While many Americans’ thanksgiving day rituals consists of watching football and parades, followed by late-night shopping excursions, when I was a child, thanksgiving at our house in the hills of Appalachia meant killing hogs.
With ten children living on a miner’s paycheck, my mother and father had no choice but to rely on their own two hands to provide the bare necessities of life.
The first new pair of tennis shoes I ever purchased came after I had joined the army at age 19. To put it simply, in the mountains of West Virginia’s coalfields, everything was scarce, save for poverty — but we didn’t know it at the time!
Interestingly, we never once considered ourselves farmers, even though we had about five cows in the bottom across the creek from our house and 30 some chickens pecking around in the backyard nearly always, Looking back, we weren’t far from the Beverley Hillbillies (pre-striking it rich), but those were the happiest days of my life.
Pork was both a luxury and a staple of our diet. Each spring, my dad and all of our neighbors would gather around and place various notches in some hogs’ ears and then “turn them looes’t” in the mountains to feast on acorns and whatever else they could scavenge and rut.
Then, around thanksgiving, they’d make their way back into the mountains to find their particular hog and drive them back down into holding pins. Like an inmate on death row, we’d eyeball the captive, playing with the overgrown animal being filled with a childish curiosity – while my father would prepare for one of the busiest days of the year in the mountains; hog killing day.
Thanksgiving was one of the few days of the year my dad didn’t have to work, but rather than sleep in or relax, the fourth Thursday of November began long before the sun came up.
My father, however, wasn’t alone in his toils, the entire bottom, as we called it, would gather early in the morning for this annual ritual.
As a child, my predominate memory of these darkened mornings is the cold. It seems like those days were so much colder than these days. But the cold was a good thing. The weather outside had to be cold in order to keep the hog from “ah spoil’n”.
Water would first be brought up from the creek and placed into a giant tub that had a hot fire burning of stolen coal and hewn down locust wood underneath it.
Then, a single shot would echo through the valley. The captived pig was dead and so it began.
A cut would then be made into the pig’s head and he would be twisted so that his blood would drain downward. Men would then lift the pig up via a makeshift pully and begin dipping the body into the scalding water – backing him out as the animal’s hairs would then be removed — every last one of them until he was completely naked of any covering.
It wasn’t a pretty sight, but most things weren’t back then. Surviving in those West Virginia hills was hard, dirty and above all else tiring.
But in the midst of all the grotesqueness that was to be seen that day, there was a beauty that is not seen in modern-day America. There was a sense of community as neighbors helped each other, one by one aiding one another in killing, lifting, dipping, cleaning and cutting.
Oh how I long for those days when neighbors helped one another.
Our very survival for the coming year hinged largely upon the success of that sacred day.
As we celebrate a day of giving thanks, I would like to say that I am most thankful for the lessons I learned in the coal filled hollers of home and the neighbors who helped us survive.
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