Janet Sheridan: A lifetime with chickens
My recent column about eggs inspired me to reflect on chickens. During my childhood and youth, I hung out with them.
Annually, students at Lake Shore Elementary straggled in a limp line to Rigtrup’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 to 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.
As one of my first household chores, I helped Mom pluck and clean the aging hen selected to feed us. I felt a scientific interest in the entire procedure, even when my brother, Bob, mangled the job of chopping off their heads.
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He stretched the chicken’s neck on top of a tree stump in the barnyard, gave a mighty whack with a hatchet he never sharpened, and sometimes maimed rather than murdered. Once he cut a head off halfway, and the chicken escaped.
I shrieked and he laughed as it ran with head flopping. After we calmed down, Bob commented that the only thing funnier was when his friend’s dad tried to slaughter a hog. I didn’t ask.
Our neighbors, the Ander-
sons, gave me my first moneymaking job as assistant egg-gatherer for their daughter, Sheila, who was 8 to my 6. 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.
My best friend during my teenage years, Charlie, lived on a chicken farm that sold eggs to supermarkets. Her father, a look-alike for his chickens, sometimes hired me to work with Charlie gathering, cleaning and candling eggs.
As we worked, he imparted useful information — did we know that the world’s oldest chicken died of heart failure at age 16?
When I was 13, 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 left side and elbow and fanned its wing with my right 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, 50 cents an hour, and sometimes the handsome Sterling McKell was home on leave from the Army and would help. I combed my hair on those days.
Chickens also provided employment for me in high school. I worked at the Utah Poultry and Farmers Cooperative afternoons and weekends. I weighed grain trucks, rang up chicken-nurturing products, counted 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 no fellow students would stop in.
Once I started college, I abandoned chickens and found more conventional jobs.
Now all I do with chickens is eat them. I feel bad about that.
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Craig Middle School staff will continue to wear masks this week, and two other schools in the district are close to doing the same, according to numbers from the Moffat County School District’s COVID-19 dashboard.