Working with Chickens

Or How I Paid for My First Year of College

A RHODE ISLAND RED

A RHODE ISLAND RED

I’ve had a soft spot for chickens my entire life.

During the fifties, students at Lake Shore Elementary straggled in a limp line to Regroup’s Hatchery on the Friday before Easter. We toured the long, musty coops and peered into the egg-crating room before being handed a tiny chick dyed one of the pastel colors of spring.

At home, Carolyn, Bob and I tended our babies in a cardboard box behind the coal-burning stove. We lavished attention upon them until they died with their little feet in the air, as they always did. We then mourned Fluffy, Peeps and Rainbow and buried them with solemn ceremony.

We didn’t connect those doomed balls of fluff to our fierce, free-running farm chickens, which were mean, messy, and unnamed. When one of them provided Sunday dinner, no funerals were held.

Our neighbors, the Andersons, gave me my first moneymaking job. I was assistant egg-gatherer to their daughter, Sheila, who was eight to my six. I earned a penny and witnessed an amazing feat. We were in a dusty, twilight-lit coop, searching for eggs inside nesting boxes, when we heard a squawk and saw a hen perched on a rail above us. As we watched, it went into a frenzy of clucking and popped out an egg. Without hesitating, Sheila switched the egg basket to her left hand, reached up, caught the fragile missile in mid-air, and handed it to me. It was still warm.

When I was thirteen, Mr. McKell from up the road hired me to work weekends with the chickens he raised for slaughter. I became the wing spreader in the pullet-inoculation operation. I lodged a chicken between my side and elbow and fanned its wing with my hand, so Mr. McKell could poke an antibiotic-dipped needle through the webbing. I then released the hysterical bird and grabbed the next victim.

It was hard work, but the wages were good, fifty cents an hour, and sometimes the handsome Sterling McKell was home on leave from the army and would help. On those days, I combed my hair.

Chickens also provided employment for me in high school. Every day after school and on Saturdays, I worked at the Utah Poultry and Farmers Cooperative. I weighed grain trucks, rang up chicken-nurturing products, inventoried bags of chicken feed, and checked crates of eggs for breakage. For special promotions, I dressed as a Rhode Island Red, handed out candy eggs, clucked, and prayed none of my peers would get a hankering to stop by the co-op.

When I started college, I abandoned the chickens that helped send me there.

Now all I do with chickens is eat them. I feel bad about that.

Have some thoughts 
about jobs you had when young?
Please comment.

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22 thoughts on “Working with Chickens

  1. Oh this made me smile and laugh! I was raised mainly in an urban area, so this is one job I didn’t have. One summer, we were visiting in Lander and I went to spend the day with my cousins. It was the day that they slaughtered the chickens, put them in the pot and then they would take them out to pull out the feathers. When the heads of the chickens were cut off the bodies would run around and around for a few minutes. My cousins and I thought that this was hilarious! We laughed and laughed until our stomachs hurt. You know, not one of us felt sorry for the chickens, which makes me wonder if we all didn’t have a bit of a mean streak in us!

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  2. My only close encounter with chickens was the summer my mother raised about 20-30, using skills she learned as a farm girl. I stared in disbelief the first time my kind, tender-hearted mother grabbed a chicken by it’s head and swung it in a fast circle ’til it’s head popped off!! I’m not sure I was as shocked by the headess chickens running around as learning my very own mother knew how to kill chickens with her bare hands. The expression “how’d you like your little neck wrung?” had a whole new meaning.

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      • dawna, I’m happy to know you laughed. I didn’t know if anyone else grew up being asked “how’d you like your little neck wrung?” It was usually said affectionately by my dad.
        Isn’t Janet’s blog fun to read. I look forward all weekend to Tuesdays, and then enjoy so much the replies and responses.

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  3. We used to have chickens too, down in forgotten-town, NC. We lived behind the boondocks, way out there near the edge of the moon. I was too you to have tended to them but I do remember, vaguely. We had cows, pigs, dogs amongst other modern amenities. Loved your story, it was cozy and warm, like that chicken egg your cat-like-reflex having friend caught. I quite enjoy your writings, its like your an English teacher or something. LOL – all I’m saying, is…you have an amazing way with words – a true wordsmith. Keep writing, and I’ll keep reading.

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    • I love that you described my story as cozy and warm. Great words; thank you. And I’m happy that you’ll keep reading, just as I’ll keep returning to your writing—though never during a March Madness game!

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  4. Great story, Aunt Beulah. I have 17 very spoiled chickens at the moment. My numbers fluctuate as chicks are hatched, roosters rehomed and old girls pass away but I don’t ever want to be without chickens! Such entertaining critters and they so graciously provide me with eggs, manure and pest control.

    The part about handsome Sterling McKell made me giggle out loud! I can’t wait to read this to my son when he gets home tomorrow. Your stories remind me of a wonderful book of short stories called “In Grandma’s Attic” by Arletta Richardson that I bought when I was in Grade two from The scholastic book club. All these years I have kept that book because the stories, like yours, are precious and rare in this day and age. Thanks for sharing 🙂

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    • I’m pleased to learn there are 17 spoiled chickens in the world, Christina. Sterling McKell made my knees knock together—but I don’t think he could hear their clatter amidst the unhappy chicken- din in which we worked.I’m glad my memory of him made you chuckle because your kind words about my writing make my heart sing.

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  5. A very wise and funny story. When I was fifteen I used to write love letters for boys and girls in my school, using a script of eighteenth century love letters, and writing swollen declarations of admirations, but it earned me money, even if I could not read love letters for a very long time after that…

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  6. A wonderful piece, both funny and wise. I earned money by writing love- letters for my classmates, using scripts from 18th century France, i got well paid but could not read love letters for a very long time…

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  7. My Ma, a city girl was terrified of chickens and cows, when our dad died all critters were promptly dispatched, I have always felt that there is a higher wisdom in chickens, they show up now and then in my stories. You write vividly of that time of life,thank you.

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  8. A wonderful wise and funny story. When I was fifteen I wrote love-letters for girls and boys in my class, using as an inspiring script French examples from the 18th century, it earned me money, but I could not read love poems for a very long time.

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    • What an enterprising idea at fifteen! It sounds much more glamorous that inoculating chickens. I’ll be spending time on your blog for sure, but I won’t expect to find any love letters!

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  9. Dear Aunt Beulah, thank you. Back in the Collected Wisdom Archive is “Feral Chickens” and “Golden Hen”. With respect to chickens,look forward to reading your book, Worzel

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  10. I have six chickens of my own, but it sounds as though you have more experience with chickens than I do. I never heard of a chicken laying an egg while up on a roost or a perch—thankfully my chickens always use their nest boxes.

    You asked about jobs your readers had when they were young. I had several jobs as a young teenager but, with the exception of baby-sitting for 50 cents an hour, they were all volunteer. My most memorable job as a 13-year-old was working in the local community hospital’s snack bar, making ice cream sodas and toasting sandwiches. It was fun, but not nearly as exciting as man-handling chickens for inoculation!

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    • I think I would have preferred fun, Rita. About the chicken: I remember Sheila’s mom asking us if we had scared the hen or forced her from her nest. I don’t think we had. It must have been an eccentric layer.

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      • My girls occasionally do this. It’s not very often and I suspect it’s the younger less experienced hens. Fortunately I do deep litter wood shavings so the eggs don’t usually break. It’s a good incentive to keep the litter fresh under their roost!

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