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Wednesday, 24 February 2010

My Life with Chickens

By Lyn Burnstine of The Lynamber Times

My life with the chickens began, strangely enough, in an upstairs apartment on Main Street! When I was a child, one often saw pastel-dyed baby chicks and bunnies for sale at Easter time. I’m sure the custom died out because of inhumane results but while it lasted, it provided a thrill for two little girls - country girls by nature - stuck in the winter in an apartment with only the railroad right-of-way and a library park, a short distance away, for playgrounds.

We kept the chicks in a cardboard box and took them out for runs around the apartment - fondling. They quickly accepted us, my sister and me, as their mothers and would come running excitedly when we called.

In the summer, our horizons widened with the move to our grandparents’ farm seven miles out in the country and that, of course, was the eventual destination of those chicks as they grew to gangly adolescence. Their emerging white feathers left just a tinge of remaining color in their down - just enough that we could still identify them and call them by name. Pinky, Greeny, Bluey, Yellowy (such imagination) - two were mine and two my sister’s.

All ended up in the stew pot: as farm children, we understood that cycle of life and death. The only dispensation was that they were allowed to live longer than the untamed chickens.

When we moved from southern to central Illinois (my father having given up his photographic studio to return to teaching during World War II), we moved to a real house with a real yard. Shortly, the livestock began to accrue: a big-eyed Jersey cow to supply us with milk, cream, butter and cottage cheese, and chickens to provide eggs and meat.

My father, by then a building trades and industrial arts teacher, used his skills to build a “penthouse” for those chickens. It was two-storied, with the bottom floor surrounded by chicken wire so the chicks could be on the grass during the day, with a ramp up to an enclosed top story for nighttime roosting. The peaked roof, or lid, was hinged in the middle so you could prop one-half of it up with a stick. You could then stick your head in and play with the chicks, which I did for hours on end.

One fateful day, however, the stick came loose while my head was poised inside and the roof came crashing down pinning my glasses and my eyes between the upright wall and the roof. My glasses were crushed and glass ground into my eyebrows.

Fortunately, when I stopped shrieking so my parents could remove the blood and glass, my eyes were found to be undamaged but my dignity was severely wounded! Since I couldn’t see a thing without glasses, I had to stay home from school until they were repaired. It didn’t help my dignity one bit to have to explain to friends and teachers that the lid of the chicken coop fell on my head.

Each year as those peeps grew into robust Rhode Island Red hens and roosters, I chose my favorite as a pet. Nicky, a rooster, was so tamed by my constant petting and carrying around that he would “stay” on command - on the back stoop - when I went in to eat my supper. He responded to his name with a resounding crow when I, returning from school, called from the end of the lane – Nick-ee!

When I was thirteen and in the eighth grade, we moved to a farmhouse outside of town and there my gentleman-farmer father could give full rein to his interest in animal husbandry. We acquired sheep and ducks (my 4-H and fund-raising projects), rabbits (my sister’s), pigs, goats, cats, many more cows and lots of chickens. The penthouse gave way to a brooder house large enough to sit in to play with the darling little yellow fluff-balls running around my feet.

Decades later, my daughter, living in the country, began to act out her heritage, surrounding herself with a variety of livestock.

While I was visiting her one day, the chickens (three or four) needed to be rounded up and returned to a pen. I quickly and deftly grabbed them, tucking one under each arm. In amazement, looking at me with new appreciation, she asked, “Mom, how did you learn to do that?”

I could have answered, “Once a chicken-wrangler, always a chicken-wrangler!”

[INVITATION: All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. They can be fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, etc. Instructions for submitting are here.]

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 02:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


That was perfect story for a gray day in Brooklyn, NY...what a great childhood..chickens are now some fad in Brooklyn & every once in a while Daily News includes in PARADE section pictures of some beauties, who knew? Great writing, would make excellent book for school children country-wide, but esp. big cities..thank you...Mary Follett

This was a delightful way to start my day. Wonderfully written. Thanks Lyn.

Oh, what fun this story is. My Dad grew up in the city of Buffalo in the 1910s and 1920s. They kept chickens, too, but he never did seem to develop your wrangling skills. His stories about them involved either dropping eggs or stepping on chicks! It's funny, Mary Follett, that "city chickens" are becoming "in." I wonder how many faddists know it was something immigrants routinely did a century ago?!

A delightful story and it takes me back home to the farm and chickens. I also remember the chicks being dyed. Why did we ever think that was cute? Thanks for the memories.

Thank you! I have been vindicated, and from somebody from Illinois already which is where my wife is from, Charleston.
You see, all of my married life she has been chiding me about calling chicks "peeps."

My dad was headed overseas just before Easter and as a parting gift, had a crate of crayon colored chicks delivered to me at my grandmother's in small town Mississipi. What a thrill for a 5-year old city girl from Chicago!

As was the custom in wartime, she kept cages for chickens in the backyard which met a hideous demise at the hands of grandma's maid. I was so stricken when my pets landed on the dinner table, I refused to eat chicken for years.

Great story. Thanks for my trip down memory lane.

Thanks for all your responses. I do sensory memory exercises with my writing workshop of "ladies of a certain age" (myself included) and I swear I still remember how soft the warm spots under Nicky's wings felt and how they smelled when I buried my 10-year-old face in his feathers.

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