Jane and I were on Highway 27 in late December of 2017, headed from Americus to our home near Vienna. We drove past an abandoned white frame house in rural Sumter County. It’s been vacant for years and is long past the point of being repairable.
Jane was using her cellphone, so I didn’t mention that the old house and I have a history together. It’s nothing significant, just a minor event that somehow found a permanent home in my memory.
I think I was in the ninth or tenth grade, but I’m not sure. Several guys from our Future Farmers of America chapter in Unadilla were on a trip to Americus. Mr. Ottis Beard, our advisor and ag teacher, was driving his blue Ford pickup. He had the side bodies on and was hauling our purebred barrows to Americus for a district competition.
A truck tire went flat, and we pulled over near that farmhouse. Flats were rather common in those days. This flat was surrounded by some energetic farm boys, so it quickly surrendered. When Jane and I drove by that old house, I was reminded of that flat tire, and of the barrow show that day.
I don’t remember the name of my barrow. I’ll just call him Bocephus, because that seems like a good name for a high caliber hog. I felt that Bocephus had a good chance at winning one of the three ribbons to be awarded. He carried himself with a confidence that is not often found among swine.
To develop his muscle tone, I had taken him on daily walks of 30 minutes. Bocephus, like some of my other show hogs, enjoyed the time we spent together. It didn’t cross my mind that his friendly demeanor might one day be a source of embarrassment.
There were about 20 barrows in the show ring, hailing from several middle Georgia counties. We handled our pigs like showmen at the circus, always watching the judge and trying to attract his attention, constantly seeking to obtain eye contact, just as we had been taught.
Those hogs made multiple trips trotting around that ring, all of them following some pig who had by default assumed a leadership role. They ran quickly back and forth from one end to the other, all of them packed neatly into an inseparable group, all of them except for Bocephus.
Despite my frantic pleas, Bocephus refused to act like a normal hog. I had a big walking stick that Grandaddy Hill had given me. I wanted to whack Bocephus hard enough to get his attention and make him conform, but I’d never done that at home and figured I shouldn’t start now.
I knew that Bocephus would soon be leaving on a different truck than he came in on. It didn’t seem right that we should part on bad terms. So, with a face as flushed as my spirit, I tapped him lightly, just like I had at home. We walked slowly around the ring, taking whatever path Bocephus chose.
The judge called out the third, second, and first place winners. I wasn’t surprised that Bocephus didn’t place, and I knew that my poor presentation was partly to blame. Even worse, the two of us were still not part of the group, but were instead standing conspicuously alone.
The judge announced that there was a final award he would present, the award for showmanship. He said there was only one person in the ring who maintained control of his barrow the entire time, whose hog remained separate from the group and could be clearly seen. He shook my hand and handed me a new walking stick made from white oak and polished to a high gloss finish.
I knew that Bocephus deserved the award more than me, but he never was good at grasping things with his feet. I kept that walking stick for years, but lost track of it somewhere along the line.
The late Reverend Doug Fullington shared something with me a long time ago that his grandfather had told him. He said, “If you always follow the crowd, the crowd will never follow you.” I think that’s the same lesson that Bocephus tried to teach me that day in Americus. Good lessons can come from unlikely sources if we’re willing to learn.
I’m glad that flat tire memory and that old house still remind me of Bocephus, because Bocephus reminds me that following the crowd is often not the best road to take. Lonesome roads can lead to rich rewards. I sure wish I could find that walking stick.