Grandpa (”Pop”) raised chickens and pigeons and kept a nice vegetable garden with chicken wire all around to dissuade the rabbits as well. The chickens provided plenty of eggs. I got to know each chicken by name and personality, and nearly always could recognize which eggs came from which chickens, by a combination of where they were laid and their size and shape. The Leghorns laid big white eggs, and the Rhode Island Reds laid brown ones. One of the Barred Rocks almost always laid double yolks. I kept careful records of egg production and shared them with my grandfather.
The chickens roamed the yards freely but Pop always ushered them into their coop for the night. One of my favorite chickens was a wild looking little Red Leghorn hen I named “Biddie.” She was a good flier and sometimes spent the middle of the day up in the trees resting and eating bugs. I noted that her egg production had dropped off. By providing Pop with this information I had unknowingly sealed her fate. One day my grandmother, whom I called “Sweetheart” (read more about her here), prepared a nice chicken fricassee and I did not know it was Biddie. They told me it after I had eaten. I felt worse than a cannibal and had bad dreams about it afterward.
The chickens drew rats, and they were quite a problem. I helped my grandfather set out traps for them. My cousin “Corky” (Walter) and I eventually took over the task of placing and emptying the traps, and Pop paid us a penny for each mouse and five cents per rat. We called ourselves the “MP,” short for Mouse Patrol.
We had to place the traps away from where the chickens might get caught, so it was a bit frustrating to see rats running free inside the chicken coop. One evening we hatched a great plan. The chicken coop was actually an old garage with a dirt floor. At night the chickens roosted on several dowels along the right wall. The nests where we collected the eggs were in the back. The building had big hinged wooden doors with small windows near the top. The windows were all broken out, so we got a step ladder and took turns looking in at the rats.
One of my prize possessions was a longbow and a set of arrows with bullet points. Dad let me practice only under his supervision, shooting at a target placed safely against the side of our garage. That evening I snuck the bow and arrows out of the house. I figured I could pick off the rats at a nickle a pop. Sure enough, the rats started coming out to the chickens’ watering trough in the center of the room. I took aim at a big one and let an arrow fly. Unfortunately, the small window opening interfered with the mechanics of my release, and the arrow veered off sharply to the right.
Immediately there was loud squawking. All occupants of the henhouse also burst into noisy cackles. A big Rhode Island Red hen lay, flopping it the dirt, beneath the roosting area. A quick survey revealed that my arrow had penetrated the backside of the hen. After pulling the arrow out, I returned her to the perch, which she grasped weakly and unsteadily. The racket quickly died down and Corky furtively took down the ladder as I slipped back to hide the bow and arrows under my back porch. We both ran over to the grounds of the school across the street and then walked around the block to agree upon our strategy, which was to tell no one. When I got home I did my best to look normal, but I had the feeling that Mom knew something was going on.
The next morning, Pop went out to feed the chickens and found one of them dead. He said he thought a weasel had killed it, and the rats had gotten to its body as well. Corky and I maintained silence and never even talked to each other about it again.
In later years my attitude toward the chickens hardened, and I even helped Pop catch and kill pullets that he raised for frying. Pop did carpentry work all his life, and sharpened saws and anything else with an edge in his little workshop next to the chicken coop. The Junk Man was his major competitor for knife and scissor sharpening, but only Pop sharpened saws. He had an assortment of huge wooden clamps that held even the largest saws, and used triangular files of varying sizes.
Pop spit tobacco on the blades as a lubricant. People brought in their saws from all over town, and you could hear the rasping for hours on end. He also had whetstones and oilstones of every description for sharpening. The place smelled of motor oil and spit. Also of urine, as he usually peed on a pile of sawdust in the corner. The ever-renewable supply of nitrogen-rich sawdust always ended up as mulch on the vegetable garden. When it was time to kill a chicken Pop sharpened a hatchet blade to the point that it would cut paper.