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?
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