As you may already know, I was raised in a small country town where
everyone was semi to permanently poor. That made growing up in the region
an adventure in itself.
In those days, no one cared if you had an outdoor privy or wore patches
on your clothes. Shoes were worn during school months only, and the
rest of the year-bare feet prevailed. (We considered callused soles
to be our "fair-weather" shoes since we could run on gravel and field
stubble without any pain.)
When we were small, my two younger brothers and I were bathed together
in a galvanized washtub set smack-dab in the middle of Mom's kitchen.
In winter months, she would put extra wood in the firebox of the stove
to warm the oven, then open the door to let the heat escape and radiate
throughout the kitchen/bathing room. Eventually, age and modesty changed
this ritual. (Plus, we got indoor plumbing when I was eleven.)
Everyone had to pitch in from youngest to eldest with assigned chores
to keep life running smoothly in those days, and literally to have enough
food to eat. We kids learned how to muck out stalls, milk cows, get
feed to animals (winter & summer,) pitch hay, drive farm equipment,
help with wrapping meat on kill day, pick fruit and vegetables, can
and preserve foods, etc.
We had great fun too. Before the phrase, "Free Spirit" was coined, kids
in rural America lived it! We were as wild and free as the birds and
bees. We roamed wherever we pleased, and had no fears whatsoever. We
didn't have to be warned about being alone on a dark street, (there
was only ONE street in our town, and it was well lit.) There were no
worries about pedophiles kidnapping or abusing children back then. People
minded their own business, and handled their own problems. When needed,
swift punishment ensued for serious infractions of any rules of the
moral or civil kind both in the home, and by our own "Town Clown," the
local sheriff. All authority from your elders and teachers was respected
without question-and was issued for your good!
Playing "pretend" and "make believe" games were what dreams were made
of. They built strong character, and a creative mind. For instance,
my brothers and I discovered if we walked one mile to the city dump
with a wrench and screwdriver, (borrowed from Dad's tool box without
permission,) we could find real neat stuff, and build a go-cart. Several
more trips to that hallowed ground rendered parts to assemble a miss-matched
bicycle. We never owned a "store-bought" bike. Believing in Santa was
not encouraged in our house since Dad would announce just before Christmas
each year, "I'm Santa Claus, and this year Santa's broke!" He wasn't
kidding, and our meager gifts proved it, but we were just as excited
at the holidays as kids are today with an exorbitant amount of presents
under the tree.
Snows were thirty to sixty feet deep in the woods during winter months,
so Dad's logging operation was always shut down, and he was too proud
to receive unemployment benefits. That meant everything we could raise,
can, or preserve, we did just to ensure survival till spring. Each fall,
we kids helped can at least three to four hundred quarts of various
fruits, vegetables, and meats, plus, spuds, carrots, and onions we harvested
were taken to the root cellar. Next we butchered a pig, and prepared
it for freezing.
came the "chicken brigade." Now, if you've never killed and picked thirty
to forty chickens in one day, I can tell you it's a job right up there
with diggin' ditches!
Here's how it was done: First, Dad ran down a few fat hens in the coop,
laid their necks across our old choppin' block, cut their heads off
with one swift swing of the axe, and released them to flop about in
the field. We kids gathered their lifeless bodies into the wheelbarrow
and took them up to the house. We then rolled our pant legs up over
the knee, set on chairs encircling two tubs of boiling hot water on
the back porch, and started dunkin' and pickin.' After the old hens
were de-feathered, Dad would light a newspaper on fire to singe off
the pinfeathers before gutting and cleaning them. We then double wrapped
each one in butcher paper, and took the whole batch to a rented cold-storage
unit in town. I can smell those wet, stinkin' feathers and bloody chicken
carcasses yet, and remember well the backbreaking work it entailed.
By early March, the snows were still deep, and the cupboards were gettin'
as bare as Old Mother Hubbard's, (we sure could relate to that fairytale!)
That's when I figured out "poaching" did not mean coddling an egg! What
it did mean was survival! Another name for it was, "Flashlight Huntin'!"
How it worked was: On a cold winter's night when the whole family was
sick of eating chicken or brown beans and pork, Dad and Uncle Bob would
leave the house after dark with a rifle, hunting knife, and flashlight.
They drove to parts unknown, (especially to the game warden,) and bagged
a deer. Upon their return, they looked like they'd wrestled a Grizzly.
There was blood up to their elbows, and a hairless, headless, gutless
deer securely hidden in the car trunk. (He sure didn't resemble Bambi
anymore!) Mom was quite creative with the many ways she could make venison
taste like beef, but when all was said and done, it was strictly good
ol' survival food and not much more.
Finally, the warm days of summer would arrive. We kids found lots of
entertaining ways to busy ourselves, and never let Mom catch us loitering.
The word "bored" never crossed our lips or she would put a hoe in our
hands, and send us directly to the garden to work in the hot, blistering
We lived in swimsuits with shorts pulled over the top as we rode our
rickety bikes, or ran barefoot on hot pavement from one neighboring
farm to the next playing with friends.
Meeting up with pals, we usually floated down the irrigation ditch with
various water snakes passing us by, or jumped off the top fence rail
onto an unsuspecting horse to ride bareback across the fields. We returned
home only when hungry, but rarely let Mom know we were around. Unbeknownst
to her, a saltshaker was kept in the barn to season stolen delicacies
from her garden-rhubarb, sun-ripened tomatoes, or fresh peas. During
quiet moments, we kids sat beneath shady elms in the front yard, peeling
dried strips of skin from each other's sunburned backs.
Those were the carefree days of country living we still reminisce about
at family gatherings. Times were tough but we youngsters had no real
concerns. I only wish today's youth had it as GOOD as we did on a little
farm in Twisp, Washington back in the nineteen fifties. Granny Tam
Check out this poem I chose to depict one of our chores in the "Good
I know there ain't a worse
nor anything more stinkin',
pickin' chickens on a fall day-
it could drive a man to drinkin'.
If ya don't know of the how to,
an' you're wonderin' at my meanin',
I'll describe here what we're doin'-
fruits of labor that we're gleanin'...
Ya sneak out to the hen house
in wee hours while they're roostin',
an' grab those bony feet,
give their bodies quite a boostin'.
They cackle an' they cluck a bit
tryin' to warn their friends-
the ones that ain't been caught
are more prone to sleepin' in.
Ya take em to the choppin' block
an' one hen at a time,
stretch their necks across it
holdin' legs-not their behind.
One swift swing of that old axe,
the hen's head hits the ground,
an' when ya turn her body loose
it flips 'n flops around.
About that time, the sun comes up
an' ya gather 'em like wheat,
pile 'em in the ol' wheelbarrow,
thinkin' they'll be good to eat.
The kids are gettin' ready
on the porch joined to the house,
a couple of the neighbors help,
an' of course, my darlin' spouse.
Tubs steam with boilin' water,
galvanized-they sure ain't tin,
pants are rolled above the knee,
chairs close an' touchin' shins.
No rest will be forth comin',
our backs will feel the ache,
bendin' over, pullin' feathers,
only takin' one short break.
The smell of those wet feathers,
the lice an' dirt they hold,
can turn a person's stomach
if ya ain't real strong 'n bold.
As soon as they're de-feathered-
don't resemble livin' chickens,
we pass 'em right on down the line
to the arson who ain't pickin'.
He strikes a match to papers
to singe pinfeathers off-
soon the room fills up with smoke
an' we all begin to cough.
Then comes the really stinkin' part,
it sure does make a mess
when you're guttin' thirty chickens,
swearin' not to kill the rest.
Finish wrappin' all the varmints,
take 'em to the locker-freezer,
hopin' you can pay the debt
of rent to that old geezer.
By nightfall, you're plum' tuckered,
smell of chicken blood 'n guts-
ya wonder if it's worth the time
or if you're just plain nuts.
But come winter when the snows are deep
an' Ma's fryin' up that chicken,
you'll sure be glad ya done the work
'cause them birds are finger-lickin'.
"God bless your little pea-pickin hearts,"
(Quote from Tennessee Ernie