My uncle Conley lived in the hills of North Georgia, when North Georgia was truly rural. Actually, it wasn’t even rural it was pure country. Uncle Conley was a scratch farmer. That means he could barely scratch a living out of his land.
Uncle Conley didn’t own a tractor; he used a mule to pull his plow, drive his cane mill, pull his wagon and doing the myriad other tasks required for operating a farm. I was six. The mule was hitched to the wagon. When all backs were turned, I climbed up on the wagon, sat in the seat and shouted, “Giddy up.” The mule did; not at a slow pace, but hell bent for leather. So here, we went; me in command of the wagon shouting, “Giddy up, giddy up.” Daddy and Uncle Conley running at full tilt behind shouting, “Pull back on the reins, pull back on the reins”. I didn’t have hold of the reins so there was no way I could pull them. I was having too much fun and wouldn’t have pulled them if I could.
That old mule knew exactly what he was doing. He ran straight back to the barn and stopped. We waited until Daddy and Uncle Conley came running up so winded they could not speak for a full five minutes. They were both so glad that I hadn’t been hurt all I got was hugs. The mule just stood there.
There was a windmill on Uncle Conley’s farm and one afternoon I decided to climb it. The handholds were almost too far apart for me to reach, but if I stretched real far I could just barely get my hands around them. So one at a time, I climbed and climbed until I finally reached the top. I was so intent on climbing that I didn’t realize that as the windmill wheel turned the entire structure shook. Suddenly I was terrified and all I could do was hang on for dear life. There was no climbing down for me. I didn’t dare scream since I had been forbidden to climb the windmill and I knew I would be killed or worse when I was found out, so I simply hung on.
Two hours or more passed and I became frozen in place. Finally, I heard Daddy calling me. I couldn’t move or even answer back so I simply hung on. Daddy called; Uncle Conley called, I hung on. They began frantically searching for me; I hung on. When Uncle Conley got to the base of the windmill, I was able to squeak out one word, “Help”. Uncle Conley looked around, not thinking to look up. “Help,” I shouted a bit louder. Still he didn’t look up. Finally, I managed to say, “Up here”. He looked up, saw me, shouted for me not to move, and called Daddy. Daddy came running around the corner; Uncle Conley was pointing to the top of the windmill and laughing. Daddy joined him and I could tell he was furious. I was sure that they would leave me there as a lesson.
Uncle Conley started to climb. When he got to me, he grabbed me, held me under his arm, and slowly climbed down. When we got back on the ground, he gently put me down. Daddy’s face was bright red and he was puffing and snorting like a raging bull. “Go to your room”, he said, as he pointed to the house. I started to protest since we were at Uncle Conley’s and I didn’t have a room, but God intervened and sealed my lips.
I went to the room that I shared with my three cousins; Corkey, Willy J, and Jacob. They knew something was wrong and Corkey asked me what was wrong. With a trembling voice, I said that I had gotten stuck on the top of the windmill. Realizing that Daddy was going to be arriving shortly and probably not in the best of moods they all made themselves scarce.
It wasn’t long until I heard one of the most terrifying sounds that I knew. Daddy was coming and he was whistling random notes. There was no tune, just random notes. I knew what that meant. Those were the days before Dr. Spock and child abuse concerns; when spankings were more like “whoopins”. Daddy told me to assume the position, which was lying across the bed from the waste up. I heard it when he stripped off his belt. I shut my eyes in anticipation of what was coming. I waited and waited and waited for the blow that never came. I heard Daddy sniff and then sniff again. I looked around and saw the most amazing thing. My Daddy was crying. He sat on the bad beside me, wrapped his arms around me, and told me how frightened he had been that something bad had happened to me and how thankful he was that I was okay. I could only hug him back and tell him that I was sorry and I would never disobey him again. I truly meant it and kept that vow for at least two days.
Uncle Conley’s old sow had a farrow of piglets. Of all of the barnyard animals, I think piglets are among the cutest. Their little tails wrap over their backs in a cute little curly cue and their skin is a pink and smooth if they haven’t yet discovered the mud hole. My cousin Willy J herded them into a convenient pile and I grabbed one. Such squealing you have never heard. I cuddled the little piglet up to my chest and leaned my head over toward it. Before I knew what was happening that animal had my ear in its mouth and started to chew. It just about chewed my ear off before I threw it to the ground. That’s the last time I cuddled a pig.
Uncle Conley had a couple of good years and was able to barter for a second mule. Daddy and I were there when he proudly drove the wagon up with the new mule tied behind.
Daddy and Uncle Conley got the two mules hooked to the wagon, Uncle Conley mounted up, popped the reins, and said giddy up. The mules did, but they would only go in a right hand circle. Try as hard as he could Uncle Conley couldn’t get the mules to go straight, they would only go to the right.
Daddy stopped Uncle Conley, got down in front of the mules, and said: “Conley, I think I know what is wrong. One mule is cockeyed and the other is blind in one eye. They are only going in the direction they can see.”
Uncle Conley swapped the mules and low and behold, they went perfectly straight.
Now please don’t write me and tell me that mules can’t be cockeyed and they go where the reins guide them. I’m only telling what happened as best as I remember it.
That October when it was hog killing time we went to Uncle Conley’s to help and also to get a share of pig meat. Daddy and Uncle Conley took the twenty-two rifle and climbed in the pigpen. They wouldn’t let us kids watch, but Willy J knew where we could climb a tree and watch, so of course we did. Daddy was to shoot the first pig, so he took careful aim and fired. Bam, the pig squealed and took off running. Daddy, you see was an extremely poor shot. Uncle Conley took the next shot. Bam, the pig squealed and took off the other way. Uncle Conley turned out to be as bad a shot as my Daddy. They shot three more times and failed to make a kill shot. Finally, Uncle Conley called one of his field hands who promptly dispatched three pigs with three shots. Willy J and I could just laugh.
Soon the entire community had gathered for the Hog Killing. It was a festival that involved thirty or so people. The pigs were cleaned, beheaded, and halved. In the meantime, huge half barrels were filled with water and a fire was built under each one. When the water was boiling furiously, the half pigs were dunked in the water for a few minutes then extracted. The carcasses were placed on a large table and the skin was scraped to remove the wiry hair that covered the pigs.
After the pig’s skin was de-haired it was separated from the fat. The meat was cut into small pieces and placed in mason jars with some salt and water. The jars of pig meat were placed in large bins, which were filled with water. When a bin was filled with jars of pig meat a fire was built under them and kept burning all night long. This cooked the meat and also sterilized and sealed the jars. When the morning came, the water was drained from the bins and the jars of meat were divided among the participants.
While the meat was being canned, the pig’s heads were boiled until all of the meat came off them. The meat was run through a grinder, mixed with spices, placed in cheesecloth and squeezed to remove excess water. The result was souse meat, hogshead cheese. It was simply gross.
The fat and skin with fat on it was placed in a wash pot over a roaring fire. The fat became lard and was placed in tins for use during the year while the skin became cracklings. The ladies made pan after pan of biscuits and we ate cracklings and biscuits until we got sick. I won’t go into detail about what happened with the intestines, liver, kidneys, and bladder. Just know that nothing was wasted including the feet, which were pickled.
This whole process sounds gruesome, but it was a wonderful time of community, creativity and for youngsters, incredible fun. This kind of meat processing was far more humane (oxymoron) than the way pig meat is processed today, except when Daddy and Uncle Conley did the shooting.
Copyrighted © by Jack deJarnette 2010