Kaboom! My head bounced off the bedroom floor. It was ten minutes to midnight. Eyes popped open as the rest of me crashed out of bed, my dad’s hard grasp around my pajama clad ankle. “You didn’t shut the chickens up, did you?” I whined out “no, I thought my sister had done it”. This led to me being dragged to the back door, and tossed out into the night with a kick and the instructions: “Don’t think about coming back until the chickens are shut up”! So, no flashlight, just grope along barefoot up through the field – Canadian thistle, cheet grass, burrs, cow pies, rocks and finally chicken manure – sobbing all the time. After dropping the wooden door on the Coop opening and rubbing my eyes, I slunk back – the grim countenance of my father outlined in the back door. Child psychologists would tell you that now was the time for him to tell me he loved me, and to give me a big hug. That this was a good lesson, and that he was proud of me – maybe even see a tear in the corner of his eye. My dad was from a different Cut of Cloth. I distinctly remember his voice. “Stop bawling, you sissy”, as he rebooted me in the rear end. “Next time this happens I’ll make sure you never forget it”. “Now wash off your damned feet and get in your damned bed”.
Free at last, free at last, thank the Lord I was free at last. At least that is what I thought. We had moved off the farm in Lava Hot Springs, Idaho – no more milking the cows, digging potatoes, jumping back as I turned over a hay bail – sure that there was an eight foot rattler with two inch fangs underneath – no animal husbandry period.
We were off to Pleasant Grove Utah, with a year’s stop in Heber, where I got to experience the great winter of 1948-49. Snow stacked twelve feet high along the roads, open roofed tunnels to the front door, school day cancelations. No animals, no real chores, just shovel snow, enjoy the second grade and my hand-me-down sled.
Now we were in PG – strawberries and cream – here I come. However my Dad pulled a fast one. The basement home he bought came with an acre and a half, and water rights from the creek (fed by the Murdock Canal). Mangy pasture land populated by weeds, sickly grass, and rocks unending. Nothing appeared as if it could live there – maybe gophers – so it looked as if I was safe. “No so fast Johnson”. The first thing my dad did, with my unwilling assistance, was to build a chicken coop in the far northeast corner of the property. Roost poles, straw in the nests and on the floor, used boards and chicken wire everywhere – black tarpaper on the roof. Side trap door held up by a leather strap during the day. Cinder block against it at night.
Worst of all, my dad had accumulated hundreds of rusty bent nails in a Folger’s Coffee can. With my normal dimwittedness, I ask him how many, and what sizes he needed straightened. The answer: “All of them, of course”. “Just get it done over the weekend”. So how do you straighten nails that range from an inch up to six inches, many with more than one bend. First I tried it on a sidewalk – lot of new cement chips – next a piece of steel rail, and then finally just a piece of 2 X 6 inch pine that would partially grasp the nail head. I tried holding the nails with my fingers, then moved on to leather gloves, followed by needle nosed pliers, and then finally just back to my fingers. By the time I was half through, the thumb and forefinger of my left hand looked like they had been spawned by The Creature from the Black Lagoon – mashed by hammer blows, blood blisters, missing skin – fingernails detaching and purpled. I’ve never straightened a bent nail since; however I did rebend about 75% of the now “formerly bent but now semi-straightened” ones cobbling together the Coop.
It became my job to shut up the chickens at night – ours, of course being “free range” – which translates into wandering around on the acre and a half during the day eating worms, earwigs, caterpillars, grasshoppers, arachnids, dirt, and wheat tossed on the ground – which picked up microbes and other unsavory germs which they used to build eggs and develop potential fried drumsticks. If it was right after a watering turn there were lots of creepy crawlies – centipedes, beetles, night crawlers, and small water snakes – moving about. Our chickens were on the job, with sharp beaks and bright eyes – giving these critters about a one second life span once spied
Our wandering chickens were the opposite of the industry “Confined Range” (two by two foot cage) pullets, which ate a prescribed diet of chicken mash, antibiotics, vitamins and steroids – per the Tyson Chicken Method. Still not sure which is best. I fed our “Free Rangers” grain, oyster shell (to make the egg shells hard), gathered eggs, strawed the nests, dusted them with mite powder, and, of course, cleaned out the coop about every six months – manure, matted straw, broken eggs, feathers, all mixed – an unbelievable stench when disturbed. Then put in new straw for the comfort of the hens.
I didn’t know it then, but the average chicken poops 25 plus times a day. (I’ve always believed that ours were major overachievers in this category and mainly held their powder until inside the coop). They shed feathers constantly, and continually peck at their plumage, grooming and getting rid of dirt they acquired during earthen baths. Did you know that the average laying hen produces 260 eggs per year, ten times their own body weight? There are 7.83 billion eggs produced in this country each year plus 794 million chickens raised for eating purposes. Think about cleaning up the mess created by all those fowl? We only had 20, but that was twenty too many in my opinion.
As another unsavory chicken job, I got to decapitate the ones who had stopped laying – yup, ax and a big tree stump. Then soak them in boiling water and tug off the feathers – followed by complete disembowelment – I’m here to tell you that digging through fresh chicken innards can put you off your feed. Mom’s stew was the final result – somewhat tasty, but hardly worth the effort.
Lord help me if I forgot to shut up the chickens at night. Leaving the wooden trap door open could lead to a weasel or fox getting inside and having a chicken dinner. And it did happen a couple of times. My dad’s homicidal reaction was typical – he demanded that you do as you had promised, no excuses – whether it involved the chickens or getting home on time – your word was your word. “Fair but Firm” as my mom told me countless times. So being jerked forcefully out of bed was not a complete surprise.
Worse that the humiliation of those late night disciplinary encounters was the job of cleaning out the Coop – strategic removal of the Chicken Litter. This was usually done on a Saturday – my tools were singular –just a pitchfork. The process involved digging into the compacted straw, levering some free and then hauling it outdoors to stack in a steaming heap – to be moved at some later date. The layers of straw were bound together as if by sulfuric super glue. When I finally separated them, the ammonia and hydrogen sulfide released was enough to force me outside – gasping for air, hacking violently, nose streaming, tears running down my face. The only other thing that even came close was taking off my mask in the tear gas chamber during army basic training.
No protection from the disturbed chicken manure – no mask, no respirator, just inhale all of those fumes compounded by the particulates now in the air – most down the lungs and some always underneath your shirt – I knew that I would die a teenager of Emphysema or Chicken Coop Lung. Only help was maybe a wet neckerchief over your nose and mouth. Took about an hour to complete and about a month to recover. Then it was time to spread the original pile via wheelbarrow over our field in hopes of raising a better crop of weeds.
Despite my unpleasant memories of those Chicken Litter days, I still enjoy a poultry dish – Alfredo, Marsala, Shiskabob, Cordon Bleu, A La King, Curry, Campbell’s Noodle, Costco Rotisserie and KFC Fried. My favorite is still a Chicken Fried Steak – probably because there is no chicken involved.
No Coop now as an urban dweller, no cackling fowl, no eggs to gather, no chicken manure – I’m thankful. Occasionally take a shot with my Red Ryder BB Gun at the local crows – bouncing a pellet off their feathers, wishing I still had a 12 gauge shotgun – but it doesn’t really even up those memories of near death in the coop. I do have concerns that when I’m finally done my time and head for Purgatory, I will be assigned to a line of fully littered coops that go beyond the horizon. I expect the man in charge will tell me: “When these are spotless, inspected and passed, you can move on”.