I left this chicken story with the “teaser” that coming up next in our childhood chicken-raising saga was the grisly dispatch of the young roosters. It wasn’t actually as gruesome as you might think. My Dad had been raised on a farm; he understood well the cycle of life and death, particularly when it came to animals raised for their meat. He gently led us through the inevitable losses.
In my whole childhood, the only family dog that died a “normal” death was the one that was hit by a car in plain view of my brother, Ted. My parents had no control over that story. For every other dog, we were told, “Laddie (or Tippy, TippyII, Lucky…) was so old (or sick)and tired…he went away to die.” All of my life, I pictured a place – like the elephant burial ground from the Tarzan shows – where my pets bravely wandered off to, to meet their end. I was a pretty old person before it dawned on me that this was an unlikely scenario, and Mom and Dad were probably holding back on the actual facts surrounding their demise.
When it came to the rabbits that my grandmother raised next door, or the pigs and chickens my Dad brought home, we knew how the story went. We didn’t always like it – my sister Brenda always refused any meat that might possibly have come from one of Grandma’s furry bunnies – but it was a normal part of our childhood. Dad made butchering day a family affair, which helped.
Mom fixed a big dinner. Depending on the year, we had six or seven or eight or nine children in our household. When Grandma was alive, she was there. Sometimes one or more of the “Doney” brothers would stop in. If “Topper” was around, his boy, Brad, was there, and in on the action. Eventually Brad – like family – was there no matter what.
Dad’s brothers and sisters would come with their families. Uncle Henry and Aunt Betty, with Paul and Mary Beth; Uncle Al and Aunt Mary Lou with their boys, Craig, Gary, Keith and Dale; and Aunt Katie, who was always up for an adventure. Once Aunt Margaret moved back to Michigan from Marion, Indiana, she would be there, with her brood: Barry, Kim, Bobby, Shirley, Gail, Mary Jean, and Joannie.
So, the day we killed the chickens seemed like a festive, family-fun day, filled with cousins and friends and lots of story-telling and laughter. To add to the excitement, there was a cash incentive for the kids that were willing to participate.
In the middle of the backyard, a respectable distance from the chicken yard, where the hens continued their clucking and pecking, Dad set up a chopping block, and a hatchet. He had tubs to toss the bodies in after the roosters were beheaded, to await plucking and final arrangements. When a chicken has its head chopped off, the nerves keep working, sometimes for several minutes. The beak will continue to open and close; wings can still flap. Legs, if the chicken-holder loses his grip, can take that headless chicken running.
That’s where the money came in. Dad’s proposal was this: Stand by; be ready. If whichever adult is holding on to the chicken accidentally lets go, it will run. If it runs, and happens to run under the chicken house (which was exactly one cement block up from the bare ground), the kid that is brave enough – and skinny enough – to shimmy under the chicken house and retrieve the dead, headless and bloody chicken…will be paid one shiny dime.
That coin became the focus of our day. We stood in line for the chance to be the chaser. Once, my cousin, Craig, looked disdainfully down at a smaller child and said, “You don’t have the stomach for it!” That became our taunt, as we pushed and shoved our way to the front, where we watched and waited.
Whispers ran up and down the line of children: “He doesn’t have a good grip;” “This one’s gonna run, I can just feel it;” “Here it comes…get ready” and “Get out of line; you don’t have the stomach for it!” Now and then a complaint was shouted out, that someone was standing too close to the chicken house, and might prevent the wayward rooster from finding his way there.
Every now and then, a chicken did take off running. I don’t remember if any ever made their way under the chicken house to die. I don’t remember if that coveted dime was ever paid out. I do know that my memories of rooster butchering day are filled with anticipation and excitement…and I have my Dad to thank for that.