I spent the first ten years of my life, 1968-1978, on a goat farm in Ohio. The town we lived in, Champion, was so small in those days it didn’t even have its own zip-code. My father was an electronics technician at the Youngstown airport, but in addition to working his full-time job, we also had this farm with 36 acres of land, half-a-dozen goats and a flock of chickens. I found this image of the house we lived in on Google Earth. This photo was taken from the road we lived on, and as you can see the house was set way back from the road. That’s the driveway you can see on the left. There were lots more trees in the front yard 40 years ago, but tornadoes have brought down all the big ones. The barn and all the fields are out back.
I have vivid memories of going into the chicken coop and reaching under the hens to extract the warm eggs upon which they sat. In hindsight, I’m surprised they never really put up much of a fight. After all, was I not essentially stealing their unhatched children? On the other hand, it also never occurred to me that perhaps these expecting mothers only reluctantly found themselves in their “condition.” Maybe they were just love slaves to that brash rooster who was always hanging about. Speaking of that rooster, his name was Big Toughie. My brother Joe and I knew from the moment he arrived there was going to be trouble. Big Toughie had a glint in his steely little eye that instantly told us we would have to be constantly on our guard. Yes, we were afraid of Big Toughie.
Under his leadership, our previously docile flock of hens became increasingly brave and began breaking the traditional boundaries of their own territory, each day taking over more and more of the yard, which my brother and I were accustomed to having to ourselves. During the ensuing weeks, the chickens kept advancing and we kept retreating. Playing outside occurred with dwindling frequency. Eventually, we found ourselves holed up inside the house and unwilling to go outside at all. By this time, Big Toughie had taken to the large back porch of the house, pacing back and forth in front of the back door (which for practical purposes was our front door) while his harem lazily pecked and scratched around in the yard. Our oldest brother, Jim, clearly did not understand the gravity of the situation, and our parents were similarly blind to our captive existence.
Things finally came to a head one evening when it was time to feed the dogs. We had six dogs, mostly beagles, ostensibly to be used for hunting rabbits, although I don’t recall there being any rabbits where we lived, nor had I ever seen my father take these dogs hunting for anything.
Feeding the dogs was a difficult chore. We used a large metal bucket into which we poured liberal amounts of crunchy dry dog food and then added warm water to make a rather hideous mush the dogs loved. The thing probably weighed upwards of forty pounds and had to be lugged to the dog pen, located on one side of the garage a few hundred feet from the house.
On this particular evening, it was Jim’s turn to feed the dogs, and Joe and I were both greatly relieved the task had not fallen to either of us. In a rare fit of sympathy, we tried to warn Jim of the fate that surely awaited him, but he never could bring himself to take his younger brothers seriously. He punched us both and said, “I ain’t afraid of no chicken.”
We then tried to warn Mom and Dad that Big Toughie would surely get Jim, but our pleas fell on deaf ears. Maybe Jim thought Big Toughie was in the chicken coop and wouldn’t notice him, but Joe and I knew better. We had seen Big Toughie earlier, with a contingency of his scrappiest hens, out by the road on the other side of the house. We suspected he was studying traffic patterns and plotting the takeover of some innocent passerby’s vehicle to escape the farm altogether.
Jim began the long walk to the dog pen, struggling under the burden of the bucket of mush, while Joe and I watched nervously from the kitchen window. He was about halfway there when we saw Big Toughie come trotting around the corner of the house. Jim caught this movement out of the corner of his eye and turned to see what it was. There was a pause as Jim and Big Toughie sized each other up. Big Toughie didn’t flinch, and his steely little eye narrowed ever so slightly as he stared Jim down.
It was at that moment Jim fully realized how right we were, and the danger he was in. A wave of panic and terror washed over his face. For Joe and I, watching from the window, the scene instantly transformed into something like one of the classic B-grade horror movies we watched on Saturday afternoons. Everything took on a reddish glow and moved as if in slow motion. Jim tried in vain to run the rest of the way to the dog pen, but the heavy bucket of mush was just too much. As happens in any classic horror movie, he tripped and fell. Joe and I screamed for help from Mom and Dad, but it was too late. In a flash, Big Toughie was upon him. From inside the house we could hear the thwack, thwack, thwack of three rapid pecks delivered with lethal precision to Jim’s right ear. I think Jim carries the scars of that encounter with Big Toughie to this very day; if not physical scars, then at least mental scars.
When our parents realized what had happened, they finally came to their senses and ended Big Toughie’s reign of terror. That very evening, Big Toughie lost his head on the chopping block. If you’ve never witnessed a chicken literally running around with its head cut off, let me be the first to assure you that it is a terribly gruesome and yet somehow morbidly fascinating sight. Big Toughie did three full laps around the barn before finally giving up the ghost for good. Dad whacked off his feet and gave one each to Joe and I. As mom plucked his feathers and prepared him for supper that night, Joe and I chased each other with the claws, which we could move by pulling on the exposed tendons. We sat down to dinner that evening, all of us feeling a strange mix of relief and horror that it was in fact Big Toughie on our plates. The meat was very sinewy and not at all pleasant to eat.
In a word, it was tough.