My Father, Killer of Cattle

Shortly after the family bootlegging business went bust (9/5/2014 post), my father got a job in a meatpacking plant.  His first job there was killer of cattle.

The job consisted of driving a steer into a pen so narrow that the steer could barely move.  The young apprentice meat-cutter would then stand on the pen rails, straddling the steer, and stove in the poor beast’s brains with a long-handled, 10 lb. sledgehammer.  The trick was to kill it in one stroke, or you would have a very angry steer coming up out of the pen at you.

My father was about 15 when he started in the meatpacking plant, slaughtering cattle for ten cents an hour.  He was a tall, lanky kid who swung the sledge like the home run hitter he was on the baseball diamond.  The fellows at the plant dubbed him “Slim” for his lanky frame, and the nickname stuck with him for the rest of his life.

After a year or so of beating cattle to death, he graduated to what was called “the gut room”.  Freshly killed steers were lifted off the floor by their back hooves via hooks and suspended from the ceiling, directly over a trap door in the floor.  A large “T” was slashed across the steer’s abdomen, and the peritoneum sack containing most of the internal organs flopped out of the carcass and fell through the trap door.  It slid down a chute to the floor below.  At the bottom of the chute stood my father, arms opened wide, ready to catch sacks of cow guts.  Down in the gut room, the organs would be separated and further processed for market.

My father grew up in a brutal world.  He killed large animals by hand in order to help his mother put food on the table and a roof over the heads of all seven of the McGrane family members.  He never knew his father, who died when Pop was two years old.  I cannot really say if Pop was traumatized by his early years in the plant.  People then did not have the same notion about violence and brutality towards animals that we do today, and Pop never complained about it, ever the stoic Irishman. I could be terribly wrong on this point, though.  I have learned that we all have experienced losses and traumas that we have failed to recognize and own.   It strikes me as far more likely that Pop was traumatized by going to work in the plants at age 15, putting in ten hour days on his feet in near-freezing conditions in the “coolers”.

By contrast, my first job was making ice cream sundaes at Walgreen’s Grill about 12 hours a week, starting in my junior year in high school.  I grew up in a very different world than my father and mother, but their stories informed the thinking and psyche of me and my brothers and sister – it was the context my father and mother brought to their roles as parents, and what we then brought to our own experiences with life.  My own story could not be possible, in large part, without the story of my father.  On this Thanksgiving week, I think about many things we should be thankful for, especially the people who sacrificed to make our lives better.  What else can I say but, “Thanks, Pop”.  Stoic that he was, anything more would have embarrassed him.

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