Memories of beasts gone by

I WAS AWAKE before 6 this morning and listening to the chickens.

I have a history with chickens.

The poultry next door are the most recent. Around 6 or so, they begin to wake up and converse. It’s not the rooster, which has a distinctive morning call. No, it’s the hens, which also explains the constant chatter from their apple tree roost.

I was born in Atlanta, but I’ve hardly ever lived there. My parents and my sister lived in Atlanta for decades, but not me. When I was about six months old, we left Atlanta and headed to my maternal grandparents’ 500-acre farm in Southwest Georgia between the towns of Sylvester and Albany.

In later decades my parents and my sister returned to Atlanta, but I never went back except to visit. It’s a beautiful city, especially in the Fall.

Among the Herefords, rabbits and cats on the farm (we never messed with pigs and there was just one dog. I’ll get to him later) there were chickens, about 2,000 of them at one time.

The chickens were my father’s doing. He intended to make a living off chickens while becoming a famous writer. Neither of those notions panned out.

One dark summer night in Georgia, a large chunk of those 2,000 chickens was stolen. I remember Sheriff Andy and Deputy Fife standing in the kitchen the following morning. We never did get those chickens back.

New ImageDuring those chicken days, my father would give me baby chicks that he figured were not going to survive.  You read that right. My father gave me dying chicks as pets, and they did. Die, that is.

But I played nursemaid with each for a few days, keeping them in shoeboxes. They didn’t look ill to me when I got them. But they always died.

On that farm, we raised rabbits for profit, but my sister and I had one rabbit we considered a pet. We named him Rusty due to his color. One afternoon at dinner, as we were finishing up, it came out that we had just eaten Rusty.

I’ve written about some of these events, years ago, so it may sound familiar.

There was a dog on the farm too. He was named Pepper. He was a frisky, middle-sized dog of unknown mongrel heritage, and the only (almost) dog my sister and I ever were allowed to have.

Pepper was still there when we left the farm after six years. We then saw him only during our frequent visits up from Florida.

For First Grade I went to a Catholic school in Albany, even though we were not Catholics. Between First and Second grades, we abandoned farm life — chickens, cats*, Pepper, rabbits, Herefords — and moved to Jacksonville, Florida.

I never lived in proximity to poultry again. Till now.

The neighbors’ apple tree in which they roost abuts the property wall, and the chickens on occasion jump down to our yard and walk around. I’m not fond of this because chickens are nasty animals, and then there’s the poop.

But their visits are short, and they’re capable of the brief flight back to the apple tree, back to their own home where they belong.

Especially when I shoo them!

And every morning they greet dawn with chatter, reminding me that I once lived with their ancestors, thousands of the bloody things.

* * * *

* Sometimes there were up to 25 cats!

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.