When I started first grade in 1952 in a one room schoolhouse near Bristol, Ohio, we actually walked a mile one way to school. I admit it was only uphill in one direction, but we did walk to and from school in the snow, and as best I can recall we never had a snow day.
The old schoolhouse, which still serves as a private residence today, had a big pot belly coal stove in one corner and two outhouses out back. Most people who lived in town had indoor plumbing, but in those days outhouses were still the standard in the country at home and at school.
Occasionally, Dad would be home for some reason and would drive us to and from school. We took turns riding on the running board of his 1938 Ford. Even at six I enjoyed my turn, hanging on with one hand while waving the other in the wind. Such a thing would never happen today but it sure was fun.
Times were tough in those days. Soup beans and potatoes with biscuits or cornbread were our staple diet, along with whatever we could raise in a small vegetable garden each summer. Because of Mom’s gypsy blood we moved at least once every year, but the moves were always coordinated to harvest the fruits of our labor, rather than leave them for someone else to enjoy.
Despite our frequent moves we did manage to keep a few chickens for eggs and for an occasional skillet of fried chicken. When I think of red meat as a child the only things that come to mind are hot dogs and bologna, although we did occasionally enjoy some fatback bacon. Of course, Mom always saved the bacon grease, or drippings as we called them, to use for gravy or to fry potatoes and eggs.
Speaking of chickens and eggs brings to mind the two White Rock hens we acquired that fall in 1952. We had just moved from the one-room shack on the levy in Newark, which we had called home from spring until the end of summer. As cold weather approached I think Mom and Dad realized the risks associated with trying to heat the little shack during the winter without burning it to the ground and, fearfully, with us in it. There was only one choice; it was time to move again.
We had not much more than settled into the old farmhouse near Bristol when Dad brought the two White Rock chickens home one evening. Actually, they were still pullets, about four or five months old, and had not yet begun to lay eggs. Mom decided rather than make one meal out of the chickens we would keep them for their eggs. Her strategy brings to mind Aesop’s Fable about the goose that laid the golden egg. Unlike the farmer who killed the goose to get the gold he presumed was inside, Mom wisely decided to be frugal. We would put off the immediate pleasure of eating the chickens to enjoy the daily ration of eggs they could provide.
But Mom was also a practical woman. She was not going to wait indefinitely for those White Rocks to begin laying eggs.
It was early October and she told those chickens, straight to their faces, to either begin laying eggs by Thanksgiving or they would be our Thanksgiving dinner.
Dad turned a little shed into a chicken coop with nest boxes and built a small run for the chickens to scratch and eat bugs outside without fear of being eaten by a varmint.
And so the waiting began. Before walking to school each morning and upon our return each evening we kids checked the nest boxes and reported our findings to Mom. There were a lot of cackling false alarms but no eggs. As October turned into November I think some family members, including yours truly, forgot about the eggs and began to imagine how delicious roast chicken would taste on Thanksgiving Day.
Two days before Thanksgiving one of the White Rocks received a reprieve. About midday she started cackling louder than ever before and after what must have been 10 minutes of considerable effort she managed to expel her first egg. She continued to cackle for another ten minutes, no doubt thankful that she would not become our Thanksgiving dinner.
The second hen had, of course, observed the entire affair, and for the rest of the day appeared sullen and depressed, realizing she had but one more day to either produce an egg or meet her doom. The next day she sat on the nest all day, seemingly trying her best to lay an egg, but to no avail; and watching her nest mate lay a second egg didn’t help.
On Thanksgiving morning I heard Mom and Dad discussing the status of the non-laying hen. Dad thought she surely would begin to lay, if given another day or two. But Mom said, “A deal is a deal.” That was the end of it.
Mom placed a big kettle of water on the stove to boil while Dad went to the chicken house and caught the eggless chicken. Using the old fashioned method, he grabbed her by the neck and began to swing her around and around, then with a sudden jerk off came her head, still in his hand as her body bounced around in front of us.
And what do you suppose happened? Sure enough, as the headless hen bounced around on the ground out popped a big white egg, and it even landed so as not to break. I think if he could Dad would have reattached her head, but the deed was done.
I’ll skip the details of watching Mom dip, pluck, singe, and gut the chicken except to note, as she removed the hen’s egg sack, there were several more eggs taking form to be laid over the next few days.
I learned a lot about life that day, most importantly to always do my best to finish a task by the given deadline, and that doing so a day or two ahead of time is even better. I also learned that roast chicken tastes mighty good.
George Brown is a freelance writer. He lives in Jackson Township.