Thursday, February 14, 2013

Do the Chickens Have Large Talons?

February 14, 2013 – Do the Chickens Have Large Talons?

Plan A ends up with my brother and me in Canada.

Phinehas had texted me one night asking if he could move in with me, my other brother, my sister-in-law, the niece, and the dog. I told him it was fine by me but he should check with the ones who owned the house. 

A week later he’s living in a silver trailer in the backyard with his dog Loca.

After my initial panic of there being entirely too many people around me, I decide the only thing to do is for us to take a long road trip together hitting a list of places I want to go--Nashville, Kansas City, Chicago, Ottawa—and all the places in between. That’s what brothers are for, right? I send him a message saying: So I pretty much have your life planned out for you once you get here. I mean, minus the whole job thing... but other than that, yeah.

He responds: well that's good I'm not a fan of jobs... silly things.

Jobs seem to be the problem though. Or rather the money that jobs are supposed to bring. I need to stockpile a wad in order to head out again. I don’t like feeling that I might be stuck. I’m a fan of Small Town America, but I’m a bigger fan of my freedom. So after the Gremlin has gone to bed, I crunch numbers; calculating distances, gas costs, travel hours, and checking in to rental cars costs, travel insurance, and airfare. No matter how I run the numbers the results always ends up being a lot more money than I have.

The day Phinehas arrives he asks me, “So? What do you have planned?”

When I tell him what I have in mind he looks at me and says, “That’s it? That’s my whole life?”

“You wanted to go to Canada,” I say. But looking at it with such a critical eye I guess it could use a more overarching grandeur. But it’s a start. We just need a handful of money. If we had two handfuls we might get ever farther.

“It’s about four thousand six hundred and seventy miles roundtrip,” I tell him. He’s stopped listening several lists of numbers ago.

“Your problem,” he says, “is planning the way back. When I was on my road trip, I left Nashville with thirty dollars in my pocket.”

I think about that. I’m a calculated risk taker. When I route out a trip I plan the way home (wherever that happens to be) and try to give myself a financial buffer for the landing. Could I set off without knowing how I’d get back? How far am I willing to go just to be on the move? I test out the image of myself as a dreadlocked, packbacked, sunblasted hippy wandering around the world, living under bridges, and eating the thrown out leftovers from dumpsters. It’s not exactly how I’d like my future to look. Am I willing to go that far?

A train whistle blows. “What’s the penalty for jumping trains?” I ask Phinehas.

“I think it’s a felony,” he says.

We consider that in silence for a long moment.

“We could hitchhike,” I say. “But I don’t know if anyone would pick us up.”

“They’d pick you up,” Phinehas replies.

That’s all I’ve got. Except for the whole job thing. I’ve been checking craigslist jobs at least a couple times a week and even gone so far as to start the online application to be a substitute teacher. After I call my Alma Mater, hang up on the girl who happily assures me that it’s impossible for me to get my GPA information over the telephone in time to fill out an application due the next day, and then vent hotly to Marie about the insane world we’ve created she tells me not to worry about that job. “You probably don’t want to work there anyway.” And the truth is I don’t. That’s part of the problem. There are so many places I don’t want to work.

However, a free range chicken farm happens to make the acceptable list. 

One of my first weekends here I had gone to the Saturday local market and Marie had introduced me to the Chicken Farm Lady and told her I was looking for some part time work.

“You’re not afraid of chickens are you?” the Chicken Farm lady asked. 

“No,” I said.

“You don’t mind getting pecked? Sometimes they can be mean when you’re getting the eggs.”

Our family once had a pet macaw. Her beak could snap a broom handle in two. I think I can handle chickens. The CFL and I exchanged information and I never heard back from her (At least I tried, I thought) until Monday when I’m at the library writing and get a text sent through my brother saying: need her Fri afternoon. Plus she needs to train. Can she come Wed 3-5, and Th 6.45pm-7.30 to train then work Fri 3-7:30? Sorry for the short notice

I cut out the middleman and tell the Chicken Farm Lady I can work.

Wednesday morning I walk over to the Hardware store and grudgingly buy some garden boots (my meager selection of shoes are not appropriate chicken area wear and, sadly enough, I don’t fit into my sister-in-law’s boots) while I calculate just how many hours of profit I’ll make after I subtract the overhead expenses. It’s more than I make writing at the library, but not enough to get me to Canada. Yet.

That afternoon I borrow Ben’s truck, tuck my jeans into my new boots, and head off to work. I’ve got first day jitters. I drive slow. It’s been a while since I’ve driven, and a repressed nostalgia hits me hard with the sense of freedom having a vehicle and an open road can give. I’d almost forgotten the glory of solo road trips. A natural segue leads me to wonder what it’ll be like taking a long road trip with Phinehas. The thought gives me more than the worry about my new job to mull over as the miles get eaten up all too quickly.
I’ve left the house early, early enough to have time to get unlost if I can’t follow directions, and more hopefully to be on time enough to seem responsible and properly eager.
I get there at the perfect time.      

The Chicken Farm Man is waiting in the garage for me. “Nice boots,” he says after we introduce ourselves. And then he gets started right up with my training. The little four wheel flatbed rover is parked up next to a trailer weighted down with fifty gallon feed bins and some empty orange five gallon plastic bins. The CFM shows me how to weigh out the day’s feed measurements for each of the five different coops and mark them with the correctly numbered sticks so as not to mix the feed up between coops. “Even a small deviation in the amount of feed or water can put them off lay,” he tells me. He’s enthusiastic and friendly, encouraging me to watch this first time around instead of going full hands-on right off the bat. I tag along and pay attention.

“How many chickens do you guys have?” I ask.

“It’s about two thousand right now,” CFM says. “We’ve had up to four thousand before.”

We feed and give fresh water to all five coops. Once the 3:00 feed is over, we go to Coop 1 and collect the (plus or minus) four hundred eggs so that the CFL can show me how to wash, dry, sort and pack them. I wash, dry, sort and pack just enough to get the gist of it and then they bid me farewell, say “See you tomorrow evening” and I’m off.

That wasn’t so bad, I tell myself on the drive home. Was it? I leave my garden boots outside the back door at the house and go in to take a shower.

My second day of training is with John the full time worker who I’m filling in for on Friday. He’s the quiet type, but nice enough. “You look athletic,” he tells me as we’re carting the gravity designed water jugs from the brooder house to the grass outside to clean and refill them. “What sport do you do?”

I’m way out of shape and tone, and haven’t done any official sport for a while, but I take the compliment when it’s handed out to me so nicely. It must be the boots. We talk sports for a moment and we’re friends. When we’ve got all four jugs filled John says, “They’re about forty pounds each when full.” He takes two and I consider girling it by making two trips, but decide against it. After all, I’m athletic.

The purpose of this day’s training is to show me what it’s like to feed at night. As we go, John tells me his tricks. They’re things like: Don’t let the hens bully you. Keep the feed buckets as low to the troughs as possible. At Coop 1 work the water refilling in 180 degree splits. Fill the outside feeders first and then work your way to the others when the chickens are busy.

He also teaches me the spots--near the old troughs, the extension cord, the sagging fence--to throw the rover into neutral so as to glide to a stop rather than use the brakes (which don’t work). He also lets me drive.

“It’s not bad work,” John says. “It’s peaceful. I don’t mind the chickens. It’s better than working--” He stops as if to think of something and I fill in the blank with, “In customer service.” It’s better than a lot of jobs.

With the two of us working it’s a pretty quick feed and I’m coasting into the garage and flicking off the rover’s ignition before I know it. The CFM is at the garage when I’m gathering my things to leave and he smiles at us and asks, “How was it? You feel okay about tomorrow?”

I nod. “Yeah, I do. Now that I’ve driven the rover and seen the place in the dark, I don’t think it’ll be so bad. Especially since I’ll be starting out in the light tomorrow.”

“Great,” he says.

“Have a good weekend,” I say to John. “See you tomorrow,” I tell the CFM.

Four and a half more hours of work this week, I tell myself on the way home.

You’re a freaking pansy! You work ten hours in one week and you freak out. You’d better not say anything anywhere about being happy tomorrow is Friday or being ready for the weekend, you’ll be ridiculed. People work much harder than you.

I know, I think. Writing still counts as hard work though. I just don’t get paid for it. Yet.

The yet is hopeful.

I know, I say, I know. It’s in the tone of voice of a comforting “There, there.”

I drive the rest of the way in silence. 

Early Friday afternoon I pack up some snacks, make a green smoothie, fill up my water bottle, change into my Chicken Farm clothes and put on my boots. I get to the farm a few minutes before 3:00. I’m on my own. However, the CFM is at the garage when I get there to make sure I’m good to go. And I am.

I check the daily sheet, fill up and measure out the feed, swing the bins into the back of the rover, put my sunglasses on and drive up to the brooder house. Just as John had warned, the hens are pressed up against the front door, pushing each other to get the best place, to be the first fowl at the food. “You can’t hesitate,” he’d told me. I don’t. But I have to pick my way to the corner bins carefully so as not to crush the crowding chickens.

“Move it, girls,” I say, and pray that I can equally distribute the feed the way I’m supposed to with a feed-sifting jiggle of my wrists. It’s hard to do when hundreds of chickens are trying to climb in the bucket I’m using to fill the troughs. I do my best and hope I haven’t put the whole house off lay. The next three coops are easier for the simple reason that they have fewer chickens. The last coop is almost as frantic as the brooder house. The hens meet me at the electrified gate (to keep out coyotes), which I swing a leg over bin in hand and avoid getting shocked by, and then run ahead of me like a feathered ocean wave. By the time I’ve finished the first feed, my pants legs are soaked, the bottoms of my boots are caked in mud and chicken poo and I’m looking forward to the break time the CFM had encouraged me to take after collecting the eggs.

I drop off the empty feed bins and pick up some baskets. I collect eggs in the same order that I feed the coops in; Brooder house, Coop 0, Coop 8, Coop 2, and Coop 1. The brooder house chickens crowd me with the usual lack of consideration for my personal space as I go nest from nest to collect the four hundred or so eggs. Those nearest me peck at my boots and the edges of my pants as I go around the room, a nonstop tip-tap on my legs and feet. “Really?” I ask them. “Don’t let me fall down in here. I’d be done for.” For one tiny second I’m sad that I don’t write horror until I realize that Hitchcock had pretty much covered the topic in The Birds.

Don’t fall down, I tell myself.        

I’m on the last row when an ambitious hen flaps up and lands on the edge of my basket. She pecks at my supporting arm. “Hey! Get off there, you crazy bird.” I push her off and think, Chickens these days!

The middle coops don’t have much in the way of eggs, but Coop 1 has four hundred and fifteen. The hardest part of egg picking (besides not falling down and getting pecked to death) is not losing count of how many I’ve collected. There’s a log to keep track of that as well. I go back and forth from the rover to the coop then the coop to the rover with empty then filled baskets. The baskets can hold 150 eggs, I fill them with 130 and then take them back to the rover for weight’s sake. I can’t leave the filled baskets on the ground or the chickens will peck the eggs into uselessness. Oh chickens!

I’m ready for my break when I get back to the garage. But there’s no time for it. I’m slower on the feeding and egg collection than the normal workers (it is my first day solo, I try to tell myself) and I only have just over an hour before I’m supposed to head out for the 7:00 feed. I think of Veruca Salt from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and change her words to say, “Daddy, I do not want a chicken farm!”

I put the baskets on their shelves and read the day’s instructions for the eggs off the chalkboard on the wall. WASH ALL. SORT JUMBOS INTO GRAY PACKAGING. SORT SMALL TO MEDIUMS IN BLUE PACKAGING. The CFL comes in and I check with her on what’s priority since I can’t see how I’ll get the eight hundred plus eggs washed and sorted in the amount of time I have. I need to be faster.

“Wash at least two baskets and then sort them out then you can see what you have time for after that,” she says.

I wash as fast as I can. The work isn’t nearly as Zen as I’d like it to be. This is why I don’t like working for money, I think. Time is money. Be efficient. Go faster. Do more. Don’t think. Just work. I barely get the minimum of what she’d hoped for done. But I do.

I take just enough of a break to eat a protein packed nutbar I’d stolen from my brother’s cache and to guzzle down some water.

Dusk hovers as I weigh out the evening feed bins and drive one more time up to the brooder house. I pray that the water jugs are still full from my thorough cleaning and filling at the first feed. Knowing these chickens, even as little as I do, I figure I will be out of luck. Chickens are messy. But, I only have to rinse out and refill two of the four jugs and then I’m zipping off in the rover down the hill, down the drive, and around the corner to Coop 0.

My back is protesting the positions I’m forcing it to take; bending over the troughs, weaving around coop poles, scrunching over to fling dirty water into the darkness, crouching down to refill the rubber water bowls, scrambling to avoid stepping on chickens, stretching to swing over the fences. My wrists are holding up better than I’d hoped they would, and I have a sudden hope that tomorrow’s payback won’t kill me (or the day after, or the day after that). My feet are sore, my knees are stiff, and my neck and shoulders are tighter than hardboiled eggs.
Two coops down, three to go, and the hardest one at the end. 

Sheesh, I think. This is hard work.

Quit being such a baby. It’s not like you’ve never worked hard before. Besides, the CFM and the CFL and John do this every day.

Yes, but they do it every day. Also I haven’t done much physical work lately, especially not consecutive days. Also I have arthritis.

Quit making excuses.  

Fine. I quit my internal whining, but I can’t help but be grateful that I’m not the new full time chicken feeder. I’m glad that I’m on an As Needed basis, in fact, I’m perfectly okay with that. Even if it means it’ll take me a little while to make the boots pay themselves off or for me to get to Canada.

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