I have a history with chickens. Not a good history either. As a matter of fact, the appearance of a leg of chicken on my plate brings me flashbacks of a long ago visit to my great grandmother’s farm during one of our frequent trips to Smithville to visit.
We called our great grandmother Ganny. Her real name was Zelma Lizzie Christine Franz Kunkel. My older cousin inspired the name Ganny since he was the oldest of our generation. There wasn’t anything magical about her nickname. She was forever known as Ganny because my cousin was still learning to talk and could not say Granny. So Ganny it was.
Ganny and Grandpa Kunkel lived down the road from my grandparents, nearby like so many rural families seem to settle. Ganny and Grandpa had a farm with a lot of the same attractions as my grandparents, with the addition of a few novelties like bee hives and chickens.
Bees would sting, so we admired the white box-like hives from a distance and were lucky enough to take home huge jars of honey with the comb inside. I remember the sticky sweetness and gazing into the half opaque golden goo trying to inspect the strange looking honeycomb, wondering how bees ever managed to create such a thing.
The chickens were more fun. Chickens laid eggs, and we liked to collect the eggs. The chicken house was located inside a wire pen designed to keep out raccoons and other predators. The unpainted, weather worn shed housed numerous nesting boxes inside for the hens to make their nests.
The nests always contained a glass egg. These glass eggs had a purpose and it wasn’t just for looks or to encourage the hens. Snakes like to eat bird eggs. Chickens are birds. Therefore snakes will eat chicken eggs, not a great thing if you want the eggs for human consumption! The hope is, a marauding snake will eat the glass egg and not be able to digest it rather than gobbling up one of the real eggs, thus ridding the farm of a thieving snake! At least, that was what I was told the times I proudly carried the glass egg to the house to show Ganny.
One problem with chickens, I found out the hard way, is that chickens come complete with chicken lice. We were city kids and didn’t have much experience with things like lice, having been lucky enough to escape any lice infestations at our school. Country kids would have known better than to try what we did on one visit trying to drum up excitement.
The chicken coop suited our purposes perfectly for a game of “house” or “family” or whatever you want to call our role-playing activity. The structure was there and all we had to do was shop our imaginations for the amenities. We had quite the household set up when one of the grownups spotted us.
“What are you girls doing! Y’all will be covered with chicken lice!”
Our game of house ended abruptly with an allover body search to pluck off the small whitish insects and later bath to ensure the elimination of the critters. I remember being humiliated beyond words at the thought of being covered with lice. I was too old to be caught playing house in the first place, and now I had bugs!
To this day, I can’t pick up a pretty bird feather off the ground without examining it closely for lice. I can’t even go outside in the country without feeling suspicious itching! What’s worse, that’s not the only phobia I was to develop from Ganny’s chickens!
I developed a fear of zombies, the walking dead! All because of these darned chickens!
We bailed out of the car one afternoon not quite sure what was in store. The grownups had said something about “putting up” chickens and guineas. We imagined they were loose from their pen and needed to be shut away. We thought it was odd as we approached to chicken house that the chickens all seemed to be cooped up in the pen.
Grandpa Kunkel approached the pen as we did, and greeted us by waving his weathered, rusty farm axe. We didn’t think too much of it. Grandpa was always toting tools around. He slung the axe head into a stump where it stuck, quivering with the impact, then headed to the pen a few feet away.
He unlatched the wire gate and entered the pen, emerging a few minutes later hanging onto a flapping chicken by its legs. The bird fluttered wildly trying to escape, but Grandpa held on and latched the gate, then carried it over to the stump.
Next, horror of horrors to our city bred eyes, Grandpa slung the chicken’s head across the stump to stun it just a bit, raised the axe, and brought it down across the animal’s neck, severing its head as effectively as a guillotine. Blood spurted from the severed neck as he tossed the bird to the side, where it flapped uselessly and tried to rise.
The scene was an utter massacre, out of my worst nightmares. Chicken after chicken was dispatched. Some even ran a few feeble steps before finally succumbing to their fate. The awfulness was more in watching their life ebb away than anything. How could something continue to run without a head? It seemed macabre.
Terrible as it was, we couldn’t move away, watching the killing from a safe distance. I didn’t want to get too close to all the blood and feathers.
Grandpa snatched yet another chicken, hacked the head off, then threw it aside. This chicken didn’t plan on dying I don’t guess, because as soon as it hit the ground it somehow found its feet and ran---straight toward me!
What was there to do but run? I must have set a new land speed record as my legs carried me in the other direction, chicken at my heels. I ran toward the cars we’d parked nearby and turned to round the back of the vehicle.
The chicken followed. I ran the other direction back to the front of the car, chicken still following, and finally dove onto the hood ignoring the warnings of my father not to dent the metal!
Finally! Safe! I watched from my perch as the chicken ran another fifteen feet before finally running out of umph, crumbling into a heap of feathers on the ground. I felt a little sorry for it, dying, after such a valiant attempt to stay alive, but the zombie effect overrode my pity for the beast.
Fear of zombies was the second phobia I mentioned. Did I say there was a third? The third was developed in the next phase of “putting up” chickens. We kids thought we were through with the adventure when the last chicken was beheaded. Wrong.
The best fun was yet to come. We weren’t nearly done “putting up” the birds. Our mothers pointed us to an area past the chicken coop equipped with rough wood stools and tables. We were each to take a seat at the station where a dead chicken was delivered to each of our tables.
Frozen chickens do not come with feathers intact. Before the “putting up” or freezing could be done, the feathers had to come off. These chickens had to be plucked, or yanked out of the follicle on the skin until no more feathers remain. I think the chickens were dipped into boiling water to help loosen the feathers before we plucked them, so the lice issue wasn’t a problem.
We were each responsible to pluck two chickens before we could claim we were finished. What torture. A bloody, wet chicken with a horrible neck wound, and we had to pluck out the feathers. I doubt we could have dreamed up a worse task if we had tried.
I’m not sure to this day which of the grownups devised this chore to entertain a pack of city kids. No one ever admitted to hatching the idea, but I’m pretty sure my cousins still have a few flashbacks too when they go through the chicken section in the supermarket or make a stop at a fried chicken house for lunch.
So much for any diets that tell me to eat lots of chicken. Not this girl!