Notes from the Porch

Goodbye, Norma Jean

Going whole hog in Lumberton

By Bill Thompson

In the course of an otherwise normal conversation, a lady asked me how I come up with the “weird” stuff I write about. I told her I honestly didn’t know. Upon reflection and adequate time to come up with a better answer, I still don’t know.

The question did cause me to look back at some of the topics I have written about during the last 50 years — off and on.

Several topics had to do with farm animals. I don’t find that unusual in this part of the country, which is still, primarily, rural despite the subtle encroachment — and exit — of industry. Most of the folks I know are only one or two generations removed from the farm. For years the mule was my most frequent farm animal topic, but now said animal is becoming less than conspicuous in North Carolina. One reason I give mules so much attention is because I hope they might make a comeback. I don’t believe this is an unlikely possibility. If you remember, Republicans were almost extinct in North Carolina once. Now look at ’em.

I guess it is appropriate, what with all the controversy lately, that my most interesting farm animal story was about a pig. She was 600 pounds of grace and charm. Her red hair was perfectly coiffed, rhinestone earrings and matching tiara graced her head, and the pink tutu was perfect for the evening.

And what an evening!

Never in the annals of polite Southern society has there been such a party. The Four Hundred (actually about 360) of Lumberton, North Carolina, turned out on a Saturday night in 1982 to honor the young lady who was to “officially” become one of their own.

In reality, despite her lofty intentions, Norma Jean (named after Marilyn Monroe) would always be a little different. After all, she was a pig, not an ordinary pig to be sure, but nonetheless, a pig. There is some question as to whether she knew she was a pig, since she had never lived in a pigpen or eaten pig food. She had instead eaten lobster and champagne and lounged on the sofa in the den of her “parents,” Dr. and Mrs. Raymond Sattler.

I am sure that in her wildest dreams (and be assured that Norma Jean did dream) she never could have conjured up a scene to match her “debut” on that Saturday night.

As an emcee, I have presided over all kinds of events and ceremonies. I have always prided myself on my ability to handle any situation. But I had a problem at Norma Jean’s party. I have ad-libbed entire programs, ignored drunks and hecklers, held back elated parents and friends as they rushed a stage after the announcement of a pageant winner, calmed crowds of fans eager to touch a visiting Hollywood or television star. All that was nothing compared with the rush to see Norma Jean as she entered the ballroom of the Ramada Inn in Lumberton.

Chaos! A brass band played a fanfare written especially for the occasion. Klieg lights flooded the sky and the red carpet was rolled out. As she entered to the strains of the music, television cameras and hundreds of personal cameras focused on her. She left immediately. (No amount of experience or training can prepare you to chase a pig through a hotel lobby and down hallways.)

Norma Jean did return, however, and after receiving a chocolate key to the city from the mayor, stayed to receive friends as she lay on the dais constructed for her that evening.

During the course of the evening, the band played and the guests dressed in their formal attire after having their photos taken with Norma Jean. Lights bounced off the sparkling ice sculpture of Norma Jean’s likeness. Dr. and Mrs. Sattler, acting as spokespersons for Norma Jean, held interviews with the press, including a gentleman from The Wall Street Journal and another from People magazine.

As her guest mingled, drank champagne and tasted the delicious shrimp, roast beef, chocolate strawberries, (no pork, of course), someone asked the question, “What could be next for Norma Jean?”

Well, since I was working at a local television station in Wilmington at the time, I did a sequel to her debut by following Norma Jean as she vacationed at the beach, complete with scenes of her frolicking in the surf and sunbathing on the dunes. It caught the interest of the network folks at NBC and they ran the piece on the Today show.

I don’t know what happened to Norma Jean. I’m sure that despite all efforts to acquire immortality, she passed on to hog heaven. But I’m fairly sure that her arrival there did not receive a welcome to compare with the one she had in Lumberton.

Bill Thompson is a regular Salt contributor. His newest novel, Chasing Jubal, is available wherever books are sold.

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