A literary nugget from Every Twelve Seconds. Here, the author wants to learn to be a knocker, the one who uses a bolt gun to kill the individuals coming in to the slaugterhouse.
Excerpted from Pages 150 to 153.
The cylindrical gun is suspended in the air over the knocking box’s conveyor, balanced with a counterweight and powered by compressed air supplied via a yellow tube. Camilo tells me that using it is not easy: the knocker has only one shot, and although the animals’ bodies are restrained, their heads thrash wildly. It takes a combination of patience and good timing to hit an animal squarely in the skull about three inches above the eyes.
After shooting a couple of cattle, Camilo motions for me to take the gun. I do so while he controls the conveyor and the side restrainers. I am so focused on the gun that I do not even notice the animal that comes through on the conveyor. Its head swings back and forth wildly, eyes bulging. Then it stops moving for a moment, and I hold the gun against its skull and pull the trigger. Nothing happens. The gun has to be pressed harder against the animal’s skull for the safety to be deactivated. I press again, harder, and pull the trigger. The gun recoils in my hands, and I see a hole in the animmal’s skulls. Blood sputters, squirts, and then begins flowing steadily from the hole and the animal’s eyes roll up into its shaking head. Its neck is extended and convulsing, and its tongue hangs out the side of its mouth. I look at Camilo, who motions for me to fire again. I shoot, and the animal’s head falls heavily onto the conveyor below. Camilo advances the conveyor and the animal drops onto the lower conveyor, where it is shackled. There is already another animal in the knocking box, head swinging and eyes large in terror. I shoot two more animals, then Camilo takes the gun from my hands, warning, “They’re looking at us.” Two red-hat supervisors are standing farther down the kill floor, gesturing for me to return to the chutes.
Back in the chutes, Fernando asks, “Why you out there doing that? You want to be the knocker?” When I say maybe, he responds, “No, you don’t want to do that. I don’t want to do that. Nobody wants to do that. You’ll have bad dreams.” This is the same man who told me that the point of using electric prods was “pain and torture.”
Fernando’s reaction turns out to be common. In the lunchroom, heating up my food, I talk to Jill, one of the two quality-control workers. We know each other from earlier conversations about dealing with the USDA inspectors when they watch the liver-hanging work.
“So, are you working in the pens?” she asks.
“how do you like it? Do you like it more than the livers?”
I shrug noncommittally.
Jill holds her nose.
“Yeah, it smells pretty bad out there,” I agree, then ask, “Do you know when the livers are going to start up again?”
“No, I don’t know.”
“I want them to train me to do the knocking,” I offer.
She looks up, surprised. “You want to be a knocker?” Her voice is incredulous.
I shrug again.
“I already feel guilty enough as it is,” she says.
“Do you really feel guilty?”
“Yeah. Especially when I go out there and see their cute little faces.”
“Well, basically if you work here you’re killing cattle,” I say defensively. “I mean, aren’t we all killing these cattle in one way or another?”
There is an uncomfortable silence.
“How long have you been working here?” I ask, shifting the conversation, and I learn that she has been at the slaughterhouse for three years. She has taken classes to qualify for a USDA inspector’s job, but does not want to apply for one because the work involves traveling and she has three small children at home.
The next morning, I am at work early for the free annual employee checkup provided by a company called Healthy and Well and paid for by the slaughterhouse. As an incentive to come to work an hour early, have your blood drawn to check for cholesterol levels, do a flexibility test (you sit with legs extended and see how far forward you can reach), have your blood pressure taken, and fill out a short questionnaire about your eating, sleeping, drinking, and smoking habits, the company provides a free breakfast of scrambled eggs, milk, juice, cereal, bananas, grapes, bagels, and cream cheese.
Rick, the safety coordinator, is responsible for enrolling employees for the checkup, and I sit across from him with a plate of scrambled eggs. When I tell him I want to be trained as a knocker he coughs on his eggs, and then after a few minutes says, “You seem like the kind of person who would be really good for a desk job.” It fits with a running conversation we have been having in which Rick has been encouraging me to start taking classes at the community college nearby and start looking for some other kind of work.
Later, I see Christian, Umberto, and Tyler, the railers from the cooler, and I join them. Christian and Umberto need to start working and eat and leave quickly. When I tell Tyler I shot three animals with the knocking gun the day before, he urges me to stop. “Man, that will mess you up. Knockers have to see a psychologist or a psychiatrist or whatever they’re called every three months.”
“Because, man, that’s killing,” he says: “that shit will fuck you up for real.”