I first heard Hank Williams Jr.‘s “All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight” the year I turned 33, when my wife Nancy gave me a whole hog, plus enough fixings to throw a barbeque for virtually everyone we knew. “All My Rowdy Friends” was to be the first song in a country-music soundtrack we’d compiled for the event: “I got a pig in the ground and beer on ice. / All my rowdy friends are coming over tonight.” Although our friends were relatively staid yuppies, I hoped the prospect of barbequed pig and a keg would inspire some degree of rowdiness among them. I’d found a recipe that told how to smoke an entire pig in a wooden box.
The day of the barbeque, I shoveled hot coals into the plywood box I’d built in the back yard. Then I lay my specially ordered pig over the fire on a chicken-wire hammock. Working all day with shovel and pig had left me with a sore lower back, so I went to our local gym to sit in the hot tub.
Nancy and I hold advanced university degrees. We’d spent months agonizing over details, from what kind of watermelon to serve to whether to use molasses or brown sugar in the sauce. Yet neither of us grown-up city slickers felt any concern about a bed of white hot coals cooking a 75-pound slab of saturated fat in an unattended wooden box.
Nancy later told me how the box had sat merrily smoking away one moment and disappeared the next, evidently replaced by an enormous Roman candle. She raced with the hose to the conflagration. Being 12 feet long, and the distance from spigot to pig being 18 feet, the hose jerked Nancy off her feet 2 yards short of the fire. Finally, straining against the hose like a mastiff on a leash, Nancy made a spray of water arc into the fire.
The flames were already subsiding when the fire truck pulled into our driveway, and raincoated men came jogging into the back yard. One took Nancy’s hose and doused the embers. Another approached with a form and said he had some questions. “Let me fill it out,” Nancy offered. “It’ll be faster. I’ve got 75 people coming in 15 minutes.”
“No,” said the fireman gallantly, “it’s pretty complicated.” He studied the form before asking, “Name?” The tricky name line filled out, Nancy’s interrogator moved to the next item. “Address?”
“Address? How the hell’d you get here if you didn’t know the address?”
Forgive Nancy this breach. A countdown to the party was running in her head, and she had just seen a fireman brazenly reach down to tear a strip of meat, taste it, and say, “You know, this is pretty good.”
The miracle is, it was pretty good. Under the blackened fat, savory pork still steamed inside, moist and flavorful from being soaked with a garden hose, and so the party was a success. Guests ate succulent meat, listening to Hank Williams floating over the back yard, where four charred supports rose from the ground like a blackened Stonehenge, all that remained of my pig cooker. The fire had not spread, no one had died, and no property was lost. Even the party came off.
Years later when a falling tree hit a power line, a fireman who came out to block off our street nudged an awed rookie in the ribs and spoke as one pointing out the scene of the Valentine’s Day Massacre: “That’s the house where they burnt the pig.”
Hank recorded a sequel, “All My Rowdy Friends Have Settled Down,” which wistfully says, “Corn bread and iced tea have took the place of pills and 90 proof.” The song sadly acknowledges time’s passage, which tames us all eventually, making us safer—if less daring—to be around. I cannot hear those lyrics without a sensation of relief, even redemption.