Life on the line


Leon Smith - Contributing Columnist



“I can’t go on like this anymore,” he shouted at his wife as he walked out the door. ”We can’t make it on this farm. I gotta get out and find a job.” So, he hurried to every blacksmith shop in town, then to the cotton gin, and finally to the sawmill. Times were hard and there was no work. Finally he walked across the railroad tracks, down a dirt road to a small building in front of the meat packing plant.

“We have an opening for a stunner on the line,” the lady said, from behind the counter.

“What does a stunner do?” he said.

She looked at his eyes. “He knocks the cattle in the head with a sledge hammer.”

“Oh.”

“The hammer knocks them out so quick they don’t know what hit them.”

“So the hammer doesn’t kill them?”

“No,” she said. “That happens on down the line.” She looked at him again.

“It’s a hard job,” she added. “And everyone’s not cut out for it.”

“My children need shoes,” he said.

“What’s your name?

“Will.”

“Report to the building behind me in the morning,” she said. “The foreman will tell you what to do.”

Next morning, Will walked back to the plant, where the foreman brought a sledge hammer, and showed him a diagram with a cow’s face, and the dot between its ears that he should hit. “But don’t ever get to enjoying your work, “ he said. “That will get you in big trouble.”

The next day, Will watched Duke, their best hammer man, at work.

“Some folks can’t look ‘em in the eye,” Duke said. “They make like there’s a spot right between their ears, and hit it. Hard.” He looked at Will.

“Old Dude’s not like that,” he said. “I look right at ‘em. These cows got their job, and I got mine. It’s just a job.” He looked over at Will again. “Just a job. Nothing more, nothing less. Got it?”

Will wasn’t sure he got it. But that night he went back home and practiced hammering the spot he had charcoaled on a tree stump.

So when Will began on the line, he blurred his eyes just enough to see, but not to see too much. But at the end of the day he was worn out, and not just from swinging the hammer; he was tired in a place much deeper than his shoulders and his back.

Walking home, he told himself he was not killing the cows. They were going to die anyway, and if he did his job right, they would go into shock from the blow, and just never wake up. He really was trying making things easier for them.

But each morning when he got up, he did not want to go to work — until his mind showed him his children’s toes pushing through their shoes. That day he concentrated on the rhythm of swing, wait for the next one, swing, wait for the next one, so that what he was doing to the animals did not bother him as much.

That evening, old Preacher George stopped his mule wagon to give him a ride. On the way, the preacher asked Will what brought him to town .

“I’m stunning at the packing house, now, “ he said.

“How do you like it?”

“Well it’s not as hard as it was.”

“How’s that?”

“Swinging the hammer’s not so bad,“ Will said. And the hitting’s getting easier.”

“Oh, the preacher, said then rubbed his chin for a while. “You know the first time is the hardest,” he said. “After that, every stun gets easier. You know why that is?

“Why?” Will asked.

“That’s because those cows get invisible,” the preacher said. “Because you stop thinking of those cows as living things.” He looked at Will.

“But Will, you’ll get yourself in big trouble if you don’t remember those cows have feelings too. I know God surely gave them to us for food — look back to where Adam and Eve got their clothes. But cows are God’s creatures too, and we can’t ever forget that they deserve to be treated like it.”

Because Will’s house was coming up, and the preacher had had more to say, he slowed Molly to a trot.

“They are giving their lives so you and I can live,” he said. “And the least you can do is tell them ‘thank you’ before you hit them in the head.”

“Whoa, Molly,” the preacher said as they reached Will’s house.

“Thank you for the ride, Preacher,” Will said, shaking the old man’s hand. Then he stepped down off the wagon and went up to Molly and scratched her ears. “Thank you too, Molly.”

He felt lighter as he walked home. “The preacher’s right,” Will said to himself. “Those cows are giving their lives for me.” So next day on the line, before he swung the hammer, Will said “thank you” to each cow.

The plant foremen were told to make sure the hammer men were not getting in big trouble. Maybe they didn’t watch Duke carefully enough because “ his work was just a job.” So one Friday afternoon they didn’t even see him smile, the chuckle, then laugh out loud while he was on the line. When he got off that night, he took his hammer with him. And at a bar he used it on another human being in the same way he used it at work.

When Will heard about Dude, he realized his own humanity was on the line, that what happened to Duke could happen to him. Although he kept on saying words of gratitude to the cattle he met at work, he also added “Thank you for giving your life for me.”

He did not miss the application of this lesson to the people he knew either, the ones like the preacher, his wife and his children… who had dedicated their lives to him.

Leon Smith, a resident of Wingate who grew up in Polkton, believes the truth in stories and that his native Anson County is very near the center of the universe.

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Leon Smith

Contributing Columnist

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