Just Folks

The boy already was chilled in the steady north wind that bent the ends of the huge thick limbs of an elm tree above him so they creaked and groaned.

For the first time in his life he raised his blue eyes in understanding at the great age of the tree, many times his own age, with icons of the past marking the deep, brown bark.

There was a branch that was shattered to a stub in a great storm 20 years before with four branches already large growing from it, an imbedded piece of No. 9 wire covered in rust sticking out of the trunk 6 feet up, and then further up, perhaps 10 more feet, another piece of iron, this time thick and round-a foot across, but no more than a couple inches thick.

There was rusted cable dangling from the round iron, and it was suspended from the branch on a heavy rusted iron chain that had been there so long that the wood of the branch had covered where it was tied in great lumps of growth.

The tree was an American elm, of a type that cut into good hard, red wood, a last survivor among what once had been many of its kind on this farm. Dutch elm disease had nearly exterminated these elms, but along the fencelines here and there seedling trees still struggled to make a comeback. This tree was a last of its kind, a healthy living colossal memorial to its farm.

As he went up the porch steps to go into the house, the boy realized he looked back at something special. The tree covered 100 feet of shade area in any direction. It dominated the driveway, the black silhouette of its tall figure covering a large portion of the gray clouded sky.

“Grandpa,” he said to the old man in the rocking chair as he pointed out the picture window. “Look at that tree.”

“Yes, I have many times.”

“It’s huge, and it has pieces of iron coming out of it.”

“Yes, I suppose it has,” Grandpa replied, his blue eyes sparkling with silent amusement at the boy’s solemnity.

“There’s a round piece of iron high up hanging from an old chain.”

“Well, son, that’s because that’s the hog hanging tree.”

“The hog hanging tree?”

“Yes, back when I was your age, and a little bit older too, I’ve seen as many as a half-dozen hogs hanging from that tree at a time, although usually there were only two or three.”

“Why, Grandpa? Why would you hang a hog in a tree?”

“Well, to butcher them. They were already dead when we hung them in the tree. We cut them up for meat-you know, bacon, ham, pork chops. You like all that stuff, don’t you?

“And then there was the lard. The lard was important back then. We cooked everything with lard instead of vegetable oil. My mother was in charge of rendering the lard, and I’d eat cracklin’s afterward-eat so many I’d get sick eating so rich while I smelled that lard cooking.

“You know, this takes me back to when some of that lard was really special to a family. It was during the Great Depression, a hard time for everybody, but worse for some than others. We didn’t have much money, but we always had enough to eat because we were a farm family. Some people had a terrible hard time having something to eat.

“We had to butcher in cold weather for the meat to keep, and of course there’s no flies in winter. I was your size then, but that tree was there already big and old. The round piece of iron you see up there is a pulley, what’s left of a block and tackle.

“There was more here on butchering days. There were always stands to hold 50-gallon steel barrels of boiling water on them with hedgewood or fuel-oil burning underneath. There were hooks on stout ropes tied in the tree so you could slip a rope into the hook to quick-fasten a hog around the elbow of his hind leg. Of course there was a table with knives in hot water ready for use.

“They’d herd the hogs down there with gates from the feedlot, one or two at a time. They were big old red hogs usually-Durocs. The men would ease them along, pushing them with the gate so they’d just grunt a little as they came, trying to root at the dirt at the same time with their noses. It would be kept gentle so the hogs weren’t excited.

“Down here by the tree either my father or one of my uncles would shoot the hogs in the head with a rifle. Then they’d hook-rope him higher into the tree pulling him up with that block and tackle. They’d stick him in the throat with a knife to bleed him out.”

“Gross, Grandpa, that’s gross.”

“No, it wasn’t. The men made sure the hogs didn’t suffer any. It was all kept clean. I’m sure it was better meat than what we get to eat today.

“Anyway, they’d make a slice down the hog’s abdomen then, his belly, to take out his intestines and organs. Things like the liver would be saved.”

“I don’t like liver.”

“Sometimes we’d fry that liver first as the best meat of all. Anyway, they’d lower the hog again into the hot water to loosen the hair to take it off, maybe have a second barrel there to dip him in after he was cleaned. I can remember those cleaned hogs hanging there waiting to be cut up into what we would eat, all chilled down and nice. I’d think about what that meat would taste like, and my mouth would water.

“As they cut the meat up, they’d trim all the fat out, and us kids would help the women carry it to the house in clean milk buckets for lard rendering. Like I said, I didn’t care much about eating the meat later after getting stuffed on cracklins.

“But like I also said, there were those people around who weren’t getting stuffed on much of anything. That was the year I found out about the Jolkinsens. They were a family that lived up north of here-below where the watershed lake is now-in a house that might have been a shed first. It was built of logs covered with wooden planks and red asphalt sheeting.

“My father needed to go to town, and my mother said why didn’t he take the Jolkinsen family by a can of our new lard since we had more than enough to carry us clear through to next winter. So Pop hitched up the horse, and loaded a five-gallon can of lard in the buggy.

“They had about four kids, if I remember right-all of them pale, thin-faced, but tall with really dark hair but oddly pale blue eyes. The boy that met us was about my age. But even if he was built like a stick, he was still a little taller than me. Their mother was hard-grim looking with wrinkles before her time, but she smiled when she saw my father. I remember because she had a couple of her front teeth gone, poor thing. I didn’t think much back then about what being hungry could do to you.

“He pulled that can out and told her he had a can of lard for her because we had plenty. She tried to fumble around trying to turn him down a minute, but she looked like she might cry she was so happy. The girls in the family were even taller than the boy-except for a little one-and they all seemed to stretch a head taller looking at the can of lard he was carrying in.

“My father set it on a wooden table in the middle of the room, and pulled the lid off to show Mrs. Jolkinsen. She told him the only food they’d had left to eat for a couple of weeks was potatoes out of the cellar. Her husband was off trying to find work, she said. That lard was so pure and white, and the saliva was about running out the mouths of those kids.

“That boy couldn’t stand it any longer. He reached with his hand, and scooped a couple of table-spoon’s worth of that lard into his mouth. Here I was so full of cracklins still that I could hardly contain them watching him eat that lard.

“Mrs. Jolkinsen started to make a noise like she was going to tell him to quit it, but she couldn’t get it out in time. When the girls saw she couldn’t say no, they all scooped a mouthful, too. Then all the kids were scooping lard, and eating it down as fast as they could go.

“The tears were running down Mrs. Jolkinsen’s face, and she looked at my father and asked him to excuse her. Then she took a mouthful of the lard to eat too. She didn’t take another mouthful, just sort of rolled her tongue around, and told the kids to quit before they got sick until we made ready to leave.

Then she told that boy to fire up the wood stove while she cut up some potatoes to fry in lard.

“Later on, my folks decided my father better go back with some meat for them too. He told Mr. Jolkinsen they would trade them some meat along in trade for help if he wanted to. As I remember, my father said he was quite a good help when he was needed there for a couple of years.

“The boy was Harry Jolkinsen. We caught bullheads fishing together the next summer. He moved to the city later.

“Things got better. It doesn’t seem that it was long after that when my mother drove the horse and buggy home from town so my father could follow in our first automobile.

“Funny how we try not to eat too much fat now, isn’t it son? But people have to eat some fat, and those Jolkinsens were starved for it. I’ve eaten lard on bread before myself, but it doesn’t sound too good now.

“We only figure we’re better without something when we don’t have to have it anymore. How about a bowl of ice cream to tide us over?”

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