Chickens never change

FOR MOST OF the first six years of my life I lived with chickens, thousands of chickens.

There were two enormous chicken houses, one on either side of Granny’s home, there in southwest Georgia where my parents hauled me shortly after birth, down from Atlanta. I recall those chicken houses as about the size of a football field, each of them, but I doubt they were that big. But they were huge. Believe me.

chickenNow you don’t want thousands of chickens — they were Rhode Island Reds for those of you who know chickens — living too close to where you eat and sleep. Chickens are noisy, vicious and their personal hygiene is nonexistent.

So they were off far enough, out there on one side in the grove of pecan trees and out on the other side in a pasture where cows grazed. The cows were Herefords for those of you who know cows.

Those two huge chicken houses could not have been cheap, and we were not rich, to put it mildly. The chicken farmer was my father, and I’m guessing he got a loan after the war ended, something like the G.I. Bill, which was for education. But he already had a degree before the war.

Perhaps there was another bill to construct chicken houses.

cowThe endeavor did not last more than four or five years. One night burglars ran off with a big chunk of those chickens. The number 500 sticks in my mind, but I could be wrong. I remember the sheriff in the kitchen the morning after, asking questions.

Never found the chickens, of course. They all look alike.

We had started out with 2,000 or so, and 500 left a sizable gap.

I don’t recall my father actually selling chickens. What I remember is selling eggs, lots and lots of eggs. We had little egg scales on which you place an egg to determine if it’s small, medium or large. I haven’t seen one of those scales in decades. It would be a nice conversation piece, or you could just weigh your eggs.

By the time I was 7 and entering the Second Grade, we were in Jacksonville, Florida, my father having given up on chickens and freelance writing to return to the newspaper business. However, those massive chicken houses remained on either side of my grandparents’ home for a long, long time, empty.

One day they vanished.

Years passed, and I never heard a chicken, which was okay by me. They are nasty, stupid critters, almost as dumb as bunnies. Being a former farm boy, I also — like chickens and cows — know rabbits.

Flash forward a good piece of time. I wake every morning now to the sound of chickens in the distance. There are barking dogs too and the occasional bray of burros, but it’s the chickens that stand out.

Chickens never change.

And they’re on their best behavior when fried.

The Olden Days

Georgia road

I‘ll soon chalk up another in a long, growing line of birthdays, and I marvel at how the world has changed in nearly seven decades and how I can recall another time and place.

My family visited my maternal grandparents often in the 1950s, far more than we saw my father’s folks who lived twice as far from our Florida home.

My mother was an only child, and attached to her parents. My father was not so fond of his parents who were a staunch Baptist and Methodist who listened to gospel music every morning on the radio in North Georgia.

Yes, they attended separate churches. Isn’t that odd?

My father wasn’t like that. He was not religious, plus he was a boozer, a fact that was hidden from his parents, or at least he thought so.

We actually lived with the maternal grandparents in the late 1940s for six years before moving to Florida. My father wrote short stories and raised chickens on the farm while chasing a literary fame that never came.

It finally arrived late in life in the small universe of haiku poetry.

My grandmother would twist the necks of hens, killing them, and later those chickens would be dinner after being fried. Those same grandparents had a big meat freezer in a place in downtown Sylvester (like the cat) that rented such spaces, much as businesses rent storage lockers today.

herefordThere was a big freezer on the back porch too, but when you kill an entire cow and cut her up and package her bloody pieces, perhaps along with a fat hog, it won’t all fit into a standard freezer.

I don’t remember ever seeing a cow butchered, but I recall the death of pigs and what happened to them after, stuff that was done in the pasture in a big cauldron of boiling water, things that were fodder for kiddie nightmares, which perhaps I had. I don’t remember any nightmares.

A murdered hog makes a terrible sound.

Granny often had up to 25 cats living in the back yard. I doubt it was intentional. There were simply cats doing what cats do, which is to multiply like bunnies. We also had bunnies, which got sold and/or eaten.

And there were cows and a bull. You don’t need more than one bull, and since there were maybe 30 cows, he was a satisfied bull, one supposes.

They were Herefords, which are meat cows, different than dairy cows such as Guernseys. We were not dairy people. We were beef people.

We didn’t mess with pigs much.

And before we moved away, the chickens were sold. Grandfather wasn’t interested in thousands of chickens. However, the two huge chicken houses, almost as large as football fields, sat abandoned for years after.

There were sprawling fields almost literally as far as the eye could see of peanuts and cotton. The tractors — I recall at least two — were those gray Fords whose look never changed year after year after year.

There were two black servants, Willy the housekeeper and Cap the handyman, who lived half a mile down the red clay road in a dreadfully rundown shack owned by my grandparents.

The unpainted shack, which looked like a stiff breeze would upset it, was ancient. There was a porch, a big room with a fireplace, and an adjoining kitchen. The entire, leaning shebang sat atop brick pilings.

Willie washed clothes in a cast-iron pot over an outside fire, and Cap got drunk on weekends, sometimes during the week too, which did not very set well with my grandmother. Sometimes he had to be bailed out of jail.

Willie always seemed happy. Cap always seemed sullen. They were a permanent fixture of my childhood, and they died in the 1960s. Now they’re buried somewhere in the woods in what once was a black cemetery.

That graveyard is long abandoned and overgrown, and it’s as if they never existed, though they live on in my mind.

The summers were hot, and starry nights were filled with fireflies that flitted though the field that sloped down from the house, across the dirt road.

The winters were cold, and there were fireplaces in every room, save the two bathrooms, one large and one very small.

Along the way, father died and mother died and all the grandparents before them, buried in their graves, and I stepped into their slots as the decades vaulted over Louisiana and Texas, aiming at Mexico.

* * * *


orioleThere is no future now.

The present has expanded from one horizon to the other, and all is now here where I have moved far, far away.

The present is filled with hummingbirds and black-vented orioles that sit on maguey spines, and the night sky shines again with stars, and summertime sometimes brings fireflies just like before.

The Olden Days are gone, and I awake to mornings that are always cool in bed with a beautiful woman under warm blankets, and this present is better than the past, and the lack of a future just doesn’t matter.

* * * *

(The same story can be told a thousand ways.)