REALITY CHECK: Life on the farm is just too violent for city slickers

Reality Check | Mike Taylor

I’ve mentioned my old man in this column before. He died a few months ago and I still miss him every day.

Bob was a man rife with contradictions; he could be loving, he could be hard, he could be fair, he could be unfair. But one thing he could never be, at least when it came to life on a farm, was competent.

My dad’s feet never were comfortable without sidewalk beneath them. Raised exclusively in big cities, his idea of roughing it was tossing a couple sleeping bags in the back of the Country Squire and then sleeping out “under the stars,” which, parked as we were at the curb about 20 feet from our front door, were entirely obscured by street lights.

To my dad, this was “camping” and no, I am neither kidding nor exaggerating. He was the quintessential city boy.

So it was particularly hard on the old man when every couple years my mom decided we should visit Great Grandma Kelly in Indiana. Double-gramma lived on a farm, kind of. It was no longer a working farm, but gramma still maintained an extensive vegetable garden, a dozen chickens and the occasional goat.

All these things were as alien to my father as might be visitors from Venus or a three-headed, fire breathing dog.

His anxiety would settle in as we drove the final 20 miles to gramma’s house and would not fully abate until we were safely back in downtown Detroit, or Phoenix, or whatever metropolis we were living in at the time.

I was just a kid and to me the farm seemed a place filled with exotic wonders; live, undomesticated animals, food growing straight out of the ground, nameless, dangerous-looking tools whose purpose was shrouded in mystery. I couldn’t get enough.

My old man, on the other hand — he couldn’t wait to leave. I’m not sure why. Maybe his airways would start closing up without their regular infusion of carbon monoxide fumes.

For whatever reason, he hated and openly distrusted rural life. He just wasn’t good at it.

The event that came to be known as the “chicken episode” typified my old man’s trouble with the agrarian lifestyle.

It was a Sunday afternoon, sunny, filled with the somnambulant August hum of cicadas and slow-hovering bumblebees. My dad was contentedly perched in gramma’s backyard hammock, reading a history of WWII. I was back by the chicken coop watching the chickens peck at their feed, each other and pieces of gravel, which they ate right along with whatever it was my gramma threw out there for them every morning.

“Bob,” Grandma Kelly called from the kitchen doorway. “Can you fetch me a chicken?”

Sighing, my dad reluctantly vacated the hammock and spent the next five minutes chasing chickens around the yard until, after much colorful verbiage and heavy breathing, he caught one and delivered it, angrily squawking, to the house. A few seconds later he reappeared, chicken still in hand and struggling fiercely.

“She means a dead chicken,” he told me, managing to look both sick and embarrassed at the same time.

My gramma’s rusty old Son House axe hung from a nail in the shed. Still fighting the chicken (which seemed to be winning) my dad grabbed the axe and dragged both it and the struggling poultry to a big oak stump on the other side of the yard.

Now, my old man had about as much skill with an axe as a chimpanzee has with a laser scalpel. Once, twice, three times the axe fell, each time missing the neck of the now-apoplectic chicken by at least six inches.

My gramma’s voice, old and rusty as the axe, again cut through the afternoon air.

“Bob! What are you doing?”

My dad glared back over his shoulder, sweat standing out on his fevered brow. “Killing your damn chicken!” he muttered.

“Oh, for crying —” My gramma crossed the yard with a quickness which belied her age. “Gimme that.”

She reached past my dad, and with gunfighter-like speed, grabbed the chicken by the head. A quick flick of the wrist and the chicken flopped to the ground, it’s neck neatly broken.

The mortally wounded fowl took a minute to realize it was dead, but eventually stopped stumbling around and peacefully expired. It was the single most violent act I had ever personally witnessed. I think my dad felt the same way.

A few hours later, we sat down to a nice, roast chicken dinner. Corn, homemade biscuits, string beans from the garden; the old man and I both concentrated on the corn and biscuits. Neither of us felt much like chicken that night.

For my part, I couldn’t eat anything I’d seen murdered earlier in the day. I was something of a city boy myself, it seemed. As to my dad? I think he was just marking time, waiting to again eat chicken when he was back in the civilized world, where he could get it served the way the good Lord intended; in a bucket with Colonel Sanders’ picture on it.

Mike Taylor’s book, “Looking at the Pint Half Full,” is available at Robins Book List in Greenville, and in ebook format on Amazon.

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