Into the Muck

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My brother and I in the back of the “muck truck” with our good dog, Mickey, and the main hog barn in the background. Circa 1985.

When I was a little girl of about 8 years old, we raised hogs. Not just a few here and there, but lots, and lots of hogs. I have no idea how many, I was 8. Still, I know there were LOTS of HOGS on our farm. Along with cattle, and sheep and horses, and other furry critters. But this story has to do with our porcine, curly tailed friends, the piggies.

On this clear, beautiful October day in Missouri, it was time to take a load of hogs to the auction barn and sell them. My older brother and I were excited at the prospect of a trip to town and a chance to get off the farm. 

It was just after dawn when we set out in dad’s ’79 Chevy pickup, headed to the lower hog barns. We had hogs all over the farm in various large pens and even small pastures, but the main hog barn was located at the end of a long drive, in a small copse of trees, and this was where we were going. To get to the main barn, you were required to traverse a fairly narrow strip of land. On one side of this strip of land was a very deep ravine, and on the other, the large “hog pit”. This pit was a murky, yucky, pond-like depression that acted as a run-off collector for the hog pens, so was filled almost exclusively with pig excrement.

On this exciting day, Dad backed the truck up the driveway between the ravine and the hog pit, and he and my brother proceeded to jump out and start arranging gates and panels to make a sort of alley for the hogs to follow, hopefully right onto the truck.

I sat in the truck seat fiddling with the radio and waiting for further direction on what my part was in the hog loading expedition. Knowing my hard-working father, I wouldn’t have long to sit, and I would be put to work the instant he realized I was sitting idle. True to form, I was only halfway through the first song when I heard his booming voice hollering my name. I assumed I was going to be sent to fetch something, which was usually my job, so I hopped out of the truck seat, ready to go to work. But this time, my dad told me that he needed more room to set up the loading alley, and my instructions were to move the truck forward.

Now, I know what you’re thinking, “Who on EARTH would ask an 8 year old girl to drive a vehicle?!” This is where I point out that I WAS NOT an 8 year old girl to my father. I was a farm hand, and I was his help, and I was probably as capable as any of the distracted teenage boys he occasionally hired that never could seem to complete a task they were asked to. He always treated me just like he did my older brother, I was expected to never shirk a task or use my gender to pretend I couldn’t complete a task. In short, it never crossed his mind that I couldn’t do it. As a result, there never was much I didn’t think I could do.

But this was different. I was as giddy as a kid on Christmas morning. My hard-nosed father had asked me to pull the truck up. ME, not my brother, who was two years older and in my eyes always got the good jobs, the fun ones. Like driving trucks!

In retrospect, I believe he probably only needed the vehicle rolled forward a few feet. But to me? This was my chance. My shining moment. My time to live up to his trust in me and MOVE. THE. TRUCK. No sweat. He thought I could do it, so I thought I could do it. Easy peasy. Except for the fact that I couldn’t simultaneously press the gas pedal AND see out of the windshield to know where I was going. But whatever, I had driven tractors all over the farm and steered the truck on dad’s lap plenty of times. No sweat. I would have to steer without being able to see where I was going, but I knew just what to do.  With my confidence at that ridiculously high level that only comes from youth and sheer ignorance, I sat up and peered over the steering wheel to get my bearings, and then immediately sank down off the seat and found the gas pedal with my foot and prepared to hammer down. 

carefully eased the shifter on the column from the P to the D, quite proud of myself for remembering which one I needed, and hit the gas pedal. I knew the hog pit was on my left and the ravine on my right, so I just slightly angled the wheels to the left to make sure I didn’t hit the ravine, that in my mind was quite similar to the grand canyon. I could see a little bit out of the side windows and my elation was palpable as I looked around me and absorbed the enormity of this proud moment. I was DRIVING.

I thought it was going awfully well until the truck stopped moving. I gave it more gas, and then still more, and yet no scenery was sliding by that side window. I decided it must be pulled up far enough anyway, and I didn’t need to worry what the problem might be, so I threw ‘er back in “P”, shrugged my shoulders, and grinned in expectation of the accolades sure to come from my father. I knew he would certainly be standing there with his buttons nearly busting from pride at his ever-so-capable and fearless little daughter.

Terribly impressed with myself, I opened the door and started to jump out of the truck. And THAT was when I noticed the problem. I couldn’t get out, because there was a large expanse of dirty, mucky, nasty water almost completely up to the floorboards on the truck! I peered around behind the truck to see my father and my brother back on dry land doubled over laughing, and that’s when it hit me. I had driven right smack INTO THE MUCK! Apparently my steering wheel wasn’t angled as slightly as I had figured, and coupled with my hard-headed and characteristic personality trait of “all or nothing”, I had very confidently hit the gas hard enough to propel me right out into the very middle of the large pit full of hog waste.

Suddenly deflated, and upset because I had failed my father, I immediately started crying. The elation I had felt at driving was suddenly erased by my inability to complete the job I had been given. I was certain that now I would never be trusted with the “good” jobs again, and even worse, there wasn’t likely a trip to town in my future, since I had just sank our only mode of transportation. I stared at my brother and father, utterly confused and completely devastated. My father attempted to stifle his laughter, and then immediately waded out to get me. While carrying me back to dry land, he told me not to worry, because he would fix it. He said it was his fault for not giving better directions, and that I hadn’t done anything wrong. Most importantly, he also told me that all he ever expected of me was that I try, and that was good enough.

I had driven the truck so far into the pit that it took my father several hours to pull the truck safely out of the muck. The majority of that time was spent with him wading through three feet of hog manure hooking up a variety of chains and rope lengthy enough to get the job done. I can’t say there wasn’t any cussing involved, and I can’t say my dad wasn’t frustrated during that ordeal, but I CAN say that he repeatedly told me I hadn’t done anything wrong and he wasn’t upset with me. He made sure I understood that it was important to him that I had been trying and he was proud of me. He told me I had been brave, and that was good enough for him, and that was all he could ask of me. With his words some of the elation that I had felt at driving for the first time started to drift back. Maybe he was right, it wasn’t a big deal that I didn’t do it right, because I had DONE IT. 

Over the years I think back to that day and it has occurred to me many times the symbolism of that moment. Because no matter how many times I find myself knee deep in proverbial (or literal) shit, despite my best intentions and giving it every ounce of “try” I’ve got, someone has always been there to tell me it’s OK and wade right into the muck to pull me out (many times my father). Usually in those times I tend to be hard on myself, and I’ve realized that’s OK too.

But always, ALWAYS do I remember that with great risk comes great adventure, and a major life lesson was learned the day I took the bull by the horns and drove Daddy’s truck into the hog pit. I’m glad I did. I hope I always have the courage to keep pushing my boundaries and my skills, no matter how many times I fail. 

I didn’t “quite” live up to his expectations that day, but I learned it was OK to fail, as long as I had tried. And that lesson was one of the best I’ve learned yet. It’s a lesson I desperately want to teach my children in the same way it was taught to me, by believing in them, letting them fail and then showing them that the failure wasn’t what they should focus on, or remember about the situation. There’s always, always a lesson in failure, and if you’re afraid to fail, you’ll miss that fleeting opportunity to grab it, and hold it, and learn from it. 

Farming on the level that my father did, and that we now do, is hard (i.e. large enough to be a full-time endeavor, and yet small enough not to be a corporate farm or turn much of a profit). And on the nights when I drop in bed exhausted, wondering how Travis and I can possibly continue to keep up with two full-time jobs and two full-time farms,  with little to no monetary reward for the extra work, I think hard on the life lessons that I learned as a farm kid, and I know how. There’s only one way we can, and that’s with a lot of faith, a little bit of courage, and if we have to? By driving straight INTO THE MUCK.

Happiness and Hoofbeats,

The Gate Girl

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