31 January 2008

Down on the Farm

I spent most of my early childhood in an Ohio suburb where my dad was a police officer. Before that, he was in the military, and we did tours in Georgia and Kansas, but I mostly remember Ohio. During my 8th grade year, my parents (basically Mom) decided we needed a change. We were moving to the country! We would get back to basics, grow our own food, drink well water and unpasteurized milk, and eschew grocery stores in favor of homegrown eggs and livestock. My sister and I would benefit from small-town life in countless ways. It was to be a great adventure.

Mom worked at the city government center, right next door to the police department, and she was a vivacious presence. Her coworkers and the boys in blue surprised her with a big going-away party. The gifts were of the living, breathing, shitting type, in the form of a real live goat, some chickens and a pig. We had to keep them in the suburbs until the move was finalized. Our neighbors were less than thrilled, and I'm sure we broke some city ordinances, but with Daddy being a cop and all, I guess they looked the other way.

I, being eighth-grader in the throes of a junior high romance that was sure to result in marriage and happily-ever-after, was having none of it. I would not leave my boyfriend or my friends. I would not live with a bunch of hicks. I was not going, and that was final.

We moved that summer, to about 30 acres outside a small town in southern Ohio, population just under 6,000. I was shocked to discover that this was considered the big time by local standards. Why, we were the county seat! We had the fair. Land sakes, we had the stockyards right next to the high school, with livestock auctions every Thursday right outside our classrooms. We had a stoplight in the center of town, after all, along with a McDonalds out State Route 62, and even a Dairy Queen out route 124 past Pea Ridge Road. We had 17 churches, y'all. By local standards, we had landed smack dab in the midst of a bustling metropolis.

Mom, having read all the back issues of Mother Earth News, was determined to jump right into farm life. She painted our mailbox with bright colors, proudly proclaiming the presence of Rainbow Ridge Farm. Turns out our definition of "farm" and the local definition were two different things, but we wouldn't realize that for some time. Other meanings of the rainbow emblazoned across that mailbox are still not realized to this day, if you know what I mean, and I think you do.

Mom's first project was the chickens. We would have our own eggs, raise our own meat, and sell the extra for fun and profit. Mom figured she needed a twist on the usual old chicken & egg operation, something clever to make us stand out. A hook. She ordered exotic chickens. A lot of them. These were chickens with names like Tophat Special, Black Cochin, Blue Andalusian, and Phoenix. They sported glorious flowing feathers, worn as hats or boots, and came in wild assortments of colors. These were some fancypants birds. Mom also got some Bantams, cocky miniature gents, strutting imperiously around the yard. Who wouldn't be proud to add birds like these to their flock?

Almost as an afterthought, Mom invested in some of the more traditional (read: boring) chickens, Leghorns and the like. (Pronounced "Leg'erns", not as in "Fog-horn Leg-horn". They'll know you're not born 'n' raised if you say "Leg-horn". I found that out.) These hens would show themselves to be the steady layers, and also ended up as pets for my sister. Sis spent many an hour communing with her winged yet flightless friends, a pair of Rhode Island Reds named Oh Tame One and Two Tame One, a Buff Orpington hen inexplicably dubbed Mr. Man, and the queen of the flock, a Barred Plymouth Rock called Clara Clucker. Clara was also somewhat of a hussy, judging by the missing feathers on her head, where the rooster often grabbed hold for some obnoxious courting.

Chicken as pet, of course, was not the norm in farm country, but then, we weren't your typical farm family, even down to Mom's method of poultry raising. Well, these were fancy birds! They couldn't be left to fend for themselves in a cold, dark barn. Mom installed one of those plastic, blue baby pools in our dining room, complete with heat lamp, where the chicks began their lives. Turns out there wasn't much call for fancy poultry on most farms, so we ended up with a good sized flock of the oddest looking chickens around. We had plenty of eggs, though.

No matter, a chicken's a chicken, whether plain or fine, and chickens are for eating or laying. Mom donned her coveralls, boiled a giant pot of water, and armed with instructions from one of her farming books, set out to get us a chicken dinner. First there was the question of how to kill the bird. The axe method didn't appeal to Mom, so she decided on the swing method. Grasping the bird around the neck, she swung him round and round and round, the idea of course, being to break the neck. Mom, spent, finally dropped the lifeless bird to the ground. Before she could catch her breath and dunk him in the scalding pot to loosen the feathers for plucking, that bird raised itself up and ran straight away, Mom hot on its trail. At that point, I couldn't watch any more, but much later that night, a scrawny, stringy meal, flanked by potatoes and carrots, appeared on our dinner table. I refused, but Mom didn't put in all that work for nothing; she insisted everyone give it a try. She assured us this free-range bird would be so much tastier than those awful, store-bought, chemical-filled carcasses that we'd never go back to freezer fare. We all took a bite, chewed ... and chewed and chewed. Mom tried to keep a cheery smile pasted on, but she mercifully gave up, leading the charge to scrape the remaining bits into the trash. It was back to plump birds encased in plastic, fresh from the meat aisle after that.

Chickens were not the only farm fowl in those days. We had three geese: Uncle Ed and his harem. I'm not sure what the original purpose of the geese was. I think Mom had the idea to introduce goose eggs to the local palate. (She also thought to introduce goat milk to dairy country, but that's another story.) It is possible that Mom's idea was to have a Christmas goose on the table, but if so, the chicken dinner incident clearly took care of that. Regardless of their intended purpose, the geese soon found their niche. They were guard geese. Seriously people, if you need a guard animal, consider a goose. They will beat out any dog. Our geese would patrol the perimeter of what we considered the "yard", which was basically the part we actually mowed with the mower. If a car turned down our quarter mile gravel lane (that's "driveway" to you city folk) they would come a-honkin' and a-flappin' to accost the intruder. Geese can have a five-foot wingspan, and they're strong. When they're running up to you, pumping their necks and honking and flapping their wings, trust me, you think twice (or twicet) before messing with them.

I loved the geese. Sis was a chicken gal, but something about their sharp pointy faces, beady eyes, and jerking strut kept me from getting too warm and fuzzy with the chickens. The geese though, were round and plump with nice eyes. They, like most of our other "livestock", became pets. I thought them adorable. They would sit in my lap and make quieter versions of their honking sound. I'd pet them and carry them, and they'd follow me and Sis on our rounds. They were loyal and their comical antics made me laugh. They were also the source of that Midwestern phrase that still slips out, unbidden, from time to time, especially on snowy days: "Damn, that's slicker'n goose shit!" Goose shit, of course, being some of the slickest stuff around.

Future installments to follow: the school bus, the great goat debacle, donkeys and peppermint candy, Pig, the Buck Stove, and FFA.

21 January 2008

Hearing Dr. King

I've been trying to write something meaningful about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. today, but haven't been able to do that effectively. Here are his own words, rather than mine.

This clip contains Dr. King's thoughts on the war of his time, and could be spoken as is, today. His words are, as the poster put it, "amazingly relevant" to what is happening in our current world situation. There is also a moving bit from his last speech ... prophetic words there as well, that bring up goose pimples.

This next clip is a condensed version of the I Have a Dream speech, with photos and a good music beat. Again with the goose pimples.

And this last one, if you have a little more time to listen on this day, is the full version I Have a Dream speech.

I'm not much for videos -- drives me nuts not to be able to multitask, I guess -- and I especially don't do well with the longer ones (except the Hat's) but there is much in this speech beyond the clips that are usually played and which we all know. Dr. King's words still apply, are still relevant today in 2008. Yes, much has been accomplished since he made this speech over 40 years ago, but much of it could still be spoken today; there is so much that still must change. That check is still marked insufficient funds. This is one video where I don't want to do anything else, just listen.

I can't begin to understand what it must've been like to be alive at this time, to hear this man speak these words, to have experienced the things he speaks so powerfully about. But I am thankful he lived, and thankful we can still hear his words today.