First Person / The hens got spoiled, the roosters got broiled and we survived

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If you Google the subject of raising chickens in urban backyards, you'll find that this has become a popular activity. Three or four hens can provide a couple of freshly laid eggs a day and valuable fertilizer for the garden. It combines practicality with a bit of back-to-the-earth romanticism -- in contrast to the factory farms where birds are jammed together, living out their lives in circumstances painfully different from those that Farmer Jones provides in children's storybooks. I grew up in a world somewhere between these extremes.

In the spring of 1930, six months after the market crash that launched the Great Depression, my parents moved from a Boston suburb to a small town 25 miles from the city. With two partners they bought a 43-acre farm and began to raise chickens. I was almost three, my sister was a baby.

Looking back, I think of my parents as pioneers, striking out in a direction very different from anything their families had done. My grandparents all came from Eastern Europe in the 1880s and '90s and settled in the city. None had been farmers. In fact, in Eastern Europe in the 19th century, Jews usually were prohibited from owning land.

We had about 4,000 birds, initially all White Leghorns, though Rhode Island Reds were added later. They came as day-old chicks, sometimes from a local hatchery, sometimes arriving by train. They were packed in big flat boxes divided into four sections, 25 chicks to a section. Sometimes I went with my father to pick them up. Their little orange beaks poked out of holes and their shrill voices peeped incessantly.

At first they lived in a long, one-story brooder house. Each had a little room -- a brooder stove surrounded by cardboard.

When I was old enough, I helped my father lift each tiny feathered body from the delivery box and set it down in each room on newspaper sprinkled with grain. Their sharp beaks and toes pricked our hands and their bodies felt like a nest of fragile bones inside their downy coats. With no prior instruction, the chicks pecked up the grain and drank water from upside-down bottles.

As they grew, my father enlarged each cardboard circle and replaced the newspaper with peat moss. Eventually, when the weather warmed, the cardboard would be dispensed with and the chicks could go out through little trap doors to a wire run, feeling the sun and air on the feathers that were displacing their fluffy golden down.

My father bought only females but occasionally a male would slip through the sorting process and raise his juvenile cockadoodle-do to the sky. This doomed him to an early death, as my father would sell him as a broiler.

No tears from us. That's just the way it was for boy chickens who weren't wanted for their other talents. "My foolish virgins," my father called the hens.

Next stop after the brooder house was a summer outdoors in large fenced fields that we called the range. The growing pullets pecked worms and bugs to supplement their diet of scientifically prepared mash, and they slept in tin-roofed coops. There were villains in this outdoor paradise, though -- crows and weasels would occasionally pounce on a weaker member of the flock and carry it off.

During that first summer, the pullets were sometimes shooed into their coops at dusk and locked in for the night. In the early dawn, I'd crawl out of bed and join my father and his crew -- usually the hired man and a boy or two -- for a kind of chicken medical clinic.

One of the boys crawled into the coop, grabbed three or four birds by the legs, then handed them out to an assembly line. My father was the doctor. One of us would present the chicken, rump first, and he would inoculate it against chicken pox (yes, chicken pox) and bronchitis.

After an outbreak of thievery in our area, my father also tattooed each chicken with a number issued by the state; this allowed him to tack warning posters on trees in hopes of deterring robbers.

One of us held the chicken, wing stretched out, and he would pluck a few feathers, smear ink on the skin with his thumb and clamp the blackened spot with a device that tattooed the number. The last person in line would drop the chicken to the ground and she would run off, squawking and fluffing her feathers and looking highly indignant, like a plump matron who's just heard a distasteful joke.

One year there was an outbreak of cannibalism. Though their prescribed food is vegetarian, chickens have an unfortunate taste for blood. If one of them is injured, her sisters set upon her.

This is why some smart person invented tiny metal spectacles that could be fixed permanently in place with a pin through a hen's beak so she couldn't see her bleeding sisters. My father added this procedure to the medical assembly line. A flock of spectacled chickens looks like a gathering of little old ladies peering over their glasses, or perhaps a conference of professors.

As the sun rose and the air grew warm, the novelty of vaccination mornings wore off and we longed for the breakfast break. Then it was trudging back to the field to finish the remaining coops. Phew! Done!

At the end of the summer, my father and his assistants scooped up the hens and transported them in crates to the barns where they would spend the rest of their lives in big rooms with windows open to the outdoors and nests against the walls. Electric lights lengthened their days, encouraging them to eat, drink, lay eggs and earn their keep, with plenty of time for cackling socializing.

My father and his partner each had routes in Boston suburbs, delivering eggs and the occasional chicken to customers. During school vacations, I went with him.

We didn't have a truck, so the eggs that I had helped to collect, clean, weigh and pack in boxes would be stacked on the back seat of our Chevrolet. It was an all-day job, carrying eggs to the kitchen doors of suburban houses or up the stairs of apartment buildings that smelled of chicken soup and chopped liver.

After each delivery, my father made notes in his account book to record accounts payable and future orders. Then we drove home to the farm that was hidden from the street by a row of tall pines, where my mother and my sister and our supper waited.

This was the business that sustained us until my father's early death at 57, making my mother a widow at 47; I was 20, my sister 18.

This was the place that nourished my growing up with the ever-changing beauty of the New England countryside, with books and music, the lively conversation of my parents' city friends and the embrace of our extended family.

This was the place that sent me off to college and beyond.

And this was the place that taught me the honor of work and respect for those who did it.

opinion_commentary

Joan Brest Friedberg is a retired University of Pittsburgh professor of English (jlbf@ verizon.net).


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