"With the certitude of a true believer, Vellya Paapen had assured the twins that there was no such thing in the world as a black cat. He said that there were only black, cat-shaped holes in the universe."
-- Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things

Saturday, June 16, 2012

In Honor of Father's Day

In honor of Father’s Day this weekend, I’d like to post something written by my dad, David Kinder.  
My dad is 70 years old and has lived his whole life in Richardson, Texas, mostly in the same house he lives in now, the one I grew up in too.  His career was with the Post Office, but he’s done all sorts of farm jobs too, from picking cotton to cleaning chicken coops.   And although he doesn’t give himself these labels, he’s also an artist and a writer.  He spent years drawing elaborate watercolor images and cartoons on the envelopes of the letters he sent to my brother and me when we were in college (usually two or three a WEEK) and over the past few years, has been writing down his childhood memories and family stories and sending them to us through email.  (I have 135 emails saved in that folder and have only read 82 so far.  Shame on me!  I will get to them, I promise.)  He also makes walking sticks.  And collects all manner of things.  And remembers EVERY MOMENT of his life in fascinating detail. 

Often my dad's envelopes showed scenes of something funny that happened in the family.  Several times, I was the butt of the joke, but Dad was more than willing to poke fun at himself too.  And since I'm the one choosing the envelopes for the blog... Here's a classic dad mishap.  (I love the close-up.)

I guess there are a lot of facets to my dad.  One of my favorite quotes about him came from my friend Emily.  Over the years she had seen his envelope artwork and heard me talk about his watercolors and his photography.  When she finally met him—over a BBQ dinner at The Salt Lick—and saw him dressed in his button-down plaid shirt and jeans and cowboy boots and heard his southern drawl and watched him clean his fingernails with a pocket knife, she told me, “You’re dad’s a good ol’ boy!”  I nodded…  She said, “I thought he was an artist!”  I guess you can be both.
         Recently, Dad has been recording his memories of the chickens they used to keep.  I love the way he writes, how his personality and his love for his parents (Tiny and Pappy) and his zeal for their home and their yard and their chickens comes out so effortlessly in his stories. 
         Here is a small portion of the thirteen chicken-related emails he sent me.  I wish I had some of the photos of our own chickens and his shed and the yard back then to share.  They exist, but not here with me right now.   But that’s ok.  Dad’s descriptions create vivid images on their own.  Enjoy.

From before I was born in 1941, until about 1980, we had chickens.  Tiny and Pappy were farmers; they were born on the farm, raised on the farm.  They always had chickens, chickens for eggs, chickens to eat, and I expect, partly just for the enjoyment of raising them.
My mother often told me, of the times that she and my father kept guinea hens, too, and how much she always liked them.   She would tell how they were pets, and would come running when she went out in the yard, and would follow along, around her feet, scratching like chickens do, and saying “Pot-RACK, pot-RACK!”   It always made me smile.
We never had guineas in my memory, but I always will stop along the road, if I can, when I spot them to get a better look or take a picture.
But we sure had chickens!   We had them for real, until just before Becky and I met and married, which was not too long after Tiny and Pat gave away the last of them, to my Uncle Walter Miles, who had a twenty-acre farm over near Smithville.  I cannot remember why they finally gave them up, but looking back, whatever the reason was, I am sorry now that we did.
Later on, we got a few golden banties (bantams) for a while, but wild predators got them.  And when Pat Miles and Carie were really young, we tried again, with Old Rip, the rooster, and about 3 hens.  They just ran loose out back, and they were fun, Old Rip would crow, and he would herd his little flock of hens around, and we would get a couple of eggs pretty regularly.  Becky especially liked them, and so did the kids.   I am afraid I was too preoccupied with other things then, and didn’t pay much attention to them, but it was very natural to have them around.
When they played out, we never got any others.  Now, we would probably be breaking about fifteen laws and ordinances, if we had some chickens, especially a little rooster, not that I would care about that.   But they would have to be penned up, because we have more foxes and coons and hawks around now, than even in the old days.   Even a coyote!
But chickens are nice.

Baby chicks are soft little blobs of fluff with little fuzzy nubby wings, that hop around peeping.  Mostly, they are all little yellow downy feather-balls, when first hatched, but some of them are almost white, and some, domineckers for one, hatch out pale yellow, with black spots here and there. 
Baby chicks hop around, and run around, all clumsy for a couple of days.  They will gradually get brave and venture out six inches or a foot from the mass, out from under the old hen, or out from under the 60-watt bulb under the brooder; like any young thing, they will explore.  They will usually come and peck baby chick scratch right out of your hand.  =)  But make a sudden noise or a quick move, and they fall all over each other in a mad scramble to try to get to the very center of the protective mass of fuzz that is their brothers and sisters.  (Or make a mad dash back under Mama, if an old hen has hatched them out and is raising them.) 
Baby chicks arrive as eggs, which must be incubated by warmth; then they finally start to pip; and then they arrive between two halves of empty eggshell, looking puzzled about it all.  At first, they are cute and cuddly.   Then after a week or so, they reach a gawky, ugly stage of growth, where they are trying to look like chickens, but they don’t have enough smooth feathers, and their wings are as much quill as feather, and they don’t have any tail feathers.  Right about now, their legs and feet and toes are a little too big, and not in proportion to the rest of them, and they are growing their ‘combs’.  Not pretty at all, but some of them become very tame at this stage.
After that, they mature into handsome, pretty chickens:  young roosters, and pullets (young hens).  As they mature, they fill out and fluff up, and gain weight, and feel more ‘solid’ when you handle them.    A lot of the pullets, and the young roosters, are destined to end up on the kitchen table as good old fried chicken dinners.

There are three ways to get baby chicks.

The best way, the most fun way, is to ‘set’ an old hen.  Tiny would save up a dozen or so eggs, (usually this only took one, or maybe two days), and put them in the nest -- or just leave them in the nest, in the first place -- and let an old brooding hen sit on them and incubate them and hatch them out.  These eggs were fresh, never in the icebox at all.  But the eggs that an old hen would hatch, might come from several different hens.  Tiny and Pat would recognize when an old hen wanted to ‘set’… I’m not sure how they knew it was time.   For one thing, sometimes an old hen just wouldn’t get off the nest when I went to gather the eggs, and would fuss and peck at my hand, when I tried to get them.   This was usually a pretty good sign.  Tiny and Pappy didn’t always want an old hen to raise right then, because of the time of the year, maybe, and would “break up” her nest, which merely meant we would pick her up and put her out of the nest and go ahead and gather the eggs.  She might try again for a day or two, during which time I would warily reach in under her for the warm eggs, knowing I was gonna get my hand or arm pecked.   They can bring blood when they peck or scratch but rarely do.
If allowed to ‘set’, and old hen will stay on the nest almost without ever moving, until the eggs hatch out.  She might go for days without leaving to go eat, or get water.  And if she does, she hurries right back to the nest, so the eggs don’t get cold.
Tiny would mark our old Cardui calendar.  By and by, it would be time for the chicks to hatch, and that was always exciting, and every day, maybe two or three times a day, we would risk her old beak to check and see if the eggs were ’pipping’ or if we had a baby chick or two.  Once they started to hatch out, they would all hatch, generally within 24 hours.  And we rarely had one that failed to do so.

Another way to get chicks, is to just happen to find them, like Easter eggs.  This would be when an old hen hid out, made her a nest in under Pappy’s old scrap pile of wood, or in a windfall of leaves; maybe in under the plum bushes or out by Pappy’s bee hives (which were in the chicken yard), or up in the corner of a fencerow, or in a nail keg or a barrel laying on its side out in the back of the chicken yard.  These old hens might be the one that we ‘broke up’, because cold weather was upon us, or maybe she was a little less tame, and when she had the nesting instinct, she decided to hide out to raise her brood.   Maybe that was left over from hiding out, in the wild, to escape predators.
We might miss one of these old hens (you had to know your chickens) and go look for her, and if we found her hid out, then we would leave her alone, and let her raise.  Or, we might not notice, and the first we knew, there would be an old hen strutting around with her little band of chicks at her feet, clucking and “paack-paacking” at them, and them peeping back.   These were a real fun surprise, and would sometimes account for a little brood that had to mature in cold weather.   We always kind of babied these little broods, and often they all made it to full maturity, and stayed with us for years.  These were ‘specially cute, when they were little banties.  =)

The third way to get chicks, was to... pick ‘em up at the post office!  

Every year, Pappy would receive a catalogue in the mail from a hatchery or two, and you could order a dozen, or two dozen, or more, chicks through the mail, and the old post office would deliver them!  Or, in those days, we would go down and pick them up at Mr. Wallis’ little post office on Main Street.  The catalogues were colorful and exciting, showing real color pictures on slick paper of all different kinds of chickens.  Tiny and Pat would order some, every year, in the early spring.  My aunt and uncle, Thelma and Nelse, would always get excited about this, even if they were out in California, and write in their letters and tell us to “get those chickens raised, so we can have some good old fried chicken when we come home!”  These broods by mail were to enlarge or replenish our flock, but a lot of these were pre-destined to be home-cooked meals.  =)
The chicks would be shipped, ‘special-live-poultry-express’, as soon as they were hatched.  They were supposed to be deliverable at no more than three days old, as there was “special handling” enroute, but no feed or water until they arrived at your chicken yard.  People watched for them to arrive, they never just ‘sat’ at the post office.  They were a priority shipment, live things.  Nowadays, I would hate to think what might happen to them in the care of today’s postal service…  But back then, when the country was mostly rural, those chicks got special treatment, and almost always made it in good shape.  Very seldom did we ever receive one dead or injured.
When we received these, we would already have our little brooding shed ready, all cleaned out, and spread with a special, crumbly mix of compressed paper and sawdust and ground wood chip, covering the floor 5 or 6 inches deep.  There would be the water jars, the quart or half-gallon jars with the ‘feed’ tray, the kind that you filled with water, then put the tray on top, and then swiftly turned over and set down, neck down, where gravity and air pressure controlled the water flow and held it steady.  (We still have a couple of those…)  There would be a dark brown bottle of Dr. Legear’s Protozone, a purple liquid to add to the water, for ‘general health’… very pretty in the water.
By the time I was six years old, I was very experienced at filling the water jar, and ‘flipping’ it over, without (usually) spilling any.   They had to have fresh water every day.
The square heavy tin brooder, built like a very low pyramid, and about 30 inches square, with canvas sides about 6 to 8 inches tall, hung from a chain in the brooder shed, hanging at a level 9 inches or so above the fresh ‘straw’, or ‘compost’, as we called it, with a 60-watt bulb turned on inside it, in the top center, to provide heat for the chicks as needed.
The brooder shed, I should mention, was, for the better part of the year MY shed.
A grown man could just barely stand up in my shed along the high side.  But when I was little, it was just fine for me.  It was all just to my scale!  I had painted the white outline of a skull on the outside of the door (I was always crazy about skulls!) and it had a long arrow angled through it.
Inside my clubhouse, I kept my knife; at first, and old, mismatched spare kitchen knife, the kind you cut butter with; later on, my great Western scabbard knife, my first Bowie-style ‘scout’ knife.  There was found my earliest BB gun, my trusty Daisy Red Ryder air rifle.  I had my ‘paintbrush’ in there, and an old can of white paint, and a tube of green paint color, and all my other junk and important deals.   There were empty bottles and jars I had found in the ditch or the creek, and special rocks, and my big blackboard, nailed to the wall.  I had a lot of my toys in there, in my old wooden toybox, and most of my homemade toys, from Pappy:  my sword, and my bow and arrow, and some of my wooden guns.  On my workbench, I had the little grinding wheel that you turned by hand.
I had my hammer, at first the one Pappy ‘made’ me out of half of a monkey wrench, with old black mechanic’s tape wrapped around for a handle, and later my little store-bought one.  I had my saw.   I had nails driven in everywhere in the two-by-fours, to hang stuff; one of my treasures, was an old V–shaped magnet, out of an old Model T.  I played with it all the time.   And I had a real prize, a small pulley that Pappy gave me that I could use when he would build me a ‘well’.  I could also run a small cotton rope through it, and pull up cans of water, or rig ‘booby traps’ to pull han’ts (haunts) along with, to “scare” Tiny and Pat!   A great thing to have!   And when it wasn’t in use, it hung on a nail dead-center over my window.

I spent many an hour, of many a day, out in my little shed.  Sometimes it was a shed.   Sometimes it was the secret Bat Cave, where I often worked on my Batman Utility Belt, which was an old WW II army surplus cartridge belt for M-1 clips, with the pouches stuffed full of string, or rope, or fishhooks, or matches… marbles … all manner of survival gear.    Other times, it was my laboratory, and some VERY NEAT EXPERIMENTS took place in there, I can tell you, ESPECIALLY after I got my first chemistry set.    Some, Tiny and Pappy were aware of, I’m sure.    And some… well, what we don’t know, doesn’t ALWAYS blow up…
It was a cavalry post, at times, where I held off whooping rings of circling Redskins (Comanche and Kiowa, mostly) and often it was the Alamo, and I can tell you I fought off MANY A MEXICAN from the ramparts of that little shed, and from the door and open window, and not ALWAYS did the Alamo FALL to old Santa Anna!
My uncles, Dock and Buddy, and me defended it from time to time, taking on the Nazis at the Bulge, and often it was just me and my fellow Rebs, fighting off swarms of low-down yankees, all afternoon and evening, right up till suppertime.
Some of my comic books were out there, too, and it was also a great library.  Sometimes when it got too hot and stuffy in the oppressive summertime heat, you had to just get the ladder, and take the reading room up to the roof.  If it was the right time of day, when my big old hackberry tree shaded it just right, you could lie down on the gently sloped roof and read to your heart’s content, unconsciously listening to the bird song and the hum of the insects as you read.
This glorious hideout, was mine, for most of the year.  But once a year, all my stuff had to be cleared out, packed away temporarily to another old dirt-floor shed, or put in the house.  Or at least hung up high, because my great shed had to be used as a chicken brooder.  =(
Then, when the chicks were grown enough to be turned out in to the big yard, into the ’general population’, it took a good shoveling out, and scraping down, and sweeping, and then a good turn with the water hose and a broom, to scrub it clean.  Let it air dry for about three days, and me and old Davy Crockett and our coonskin cap, would be back in business! 
Although, I must say, … after a few years doing dual duty, there was always a sort of a chicken-feather-chicken-feed-chicken-crap smell in the background, after a spell of damp, rainy days.  
Old Batman and Sgt Striker and Professor Kinder just learned to live with it.   =)

Tending the chickens was a chore.  It could not be let slide, it had to be done, every day.  Rain or shine, or storm.  Sleet or snow or too-hot-to-breathe summer heat.  Flood or drought.
Maybe the ground was dry and cracked, and the dirt blew like dust; or maybe the old chicken yard was a lake, standing water everywhere, with the cold rain still hammering down.   Gasping hot autumn weather, or howling blue norther, the chickens had to be tended to, twice a day.
Holiday; vacation trip to West Texas; or a sick-with the-flu day, someone had to get out there and feed and water those hens.   Go over to Fort Worth twice a year to see Walter and his family, or over to the Josey Rancho to visit with Zem and Tommy and Maxine?   Fine.   Take a Saturday once a year, to go to the State Fair, or take an all-day Sunday drive up to Durant, Oklahoma, to visit Tiny’s Aunt Atha?   All well and good!  But you, or somebody trustworthy, better be on hand late in the evening to feed the chickens before they headed to the roost.
That’s just the way it was.
            We didn’t always have a water hydrant or a water hose available out there, and if that meant hauling buckets of water, we hauled them.   In the freezing cold, if that water needed to be heated up, to melt the ice in the troughs … well, okay, then; you heated it up.
In freezing weather, sometimes a little water would slosh out of the bucket onto your fingers, and when you took hold of the old iron pipe that held the gate to the chicken yard shut, your fingers would freeze to the pipe.  If you forgot, and just jerked your hand back, you could lose a little skin.  The thing to do, was slosh a little more water out of the bucket onto your hand, so the pipe would turn loose.
If it was just a summer rain, or a quick shower, I would go on out there barefoot and barebacked and bare-shouldered, in my old overalls.  But in the cold winter rain, often I would buckle on a pair of Pappy’s old rubber galoshes to go sloshing around out there.   In the rain, the feed troughs had to be drug inside the hen house, so the chickens could stay dry while eating dry feed.   If there was sodden feed in the troughs, it had to be emptied out before you put in the fresh feed pellets, or the hen scratch.
Sometimes there was snow; sometimes, sleet and ice.   But most of the year, the weather wasn’t so bad.
I didn’t just take this on, all at once.  I liked to go out with Tiny and Pat, to tend the chickens, almost always followed them out there.   I was “helping” by the time I was four years old.  As I grew, they entrusted me with more of it, until I gradually took it over (most of the time… if need be, they were always there to help me or give me a break) but it was my chore at least by the time I was six.  I just gradually grew into it.
And anyway, I liked it.  =)

A couple of times through the years… maybe a FEW times  =)… I would have a little mishap.  

For instance, if I was playing, or in a big hurry to get my chores done and go do something else, I might rush a little bit.  I would occasionally go in the chicken yard, and forget to close and secure the gate behind me, and sometimes, the chickens would get out. 
I would be in there, putting out feed, or water, or gathering up the eggs, and when I started to leave, that old tall gate would be standing wide open, and 2 or 3, or maybe 12 or 20 of those fiendish feathered fowls, would be out in the yard, or usually, out in the garden!   THAT was bad news!  I had to stop everything, right then, and get those chickens rounded up!   I had to save the garden, and I had to save those foolish old feathered escapees, too!
Nearly always, they headed for the garden, and this meant I had to circle back toward the house, then to the east, to get around them, and scare them back, first to the north, where the orchard and the fence would guide them west, to where the fence turned back south.  THIS was the tricky part.  You had to run them south, and turn the corner there by the gate, and herd them THROUGH the gate, back into the yard.
But if you have ever tried to herd chickens, you know that this ain’t so easy!  They would all go walking or running along, clucking and cackling, and then all of a sudden, something would SPOOK one or two of them and they would just go berserk, and try to fly up in the air, and flail around, and run backward!   Old Coley, my dog, was pretty good at helping me, but my durn tomcats, were likely to come crowding in at the wrong second, and upset EVERY thing!   And when I could get them to that last corner, to that last right hand turn, very often they would shy away from going into the yard, and go AROUND the gate instead, and then circle back to the left, back out into the garden again!  
It was a real job, a real AGGRAVATING job, to herd those crazy chickens.  Sometimes it would take me an hour or more to get them all back in the yard.  And since the gate had to be propped open, to get them back in,… while I was trying to get the loose ones IN, some more were likely to be heading OUT!   Grrrrrrr.
I always managed to round them all up, eventually.   ALL of them had to be accounted for, didn’t DARE leave one out, or lose one...
Crazy featherheads…
The worst part, was that I only forgot to close the gate, a couple of times.   All the OTHER times, I would go out there all cocky and full of arrogance, and – although it had been demonstrated MANY TIMES that I was wrong – I would assume that I was just so much faster than those old chickens, that I could be in and out like a speeding bullet, and I just wouldn’t BOTHER to close the gate.  I always dared those chickens, I made a game out of trying to do my chores, and watch that gate, and run head them off, instead of closing it, like the lamest fool would have had the sense to do.   (Good grief.)
The OTHER chore associated with keeping chickens, is cleaning out the henhouse.            
About once a year, always in the late summertime or fall, when the garden is about done, the dirt floor of the henhouse had to be shoveled out.  This was stinky, nasty, dusty, feathers and dust-up-your-nose work.  I would get the big old heavy wheelbarrow, the one with the iron wagon wheel in front, and Pappy’s big scoop, and my very own “little” short handled scoop, and yard rake, and go to work.  It is just what you would figure it is… shoveling load after load of chicken crap out.  And dumping it in the garden, and scattering it and raking it around, to later get plowed under for fertilizer.
The smell wasn’t real bad, mostly an old ammonia-like smell, but it was hot, dirty work.  It would take me most of the day, because I usually poked around doing it.  When it was over, and the henhouse was ‘freshened up’ for a few more months, then it was time to take off my clothes (my oldest, most worn-out work clothes, for this job) take them off out on the back porch, and have a SERIOUS bath.
Once, the little blond-haired girl next door, Shirley Ann, came over to play, and found me out back, up to my neck in chicken s--t and feathers, and decided to HELP me, so I would get finished faster!  =0   Now Shirley was a little girly-girl, who had a pale yellow cat, and played with dolls, and made mudpies and such.  But she got right in there with me, in one of her good dresses, and shoveled it with my little scoop, while I shoveled it with Pappy’s, and we got ‘er done! 
And then when we went to the house, well, you might say, a little of that stuff hit the fan!   Tiny made me wait out in the back yard, all ripe, and stinky, and she took Shirley in and gave her a bath, and washed and re-braided her hair, and washed all her clothes, and dried them on the line, and then ironed her dress, and got her all fixed up and in good shape, before I was even allowed to come in the house.  =)

In these stories, I might have made it sound like I had a LOT of chores, a LOT of hard work to do when I was just a kid, and that I had to work all the time; but this is not true.
I had my share of chores to take care of, but that’s how I learned responsibility.  I wanted to be a part of our everyday work and play.  Not all of these chores had to be done, all the time.   Tending to the chickens did, but Tiny and Pat would always help or cover for me, if need be.  Also, I know that I probly make it sound like I did WAY more than I really did.  You all know how I exaggerate! 
The truth is, I played nearly all the time.  I played WHILE I was doing my chores; I play-acted, and I fantasized, and the old chickens, and Cookie, and Coley, were all part of it all, were all characters in my crazy kid adventures.  I seldom ever just went out an FED the chickens; I was usually checking out my “horses” and “cattle”, sometimes carrying my loaded Daisy BB gun with me, warily on the lookout for raidin’ Comanches.  Sometimes it was me, and old Dan’l Boone, and Coley, searching for that marauding grizzly bear, that’s been gettin’ our eggs…
It was ALWAYS something.
And like I have said, about 95 percent of the time, I LIKED fooling with the fool chickens.  =)

Dad and Pappy
We kept them, for food.  Money was always tight, and the eggs, and the chickens were good to eat.  We kept them—Tiny and Pat; and Pap and Grandma; and Mama and Tiny’s father, and all the grandparents on both sides of the family—because we always had.
We kept them because we enjoyed them.
And I miss them.   I miss them running up to meet me, to get fed.  I miss gathering the eggs, and the feel of those solid, round eggs in your hand.  I miss the sounds the old hens made, and the rooster crowing every morning.  I miss the old familiar smells, and the sights.  When I picture the old chicken yard, I can see every bush, every pan, and the big old tree that used to be there, and the chickens.
Every year, I feel guilty, because I didn’t plant a garden; and every year, I miss Sukie, our old Jersey milk cow; and always, I miss our chickens.
And I always will.

Images in this blog:
* Envelope art by David Kinder, property of Carie Juettner *
Cardui Calendar Image: http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~tnsmith/scenes/sloan_brothers_store.htmDominecker Image: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dominique_(chicken), Baby Chicks Image: http://www.moyerschicks.com/MC-Web/DesktopDefault.aspxMail Delivery Cartoon: http://www.hopandjaunt.com/blog/today-nola-week-2/

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