“Mended by Soil,” Parts 8 and 9

Harper on the chicken run

Harper on the chicken run

Part 7 The Usual Suspects

Harper is after me again. Laura told me that Harper would peck her whenever she wore blue jeans, but jeans or the color blue have nothing to do with Harper’s attacks on me. When I come to the gate to open the coop and change the water and feed them, she hovers behind me, waiting for me to turn my back or lean inside the coop to retrieve the food and water containers. Then she sweeps in and pecks at my feet. Since I usually wear Teva sandals in the pen, it hurts, and a couple of times she’s torn out a good sized chunk of skin. My daughters won’t go in the pen without me, because of Harper. Thumping her on the head had no effect, and the more I “fought back” by pushing at her with my feet or picking her up and throwing her away from me, the more aggressive she became. The web sites talk about how fighting a chicken makes her see me as a rival. Finally, I learned how to handle Harper. Now, I let her come for me, but before she can peck, I grab her by the legs and swing her upside down. Then I go about my business, changing water and feeding the chickens, collecting eggs, cleaning the manure out of the coop, dangling Harper upside down by her legs. She immediately goes limp, a defensive posture, and quiet, and after my business is done, when I let her go, she walks away, offended and docile. Usually she’ll leave me alone for a couple of days after being dangled.

Despite the problems Harper causes, I love having the chickens in the back yard. My Australian shepherd, Zoe, rushes out the back door every morning and runs straight to check on the chickens. We were afraid that she would try to kill them at first, but once we let them out into the yard, we discovered that Zoe was intimidated by the ladies. She goes into the stalking crouch that a cattle dog would use to intimidate a sheep, but the chickens pretty much ignore her, walking around in a tight little pack. After a while, since they won’t herd, Zoe is just content to watch them, perhaps accepting her role as guardian.

Unfortunately, since the arrival of the chickens, Zoe has ignored the rabbit that makes a living on the beans in my garden. We started watching the rabbit early in the spring, when it was a tiny kitten hiding in the thick creeping phlox in our flower garden. As it grew, Zoe would patrol the yard for it, sometimes flushing it and chasing it through a gap in the fence that it had found. Now, however, Zoe only has a mind for the chickens, and the rabbit doesn’t even bother to run away when I approach the garden. It just looks up from its grazing, fat and insolent, and then hops away slowly, as if I’m one more burden to be born.

Whenever I go see the chickens, whether in the cool of morning or the lingering heat of the afternoon I find myself singing, “Ain’t Nobody Here but Us Chickens,” a song by the Western Swing band “Asleep at the Wheel.” The song presents the voice of the hen house chickens, telling off Farmer Brown as he makes his nightly rounds:

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Tomorrow
Is a busy day
We got things to do
We got eggs to lay
We got ground to dig
And worms to scratch
It takes a lot of settin’
Gettin’ chicks to hatch
There ain’t nobody here but us chickens
There ain’t nobody here at all
So quiet yourself,
And stop your fuss
There ain’t nobody here but us
Kindly point that gun,
The other way
And hobble, hobble hobble off and
Hit the hay.

At night I wait until the ladies have flown to roost in the upper reaches of the coop. They go in by themselves, at dusk, because if they wait too late they won’t be able to see to fly up to the dowel rod they grip with their talons at night. I walk down to the coop with a flashlight and peer in the window. Their eyes glow wildly in the flashlight beam, and standing four abreast on their roost, they cluck softly in protest at the intrusion. On the roost they look like suspects in a police line-up, and I’ve taken to calling them the “Usual Suspects,” an old 1940s film noir term where the cops, brazened and bored by their jobs fighting crime, would pull in the same street people every day to form lineups. The ladies just look guilty late at night.

Statue of liberty from troopship

Part 8
Origins II: My Father’s Garden

The summer before he died, at age 66, my father got the garden plot he’d been waiting for all his life. He’d been retired on disability for years, a victim of Raynaud’s disease, which restricted his circulation, deteriorated the bones at the ends of his fingers, swelling them into fat sausages, and made it impossible for him to do the fine finger work required to be an electrician, plumber, or HVAC repairman. He had difficulty buttoning his shirt, and his esophagus was restricted, so he choked easily and chewed his food in small bites, endlessly, before attempting, and often failing, to swallow. But he would not sit still for long, and he and my uncle, also retired, took on a half-acre of bottomland on the edge of town. The field was surrounded by woods and a railroad ran along one end. Across the railroad tracks lay the city cemetery. Even though he was sick and disabled, my father could still run a tiller, dig, rake, weed, and pick, and he worked on that garden with great pride.

I got to see him work it one time. I had moved to Colorado the year before, and had been home to Mississippi twice. Once at Christmas, and then again in the spring, shortly after my father was diagnosed with lung cancer in February. I went home again in May to spend time with him. Other than the day I waited for him to finish his chemotherapy, he didn’t appear to me sick at all. He tilled and planted and spread fertilizer and more or less acted the way he always had. He woke early and kept busy—cleaning his church building, cooking supper for my mother, who worked late, or working the garden—until early evening, when his body would begin to ache and stiffen and he would go to bed, and then wake again in the morning ready to go.

He showed me the garden and we worked there one morning for several hours, planting corn, I think. We worked as we always had, dating back to when I was a boy helping him in the summer or after school. He told me what to do and we worked, more or less without talking, even when side by side. My father didn’t talk much to begin with, but over the previous several years, after I went to grad school—in the process becoming pierced, tattooed, and politically and religiously more liberal than he was comfortable with—and then after I moved away to Colorado, deflating his hope (I found out much later) that I would move back closer to home and be around, we’d found less and less to talk about. Not that we had ever talked about these things to begin with, but when I was younger there was no need to because we were not very far apart on where we stood. We didn’t break any new ground that day either. We were no closer to accepting one another’s views at the end of the day than before we started.

Dad In Germany 1950

Now that I look back on it, seventeen years later, having spent a summer in Europe myself, I look at my father’s photographs taken when he was a G.I. serving in Germany during the early 1950s. I see his pictures of the Statue of Liberty taken from a troop ship entering or leaving the harbor, I look at the pictures of my father posing with his buddies on the streets of Zurich, and I browse through pictures of German rivers, fountains, and street life, not to mention the pictures that chronicle the daily life of an American soldier in peace-time, and I wonder why he never talked about that time, and why I never asked more questions. It’s not like he suffered from PTSD, and I was fascinated by WW II since seeing it portrayed on network television as a little boy. But mixed in with the army pictures are pictures of home, brothers and sisters and children—my cousins I assume, along with Alabama fields and pictures of my mother, and I know that he saw his military service as an interruption to what he really wanted to make of his life. Europe and the army were something to be endured, something every young man of his generation more or less took for granted. For him, Alabama was home, and his family was what he cared about.
When I was younger I was happy to just spend time with him, and I felt that he was happy to spend time with me. My father liked to work and he was good at it, and from him I learned to work hard and I like to think that in working hard today, I bring him closer somehow. That day in the garden we didn’t need to talk. For him, for me, the work was enough.

Learning German

Alabama Catfish

Dad and Mom dating

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2 thoughts on ““Mended by Soil,” Parts 8 and 9

  1. Hi Elaine,
    I’m pretty sure Grandpa Engel, our grandfather, is in the middle. I’m guessing, but I think Uncle Sam is on the left and Uncle Lawrence on the right. I’ll ask my mother if she knows. I’ve also got some pictures of Aunt Bitty which I’ll try to scan and make available. I’ll also try and find any of your dad I can.

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