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The chicken business

First-Person

Posted: August 17, 2014 2:00 a.m.
Updated: August 17, 2014 2:00 a.m.
 

Dave and I were 12 or so when we decided chickens were the wave of the future.

It was one of those mellow Southern California afternoons when we couldn’t decide what to do.

Squatting in Dave’s back yard, we indulged in our sure-fire “Let’s get something goin’ routine” by alternately suggesting exciting endeavors.

“Big army,” Dave uttered.

I scowled. “Badminton?”

“Little army?” He was in a combative mood that day.

“Indians?”

“Ride our bikes to the donut shop?”

Our imagination exhausted, a silence settled over us like the fine silt that covered the back yard. Wielding a twig like a fencer’s foil, I traced geometric patterns in the dust.

Dave exhumed a rock from the ground and turned it over and over, studying every crevice as the stone tumbled in his palm. The seconds slowly plucked themselves from the realm of the future and hunkered into history.

“Chickens,” Dave murmured.

“What?”

“Chickens. Let’s raise chicks and sell eggs to the neighbors. We’ll be rich!”

“How long does it take before a chicken starts laying eggs?” I asked.

“Oh, maybe six months or so,” Dave guessed.

“Sheee-it! That’s forever!”

He stood, uncoiled his skinny frame and flung the rock into a nearby shrub.

“Billy, the egg business is a good business.” (He always spoke of such matters as if he’d been doing it for years).

“But we don’t have much dough. I think the butchering age for fryers is less, much less. No more than a coupla months. Maybe we could butcher half to get some quick money and then raise the other half for eggs.”

Like a candle’s glimmer on a moonless night, the idea began to penetrate my reluctant mind. Chickens – kinda like ranching.

I stood, spun on my heel and took several exaggerated steps to see if strutting like a rancher felt good. It did. I jammed my hands deep into the pockets of my jeans to see if slouching like a rancher felt good. It did.

Visions of vast flocks swirled in my head, and the thunder of endless clucking throats assailed my ears. “How many?” I asked.

“Huh?” blurted Dave, jarred from his own reveries.

“How many chickens?”

“Oh. Hundreds. Maybe thousands!”
Thus it came to pass; we embraced the chicken business. We never had thousands, but hundreds became a reality. Not right away of course.

After pooling our meager resources and pedaling our bikes to the feed store, we found we could afford 20 chicks (20 cents apiece) and 10 pounds of feed.

With boundless pride, we cradled the yellow balls of fuzz as we rode 12 blocks back to “The Ranch.”

We were unaware that our suburb was zoned R-1 (no chickens), but saw our parents grimace at the sight and mutter, “Another phase.” Dave’s parents lost – we set up ranching in his back yard, not mine.

That night, I slipped into my cool bed and, in the zeal of youth, saw a limitless future as a rancher. As I slipped into his domain, the sandman smiled and blessed me with rousing dreams of bold chicken adventures.

We soon learned our chicks had a voracious appetite, so Dave and I funded our feed bin by rummaging through the neighbor’s trashcans salvaging bottles.

We redeemed them for a nickel apiece at the Downey paint store where they sold the glass bottles filled with paint thinner. In those days, we didn’t have OSHA protecting us from potential Molotov cocktails.

Soon after embarking on this side business, I overheard my father say to a friend, “Oh, those kids who rummage in trash cans? Nope. I don’t know them.”

Unlike most of our childhood adventures, we persisted with the ranch. Using scrap lumber, we built a coop for the younger birds and fenced in a large area for the older ones.

We soon expanded and moved our butchering operations into my father’s lath house. It was dank, being overgrown with ivy, but possessed useful features: two gas burners and a concrete table tucked into the rambling foliage.

We rolled a huge pepper tree log in front of the stove, turned it on end and stuck two large nails side by side to resemble closely spaced goal posts. This served to stretch the chicken’s necks while we dispatched them to fryer heaven with a machete.

The first bird was a true test of our manliness; I suspect Dave wanted to vomit as much as I when he severed the first neck. The bird gushed enough blood to float a small dingy.

Dave was so startled that he released the chicken, which flew off like a headless condor. Over time, however, we became suitably calloused.

We’d boil a large pot of water on the burner, dunk the birds so we could pluck their feathers and dress them out on the concrete table. Dave’s mother instructed us on avian anatomy, and today, I can still cut up a fryer in record time.

Our marketing efforts were crude. Donning soulful faces, we’d go door to door in the neighborhood offering chickens, drawn or dismembered, guaranteed fresh.

Some customers, like the wealthy Mrs. Burridge next door, would insist on selecting her evening meal while it was on the hoof – in this case on its last legs. Two hours later, we’d deliver dinner to her door with thumbs hooked in our belt loops just like true ranchers.

Flush with cash and reliable customers, we forsook eggs altogether. Today’s politicians would call us flip-floppers, but I think more in terms of a mid-course correction.

The beginning of the end came on a dark and stormy night (yes, I know it’s trite). We had just purchased another batch of 50 chicks (maybe 100, I don’t remember) and pedaled home pelted by a drenching rain.

Lacking a waterproof shelter for the fragile chicks, Dave and I decided to house them in the kneehole of my bedroom desk.

We spread newspapers, put in a desk lamp for warmth and enclosed the entire proceedings with the fireplace screen snatched from the living room.

My parents came home from shopping, took one glance at the rapidly accumulating droppings covering the newspaper, slapped their foreheads and settled into industrial strength martinis.

That night, my mother went into labor with my sister. The chicks survived the night and were ushered into their normal coop the following morning.

Soon after, Dave and I learned about coccidiosis, a highly contagious poultry disease, always fatal. Our entire flock was wiped out. It was a hard lesson of life.

We dug a pit in Dave’s back yard and tossed the carcasses, layered by lime, into the hole. We stood silently with arms crossed and pondered our future as non-ranchers.

I don’t know about Dave, but I think that was when I began to doubt the existence of God.

But kids are resilient. Dave pursued his entrepreneurial bent by taking a newspaper route, and I followed suit. The paper was a throw-a-way called the Herald American and it led me to discover a hidden side of my persona. But that’s another tale.

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