About 20 years ago, I asked Mom, in lieu of bought Christmas gifts, if she would write her childhood stories about growing up on a farm in McAdoo, Texas. Life got busy, especially when my son, Cowboy, was born; she was a constant help to us as we raised him. Recently, at the age of 90, Mom finished typing up her stories. During her career as a technical editor, her coworkers gave her a nickname that reflected her rural roots; I’m borrowing it as her pen name here. And so, my dear readers, I hope you enjoy the following story written by my first Guest Author on my website: my editor, my mother, my mentor – The McAdoo Marvel.
If I wanted to sound insightful and wax philosophical, I could say that chickens played an important role in my becoming the person I am. On second thought, maybe they did. An attempted killing, traitorous betrayals, and, above all, a couple of “Aha” insights into the failings and foibles of adults, all in some way involved chickens.
Most of my assigned chores were chicken related. In the summer, when there was no school, my sister Billie and I had the job of unlocking the henhouse each morning to let the chickens out. They would hear us coming, and their cackling would become a deafening din. Billie would play “teacher;” she wouldn’t open the door until there was complete silence. Each time she screamed, “Quiet,” the cackling lessened. She’d yell again, “Quiet!” With each scream, there were fewer cackles, then complete silence. Dramatically, the door would be opened, and the chickens were freed.
That performance was a variation of the “straight line” at school. Every morning and afternoon as we lined up to go back into the building from recess, teachers stood at the top of the outside steps, each facing her students and instructing them to “make a straight line.” Each child in each line had to be directly behind the child ahead. If one were out of line, he or she would be called by name and told to “make a straight line.” Regardless of the weather or of how many times the instruction had to be repeated, we couldn’t move until the line was perfectly straight. I think in each case, Billie and the teachers, the only purpose was to show who was boss.
Feeding the chickens, sometimes with the help of my sister Doris, led directly to my betrayer assignment, as well as to the attempted killing. When I walked into the little pasture where the chickens hung out, they’d run and gather around me, assuming I had food. But sometimes in the spring and summer, I was there for a more sinister reason. When I picked one up, it wasn’t to show a special affection for that particular fowl, it was to feel the drumsticks to see whether the chicken was frying size. If so, it was passed on to Daddy, who would wring its head with one jerk of the wrist. I was fully aware that I was a traitor, although unwilling, but it was that special gift of mine that led to the attempted killing at my innocent age of 13.
Our parents had gone to Lubbock for the day; my brother, Reid, was away at school. So only the five girls were home. We decided our lunch would be fried chicken, and I would wring the chicken’s neck. I don’t know how I got these jobs. I was also the one who cut up chickens for frying when only the girls were home. Was it because I was the middle one, or was I the only one dumb enough to think I could do it? Who knows? I may even have volunteered.
First, traitor that I was, I caught the chicken. Then I confidently wrapped my fingers – both hands – around its neck. I lifted the chicken and began to whirl it, like cranking a Model T. ’Round and ’round it went for what seemed forever. Eventually, I couldn’t spin another spin. I dropped the chicken. It stood there a few seconds before it shook its head and took off, probably wondering what kind of strange contraption it had run into.
Doris and I had a couple of regular chicken chores throughout the year. We gathered eggs every afternoon, sometimes getting a peck on the hand when we had to reach under a hen that didn’t want to give up her egg. Every evening after the chickens had gone to roost, we locked the henhouse door to keep them safe from coyotes. Occasionally, we dragged our feet a little too long on the lockup duty, and we’d have to make the trip to the henhouse and back in the dark.
We chose the shortest route to the henhouse, but it was by no means the easiest. A field surrounded by a barbed-wire fence butted up to the side yard, so the shortest route (across the end of that field) meant we had to hold down a lower strand of wire in the fence and step into the field through the resulting space, being careful not to catch our clothes on the wire above. A barbed-wire gate was at the exit, but the bottom wire was high enough that we could crawl under. Then it was clear sailing to the henhouse. An alternate route would have taken us there without having to clear barbed-wire fences, but it would have meant walking very close to the barn. And that was something you wanted to avoid at all costs at night. The barn loft had an open doorway – a big, gaping hole at night. If you had to do anything that put you near that black hole, you had to keep your eyes on it constantly. Getting a bucket of water from the windmill or wood for the stove, you had to watch, unblinking, as you walked toward it, then keep looking over your shoulder as you walked back to the house so you could see an apparition before it could attack. Any amount of barbed wire beat that.
So on that fateful night, we took the shortest route. A long wagon with high sideboards, used to haul cotton to the gin, was sitting a short distance outside the gate. We made it safely to the henhouse and were on the way back, with our dog Tunney trotting beside us. About the time we reached the wagon, I said bravely, “I’m not scared when Tunney’s with us.”
“No, I’m not either,” Doris answered.
Boy, did we speak too soon. Suddenly, the sideboards began to rattle, and something jumped up from the bed of the wagon. We shrieked as we took off in a dead run, Tunney keeping pace. The dog never barked, so I was sure he was as scared as we. We kept shrieking as we crawled under the gate. Doris fell as she cleared it, and later I was proud of the fact that I waited for her to get to her feet – both of us still screaming, of course. When we reached the fence near the house, Mama was there with one foot on a strand of wire, holding it down, and her hands lifting the upper strands. We barely had to stoop to get through.
There was some discussion about what it was, Daddy suggesting it was a horse. We tried to explain it couldn’t have been a horse because it was inside the wagon. I couldn’t understand why no one went to investigate, and that was my first big “Aha” discovery about the clay feet of adults: they can be as scared as kids. I would have called it hypocrisy, but I hadn’t yet learned such a big word. I’m not saying that they were hypocrites, but that’s the way I saw it.
Daddy is afraid, he’s too scared to check it out, I told myself. Mama is the only brave one; she wasn’t afraid to meet us.
The following morning, Daddy called to me, “Come see your ghost.” I was excited because I thought I was about to see the guilty critter, but he pointed out the back door to a horse. I was disappointed, but I didn’t dare argue. However, nothing held me back when Reid, who was about 15, later laughed and teased us about our “ghost.”
“How come you were too scared to go see what it was?” I asked. I thought I had put him in his place. After that scare, all Mama had to say was, “It’s beginning to get dark,” and we were out the door, heading for the henhouse so we’d be back to the house before sundown.
Doris and I never thought it was a ghost, but we were puzzled about what it could've been. As I’ve wondered about it over the years, I’ve concluded that probably it was a hawk sitting in the wagon. It was startled and flew up as we walked past. Hawks can be rather large, and the sideboards were shaky, so that could easily have caused them to rattle. It’s certainly more believable than a horse.
Doris tried to get out of our egg-gathering chore whenever she could. One afternoon, she had a headache.
“If you’ll gather them today, I’ll do it tomorrow by myself,” she promised. I took her at her word and brought the eggs in. The next day, she had too much homework, and repeated the promise she had made the day before, “I’ll gather them tomorrow by myself.” So, again, I gathered the eggs. When she had a completely different problem on the third day, it was too much. I told her “no,” and reminded her of her promise of the two days before. When she declared that wasn’t true, I began to recount exactly what had happened, repeating everything she’d said. We were standing in the kitchen, with Mama working nearby.
“On Monday,” I told her, “you said you had a headache, and if I would gather them, you would do it by yourself the next day. Tuesday, you said you had homework, and if I would gather them, you would do it by yourself the next day.”
I was interrupted by my sister Louise, “Will y’all stop fighting?”
“No. Leave them alone,” Mama said. I was stunned. I’d always thought it was unfair that Mama and Daddy could argue about things, but we kids never had a chance to settle a disagreement. Normally, she would’ve told us to stop, but that time, she allowed us to disagree, and to do it verbally. I don’t know why. Maybe she liked my lawyer-like approach – just facts. Maybe it was a welcome change from the usual, “No I didn’t” and “Yes you did.” In addition to being a whopper of a surprise for me, it was another “Aha” insight into adults.
She knows I’m right, I thought. But Doris is one of her pets. Mama’s afraid to tell her, so she’s letting me. I was so shocked by Mama's reaction, I don’t remember anything else. I don’t know if Doris and I continued the argument. And I don’t remember who gathered the eggs.