News and Tribune

August 27, 2013

BEAM: Rules of the roost

By AMANDA BEAM
Local columnist

— City folk nowadays act like they know chickens. Just look around. Having a couple of laying hens in a dolled up backyard coop is all the rage. People feel sort of countrified at the prospect, like owning the fancy fowl connects them back to their long forgotten rural roots.

I once knew a man who would have scoffed at these small-time feather fluffers. For more than 30 years, close to 100 birds scratched and clucked on his little half-an-acre parcel of land in Clarksville. Sure, he broke laws having them there. Roosters crowed. Neighbors complained. But like a chicken Cosa Nostra, those in the know for some reason let him be.

They called him The Colonel. I called him Papa.

Now he didn’t earn his rank from having fought in a war, mind you, but from the formal proclamation proudly hanging on his dining room wall. This framed paper made him a Kentucky Colonel and around the banks of the Ohio, at least in his mind, that was about as good as the Star Spangled kind any day of the week.

Stories began to circulate about this untouchable old man. Some swore he had sold a Grand Champion hen for $100. Others said he had trained a rooster to shout a mighty cock-a-doodle-doo more than 80 times in a half-an-hour for a contest. Still, a few whispered about the time he took a 12 gauge and got even with a hungry opossum that for weeks had been nibbling on his flock.

And then there was the near-death experience.

If you had stopped by for a spell on his porch he might have been so kind as to pull out a tire gauge. The shards of metal were split straight through and torn in two. A robber had tried to shoot him in the heart as he attempted to foil a hold up at his service station. Many thought his goose should have been cooked, but the tire gauge in his breast pocket deflected the gunshot and sent it into his stomach. Even with the wound, he chased his would-be-assassin through the backyard chicken coops until he just could go no farther.

“There are pieces of that bullet still in my belly,” he said with a jab to his paunch. “Just look in an x-ray and there they will be.”

Maybe it was this dance with the devil that hardened my grandfather in the ways of rooster-raising. The chickens saw him at his weakest, so from then on out, he’d show them his strongest. Of course, the crime happened when I was just a hopeful egg myself so I only can speculate.

Years later, Papa trained me as his most trusted apprentice in the chicken way. His poultry wasn’t for that other, more famous Colonel’s red and white striped buckets. Show chickens were his game. Every year he piled them high in some old rickety crates and hauled them off to the Kentucky State Fair to win fame, glory and an occasional crowing contest.

Before the adventure, each banty hen and rooster had to be washed with dove dish soap and dried using a hair dryer. Bathing a chicken isn’t like prettying up a dog. The key to getting through the experience unscathed depends on how you hold them. With chickens, you spread your fingers wide, palm up, and grab both their feet and their wings in one grasp, almost like you’re pitching a pecking softball.

“Don’t let them feel your fear,” he shouted with two roosters dangling like pompoms from his arms. “They’ll take advantage of it.”

Certain other rules applied at the house. You never ate eggs he scrambled, at least according to Granny. Roosters were in the coops with the hens which mean that you might get a little bony surprise in your morning omelet. Not to be hen-pecked, the aging man one-upped his wife and boiled vats of the questionable eggs and fed them to the other chickens.

“Protein helps their feathers shine,” Papa said. Our fowl only needed some fava beans and a nice Chianti to complete the sinister scene.

As I grew up, the Colonel grew older. By the late 90s, he started to go downhill. Dementia crept in and all the stories of his glory days were told in a constant loop, one overlapping another like feathers covering a fragile wing. Before long, he grew too weak to care for the birds he loved and they were sold off as a bundle to an old competitor. At 89, he died in a hospital of old age, the bullet from decades before still lodged in his belly.

Tough old birds like Papa aren’t forgotten easily, nor should they be. And in his wisdom, there’s a thing or two those new chicken-teers could learn. Dove soap, anyone?