Saving the Pigs
by Fred McCarthy
This happened over sixty years ago, back when I was a student at Bona’s summer school yet I still recall the day’s events as sharp and clear as Waterford crystal.
Here in Cattaraugus County, during that summer of ’42, five days driving rain swamp local waterways to the point of overflow. Newspapers call it a “Flash Flood!”
The swollen Alleghany inundates Bonaventure’s campus outback, including the large barn in which a hundred and fifty pigs are penned. They start to drown.
Care to find out whether any of ‘em get saved? Keep reading.
Bona’s then president; Fr. Thomas Plassmann, is audibly distraught. Students around campus hear him agonizing, “Pray tell, what direction would Cassiodorus take ad hoc?” Bona’s collegians and summer-school clerics, unwilling to wait for Cassiodorus to even show up, take a direction all their own.
One clever cleric we’ll call “Doc,” makes the suggestion, “Several strides in back of Friedsam Library is a tub filled with ducks. This tub is built entirely of sturdy wood-staves so it’s eminently capable of floating in Alleghany flood-waters. Being at least 12 feet in diameter it’s also fairly spacious. All you’d hafta do is boot out the ducks and you can use their tub to ferry drowning pigs back onto dry land.”
A pretty nifty idea, don’tcha think?
Employing Doc’s “pretty nifty” idea, clerics haul the duck tub from the muck it’s mired in and scrub it clean.
Bona prof Fr. “Pete” Biasiatto, broad-shouldered collegian “Pappy” Power, and university cartoonist “F. Mc” manage somehow somewhere to scrounge a pair of hawsers, each 60 yards in length.
As a cluster of clerics drags the freshly scrubbed tub to the flood-water’s edge, Fr. Pete joins the two hawsers end to end, making them into a single, doubly-long life-line. Securing one end round a tree-trunk at water’s edge he anchors its other end to the drowned barn 120 yards out in the rampaging river.
Togged in beat-up dungarees Fr. Pete slides off the stern of the rowboat that’s brought him, into flood waters up to his chin. With an arm crooked around the steel stanchion to which the hawser-end is tethered, he surveys a scene that grows grimmer minute by minute. Piglets have begun to drown.
The Bona barn houses close to 150 pigs. This includes a number of small piglets plus dozens of medium–size pigs that lack a precise designation. Y’might call’em teen-agers. Or intermediates.
The majority however, are portly, mature pigs. Call the females “sows” and the males “boars”.
In the course of the day, Mc will come to call the more troublesome ones “hogs,” confiding with a grin, “The cartoon spelling is ‘Hawgs.’”
Meanwhile, back in the row boat, Pappy and Mc return to pick up Doc. These three then pile into the “Rescue” tub. By dint of gut-busting effort they propel it hand over hand along the life-line all the way to the barn, where Fr. Pete awaits them, amid a cacophony of perishing pigs.
Seizing the one nearest by an ear, our Bona prof attempts to heave her over the high railing of the arriving tub. No cigar. She is much too heavy for even a muscly gent like Fr. Pete to heft by himself.
Remember, most of these Bona hogs are monsters. Many weigh from 300 to 600 pounds. Each one sports tusks that can gash you deep and hooves that flail every which way when y’try to lift their owners outa the river. Their hooves can rip ya, too.
So, with Fr. Pete boosting hog from beneath and the three ferry people lifting hog from above, the task of transferring any hog from river to tub is arduous. A real tough haul!
These difficulties help convince rescuers they better not try to ferry more than 3 pigs per trip.
Add to that, the length of time it takes tub to leave barn, reach shore, dump three hogs and return to barn, gives Fr. Pete scarcely minutes enough to round up the next hog trio and have’em ready for pick-up.
Mc’s job will be kicking the hogs in the snout to keep them apart. Y’ let three big ones jam together on one side of the tub and their combined weight can flip the flat-bottomed craft over in a flash. This will actually happen on two of the rescue trips, happily close to shore both times.
By noon we rescue 40 pigs, losing only one…- a huge porker that barrels past Fr. Pete, out the barn’s entrance and into the surging current. In mere seconds he’s swept far down-stream. Watching him vanish from sight, Mc hazards the prediction, “That hawg’s a gone gosling!”
By high-noon the rescue work has grown popular, attracting more than a few volunteers. A goodly bunch of Bonamen now wait in line, eager to “haul hawg,” including a couple of footballers, big, brawny buckos who look to be in top shape.
Among’em, a big, brawny ex-footballer named Nick Cihiwsky, paying his alma mammy a visit, gets around to telling us about an unusual prof he had here, name of Merton. “Wouldya believe this English “teach” kept giving all us football players A’s? Me, I never deserved no A, especially in English. So I just hadda learn t’live with it.”
Big Nick, who played left guard for Coach Mike Reilly, informs us he’s gonna try out for the NFL Dee-troit Lions. No cowardly lion, he.
Each time the rescue tub touches dry land its haulers turn their oinking charges over to the Franciscan brothers who’ve sedulously cared for the pigs prior to the Flash Flood.
Once back on land, the famished critters are fed ample measures of wheat cum corn and given buckets of fresh water to drink. The hardworking brothers are also busy setting up temporary pig pens for their pigs even as we ferry’em ashore.
Doc, talking with the brother in charge, learns that pigs, unlike humans, have no sweat-glands whatever. That’s why they’ll often roll in puddles of mud. “Not to get dirty” explains the brother, “but to keep cool. Otherwise they could suffer heat-stroke and perhaps die.”
Not one of us pig-rescuers knew about that. Did you?
Throughout the long afternoon, a robed friar moves among the spectators, inquiring of each “Were you at any time in the flood-water?” Say “Yes” and y’get a free shot of whiskey, the supposed antidote for flood-water typhus.
Mc here desires to stress a point. “Never once during the entire Rescue effort does Fr. Pete go ashore either to ‘chow down’ or ‘take five’ as the rest of us all do.”
True, we do ferry him a sandwich from time to time, artfully thrown together by the Blue Sox nuns, who run our university eatery. Because the Allegheny is still rising, Fr. Pete must munch his eats on tip-toe, with murky flood-waves now lapping at his lower lip.
The flood flummoxed the barn’s electrical system, leaving it without lights. With the coming of dusk its interior grows menacingly dark, making it difficult for Fr. Pete to distinguish shapes that keep bobbing up in the stygian waters. They may well be piglets who’ve drowned.
Mc recalls a joyous Fr. Pete emerging from the barn earlier that morning, holding two squirming piglets aloft, one in either fist- a picture nicely symbolizing the Bona effort of the day.
At this point in time our Bona prof runs up against the pig barn’s most combative critter… an Alpha male…a boar both quick and powerful who, angered by the encroaching flood, has grown meanly aggressive as well.
For a quarter of an hour Alpha is able to deter every attempt by Fr. Pete to move him from barn to tub. Looking on from the tub, Pappy Power can’t help but note the priest is growing perceptible weary. To lend a helping hand he drops into the flood-water, striding quickly through it shoulder-deep, to interpose his own body between priest and slavering boar.
Too quickly as it turns out. Big Alpha’s sharp hoof shoots out, slices through Pap’s pant-leg, wounding his quadriceps and bloodying the water around him. Pappy, tough cookie that he is, keeps right on coming.
Few classmates are aware Pappy’s older than they are. Though he doesn’t look it, Pap has labored strenuously for a dozen years since graduating high school. On campus only Mc knows what at. Through the years Pap has been driving red-hot rivets into the frameworks of skyscrapers…a job requiring him to daily stride across planks only 5 inches wide while lugging welding equipment… usually in dangerous winds…often 50 stories above Gotham City’s sidewalks.
It isn’t surprising this top-storey work of Pap’s impresses Mc, who gets dizzy just walking upstairs to a second floor.
Wielding 8 foot pikes they found closeted in the barn’s equipment room, the two Bonamen are able to crowd big Alpha against a wall. There, each seizes one of his floppy ears which they use to drag the protesting monster out to the tub.
But here giant Alpha makes use of his massive bulk to frustrate four attempts to hoist him over the craft’s high railing. “There’s no way we can lift the bristly bugger,” yells Mc. “He’s too slippery!” As if both men in the water were not already well aware of this.
Idea-man Doc comes up with the solution. For an impasse such as this he has brought along a king-size Army blanket. This the men in the water snug closely ‘round Alpha’s sopping length, being careful to imprison his big snout in its folds, thus neutralizing both his wetness and his scary tusk attacks.
The four rescuers are now enabled, using ropes, to hoist hefty Alpha above the rail and lower him gently down rather than letting him crash kerbam on the splintery wooden deck.
In such manner is 600 pound Alpha readied to make the trip back to dry-dock.
Waving g’by to bad ol’Alpha, Fr. Pete murmurs wearily, “Today we should both have been swimming at Cuba Lake but here we are hoisting critters in hawg heaven. I Sure hope St. Francis appreciates all the TLC we’re lavishing on these none-too-lovable brutes.”
And to Pappy, “Today everybody’s supposed to be giving his very best, but you, young man, YOU have endured to the shedding of blood.”
Slipping off his T-shirt, the prof rips it into narrow strips, which he tightens above and below Pap’s quad wound by way of tourniquet.
“Soon as the tub gets back, young fella, hop in and get yourself over to hospital. We don’t want you coming down with lockjaw. So, ask the head nurse for a tetanus shot. And tell her it’s on Fr. Pete Biasiotto. I don’t want you volunteers paying one thin dime out of pocket.”
Quickly Pap and the prof round up a trio of pigs, marveling how much easier it is without having to contend with cantankerous Alpha.
Soon as the tub returns Pap hops in but his return trip has to wait till cartoonist Mc outs with his “Pigs in Flood-water” bit, the spiel he’s been hashing up during the last six rescue trips. It goes: “Fum now on we gotta keep away fum flash floods, ‘cause it’s down in dem billows dat we’s gwine to get hung. Anybuddy tell us we ain’t fitten to eat wid de pigs, we kin tell’em right back: Ain’t nobuddy fitter than us to eat wid’em and tonite we kin do jus’like Huck Finn’s pappy useta do: sleep wid de hawgs in de tanyard.”
Not only is Mc’s dialect awful gimpy, it’s also way too long. Mark Twain said the same thing earlier, quicker and a while lot funnier. After all, Mr. Twain’s the Lincoln of our literature.
Pap now makes it back to land, thumbs his way over to the hospital and gets his tetanus shot.
By 8:30 that night we’ve saved maybe 150 pigs. Minus one.
President Plassmann makes an appearance. Moving from student to student, he expresses heartfelt thanks for the amount of effort we’ve expended throughout the day.
But it’s Fr. Pete, just in from the barn and looking dead-tired, who has the final word. Smiling his easy smile, he comes at us with gentle irony. “If it weren’t for you Campus Do-Nothings and you not-so-bright clerics, we wouldn’t have a pig left to our name. You gents deserve a ree-ward so yer all gonna get to eat pork for the rest of the summer, everyday but Friday.”
We take his kidding in good spirit, well aware that no one knows better than our gimlet-eyed prof who busted their butts and who chilled out on the Day of the Pigs.
Close to 9 pm, soon as the brothers have put the rescued pigs to bed, Pap and Mc grab a lift over to Olean, rent a rowboat and help rescue the few flood-stranded unfortunates still marooned on roof-tops…a happy ending to their hard day’s night.
After graduating from Bona’s, Pappy and Mc will go their separate ways but never stop writing one another. Which explains how come Mc knows all about mean ol’Alpha and a lot of other stuff only Pap was in on.
Sometime in the 1990s, hearing Fr. Pete has a close relative in the Order Mc goes out of his way to learn where the young man’s stationed and pens him a letter. In his missive Mc sets down diligently every act of fortitude he personally witnessed Fr. Pete perform that warm summer day.
Why would Mc write such a letter? In his own words, “I figured this was the one person in the whole world who’d want to know what his kinsman had done that made him our “college hero non-pareil” and be eager to celebrate the cardinal virtue of a fellow Biasiotto.”
And WAS he? With a puzzled shake of the head, Mc has to admit, “I dunno, the guy never bothered to answer my letter.”
No matter, this happening of which we write turned out to be an ever-so-memorable, truly serendipitous, extra, ultra, big-time BONAVENTURous event! Amen. cum Alleluia.
P.S. What took us twelve hours of an entire day to accomplish, I’ve tried hard to encapsulate for you in prose. Fast readers get through it in about twelve minutes. Can you? Time yourself.
You realize of course, this is just my gimmicky little ploy to getcha t’READ the darn thing.
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Written by Fred McCarthy for Sister Margaret Carney, OSF,
President of St. Bonaventure University.
Page created by Ellen Winger, Spring 2010.
Last update: 04 April 2012