I sat in I stunned silence while Mr. G., my creative writing teacher, announced to the class that my true-life story had been named the winner in a kinda-sorta writing competition that had been judged by a panel of local writing experts. This was my junior year of high school. I guess I had really been on my game when I wrote it as that was the first time a piece of my writing had “won” anything. It turns out it has been the only time. I received no prize—nothing tangible, anyway—just the immense satisfaction of having a group of adult writing experts recognize and applaud my wannabe talent.
While Mr. G. was telling the class about it, my head began to swell as the shock wore off and the reality sank in. The bubble quickly burst when Mr. G. himself stuck a pin in it: “This isn’t necessarily the decision I would have made,” he said—a disavowal I’m sure was meant to soothe the offended sensibilities of the highly intelligent and the truly talented ones sitting around me—the cream of the crop of the “smart kids” at my high school. It’s not that I was a bonehead who had somehow, by clerical error, been assigned a seat with these Gifted Ones. At any rate, not that I recall. But I wasn’t one of the Gifted Ones. Mr. G. knew it, and the Gifted Ones knew it. All God’s chillun knew it.
I wish I still had a copy of that story, but few bits of memorabilia from high school have survived, which is just as well. I’m enough of a pack rat as is. You should see my home office where I’m sitting right now. On second thought, no.
So here is today’s version of “Near Death in a South Dakota Pigpen.”
I was five or six years old—although I may have been four—just a little guy, but the memory is as sharp as if it happened last week. I’ll say I was five, which would have made it a long time ago. It must have been fall or spring because the day was clear and chilly—cool enough to warrant wearing warm clothes.
My parents and I had gone to visit the Kurtz farm, located seven or eight miles from our home in Madison, South Dakota, a town of around 5,400 then. (Today, several decades later, Madison has seen little growth—according to the 2010 census, the population was just under 6,500.)
We regularly drove out to the farm in our maroon 1952 De Soto sedan—a big, heavy car with no seat belts in either the front or back bench seats. Most cars had no seat belts in those days. Dad and Mom would sit up front—Dad driving, of course—and I would have the entire bench seat in the back to myself. I could stretch out on it and nap when I got tired, and when I wanted to watch the road through the windshield, I could stand up, plant my feet on either side of the hump in the middle of the floorboard, and lean forward, resting my chin on my folded arms on the top of the front seat, between Mom and Dad . There are some advantages to being the only child living at home, one of which is that you don’t have to compete for space or attention with annoying siblings. Okay, I was spoiled.
I had to borrow gloves that day from my nephew, Kevin Kurtz, who was eight months older than I (yes, you read that right). Not only was it a bit chilly, we were going to play Follow the Leader, and when you went climbing around on things on a farm, you might need gloves to keep from getting sliced and splinter-filled fingers. Town kids worried about such likelihoods. Kevin had a new pair that he was kind enough to let me use, while he found an old pair for his own use. And I had to borrow boots because of the mud that seemed to be everywhere. You could easily step into a gooey bit of muck that would overwhelm your shoes before you could say “Oh, crap, I stepped in a gooey bit of muck!” So I slipped on a pair of red rubber boots, compliments of Kevin. We were now ready to explore.
It was Kevin’s family farm—he lived there with his mother (my sister, Phyllis), father (Gary, my brother-in-law), older brother (Kim), and younger sister (Kathi). It was his turf; he knew his way around—so he was of course the leader. We meandered all over the barnyard near the house—into the nearby grove of trees, where we climbed on and over old, rusted tractors, plows, and wagons that stood as a silent testimonial to an earlier farming era—through the barn itself, climbing up the ten or twelve rungs of the wood ladder that led to the hayloft, where we tramped across a few feet of hay, and then back down the ladder. Outside the barn, we traipsed across to the chicken coop and climbed the two or three steps that led to the entry door. The smell inside nearly knocked me over—the pungent, ammonia-like odor of chickenshit.* I held my breath the best I could until we could turn around and exit, stage left.
He told me to follow him closely and to stay next to the fence. It all sounded great!
There wasn’t much left to do except visit the cows and pigs. Still following closely behind Kevin, I passed close to the pigpen in a state of soporific barnyard reverie. Since we wore boots, we believed we could go anywhere—even in there with the pigs and all the mud, muck, mire, and foul-smelling manure. Kevin said we should step between the fence slats, walk around inside the perimeter, and see how close we could get to the animals. He told me to follow him closely and to stay next to the fence. It all sounded great! “Okay, Kev,” I said. “I’ll stay right behind you.” And we stepped through.
Now we were inside the pigpen. And here is where my memory blanks for a few moments, because I have no idea how I went from stepping carefully and slowly in the squishy muck, following close behind Kevin, to my next moment of awareness when I suddenly began to sink into the mire. When I say sink into the mire, I do mean sink into the mire! My first few steps were exciting as I looked down and watched the black goo cover my boots and thought, This is really neat! I’m sure glad I have these great boots on to keep me from getting this manure on my feet and ankles. But since I had been watching my feet instead of Kevin, I had lost track of where he was and had wandered a couple of feet away from the fence.
On my next step, there seemed to be no bottom—only soft, manure-y mud—and I watched as the muck covered my feet, then my ankles, then the tops of my boots, and I could feel the insides of the boots begin to fill up. I couldn’t move my feet—not forward, nor sideways, nor upward. The black, smelly gunk crept up my pant legs. Then I was up to my knees in it and still sinking. I tried desperately to move my legs, wiggling, squirming, and grunting with exertion. The more I struggled, the deeper I sank. Up to my butt in it and still sinking. Panicking, I yelled for help. I looked over at Kevin, who had stopped in his tracks, standing safely near the fence where I should have been, looking at me dumbfounded. Years later, he admitted that as he stood there, frozen, he was thinking, “What a dummy! What a dummy!”
As I continued to sink slowly into the squishy mire, an image from an old Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movie I had seen on TV played in my head. An unsuspecting man on a hunting safari had stepped into quicksand—it looked like highly viscous Malto Meal—and quickly sank down as he struggled and yelled until he disappeared. His beseeching hand jutted out from the muck, futilely grasping for the rescuers who couldn’t quite reach him—and then even that hand slipped under. He was dead. Gone forever. Only his pith helmet remained on the surface—a pitiful marker of the tragic thing that happened there.
My panic became sheer terror and my yells became screams as the black muck reached my belt and then my belly. I was sure—absolutely positive—that I was about to die . . . just like the poor sap in the Tarzan movie. I would sink and sink until only one blackened hand remained above the surface, fingers vainly outstretched, with Kevin still standing there all agape, shaking his head in disbelief.
As I screamed I saw the barnyard animals, whose personal space we had invaded, crowding together at the far side of pen, staring at me with expressions of bewilderment and fear. I would gladly have taken help from any pig or hog—but the stinking, lily-livered cowards only huddled and did nothing. Just like Kevin. I’m sure they had a good laugh about it later. With Kevin.
From the pigpen I could see the farmhouse fifty yards away, where Mom and my sister Phyl were inside—clean, happy, warm, and safe, and not about to smother to death in manure. I directed my screams in that direction. When I was certain all hope was gone and death was imminent, the farmhouse door opened and my sister came running. The next part is foggy: whether she somehow reached over the fence or climbed into the pen I’m not certain, but I do remember very clearly her grabbing my wrists and pulling me up from the mire. Safe! Rescued! I would not die a horrible death that day.
The red rubber boots did not come up with me.
Phyl, who was decidedly not pleased, sent me to the farmhouse yard, where my mother waited to read me the riot act. Then Phyl went to fetch a garden rake with which to fish out the boots, while mother had me strip off my clothes—all of the them—in the yard. The next thing I know, I am inside the kitchen, sitting buck naked in a large sink while mother bathed me. This incident has scarred me for life. Phyl came in and announced she had retrieved the boots and the borrowed gloves, the latter being so vile that she had to throw them down the outhouse toilet.
The next time we visited the farm, I went out to use that toilet (always a joy on a farm, using the outhouse toilet) and peered down into the potty-hole, holding my breath against its rank odor. (I was and still am a wuss about such things.) It was dark down there, but there was just enough dim light for me to see those gloves—or at least think I could see them—a sorry memento of my “near death” experience in a South Dakota pigpen.
Oddly, I have no recollection of what happened to the clothes I wore on that fateful day: pants, shirt, socks, tee-shirt, underwear, and probably a jacket. Perhaps they joined the gloves in that ignominious final resting place in the outhouse toilet. Which of course would mean that I rode home in the old De Soto that evening naked.
Mercifully, I have no memory of it.
*My apologies to those of you who thought I didn’t know, let alone use, words like chickenshit. It’s a perfectly good and descriptive word, but some will think I have surely renounced my salvation and am barreling down the road to perdition. If I have offended anyone’s sensibilities, I merely ask that they pray for my reformation—but it may be too late. However, if you’re reading this as a bedtime story to your wee one, you have my permission to substitute “chicken doodoo.”
Story originally published November 28, 2014 on my blog Why a Duck?
© 2016 by Dean Christensen