There’s no way that accepting a job on the Ham Line at Tyson’s Meats reports a life of success. Generally, two kinds of people land these jobs – those entering the country and those exiting prison. In my case, a court ordered mandate and mess of legal problems rendering me unemployable resulted in an eight month stint at the place. I could take the job at Arbys my well meaning grandma set up for me, a 31 year old man, or I could not commit suicide and instead go to work at the hardcorest meat packing plant in the Midwest.
The Tyson’s plant in my town concentrates on hog packaging. A couple hours away I know there’s one that deals in chickens. Across the Illinois border, they pack cows. We worked with hogs. At any hour of the day convoys of trucks lined up waiting to dump their load at the factory. They‘d come from big Iowa factory farms and small family farms that sold their swine at markets. I just know there were thousands of hogs outside of that place all the time and you could smell the stench and hear the squealing and snorting downwind. There must be billions of hogs in this state.
The trucks would pull up to the large open doors at the back of the factory. During our orientation tour, we got a glimpse of what went down back there, but it was later described to me in greater detail by a Kill Floor worker. When they opened the trailer gates hogs would charge out, jostling one another for position. I don’t know why people think pigs are smart. They’re stupid. They’d break each others legs, bite each other on the ears and snout, and check one another into the wall. Like I said, I got a minor peek at this process and it’s one of those broken memories of a chaotic event- all I can recall is a bunch of hogs running in a circle, a Mexican yelling, someone’s hardhat sailing through the air, and our tour guide quickly telling us to keep moving.
What awaits each hog is a zap to the neck or right behind the ears with an actual lightsaber, the electric tong, that serves to render the beast unconscious so it supposedly doesn’t feel the soon-to-come execution. PETA doesn’t like these things, as the animal allegedly wakes up sometimes.
But what’s even more compelling is something else that Kill Floor worker told me. Occasionally, a rebellious hog would resist by lumbering up against the back of the truck or in the corner of the pen wall. This guy told me there were times he’d have to go and physically wrestle the hog in order to get him to cooperate. He’d wrestle these hogs, not for sport, not for wagering, but for ten dollars an hour. Do you know how strong a pissed off hog must be? I figure there had to be times where they‘d just ride them, to get them motivated and steered in the right direction.
After all this, the buzzed hogs fall onto a conveyor belt and ascend to a platform where some doubtlessly messed-up guys slit their throats and puncture strategic parts of their swine bodies to drain the blood into a large vat below. Down the line, more guys position the hogs appropriately for leg clamps that dangle from a reverse conveyor belt strung throughout the entire factory ceiling. And this is where the hog’s journey really begins.
Their first stop is what is called the Wall of Fire, where the hogs pass through a superheated enclosed panel with actual flames that burns the hair from their bodies. They come out of that, are sprayed, and then brushed off like in a car wash. Then, because they’re still full of all sorts of organs, they go to the Gut Removal Machine which lives up to it’s billing. It’s like the worst theme park ever. After the hogs’ intestines have been removed they move through a cavalcade of stations, the disassembly line, where various instruments are stuck into the carcasses and various things are pulled out. Buckets of giblets, snouts, ears, tails, teeth, tongues, and balls are aligned along the track. The hogs are dangling, hung by their feet, and there are thousands of them, traveling along this upside down conveyor belt to be felt up and humiliated by various people on the factory floor. There are jobs I don’t even understand. There’s one guy that works with their hooves. There’s another one that rubs some powder on their chests. There is one guy that takes a little hook, stretches their anus, and peeks inside. Some of you may find this whole process sensual. I didn’t really think it was.
On the days I worked the “hot side” of the factory, this is the point where I would get my crack at the oinking motherfuckers. I worked eight hours manning a 400 lb suspended cut saw that served to split the bodies in half. I made a vertical slice from their privates down to their chinny chins. Most of the blood had been drained by then but I got a nice facial every so often. Really though, I more or less guided the machine through the carcass, as you’d otherwise get tired pretty quickly muscling a quarter ton saw through a pig’s torso 5,000 times a day.
Finally, Porky is parked in a refrigerator for a couple days to harden before his trip to the cold side of the factory where he then is literally ripped apart into high end and low end product. His organs and soul discarded on the hot side, the pig is now ready to become your glazed Christmas ham.
I usually worked on the cold side, part of the infamous Ham Line. It was me, fourteen Mexicans, sixteen Bosnians, and a recovering drug addict who always had some crank. My job was to trim fat from the hambone with a Whizzard Knife, a whirling circular razor blade. About my 4th month in, I saw a guy cut three of his fingers off. Blood flowed everywhere. The line shut down for 30 minutes. Anyhow, my supervisor Miquel advised me on how to trim the fat with precision, making a V-line from the hip bone circling around to what I guess would’ve been the hog’s side. A Bosnian guy next to me that looked exactly like Napoleon in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure worked 16 hours a day, 6 days a week doing this! So anyway, you’d take your Whizzard knife, methodically whiz one side of the ham, turn it, flip it over, and whiz the other side. Steve, the tweaker, gave me better instructions,
“Just slice here, here, and here. We ain‘t fucking astronauts (Really, Steve?). You don’t got time to wine and dine these things, you just wanna keep the line moving. Fuck these hogs!”
One time, one of the hambones had a big creamy green spot on it. The Ham Line unloader told me to smell it. I did. It was an abscess. I whizzed it and gave it to Napoleon.