Down East 2013 ©
By Andrew Reiner
I didn’t recognize myself in the mirror. Maybe that was what I was going for when I bought the Phrygian-style polar fleece hat on my way to my friends Eric and Ann’s farm in Freeport. I had left my home in Baltimore to spend the month of October working during the farm’s pumpkin and hayride season and realized on the ride up that I needed a hat. I stopped at a store just outside town and tried on a conical, Smurfish hat that drooped slightly forward. “It was called a liberty cap during the French Revolution,” the sales clerk told me.
From the start the polar fleece hat revolutionized my life. It bested the cotton baseball caps I was used to and gave me something I needed even more than warmth. In my reflection in the farm stand mirror — where I weighed pumpkins and sold hayride tickets — I didn’t see the unsure, aimless twenty-something who lived with his parents, drifted in and out of relationships, and reeked of Boar’s Head cologne from his part-time deli job. From beneath the Phrygian’s decisive point I thought I saw the same things I saw in Jim, the intern from Texas who wore a plaid hunting cap as he drove wagonloads of children around the farm without ever raising his voice, or in Eric, whose smile beamed wider than the brim of his weather-proof sombrero no matter how crazy things got.
Midway through October Eric promoted me to “tractor pilot.” Every single time I climbed up upon the 1952 International Harvester with the “Surfing Rules” sticker on the seat, an unusual sensation overcame me. Whenever the preschoolers cheered or squealed as the tractor and wagon lurched forward, a surge of protection gushed forth. Much of the well-worn trail throughout the farm was hubcap-high muddy that wet autumn, so much so that we sometimes got stuck or fishtailed. At these times, especially when the hay wagon grew silent, shepherding my flock to and from the pumpkin patch became a sacred mission.
Odd as it sounds, I don’t know that I have ever had a greater sense of purpose than I did during those few weeks. This was a heady time, intensified by Eric’s frequently kind but unfounded compliments: “Man, you were born to do this!” or “You’re a real power farmer!” It was this almighty state that nudged me to make a U-turn on I-295 one day and to follow a tractor trailer that careened over an embankment. I put on my liberty hat as I got out of the car and saw the driver standing next to his truck, face planted in the road below. He was unharmed.
The hayride season ended on Halloween. A couple days later Eric and his family headed to Florida and asked me and two other tractor pilots to take his young pig to the butcher. I wasn’t too worried because the other two pilots, Dan and Gene, had grown up around small farms. Two hours and many Three Stoogesian antics later, Dan eventually slipped a rope around the pig’s neck, and he and Gene yanked it out of its pen. I pretended to help because I didn’t want to appear as even more of a suburb slicker than I was. But when I saw the fear in the pig’s expressive eyes, I recoiled; I had seen that same look in the rearview mirror when the hay wagon fishtailed.
Gene and I pulled the pig up a gangplank that led to the back of a large red truck. For a while I gave it my all, but then I felt the full life force of the small pig’s thrashing at the other end, a vitality I have never felt since. And that was when I realized: I couldn’t take this pig to slaughter. What’s more, I had to do something to save it. I slackened, hoping that the pig’s strength would prove too much for Gene and that it would bolt for the nearby forest. But Dan rushed over, threw another rope around the pig, and helped finish the task. On the drive to Bisson’s Meat Market in Topsham, I racked my brain for escape plans but couldn’t imagine anything over the banshee wails and screams echoing in the cavernous cab behind us. There wasn’t enough time, and there wasn’t enough liberty left in my Phrygian hat — for either of us.
The pig was killed that November second. Twenty years later, I still think about that pig every November, as a cautionary tale. I also think about that hat, which disappeared not long afterwards. I replaced it with a polar fleece baseball cap, a style in which I easily recognized myself.