Field Trip Education: Destination Duluth

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Booksie Classic
A sixth grade field trip includes the zoo,a meat-packing plant and a boat ride.

Submitted: July 07, 2008

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Submitted: July 07, 2008



Field Trip Education: Destination Duluth
1963. Spring
The driver pulled the lever to close the door. The bus rolled out of Campton Elementary School’s parking lot.
As we waited for a green light at the junction of Outer Drive and Highway 61, I began to worry. Morning was my most vulnerable travel time for motion sickness. The rising sun, flickering through the woods, and the curvy highway churned my tummy. But even before we reached Beaver Bay, my best friends started singing “Polly Wolly Doodle All the Day.”I joined in. We sang the repertoire of folksongs taught us by Miss Godich, and at least one complete round of “A Hundred Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” I had ridden sixty miles without nausea. I could only complain of being hoarse.
Most of us had been to the Duluth Zoo before, but in the several months before our class trip, the local Duluth TV stations, KDAL and WDSM, had broadcast numerous stories about Mr. Magoo, the zoo’s newest attraction. This Indian mongoose, arriving by a foreign ship into the Duluth harbor, was on a list of animals deemed illegal in the United States. Once its presence became known the weasel-like carnivore had been slated for execution. There was much legal wrangling, but ultimately the Duluth Zoo was allowed to keep the mongoose. And President Kennedy had granted Mr. Magoo an official pardon. The now-legal immigrant hid in the shadows of his new home during our visit. I spent most of my time at the zoo watching (and wishing I could own) a monkey.
Animals were a theme that morning. Our next stop was Elliot’s, a meatpacking plant. Unlike Mr. Magoo, whose new home provided a haven until he died in 1968, the hogs that were trucked to Elliot’s had minutes to live. Was a meatpacking plant an appropriate spot for eleven and twelve-year-olds? I don’t recall any parental objections. I wasn’t the only student who had moved to Silver Bay from a small family farm. Agriculture was one of Minnesota’s main industries. A great many Silver Bay fathers hunted deer when it was in season. Most nights, our mothers served meat with potatoes and canned vegetables. Why shouldn’t we know how bacon and baloney ended up on our plates?
Our tour of Elliot’s began at an unloading dock where live hogs jostled and grunted as they descended from a ramp at the back of a truck and were shut into pens. We watched as a gate opened on the end of one pen. The hogs shoved their way through the opening onto a bridge that joined with a moving conveyor belt.
A man held up a kind of gun. He explained it delivered a dose of electricity to the animal, which killed it. The device reminded me of the new, pneumatic syringes that had been used for booster shots in the Campton Gymnasium that year. Using air instead of the old-fashioned needle to inject the medicine was faster and painless. I tried not to think about the hog and what he might or might not feel as the man showed us the tip of the zapper. He would touch this rounded metal piece to the temple of each animal as it passed by.  We didn’t view the moment of kill for any of the big, brown animals who snorted and pushed their way to death. Instead, we were herded to the other side of the conveyor belt into the interior of the building.
The bodies slid along, the animals on their sides with a thin stream of red running from an ear. Or maybe the neck. I didn’t look long enough to make sure. They were dead — I knew that. All the animals fell in nearly identical positions with one side pressed tight against the conveyor belt with one pig eye and one pig ear visible. It was a solemn procedure, nearly silent except for the moving belt and its whir of cams and motor. The quickness of the process startled me. Here were silent blimps with coarse, bristly hair that, moments earlier, had squealed and fought to be first one out of the holding pen. For eleven and twelve-year-olds, we were a suddenly quiet bunch.
 Reserve and Elliot’s were both industrial plants, and the men who worked at Elliot’s looked just like our blue-collar fathers. But when our dads brought their work clothes home at the end of a week for our moms to wash, the shirts and trousers were grimy with the flinty dust of taconite instead of being splattered with pig.
The dead animals were ready to be stripped of their hides. It was smelly business and unnatural, yellow light seemed to wash over the men as they worked. The stench stung my nose as if I’d taken a close whiff of Mom’s bottle of cleaning ammonia. We continued, winding our way through the building behind our guides and chaperones. Some of my classmates hung to the back, their eyes on their feet. A handful of us (mostly boys) laughed nervously. A few (all girls) whispered they felt ill. For most, however, continued observation of the butchering process became a measure of toughness. We watched, fascinated but wary of the tour’s effect on our bodies. 
The work area was bright and clean as we viewed the last stage in the meat- packing process. Here, mostly female workers sealed the various forms of pork into tidy packages and boxed the shipments to stores such as the I.G.A. Supermarket in Silver Bay.
Our tour of Elliott’s ended at the commissary. A few employees were sitting on the picnic-style tables eating their lunches or having coffee, but there was plenty of space for our two sixth grade classes. The familiarity of a lunch room, though larger than the one at Campton, restored us to an ease at expressing our feelings about what we had just seen. And who could eat the lunch of hotdogs and lemonade that Elliot’s generously provided for us? Most of us could. I watched a chubby, red-haired boy from Beaver Bay shove a hot dog into his mouth with great zeal, as if to prove that he was more in love with hot dogs now than ever. I had never been much of a hot dog eater even before our tour of Elliot’s. I approached my hot dog cautiously, but maybe living on a farm my first four years had prepared me; I knew that animals were raised and then butchered. I was hungry and I ate. 
After lunch the bus hauled us to the Duluth Harbor and we climbed aboard the Flame. The excursion boat offered harbor dinner cruises in the evenings, but since it was afternoon, the hungry among us dug dimes and nickels out of pockets to buy candy and pop. Elliot’s had been stuffy, and the inside of the boat seemed airless. I ventured outside.
It was cool and breezy on the deck of The Flame. At first it felt good. Then the boat chugged farther out into the harbor. The cool breeze turned into a cold wind. Mom had insisted I take a jacket, but it was a nylon windbreaker, too thin to keep me from shivering. I hated the sound of the engine and the smell of the diesel. I wanted to go back inside the boat’s cabin, but I didn’t dare. My tummy was churning. A boat ride after a trip to a slaughterhouse and a hot-dog lunch was asking for trouble. I stayed outside on the deck. I gulped in cold air. I kept to myself and hoped for the best.

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