In my last post, I briefly mentioned the Stock Yards and its impact on Chicago, making it one of the great hubs of the United States. The American poet, Carl Sandburg, memorialized our great city in his poem, “Chicago,” in which he identified its many faces – the power, the beauty and the ugliness that was there during the early and mid-1900’s. Any child living during the days when the Stock Yards was booming took great pride in that poem and the images it created. It was so popular throughout the United States that it was among the many poems taught in school. And if you lived in Chicago, you not only read the poem in the early grades, you actually went on a field trip to the Stock Yard to personally experience its magnificence. Busloads of Chicago children, some as young as ten years old, accompanied by their teachers, were “treated” to an all day tour of that part of Chicago that made it the “hog butcher for the world.”
Today was going to be hot and humid with strong winds from the south. You didn’t have to hear a weather report the night before or open the window; you just needed to breathe. The smell of the Chicago Stock Yards crept into every corner of your house—the putrid odor of animal feces and decaying meat drying your nostrils and burning your throat. Even if the windows were closed tight, the smell would find the cracks and slither through until it encircled your throat and squeezed you in its stink, choking you awake. It didn’t happen often, at least not so often that you grew accustomed to it, but it happened enough that on those days when it did, you wished you lived somewhere else.
This was Bridgeport; just north of the Chicago stock yards - a pig smell away on a hot humid summer day when the winds were blowing strong from the south.
The forecast for the day was “mostly sunny with no rain in sight” and the good nuns of St. Mary of Perpetual Help Grammar School were in a benevolent mood. The end of the school year was fast approaching and the entire fifth and sixth grade was to be rewarded with a field trip to the Chicago Stockyards. Both grades had been reading Carl Sandburg’s poem, “Chicago,” and Sister Mary Regina and Sister Mary Alberta were eager to show us why our fair city was called “Hog Butcher for the World.” We couldn’t visualize Sandburg’s “City of Big Shoulders”; cities didn’t have shoulders. Nor could we urban kids picture his “Stacker of Wheat.” But “Hog Butcher” ah yes, that made sense to us. And in just a short bus ride south on Halsted, we would understand — and we would never forget.
A half mile from the entrance to the stockyards, I could feel an approaching rumble vibrating inside my ears and tickling my stomach. It was an incessant rolling sound that I felt before I heard; a great echo bouncing off the buildings; a soft, undulating wave that washed over my entire body. Every kid on the bus began to stir.
“Cows!” Jimmy Bukowski yelled, as he ran down the aisle of the bus. “Those are cows! Where are they?”
“Jimmy Bukowski, sit down!” Sister Mary Regina yelled, as she grabbed his arm and ushered him back to his seat. “You’ll see them soon enough. Now sit quietly until we get there!”
Jimmy sat, but not quietly. Actually he sort of hovered over his seat, twisting from side to side, jerking his head to peer out the windows, sliding to the edge of seat, then back again. He didn’t yell out anymore, but his fidgeting was just as distracting.
Within a matter of minutes the entire fifth and sixth grade classes were standing on a platform overlooking a sight I’m sure none of us had seen before. At least that’s what I gathered from the awestruck faces surrounding me. We simply stood there, held hostage by the sight before us, reluctant to move forward for fear we might never see anything like this again. Thousands of cattle stretched beyond my eyes horizon, looking like a stagnant brown, white and black pool with occasional bubbles breaking the surface as one cow or another raised its head. Thousands of them packed so tightly in wooden pens that they couldn’t turn, just waddle from side to side and front to back, barely moving.
“Okay,” our guide said, “We need to move on to the first station. Walk ahead until I tell you to stop.”
Within a couple hundred feet we were overlooking a small group of men covered in mud, pushing and poking a long line of cattle toward a narrow opening, and shocking them with electric prods when they didn’t move quickly enough. Yet, the cows simply inched forward, forcing each other toward a four foot wide wooden corridor that squeezed them like sausage being stuffed into its casing, funneling them into a long, narrow wood framed passageway. The cattle were pressed so tight that they looked two headed – one head in front, the other in back; a chain of two-headed cows stumbling, but never falling – too tightly sandwiched between the cow in front and the one behind.
At the third station we could see the long line of cattle stop when the first one reached the end of the wood-slatted corridor. Gates immediately shut in front and behind, enclosing each cow in its own space with no room to move – forcing each to stand upright. Bellowing and banging against the sides, stomping and kicking, they desperately tried to jump over the top of their pens. After several futile minutes, they tired and stood placidly in their prisons.
A row of men waited on a wooden platform a few feet above, one hovering over each penned in cow, and each holding a sledgehammer. Before the cow could gather enough strength to once again try to escape, a sledgehammer came crashing on its skull. A sickening sound filled the air— the same sound as when Bobby Welczek dropped the watermelon from his second floor bedroom window, splattering it on the concrete alley behind his house—sort of a squishy thud. Thud, thud, thud across the entire platform as each man wielded death with every muscle in his body— a constant, sickening sound of metal mallets crushing skulls. Sometimes a stronger cow would have to be bludgeoned again. Still conscious, its front legs would buckle momentarily as if kneeling in prayer. But when it began to rise, another crushing blow silenced it.
When a cow seemed unconscious, or at least not conscious enough to struggle, a lever was pulled, tilting and opening the side of its pen and sending the stunned carcass tumbling to the platform below. There another worker would clasp one hind leg in a chain and pull another lever, hoisting the struggling cow into the air where it dangled from an overhead conveyor slowly moving it to the next station to be skinned, gutted, and quartered.
Joyce Shipior and Judy Shupinski began to cry. Billy Kepki started cheering. Jimmy Bukowski threw up.
Sister Regina and Sister Alberta helped usher us to the next station. There, a long line of squealing pigs hung with one hind foot tethered to an overhead conveyor. They were no more than two feet apart, jerking side to side, banging into each other, thrusting back and forth as hard as they could. The squealing echoed throughout the cavernous room, bouncing off walls, then off the floor, then off the kid next to me—that incessant squealing. It was as if the pigs knew what awaited them near the end of the overhead conveyor.
And there he stood. I don’t know what his official title was, maybe “pig slayer,” maybe it actually was “hog butcher.” But there he stood at the end of the conveyor, on a concrete floor, straddling a drain. He wore a rubber apron draped around his neck and tied at the waist that reached to the top of his boots. The apron was either black, heavily speckled with red, or red with patches of black. It was hard to tell the original color. His boots, tugged almost to his knees, seemed to be reddish, black. He stood there calmly, patiently, as if waiting for a bus.
The conveyor inched forward. The pigs bounced off each other, still jerking back and forth, still twisting side to side, determined to free themselves—to slip from the conveyor and run. Their squeals pierced the hot, stagnant air jabbing into my ears until I covered them with my hands to deaden the sound. Their shrill cry for help was ignored. It was soon apparent this journey would continue as the tethered pigs slowly inched toward their fate.
The man in the black or red apron just stood there calmly, saying nothing. As the first screeching, lurching pig reached the quiet man, he seemed to caress its head in his left hand and turn it gently from his body. Then, with the deftness and precision of a highly skilled surgeon, with a quick, fluid upward thrust of his knife, he slit the pig’s throat. The blood gushed like a full blast faucet, splattering over the floor, seeping down the drain, splashing onto his boots, spattering the once black apron.
The pig soon stopped squealing, soon stopped struggling, and limply, lifelessly, continued its journey on the overhead conveyor. There were others behind—waiting.