By Dick Cummins ©2013
A work in progress (WIP) is just that, constantly evolving. Dick is a master craftsman, fearless in his sharing, generous in the lessons he teaches. He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a regular contributor to this blog. This is an excerpt from his unpublished memoir. Join us tomorrow for the second and final part of this chapter.
My father, Sergeant Major Russell Cranston, retired right after the war and we moved out to California. It was 1946 and I was four. A month later, the day after he came home from the hospital, he put our little poultry ranch up for sale—doctor’s orders. Now that the war was over they said the Army hospital down at Fort Ord was going to be permanent, so we’d be moving to Monterey and that was that.
They wouldn’t let my father smoke in the hospital after his heart attack of course, and after more than thirty years of Camels, Luckys and mostly roll-your-owns, we could see he was struggling, trying hard not to start again. But without a cigarette bobbing up and down in the corner of his mouth, an eye squinted against the purling smoke, swearing at anything that irritated him—which was just about everything when he wasn’t smoking—he seemed forlorn in his hard, military way.
After we moved into the small ranch house, the first thing he did was build a chicken coop out of corrugated metal. Then from Ralph’s Poultry Supply in Marysville, he bought fifty hens, an incubator and a big rooster. There were two good reasons for getting the rooster Ralph said. The first was because our eggs would be fertilized and that meant lots more chickens to sell at no extra charge. The second was that a big rooster will put up a fight against weasels or even a fox trying to get into the hen house, Ralph told him.
So a big rooster it was and as my father watched him strutting and crowing around in the yard, pecking and chasing the hens, then preening his spectacular purple-brown and orange feathers he said: “We outta call that big bastard Zoot Suit,” and from then on, Zoot Suit he was.
My father received a small pension and his poultry raising idea was so we could earn extra money by selling fresh eggs and fryers to the restaurants in Marysville, a few miles down Highway 70. But then, not a month after we got moved in, he had his heart attack visiting an old Army buddy down at Camp Beale, and that changed everything.
One of my first chicken chores was to scatter feed and collect new eggs out of their straw nests. I didn’t mind really – except for the smell. And there were three hens that followed me everywhere, clucking and chuckling, probably thinking I had more feed in my pockets.
One I called Henny Penny and another Chicken Licken from the fairy tales my mother was reading to me. The happiest one, a little Plymouth, I named Pretty Girl because she loved to have her strawberry comb stroked while she rubbed her head against my pants like a cat.
But today my father said we needed to dress out the poultry because the new owners didn’t like chickens any more than he did and wanted them gone. He spent the morning building a wooden brace out of two-by-fours, a kind of upside down L, like the post our real estate sign hung on. Then he drilled holes and bolted it to the side of a dented 55 gallon oil drum, tying a short piece of clothes line to the arm and fashioning a noose at the bitter end.
“What’s that for Daddy?”
“Liquidating poultry assets.”
“What’s that mean?”
“It means business son, and it means I’m going to need your help. Not a pleasant job—but you’ll have to get used to it.”
I didn’t like the sound of this at all and watched my father pull on a pair of canvas gloves as he walked into the chicken yard. Clucking furiously, the hens dashed up, expecting to get fed. Zoot Suit crowded in too, pecking at my father’s ankle. Kicking sideways my dad snatched up the hen trying to rub his leg. It squawked and flapped upside down as he closed the gate behind him, and with his head turned to avoid the flailing wings, he lassoed the noose around her legs.
“What are you going to do with Pretty Girl, Daddy?”
“Pretty Girl, son? Not a good idea to give animals you could end up eating pet names,” he said, pulling a pair of garden shears out of his back pocket.
“You call that stupid rooster Zoot Suit don’t you?”
“Insulting names are different. Hell, even if I called ’im General McArthur I wouldn’t have a problem putting him on the dinner table. Especially McArthur.”
As he was telling me this, he slipped Pretty Girl’s neck into the V of the garden shears and then squeezed so hard and fast her head jumped off and thubbed into the bottom of the oil drum.
“Just hang tough Nick,” my father said while I watched the flopping and flapping and spinning, the blood pumping out of a little hose where my hen’s head had been. Then he untied the headless hen and dunked her into a handled pot of boiling water that sat on our Coleman camp stove. Next he held out the sodden ball of dripping feathers like I was supposed to take it from him.
“Pluck this bird while I get going on the next one,” he ordered. “We’ll set up a kind of assembly line and get this job done. Make yourself useful son—everybody pulls their own weight in this outfit.”
Well about as unuseful as you can get, I pulled my Camp Cranston weight as fast as my four-year-old legs would carry me back into the house. While I told my mother about the terrible things my father was doing out by the chicken coop, she washed my face and held me close until I stopped crying.
“It’s just the way things are on a farm,” she said. “In order for us to eat Honey, animals have to die. It’s hard to get used to but it’s just one of those things.”
“I’m not going to get used to it.”
“Give it some time Kiddo. You’ll be okay with it when you’re a little older.”
When my father came in to find me, letting the screen door slam, bloody feathers stuck to his shirt, even one on the top of his watch cap, he didn’t say anything about anything.
It ended up taking the rest of that day and most of the next to get our fifty hens and ole Zoot Suit dressed out and ready for market. “Dressed” being my father’s word for the disassembly line process of chicken murders he was committing. I tried to make myself watch the next day—the bleeding and flopping and squawking and then the smell of scalded feathers and the awful gutting. And as if that wasn’t enough, the last thing my father did was hold them up by their claws and singe their pin feathers off with a blow touch. That smell was the worst thing about what was going on.
Check back tomorrow for the end of the chapter.