We always knew when Dad and Mom had a fight. No one ever said anything, there were no raised voices, but the atmosphere in the house changed so that we all knew. It could be the heavy silence between them, or the silence of an otherwise gregarious father, or the concern and sadness in the face of a normally smiling mother. Or it could be big sister Barbara’s lowered voice and guarded conversation. Simply, we knew it was there.
Things were not going well financially. What little my father earned, he kept mostly for himself, and Mom did what she could to earn money for the family. Mostly, as I remember, she did this by raising chickens. Sometimes there were laying hens and we sold eggs door to door in the nearby towns. I must have cut a rather pathetic figure, meekly knocking on a stranger’s door and asking if they wanted to buy fresh eggs. Or sometimes there were chickens raised to sell for food, in which case strangers came to our door, responding to a sign at the end of the lane. Then we had to catch a couple of good looking pullets or roosters by the legs, tie them up and throw them in the customer’s car trunk. We never knew exactly what happened after that – only that a couple more chickens were sold and Mom had some money.
But to raise chickens required some limited capital investment, and Mom and Dad’s differences sometimes interfered with this. Before you could fatten the young ones to sell for meat or keep long enough to become laying hens, we needed to buy the chicken feed and ground oyster shells for calcium. If Mom had kept enough from egg or chicken sales, things were fine; if not, Dad was required to invest in the enterprise, often reluctantly. And if things were tough between them, he didn’t.
Once, we had gone through the entire process for raising chickens for sale – first ordering the chicks, which miraculously came in the mail straight to the local post office. Little fuzzy chirping, cheeping little creatures that had to be fed, watered and kept warm. Chicken mash was fed to them from flat containers, and they were watered from contrivances involving an inverted Mason jar full of water. They were kept warm by an electric light bulb and reflector dangling above them. Thus were they nurtured and fed and coaxed toward avian adolescence and adulthood to be sold as food or if kept long enough, as a source of food. There were the occasional casualties – the chick smaller than the rest, who gradually starved to death because of his inability to get close to the food, and, weakening, became further unable and finally expired. Or there was the chick which was different colored than the rest, who was picked on because of the difference and had to be clever to get the food he wanted, and who maybe became stronger doing so much running away from the rest.
One such chicken, a black chick in a litter of yellow, actually became a pet of sorts. Hard to believe that that little bird brain could so be trained but he actually came when called. Hollering “Blackie” would cause him to emerge from the bushes and come toward you to get picked up and petted, or to receive a dish of more special food served in a protected area like under an overturned crate.
But once when a flock of chickens was on its way to adulthood, in that stage of growing feathers and shedding the fuzz, that dreadful time in our family came again and we could all feel it. The air was heavy with apprehension, fear and questioning. We whispered to each other as if afraid that the sound of our voices would make things worse. Gradually it became clear that Mom had no more money for feed and Dad wasn’t going to help. And there were fifty plus ravenous chickens out in the chicken house with no food.
Chickens are excitable creatures. Even in the best and most relaxed of circumstances, a suddenly opened door or sudden noise will cause them cackle excitedly and to flap excitedly into the air raising clouds of noxious chicken house bedding and manure dust. So an egg gatherer or chicken feeder or waterer had to move slowly and stealthily. Hungry chickens who had ran out of food were even more excitable and ran toward their feeding dishes as they were newly supplied. Thirsty chickens knew when the water came and crowded madly around the waterers to get it as well.
But the behavior of our starving chickens was horrifying. A shadow on the window caused them to flock toward it and fly madly at the window and flap their wings against it. They ran wildly toward an opening door, in anticipation of feed. The slightest noise caused wild excitement of the expectation of food. The horror and the pity of this behavior in the face of hopelessness I never forgot. All of us felt helpless, afraid to get involved in why there was no feed, fearful of the fury of Dad, if challenged or questioned, or if sympathizing or taking sides with Mom. But there they were – chickens slowly starving to death and nothing offered for their relief. Whether there really was no money, or whether it just was refused for the purpose of feeding the chickens, we never knew. All we knew was that these creatures were starving to death.
Dad’s frequent absence at that time, and our collective pity and concern for the horrible plight of our chickens forced a decision. With Mom’s permission, I connected the garden hose to the exhaust pipe of our 51 Chevy pickup and ran it to the door of the chicken house. The mad activity of starving chickens at these signs of nearby movement, was quieted little by little as they succumbed to the poisonous exhaust and one by one flopped down to stillness. After an hour or so, a quick look inside revealed piles of prostrate, white feathered forms everywhere and no movement at all.
The dead chickens then had to be buried and that was my job also. After digging several large holes in the nearby cornfield, I loaded these dead chicken carcasses into a wheelbarrow and trip by trip dumped them into the holes to be buried. Having lifted many healthy chickens, it was terrible to see how little these dead creatures weighed. To avoid touching them, I used a pitchfork to load them and was surprised to see how easily the tines passed through the pitiful thin bodies – feathers, skin and bones, little more.
The job finished, the next thing to do was to try to start over and put this dreadful incident in the past. The situation between Mom and Dad seemed to get better, now that the chickens were gone. Although the traumatic incident remained with us for many years, this remained the major means for Mom to make money. And we waited for another shipment of little chicks to arrive.