The Great Fire and Killing Hogs. The family stories continue…
An incident of great importance occurred around 1930 that must be told and seen as an exercise in misplaced enthusiasm.
One fine summer afternoon Rita, myself and a local boy whose name I do not remember found some matches and set off for the neighboring hill to do something. Meanwhile big brother George who may have been all of twelve years old and his buddy, Lionel, who later married Theresa, persuaded the three of us to play fireman games with them. They had put together a big fire wagon along with buckets of water, a hose and some ladders. The idea was for us to ignite a small patch of dry grass and then to call them. In turn both boys would have become heroes as they put out the fire.
It did not really turn out that way.
The three arsonists piled up grass and someone lit the match and applied it to the dry pile. In no time at all the flames shot up and then began to spread In a panic Rita screamed for the firemen. The two “heroes” came running up and tried to douse the flames. It was too little and too late.
All of us ran to the house where we alerted my mother. Luckily we had a telephone so she called the fire station. In those days the firemen where all volunteers so by the time they arrived on the scene the fire was racing along very well. It raced downhill toward the house only to be turned aside by that wonderful swamp; it then took off toward a small village called Albion some miles away.
By that time the local fire chief had alerted fire departments throughout the state that arrived on the scene through the afternoon. It was a real mess because in 1930 communications were primitive compared to modem times. Nevertheless, the truly heroic firemen stopped the fire at the edge of the village in the growing darkness. However, rumors persisted that the fire had demolished a local factory and that the owner had died of a heart attack.
The chief questioned all of us, but could not press charges. It was a lesson to all of us. In later years I remembered that sober experience and that made me a bit more lenient and tolerant of people who make mistakes, including my children.
There were fun times also. As I said before Alphonse the chef had developed quite a reputation as a hog farmer. The swamps in back of the house were ideal for raising those noble animals that grew to enormous size. In September or October the villagers gathered at our house for the annual event of pig butchering. Festivities began early in the morning as people moved in for lunch. I don’t remember if Alphonse served breakfast but, knowing him, I would not have been surprised if he had. The big event took place in the late afternoon.
I was six years old and my father gave me a big job. I was to hold a gallon jug nest to the hog’s throat and catch the blood that would come pouring out. A group of husky men were designated “pig handlers”. Their job: hold the pig down and let Alphonse slit its throat. I still cannot comprehend that activity on my father’s part. He was normally a tender, calm person, but he must have rationalized that someone had to do the job, or so I have thought all these years.
In any event the men led the pig to its destiny, pushed it to the ground and held it there while my father did his job. I held the jug in place and watched the blood flow in that would be used to make blood sausage. This one time the pig screamed and took off across the yard. I still remember my father’s words: “catch the blood, catch the blood.”
I followed the bleeding hog and caught as much blood as I could. It was a very frightening time for a six-year old. Eventually the poor animal collapsed and died. The men then dumped it in a large pot of boiling water so that it could be skinned, hung up and its belly opened so that the excess blood could flow out. Then, and only then, did everyone continue the festivities.
There was a dark side to the hog fanning. Once in a while the poor animals would crash through the restraining gates and take off on a rampage through the village or countryside. My father would enlist the help of his friends who would then engage in a hunting expedition. Legend has it that one of the hunters returned to my father’s restaurant, collapsed and died.