed as grunts and ahs, arose from the men who had watched so intently. I somehow sensed this was out of respect for the life we were required to take for our food supply. It was clearly a solemn occasion. Then several men jumped into the pen and took over.
After taking a few minutes to get my breath, I was back in action. The hog was dragged to the scalding pot, cuts made just above the ankles exposing the tough tendons, hooks inserted and the animal hoisted up and maneuvered into the tilted scalding barrel. Boiling water was poured and sloshed around to loosen the hair; the hide was scraped until it was completely hairless. The hoist was once again affixed, the hog lifted and washed thoroughly.
Once the carcass was cleared, it, too, was washed thoroughly with warm water. Then men in front and back, with arms interlaced to form a sling, moved it to the cutting-up table.
The patriarch of the killing family then took charge, directing the cutting according to the traditions and preferences of his family. “Having the knife” does not extend to this part of the process; that comes only when the elder of the family turns this task over to a successor, likely the oldest son at home at the time.
It is traditional in Arkansas hog killing that fresh pork loin, the choicest cut of meat, is served to the workers in the late afternoon meal. I never saw or heard of that tradition being challenged.
During the critical few days during which the curing process happened, there was an anxious tension in the air. Weather reports on the radio were listened to with regularity and if a warming trend emerged, the concern became intense.
The next day at school, I casually mentioned, “Yesterday was hog killing and I had the knife for the first time.” I think my friends had heard I’d done all right.
Joe E. Armstrong was a retired university professor when he wrote “Hog Killing.” His books, Tales of a Fledgling Homestead and Preacher Kids from Arkansas, were published by Misty Hill Press. His writing has been compared to Eudora Welty’s. A gifted back-porch teller, his stories featured family tales from Arkansas, and flying stories from his years as a Navy pilot. Joe passed on May 13, 2010, and is missed by all who knew and loved him.