Iowa Writes

DON GROPMAN
To the Pig Station with Nikita Khrushchev


In September 1959, Nikita Khrushchev, ruler of the largest land empire the world had known since the grandeur of Rome, visited the Home Economics building at Iowa State University. When he emerged, he wished the co-eds good luck in finding a rich American husband and asked to visit the famous experimental pig raising station. A friendly reporter offered to get us in.

It is a small, round building, almost as clean as a lab. The pigs are in cages from which they will emerge only a moment before slaughter. All food, water, and medications are carried to them on conveyor belts. Waste is removed the same way. Khrushchev is enthralled. He stands alone, close to the cages, and pets a pig. He says through his interpreter that he knows a thing or two about pigs, being a farm boy himself, but he thinks this set-up is most impressive. His back is to the semi-circle of photographers pressed against the curving wall, and he ignores their repeated pleas for him to turn around so they can get some pictures. It is clear that he is truly relishing the pigs and wants to be left alone. Several silent minutes pass.

It is strange to witness the epiphany of this old and powerful man, but the moment is broken when one of the photographers shouts, "Hey, you fat son of a bitch!" and Khrushchev spins around with unexpected agility, a look of rage on his heavy face. He is met with a barrage of flashbulbs and strobe lights.

The press exit the pig station before the official party, so we are back along the side of the road. In a few minutes, the entourage begins to move. Then the long black limousine appears, slowly edging its way toward the highway. The crowd is cheering; we are not. In slow motion, Nikita Khrushchev passes by in his limousine two feet away, his big round head in the open rear window.

In September 1959, Nikita Khrushchev, ruler of the largest land empire the world had known since the grandeur of Rome, visited the Home Economics building at Iowa State University. When he emerged, he wished the co-eds good luck in finding a rich American husband and asked to visit the famous experimental pig raising station. A friendly reporter offered to get us in.

It is a small, round building, almost as clean as a lab. The pigs are in cages from which they will emerge only a moment before slaughter. All food, water, and medications are carried to them on conveyor belts. Waste is removed the same way. Khrushchev is enthralled. He stands alone, close to the cages, and pets a pig. He says through his interpreter that he knows a thing or two about pigs, being a farm boy himself, but he thinks this set-up is most impressive. His back is to the semi-circle of photographers pressed against the curving wall, and he ignores their repeated pleas for him to turn around so they can get some pictures. It is clear that he is truly relishing the pigs and wants to be left alone. Several silent minutes pass.

It is strange to witness the epiphany of this old and powerful man, but the moment is broken when one of the photographers shouts, "Hey, you fat son of a bitch!" and Khrushchev spins around with unexpected agility, a look of rage on his heavy face. He is met with a barrage of flashbulbs and strobe lights.

The press exit the pig station before the official party, so we are back along the side of the road. In a few minutes, the entourage begins to move. Then the long black limousine appears, slowly edging its way toward the highway. The crowd is cheering; we are not. In slow motion, Nikita Khrushchev passes by in his limousine two feet away, his big round head in the open rear window.

He waves and smiles right into my face. All I can think of is his murderous past, and I suddenly find the tip of my right thumb beneath the edges of my two front teeth. For a split second our eyes are locked. I flick my thumb, silently mouth "Pig!" A genuine smile, the kind a butcher might make when he shares a truly good cut of meat with a friend, slides up from beneath his public smile and withers instantly in the light of day.

*****

Driving back to Iowa City I got to wondering where my thumb gesture had come from. I couldn't remember ever using it before. Gabi thought I may have seen it in a movie, which was possible, and I tried to remember. I focused on it for a few minutes, came up with nothing, and turned my mind to the sights of Iowa passing by the windshield. Everything looked the same as earlier in the day, but there were indications that Nikita Khrushchev had passed this way and now was gone: the glass-enclosed church bulletin boards had all been put back in their proper places, the anti-communist messages replaced with church calendars. They don't waste any time, Gabi said, and just as I was about to respond, I remembered.

I was five or six years old, playing on the sidewalk in front of my grandparents' grocery store in the West End, Boston's immigrant neighborhood. Two old men were arguing in Italian. The bigger one screamed so loud his face got red. The smaller one said very little. But suddenly he put his thumb in his mouth and flicked the nail against the edge of his front teeth. The larger man fell silent, backed off a few steps and slowly walked away.

I didn't know then what the gesture meant and I still didn't know when I gave it to Khrushchev. I have since learned that in Sicily, it means, To me, you are nothing. Perhaps it is also a symbolic kiss of death. When Khrushchev was deposed five years later, mostly because his farm policies had failed, I thought back to that moment outside the pig station and doubted that he remembered me as well as I remembered him.

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About Iowa Writes

Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.

In November of 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Iowa City, Iowa, the world's third City of Literature, making the community part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

Iowa City has joined Edinburgh, Scotland and Melbourne, Australia as UNESCO Cities of Literature.

Find out more about submitting by contacting iowa-writes@uiowa.edu


DON GROPMAN

Don Gropman spent a long-ago year at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. He has published several nonfiction books, and his work has appeared in Best American Short Stories and other prize anthologies. "To The Pig Station" is excerpted from Fool For Travel, a memoir-in-progress.

This page was first displayed
on March 24, 2010

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