The Hard Way Part 4

James Huffaker
4 min readSep 5, 2021
Photo by William Moreland on Unsplash

Living from beak to claw

There is a thing about raising chickens, one either raised them for eggs, meat or both. In our case it was both. We had the traditional white chickens mostly for eggs. We also had this pretty red feathered chicken that was the result of all the baby chickens in the kitchen. In the reality of the moment, we did get eggs from them, but I learned that wasn’t why they were being fed so well.

Mom had an agreement with the local meat supply company. They would buy a large number of this particular bird, cleaned and feathered. Once I learned how that worked, I was ready to go back to feeding the pigs. I was still young, must have turned eight that summer.

It is pretty easy to kill one or two chickens. When they are held horizontally they stick their necks out for some insane reason. If you are the person holding the chicken, as I was, your job is simple. Turn the chicken sideways, placing the neck right on the stained round block of wood. Immediately the axe goes into motion. you find yourself holding a chicken that doesn’t know it is dead. It wants to fly, it wants to run. At that point, my job was to lift the lid on a large aluminum trashcan and drop in the bird quickly replacing the lid.

It is difficult to repeat that twenty times. The large caldron which saw use as food prep station for pigs, was now pressed into service as a large pot of boiling hot water. I learned how you get feathers off a bird. Quickly scalding the birds in hot water, mom would use rubber gloves to pull off the feathers.

There just is nothing in an eight year olds life that prepares them for the smells, textures and sights that process generates. The smell of blood and blanched chicken, the bags of feathers, the feel of the dying bird in my hands. That seems to be why I have an aversion to chicken feet, which is a popular food in this part of the country. It may also be why the axe, which every homeowner needs, is mostly buried under many things in my garage.

Eventually we loaded the boxes of dead chickens up in the back of the car, by this time we had covered them with ice and plastic. Arriving at the meat processing plant was even more traumatic than just killing the chickens. I watched while they killed a couple of cows or steers, I wasn’t knowing any difference. The favorite method was restraining the animal and hitting them squarely in the center of the forehead with a large hammer. The result was the animal dropping like a rock. In minutes the animal was hooked up to a chain, cut so it would bleed out, prepared for the rest of the messy process. Not very different than the chickens, I decided, just larger. The smells were overpowering. Entrails of dead animals, scraps of skin and meat in piles, coupled with the strong barnyard smells of urine and dung, made a strong desire to go bathe.

We must have done alright with chickens, I know my brother and I both received some new Montgomery Wards school clothes. My mom’s half sister, Theda, worked at Wards for years and I suspect that mom was getting Theda’s employee discount.

It was late summer. Where we lived in Southern Colorado there are really three or maybe two seasons. Indian Summer started in May, followed by Summer in June, July and August. The end of August started winter. It could snow at any time where we lived. I remember being snowed out of a Fourth of July celebration in Center, Colorado. That was just a few miles north of our town. The kids really enjoyed the summer and no one let a moment of it slip past. We swam in the ice cold Rio Grande River, irrigation canals with dead animals floating, questionable lakes and one public pool 17 miles away.

Like with the chickens, mom was always looking for a side hustle. We might not have much, but she was intent on making the most of what she could get. Somehow, she landed the job of driving a dilapidated school bus from Monte Vista to the public pool in Alamosa. Everyone paid except for myself and my brother. The pool was very inexpensive but I do not remember. As the bus driver bringing a bunch of swimmers, she may have worked it out to get us in free.

I will keep working on this, there was something I was planning to write but these memories keep getting in the way. Certainly difficult at times to put them down coherently.

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James Huffaker

aka Ben Moreland, retired. Interested in science, technology and future of earthlings. Sometimes I see things a bit different.