Chapter 13: Of Goats and a Pot-Bellied Pig


–Our garden is going to grow because of this beautiful rain!–

Caleb (2) loved to feed the goats.  We kept a bucket under the sink into which we scraped all the table scraps and vegetable peelings.  Each time Caleb saw the bucket, he cheered, “Goatie, goatie!”  I carried the bucket in one arm and the boy in the other to the goat yard, dumping the bucket’s contents into the lopsided plywood manger I had made.  At 14, one of Caleb’s daily chores was to empty the scrap bucket into the pig pen, and it was no longer an occasion he looked forward to.

One Fall day I took the children to Pioneer Days at the historic Benson Grist Mill.  Men and women in traditional 19th-century dress demonstrated various pioneer crafts, including blacksmithing, preserve making, and grain milling.  My attention was drawn to one woman weaving a rectangular rug from strips of wool cloth pulled between strings on a rectangular wooden loom.  That, I thought, I might be able to do.  To make such a rug I didn’t need a forge or a mill or knitting needles, just a framed loom with nails and string, and strips of old cloth.  During the following weeks I made a frame from two-by-two lumber and hammered finishing nails, angled outward, at one-inch intervals on the two longer sides to secure the string.  At the local Deseret Industries thrift store, I bought several wool-blend skirts and pants of various colors and patterns, and cut them into inch-wide strips.  (Don’t bother with blazers: it takes too much effort to harvest too little cloth.)

The children watched me curiously as I made the loom, cut the strips, and tried my awkward hand at weaving.  Soon they began asking for their own looms so that they could weave with me.  My loom was about three by two feet; theirs I made one by one.  For weeks in the evenings we enjoyed pulling strips of cloth between the strings, watching the rugs slowly take form.  Erin (8) and I stayed up too late several evenings, frustrating her mother, who was trying to get the children to bed.  We eventually sighed and put our looms away for the night.  But we enjoyed many quiet moments together, sitting by the hot wood-burning stove, twisting strips of brown tweed or red plaid from one side of the loom to the other, then back again, talking to each other on occasion, but not needing to talk, merely feeling happy at making art side by side.

One of my rugs sits on the carpet at the foot of the wood stove.  On more than one occasion it has rescued the carpet from errant embers popping out through the open stove door as we loaded fresh logs.  Another rug covers the tile at the bottom of the stairs, where it has softened the landing for more than one tumbling child.  I gave my loom to our neighbor Judy, who wanted to try her hand at pioneer rug-making.

Unbeknownst to me, Caleb (12) had admired my rugs for years.  He announced to me one evening that he wanted to make his own loom and rug.  We shopped for fabric at the thrift store.  I instructed him how to make the loom and how to cut, weave, and join the strips of cloth.  In just a few days he proudly showed me his small rug.  The children and I haven’t weaved a rug for years now.  But I have a feeling that it might be time to weave together again, soon, sitting as father and children near the stove, talking quietly but not needing to talk, creating art together.  And as we weave our cloth, we will entwine our memories, our feelings for one another, enlarging the patterns, colors, and textures of our connected lives.

Another legacy of Pioneer Days is Piggie, our pet black pot-bellied pig.  As we admired the cute black piglet on display at the fair, the owner told us he had one too many piglets.

“You can have ‘im if you want ‘im,” he offered.  “Take ‘im home with you.  See how cute he is?”

He even offered to throw in the small chain-link pen.  I looked back and forth from child to child, each face smiling approval, and couldn’t think of a reason to say no.  So we came home with a pet pig that we never named except for Piggie, or just Pig.  I didn’t think Pig would mind.  It’s not like we named him Horse.

We thought it would be fun to take Piggie for walk, so I bought a body harness such as one would use for a small dog or goat, where the legs and head fit through loops of the harness.  Well, a pig is constructed differently than a dog or a goat.  It has an enormous neck and almost no legs.  And Piggie didn’t appreciate me trying to direct his snout and limbs into the harness.  Soon he began to panic and squeal and kick with tremendous strength.  I leaned into the task and suddenly found myself sprawled spread-eagle on top of the terrified, screaming pig.  Panicked, Piggie wiggled out from under me despite my weight and effort.  And he wasn’t the only one squealing.  The spectating children laughed and squealed themselves at the sight of their dad wrestling with a screaming pig.

From inside the kitchen, Angie was surprised to see the pig run wildly by, still squealing, followed by her anxious husband, followed by five delighted children.  A moment later, Pig ran by the window in the other direction, again followed by me and my entourage.  We finally coaxed the exhausted, trembling pig into its pen.  We never again tried to walk Piggie.  I suspected that I wouldn’t ever succeed in harnessing the pig, but I also couldn’t bear to terrify the animal again.  It took months before Piggie would let me touch his rough, course-hair hide.  But Piggie would eat from my hand when he was really hungry, which seemed to be all the time.  Whenever I walk by he snorts and grunts to let me know he’s hungry.  He slurps his water and smacks loudly at his slops, eating, well, like a pig.

* * *

Harvey brought us our first goat: a skinny, floppy-eared kid.  I asked Harvey about the piece of iron bailing wire twisted tightly around the kid’s testicles.

“Don’t worry,” Harvey reassured.  “They’ll shrivel up and fall off in a couple of weeks.  No problem.”

I smarted at the thought, but trusted that Harvey knew what he was talking about, and tried not to think too personally about the rudimentary procedure.  The kid didn’t complain, anyway, and Harvey’s prediction proved accurate.

Sometime later we bought Captain, a white pygmy kid—a male.  Remembering Harvey’s successful procedure, I thought to replicate it.  For the lack of handy wire, however, I used a plastic zip tie, sure that it would work just as well.  I cinched it as tight as I could around the kid’s testicles and waited for them to shrivel up and fall off.  Instead, over the next two weeks the scrotum swelled and reddened, and Captain retired frequently, panting, to a corner of his pen.  When the maggots took up residence, I knew it was time to take Captain to see the veterinarian.  The vet had me lead the goat to a concrete pad with a low spot and a drain, where he examined the goat without saying a word.  I told the vet about our first successful experience, and that I couldn’t imagine what had gone wrong this time.

“You can’t get a zip tie as tight as twisted wire,” he shot at me.

He didn’t say the words you idiot, but I heard them plenty loudly, as well as echoes of “city kid.”

“Hold his back legs!”

Before I knew what was happening, the vet snipped off the inflamed testicles, scrotum and all, and jammed a hot cauterizing iron onto the squirting arteries, holding it there for what seemed like a very long time.  Captain bleated and screamed, kicking against my tight grip.  The smell of burning flesh turned my stomach.

“Hold him!” the vet shouted as he removed the iron to check for bleeding.  A small artery still squirted, and several oozed, so he pushed the hot iron back into Captain’s groin.

“There,” said the vet, releasing.  “He’ll be fine.  Watch for bleeding or swelling.”

Blood flowed over the concrete and dripped slowly into the drain.

My mind was still catching up to the sudden stream of events with thoughts like, Wait, don’t you put him on a table and anesthetize him or something?  Before my mind caught up fully, guilt stomped heavily in for having been so stupid with the zip tie and for having caused the poor goat so much suffering.  He’ll be fine, the vet had said.  I hope goats don’t have memories.  If there is a next time, I will take the kid to the other veterinarian to be neutered.  No more bailing wire for me.

* * *

I had just moved another baby goat to a fenced 40 by 40 area of the garden so that during Winter the goat could chew on the detritus of the previous year’s garden: crispy corn stalks, hardy Swiss chard, withered pumpkin vines, the tasseled tops of carrots never picked.  Some of it was still green despite freezing temperatures.  Early snows had insulated the chard from the coldest weather.  The carrots and beets had sweetened for months in the cold soil.

The fence was necessary to protect the goat from wandering off and falling prey to speeding cars or marauding dogs and foxes, and also to protect the fruit trees and shrubs.  I have learned that goats like nothing better than to eat long strips of tender bark peeled from young fruit trees.  Acquiring this knowledge has come with several trips to the nursery to purchase replacement trees.

Out of either laziness or business, I had not yet dragged the goat house over to the new pen.  The goat house was a simple four-sided rectangle, the wide front wall taller than the back wall to allow a sloped roof, with an open panel in the front wall for a door.  With asphalt shingles on the roof, the shelter was heavy.  It could be dragged across the grass yard with difficulty, but across the mud not at all, even with ropes pulled by me and all the children.  And I had left it 60 feet from the goat pen for two days.

Early on the morning of the third day, a north wind began to howl, driving before it rain and sleet that quickly covered the muddy garden ground with an icy slush.  This was one morning I was definitely not going to venture out to walk on Rabbit Lane.  Comfortable in my warm, dry bed, I thought vaguely of the little goat, how cold it might be in the icy rain.  But it was an animal, livestock at that, and would surely be alright.  After all, I rationalized, livestock were hardy and had braved the elements for millennia.

Unable to sleep comfortably for the nagging worries about the goat, I finally arose, dressed, and descended the stairs to look out the living room window.  Even from inside the house, I could see the little goat shivering in the unprotected pen, dripping with half-frozen slush.  Its Nubian ears hung even slacker than usual with the weight of water soaking its short fur.

Suddenly alarmed, I threw on a coat and ran from the house toward the goat house.  Although I knew it would not move, I was desperate to bring the shelter to the goat, and pulled mightily while grunting and cursing in the icy rain.  After several minutes, it occurred to me that I could roll the goat house end over end toward the fenced enclosure, then open the fence and roll the shelter into the pen.  I heaved up from under the rear end of the goat house, toppling it over onto its front wall, then lifted again, accomplishing a 90-degree roll with each heave.  But this was taking way too long, and despite my heroic efforts, the little goat remained shivering in its pen, the risks of irreversible hypothermia increasing with each passing moment.

Finally, the thought occurred to me to leave the goat house and go directly to the goat.  It was the goat that needed me, not the goat house.  I heaved once more so that the shelter stood upright, the door available, then ran to the goat.  Hopping the short fence, I wrapped my arms around the four little legs and easily lifted the shivering animal off the ground, holding it against my chest.  Its head hung, its eyes were nearly closed, it felt cold, and it shivered violently.  Stepping over the fence, I trudged through the mud toward the shelter.  I dropped to my knees, ducked my head, and shuffled myself and the baby goat into the shelter.  By now I, too, was soaked with rain and sleet, and I shivered with the cold.  But I gave no mind to my own discomfort and focused on the goat.  It lay on my cross-legged lap, trembling and listless, wheezing slowly.  I knew that if I didn’t work quickly we would lose the goat.  It would die in my arms.  The children would be devastated.  And so would I, knowing that its death, and my children’s sadness, would be my fault due to my own inaction.  I began to rub the goat’s hide, rubbing hard and fast, over the withers, over the shoulders, on its back and belly.  I felt the heat in my hands as I rubbed, and I hoped that the rubbing would warm the little goat’s body.

Unbeknownst to me, the children had followed me down the stairs and had been watching anxiously from the living room windows.  Seeing me disappear into the goat house, Brian (10) decided to brave the wet winds to see what he could do to help.  I sent him back to the house for towels.  Hugging the warm, dry towels, Brian pushed in past the goat and me to get out of the driving sleet.  With the towels we rubbed the goat’s body completely dry.  Brian joined his little hands with mine, and we continued to rub and rub, increasing the goat’s circulation and warmth.  Slowly, the goat began to open its eyes wider, then to lift its head to look up at me, then to struggle feebly against our aggressive rubbing.  The act of warming the goat had also warmed us.  Our shivering had stopped.

I sent Brian to have his mother mix up some warm lamb formula and to bring it in a calf bottle.  Holding the half-gallon bottle, I squeezed the nipple to exude a drop of warm milk, then coaxed the nipple into the goat’s mouth.  The kid goat resisted at first.  Then, tasting the warm milk, the kid began chewing at and then sucking on the nipple, drawing in streams of nourishment that warmed it from the inside.  After several minutes, the goat released the nipple and laid its head back down on my lap, resting contentedly, breathing easily without a wheeze.

There the three of us remained for a long time, steam rising from our wet but warming bodies.  When the freezing rain stopped, we crawled, sore and stiff, from the goat house.  While Brian stood with the little goat, I opened the fence and rolled the goat house into the pen.  We carried some old oat straw from the chicken coop to put inside the goat house, covering the cold mud.  The revivified goat trotted happily into the shelter, its low ears swinging, and lied down on the straw, where it went peacefully to sleep.

Never again did we think of that little goat as livestock, not even when he was fully grown and butting heads with his companions.  I had almost let him die.  Then we had worked together to revive him from his suffering.  He had become a beloved pet, almost a member of the family, and we loved him.  His fur was colored mostly white, with splotches of black.  We named him Oreo.

A season later, Laura (5) was determined to walk Oreo in the mid-July Erda Days parade.  I loaded Oreo and the children into the bed of the Chevy truck.

“Hold on tight to his leash, so he doesn’t jump out,” I told her as I hooked the loop of Oreo’s leash onto the truck bed and drove slowly off.

Oreo was much bigger and stronger than Laura, however, and he jumped out of the truck bed despite her efforts to restrain him.  I heard Laura’s scream and saw a blur in my rearview mirror.  I jumped out of the truck and rushed to pick Oreo up so he wouldn’t hang himself on the leash.  Stupid goat, I whispered to myself.  Of course, it was I who should have anticipated this moment.  I asked Angie to drive the rest of the way, and I sat in the back with the frightened goat, which had never before gone for a ride in the bed of a pick-up truck.

The parade line was forming on Liddell Lane, just south of Rabbit Lane.  Some of my children had woven brightly colored crepe paper between the spokes of their bicycle wheels.  They joined other children to ride happily up and down the parade line.  Laura stood proudly and patiently with Oreo, who munched contentedly on the sweet clover growing randomly in the borrow pit next to the church-owned alfalfa field.

The parade began to move.  Parents pulled wagonloads of children behind four-wheelers.  Dozens of children rode their bicycles.  Many children and their parents rode horses.  Some neighbors drove their restored vintage cars.  A few teenagers road motorcycles.   Laura began to walk with her Oreo, a bright yellow bandanna tied around the goat’s neck.  Along the parade route, neighbors sat in their lawn chairs and camp chairs next to their parked cars, cheering and throwing tootsie rolls and salt water taffy.  Laura and Oreo both stopped to pick up candy, but Oreo ate it wrapper and all.

I walked behind Laura to keep the goat in check.  It’s not easy to keep a goat walking in a straight line down an asphalt road when fields of ripe, fragrant alfalfa clover are burgeoning ten feet away.  The crowd of neighbors cheered praises for Laura and Oreo.  Some neighbors even stopped Laura and Oreo to take pictures of them with the neighbors’ grandchildren.  The parade ended at the church, where we tied Oreo up underneath a tree on the thick green lawn.  Oreo showed his delight by tugging intently at the grass.  The children chewed happily on frozen otter pops.

* * *

“Hi Laura,” I said over the phone.  “I have an exciting surprise waiting for you when you get home—very exciting.”

I had just brought home from Ken’s menagerie a small black pygmy kid for Laura (7) to have as her very own pet.  The other kids had grown into full-sized goats that had been much too large and aggressive for a small girl.  Not to mention the fact that I couldn’t keep them contained: them jumped handily over my five-foot-tall split rail fence.  They had been sent to other homes, leaving the goat pen empty and a little girl wanting a pet.

The little black kid was adorable: cute and precocious.  I put her in the fenced enclosure to await Laura’s arrival.  I had lined the white split-rail fence with cow panels to keep the goats from slipping out between the rails.  The 12-foot-long panels were made of welded steel squares about eight inches on a side.  Surely these panels formed a sufficient enclosure for the new kid.

Returning from a short errand, I felt sudden panic at not seeing the baby goat in the fenced enclosure.  I jumped the fence and searched in the tall grasses, calling, “hey goatie, here little goat,” but saw no sign of the kid.  The new baby goat must have pushed through the panel squares.  Dusk was turning to dark.  Laura would be home soon, expecting her surprise.  I set out to find a small black goat in the dark.

I walked and then drove on Church Road, Rabbit Lane, Bates Canyon Road, Tom’s Lane, and Warr Lane, calling all the while.  I asked every neighbor I saw if they had seen a little black goat.  None of them had.  Chelsea jumped in her car to help in the search.  All to no avail.  Thousands of acres of pasture and farm fields opened up on all sides, and I didn’t know where to look.  The possibility of a small black goat being hit by a car on a dark night on a road with no street lights grew from a possibility into a probability.  My anxiety rose to desperation.  My prayers for assistance had become mendicant pleas.  By the time Laura arrived home, I felt depressed and empty, and could only inform her that the baby goat I had brought home for her had run away.  She cried herself to sleep, and I laid awake all night, sick with worry for Laura and for the baby goat.

The phone rang early the next morning.

“Did you lose a little black goat?” asked Cloyd.

“Yes.  Yes!  I did!”  I could barely answer.

“Well, I have her in my pasture,” Cloyd explained.  “She’s hanging out with all the little black calves.  I guess she got lonely and came over for a visit.  I’ll go catch her and bring her right over.”

All the worry of the night before melted away with the sunshine of the new day as Cloyd returned the little black goat.  Laura held her close and petted her and fed her Dandelion flowers.

“She didn’t run away from me, huh, Dad?” Laura asked hopefully.  “She was just lonely.  She won’t be lonely any more.”

“No, she won’t be lonely any more,” I affirmed, so totally relieved and grateful.  “What are you going to call her?”

Laura released the little goat, which immediately ran and jumped and twisted in the air in obvious delight.

Laura laughed and exclaimed, “I’m going to name her Merrylegs!”

I would enjoy hearing from you. Please drop me a line.

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