By the spring of 1964 I was already a seasoned veteran of the Unadilla Chapter of the Dooly County 4-H Club. I had completed some noteworthy projects, such as my entomology collection. It filled two King Edward Cigar boxes and included an elusive water bug thanks to Granddaddy Hill. The insects were pinned neatly to green Styrofoam, which had been salvaged from a funeral wreath.
Public speaking was another memorable venture. My mother still maintains that I was robbed of the district award. She credited me with a stellar presentation of 4-H: The Democratic Way. The thing I remember most clearly was being glad to get off the stage. Standing behind that podium in Americus, I learned that public speaking can lead to bladder shrinkage.
I had also chalked up two years of experience in the Dooly County 4-H Barrow Show. A barrow is a male pig who has been chosen to sing soprano in the choir. The Bible speaks of eunuchs, a position for which the volunteer line was predictably short. It’s the same with male pigs.
My prior entries in the barrow competitions were common farm raised pigs of undocumented heritage. In 1964 I was determined to make a serious run for the coveted blue ribbon. Daddy agreed to loan me the money to buy a registered Duroc, a breed with dark red hair and a history of stardom.
Mr. Rufus Coody had a large purebred swine operation. He knew more about hogs than anyone in Dooly County and far beyond. He searched carefully trying to find a winner for me. We put that young pig in the back of Daddy’s pickup truck and took him home. I named that promising little fellow Rufus, in honor of the man who brought us together.
Mr. Allen Fulford was our county agent. He made regular visits to our farm to check on Rufus. Mr. Allen would tweak the feed formula, adding or taking away various supplements. He gave me a strict regimen of daily walks for Rufus to tone his muscles and help train him for the showring routine. It only took a few trips around our large fenced pen until Rufus caught on. I didn’t even need a walking stick. It was more like playing in the yard with a good dog.
Rufus loved attention. When our school bus made the afternoon rounds, he would trot over to the fence and stand on his back legs. He would prop on the page wire until I petted him or scratched underneath that big chin of his. The kids on the bus cheered through the half open windows. He was delighted by encouraging chants of, “Ruuuuu-fus! Ruuuuu-fus! Ruuuuu-fus!”
One aspect of the 4-H plan was to teach good record keeping. I knew exactly how much was invested in Rufus. When it came time for the barrow show, I had spent 57 cents a pound raising him. That was a lot in 1964, but Rufus had the look of a champion.
That little pig started out as a project, but he soon became a friend. It was, however, a troubling situation, as I knew barrows shared a common fate. They travel a one-lane road with no off ramps. That’s the sobering thought that pounded my conscience when we walked into the showring.
Rufus didn’t win, but he came in a solid second. I still have that red satin ribbon in a small cardboard box of keepsakes. The top three hogs always sold for a premium, sometimes for as much as two dollars a pound. I tried to focus on this being a lesson in business, but my heart had no interest in a lecture on economics.
Rufus was herded through the gate toward a big truck that would take him on his final ride. He gave me a quizzical stare, but I couldn’t look back. I turned away and bit my bottom lip. There was no way to explain to him what was happening. Even if I could it would have just made things worse.
A few days later our mailman, Mr. Bruce Poole, delivered an envelope from the sale barn. It removed any uncertainty as to Rufus’ fate. I knew he had been wrapped in white butcher paper and stacked in a cooler, stamped with a label that didn’t even mention his name or red ribbon.
I had a sick feeling as I walked toward the house while opening that envelope. My good buddy Rufus was gone. That was a hard thing for an 11-year-old boy to accept, the low point of a tragic situation. I thought I’d hit rock bottom, but it got worse. Rufus had only brought 32 cents a pound.