Chasing Headless Chickens and other Delights

 Summers on Pop’s Farm:

By Cold War Standards 1956 was almost a mellow year:  The Korean War Truce held firm for it’s second year, China (PRC) and Chairman Mao were more or less minding their own business, the last French soldiers were scheduled to leave Vietnam in April, and in the Soviet Union Nikita Khrushchev went after old line Stalinists as a "cult of personality".  Most of the news that year was entertainment, new media and politics and sports.  Peter Pan, starring Mary Martin, was restaged on NBC-TV, Laurence Olivier's film, Richard III, adapted from Shakespeare's play, premiered in theatres and on NBC on the same day.  Ampex introduced the first practical and commercial videotape format 2" Quadruplex, IBM invented the hard disk drive , a 30 inch monster the size of a big refrigerator, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed above 500 for the first time at 500.24.

The Republicans re-nominated President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Democrats chose Adlai E. Stevenson again, of course Ike kicked his ass in November.   Grace Kelly married Rainier III, Prince of Monaco, Marilyn Monroe married playwright Arthur Miller,  and Elvis Presley appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show.  Yankee pitcher Don Larsen threw the only perfect game in World Series history beating the Brooklyn Dodgers for the umpteenth time.  Rocky Marciano retired undefeated and Floyd Patterson became the world light heavyweight champion.

The shit hit the fan in the last week of October when: behind the Iron Curtain the Hungarian revolution broke out, the Soviet Red Army invaded Hungary, Israel invaded Egypt through the Sinai Peninsula and the UK and France bombed Egypt to gain control of the Suez Canal.  The Huntley-Brinkley Report debuted on NBC-TV to cover it all and after he won re-election Ike settled it all quickly by ignoring the Red Army as it crushed the revolution in Hungary and blackmailing the Israeli, British and French economies with his threat to allow their currency to float against the US dollar - which now for the first time in American History carried the official motto of the United States, "In God We Trust" as authorized by an act of Congress.  By the end of the year everything was under control.

In the meantime I was chasing chickens with their heads cut off.  That year Dad took a pay cut to accept a job with the Department of Defense as a quality assurance inspector and they transferred him to Miami.  The family sold the house in Acton and while Mac looked for a place in Florida, we spent the summer with my mother’s family on Pop’s farm.

It was heaven!!! - Swimming in the pond, roaming up the creek into the woods, playing in the hayloft in the barn, feeding the chickens, gathering eggs, picking vegetables from the garden, slopping the hogs and riding with Pop on the tractor out in the fields, playing with our cousins and our dog, catching lightning bugs until we all got tossed into the bathtub and finally fell asleep in one big bed, I’m sure we drove my mother crazy, but it was the best summer I can remember.

Three things stand out in my memory of that summer:  Sometime in June I was up in the attic with Mom and she was making herself crazy looking for some sheet music.  I got a weird wave of de jevu, opened up a cedar chest, lifted it out and asked, “Is this it?”

“Yes,” she said with a relived smile, “How did you know it was in there?”

“I didn’t,” I said, “I just felt this was the right place to find it.”

That was the first time I experienced my twisted psychic talent for finding lost stuff.  Through the years I found all kinds of stuff that other people have lost, but it never works for stuff that I’ve lost, that’s why I carry my wallet in my front pocket, clip my keys to my belt and own a half dozen pairs of glasses.

After breakfast on Sunday mornings, it was my job to go down into the chicken yard and chase down and catch the fat fryer that my grandmother picked out for lunch.  I’d eventually grab the damn flapping thing and carry it up the hill where she reached out with her right hand firmly gripping it by the head and with a quick flip of her wrist wrung its neck.  I’d then run after the headless body as it flipped and scratched its blind path down the hill, and bring it back to her.  She’d soak it in boiling water and together we would pluck its feathers and cut it up for the frying pan.

With that accomplished she’d get us all washed up and dressed for services at the Lowery Creek Community church.  I didn’t like getting dressed up, but I loved riding in the back of Pop’s 1949 Dodge pickup truck and singing the “Old Time Religion” hymns and the once a month ceremony of taking communion which consisted of saltine crackers and grape juice.  After church we went into Osgood for supplies: Maple syrup and chewing tobacco for Pop, Nehi strawberry soda, Dr. Beeman’s clove chewing gum and black licorice ropes for me.

Fried chicken, fresh vegetables, mashed potatoes and gravy, Angel cake and cold sweet iced tea for lunch followed by a good nap and another free afternoon running amuck with our cousins and by the time the sun went down, we were all ready for bed.  Sundays were always the best days on the farm.

The only times I didn’t care for on the farm were our visits to my father’s clan which comprise my second outstanding memory of that summer and every other time I got dragged to that place.  Mac’s large extended family owned a rocky scrap of poor land, where they lived in an old ramshackle brick farmhouse filled with very old decrepit people with no kids to play with, no central source of heat and no indoor plumbing.  The entire roost was run by short, round mother hen, Aunt Martha (Dad’s sister-in-law) who took care of her disabled husband as well as everyone else who showed up at the door.    Martha was my favorite from Mac’s family.  She made the best chocolate pie and chocolate peanut butter cake I’ve ever eaten and I always showed my appreciation by eating two pieces.  She in turn appreciated my recognition for her talents and for that reason she doted on me.

With no indoor plumbing, nature’s call was answered by peeing in the bushes until she called for defecation which required a trip to the outhouse, which for me was a short journey into hell.  I always tried to hold it until we got back to Pop’s house, but when we stayed overnight that wasn’t always possible.  The outhouse was a single holer with a dirt floor that stank of shit and lime.  It was dark even during the day, my feet dangled as I sat over the hole in the unpainted wooden seat and worst of all… that dark dank interior was draped with the dusty silken webs of spiders!!!!  They scrambled out of sight when you opened the door and sunlight pierced their den, but if you had to sit for any length of time, the eight legged beasties would crawl out onto their webs.  I held them off with a long switch, but it’s difficult to take a dump when you’re constantly looking over your shoulder for that dangling poisonous monster that you may have overlooked.  Where the hell is Tarzan when you need him?

My third great memory of that summer was a long day in late August.  Dad had returned to Indiana, supervised the move of the furniture and household goods and arrived at Pop’s farm to pack us up for the drive to Miami.  We were crazy happy to see him and we spent the day getting ready for the big trip south.  The next morning we woke up to a house in crisis: Pop had mowed his hay and alfalfa four days before and the weather report over the radio at breakfast predicted a cold front with major league thunderstorms for the evening hours.  Pop’s friends who owned the farms adjacent to his had planned to bale his hay and put it up that weekend, but now they had to do it all today before it rained.  The crew gathered by nine that morning, Dad and my older brother Bill pitched in and by ten all the men were in the field.

My cousins and I did what we could to help Mom, Aunt Edna and Grandma, prepare food for a dozen men.  I chased chickens, my cousins picked and cleaned vegetables while the women prepared and cooked a mountain of food.  The women and children ate quickly at one in the afternoon.  At two, half the crew of dusty sweating men washed up with well water and sat down at the make shift table in the side yard to eat their fill.  At three the second wave came in from the fields and they too feasted.  By sunset the rain began to fall and as the wind picked up, the whole crew arrived with the last wagon of baled hay which they hauled directly into the barn without unhitching the tractor.  In ten minutes lightning and thunder tore through the dusk sky covered with dark black clouds and sheets of wind driven rain and everyone went into the farmhouse to seek cover from the storm.

It was a quick moving front and the storms only lasted for a couple of hours.  Everybody ate sandwiches and drank coffee until it passed.  Half the men stood while others sat around the living room and dining room table where we witnessed the true American Dream: Neighbors and friends, most of whom had never graduated from high school, came together to work together to help my grandfather.  With that done they now talked together, agreeing to what they needed for the future and how they could work together to help one another meet those needs.

I was only seven-years-old and did not fully understand the priceless social value of their discussion and planning; but, I could feel it in the air, hear it in their jokes and laughter, and see it in their weary smiles.  Though they all “trusted in God,” and none of them spoke Latin, they understood “E Pluribus Unum” and “out of many they became one.  They didn’t need a congress to approve national motto to “trust their God” or understand that Latin platitude because they were the men and women who built the United States of America and they lived through its promise.

except for attributed photos and text all content is copyrighted  © 2012 JKM

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Comment by Christopher S. Dunn on March 4, 2013 at 4:08pm
JMac, I'm going to have to post a couple of photos for you (and anyone else that might be interested) I have a tractor in my yard that is the "cousin" to the one in your photo. Instead of a "B" model, mine's an "A" model, meaning wide wheels, not a narrow "crop row" tractor like that one. Oddly enough, her name's "Betty." Great little tale.

I loved going to my Great Granddad Smith's place in Northern Arkansas (and we went to Arkansas pretty much every summer until I was 12 or so as long as we lived CONUS [Continental United States]) because I got to spend time on a real farm, even if Great Grandpaw Smith was in a wheelchair ever since I can recall. But us kids, we'd play on the tractors, walk the four or so miles down the dirt road and across a little wooden bridge to Missouri to buy Yahoo Chocolate drinks and fieworks and then come back. We also would run out into the croplands that I don't know who plowed (*my grandpa didn't do it and my Uncle BIll didn't either) and play hide and seek in the sweltering Arkansas summer heat.

Brings back memories. Thanks.


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