Just Folks

Uncle Henry sat on the edge of his lawn chair, hands folded over the top of his cane, as the children danced around him in the glows of sunlight and family love.

Their mothers held the birthday cake before him, candles all lit, and the children ceased their jumping to begin the call, “Make a wish Uncle Henry. C’mon, make a wish so we can eat the cake and ice cream.”

Henry tilted his head to squint at them from his round face, reaching up with one hand to pull the white cap snugger over his bald spot. “OK,” he said. “I’ve made my wish, but we need to get that cake cut in a hurry because I’ll tell you the wish with a story of who I am, OK?”

They put his plate with the angel food cake, vanilla ice cream and strawberries on a tray in his lap and spread the dessert feast on blankets on the ground for the half-dozen children in their tennis shoes and blue jeans to sit around him.

Abner, his brother, called from the folding table alongside where the adults sat, “Henry, remember, you’re the birthday boy. You promised the kids a birthday wish story. We’re all ready to listen.”

“Ah, well, I did promise the story, didn’t I,” Henry nodded, his head tilted again as he looked into the face of his small brown-haired niece, Annie, with mouth stuffed to overflowing.

“Well, I would wish to be a small boy again when the warmth of April brings the grass new green shooting from the ground, and the roses begin to sprout on the grandest day of the year. For me it was a day at least nearly as grand as Christmas, what a wish that could be to have a day as great again.

“That grand day was the day to go get new baby chickens at the hatchery. First we would go to the lumberyard where you walked through the back part where they had piles of lumber on two stories of catwalks. You’d smell that pitchey smell of new-cut pine, all sweet and burny to the nose at the same time. I could smell things a lot sharper then, I believe. They’d have burlap bags packed full of sawdust from the same piney lumber back by their big circle saw waiting for folks like us.

“You could lay your hands on the bags while your Dad and the lumberyard man stuffed the car trunk full of sacks of sawdust, that rough burlap cloth with little stickery bits of sawdust coming through it, giving just a little when you shoved on it. The piney smell, like somebody had been able to sweeten turpentine, seeped through the whole car from the trunk going on to the hatchery.

“At the hatchery, the man and woman would put little yellow fuzz-ball baby chickens into the cardboard boxes with the round holes poked through the sides. They were going ‘peep, peep, peep’ all over that hatchery, so many tiny voices they filled the place with noise. They would let me pick one up now and then very carefully to put it in the box too. They were really soft, and you had to hold them soft so you wouldn’t squash one. Sometimes the little chick would nibble at the edge of your hand when you held him, and tickled just nice.

“The chicks were all straight-run White Rocks for us to raise for fryers, all little yellow chicks that would grow into white chickens with meaty frames. Straight-run meant they were like you guys, both girls and boys, pullets and roosters. They didn’t sort them out. Even though they were meat chickens, my Mom and Dad would keep part of the pullets for egg laying. They laid nice big brown-shelled eggs.

“But you know what? I spotted something different. Right next to all those little yellow chickens was an open box full of little black chicks. They really caught my eye. They were cute, and they were beautiful, I thought. I started begging my Mama right away if I could please just have a couple of those little black chickens. She said ‘No,’ because the little yellow chickens were what we came after. I caught my Dad looking at me, and I decided to say I really liked those little black chickens just in case the folks decided to give me some slack.

“Finally the hatchery woman gave me a grin, and reached in to get two of those little black chickens. She said, ‘Oh, here we’ll give him a couple. They’re Black Australorpe cockerels, and I doubt we’ll be selling them anyway. They only wanted the pullets.’

“Well, I was just really tickled. On the car-ride home, Abner and I’d poke our fingers in the holes to get chick-nibbled, and lots of times the little chickens would poke their beaks through. I’d get down on the seat to try to look through the holes in the boxes to see my little black chicks, and Abner would try to say they were his too.

“At home, Mom and Dad backed the car up to the brooder house, a tin roofed quonset-looking building, and they carried the bags of sawdust and the boxes of baby chickens in. They spread that sweet smelling sawdust on the floor for bedding, all fluffy to walk through. They put the tin electric brooder with little red flaps hanging down out in the middle for the baby chickens to get under to stay warm. They put little metal chicken troughs with chick grower in it around the brooder, and turned glass jars full of water upside down on little chick water saucers so the water could come out whenever the chicks drank the level down.

“Then we opened the boxes to take the baby chickens out all together putting them under the brooder so they could get warmed up a little coming into their new home. We didn’t want any of them to get chilled. And, there was my two little black chickens. I held them for just a minute before putting them in, and they gave me a few little nibble pinches around the rims of my hands, like getting little kisses.

“It didn’t take many days before those hundreds of little chickens were scurrying all over running out from under the brooder to peck feed out of the troughs, get drinks or cuddle up with each other. I liked to play with them without getting too rough for their soft little bodies, holding them, putting a finger under their breast until they flapped their tiny wings. My black chicks got a lot of attention from Abner and me.

“The chicks grew fast. They’d have little fights with their necks stretched out looking at each other, then rearing with their feet at their opponents. I pulled for my black chicks to do well in these matches, and they sure seemed to.

“They grew little wing feathers and neck feathers first over the fuzz, and as they got bigger and bigger, the feathers began to cover their whole bodies. The brooder house had wired-in runways coming out a little chicken door in the front, so when the chickens got bigger, they could come out to sun themselves. We’d pull weeds and grass to push through the wire to them, and they sure did like the greens.

“When they finally got big enough, Mom and Dad would come down to catch a few in the mornings for Dad to cut their heads off. I’d check later to make sure the black chickens hadn’t been taken. Mom would gut the chickens killed, and dip them in scalding pails of water before picking the feathers off. I tried to help pluck them, but I was slow, and probably not of much account. Neither was Abner. She would have tin cans full of alcohol on fire at the house so the alcohol burned off the surface to singe the chickens over to take any pin feathers off that were left. It smelled like really strong candle wax, not perfumed, just the plain kind.

“I was sure relieved when it came time to turn the pullets that were being kept loose to graze, and catch bugs with the other chickens, and there were my two black chickens with them, almost all grown up.

“They got great big as the summer past by, nearly as tall as I was. There came a day when I came out the front door to play, and there was one of my roosters, great big and beautiful black, with shiney green in the black where the sun hit him. He had a fine big red comb on top his head, and a red wattle tongue under his beak. I thought he had to be one of the most beautiful chickens I had ever seen.

“But when I came down the porch stairs to get a closer look at that rooster, he stuck his neck out at me, and then ran right at me. He jumped clear up my belly thrashing me with his great big wings, and scraping me on the chest with his feet. I hollered really loud and tried to get away.

“Then here came my other black chicken from the other way, and he jumped on me too. Between the two of them, those chickens had me on the ground while I rolled around, them beating me from the head down to the toes. Let me tell you, I was really scared. Then my Mom came out with a stick and whacked them away from me. She held me while I cried. That was that. They weren’t cute any more, and I sure didn’t like those black roosters ever again.

“Hey, can I have just a little more cake and ice cream?”

The children watched Uncle Henry and waited as he began to eat. “Well, what happened, Uncle Henry?” called out his smallest niece, Annie.

“Yeah,” all the children cried out together. “What happened to the black chickens?”

“Didn’t you get to play in your yard anymore, Uncle Henry?” Annie asked pushing back a wisp of her dark hair.

“Boy,” said Uncle Henry smacking his lips together, “that sure was a good birthday dinner, especially the dessert. Yessir, I sure liked going to get baby chickens.

“Oh, the black roosters. Yes, we ate them. I forgave ’em, but I didn’t forget ’em. I asked Dad to cut their heads off, and he did the next morning. Mom let me help pluck them, and she said those feathers came off harder than they did on a white chicken.

“I sure do like roasted chicken with new corn on the cob and tomatoes.”

Annie stood up, and stomped her foot on the blanket, a tear beginning to trickle down her face. “Uncle Henry, you’re just like Aunt Mary says you are. You’re just a tough old bird.”

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