In which Murph explores his experiences on the farm and love of — fried — chicken . . .

No man can accuse me of hating animals. Yet no cultivated love exists between myself and the rest of the world’s species. In truth, even if allergies had not impaired any lasting relationship – a true dander divorce – I am too well-acquainted with the responsibility of live-in pets to accept any non-human residents into my home. I have found that helping my folks with the siblings is akin to raising a band of wild wolves anyhow. My life requires no more wildlife, especially birds.

Most animal activists never grew up among chickens. Of this, I am sure. No, most likely as a child they retain fond of memories of Fluffy the rabbit or Tigger the cat, creatures with which you can cuddle or pet. Soft creatures that purred, nuzzled, or fetched. You try any of that nonsense with a chicken, and you might lose an eye, a nose, or a liver. Most assuredly you will lose all humanitarian credos, all faith in the notion that “Man’s Best Friend” can be anything other than a bottle of Scotch. This I say with all seriousness, a bias formed from personal experience . . . and therefore as such is entirely true. If most Americans lived among chickens – raising, feeding, cleaning, watering, and occasionally carrying those feather-born demons – PETA would be nothing more than flatbread, cock-fighting would be annexed as the national sport, and I could easily buy Chick-Fil-A on Sundays.

Everyday before school, I would slip, slide, and breathe heavily downhill to the chicken coop near the base of woods. Suitably enough, most of the rainwater would gather at the base of this hill before trickling under- or aboveground to the adjacent ponds and streams, forming a marsh of fetid mud and slime, a haven for flies and mosquitoes of all sizes and varieties. This I would traverse to the edge of the bramble-soaked woods to the small shack, where the chicken’s dwelt. Most of the time this daily exercise would consist of scraping the food and water containers, cleaning out the excess – and putrid – waste from their coop, gathering slime molded eggs, and avoid losing my fingers to the pecking beaks of this demon band. During the summer months, as the air warmed and humidity rose, the wall above the coop door would collect with mud-built hives of wasps and bees, which I could either deftly avoid (rarely) or attack with a shovel (haphazardly missing). Either way due to the thick mud and swarming birds, I rarely avoided several stinging welts upon my head. The birds, if they could, laughed and cackled riotously. On the return journey up the hill, I trudge through the muck while big black flies bite and hummingbird-sized mosquitoes stab at me with their long proboscises like a straw inserted into a juice-box. At the top of the hill, drained of energy, will, and blood, I then cleaned myself for school, a welcome vacation from the “farm.”

Two years ago while on vacation, we asked a friend of the family to watch over the chickens: feed them, give them water, and collect the eggs. The coop was build with two sections: a large indoor shack with a small latched opening (to hamper invading foxes and weasels) and a outdoor fence. Typically when gathering water and food dispensers, we shoo the chickens through the opening and latch the door, so we can collect eggs quickly and easily. For you see, our rooster had become quite territorial. A whirling dervish of claws and feathers. Our friend did not know this. As he entered the coop, the rooster charged him, flying at him with claws extended like a kung-foo kick. He received several large gashes along his leg for his work, and many many apologetic thanks from the rest of us. Later that week, Mom cooked disgruntled chicken soup for dinner and the safety of the little ones.

Then there’s the smell. Oh, how many of my mornings, once full of color and warmth – emerald-green leaves caked in golden dewdrops; branches dripping opals of raindrops with sapphire pupils of the dawn sky – have been defiled by the fetid stench of the nearby coop infecting the passing storm breeze? Believe me, it frickin’ smells. I take one last longing gaze at the morning, and then barricade myself in my room. Piles of furniture, books, dental floss, shoes, chairs, and coat hangers construct an impenetrable wall, blocking every crevice. With a clap, electronic fans of all varieties whirl and turn like a manmade typhoon. As the book pages begin to flap, I relax allowing the scents of the artificial room to send me to sleep, awaking every now and then as a loud howling cluck splits the air.

To be fair though, I cannot suffer most smells that emanate from the barnyard. I walk through the stalls at the county fairs like a doctor examining plague victims, my nose and mouth masked to allow for ample breathing, my hands protected in overly-long sleeves. The kids meanwhile frolic and play about the maze of pig pens and cages, unconcerned about what they touch or where they step. In a nearby cot, my brother lies on a cot and chews on Doritoes, whiles his pig, Porky, grunts and squeals next door. Every so often his hand passes a chip through the bars, like a letter through a mail slot; his hand now sticky and wet is wiped on his jeans and reflexively returns to the bag. He consumes another chip. I try not to gag.

UPDATE: I am now adding cattle to the ever-growing list of animals best-fried-than-alive. Yesterday our cows got loose and scamper onto the nearby highway. My sister witnessed cars careening between yellow and white lines, narrowly avoiding collisions with the silly creatures. The animals remained unharmed though, apparently bored among the grass-less asphalt and capered off into the neighbor’s yard for some food. Despite the fortuitous absence in accidents, the sudden fear of tragedy, animal mutilation, and lawsuits left my family and me visibly shaken. Eventually though using some honey-soaked grains as bait, we managed to lure the creatures back in their paddock and repair the broken fence. Cows, for those unfamiliar with livestock, are extremely strong. As I held the bucket of grains, one of them managed to stick its head into the blue bucket and literally push me like a dog with a rag-doll. Afterwards we cleaned ourselves up, got some lunch, and took a nap, our bellies fat with cheeseburger.

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Colonizing

Early yesterday I drove my parents up to a small colonial home convention near Philly. The conventioneers consisted of several old ladies and middle aged families intent on aging their homes with faux antiques, like a teeny-bopper’s jeans. I could not criticize them too much though as my own dream house resembles Eltz Castle – an ideal house should have a moat. However, the morning exhibits promised nothing but several hours of boredom or intense DS play (depending on the availability of fold-out chairs). Yet after lunch and a quick nap, we joined the line for the evening’s entertainment, a three-hour long marketplace for colonial-ish furniture and merchandise. Apparently something on the other side of the ticket counter was a big draw with everyone for when we arrived we found old ladies already camping, tense with excitement like champion thoroughbreds seconds before a race.

A band played somewhere inside the convention halls. Medieval tunes and Christmas carols fiddled lightly for several minutes someone joined on a loudspeaker, announcing the start of the marketplace. It might have been a gunshot for all the women cared. Immediately the line began to flow forward into the halls of the convention. My brother Kevin and I found ourselves caught in the rapid current of people, which flowed through a maze of stalls built like an Arabian bizarre. “Colonial” carpets hung from poles and decorated alcoves; glass blown globes draped across shelves like frozen orbs; furniture of all colors and age (both real and apparent) rose like skyscrapers above the cubicle walls. Faceless dolls parading across dark knotted cabinets stared at glossy business cards atop glass tables held aloft by a jumbled pile of ceramic jungle animals. Women sat weaving at large looms while men delicately chipped and etched patterns into smooth wood. Waiters circulated with wine and shrimp cocktail. I felt dizzy.

Eventually the current swept Mom and us to a small nondescript cove displaying reddish-brown pottery; the crowd rose and broke against the walls here as a red tide, swirling Redware into their arms and carrying the pots and plates off to check-out counters. The men stayed back, hesitant to enter the tide. Yet he gray-haired women swarmed in and out of the stall like bees around a summer-heated cola can. Within minutes nearly all the pottery had vanished gathered up in the arms of meek little old ladies in colorful cardigans whose heads probably do not extend above the steering wheels; now they wrestled with one another over clay-red cat figurines and easily piled towers of plates, bowls, and jars in their husbands overburdened arms before returning once more into the fray. Fighting for the Nintendo Wii, two years ago, I thought that I had seen everything.

‘Tis strange that so much fear and violence should come from such a common thing.

Dad and I watched the battle from a safe distance, just outside a forgotten stall displaying ornamental rifle carving. The slow precise movements of the craftsman drew my attention from the mob. Compared with the consumer frenzy, his action seemed oddly peaceful. I could see the rifle carver’s left hand slowly turning the shaft of the rifle; into the butt his fingers etched tiny grooves, curling into twisting vines and pointed stars. Gold would one day fill those tiny channels, I thought, imagining dark stained wood smooth and glowing with winding lines like forest rivers in the sunlight. I wonder who would buy such a gun. Would they use it to hunt rabbits? Shoot skeet? Or would it simply rest above a fireplace somewhere and fade into the brickwork?

A nearby voice pulled me from these thoughts.

“ . . . much worse. Never seen anything like it,” a gentleman said to Dad. “My wife went to buy some of this stuff last year, and she was so small and the crowd was so dense that somehow they squeezed in on her and lifted her off the ground.”

“Incredible,” my dad said.

“She never let go of that plate though. Like it was her first born child or something.”

“Yeah, well, their mother . . .” Dad said, gesturing to Katie and me. “ . . . is small too. Look there she is now.”

“She best be careful. Someone’s liable to get hurt in there.”

“Well, trust me, she’s small but tough. Still . . . Murph . .?”

“Got ‘er,” I said as I entered the jostling mass of aged female bodies.

I joined Mom, but not without a few bruises on my arms and toes from a few overeager ladies. Mom piled two plates in my hands, and I pulled her from the pulsating crowd before any more of the pottery tempted her further (“The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.” – Oscar Wilde). Already I spied several old men overloaded with earthen ware forming a line behind me like a parade of jugglers or Vaudeville comedians. Satisfied with their secured purchases, Mom, Dad and Katie left to browse some of the other stalls, while I was left to check-out and ponder the chatter of my fellow line-mates, whose sense of justice I found to be akin to a female contestant on the Bachelor:

Lady 1 (holding a box of pots and tiny reddish animals): “Well, we got out of that mess with something.”

Lady 2 (carrying several plates and a few large bowls): “Not that they left you much of anything. Though those pots are gorgeous, and that cat is darling.”

Lady 1: “Yes, it should resell well, though there was hardly any ceramic animals at all.”

Lady 2: “I know what you mean. I saw one lady with a handful of fish, cats, and pelicans. Two beautiful pots too. They would have looked wonderful next to my lamp by the window. You know the one near the bedroom door? Some people just cannot have enough?”

Lady 1: “Tell me about it. And you know that they’re only going to resell them?”

Lady 2: “I know! Hon,’ at least save some for the rest of us. Ooh . . .look over there, they’re restocking more plates.”

Lady 1: “My, doesn’t that look nice . . . Perfect for my cabinet set.”

Silence followed as they both considered leaving the line and returning to the swarming crowd until another lady apparently picks up the disputed items. The two ladies sighed, muttering that it would have looked nice somewhere in their homes or on Ebay.

Other stalls were less animated. After a rather touchy personal incident involving one intricately-designed and expensive Noah’s ark, one frugal mother, and an artistically captivated father and son who perhaps should have known better, we slinked past a stall exhibiting large paintings of various and sundry breeds of chickens. Eager for a distraction, we stopped to gander at the birds, which glared through frames easily four-feet high, and the interested customers willing to shell out several hundred dollars to purchase the fowl images.

Now in my early years, I played at raising chickens both for fresh eggs and our county 4-H fairs. Whether snow or heat, my job consisted of feeding, watering, and collecting eggs; later when my siblings brought home baby chicks, I watched the fuzzy balls grow into adult birds. All my years I have never considered them particularly beautiful creatures. On the contrary, I have found adult birds to be mean, vicious, greedy, unkempt, stupid, and utterly detestable creatures devoid of any virtue until covered in flour or boiled in a soup. They picked at my hands while changing their water and food containers, attack their fellow hens at the sight of blood, and rend the flesh of your legs if you entered their pen unarmed. Moreover, the smell of pig pens and cow stalls do compare to the reek of a chicken coop.

Thus I garnered no love for the exhibit. The paintings seemed to capture the authentic menace in their stance and irritable malign in their stare: feathers rustled like a lion mid-pounce, beaks agape mid-screech, claws tense and ready to strike. Anger emanated from every canvas. Placing such a portrait above your mantelpiece is like welcoming some vengeful spirit into your home, cultivating an air of discontent wherever those foul eyes fell. Yet this realism only prompted greater fervor for purchase, as the stall always seemed busy with customers or simply those curious for the macabre thrill. Perhaps allergy-sensitive conventioneers felt compelled to invest in a fur-free alternative to a watch dog. Certainly I know of one couple several houses down who recruits geese to guard their house. Seeing those avian eyes glowing in the dark would give anyone a fright, even the most seasoned burglar.

On the way home, burdened with an assortment of furniture, rugs, and one beautifully whimsical Noah’s ark, we sang a few Irish pub songs before the rhythm of the road coaxed everyone to sleep. I popped in a Gin Blossoms CD, sipped on some cold coffee, and sang to myself quietly over Dad’s snores. Interestingly I always feel most comfortable driving while others sleep. Do not ask me why. Only at that moment though, particularly after a long eventful day, I feel the most complete and happy, free of anxiety and worry. Nothing would make me happier than to continue driving, all night to some far off place no one has ever seen before. No, nay never no more . . .

Wild Rover

I’ve been a wild rover for many’s the year
I’ve spent all me money on whiskey and beer
But now I’m returning with gold in great store
And I never will play the wild rover no more

And it’s No, Nay, never, (clap 4 times)
No, nay never no more (clap 2 times)
Will I play the wild rover,
No never no more

I went in to an alehouse I used to frequent
And I told the landlady me money was spent
I asked her for credit, she answered me nay
Such a customer as you I can have any day

And it’s No, Nay, never,
No, nay never no more
Will I play the wild rover,
No never no more

I took up from my pocket, ten sovereigns bright
And the landlady’s eyes opened wide with delight
She says “I have whiskeys and wines of the best
And the words that you told me were only in jest”

And it’s No, Nay, never,
No, nay never no more
Will I play the wild rover,
No never no more

I’ll go home to my parents, confess what I’ve done
And I’ll ask them to pardon their prodigal son
And, when they’ve caressed me as oft times before
I never will play the wild rover no more

And it’s No, Nay, never,
No, nay never no more
Will I play the wild rover,
No never no more