All God’s Creatures

by Tony Shea on December 13, 2012


I worked as a leg-boner in a slaughterhouse the summer before I went to college. I was seventeen. The work was hard and brutal. You could smell the place for miles. The smell of shit and blood and rust. The smell of death. It made me puke the first week or so. And then I got used to it, like all the men had gotten used to it, working down on the killing floor in their blood smocks, chain mail gloves and chain mail waist coats, standing next to the bone piles in pools of blood deeper than the soles of their steel toed work boots.

The slaughterhouse was in a little town called Gally, six miles inland of the Atlantic seaboard, in Delaware. Almost all of the men I worked with were older than I was, including my old man, William Senior. Some of the men had worked there almost their entire lives. And that too included my old man.

He started working at the slaughterhouse back when the first Mr. Pardoe ran the place, back when there wasn’t any such thing as a lever man. That’s what he was now because he worked a large lever that controlled a mechanical hammer topped off with a railroad spike that swung down with 2,400 pounds of hydraulic pressure onto each cow’s head.

Before that, he had been a hammer man. Two hammer men, one on either side of the conveyer that shuttled the cows along, would simultaneously break the cows over the head with large twenty pound sledgehammers. One thousand swings a day sometimes. Lots of times the cows didn’t die. They lived a few more minutes to have their feet sawed off and their bellies split open. My old man was glad when they moved to the lever instead. It was easier on his back and seemed to take some portion of the cruelty out of it.

Every morning we got up at five a.m. and ate a large breakfast that my mother made for us. We always had packages of bacon and sausage and ham stacked in the refrigerator. Men who work in slaughterhouses always do. By the time we pulled up in the parking lot, it was about 5:45. We’d stand in line with the other men and punch in our time cards. At 6:00 they blew a whistle and then the machines started moving livestock through the killing floor. And the screaming would begin. The cows scream as they witness the murder of the cow in front of them, just like you would.

When a cow came to it’s position at the beginning of the conveyer belt, my old man would pull the lever and that’d be that. Once the cow was dead, a set of large automatic blades sheared off the cows feet and made an incision along the spine. The cow was moved further down line to one of the saw men who would cut off the head. At the end of the conveyer belt, the skinners strung the cow up and split it down the middle so it’s guts would fall out on the floor and then they’d pull the rawhide off it’s back with a set of pliers. Finally, the two sides of beef were passed along to the cutters.

That was me.

That was where I did my work.

I was a leg-boner. My job was popping out the large circular hip joints with a sharp, sixteen inch butcher knife. Stick, swivel, turn went the knife. Stick, swivel, turn. And that’s why every cutter wore a blood smock, and a set of chain mail gloves, and a chain mail apron around his waist so he wouldn’t cut off his fingers or his balls. That was what happened when your knife slipped. Still, even with the suit of armor, every week, somebody cut themselves. Bad sometimes.

The second week I was there, a young guy took a knife in the neck from the guy standing next to him. Bleed to death in two minutes on the killing floor like the rest of the animals. They had to close down the plant and clean it because the heath board feared that his blood would contaminate the place.

The rest of us got the day off.

I washed the blood and fat off me and then I rode my bike six miles to Dewey Beach. I had been going with a girl, for the last four months, named Molly Wills. We went to high school together. She was a year younger than me and would be entering her senior year, while I would be away at college at UD. Her parents were produce farmers, and lived on a fifty acre plot of land that yielded tomatoes, corn, cucumbers, and berries, which they sold at local farmer markets as well as at their own roadside stand, along with jams and homemade pies. Tomato pie was my favorite. Molly would eventually become the proprietor of that roadside stand, continuing the family tradition. But that summer, as I was riding my bike towards her, she wanted to be a veterinarian.

She volunteered at the animal shelter on Sundays, after church. Of course, they killed animals at the shelter too, or at least they had, before Molly arrived. In the last eight months, she had adopted five dogs, three cats, and one rabbit. Her folks had a big barn and plenty of land. She said she was going to adopt all the animals that needed adopting if she had to.

That was her volunteer job. Her pay job was renting beach umbrellas across from the Rusty Rudder Bar, in a bikini. She made great tips, because she was cute and cheerful and kind and she sure looked great in that bathing suit. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to go away to college and leave her, considering how often we were doing it, and how warm her tan body felt when I held her on the beach at night, as we listened to the ocean pitching against the shore and looked up at the stars. I had started to imagine a life with her in the future.

My old man had gleaned this. He said to me, “Listen, I wanted you to work the slaughterhouse so you can see for yourself, so you’d know what kind of life it is. It was the best I could do for myself. It’s what my old man did and what his old man did. He got me into it because that was all he understood. And before I knew it, it’s what I did. And now here I am, and it’s all that I can do. But you can do better. You can do something else, something that’s not ugly all day long. You’re going to college. That’s it. So don’t get too attached to that girl.”

My old man died six years later from a heart attack. He was only fifty yeas old.

Molly married a guy named Frank Galt after I left. I’m told they have two children now, and their own petting zoo. But that summer, before I left and Frank came along, she was in love with me. I know because out on the beach that night, after I had ridden my bike to her celebrating the good fortune of a day off after a man was killed on the line, she told me so.

And I told her that I loved her, too.

Tony Shea ( Editor-in-Chief, New York)

Tony Shea is based in New York, having recently moved from Los Angeles after more than a decade on the sunny coast. His short films have won numerous awards and screened at major festivals around the world including Comic-Con. As a musician, he is the lead singer for Los Angeles rock n’ roll band Candygram For Mongo (C4M) who has been a featured artist on Clear Channel Radio’s Discover New Music Program and whose songs have been heard on Battlestar Gallactica (Syfy Channel) and Unhitched (Fox) among other shows and films.

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