Fifth Installment: A Thin Slice of Sky



Vaccinating the Hog


The meaning of the cliché, “he squalled like a stuck pig,” held no significance for me until the night Dad asked me to help him vaccinate. The light was poor in the musty barn. As we rustled about making preparations, the pig sensed something unwelcome was coming his way. He grew restless. Having never “stuck a pig” before, I was as curious and unsettled as he was.

All we needed to do was hold him on his side long enough so that Dad could jab the syringe in and inject the medicine, perhaps fifteen seconds. But our subject was as determined to thwart our efforts as we were to succeed. First, I tried to hold the head and forelegs while Dad held the hind legs and took aim on the writing hind quarter. No luck; pigs have strong necks! Then Dad tried sitting on the front half, leaving me to wrestle the tail end, trying to stabilize it long enough to have a clean shot.

All during the non-sanctioned wrestling match, the pig projected an unearthly scream. It was deafening and piercing. Decibel for decibel, I’d pit it against any police siren on the street. (The streets are peaceful in our part of the world.) And the anguish it expressed – it spoke of humiliation, fear and the pains of death. There was not gratitude in it for the health we were conferring via the medicine. And as yet the painful syringe had not even nicked the leather hide.

When the needle actually was jabbed in, the horrible screeching neither increased nor diminished. The pig’s fears were excessive in relation to the real danger, and he didn’t even know the dastardly deed was done. The flank was still wriggling and Dad has lost his grip on the device. It tipped, flipped and bobbed like an ocean buoy until Dad recaptured it and quickly squeezed the contents into the taut muscle.

When we were done, the pig stood, moved around and grunted his relief and amazement at being alive. Matter-of-fact grunting was all I had ever heard from pigs. I never suspected they had such vocal powers of range and volume.




Biologically speaking, strictly biologically speaking, Pinto was a horse. She was shaped like one. She was painted as horses of her breed are. She ate as heartily as any horse. But she was more useful as an ornament than as a beast of burden.

Fathers buy horses for their children for riding, not just so they can buy hay, fix fences and pay vet bills. But Pinto exhibited the same enthusiasm for giving rides that a teenager does for cleaning bedrooms.

I imagined myself as an Indian on a smart and lively mount riding through beautiful mountain scenes. Pinto did not share this dream.

When one or two of us would swing a twine around her neck and clamber aboard, she would only stand still. Amnesia had struck. She pretended to forget all her training and instincts and displayed all the animation of an Italian sculpture. We urged her to perform a few steps. She stumbled along, head down.

“Oh, no! She’s headed for the back of the shed!” we moaned.

The extended roof of the shed was only six feet above ground level. Pinto’s swayed back was five feet. She knew that by walking under the edge, she could innocently scrape us off, thus resting from her exertion of crossing the yard.

Being the intelligent primates we were, we thought we could out-fox our beloved quadruped. She sauntered to the shed. We stayed on, each with only one leg slung over her back, torsos leaning forward, relying on the first rider to grasp firmly her mane. Remaining in this highly intelligent position, we clung until our strength failed. She found it easier to stand than we did to cling. One by one we slipped off. Then she turned her huge face to us, a devilish twinkle in her eye. The author of the bumper sticker, “Old Age and Treachery Will Always Defeat Youth and Enthusiasm,” surely owned a horse like Pinto.

Five of us managed to get atop Pinto one summer morning. This amused us. Rather than wait for our amusement to turn to boredom, Pinto executed a daring solution. The screen door to the house stood open. She headed for it and through it, in spite of our laughing protests. None was scraped off in the doorway. So there we stood, looking down, five children and a horse in the middle of the dining room. Mother looked disapprovingly from the light- they were all light- meal she was preparing. We giggled. That she could not help seeing the humor was evident in her face also. Later we marveled that no holes had been punched in the floor.

Pinto was not entirely useless. She produced a fine grandson of a colt, Charlie Brown. His father was on outstanding horse; it was unquestionably a case of paternal dominance in the genes. Still, in spite of her unprofitable expense-to-usefulness ratio, we mourned at her passing. She lay in state in the shed; we could not bring ourselves to view her.

She must live on in her progeny. Somewhere there is a horse of her line that exhibits more brain than brawn and excels at outsmarting children.




Besides chickens, we raised other birds for meat. Guinea hens were ugly and unsociable, if very little trouble. One day, while wagering with a friend about my aim, I chucked a rock at one thirty yards away. To my great surprise and the hen’s bad fortune, the rock struck its tiny head. It went loco and had to be killed. I felt bad. I had not really expected to connect.

Guineasand geese were purportedly good for the garden: “organic pest control.” Mother was an anti-chemical activist in the first wave and favored natural solutions.

One goose who ended up more a pest than a pest controller was Henry. He was mean. He was always trying to get a good angle of attack on feeble-hearted people around the place. Since he did not differentiate between residents and intruders, we couldn’t praise him for being a watchdog, either. When he hissed and straightened his long neck horizontally in your direction, and came with a quickening run, it was frightening!

The only one he was careful not to accost was Dad. And Dad was the only one not afraid. One winter day when the snow lay deep all around, Henry found his perfect victim in a most vulnerable spot. Rhyll had gone from the house in robe and slippers to get the mail at the mailbox on the county road. On her way back, she saw Henry coming from the house with his beady eyes on her. To the left and right of the driveway snow stood twenty inches deep, walling off Rhyll’s alternative routes to the house.

As Henry got close, Rhyll had no choice but to jump three strides into the snow. She squalled for help. Henry calculated his odds of a successful attack in terrain where snowshoes would be better than webbed feet. He attacked, flying!

Rhyll stumbled a few more feet and struck him down. Then Henry realized trouble. Wings are not suited to the snow. They both flailed away, Rhyll trying to escape and Henry trying to get his balance to attack again.

I watched the conflict from the roof of the shed where Dad and I had been nailing down tin roofing. I had been amused by the sight of Rhyll standing bare-legged in the snow but became enraged when the airborne attack began.

Jumping down, I went for the vile creature. I had many accounts to settle with him. I chased and clubbed him around the premises until I thought he was dying where I had slammed him into a stack of angle iron. To my disgust, Henry revived. A few days later, Henry was in the freezer. Mother must have insisted.


   BearCanyonconfines the view. Residing on its floor, near the creek, we enjoyed somewhat less daylight than average Montanans. In spite of these limits, our family enjoyed copious light and warmth. In some ways our views were as expansive as those of people living next door to the United Nations, or up the street from the Philharmonic. The straitness of our environs held us back but little, offset by parental magnanimity and love. Our thin slice of sky shone amply.

From Tocqueville on President’s Day

“The civilization of New England has been like a beacon, lit upon a hill, which, after it has diffused its warmth immediately around it, also tinges the distant horizon with its glow.”

“The foundation of New England was a novel spectacle,” not by “speculators and adventurers greedy of gain.”

“The settlers all belonged to the more independent classes.”

“These men possessed… a greater mass of intelligence than is to be found in any European nation of our own time..”

“The immigrants of New England brought with them the best elements of order and morality; they landed on the desert coast accompanied by their wives and children.”

“But what especially distinguished them from all others was the aim in their undertaking. They had not been obliged by necessity to leave their country; the social position they abandonded was one to be regretted, and their means of subsistence were certain. Nor did they cross the Atlantic to improve their situation or to increase their wealth; it was a purely intellectual craving that called them from the comforts of the former homes; and in facing the inevitable sufferings of exile their object was the triumph of an idea.”

“The Puritans went forth to seek some rude and unfrequented part of the world where they could live according to their own opinions and worship God in freedom.”


Alexis de Tocqueville, of French nobility, traveled America in the early 1800s and recorded his insights in “Democracy in America”, a book  pertinent even now, two centuries past.

Recent Reading

I recently finished Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Aeschylus’ Oresteia and Racine’s Phaedra. For respite from the hilarity of these texts, I’ve resorted to listening to “Dave Barry is Not Taking This Sitting Down” on CD and reading Twain’s The Innocents Abroad.

Right now I’m mining the amazing thoughts in Crowds and Power, by Elias Canetti. It was mentioned several times in the Teaching Company audio course I listened to, “Utopia and Terror in the 20th Century,” so I bought a used copy and have read most of the first several hundred pages. (I skip passages.)


I bought a copy of Livy’s The Early History of Rome. I’ll give it a shot after Crowds and Power. I also got Pipes’ Communism: A History. It’s a thin book and looks worth reading, so far.