Meet The Farmer ~ Guest Post by Jimmy Holbrook

I am excited to share the following guest post with you all today.  My paternal family is full of really good "story tellers". My brother, Jimmy, is no exception.  Jimmy wrote this and posted it to his Facebook page.  When I read it, it brought back a flood of memories and a few tears as well.  The story told here by my brother takes place during the same time period that I wrote about last week and is a great addendum to that post, giving the reader even more insight into our lives during that period of time.  In addition, I think there are some really great lessons to be learned from this story.  A big thank you to my brother for giving me permission to share some of his memories.

(Please try to excuse the format.  When I copied and pasted from Facebook, it created the abnormal presentation.  Hopefully, it will not distract the reader from the story.)

Jimmy around the time of this story.  

Keeping chickens can teach a child responsibility and is a great way to introduce children to agriculture. I've kept chickens since I was about six years old. There are a lot of lessons that can be learned from a flock of chickens, but one chicken that I had came close to making me a juvenile delinquent.

Growing up, we lived on a farm with a large commercial chicken house that raised chicks from three days old up until the time they started laying eggs. These chickens had been sexed before they came and were supposed to be all females. Now for those that don’t care to read the details, skip down a little to get back to the story, but for inquiring minds this is how it is done. On the backside of that little fuzzy yellow chick there is a hole. Yes it’s that hole, but it’s called a “vent” in chicken terminology. A person sexing the chick removes what you can imagine might be in the vent blocking the view, and then inserts a finger to feel for a little bump. If it has a little bump it’s a male if it doesn't then it’s a female. Not the most glamorous job, but it actually takes a good bit of skill and a lot of experience and is very meticulous. Every time I hear someone derisively say that someone is “anal” about anything I think of sexing chicks.

Anyway, the chickens had already been sexed and came in on a box truck with a heated cargo bed. My parents would let my sister and I stay out of school to help when the baby chicks arrived. Actually there was a good bit of work that went on before the chicks got there. You had to go through the chicken house and lay down newspapers in the hundreds of cages so that the baby chick’s legs wouldn't fall through the wire. When the chicks came in it took a lot of manpower to get all those chicks off the warm truck and into the warm house as fast as possible and not lose any to the cold. I always remember the chicks that came into the farm we lived on were from Mississippi. More than once they were delivered by three black men. One of these guys was very jovial and the other two were quiet with not much too say. Their job was to get the chicks out of the truck but they didn't help you put them in the cages. I asked the jovial man if he liked his job one time. He kind of rolled his eyes and said, “in Mississippi a job is a job and I’m proud to do it.” The two quiet men kind of laughed, and I’m pretty sure it was at my question and not his answer.

So there were over thirty-two thousand chicks that were all supposed to be hens, but invariably a hundred or so roosters would wind up in the batch. Anyone who has been around chickens can tell if a chicken is a rooster or a hen within about four to six weeks. Now the policy of the chicken company that had the contract on these birds was that the males were all supposed to be “destroyed.” Yep, just take them out and kill them. That seemed awful wasteful to me so I talked to the man whose farm we lived on and he agreed to sell me the male birds for a dime a piece. He could have just given them to me since he was supposed to kill them anyway, but I guess he wanted to “learn” me something; plus he liked a dollar. I had my business plan in place as a seven year old kid. I had the ten dollars to purchase a hundred roosters, and I’d already figured out how to get the feed. The large commercial house had cages built over manure pits with concrete aisles between each row of cages. When the automated feeders came on there was always some feed that spilled over onto the concrete aisles that had to be swept. I had swept those aisles before and we took the feed to my dad’s hogs, so I could sweep more often and get feed for my roosters.

So I talked to my dad about my plans. He asked me where I was going to keep a hundred cockerels and I said I would build a pen. Dad then asked me where I was going to get the money to buy the chicken wire and build a shelter. The cost for materials and construction of my small chicken house and pen hadn't been factored into my business plan, so dad agreed to loan me the money for the wire and he would help me build the house. We took four posts and put them in the ground with plywood all around the outside and then sat an old camper shell on top of that for a roof and made a large chicken run by running the wire around a grove of cedar trees to save the expense of posts. My entire bill was now a little over $30. I calculated the $30 I would have to pay my dad back and the $10 I was spending on the male chicks. It became pretty clear, even in my seven year old mind that I wasn't going to make a fortune off this first batch of chicks.

Everything worked out pretty good on that first batch. I raised those one hundred or so roosters and then sold them to three of my dad’s friends. They all came over one Saturday morning early and we started plucking chickens. It never once crossed my mind at the time that I should have just sold the chickens to them and let them take them home and butcher them. It was a long day but at the end of the day I had $55. I had made $15 on my first batch and the next batch would be all profit. Of course I never factored in the hours I spent sweeping feed in the commercial house and chasing roosters that escaped from time to time and the long day of butchering. If a farmer ever factored in his time we would all starve; that was the first lesson learned in my first poultry operation.

I raised several batches of roosters and would clear $40-$70 each time. A kid could purchase a good bit in the late 70's on that kind of money. I thought I was getting rich. I had expanded my poultry operation to include some hens and was selling eggs as well. A friend of my dad’s gave me a young banty hen. Just a small little game bird but I became very attached to her. She would follow me around in the pen, so I got to where I would let her out from time to time. That little hen would follow me all over the yard making those maternal clucking sounds that a good mother hen makes. One time I was shooting old bottles out of the junk pile with my .22 and was reaching down to pull an old pickle jar out when she went into a fit. On further inspection there was a big king snake curled up in that junk pile. I was convinced that hen loved me, and I knew I loved her. She hatched out several batches of chicks.

Someone gave me some fertilized duck eggs that I put under her and she hatched out three baby ducks. She mothered those ducks like they were her own flesh and blood. It was funny to watch these ducks, who within just a few weeks had grown larger than their surrogate mother, follow this little banty hen and obey her motherly clucks. Even funnier was seeing these big ole’ ducks try to get under her wings. They would wind up with just their heads stuck under her wings with their tails up in the air sleeping away. To this day I don’t know how that hen knew that those ducks would want to swim, but she would take them down to the pond in front of our house and let them get their swimming time in. She would abide by their natural instinct for water for a while and then start making that “calling” sound a hen makes when it’s time for the chicks to be close to momma. Obediently these three large ducks would come out of the pond and follow the little hen back up the hill to the chicken pen.

All went well for a year or two with my chicken operation. I was selling those meat birds and selling eggs, but then everything changed. One day I came home from school and dad told me that the chicken company that contracted for the chickens in the commercial chicken house had found out about my operation. They weren't happy. They said that my chickens could give those chickens down there in that big house diseased. I’m not sure about the science in 1978 regarding avian sicknesses, but I know today there are lots of strict rules about commercial poultry producers and contamination because of avian bird flu. Regardless of the science, it didn't make much sense to me then. Dad said that the guy from the poultry company was going to take some blood from my chickens and see if they were infected with anything.

The next day I came home from school and went to my chicken pen like I always did. There next to the fence was the lifeless body of my little hen. They had come and taken blood samples from my chickens and undoubtedly drew the same amount of blood out of that little hen as they did the large breed birds in the pen. At first I was sad. I ran across the field behind the chicken house to “my spot.” It was the place in the edge of the woods where I always went when I didn't want to be found. My sadness turned into anger. I was furious that these guys who had tens of thousands of birds would come and kill my little banty hen. There was no way anyone should get by with such a senseless killing of an innocent little mother hen. I was convinced justice must be served. I went back to the house and went and got my .22 rifle assuring myself that I must avenge my little hen’s death.

Now I know today most folks wouldn't dream of letting their eight or nine year old out of the house unsupervised with a rifle. Times were different then I suppose. I wasn't allowed to have my gun if friends came over and my dad drilled gun safety into me to the point that I would unload my gun totally if I had to cross a fence. I shot snakes and rats, not only in my chicken pen, but also in the barn and in the hog house. I never once thought about being irresponsible with a gun. It was just part of life and a tool that we used.

There was also that Scots-Irish sense of avenging a wrong that was, and to an extent still is, part of my DNA. I had heard stories, and even seen a time or two, folks in my family get riled up about a wrong that needed to be righted. There’s a sense of honor and justice in folks that come from a Appalachian background that some people just don’t understand. Sometimes those confrontations could get pretty confrontational.

So here was my plan: the guy with the chicken company had to come down the long gravel driveway at the foot of the hill our house was on to get to the commercial chicken house. There was a ditch behind some trees and I was going to get in that ditch with my rifle. When he drove his truck by I was going to shoot at least one tire out, two or three if I could get the shots in before I got caught. In my eight year old mind that was justice. My hen – this corporate chicken man’s tires; it sounded like just retribution to me. After all, I didn’t like this guy anyway. He wore a lot of Vasoline VO5 in his slicked back hair and never wore a cap. He had a gold chain necklace and had rings on more than just his wedding band finger. He always smelled like a bottle of after-shave. In my mind that was no way for a chicken man to look or smell. Plus, he always winked at my older sister and flirted with the teenage daughter of the guy who owned the farm we lived on. Tammy was my sister and Cherie was….well, I had a crush on her and even though she was a good bit older than me and there was never any chance of her even noticing a little guy like me -still she was my Cherie; not the good-smelling, Elvis-haired, jewelry-wearing “chicken” man’s. He had no business flirting with either one of them. I didn’t like him one little bit and now he had taken the life of my best hen.

As I was headed to the door with my plan in my head and my gun in my hand, my dad came home early from work and caught me headed out. He could see my tear-stained face and undoubtedly the Holbrook anger in my blood-shot eyes. Now back in the day, my dad could get pretty excitable. He had a bad temper and responded to most every emotional situation with an “outside” voice. This time was different. He calmly said, “What’s wrong son?” I didn’t say a word just walked up to the chicken pen and he followed with his lunch bucket and thermos still in his hands and his jacket thrown across one arm. He saw the lifeless body of my little hen. Neither of us said a word. The tears were in my eyes again and I didn’t want him to see me cry so I stared at the ground. Dad kneeled down on one knee and picked up my little hen. I glanced up and he was very emotional. Now I’m sure that dad was upset about my hen, but even more he was upset because I was, as we say in my family, “tore up.” Finally he spoke and calmly said, “What were you going to do with that gun son?” 

I snotted and stammered and tried to speak. I managed to get across that my hen was dead and that chicken man was going to pay. Dad reached and got my rifle and walked down the hill to the house, never saying another word. He took the rifle in the house. I went and got a shovel to bury my hen. I was burying her next to our dog “Lady” up on the hill behind the house at the edge of the woods near “my spot.”

I couldn’t see the driveway from where I was burying my hen, but I heard a vehicle coming down it. I just knew it was that chicken man. I ran to a crest on the hill to see. Sure enough his little white Ford truck with the name of the poultry company was headed down the driveway. I saw the door fly open from the house and dad run to his truck and fire it up. He had seen the chicken man as well. He slung gravel as he backed up and headed down the hill. The rifle was still in the house, but I knew my dad was going to serve justice on that cheap after shave –wearing chicken man.

A few days later I had to shut down my poultry operation. The chicken company had decreed that my birds were a hazard. Dad arranged a meeting between the corporate-chicken man and the little guy- chicken farmer. I could tell the chicken man didn't want to have this conversation. I have no idea what my dad said to him on the day my hen died, and I wouldn't be a bit surprised if there weren't some threats made, but here we were - the big corporate man with the little guy, having a discussion about how it had been “scientifically proven” that my birds “could” give his birds diseases. He talked about bio-hazards and contamination. I was getting tired of his big-word ramblings and finally he said it. The chicken man admitted that they had killed my little hen. He admitted that they took more blood than they should have out of her. I could feel my blood boiling and my mountain, feuding roots were showing. Then he offered to pay me for my hen. I’m quite sure that wasn't the fancy-pants chicken man’s idea, but undoubtedly my dad had made it quite clear that this was how it was going to be. The chicken man asked what I thought she was worth. I thought for a minute and said “Ten dollars.” That was a lot of money for a hen in 1978. The chicken man started to protest the price and looked at my dad. I think he saw that mountain-raised sense of justice and retribution in my dad’s eyes and reached for his wallet; deciding it was worth the exorbitant price to end this feud.

I didn’t get chickens again until we moved off that farm. My .22 rifle disappeared from my room and I had to ask to get it out of my dad’s closet until I reached my teen-aged years. I took the $10 and put it in the missionary offering at church. That was blood money and I couldn't justify spending it. I gave the money to the Lord just knowing that “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, sayeth the Lord.” He would make that chicken man really pay someday.

As I said at the beginning, a lot of lessons can be learned from raising chickens. That early experience influenced my thinking on politics and how the little guy needs some protection from corporate greed. Yes, I've been a Democrat for a long time. It taught me some theological truths about vengeance and justice and leaving things to the Lord. In retrospect it shows me how close I came to being a felon. It also showed me the sense of protection and love that a daddy will show his son, even if he can’t put it into words.

No comments: