A visit to most rural farms in the 1960s, such as the one I was raised on, would highlight a large array of animals. The first greeting, with the wag of it’s tail, would be the family dog, seeking a scratch behind the ear. Cats would scurry to hide, watch, and make sure you were trustworthy before arching their back and rubbing briskly back and forth against your leg. Take a glimpse in the front forty and you will see several cows, swatting mosquitos on their backs with their constant back and forth swish of their tails and nonchalantly chewing their cud, a mixture of Bahia grass and gosh awful saliva breath. A horse or two intermingles with the bovines, though they are more curious as their ears perk and are more apt to come a little closer to check out the situation. Pig smells greet you long before you see them and hear their familiar grunt.
And then there are chickens. Ah, those curious cluckers. Take it from me, a veteran of all things chicken, watch where you step. I told you so!
As a guest to Sunday dinner, you could expect the absolute best pick of the crop. Mashed Irish potatoes and brown gravy, butter beans and/or black-eyed peas and probably some version of corn, with either fresh rolls or hot water bread.
And then the star of the show…. fried chicken. And not the yucky baked kind. I’m talkin the fried kind, fried so crisp it would make Colonel Sanders slap his mama!
My mom taught my sister and me, that during Sunday meals, it was only respectful to let the city folks that don’t know any better, get the first stab at their choice of the fried chicken, as we always passed it to the guests first. That prized, plump, scrumptious, to die for, pulley bone, strategically placed on top of the fried mound of morsel meat, sat there waiting to be chosen first. We lost major saliva watching those silly city slickers chose the lesser scrumptious pieces of mouthwatering poultry, such as the terrible choice of thighs.
My sister, that cat quick, monkey arm length, pulley bone lover, could always out quick her seven year younger, Hercules strong short arm hulk brother. As soon as they served the guests, cat woman owned that two-piece prime white meat serving. As she placed it to her cat lips, those competitive cat eyes rolled directly into my jealous, gonna beat you someday eyes. I would grab that chicken outta her lips, but I could never catch her!
Having all those animals around as a young kid was always a treat for me. Until it came time to feed them. And guess who had the privilege of feeding them every day? Yours truly.
I loved playing in the afternoon after school as I debarked the yellow chariot called a bus.
Before I knew it, darkness crept in. Time to tend to the feeding chores of a country bumpkin.
The dogs were fed first, as dad made certain his prized bird dogs got preferential treatment. Next, I fed the pigs, cows, and horses.
Then came the chickens. Those stinking chickens!
Our chickens stayed in a chicken house that looked one hundred years old. Dad designed the roof of rusty tin. It featured a dirt floor covered with chicken poo. On the back side of the house were boards lifted off the ground used for the chickens to roost at night. Ya know, chickens gotta roost.
Just inside the door was a water trough. Next to it, we had our feed bin. I used it to scoop and scatter feed on the ground, as chickens enjoy plucking their food from the ground. I was told, they had to mix small pebbles in with their food to digest it, though I really did not care. I just wanted to get the job done so I could eat.
On the left side of the house was a series of baskets the chickens used to lay their eggs. Ninety-eight-point nine percent of the time, a chicken snake occupied at least one of those baskets.
Now I hate snakes. I may have been a super stud male, raised in the country, but me and snakes just did not get along.
Chicken snakes love chicken eggs. They swallow the eggs whole, which renders the snake to be less mobile with a whole egg in their body. This renders me to have an advantage to get away from them easier, gather my courage, let the hair on my arms, back of my neck and blood pressure all settle down before I do the dastardly deed of sending them to the great snake pit in the sky, or down there, depending…
Chicken snakes are dumb. They can’t tell the difference between an egg and a light bulb. So, my parents taught me to plant a bulb in each nest. Those snakes chose the bulb because it was bigger than the egg. The snake could not digest the bulb and it eventually killed the snake.
Chickens are fairly smart animals. If you are observant, and a chicken whisperer like me, they will tell you what is happening.
The second I walked into that chicken house, I could tell a snake was present. All the chickens would be on the opposite side of the house from the snake. Their clucking would make a different sound. When I heard that special cluck, I knew it was snake killing time.
“Cluck, cluck, cluck, SNAAAAAAAKEEEEEE,” they nervously proclaimed, tattling on that poor egg sucking snake the second I opened the chicken house door.
I’ll not reveal what I said next, as I try hard to be a good Christian. Besides, what’s said in the chicken house, stays in the chicken house. Especially when stepping in that fresh, moist chicken poo. Right chickens?
“Cluck, cluck, cluck, right! Just give us feed and water and you can head back to the house!”
“Okay but let me take care of that light bulb eating snake!”
I do not know how many chicken snakes I killed as a young kid, but it was way too many! And yes, I know chicken snakes are good snakes because they kill bad snakes. But I say, any snake is a bad snake. Just sayin…
Now, moms and dads, cover your kid’s ears, as I’m about to reveal one of my childhood nightmares. It was a defining moment in me starting my journey to manhood. I must admit, to this day, I still cringe at the sight I’m about to describe.
One day, dad summoned me, my sister, and my mom outside. He was holding a chicken which was clucking a chime I’d never heard before. Until this point in time, I’d only heard a “I’m hungry” cluck. Or “give me some water you lazy bum,” cluck. Or, “where the heck have you been, I’m starving,” cluck. And, of course, the “SNAKE!” cluck.
This cluck? Never heard it before.
It perplexed the chicken whisperer.
Dad instructed me and my sister to make sure, no matter what, under any circumstances, to let this chicken go under our house, which was on concrete blocks, about two feet off the ground.
My thought was, “Okay, this should be easy, I’m the chicken whisperer around here. Those stinking chickens know and trust me. I’ve got this!”
My confidence level could not be any higher.
And then it happened!
Dad took that chicken’s neck, rung it in a circle, ooooooooohhhhhhhhhvvvvvvvvvvvvvveeeeeeer and oooooooooohhhhhhhhvvvvvvveeeeeer, as my world slowed to the slowest of slow motions.
All sound left this world. No dogs barking, birds chirping, cars passing…just silence.
My eyes widen so wide I think I lost the rest of my face.
That chicken head separated from the body of the chicken. The head rested in the strong hands of my dad. But where was the body?
The chicken body, which naturally should lay restless on the ground, flopped wildly, as if still alive. The wings flapped instinctively, trying to take flight. Blood sprayed from the headless area like that of a spray paint gun. I later learned in biology class, this was a vein called the jugular.
But wait, that headless feathered friend started making her way toward me! It was as if that bird knew I was the whisperer and I was her last hope for any explanation of this bizarre event.
Dad’s words started ringing in my ears, “don’t under any circumstances, let that bird go under the house!”
Now I love and respect my dad! But a headless, bloody, flapping, cluckless chicken was scratching its way to the whisperer! What would you do?
Yes, I know. You would do exactly what I did!
I ran! And ran! And ran!
A tear or two may have come out of my surprised, saucer sized eyes.
That Sunday, I remember looking outside the window as mom served lunch.
Mom passed the full plate of crispy fried chicken to me first. The pulley bone was glistening on top of that fried pyramid of meat, just begging me to choose it. Mom, glancing at my cat quick reflex sister, knew what she was doing. At that precise moment, the spirit of that recently deceased barnyard buddy ascended upon me. I promptly passed the plate.
While the rest of my family chowed down on fried chicken, my dirt stained jeans from climbing under the house and retrieving that bloody chicken were drying on our clothes line.
My plate? I enjoyed all the fresh vegetables my mom prepared.
‘Aren’t you hungry?” mom asked.
“I guess I feel a little sick to my stomach,” the chicken whisperer proclaimed.
From that day forward, those beautiful chickens got fed before all the other animals and they always received just a little extra ration in honor of their fallen buddy!
For the reasons listed above, when it comes to the animal world, chickens represent a special part of me always.