Some stories evolve until it’s impossible to separate truth from fiction. This may be one of those stories. My first paying job was gathering eggs from a dozen or so White Leghorns who lived in our backyard. That’s how I learned you can’t reason with a chicken.
Our frame henhouse was 16 feet long and 10 feet wide. Wire cages with pine straw bedding and open fronts were mounted on the short north wall. A two-tiered roosting perch ran the full length on the longer west side. In the back corner a small opening allowed access to the great outdoors.
Their fenced yard was about 50 feet long on all four sides, providing plenty of room for the few layers we had. A small peach tree, which never bore fruit, had limbs low enough a hen with even a smidgen of ambition could reach one near the bottom. Occasionally an industrious chicken would make it to the top, escape over the eight-foot fence, then look for a way to get back inside. Chickens can be rather indecisive.
My daily routine was to put ground corn from Giles & Hodge Purina in the round metal feeder, make sure their water bowl was clean and full, then gather the eggs. I was paid a penny per egg, which totaled close to a dollar by the Saturday payoffs. It was easy work and good money for a seven-year-old.
After a few weeks on the job, Daddy began rounding my earnings up to a dollar. I think he realized I was struggling with how much to put in the offering plate on Sundays. With a dollar I knew to give a dime, but odd amounts like 87 cents presented a challenge. I tried not to exceed the minimum requirement except maybe for Lottie Moon or Annie Armstrong.
Those chickens and I got along fine most of the time. In addition to a steady income, I enjoyed the fringe benefit of scrambled eggs six mornings a week. We had cereal on Sundays since that was Mama’s day off. Serving cereal for breakfast allowed her to leisurely cook a big dinner for us and the preacher’s family before she left to teach Sunday School.
A rooster had lived on our farm until he made a fatal mistake of attacking my older brother, Jimmy, who was six at the time. Although I was too young to remember the rooster, some of the hens had fond recollections. Every now and then one of them would guard a warm egg beneath her in hopes of raising a family. Those setting hens would stubbornly refuse to let me retrieve their unhatchable eggs.
When a kid is eye level with a chicken, their razor-sharp beaks look like an invitation to disfigurement. They stare intensely with unblinking eyes while erratically cocking their heads in a uniquely disturbing manner. I figured they were hoping to blind me or maybe worse. That’s why I used a little red stick to encourage them to follow the rules.
It was a small round stick that had once been attached to a popper, a toy which made a popping sound as the wheels rolled. The clear plastic bubble had broken when I tried to ride it, but the surviving stick was perfect for sliding beneath uncooperative hens. I could wiggle it around and lift them up enough they would reluctantly stretch their wings and make the short hop to the ground.
That system worked perfectly until one day when a hen went rogue. I explained as reasonably as possible that her food and lodging were a tradeoff for eggs, but she wouldn’t budge. Ever so gently I pried until she finally stood. Rather than harmlessly gliding toward the ground, however, she flew straight at my bare head. I took a step back and swung in self-defense. She squawked one time and died. The very next afternoon I promptly reported the discovery of a dead chicken.
I’ve heard folks from earlier generations say death comes in threes. Well, that’s how it was at our house. After the third casualty from undetermined causes, Mama decided to start buying our eggs in town. She began thinning our flock one at a time, ringing their necks with a windup which launched them skyward for twenty feet or so. It was quite a year for dumplings but took a while for me to appreciate the lessons with which they were seasoned.
Gathering eggs is what helped me understand there are some critters you can’t reason with. Usually, it’s best not to waste time trying. And it’s where I stumbled upon a principle that can be beneficial but warrants great discretion. I learned from those setting hens that even when reason is sure to fail, sometimes a little red stick will prevail.