Pig Boy's Wicked Bird: A Memoir

Pig Boy's Wicked Bird: A Memoir

by Doug Crandell


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This gritty tragicomic memoir is set in one memorable year—1976, the Bicentennial, when Jimmy Carter ran for president and seven-year-old Doug Crandell lost two fingers in a farming accident. More than anything, Doug wants to shed his nickname, Pig Boy, and grow up to be a hog man like his father. His older brother Derrick reads pulp novels to him each night as he soaks his remaining fingers in Epsom salts. His brothers urge him to “flip the Wicked Bird” any time another child makes fun of his “lobster-red hand.” Doug shares his summer of healing in Wabash, Indiana, with humans and animals who’ve suffered life-changing traumas: a brutal grandfather gentled by stroke, a deaf dog with a deadly taste for pig’s ears, a tough-love mother coping with depression, a bevy of runt piglets saved from extermination. This is a story of love, loss, healing, and a family’s relation with the land they love and know that they will lose.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781556525520
Publisher: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 09/01/2004
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.86(d)
Age Range: 12 - 17 Years

About the Author

Doug Crandell is a widely published writer whose stories have appeared in the Evansville Literary Review, the Sherwood Anderson Review, and forthcoming in Smithsonian Magazine. He is the recipient of a Sherwood Anderson Writers Grant and a winner of the Night Train Firebox, Pig Iron Malt, River City, and other fiction contests. He is the author of Man Vs. Nature. He lives in Smyrna, Georgia.

Read an Excerpt

pig boy's wicked bird

By Doug Crandell


Copyright © 2004 Doug Crandell
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-55652-552-0

Chapter One

Who Is the Real Pig Boy?

When I mentioned the Pig Boy story to my father, he seemed puzzled at first. "No," he said blandly, "I don't remember anyone telling that."

I pushed him a little further. "You know, the adults didn't understand how the little kid was getting fatter but not eating?" He became animated, moved his hands like he was taking a livestock bid; an auctioneer, he's never lost the showmanship of the ring.

"I believe I do remember that. Yes. But I am not sure who that was." He hanged his head a little. Was it something to be ashamed of? I know I've certainly not told many people the story. Did he know something I didn't?

"Was it you?" I asked, half joking, but wanting it to be him, to get off the hook myself.

"No," he quickly responded. He peered past me, over my shoulder, to a movie of memory that apparently was playing on the wall behind me.

He stopped staring and turned to me. "Maybe it was you," he said, smiling, the look in his tired eyes saying he knew the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I dropped the subject and asked how his knees were doing, thoughts of Pig Boy running rampant in my head as spooked livestock.

I do hope so very badly that it wasn't me. But the thing is, I was chunky too, and picky about food. Ifthat was it, I might not even wonder if I could have been the pig boy, but another distinct memory of my maternal grandparents and their house in Terre Haute, Indiana, haunts me. In their living room was a Bible that stood a half-foot thick when closed. It was white with gold lettering on the cover, silver filigreed on every page, and color pictures of the Crucifixion, and I coveted the thing, wanted to steal it, but knew that would mean my untimely damnation to Hell.

On that same table was a pewter statue of Romulus and Remus nursing at the drooping breasts of a strong she-wolf. The brothers were knelt down on either side of their wild mother. I'd stare at that statue for what seemed like days, taking it all in, trying to understand what the boys were doing to the animal, how it was that she could mother something that was not like her. I'd trail my fingers along the tarnished metal and put them to my nose to smell. Somehow, I'd gotten the idea that the statue was part of the same biblical motif that my grandparents adorned their home with, sacred and holy. When I recall the table with the Bible and statue, I close my eyes and try hard to think if I could've gotten back to Wabash from Terre Haute, having been moved spiritually by my grandparents, and went about trying to re-create the scene for myself on a sow. I don't think I did, I'll tell myself, but there's always that doubt. Somewhere, down deep inside, I do remember losing my hunger and finding it again, and it's that memory, so firm and completely distinct, that makes me think I am the original, unimitated, wholly found Pig Boy. It's as close to a confession as I can muster, at least for now.

Chapter Two

When Grandfathers Steal Pigs

My grandfather snuck onto my farm without my knowing it. It was 1975 and we'd just moved to our fifth cash-rented farm, meaning that for the most part we were sharecroppers, raising hogs and growing mostly corn to feed them. Any grain left over went to Mr. Grady, the man who owned the place. When we moved, I concluded that the new farm was somehow mine. I told people as much when my dad would ask me whose place we were farming. Embarrassed, I would shrug my shoulders and say quietly, "Mine." He'd chuckle. "What was that?" he'd say, holding his hand to his ear. I'd say again, "Mine." And whoever was standing with my dad at the grain elevator would rub my head and tell me, "That's the way to go, boy!"

I was hurt when I found out that the farm wasn't really ours, much less mine. I was too young to remember any of the other places we'd rented, and when we moved to the Grady farm I thought all the talking my parents had done about getting their own farm had finally come true. I felt sorry for them. I made it worse by thinking they'd gotten it when they in fact hadn't. I remember wrapping up my plastic barnyard set, the same kind you can still buy now for children, and giving it to my father for his birthday. When he opened it, he seemed more embarrassed than I was. Later, he put it back with my other things in the bedroom I shared with Derrick and Darren. It looked ugly to me, and I can't recall ever playing with it again.

That spring I was seven and had found a sow and her fifteen baby pigs in our barn. I'd been playing in the haymow alone. The rest of the kids were inside the house watching cartoons, a rare experience since we usually had to work most of the time on Saturday mornings, when Scooby-Doo and the others aired. But I liked being outside, exploring on my own, and this morning I was above the manger, trying to build a straw bale fort like the ones I'd seen Derrick and Darren expertly put together.

I tugged on a moldy bale; pigeons exploded from the dark hand-hewn rafters; a ray of sun piped through a knothole near the high roof and shone into my eyes, making me squint hard. I heard something downstairs below my feet, where we usually kept only sacks of feed and spare tractor parts. I wobbled to the steep ladder and crawled down the brittle rungs. I was a very plump child, usually full of the only thing I would consent to eat: mashed potatoes. I flopped off the end of the ladder and waddled to the hallway behind the manger and peeked through an old milking stall into the dusty granary. A bulky sow lay on her side, slimy little creatures struggling about her belly, wobbling and bobbing from one erect nipple to the other, trying to get their first sip of earthly food.

I crouched down in my bib overalls and watched. Something that sounded like suction came from the sow's rear. I crawled on my hands and knees in the dirt and hard cow pies left by the livestock of the cash renter before us. When I'd finished creeping into the L of the manger, I was directly behind the sow, just a couple of feet from her tail. I'd not seen anything born yet, and as I looked upon the sow's bloody backside, a thick strand of afterbirth jiggling and pulsating as she breathed and pushed and groaned, I felt I was doing something wrong, perhaps witnessing a kind of violence. I watched as a little black-and-white chunk flopped out of the sow's butt, the place I thought any baby thing came from. The piglet lay on its side, not moving, and a sniffle started in my runny nose. I thought the very first thing I'd seen born had died. I assumed that by watching it I'd caused the death. Tears blurred my vision, and I wiped my eyes with a hanky from my overalls pouch. I'd started carrying one of the white-and-red kerchiefs with me because it made me look like a real live, grown-up hog man, something I wanted desperately to be. A hog man, not a pig boy.

As I tucked the wet hanky back into my front pouch, the sow grunted while the newborns suckled the smooth, white expanse of her underbelly. I tried to count the babies but couldn't. The little black-and-white pig still wasn't moving. I felt a sting in my throat. All at once, after the sow made a noise that sounded like a bark, another pig shot out of her with such force that it knocked into the one I'd killed with my eyes. Quickly, I looked away, fearful that if I watched the new one, it too would find its fate at the receiving end of my stare.

I kept my head turned for several minutes and remained on all fours in the manger. I decided that if I could steal a quick look through my fingers, the piglets would be OK; a quick glance would surely leave them intact. I opened a slat between two fingers and peered out. I could smell the dry manure on my palms from crawling. My eyes got accustomed to the light and I could see the two pigs. Now a blob of blood and veins hung out of the sow, and a large clear sac bubbled forth as well. I focused and could see both of the last-born pigs squirming to get on their feet; they pulled hard at their umbilical cords like miniature Budweiser horses at a sleigh. I took my hand from my face, sure now that all was fine. The other newborn piglet was a dark red, and I grew happier watching how the two babies tried to outdo each other. Finally the black-and-white piglet broke free; its cord snapped and flew back with force into its mother's mess. In a few more pulls the red piglet broke free too, and I was wide-eyed at how the two of them knew where to go for food. They stumbled and fell as they joined their siblings at the full row of rosy teats, tiny wet heads bobbing and poking as they filled their stomachs with warm milk.

I wanted badly to hold the piglets, but I knew from hearing the men talk that a mother sow could be very protective of her young. Once, while I was sitting at the kitchen table with my father and grandfather drinking coffee and eating pancakes and sausage, my dad told a story about a man he knew in another county. The man had been trying to wean a litter of pigs from their mother. The sow was away for a few moments, scrounging the pasture for weeds and nuts, when he decided to use a burlap bag to gather up the piglets. He jumped the fence and began catching the lightning-fast pigs, stuffing them squealing into the bag to carry them into the next barn, where they'd be given a nice pen with an automatic corn feeder. He was about done when he heard something at the entrance to the shed. The sow was on him before he could even turn to try and jump the fence. She torn off a large section of his bicep and did the same to his calf before he finally managed to get a leg up and over the fence. When my father was finished telling the story, my grandfather said, "Damn fool. Everyone knows you got to thump a pig once between the eyes before you put them in the bag. Numbs them for a while. Keeps them quiet."

I stood up in the manger aisle and brushed off my overalls. I'd decided the best thing to do was go tell my father about the sow and piglets, then bother him until he let me help with the babies. There were vitamins to give them with a syringe into their soft mouths, and a quick shot of antibiotics for them and their mother too, just under the skin behind the left ear. It'd hurt, and they'd squeal in protest, but the shot fought off the scours, a deadly intestinal sickness that could leave an entire litter dead in just a few hours if not treated, or dehydrated and weak, ochre diarrhea over them all if they did manage to live.

I tiptoed through the barn to the front door. Just as I was about to pull the door open to the bright outside, I paused to look out through a crack in the door. I saw my grandfather coming toward the barn on a muddy tractor. I snuck back into the spot where I'd been, the sow now raising her head from time to time to sniff the occasional piglet that wandered from nipple to snout. It looked like she was kissing them. The little pigs would scurry back to the others when their mother touched them with her cold, wet nose. The scene made me laugh, but I put my hand over my mouth and crouched back down to hide from my grandfather.

He walked quickly into the barn. Light flooded over the old feeding stalls, making them look more like chrome than wood. I tucked myself deeper into my corner, where cobwebs filled the space between two beams, thick like cotton candy. My grandfather walked right up to the partition, moved a pitchfork, leaned it on a board behind him, and looked over the plank at the sow. I was angry that he knew about her. Back then I assumed he knew everything, especially those things that made me happy, and was always there to draw the line between what was supposed to be serious farm work and what could be fun. All the pregnant sows, once they were close to full term (three months, three weeks, and three days of gestation), went to his farm across the pasture to the farrowing house. He treated the building with a no-nonsense regimen that did not allow us kids to pet or hold the baby pigs. We were to clean underneath the stalls and feed the sows but were not to touch the baby pigs, creating in me a feeling that he was a cruel man, a man who didn't know how good he had it.

I tried to make my body collapse into the small space, but my bottom was full figured and I could only manage to inch back slightly. I wore Derrick and Darren's hand-me-down overalls; they were made for stocky boys, and, for me, my mother had to hem them so much that the seam made a band just an inch or so below my fleshy knees. I sucked in my belly and tried to breathe silently, allowing only a snippet of air out, exhaling through my nose in precise intervals, which I believed would keep me from drawing my grandfather's attention to the corner.

He had always been skinny, and, with the light behind him, he appeared to be frozen on a pole for a moment, a scarecrow waiting for something to happen. He watched the sow like that for what seemed to be half a day, then left the barn, the door still open, clearly a sign he was coming back. He strode back through the door carrying a gunnysack in his hand. When he picked out a spot that was best to climb into the pen with the sow, he nearly stepped on the end of my work boot. I held my breath completely. Once into the pen, he slowly walked to the back end of the sow. He examined the afterbirth and the pigs. I thought I saw him holding his breath, too. The sow didn't notice him; she was grunting rhythmically, easing into a nap, as the piglets nursed less eagerly, some of them falling asleep as well.

Grandfather squatted down by the sow and with a quick dash of his thin hand nabbed a spotted pig off a nipple. He turned the piglet around in his hand and thumped the little thing right between the eyes, tossing it into the sack so quickly he looked like a magician putting on a show. I stepped out from where I'd been hiding, unsure of what to do. I felt anger at the old man. Heat swelled in my round shoulders. I could feel real hate pulling me out further from the dark corner. My feet made a scuffing sound in the loose cement and pieces of stray grain. The old man picked up a pig that was entirely white. He thumped it and pushed it into the bag. I swayed from side to side with pent-up energy, wanting to stop him but not knowing how. He caught a glimpse of me in the corner of his eye. He turned his head slowly and looked at me with an intense stare. He was caught himself. If he said something, the sow would know he was there. She might wake up and take a hunk out of him, but if he didn't quiet me down, he could expect the same outcome. I knew he wanted to whip me good right then, but he simply put a finger to his lips and winked at me. I knew that later he'd have a talk with my father about how careless I'd been. It wouldn't make a difference what I did, I decided.

I turned to walk away slowly and my grandfather must've thought he'd scared me enough that I was going to the house, and I was, but then, as he snapped up another baby pig when my back was to him, and I heard the thump of his mean finger against the soft skull of another piglet, I passed the pitchfork and latched onto it and rushed back to the partition. My grandfather looked ready to risk the bite of the sow on his thin leg to lay into me good with a switch. His eyes turned whiter around the edges when I tried to yell at him. I was sobbing now, and the pitchfork shook as I pointed it at him over the gate. The thickness in my throat made me feel weak, like I'd never be a man, ever; no matter how hard I tried, I would remain a chubby little snotnose incapable of doing what a man had to do.

"Put my pigs down," I sputtered, the rough handle of my weapon bouncing; I turned the prongs upward as my grandfather stepped toward me. In a second he was out of the pen, near the front door of the barn before I could say anything else. He held in his hand the sack with several of the baby pigs in it; they started to make faint squeaks. The sow stirred at the commotion, began to snort and huff. I was scared that she would leap the stall and tear into me, thinking I'd stolen some of her babies. My grandfather stomped around for a couple of seconds. He turned inside the frame of the bright doorway and spoke. I couldn't see anything but his outline, dark and tall, stiff as the beams of the barn. "Son, get your little ass over here. That sow's all worked up now. She's likely to come at you right through that gate."

I didn't want to go to him, but I was terrified that the sow, now on her feet sniffing the afterbirth and turning circles, looking for vanished babies, was going to get me. I let the pitchfork fall. It rattled, and the sow started to pant and growl. I could see my grandfather hesitate, then take a step away from the doorway. When he got to me he took me by the shoulder, tight; his fingers dug into my skin. It hurt and was meant to. He said in a low, angry voice, a kind of hiss that can only be made through clenched teeth, "You'll never get to be a hog man acting like that."


Excerpted from pig boy's wicked bird by Doug Crandell Copyright © 2004 by Doug Crandell. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Page,
1 - Who Is the Real Pig Boy?,
2 - When Grandfathers Steal Pigs,
3 - Our Lady of Electrical Light,
4 - Chores and Sex Ed,
5 - Wicked Birds,
6 - Pillow Therapy, Rocks Too,
7 - First Soaks During Hee Haw,
8 - A Glimpse of Jimmy,
9 - And Then There Were Two,
10 - Break-Fist at Noon,
11 - It's Home and It's Weird,
12 - Devil Worshippers,
13 - Third-Person Mother Cometh,
14 - Peanut and Other Runts,
15 - Your Mother's in the Bicentennial Bathroom,
16 - Dot Matrix Bills and the Fourth of July,
17 - He's saying His Runty Goog-Byes,
18 - Winesburg, Ohio and Homemade Shirts,
19 - Run, Joe, Run,
20 - Fear Far from I-465,
21 - If Thy Hand Offends Thee Cut It Off,
22 - Taking the Meringue Ridge Back Home,
23 - Colored Glass,
24 - Buy These,
25 - The Uncle Sam Outfit,
26 - Pig Boy on the Lam,
27 - Don't Go parading My Heart Around,
28 - Poisoned Heart,
29 - Ear Envy,
30 - Watching Roots in an Inaugural Blizzard,

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