By Chuck Fager
Stories from Childhood, Stories for Children
This is one story, but it has two parts which fit together, so we might as well call them chapters. The first chapter is called:
Grandma and the Chicken
My Grandma O’Brien lived in a very small Kansas town named Saint Paul, in a nice white house on a corner of one main street. She lived around that little town of St. Paul her whole life.
My parents and I didn’t live in St. Paul, though; we lived very far away in a much bigger town. In fact, we lived so far away that we had to drive for what seemed like days and days to get to St. Paul to see her. Because it was so far, we only got to visit Grandma about every other year when I was a boy.
Each time I saw her, though, she looked the same: she was a quiet woman with curly white hair and gold-rimmed glasses, who lived with my Grandpa O’Brien in a nice white house. Behind the house was a small barn and a big garden, and by the garden there was a white chickenhouse where a flock of chickens and one big noisy rooster lived.
I remember that her house was always very neat and clean inside; and Grandma O’Brien was very neat and clean, too. She also had good manners, and she went to church every day, at the big Catholic mission church on the edge of town, which was only a few blocks away. She and my Grandpa O’Brien are now buried in the graveyard across the road from that church.
Like I said, Grandma O’Brien was quiet; she didn’t talk a lot to me, and except for what I’ve already told you, I didn’t really know a lot about her. For a long time, though, I knew enough: She was my Grandma; she looked like the pictures of grandmas I had seen in children’s books; her house looked like a grandma’s house; so what more did I need to know?
Well, there was one other thing I should mention: Grandma O’Brien was a good cook. I remember her in the kitchen of her house as much as anyplace else, wearing a clean white apron over a neat print dress. She seemed to like being in the kitchen, or out in her big garden, or collecting eggs from the chickenhouse. I often heard her quietly humming a tune as she went back and forth. And I liked seeing her there in her apron, cooking and baking and humming, because after all, those were also things that grandmas were supposed to do, weren’t they? Sure they were.
So what I’m trying to say is that when I visited her, my Grandma O’Brien, and her house, and her garden, almost seemed to me like pictures from a children’s book that had come to life. They looked to me like they were exactly the way they were supposed to be, and exactly the way they had always been.
As I grew up, though, I learned, in the way that children who are growing up do, that Grandma O’Brien had not always been the way I saw her. And neither had her house, or her garden, or even the town of St. Paul. And one day I also began to realize that she hadn’t always been the way I thought she was, even when I was there. I started to learn that from the chicken.
Let me explain what I mean. One of the things I found out later was that Grandma had grown up in a different house, outside of town, in the middle of the country on a real farm. It was a farmhouse her parents had built themselves, because when they came to Kansas, there weren’t any farms there, or any towns.
Only Indians had lived there for a long, long time, but they had been chased away by American soldiers. So when my grandma’s parents came to Kansas, there was nothing there but the land. They had to build or grow everything they needed.
They not only built their their own houses. They grew all their food, and made their own clothes. And they had to chop lots of firewood in the summer to keep from freezing in the winter. They didn’t have cars, or electric lights, or radios or telephones.
In those days, everybody had to work very hard, all day long, almost every day. The men worked, and the women worked, and the kids did too. When my grandma was a girl, she had to work hard like everybody else. And even when she was grown up, she still had a lot of work to do.
But as she grew older, life changed a lot around St. Paul, changed so that it wasn’t so different anymore. Cars and electric lights came, and refrigerators, and Grandma O’Brien moved from the farm into town, into the white house where I remember her. There she had a telephone and a radio, just like we did at our house. (None of us had TVs yet, though; this was still a long time ago.) She grew things to eat in her garden, but she bought most of her food at the grocery store just like we did. She had children, and they grew up and had grandchildren, and I was one of them.
And then, there she was when I came to visit, with her white hair, her neat dresses and clean apron, so that I never suspected that her life in St. Paul had ever been any different.
But then because of the chicken, I did get a chance to see just how different her life and her world had been from mine. It happened on a Sunday afternoon, after we had all gone to church and it was time to start making Sunday dinner.
I heard Grandma humming a tune in the kitchen, and wandered in to see what she was doing. It turned out she was just getting ready to go feed the chickens. That was always fun, so I followed her out the back door, as she started calling, “Here, chick, chick, chick, here, chick, chick, here chick, chick, chick.”
The chickens all came running and fluttering, clucking and pecking at the ground around our feet as Grandma scattered grains of dried corn. The chickens were shy of me because I was a stranger to them, but Grandma gave me some corn to scatter too, and that got them to come closer.
I looked over at Grandma, ready to say something about how the chickens were now eating my corn too. But before I could speak Grandma dropped the last corn from her hand and then suddenly reached down and grabbed one of the chickens by the neck with one hand. She lifted the squawking chicken up high, and then brought down her wrist with some special kind of sharp twist, just once. And there before my eyes that chicken’s head popped right off its neck.
The other hens scattered as the chicken dropped to the ground and started running around in big circles, with blood squirting from the stump where its head had been. Its wings flapped but it made no other sound, and I watched in amazement as the headless hen ran silently, around and around, until it finally flopped over, still bleeding.
When the bleeding slowed down, Grandma picked the chicken up by the feet and quietly carried it upside down to the back porch, where she stuck it in the sink. As she went up the steps I saw that there wasn’t even a spot on her clean white apron.
After that she put the chicken in boiling water to make the feathers easier to pull out, and then cut its belly open to take its insides out. Or maybe Grandpa helped her do that; I’m not sure now. But in any case, a few hours later we had a wonderful chicken dinner. It wasn’t fried chicken, which was my favorite, but chicken fricassee, which grandma explained is a way of cooking chickens that are tough, which that hen was, so the meat tastes tender and good. Which it did.
But while that Sunday dinner seemed no different from any of the others we at Grandma’s house, at least while we were sitting at her big table, it felt different to me. In fact, after that day Grandma herself seemed somehow different to me. It was hard to say exactly how–she was still as white-haired and neat and quiet as ever, still just like the pictures in my children’s books.
But none of those books ever had a picture showing what I had seen in the back yard that afternoon, this quiet woman snapping a chicken’s head off with one swift motion of her hand, and quietly watching it run around spilling its lifeblood on the grass in her backyard.
It wasn’t that I felt sorry for the hen. It was more that when she killed it Grandma had given me an unexpected glimpse of something that was completely beyond what those picture books were about. It was something out of the long ago world of her girlhood on a farm, before cars and telephones and grocery stores.
What she did to the chicken was not pretty, but it showed me a strength and skill that was disappearing from the life she now led in St. Paul. The more I think back on it, even now, the more it seems like something awesome, almost magical. Even then, I knew I was somehow lucky to have seen it.
Now I said this was a story with two chapters, and this is the end of the first one. The next chapter is titled
The Sad End of Icky Chick
About eight years later, my family moved into a house out in the country in California. The house was on what we called a “ranch”, because people who had lived there long before we did had raised cows there. The ranch also had a garage, a low barn and behind that about four acres of pasture land.
When my brothers and sisters and I went exploring on this ranch, we discovered that around some of the pasture, instead of a fence there was a single wire strung about two feet above the ground. Every so often along this wire there hung a little sign with lightning bolts and the word DANGER painted on it. That was because this was an electric fence, which kept the cows in the pasture by giving them electric shocks if they touched the wire.
At first my brothers and sisters and I were afraid of this fence. We were very careful to jump high over it, or crawl under it. But then my oldest brother Cal stumbled and fell right on top of the wire. He yelled out and we all ran over to him, but he wasn’t hurt. In fact, nothing had happened to him; he didn’t get a shock at all. Then we realized there was no electricity in the wire. Its days of keeping cows inside were long since over.
That was all right, though, because we didn’t have any cows. We lived in the country, but we weren’t farmers, or even ranchers, except a little bit. My father was a pilot, and his job was to fly big airplanes at the Air Force base a few miles away. That didn’t leave much time for ranching. My mother did plant a garden in the summer, and there were some trees that grew apricots and walnuts by our house. But taking care of us kids–there were six of us–took up most of her time. The next summer, though, my father took some time off from flying and put up a real fence around the pasture, and the winter after that we kept some sheep there. But the sheep were a lot of bother so he sold them, and that was about it for our country life.
Mostly we lived the same way the kids in town did. We liked watching television more than just about anything else, just like them. We bought our food and clothes and toys in the same stores they did. On Sundays we drove into town to go to the same church. We just had to drive farther than the people from town. In fact, as I remember it, maybe that was the biggest difference between us and the kids in town: whenever we went somewhere, we had to drive farther.
But there were a few other bits of country life on our ranch: we did have some country pets. My sister Evelyn and I kept rabbits for a year or so, out in a hutch by the barn. And for almost two years we had exactly one chicken, a big brown hen we all called Icky Chick.
I don’t know now where Icky Chick came from, but I do remember how she got her name. She lived in a little pen that was connected to the garage, and had a nest behind a hole in the garage’s outside wall. We fed her every evening, on the table scraps from dinner, which one of us would carry out and dump over the fence into her pen, calling “Here, chick, chick, chick, here, chick” as we came.
Icky Chick was always ready to eat, and would come running out of her little nest when she heard us call. One day when it was my turn to feed her, she came running a little too fast, and came up to the fence just as I dumped the scraps over, and they landed–splat!–right on top of her.
She squawked and jumped and flapped her wings, shaking off the cucumber skins and leftover mashed potatoes. But some of the glop and garbage stuck to her brown feathers, and I went back to the house laughing about this icky chicken we had. And that’s how she got her name.
After that, to tell the truth about it, feeding her got to be something of a contest, at least for me: Whenever it was my turn, I would try to dump the scraps just at the exact moment when she came up to the fence, so they would land right on her. After awhile I got so I could do it about half the time. It didn’t seem to bother old Icky Chick much; she would squawk and jump and flap her wings, then peck away at the scraps anyway.
One other thing old Icky Chick did was lay eggs. For a year or more, almost every day we found a warm brown egg in her little nest after feeding her. My mother liked that; she said it was how Icky Chick “earned her keep.”
But after that year or so, Icky Chick’s nest didn’t have eggs in it so often; and pretty soon after that, she quit laying eggs at all. I guess she was just finished with laying.
And it was a few months later that my mother started talking about how we might have to have Icky Chick for Sunday dinner sometime. She wasn’t “earning her keep” anymore.
I objected loudly to this idea. Anytime we wanted to cook chicken for dinner, I said, we could buy one at the store, already dead and cut up. Icky Chick was our pet. How could we dare think of killing and eating her?
But my mother persisted. The chickens at the store had looked just like Icky Chick, she said, and somebody had killed them. That’s just the way it was on a farm or a ranch.
Maybe so, I said, but I didn’t care. Even if I did like to dump scraps on her, Icky was our pet chicken and I didn’t want her cooked for anybody’s dinner.
My mother didn’t say anything more about it for a week or two. But then one Sunday she told me very firmly it was time for Icky Chick to be our dinner, and she wanted me to kill her, because I was the oldest.
I refused. Not a chance, I told her; forget it. If I couldn’t save the poor old hen, at least I wouldn’t lift a finger to harm her.
“All right”, my mother said, and turned to the next oldest, my sister Evelyn. Evelyn said yes, she would do it, but she might need some help. My brother Cal said he would help her. They decided to use a hatchet from the garage to chop her head off. That would be a quick and clean way to do it.
The two of them found the hatchet and went out to the pen. I didn’t watch them, but my mother did, and she told me what happened.
And it wasn’t quick, or clean. Maybe because Icky Chick had had so much practice dodging flying table scraps, she wasn’t easy to catch, or to hold down once Evelyn and Cal finally caught her. Besides that, they had never done anything like this before, and they didn’t really know what they were doing.
So the hatchet turned out to be no good at all, because they couldn’t hold the hen’s head still long enough. Then they tried to wring her neck, the way my Grandma O’Brien had done. But they didn’t know how to do that either. They just twisted her around in the air a few times, squawking and flapping, and then she got loose, her head still very much attached to her neck.
When they caught her again, though, they finally did manage to kill her. They did it by putting a board across her neck, standing on both sides, and pulling at her legs. It took them a few tries, but finally poor old Icky Chick’s head came off and she was done for.
When they brought what was left of her to the back porch so my mother could start pulling her feathers out, I announced loudly that I wasn’t going to eat any dinner that our pet chicken was part of. No way; not a chance; forget it. I’d go hungry, or just eat the salad. My mother said okay, and went right on with her work.
It took a long time to get old Icky Chick cooked. She was a tough bird, mother said. This meant that mother couldn’t make fried chicken, the way she usually did. Instead she decided to make chicken fricassee, and to do that the pieces had to simmer on our kitchen stove for a long time.
I spent the rest of that afternoon in the living room, watching various TV shows and being very careful not to pay any attention to the goings on in the kitchen, which was right next to the living room. And I did pretty well for a few hours.
But then it started to get late, and I started to get hungry. And then I started noticing the smell of the chicken fricassee simmering on the stove.
It smelled good; my mother was a good cook. And chicken was one of my favorite things to eat in those days. The hungrier I got, the better it smelled, and the less interested I was in the TV programs.
We ate dinner late that evening, and by the time we all sat down at the table, everyone was starving, including me. Mother put the chicken fricassee on a big serving platter and passed it around.
I looked at the pieces, all brown and steaming and smelling so good. My stomach growled. My father handed the plate came to me. I looked at it some more.
“Well”, I said finally, “maybe I’ll just try one piece”.
Actually, by the time we were finished, I had eaten three pieces, and there was none left over. And that was the last of Icky Chick, who was a good old bird, to the very end.
Copyright © by Chuck Fager. All rights reserved.