Daddy's Aitch

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Author: Gregory Johnson
Date: Winter 2019
From: New England Review(Vol. 40, Issue 4)
Publisher: Middlebury College
Document Type: Essay
Length: 3,919 words
Lexile Measure: 1310L

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O, God, my swineherd God,
send me two pigs, please,
to swallow my two demons.
Drive them like nails into
the poor pigs' brains. Better
make it three, three pigs.
--Maurice Manning, "The Prayer for Pigs"

THE STENCH HAS STAYED WITH ME. WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN TAKEN FOR the faint smell of bacon fried in a cast iron skillet turned out to be burning hog offal; flesh, bone, and all that was not worthy even of the cheapest hotdogs and bologna was sent to the furnace and incinerated. White plumes of smoke blew continuously from multiple smokestacks surrounding the parking lot.

We never used the formal "East Tennessee Packing Company." We called it "Daddy's work," or sometimes "Selecto" (the brand of meat produced in the plant), but most of the time, we simply said "the packinghouse."

The plant was located in South Knoxville, near the Tennessee River. The main gate was at the end of a dead-end street that crossed over a winding set of railroad tracks that disappeared into the packinghouse where animals were shuttled to their death. The plant resembled a prison I saw while reading a 1969 World Book Encyclopedia Daddy bought for us from a door-to-door salesman, and which I imagined Brushy Mountain Penitentiary--just a two-hour drive down the road--might look like. There were several brick buildings with visible stairs crisscrossing the outsides, each leading to the plant, the inside of which was seen only by those who worked there. A chainlink fence surrounded the compound with a guard stationed at the main gate, keeping out anyone who was not official personnel.

They all wore mandatory uniforms: white pants and matching white shirt, topped with a matching hardhat. Cruelty, insensitivity, and violence were cultivated as virtues in the slaughterhouse, as they had to do only one thing day in and day out: kill hogs.

My father's specialty was removal of the aitch bone. This bone is less familiar than the hock bones at the end of the pig's leg, the one that my people use to season collard greens and pinto beans. Buried just under the skin, the aitch is like the support in a mattress, or the stud in the wall of a pre-war house: concealed, unnoticeable yet necessary. Most refer to this as the "hipbone," which provides support. Walk, run, stand, sit: the aitch is essential. But for butchers like Daddy, it must be removed. The hock bone can be used for seasoning, but, left in too long, the aitch will rot the meat. Hams cure properly only when this bone has been skillfully removed.

Supermarket displays do a thorough job in disguising the violence that brought them there. The country hams you see hanging side by side, dressed in form-fitting white cotton bags that hide the flesh but not the shapely curves, remind me of an old-fashioned Southern debutante cotillion. They hang awaiting their eventual and proper place in baking and frying, in the making of red-eye gravy or eaten on homemade biscuits called "catheads." When I'd walk with Daddy through the meat department in every grocery store we visited together, he'd point out those hanging hams and say something about the various ways pigs are portioned to be sold. From him I learned that pigs provided everything from the jowls that poorer people ate, to the country hams that often cost more than a week's pay when he first started working at the packinghouse.

Removing the aitch bone requires sharp knives, and Daddy had plenty of them. In the beginning, they were flawlessly symmetrical, but the daily metronome-like drag of blades against the sharpening steel transformed and transfigured them. My father would begin the process by touching the base of the knife to the tip of the honing steel, making the appearance of an upside down and backwards L. Focusing intently, he would then pull the blade in an upward and downward movement, from the base to the tip, in an X-like pattern that alternated between the front of the sharpening steel to the back. This created a sound that began as a soft swish, as the biggest part of the knife was worked upward against the sharpening tool, and ended with a faint ping as the tip of the knife met the steel, forming a shape that now looked like a proper L. He would stop periodically, hold the knife up vertically and rotate it, and in a meditative manner decide when it was enough.

This rhythmic march on the sharpening steel was always followed by a dutiful round on the variegated tri-stone sharpener, where the blades, now moving side-to-side in a more throaty and coarse tone, became refined to precision instruments. When Daddy performed this ritual in our kitchen, he would end it by saying, "Let me see your arm." He'd then shave our finely hidden young hairs, as if to say, with the attending object lesson in sight, Do not question my genius.

At work, he kept his knives in a metal holster that hung from his waist, fashioned from aluminum, which was twelve inches long and had a built-in hinge to allow maximum maneuverability for accessing the exact blade needed. This holster was four inches in width at the top entrance, tapering off to 3/8 of an inch at the open bottom, an opening that prevented the knife tips from being slammed against a closed end and dulled. Daddy held up the holster with a white belt that had double holes, the same belt I wore with dress pants in my senior high school picture. He also wore steel-mesh gloves and a clear forearm guard.

Many of his knives took up residency in our kitchen. There were paring knives, slicing knives, and knives that could shave your face; there were old knives, new knives, and knives that no longer had any use left in them at all. Daddy couldn't bring himself to throw any of them away.

Knives are instruments of the butcher's signature. Some butchers' hams look as if they have been attacked with a weed-eater: the bone is no longer intact after removal, but shards of meat and flesh mix with bone fragments to form tiny meat meringues on the table. Daddy was the opposite. His professional hands made tiny cuts with depth and great precision. A long cut here, a deep slice there, and the bone was no longer a threat. In his able hands the aitch could be removed without a single blemish. No nicks, no dints, not a morsel of meat. The bone was clean. "As a whistle," he'd say.


Despite the violence of his day job, my father could be very tender toward me. He'd often say, "Come here, hug my neck," and pat me on the back, and just as often he'd tell me how much he loved me. But his tenderness co-existed with flashes of unkindness and insensitivity, in particular when it came to my mother. He would ridicule her about her gradual weight gain after giving birth to three kids back-to-back. He acted as though he were being affectionate when he patted her and referred to those pre-baby days as "when she was young and tender," but we all knew this was code for how in his mind she had become fat, and how she embarrassed him.

Before she went back to work in our local high school cafeteria, my mother took care of three kids, before disposable diapers (at least in our house), and she came into her own as the McMahan Road Matriarch who ruled with a personality and vocabulary to match.

Back then she had a biblical-sized brown bouffant that seemed never to change. While Daddy was making a living killing hogs, Momma watched over us kids all summer and ran the front yard as something between a Grateful Dead concert and free time at "the Pen." I knew what Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary was because she threatened constantly to call "the law" on us and have them come haul us off. If she was not making us clean the carport or help her shuck corn, she left us alone to play. And by "us" I mean me, my older brother, my younger sister, and several other neighborhood kids ranging from six to seventeen, all of whom congregated at our house during summer breaks.

Momma stopped all of us dead in our playful tracks with the words "shit fire" or, as she pronounced it, "shit far." Hearing this, we knew that someone had done something to cross her. She'd beeline out of the kitchen where she was working on that corn and stand on the carport that overlooked our yard. Wearing her red T-shirt and a pair of blue polyester shorts with an elastic waistband, Momma would lead off with her "shit far," follow that with a series of "I told you to ..." or "I'm gonna beat the hot livin' piss out of you ... ," and conclude with "I cain't have nothin' good for you damn kids." She usually said this under her breath as she walked back into the kitchen, most likely adding the recent offense to the list of things one of us had done a long time ago but that she had never forgotten. Even though she could be unpredictable, we knew Momma would feed us good and infuse us with her iced tea, which she made with enough pure cane sugar to cover the bottom third of the gallon jar she always used.

Like Daddy, she had both the harsh and the generous in her.


The packinghouse may have been a stinking, brutal place, but it also came with some real culinary perks. For instance, we never bought meat at the grocery store, because Daddy got deep discounts at work. He'd bring home tubes of bologna that were about a foot and a half in length and weighed something just south of ten pounds, encased in a red plastic sleeve, cinched at the end by industrial staples, with the brand "Selecto" stamped on the casing.

He liked sandwiches made with this bologna from slices that were as thick as one piece of white bread and paired with a freshly peeled yellow onion. I love bologna as much as the next slaughterer's son, but that much meat made from unwanted pig parts is too much for me to handle. Too-thick slices of the circular mash of moist, pink entrails held together by some yellowish soluble powder to prevent botulism snuff out any affection I might have toward this Southern staple.

The endless bologna was great, but the perk of all perks occurred during summers off from school. That's when Momma would take my siblings and me to visit Daddy at the packinghouse for his lunch.

Momma would park our 1975 beige Chevrolet Nova so we could easily see the main gate. We'd watch eagerly as one by one the men came down the various flights of stairs. They'd funnel through the guard gate, head to toe in their white uniforms, as if on a conveyor belt--each man being summarily spit out.

Daddy would often talk about the people he worked with, men with names like Otha Helton, pronounced "Othee," because everyone in Sevier County, Tennessee, turned the a at the end of a name into a long e . I once heard of a woman named "America," whom everyone called "Merkee." Otha Helton knew Posey Moore, who was friends with Beecher Loveday, Democrat Johnson, and the Lopasser brothers collectively referred to as "the Low-possies."

Recognizing Daddy in that sea of uniforms could be a challenge. He wore glasses, but so did every other middle-aged man he worked with. He was taller than most of them, though to me he always looked smaller in comparison. He was Appalachia-poor skinny with a metabolism like a jet engine. I never knew him to weigh much over 165 pounds soaking wet, which on his 6'2" frame made him fade easily into a crowd. We would crane our necks and count the men as they came through the gate, until finally we could recognize our daddy from the rest. His nose and ears gave him away. Against them, his large head looked small, giving him a goat-like appearance. His peculiar features helped us spot him even in a whiteout of packinghouse butchers.

I can still see his smile under that white scuffed hat as his eyes landed on the four of us clambering out of that dull-colored Nova to run and meet him. He had splatters of blood and flesh all over him, and he smelled like boiled meat. He was grimy, and I remember his hands being as rough as dry corncobs when he went to hug us. Yet none of this mattered because lunch with Daddy at the packinghouse was a treat.

Lunchtime at the packinghouse meant buying a sandwich and a bottle of Coke from a food truck that always pulled up just before the whistle blew. I was mesmerized watching this old truck drive up, and from out of nowhere produce enough food, as Momma would often say, "to feed Coxey's army." (For years I just assumed this was some Southern reference to Confederate soldiers. When I found out years later that the saying was tied to labor and unemployment marches on Washington, DC, I didn't have the heart to tell Momma that one of her favorite sayings had nothing to do with the South, but instead alluded to a band of sometimes-violent Northerners.)

The food truck was not the kind of gastro-pub-on-wheels you find these days on the Food Network, serving maple-braised pork belly or grilled sweetbread with sherry, all locally sourced. This was a beat-up old white Ford or Chevy, the kind that could have once been used as a bread or milk truck, or even a small dump truck. The stainless-steel canopy was retrofitted so that the sides opened up to reveal what looked like a rolling mini-mart. Inside, two men dressed in white shirts, white aprons, and matching white caps took orders from a gaggle of blood-covered butchers. There was no time for conversation. For the entire hour they'd feverishly wrap sandwiches in Scott Cut-Rite wax paper (the kind Momma had in our kitchen) and dish them out to their customers. The sandwiches were bologna, pickle and pimento, and liver loaf--most likely made from the very meat harvested from earlier shifts at the packinghouse.

Over the years I would have more lunches with my father--some at the beach, some in the mountains, all in settings more refined. But the meals I return to time and again in my imagination took place on hot, Tennessee summer days in the parking lot of a compound where killing was the way of life.


If the East Tennessee Packing Company was on the lowest rung of the slaughtering ladder, then Brookhaven Farms was somewhere near the top. Daddy spent most of his days at the packinghouse, but once in a while he'd be called in to work at Brookhaven. Instead of in plastic bins stained from years of mutilated pig parts, discarded segments were kept in vats that were cleaned daily and looked as if they had never even had a hog near them.

Brookhaven meant that Daddy could put on an outfit of his own choosing--usually a pressed and creased pair of blue jeans, cowboy boots he'd bought at a store that also sold Hoover vacuum cleaners, an ironed short-sleeve shirt, and a University of Tennessee ball cap. Once he got cleaned and coiffed, he'd finished things off by spraying himself from head to toe with Ralph Lauren Safari cologne that Momma bought for him at the mall. Momma would boast about all of the "free" stuff she got from someone she knew who worked at the department store, leaving out the part where she had to spend upwards to fifty dollars to get that deal. For years our family got Ralph Lauren accessories for Christmas presents: umbrellas, tote bags, and towels. The re-gifting was endless. We took to saying that Daddy smelled like a French whore, though of course we had no clue what a French whore looked like, much less how one might smell.

Often, he would take me along to Brookhaven. As I sat watching him work, he would periodically motion me over to show just how he could remove the aitch without even so much as a hint of meat on the bone. He pulled the bone out, held it up in front of his face, and turned it counter-clockwise to inspect the work. He'd then turn to me, flash his false-teeth smile, and say, "Looky here. Not a drop of meat own 'at bone. Not just anybody can do 'at." I might have muttered something like, "Wow, Daddy that's good." I don't remember. More likely, I just watched him as he turned back to get another ham and start over again, probably wondering when we'd be done.

No matter how many Brookhavens called him, there would always be more unrelenting packinghouse shifts. Still, Brookhaven validated Daddy in a way the packinghouse never could. Perhaps what made the difference for him was not so much the work being done, but those who called him to do the work. At the packinghouse he was just an interchangeable part assigned to an instrumental role in the production line. At Brookhaven, he saw himself valued for what he knew was skill, his talent, and what I would say was his creative work.

Sometimes I think that the way he removed the aitch bone was nothing short of the work of an artist, even though Daddy would never have allowed for this. The phrase "work of art" was nowhere to be found in the horizon of a packinghouse butcher. Yet when he talked about his work and how the ham remained structurally--and even aesthetically--intact, he did so the way some painters describe particular brushstrokes, or the way writers might discuss their approach to craft.

Even though he had more control over his work at Brookhaven, once the ammonia smell evaporated from the virginal tables upon which he performed his task, it revealed itself to be just another version of what lay behind the chainlink fence in south Knoxville. A packinghouse is a packinghouse. Still, getting a call from those who we believe are important to our work counts. Being able to wear your cologne and boots while doing your own work is a difference that makes a difference.


There was a teardrop-shaped scar on Daddy's right cheek, which was more prominent than the one on his chin, that looked like someone had pinched him, leaving a straight line of squished flesh. I never heard him say how either got there, but I favored them. The absence of his facial scars was the first thing I noticed when I saw him lying in his open casket. The handiwork of embalming fluid had erased his defining lines, leaving us with a characterless face that I hardly recognized.

His scars could have been a result of something that happened at the packinghouse. I don't recall ever asking him, but I wouldn't be surprised, since the packinghouse claimed him long before the rest of us did. He was certain the packinghouse contributed to the pancreatitis that finally killed him. I am less sure, but I do know that his work did to him what he did to those knives he kept in our house: turned unused perfection into something worn out and useless.

I am positive that Daddy suffered the melancholic evils associated with his work. Forced to slump day after day over his work table, he strained to keep his eyes on the object of his imagined creation (the nonthreatening, beautiful hams that were eventually to hang in grocery stores) and learned to look away from the violence necessary for the creation and the creator to be at one. The truth--his truth--was a lived knowledge that he created something beautiful to behold while simultaneously producing despair that lingered like the smell of death and rot.

Three decades. Thousands of hogs. Knives ground to uselessness. Life imitating art? Man imitating beast. Showing frustration with being tossed out like one of the pieces of viscera he himself had thrown away on too many occasions to remember, he would often shout, "Nobody runs my goddamned life"

The packinghouse did.


When Daddy died, I asked for two things: the Kay guitar Momma gave him for their first wedding anniversary in 1959 and his packinghouse stuff.

In a cardboard box I found two old Dexter butcher knives, their midsections long ground away to nothing. They were tucked away in the metal holster he always carried, still attached to the old white belt I once wore. And his hat.

The hardhat he always wore, pockmarked with dings, dents, and scars from years of use, was right there on top of the box. The first thing I did was smell it. There was still a barely detectable depressing odor. After nearly three decades, the packinghouse had become as much a part of that hat as it had become of Daddy.

What a disgusting sight, I remember thinking.

That hat, lording over his closet--and him--positioned to remind him every time he got dressed who he really was, and all that was gained and lost under its brim. Why would he want to keep such filthy things? Why would I want to keep them?

Maybe I kept the packinghouse stuff to remind me of those lunches with him. Or, perhaps it's because the hat set me on a course to remember men he worked with like the Loposser boys, Democrat Johnson, or my uncles Theodore and Carl, all of whose esteem--like Daddy's--vanished and resurfaced in rhythm with the killing that went on for decades. I have come to see more clearly that no matter how they understood themselves, this self-understanding was forged in accordance with the packinghouse, in a cadence lived somewhere in-between being fully worthy and wholly useless. I don't know if the other men kept their relics. I'd bet they did, simply because the packinghouse ran all of their lives.

Sometimes I think I wanted his packinghouse relics because they carry reminders of Daddy's own hidden but detectable aches, ones he tried to remove throughout his life much like the aitch bones of all those hogs, but he was never fully able to do so.

Yes, these things are disgusting. At the same time, they are remarkable because they reveal something about my father that nothing else ever could: How he lived the particular aches of a debilitating defeatism in concert with a hidden hope, all taking place under the sign of "the packinghouse."

Looking down from Gay Street Bridge where old Knoxville has become new old Knoxville, I can see that the packinghouse is no longer there. All that remains are the railroad tracks. They stand as a reminder to the innumerable animals carried to the waiting, death-dealing hands of men like my daddy, and how a great number of men like him spent their lives covered in hog meat, bone, and blood, forever hitched to the invented tools of their decline--and value.

Daddy would never have thought this, nor would he have probably understood any of what I just wrote--at least not in that exact way. He'd simply smile when over the years I began to ask more about how he was able to do what he did, and whether he thought of his work as anything other than just that. Pursing his lips and wrinkling that squished scar on his chin, Daddy would just say, "I had to kill a lot of pigs."

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A637814289