Billy

Mom, Mom, look, Trixie has a bunch of pups here. I don’t know how many, but lots of wiggling going on here next to her,” shouted the boy.

All four of them kneeled down at the front of the doghouse to look at the new life. Wriggling around on the straw were five pups all trying to find a teat to suck for the first breakfast. 

“Oh, look, one of the pups is really tiny, and he doesn’t have all of his legs,” Bob said as he reached into the doghouse and lifted the little monster out into the sunlight. “Poor little pup.”

Ott took the creature in one big hand and walked toward the barn.

“You stay here, kids,” said Mom.

When he came back he did not have the pup with him.

“What did you do to him?” asked Bob.

“I put him down. He could never had made it. He’s better off now. Don’t look so sad. Sometimes it is the only thing to do. The only right thing to do. He never would have growed up, would have been in pain, couldn’t do none of the things dogs do. Better this way. Let’s look at these other four. Why lookee here. Trixie’s got them all cleaned up, and they are ready to find a teat to suck on! Good dog, Trixie.”

“How did you do it?”

Ott looked at the boy.  “What difference does it make?”

“I just wondered.”

“Well, it was quick, and it was painless. I just hit him in the head with a piece of pipe. He didn’t feel a thing, and now he’s gone. Now, now, don’t get upset. Sometimes killing a critter is the best thing you can do for it.”

They put the pups squirming back into the doghouse with Trixie. It was her second litter, and she seemed to know what to do to make them warm. She lay on her side on the straw as the pups snuggled up to suck some milk.

“After awhile, Bob, you can get some clean straw, take the bloody straw out of the doghouse, and give her some new. Throw the old straw down on the manure pile outside the barn.”

“Why bloody straw?” asked Beth.

“Comes with the pups,” answered Mom. “It’s just a part of giving birth. Trixie had to clean them all up after she delivered them. It’s as natural as the sunshine, honey.”

Bob ran down to the barn for some straw and to see how his new pig was doing. The pig was to be his 4-H project. It was a fine purebred pig that they had bought at the livestock sale in town. He got the straw, looked in at the pig, which was curled up in the shade sleeping, and ran back to the doghouse to replenish the straw.

That night Ott took Bob to the 4-H meeting. It was the first one he had attended, and he was excited to learn more about farming. The boys met once a month at someone’s home and after a short program about livestock or food crops, they had a club meeting, some refreshments, and a discussion of plans for the county fair. Bob was the youngest of the 4-H’ers and was just learning the ways of the farm boys.

“What are you takin’ to the fair, Bob?” asked the club president.

“I have a pig.”

“What kind of pig?”

“It’s a New Hampshire.”

The laughter was immediate and cruel.

Bob didn’t know what was funny or what he had done. He squirmed in the sofa, looked at the faces around him for someone to help him understand.

“And, Evan, what are you taking?” the same boy asked through his laughter.

“A New Yorker porker!”

A new round of laughter.

The boy next to Bob whispered, “The name of the breed is “Hampshire.“

“Oh, no,” he thought, “I made a fool of myself, a city fool.”

The adult leader of the club, Mr. Fix, told the boys that it was most important for their club to make a good showing at the Fair this year, and he wanted everyone who was showing an animal to be sure that he was ready.

“You must be sure to read the requirements for showing your animals and be sure to train them for the show ring. Pigs, for example, whether they are “new” or not, must be trained to walk around the show ring and to stop by the judges. You will have a staff and the pig should be under your control at all times. When you stop by the judges, you want your animal to stand still and let the judge approach. We don’t want no judge bein’ bit by a mean New Hampshire pig!”

On the way out to the car, Bob took one of the booklets on how to train your pig. When they got in the car, Ott said, “You look sad; what’s wrong?”

Bob told him about the mistake.

“Oh, don’t worry about that none. Hell, most of those boys don’t even know where New Hampshire is.”

That night Bob dreamed of his brother, Bud, who was somewhere in the South Pacific fighting Japs. In the dream Bud was on a jungle island carrying a flamethrower up a hill to a bunker filled with Japs and machine guns. As he approached the top of the hill, crawling through the underbrush, it suddenly started to rain. The soldiers in the bunker stood up to let the rain fall on their faces, and as they did, their yellow skin washed away, and they all looked like his brother. Bud saw this, too, and it must have been like looking in a mirror, for he put the flamethrower down in the bush, turned around, and started back the way he had come. Bob woke.

“Come boss, come boss,” Bob called to the milk cows.

The cows hurried from the field into the barn. After hooking them up to the manger and  putting kickers on them, the milker sat on the one-legged stool and milked into the galvanized buckets. Milking cows was always a challenge. The cows, even after being sprayed, were bothered by flies, and the tail of a cow when swung with gusto could leave a real welt on the head of the milker. And sometimes the tail was covered with manure as well. And on occasion when your luck wasn’t too good, the cow would swing that tail and try to kick out of the metal leg chain that went just above the knee bone. Or the cow would step on your foot. Kept you awake, all right.

After milking they put grease on the teats, unhooked the cows, and sent them back into the field until evening when they would do it all over again. They poured some of the fresh milk into a pan for the barn cats. Then they took the milk to the milk house, poured it into the separator, and turned the crank to separate the cream from the milk. The cream went into a metal cream can while the skim milk was used for pigs and chickens.  Bob took some of the skim milk, mixed it into some ground barley and corn, and stirred it to make a mash for his pig that was awake and waiting for breakfast.

“Here you go, New Hampshire,“ he said slopping the mash into the feeder. “I’m going to start training you today.” And he worked for maybe an hour with the pig that afternoon before evening chores. He tried to get the pig used to being in a pen with a human. He even tried to direct the pig around the pen on command. The pig, now known as “New,” was completely uninterested in being trained to do anything.

“New,” said Bob, “stand still.”

The pig would run toward the feeder.

“Here, let’s go around the pen.”

The pig would stand perfectly still.

For the next month it went like that. Bob would try to teach the pig to do what it was required to do to be shown at the county fair. He would go to a training session and quickly end up just watching the pig. It was a big hog by now, growing every day. It had deep set intelligent eyes that looked out from a forehead trench at the boy, waiting to see what the boy would try and then ignoring him totally. The pig ate. It wallowed. It slept. It grew. But it never did cooperate.

“How’s the pig training comin’ along?” asked Ott.

“Oh, it’s coming.”

“Ready for the fair in July?”

“Yeah. He’ll be ready.”

But Bob knew he would never get the pig to do anything other than eat, sleep, and wallow.  Never get him ready for showing. He took an old shovel handle and used it to try to whack some sense into New. But New didn’t respond well to whacking. He either ignored it or got angry and charged the boy, chasing him out of the pen.

“What am I going to do? The other boys will really get on me when they see my “New” Hampshire pig in the fair chasing the judge around the judging pen. And I’ll be laughed at forever. Why did we ever move to this farm?  Why couldn’t I have stayed in Denver where there were no pigs, no 4-H, and no county fairs for me to have to show my pig at? Oh, God, please help me make this pig behave.”

He prayed a lot that summer. The prayers were never very complicated. “Oh, God, please make it that I closed the gate to the pasture,” he would say to himself, or sometimes out loud if he were alone. But the gate was still open and the cows all got out into the farmyard and had to be rounded up.

“Who left the goddamned gate open?”

“Oh, God, please make my step-dad love me.”

“Please, oh, God, make Billy well.”

“Please, God, make the war end.”

He found that his prayers were not being answered. He thought that maybe something was wrong in his approach. He tried kneeling down. He tried stretching his arms out toward the heavens. He tried thinking his prayers. Whispering his prayers. Shouting his prayers. But always the same silence. Billy never improved. If he left the gate open, it stayed open. The war went on in the Pacific. He wondered what was wrong in the heavens.

At Sunday school he learned about Jesus, who, the teacher said, was the Son of God. He was told about how Jesus died for our sins and how he was a mediator between God and humans.

“I have been praying to God and I should have been praying to Jesus,” Bob thought.

He changed his prayers.

“Jesus, please make Billy well.”

And sometime later Billy died.

“Billy is now in heaven,” his mother said. “Billy is with Jesus now.”

“It works,” he thought, “it actually works!”

“Thank you, Jesus, for taking Billy.”

He prayed, “Jesus make the war stop, please make it that we win.”

And, on May 8, 1945, they all gathered around the battery-powered Atwater Kent in the living room to listen to President Truman.

This is a solemn but a glorious hour. I only wish that Franklin D. Roosevelt had lived to witness this day. General Eisenhower informs me that the forces of Germany have surrendered to the United Nations. The flags of freedom fly over all Europe.

For this victory, we join in offering our thanks to the Providence which has guided and sustained us through the dark days of adversity.

The radio crackled and the president’s voice faded for a moment. Bob looked at his parents. They were both straining to hear his words. The war was over for Virgil but not yet over for Bud. “I’ll pray tonight for an end to the war in the East,” he thought.

And now, I want to read to you my formal proclamation of this occasion:

A proclamation–The Allied armies, through sacrifice and devotion and with God’s help have wrung from Germany a final and unconditional surrender. The western world has been freed of the evil forces which for five years and longer have imprisoned the bodies and broken the lives of millions upon millions of free-born men. … give thanks to Almighty God, who has strengthened us and given us the victory.

Now, therefore, I, Harry S. Truman, President of the United States of America, do hereby appoint Sunday, May 13, 1945, to be a day of prayer.

“I knew it! I knew it would work,” he thought.

“I can’t wait until the war is really over everywhere.” said his Mom, “Keep my boy safe, oh, Lord.”

After a bit they all went to bed. Bob climbed into his bed on the front porch and prayed. “Jesus, bring my brother home safe” and  “Jesus, please do something to help me with my pig. As you know I am supposed to show him at the Yuma County Fair at the end of July, but he is not ready, and I’ll be the joke of the whole county. Please help me.”

That summer the polio epidemic became so bad that state officials closed all public swimming pools. Pictures of people in iron lungs were showing up in the Rocky Mountain News. Bob studied the pictures. Only the head of the polio victim could be seen. Parents were warned not to let their children drink from public water fountains.

It was a bad summer. And finally the word came.

The state ordered all county fairs to be cancelled because of the polio epidemic. Bob heard about the cancellation on the radio on KOA Denver at breakfast one morning. He ran outside and went to the pig shed. He looked at New.

“Thank you, Jesus, for sending polio,” he prayed.

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