I used to work on a farm. No, really. The college I went to had a work-study program. Most incoming freshmen were pawned off on the Boone Tavern Hotel, but not me. I visited the campus once, and as a potential pre-vet student, I found myself in the Agriculture building speaking with the department head. I had several years of dog training experience under my belt, and that somehow qualified me for employment on the college farm. I guess it’s a natural progression from teaching my dog to heel to being stepped on by cows. But it beat waiting tables in the Tavern.
I’ve told some of my farm stories. The sweet ones. The sheep stories. The one where the honey-colored lamb with chocolate points was pulled out of the group that was slated for Easter dinner and kept as a pet because she was so beautiful. The one where I spent several hours helping a newborn lamb learn to stand. The ones that make you go “awwww!”
There are others, though. The ones I can’t tell at the dinner table. The ones that usually end with me walking home covered in excrement. That’s most of them, come to think of it. And this is one of those.
I will readily admit that I was not a good fit for the farm. I love animals, don’t get me wrong. But the closest I had ever been to a farm up until college was the time my kindergarten class went to visit the custodian’s cows. I stepped in a cow flop with my brand new shiny cowgirl boots. One second, I was walking along happy as a clam. The next, I was staring in horror at the filth encrusting the hand-stitching on my beloved boots. I don’t remember anything else about the trip. That kind of scarring doesn’t heal easily.
All my fellow farm-workers had grown up in agriculture. They grew up driving tractors and Many of them were headed into actual careers in the field, so to speak. I felt intimidated and clueless. Because I was. But I had a thirst to prove myself. And just enough lack of foresight to jump in without looking.
So when the head of the department announced a bonus assignment in our team meeting one week, my hand was the first in the air. I barely noticed that everyone else was shrinking down in their seats or staring at their desk to avoid making eye contact. Never mind that I was the only one who actually volunteered and the rest had to be shamed into it. The rest were shamed into it. This was my CHANCE! And how bad an job could it BE, anyway? Oh, wait. What was the assignment again?
It took a few days to begin to regret the decision. The first twinge of remorse came a few days later as my alarm clock announced to the entire dorm that I was a big, stupid dork who had to get out of bed before the sun was up. On a SATURDAY! I should have stayed in bed.
I met the rest of the crew over at the Ag building for the carpool (truckpool?) over to the farm. None of them were exactly effusive with me before, but the ride over was a bit on the frosty side. Possibly because the only reason they were there in the first place was because the department chair had asked “Why is HEATHER the only one who is volunteering? What about some of you GUYS?” There. Let the hating begin.
We arrived at the pig house, and the task seemed simple enough. A farmer had purchased 5 gilts (that’s a girl pig that hasn’t yet found true love, for all you city-slickers), and we were to load them up in his truck. Things are never as easy as they look. For starters, to get this thing done, we actually had to go IN to the pig house. For those of you who have never had the pleasure, a pig house is an olfactory experience like no other. To get an inkling, go visit the crazy cat lady in your neighborhood and ask a friend to hold your head in the litter box. For an hour. The more experienced workers slipped bandanas over their breathing apparatus, one guy helped the farmer back his truck up to the chute, and in we plunged.
Our quarry was found milling around with giant numbers tattooed on their behinds with grease crayon in an enclosure at one end of the building. The idea was for us to open the door to the pen and begin driving the pigs to the chute at the very opposite end. That may have been the moment when I knew that this could end badly for me. The word “pig” was something of a misnomer to begin with. The word “pig” connotes little and cute. As in “this little piggie went to market.” I think that when I signed up for this gig, I was imagining little Wilbur dressed in his bonnet and dining from a baby bottle. These were more on the hog-end of pigdom, really. Forget baby bottles. One glance into that pen, and I knew at twice my size, these ladies could end up dining on ME. I should have hidden in the truck until it was over.
But the job had to get done. Let the games begin. One of the guys slid the bolt out of the lock and opened the gate. Others hopped over the short metal fencing into the pen and tried to encourage our porcine friends out the door with slaps on the rear and a rousing chorus of “Move on pig!” As small as that pen was, those gals were reluctant to leave it. Instead of bolting for freedom, they milled about us in ever faster circles, shrieking in panic. I must say that rubber boots, while great for keeping tootsies out of the large amounts of poop usually found on a farm, offer very little protection from cloven hooves. The air was punctuated with swear words as hoof met toe in the building chaos.
I don’t know how it happened, but after about 20 long minutes of this rodeo, one of the pigs discovered the open door and decided this was her chance. She plowed through at top speed, and to our relief, all the others followed her. It looked like we had won this battle, as the herd eagerly clattered down the corridor and onto the waiting truck. And that’s when I became intimately acquainted with gilt number 125.
As the last of her pen-mates scurried onto the truck in a blind panic, number 125 seemed to come to her senses. She slowed as she neared the chute as though mama pig had whispered the words “If everyone jumped off a bridge, would YOU?” 125 was a free-thinker amongst pigs. She skidded to a halt before the loading ramp, and headed back from whence she had come at high speed. And, as all the guys were at the truck finishing loading up the others, I was the only thing in her way.
Someone screamed “Stop that pig!” And I didn’t have time to think. I used my body to block the corridor, pretending that I was a match for a 250lb petrified porker. I was somehow shocked that she didn’t slow down. I backed up a bit, and found myself next to her open pen. I realized that if she got past me, she’d get back to safety, and we’d be stuck in this hell-hole for another hour trying to get her out. Over my dead body.
And apparently, that last notion occurred to the pig, as well, and it seemed like a dandy idea to her. She barreled down that narrow corridor as though Satan was behind her. Or in her. In hindsight, my money is on the latter. I braced myself for the impact, and caution to the wind, I threw myself at her like a defensive lineman in stained coveralls. Both of us screaming in terror, we tangled. I don’t know how I imagined our wrestling match would end. Did I think I’d throw her into a half-Nelson and hold her till the ref blew the whistle? Hoof met leg, elbow met flank, as both of us fought for our very lives. 125 and I pinky-swore that we will never tell which (or how many?) of us lost control of our bodily functions as we grappled on the floor.
I don’t know how long it lasted. Or who was watching. But suddenly it was over. Bruised, shaken, covered in excrement, I emerged victorious as my foe turned curly-tail and galloped down the passage and onto the back of the waiting truck. I took a deep breath, rolled back my shoulders, and declared “I hate pigs.”