Swine Before Pearls Tuesday, Mar 25 2014 

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Before I became an attorney, I had another vocation from the time I was a teenager until I graduated from college in my early 20s.  I was a hog farmer.  My daddy was primarily a cattle man, but he liked to dabble in hogs so he installed a trap on the back forty to catch the wild hogs that rooted up our pastures.    Once caught, the troublemaking hogs were given life sentences for destruction of property and sent to the pen – the hog pen, that is.

The hog pen was a metal cage with a concrete floor hidden behind a pole barn a few hundred feet behind our house.   Adjacent to the pole barn was a weathered, single-wide trailer that my family lived in for about a year after my brother Willie accidentally burned down the house while playing with daddy’s matches.  After our home was rebuilt, my family of seven moved back into the big house, and daddy converted the empty trailer into a shed where he stored his tools and 50-lb bags of corn feed for the hogs.

Daddy’s principal motivation for raising hogs, of course, was to fatten them up for supper, but they also served as a highly-efficient means of garbage disposal.  In my childhood naiveté, I thought everybody had a few bloated pigs out back and kept a large pot with a dented lid in the kitchen full of fermenting food scraps.

It wasn’t until I was about 11 years old that I first encountered an electronic garbage disposal in a hotel kitchenette while we were on vacation.  After stuffing Snickers wrappers and paper towels down the sink for a couple days and flipping the switch to hear the garbage disposal whir and grind, my mom discovered my faux pas and enlightened me on the contraption’s proper use.  It was one of the many aha! moments I would have as I began to realize just how bizarre our way of life was compared to everyone else’s.

My brother Will and one of the wild hogs on our property.

My brother Will and one of the wild hogs on our property.

If nothing else, being a hog farmer taught me humility.  Every day I’d pull on a pair of black rubber boots and cut across the backyard until I reached the gate to the dirt lane that led to the back of our property.  Before I even approached the gate, I could smell the nauseating stench of the hog pen, but I had a job to do so I’d remove the rusty chain to open the gate and round the corner behind the pole barn to get to the hogs.

To feed the hogs, I would push in the metal grate that was hung on hinges at the top of the pen with one hand and slop the contents of the scrap pot and feed bucket into the hogs’ trough with the other.  It was not an easy undertaking.  As soon as I would open the grate, the hogs would stand on their hind legs and protrude their giant heads out of the top of the pen, maniacally screaming and chomping.  To keep from losing a limb, I had to smack the bloodthirsty hogs on the long bridge of their snouts to get them down long enough to empty their food in the trough.

While the hogs devoured their slop like it was their last meal on death row, I’d uncoil the green garden hose nearby and use its spray nozzle to fill the water basin and blast the excrement off the floor and the hogs’ bodies and wash it out into the shallow trench that was dug around the pen’s perimeter.  Frazzled from the heat of battle, I’d calm my nerves by smoking one of my daddy’s Salem regulars that I’d lifted from the end table next to his recliner.  While sneaking a smoke, I’d keep a look-out by peeking through a hole in the pole barn’s tin siding, then stash the butt in one of the ant lion traps that dotted the barn’s dirt floor.  When my work was done, I’d head back toward the house, stopping at an outdoor faucet to rinse out the scrap pot and wash the hog crap off my rubber boots before delicately placing the boots back inside the back door.

I’ve always heard that hogs have excellent hearing but ours must have been damn near clairvoyant because they always seemed to know when I was anywhere in the vicinity.  It didn’t matter if I tiptoed outside and carefully opened the door of the trailer with the stealth of a Navy Seal. If I so much as bent a blade of grass underfoot, the hogs would begin grunting and snorting wildly until their high-pitched squeals would crescendo into a deafening chorus.  “Shut up, hogs,” I’d sneer, but the only thing that would shut them up was a mouth full of slop.

I hated those hogs with a passion.  They were loud and stinky and mean, but who could blame them?   I could just imagine the carnage if I was trapped in a cramped space with three other fatties having to fight for my next meal.  Still, it was me against them so I went to war with the hogs every day at feeding time.

The older I got, the stronger the enmity grew between me and the demon pigs, until one day something happened that caused me to have a change of heart.

A severe thunderstorm swept over our house one night bringing with it torrential rain, wind, and lightning.  The following morning, I pulled on my rubber boots and headed out the back door to tend to the hogs.  I stepped into the trailer and began scooping corn into my bucket but something was amiss.  There was an eerie silence.  The only sound was the whisper of a light breeze rustling through the pine trees and mossy oaks.  Not a single oink or grunt could be heard.   With my bucket full, I unfastened the metal chain and let if fall against the steel gate with a loud clank but the hogs still did not make a peep.

When I rounded the corner toward the hog pen, I saw the hogs lying motionless on the concrete floor with their eyes wide open.  At first, I thought the hogs were dead, so I picked up a small branch that had fallen from an oak tree and poked their bodies through an opening in the side of the pen.  Nothing.  Then I grabbed the garden hose and sprayed the hogs with cold water but they did not flinch.  Finally, I opened the grate at the top of the hog pen and dumped the corn into the trough.  Some of the corn was actually laying on top of the pigs’ bodies but still they did not move.

Though catatonic, I knew the hogs were still alive because their dazed, glassy eyes would blink every few seconds and their stout bellies would rise and fall with each breath.   Confused and grief stricken, I began softly speaking to the pigs with the tenderness of a small child and crouched down in the shit trench so I could reach my right hand into the side of the pen to stroke the coarse hair on the hogs’ backs.

“Poor little pigs.  What happened to you?”

I took off running back toward the house, kicked off my boots, and ran to my daddy who was sitting in his recliner watching television.

“Daddy, daddy!  There’s something wrong with the pigs.  They can’t move and they won’t eat.  All they do is lie there with a stunned look on their faces.”

Sensing my urgency, daddy ambled out to the hog pen to investigate.  He studied the vegetative hogs for a few seconds and kicked the pen before delivering his diagnosis.

“Huh.  Well, I’ll be.  Lightning must have struck the pen last night during the storm and gave those pigs quite a jolt.  Hee hee.  They’ll be fine directly.”

“What?  Our hogs have been electrocuted and turned into 200 pound paper weights and you don’t think that’s a big deal?!”

Unfazed, my daddy returned inside, but I stayed by the hogs’ side a while longer, assuring them that I would not abandon them in their time of need.

In the days that followed, I took good care of the hogs.  I’d visit them a couple times a day, singing them songs, washing them with the hose and trying to coax them into eating something by pouring feed right next to their drooling, open mouths.  After a day or two, the hogs slowly began to show signs of life.  At first, there’d be the occasional tic of an ear here or the twitch of a curly tail there, but the hogs remained otherwise still, their long eyelashes shielding vacant stares.  A couple more days passed and the hogs began lifting their heads a few inches off the concrete slab and moving them from side to side as though their bodies were encased in concrete from the neck down.  Another day more and their upper bodies began gesticulating in spasms, and their enormous hams started to shimmy.

As the dumbstruck hogs improved, I’d cheer them on.

“Come on, hogs.  You’re doin’ it!  That’s it.  You’re gonna make it.”

Within a week of the storm, the hogs were standing and oinking and slowly began eating again.  Although the hogs may have looked normal to the untrained eye, I could tell they had suffered massive brain damage, leaving them with the sense of a fence post.

From then on, I felt only sympathy toward the hogs and their progeny.  Following my graduation from college, I came in from sloppin’ the hogs one day and placed my rubber boots at my daddy’s feet as he sat in his recliner.  I said, “I’m done,” and never went out to the hog pen again.

When I left home to attend law school, I traded in my feed bucket for a briefcase and my black rubber boots for a pair of black pumps.  Instead of using a slop pot, I had a bona fide, dee-luxe GE garbage disposal just like the one at the hotel I’d visited as a child.  Today, I live hundreds of miles, and light years away, from where I was raised and spend my days practicing law in a 23rd floor office in a bustling urban center.

Visiting a hog at a Gainesville farm while in law school.

Visiting a hog at a Gainesville farm while in law school.

Although my life has changed dramatically since my days as a hog farmer, I love to regale my uppity friends and colleagues over cocktails and business luncheons with tales of my first profession.  I guess you could say I’ve come a long way from where I started, but I’m proud of where I came from, and I’ll never, ever forget those hogs.

These days, I prefer pearls to swine.

These days, I prefer pearls to swine.

My daughter Madison on her 1st Halloween.

 

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Easter Memories Sunday, Mar 31 2013 

Easter sunrise 2013.

Easter sunrise – 2013

Easter is my favorite holiday.  The onset of Spring, with blooming flowers and new growth abounding everywhere you look, bears witness to the glory of Easter and the One who makes all things new.

I love coloring Easter eggs, waking before dawn to attend the lakefront sunrise service by my home, and transforming my little girl into a pink fluff of cotton candy.  Then there is the time spent with my loud, boisterous extended family.  We feast on a wide array of Southern fare and lounge on the porch to watch the spectacle of the annual Easter egg hunt.

With five daughters, my mother had the daunting task of ensuring all her girls were dressed to the nines come Easter Sunday.  Weeks before, we would go into town to Wool-Co or K-Mart and pick out our Easter dresses.  I loved trying on the wide brimmed hats adorned with ribbons, lace gloves, white patent leather Mary-Janes, and poufy pastel dresses.  Being too poor to buy them outright, my mom would usually place our dresses on lay-away.  Sometimes we would go visit our dresses and dream of the day we could spring them out of lock-up.  Once I got my dress home, I would try it on nearly every day and twirl around my bedroom in gleeful anticipation of the oohs and ahhs my dress would most surely receive as I entered the church’s vestibule on Easter morning.

Easter Sunday 1978.  That's me in the back, with my Dad and siblings Melanie, Melinda, Will, Michelle, and Melissa.

Easter Sunday 1978. That’s me in the back, with my Dad and siblings Melanie, Melinda, Will, Michelle, and Melissa.

After church and a big lunch, my family would have the mother of all Easter egg hunts.  Living out in the country, we had a huge one-acre yard.   That kind of real estate turned an otherwise run-of-the-mill Easter egg hunt into an Olympic sport.  Oh, how I wish my parents had a video camera back in the 1970s so I could recall the sight of six rag tag kids armed with baskets full of fake grass, diving into snaky weeds and ant piles in the hopes of finding the Holy Grail of Easter eggs — the prize egg.  Back then, the prize egg was a large, bright silver, plastic egg that once housed my mom’s suntan pantyhose.  In leaner times, the prize egg contained a buck worth of quarters, but in times of prosperity, mom would slip a crisp five-dollar bill into the egg, upping the ante and prompting her litter of young’uns to go wild.

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The L’Eggs egg that served as our prize egg.

Today, my siblings and I have the profound pleasure of watching our own gaggle of children run around with their frilly Easter baskets, fumbling through flower pots and searching around oak trees for the prize egg, whose bounty has not been adjusted for inflation since 1979.

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My nephew Jonathan, niece Janae’, and sister Melissa, going for the Easter egg glory.

Easter is usually celebrated right around the same time as my birthday.  Many times my sister Melanie will make a white coconut Easter bunny cake to mark the occasion.  Even as a grown woman, I love that Easter bunny cake, with its licorice whiskers and jelly bean bow tie.

Easter 2010, with my bunny birthday cake.

Easter 2010, with my bunny birthday cake.

My twelfth birthday actually fell on Easter Sunday, and I chose that special day to be baptized in the river behind my church.  It was the 80s, so underneath my robe of white I wore an Ocean Pacific t-shirt and a pair of navy corduroys.  A gold lightning bolt, not a cross, dangled from around my neck.

That was one of the coldest Easters on record.  I vividly remember wading into the freezing water, my feet sinking into the muck.  I was terrified that an alligator may be lurking nearby and would snatch me away.  This was Florida, after all, and gator mating season to boot.  Fortunately, I convinced myself that Jesus would not allow such a tragedy to befall me while I was being baptized … on Easter … and on my birthday no less.  When it came time to be baptized, the preacher stood beside me and plunged me down into the dark, murky depths and lifted me out again before guiding me out of the river and onto dry ground.

As I prepare to celebrate Easter again this year, I fondly recall all of the precious memories of Easters past and my birthday baptism especially.   What a beautiful day it was and what an amazing image of God’s grace.  For in those dark times of life, when the weight of the world seeks to drown me in despair, God is still faithful to lift me out of the miry pit and set my feet on solid ground.

My family at this year's Easter sunrise service in my neighborhood.

My family at this year’s Easter sunrise service in my neighborhood.

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