In 1995, during the summer before my first year at college, I worked at Excel in Ottumwa, IA. Excel was a subsidiary of Cargill at the time, and the company is now just Cargill.
There was a week’s worth of orientation. I learned how to sand a steel and keep an extremely sharp knife. I also learned some things about not cutting yourself and keeping the stuff you wear on the kill floor away from the break room where everyone eats.
As if it would somehow help, and bring relevance to the menial task I would be doing on the vast processing line that was needed, they gave me a detailed tour of the entire plant and how every little part of how the killing and processing would work.
Looking at the numbers and trying to make a conservative estimate, there were probably at least 10,000 hogs coming through the plant to be killed every day. That means my shift went through around 5,000 hogs. So, that summer, in a little over 2.5 months of work, I cut the ears off approximately 400,000 hogs’ scalps.
During orientation, I watched as hogs were coaxed onto a conveyor belt, as if they were luggage. When they reached the top, someone would drop a two pronged electrical thingy on the pig which would send a shitload if volts through the pig’s body, making it stiffen up as if rigor mortis had instantly taken effect. This electric shock would not necessarily kill the pig. The next guy on the line would put a loop around one of the back hooves of the pig. The pig would then be lifted up and swung upside down on a long line of other pigs. The third guy would take a sharp, ice pick like knife and shove it through the throat to pierce the heart of the pig. A river of blood and life would then exit the pig as it continued down the line.
After going through an inferno to burn off as much hair as possible, it would come out on the kill floor, where I worked. Someone in my line of view would cut off the head and scalp the pig in such a way so that both ears and the scalp meat would be one. This, they would throw on another conveyor belt that would then come to me. My job was to take my knife and “roll” the ears off the scalp meat, and then cut each lobe off the ear.
I did this around 400,000 times one summer. It gave me more of an answer to “Why am I going to college?” than anything else could have given me. There are people that do that for their entire lives. I’m proud of those people. I’m very glad that there are people like that. It takes a bigger person than me to do something like this. I couldn’t do it. No way.
After that experience, I started to notice pig ear doggy chews everywhere. They remind me of a time when I didn’t know if I could achieve my goals in life. They remind me of the beginning of a long journey.
Pig ears. Of all things.
My journey continues…