When you’re a child, living on a farm is just about the most marvelous thing in the world. There is so much to do, and it’s so easy to get into trouble. Libby and I, who were really best friends as well as sisters, found all sorts of things to keep us busy. Between the woods and the barnyard, we could stay busy all day. We loved to play with all the farm animals but were particularly fond of the chickens. They were always around and so easy to manipulate. Now, I don’t claim to be proud of some of the things we did, but we never actually harmed any of them, so I don’t feel guilty about any of the things, either. The chickens were no worse for the wear, and Libby and I certainly exercised our imaginations.
Perhaps just watching the hens lay their eggs was the most benign of our activities. If you’ve never seen this miracle of nature, the best way to explain it is to think of it as giving birth almost every day (not the most pleasant thought). As an observer, I can tell you that, as in any birth, the process isn’t always a quick one, especially when you’re 10, and standing as still and quietly as you can so as not to disturb the hen. Libby and I would stand or sit nearby and wait and wait. Then, at a certain point in the process, the hen is on the nest to stay. Unless she was really “flighty,” Libby and I could actually move up closer to her without reservation, and we did since we wanted the best vantage point to see her lay her egg.
Laying an egg is hard work for the hen, and it shows as she begins to push the egg into position and then out. We could see her “bear down” so to speak, then let up, and finally, when the egg was in position to actually be laid, she really went at it. As she squeezed to get the egg out, she would close her eyes, and often make a slight grunting noise as she pushed. This would go on for a couple of minutes, and then there was the egg, bright and shiny, in the nest beneath her. The whole process was over until another day. After a short rest, off the nest she would jump and “strut her stuff” all the way out of the barn.
Before leaving the barn, Libby and I collected an egg or two from the nest without any intentions of turning them over to Maw and Paw. Any eggs we collected without Maw’s or Paw’s knowledge were destined to fuel our fun. It really “ruffled Paw’s feathers” when his egg count would go down for he knew that a hen had hidden out its nest, usually somewhere between the dirt road and the creek in the brambles and brush. He watched until he saw a hen make its way across the dirt road, then he carefully followed to see “why the chicken crossed the road.”. Sometimes a hidden nest could have up towards two dozen eggs in it before he caught a glimpse of the hen attempting to make her way there. Once Paw found the nest, he “broke it up.” In other words, he took the eggs and tore up the nest. All was well until the next hen decided to do the same thing.
So, one of the things Libby and I did with the egg or two we snatched out from under hens each day was to build a nest for the eggs and add to them each day until Paw realized the eggs were running short again. We could hardly keep from laughing out loud as Paw watched each day for the outlaw hen to sneak off to her hidden nest, but, of course, he “was counting his chickens before they hatched,” because Libby and I were the culprits. We carried on this ruse for a week or so, then, if Paw hadn’t found the nest, we took all the eggs from it and distributed them among the nests in the barn. Paw had a banner egg collection on those days. One time, though, the “yolk” was one us, for one of the hens actually started using the nest we built!
Hiding nests was only the beginning of our “fowl” play. Somehow, we managed to find several ways to have fun at the poor chickens’ expense. I have no idea how we ever chanced upon our next game, but once we had it figured out, it was about all we did one summer. You wouldn’t think chasing after a chicken could be so entertaining, but it sure was.
We loved racing each other and running with the dogs, so running after the chickens was just a natural extension of that need to expend energy. At first, Libby and I each chose a target, thinking it would be easy to catch a chicken, but we soon discovered that a chicken can run faster and more erratically than anyone would think. We never caught a single hen. We ran like “a chicken with its head cut off,” but we could not run fast enough or long enough. (To this day, I don’t know what we would have done with the chicken had we actually caught one!)
We needed to “hatch” a new idea. Instead of each of us chasing a separate chicken, it occurred to us one day that maybe we might be better off to pool our physical resources and stamina, so we decided to both run after the same hen and take turns, so that when one of us got winded, the other could take over, and vice versa. That way, surely one of us could catch up to the chicken. Now we were in business. We ran all over that barnyard, chasing after our chosen victim, but the way she zigged and zagged, we still couldn’t catch her.
We probably chased that poor hen somewhere between five and ten minutes and were just about to give up when the strangest thing happened. All of sudden, that hen just sat down. She abruptly stopped running and just sat right down. Stunned, Libby and I looked at each other. Sure that she would “fly the coop” just as soon as we got within five feet of her, we eased forward. Nothing happened We kept easing forward. She made no attempt to move. Then we were right there at her, and still, she just sat there.
We should have been excited that we were actually in a position to pick the hen up, but we “chickened out.”. It had suddenly occurred to us that we may have caused her to have a stroke or heart attack, and that was the last thing we wanted. We knew we would be in trouble like we had never been in trouble before. I took a stick and poked at her gently, but she still didn’t move. Neither of us knew what to do to help her, and it was then that we knew our “chickens had come home to roost.” We decided that we deserved whatever punishment that would eventually be doled out to us.
We slowly walked away, stopping every few feet to look around at the still breathlessly heaving chicken. We had probably gotten about 50 yards from her when we looked around one last time. We were just ready to turn and go confess our sins to Maw when we saw her move just a bit, then a bit more. Then the “bird brain” stood up, fluffed out her feathers, and shook off whatever it was that had stopped her from running. She turned and walked, not ran, mind you, to join the other chickens. Libby and I were relieved beyond belief. Not only would we not need to confess a terrible wrong-doing, but now that we knew the hens would be all right, we were set for fun for the rest of the summer.
Oh, but there’s more. At some point in our middle pre-teen years, Paw got a little too carried away telling Libby and me stories of how kids entertained themselves when he was young. Most of what he told us wasn’t practical in our situation, but one thing was, and we couldn’t wait to give it a try. Again, the chickens incurred no real harm, but we were delighted with the whole ball of wax.
First, we got several handfuls of corn from the corn barrel. Next, we found a small nail, and using Paw’s hammer, we punched a small hole through two of the larger kernels of corn. Then, we tied a piece of thin twine through the hole in each of the kernels. We were set now! Barely able to wait to try out our little plan, we ran out into the barnyard and started calling the chickens, “Here, chick, chick, chick!” And the chickens came running.
We threw out all the corn we had, and then each of us tossed out the kernel of corn attached to the string. It felt sort of like we were fishing, but in this case, we could see the bait and could see the prey coming in for the catch. Sure enough, it wasn’t long before one of the chickens gobbled up my kernel, and then, another gulped down Libby’s. We waited just a second, and then, both of us gave the strings a quick jerk. Up and out came the kernels of corn, and each of the chickens looked a bit bewildered as she gave her head a shake and let out a small squeak. Each hesitated a minute, then went right back to eating. We thought it was all great fun!
We also found the chickens to be quite useful in other ways. Basically garbage disposals on legs, they will eat almost anything put in front of them…including some things that might make you never want to eat chicken or eggs again. Libby and I discovered this in a moment of desperation that spawned our creativity.
We loved to swing on our tire swing in the barnyard. It dangled from a chain attached to a large branch in one of the apple trees. Unfortunately, the cows loved our tire swing just as much as we did. No, they didn’t ride in it! They loved to scratch their necks against the chain. And as they scratched their necks, they often did other things on the ground right where we needed to walk and place our feet to crawl in the tire. That’s just not something you really want to carry around on your shoes, so we had to find a way to get rid of the stuff.
Chickens to the rescue! Another couple of handfuls of corn was all we needed to make all those meadow muffins disappear. Expertly spread over the whole of our problem, we called the chickens, “Here chick, chick, chick!” and they came running. In no time flat, the corn along with all the cowpile had disappeared! We could swing again without fear of messing up our shoes.
Who would have ever thought chickens could provide so much entertainment? It’s a wonder Maw and Paw’s hens ever laid eggs at all, but for all our harassment, they were never any worse for the wear. What is even more amazing is that neither Maw nor Paw ever got after us for our chicken antics. I’m not sure I would have been quite so understanding of our “fowl” play.