After six months of being considered an intruder, some of my new in-laws appeared ready to accept this Northern Catholic Italian sailor who had eloped with their favorite niece. My Southern bride told me that her uncles wanted to finally meet me. Relations with her family were strained since our surprise elopement, and I hadn't had the pleasure of shaking hands with these farmers from Virginia who came from places like Buzzard's Neck Road, Ebenezer Lane and Blackwater. Most owned hunting dogs, drove pickups and had worked the land all their lives, as evidenced by their ruddy faces and bone-crushing handshakes when I met them on a cold, 5-degree January day in 1954.
The uncles and aunts had gathered in the cleared land in the back yard of their farm. This first meeting with Joyce's family was on the coldest day of the year, yet I fully expected it to be even more frigid. By all rights, Joyce should have married a local farm boy. Yet each welcomed me with a hug or hand clasp and reassuring words, "Glad to meet you; now let's show you how to become a farmer." With that, I was led away with the men. A stop behind the barn for some whiskey or moonshine, and some ammunition for the rifles that Uncle Carl and Grandfather Papa John carried in the crook of their arms.
"Why did they need those rifles?" I wondered.
I passed a large semicircle where a 4-foot-wide iron pot of water was surrounded by women. They added logs to keep the fire beneath the pot blazing. "We're ready guys, get going," rang loudly from Aunt Mary's hoarse voice. I followed the line of men out to the back of the field. The sound of a rifle's breech cracking open was followed by a sharp snap shut as a bullet was made ready. My relief was no doubt apparent when I saw the rifle-wielding uncle aim at the head of a large hog in the nearby pen. One shot, and the deed was done. Blood ran onto the ground from a small hole above the pig's eyes.
"Grab a leg, and hurry up!" Uncle Carl shouted. We dragged the body to a 6-foot-high triangular log hitch. More men joined in as we held the hog face down while Uncle Carl tied its rear legs across a log.
I had been a party to this slaughter. But I felt no remorse; I realized that this is what that hog's purpose was. He was a success, and I gloried in being part of his achievement.
What had I become?
Aunt Mary was calling for us to unhitch the hog and bring him over to the almost boiling hot iron pot. We plopped the lifeless body into it. Aunts and cousins grabbed the hog's legs, moving him back and forth in the hot water while furiously rubbing wet hair off the body using something like a trowel. After the scraping, the once hairy dark gray body was now pink. I thought how much he looked like Porky the Pig.
Uncle Carl crisply reminded me, "Now comes the hard work!" We took it to another hitch, where skilled hands tied the rear legs together over the branch bar. It felt almost embarrassing to see that naked pink body, swinging in the air. The feeling passed quickly as Uncle Carl's knife zipped along the hog's center, not too deep. Somebody else pulled out globs of fat from under the skin. This would later be rendered into lard for cooking.
Everyone gathered round as various hog parts were cut out. It was time for trimming and salting. The experienced relatives were given responsibility for the more valued pieces like the tenderloin and chops. My job was to rub special salt over the hams before they were taken away to the smokehouse. The ladies, including my bride, worked in the dual-purpose washhouse. They cleaned the hog's intestines for use as sausage packaging and for chitlins, a Southern staple. They say that every part of the pig but the squeal is used. There was very little left that cold January day. The rifle's crack was heard three more times, sending more hogs through my new relatives' assembly line, of which I was now part.
The reward for all who participated in the day's activities was a communal dinner. Knowing the best part of the hog is the tenderloin, I expected the treasured cut to be saved for a special occasion, yet there it was. The taste of that fresh tenderloin made the day's work worthwhile. I felt like family that day.
Navy veteran Ralph Morrison lives with his wife, Joyce, in Palm Harbor.