Dad never ‘cut a hog’; I wish he’d applied same policy to ‘withes’

Of pigs, character, and ‘withes’

“Withes,” for those of us native to this part of Virginia, are switches. Switches, for those not native to Virginia or our southern neighbors, is a small branch of a tree used to spank a child.

Most consider the practice barbaric today, but for many folks it was a macabre right of passage. Quite a few of my friends from Caroline County and such can tell you vivid tales of being asked to pick their own switch.

A refined art indeed. Novitiates pick one with a small leaf on the top (which was promptly picked off by the individual dealing the damage). Smarter children would pick ones with leaves that were attached to the stem that took a great deal of time to peel off. . . which always held the threat of being sent back out to pick another one before they picked one for you. Experts in the field would find thin ones that had just enough weight to be considered a switch, but bent ever so slightly as to take the sting out.

It was a complicated science, one that modern sensibilities revile.

So when I read FLS editor Paul Akers editorial this morning, I was rather pleased to read his musings on fatherhood, withes, and pig wrestling – not to mention a small dose of sage political advice:

In politics, for example, my dad never voted for a Republican because, even if he admitted the GOP candidate were ‘a good man,’ helping him get elected would ‘take a spoke out of the wheel,’ the metaphor implying that the Democratic Party rolled the general welfare forward. So adamantly did my father believe this that as a young man outside a polling precinct, he and his brothers ‘jumped on’ some boastful Republicans.

When Ike, whom my father admired, ran for president on the GOP ticket, Dad voted for Adlai Stevenson, unenthusiastically but twice, on the ad hoc rationale that it was dangerous to elevate ‘a military man’ to the presidency. (Right, Dad. Remember what a horrible leader George Washington was.)

His son, meanwhile, has seldom voted for a Democrat, though were I my dad’s contemporary, I probably would have supported FDR and certainly Truman. (Would my dad, who died before the McGovernization of the Democratic Party, have cast a ballot for Nixon? Reagan? It’s hard to imagine, but who knows?)

No, the paternal criterion I mean concerns character. One thing my father had was a quiet dignity, the adjective infusing the noun. I never, ever saw him make a public scene–what the old black ballplayers called cutting a hog. When another’s rudeness might have provoked a justified verbal retaliation, my dad held his peace, got the kind of look on his face you get when you’re out to eat and you open the restroom door to a dirty toilet, and silently walked away, not out of fear but in recognition of the First Rule of Pigs: Never wrestle with a pig; he likes it and you get dirty.

Now my grandfather had a different take on the matter of “pig wrestling.” Reputation being the most honored and cherished item an individual could have, I can remember talk of “fighting battles that needed to be fought” and “don’t fight with people who have nothing to lose.” My own father would probably tell me never to fight, but if I did, I’d better win.

What raised my eyebrow just a bit was the idea that societal pigs may or may not deserve to be wrestled. Sometimes – most of the time – pigs don’t deserve the recognition, and to that much I can agree. But in the back of my mind, something tells me that to permit an error of offensiveness without challenge, while we are all free to commit it and are all guilty of at times, only encourages more of the same. That’s where the switch inevitably comes into play.

There’s a small part of me though that argues from the perspective of those who can’t stand to see good people maligned by the pigs of society. Take for instance John F. Kennedy Jr. when he was on honeymoon with Caroline Bassett. It’s not that I follow all things Kennedy, but there was an instance when one of the photographers (paparazzi?) barked at one of the female photographers swarming around Kennedy, calling her a “bitch.”

JFK Jr. spun around, found the guy, and clocked him, yelling something along the lines of whether his mother would be proud of such language. Wrestling with pigs? Perhaps. But I’m sure it didn’t hurt JFK Jr.’s image any.

Just as in the manner of the quickly fading art of picking switches, yielding the public square to the lowest common denominator does something wholly negative to society.

Modern sensibilities may tell us the best way to replace bad speech is with good speech, and the marketplace of ideas will eventually weed out the garbage. Perhaps I, being some 25 years younger than the author, I have yet to learn the full value of passive resistance and public disdain. It has it’s place to be sure, but sometimes you have to pick your own switch, and occasionally go after a few pigs.

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