Of roving pigs and mournful pipes

Editors note: Steve Hammer is sick this week; Managing Editor Jim Poyser is filling in for him.

Our summer vacation began inauspiciously. Somewhere near Appleton, Wis., we encountered a multivehicle accident. Well, what we first encountered was traffic slowed down to a crawl. State police were ahead, directing us, one car at a time, through the accident site. My wife and I and our two sons were soon able to view, in surreal slow-motion, a series of cars and trucks and motorcycles, spun everywhichway. We saw people trapped in an accordioned car, surrounded by paramedics. We spotted a dazed man in a motorcycle jacket standing in the median, a policeman"s comforting hand on his shoulder. We saw another man, on bended knee on the shoulder of the road, his head held in his hand.

We crept through this diorama of drama and death. It seemed criminal to be privy to such a scene, to witness the consequences of one random moment of traffic madness. It was as if we"d invaded the privacy of these individuals, that we"d been involuntarily assigned the role of gawkers.

Yet we couldn"t turn away from the horror.

A few miles down the road, I realized something else: a lesson in care while driving. Other lessons awaited.

Washington Island is a sleepy little place, too far north to invite much of a year-round population (around 600) and too darn feisty to allow tourist attractions and franchise restaurants to spoil its beautiful land. It"s 22 square miles, a 45-minute ferry ride from the tip of Door County.

We"ve been going to this island for a few years, and last summer we were happy to find a new addition to the island"s rather limited scope of commerce: a coffee shop. Called the Wild Goose, after a presumably successful chase by its proprietors Ann and Mike, it"s what coffee shops are everywhere: nexus points for community.

On our first day this summer, I noticed on the Wild Goose wall a phalanx of posters, announcing various events on the island, like an Open House for the Coast Guard and a "Back By Popular Demand" production of On Golden Pond. Another poster caught my eye: "Lost Piglet." I asked Ann what it was about, and she said a rare species of pig had been brought to the island from Illinois to be displayed at the local Art and Nature Center.

The pig was initially put in a shed at an islander"s house, belonging to a woman named Mary. The pig was in fact housed with a lamb in the shed. The night of its arrival, it escaped, taking the lamb with it. The lam for the lamb ended when it was found the next day, but the piglet, whom Ann surmised was the brains behind the break-out, was still at large.

By now, some weeks later, it was probably no longer a piglet, but a full-blown pig. Ann speculated that it was either happily running around the island or some predator - including a two-legged one with a freezer - had absconded with it. Safe return of the pig would be rewarded with $100.

That titillating fact became a motif, if not an obsession, as we kept our eyes peeled for this errant animal. Meanwhile, the vacation proceeded. We relaxed. We relaxed some more. We enjoyed time with cousins, met islanders and other vacationers, took walks, kept track of the cycle of the moon.

Then one night, midway through our stay, a thick fog descended. It was not yet sunset, and we were dabbling on the beach when the fog rolled in, enveloping us. We suddenly heard a bagpipe play a note, followed by a rendition of "Amazing Grace." Other tunes transpired and we sat in the fog and listened to this marvelous instrument.

We learned that the bagpiper was an islander named Bob. Bob is a plumber, so, it seems, he is at pipes by day and by night. He was there, where we were staying, practicing his bagpipes in preparation for an upcoming funeral.

He was also, it turned out, just a few hundred yards downshore from the newly-widowed wife of this dead man, who, when she heard the pipes, called and demanded Bob come over to her house that moment and play for her. It was time for her to grieve, now, for her loss, buoyed by this impassioned instrument.

Bob left, the fog cleared and the moon emerged fat and happy, taking up the sky space with its light, and limiting our view of the stars.

I did my best to slow down time and savor. To get up in the morning with nothing particular to do, to sit and simply look out over the bay at the swans, to have time to ponder the previous night"s dreams.

Certain things became clearer, such as the fact that our boys are growing up blindingly fast, that time for all of us is always doing nothing but running out.

I didn"t grow despondent about this, I just used it as a fulcrum to feel, to note the passing of moments, a luxury I don"t often seize in the non-vacation existence.

Well into our island stay, the pig was finally found, in good, strapping health. I learned this at the coffee shop when I discovered that the poster for the missing piglet was itself missing. Ann directed me toward the porch where the pig"s caretaker, Mary, was seated, talking to a friend.

I went out and introduced myself. Mary was probably in her 70s, with the hard look of a woman who"d spent a good many winters on this little island.

Yes, it was found, she said, last night, and now it was safely penned with four other pigs at a nearby farm.

How nice, I replied. A happy ending, then?

She looked at me and said, not really. We"ll slaughter him in the fall.

Then she left the coffee shop with a friend.

The pig had his time, I suppose, his big adventure escaping the shed and gamboling about the island before his capture. And he"ll enjoy a kind of legendary, outlaw stature in his remaining days, more than merely a rare example of a type of pig, but a testament to resourcefulness.

That"s more than most of us can bargain for. I"m just grateful I had my two weeks, that I had the opportunity to slow down, that the bagpipes weren"t for me.


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