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Jim Hazard

Chicken Dinner

I know there are people who’d rather not hear this, but there was a time I loved chopping the heads off chickens. I did my chopping in Aunt Lucy’s basement, helping my Uncle Lyman.

Beheading chickens hasn’t become what you’d call a lifelong interest. In fact I haven’t done any of it since about 1950. I’ve eaten a lot of chickens, and cooked a lot of them since then, but none came with feathers, head, and feet attached. Someone had done the removal for me. A little package of brand name pieces done up in a back room and wrapped ahead of time – that’s what the word "chicken" came to mean.

It seemed, after WWII people needed to put the nasty details of everyday life out of sight. The war and the Depression had given them their fill of ugly truths, enough to last a lifetime. Maybe so, or maybe now that iceboxes were refrigerators, they just wanted to appear a little better than they really were and had the ready cash to buy that feeling. Maybe. Or maybe things just happen and nobody really thinks about it.

My Uncle Lyman was a thinker though. A throwback. He kept a maple stump in his sister Lucy’s basement for splitting fireplace wood and for chopping the heads off chickens he bought by the crate.

In another regard he was "modern." He was divorced. His wife Arlene hated being a firefighter’s wife and finally left him to marry a junior high school science teacher who worked regular hours and had all summer off. Lyman had always been a big quiet man, a head taller than anybody, smiling sadly at this inflammable world of ours. When his wife left him he was unchanged except for being quieter and gentler.

I think he was relieved too. He had made himself a promise as a kid that he would never punch a time clock in a steel mill, he would have a job that gave him a good living and lots of time off to fish and hunt. A firefighter was it.

On his day off Lyman and I would carry the crate of chickens their last mile from the trunk of his Hudson to the basement. I took them out of the crate one by one and delivered them to my uncle, who held them down on the stump and delivered the blow.

Beforehand I’d watched him sharpen the hatchet till the curve of the cutting edge was, by his own testimony, sharp enough to shave the stamp off a letter. Just because they were chickens didn’t mean you could be careless about their final moment.

"Do you think they feel it when you hit them?" I asked him.

"I get it over fast so they don’t know what hit ‘em."

"If you cut the head off, does a chicken know what’s going on? O mean, does the head know – do the eyes see?"

He gestured with the hatchet for me to pass him another chicken from the crate, and as I did he answered my question. "You look them in the eye, they’re looking back at you." He held the chicken down onto the stump, exposing its skinny neck. The hen was a little wild-eyed, but when have you ever seen a chicken that wasn’t wild-eyed? They start out as these fluffy little Easter card peeps and grow up to be – no offence to chicken lovers, but I’ve never met a full grown chicken that didn’t look totally psycho.

The hen was talking to itself as the hatchet fell and went on talking when its head dropped to the basement floor. The stump of its neck spurted blood and my uncle set the chicken body onto the floor. It ran off, bumping into the washer and heading for the coal bin until it sort of wound down and lay on its side scratchy the basement air with lizardy feet.

"Think the head saw the body running away?"

Pause. "Only the chicken knows." My uncle respected that I would have questions about this business, but he didn’t want it to become too large an interest in my life. There were stories of the men who worked in the slaughter houses of Chicago stockyards becoming possessed with a passion for blood, a rapture that made them virtual Jack the Rippers. Said my uncle, "We just do this, Jimmy. It’s a job. You do it, you don’t talk about it a lot. There will be other things in life like that."

So we worked our way through the crate of chickens, smoothly as any execution squad in the civilized world, doing what had to be done if there was to be the Sunday dinner we all revered.

Down in Aunt Lucy’s basement I began to see chickens in a new light. I’d always suspected that chickens were secretly mechanical, that feathers were the ingenious covering for their metal bodies. Their eyes especially looked factory made. I’d seen cockfights in the backroom of a Mobilgas filling station. The fight was just like in the movies, the floor all sawdust and the men with cigars and fists full of paper money betting up a storm. I’m sure the fights were illegal, but no one seemed concerned about that and no one was upset that there were a couple of kids hanging out. Our town was a short distance down the shore of Lake Michigan from Chicago, with a tradition of providing a play space for some of Chicago’s favorite illegal events. I imagine cockfights were one of the earliest, along with bare knuckle prize fights. Indiana along the State Line was a tolerant jurisdiction for Chicagoans who were having troubles in their own jurisdiction. And of course the Illinois side of the line served up the same tolerance for Indiana’s crooks and hustlers.

In the cockfight, when the roosters went at one another it was as if they were furious wind-up toys. In a bullfight, the bull is clearly a flesh and blood animal and so there is the tragedy of its death. But roosters…even their voices sounded mechanical to me. Every movement, fighting or just scratching in the backyard (in the forties a certain kind of person still kept chickens in the backyard), every chicken gesture had a jerkiness about it that made me suspicious.

My suspicions were swept away in Aunt Lucy’s basement. Not only did our chickens bleed and die with different personalities, but they were revealed to be pure flesh, not metal, under those feathers: I dipped them in hot water and plucked them clean of their feathers, including the pesty black pin feathers. Lyman was fast on the job but delicate at it too. I remember a man at the cockfights whose rooster was so wounded in a losing battle that he grabbed it by the head and spun it around, wringing its neck, and then tossed it into a garbage can. Most of the gents present laughed at the gesture, but not all. Some made an effort not to see it. Lyman would have looked away. No, I think if he were there he’d have popped the guy. He was known in the fire department as the one who had gone back into a burning building to bring out a widow’s parrot and her picture of her husband in his Doughboy uniform. What we did in the basement, for our Sunday dinner, was not a joke to him.

I remember watching one chicken head that lay on the floor beside the chopping block. It was clucking quietly, looking more bright eyed and intelligent than I’d ever seen a chicken look. I looked into its eye and felt I was being seen and that the clucking was directed at me. The mouth opened and closed, as if the chicken were gasping for breath or searching for a word. I put my finger into the open beak with the same blank need I once had putting my finger into a running electric fan. The beak clamped onto my finger and the eye in the side of the chicken’s head bulged with the effort and with the coming of its own death.

"Jeez," my uncle said. "Take that poor thing off your finger. That ain’t a thing to play with." I explained what had happened and he advised me to let the poor things alone. It was their bad luck to be born chickens and we shouldn’t add to it. "Let ‘em die in peace, Jimmy. Seems kind of crappy, doesn’t it? To be a chicken…" He shook his head and went back to the ages old job of making food. He was a big man, not just tall but big in his chest and shoulders and back. He talked very slowly in a deep voice and had sad eyes even when he laughed. Wise guys assumed he was dumb because he wasn’t quick. I knew that wasn’t so.

Sunday, at dinner, I wondered which individuals from the basement we were eating. I was glad I wasn’t born a chicken just as I was glad I hadn’t been born where bombs had fallen just a few years back. I was, though, glad these chickens were born. They were delicious, and it felt as if we were all in something big together – the chickens, the potatoes from Idaho, the spiced apples from Michigan, the talkative family around the table there in Indiana, the table itself brought over from Wales and made of trees that were chopped down in England, the land of Robin Hood and Charles Dickens.

I watched Uncle Lyman eating chicken. Probably it was just how I was seeing things that Sunday, but he did seem to be eating with a delicacy that the others didn’t have. Probably it was my imagination, but he seemed to put the drumstick bone down with unusual care and look at it for a second before he went on eating. I saw melancholy and gentleness, not so common in that family of rough hands and loud voices.

Later in his life Lyman would fall from the fire engine exhausted after fighting a three-day refinery fire that threatened the whole town. He broke his back in the fall. He would have to retire early from exciting and dangerous job. Not too long after that he host his left leg to diabetes and began to shrink physically. I saw him as a raisin in all that trouble – that is, growing smaller and smaller, wrinkling around his own sweetness, growing sweeter and more patient by the day. He lived now with his sister, Lucy, in a big bedroom/apartment upstairs. When I visited him, he would turn off the television and put down his newspaper, take my hand in both of his and pat it. He didn’t say much but he always seemed to know something about me--college grades, new job, new car--and he’d ask a question or two. Once when we were talking a young pigeon landed on his windowsill and he talked about the colors on its neck and how pigeons cook up real nice in a pie if you have enough of them. "Once down near Richmond we shot fifty or sixty of ‘em and made pigeon pies with vegetables and the works. They kept ‘em in a big freezer and had more damn pigeon pies than they knew what to do with." He smiled at the thought of himself back then, the l930s. "We wanted to shoot up the whole world and eat it in those days – well, it was the Depression so we had good reason. But who the hell did we think we were?" He chuckled at the thought of himself back then. "Big shots…that’s who we thought we were."

What a smile on his old face as he held my hand as firmly as was able and tipped his head towards the stump of his leg. "Some big shot…huh, Jimmy?"


Jim Hazard is a regular writer for Milwaukee Magazine. He is currently at work on a collection of personal narratives under the title My Life Among the Grown-ups.

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