CHAPTER THIRTY

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Something I never thought in a million years I would be proud to add to my resume:  being the co-owner/operator of a rare breed chicken farm in Tennessee for 5 years.  Yes, it’s true.  That’s me in the picture up there feeding the chickens one morning a few years ago. And yes, that’s a smile of pride brightening my aging visage.

Truth is, I loved those chickens.  We averaged about 200 of them, ten or twelve different breeds who laid eggs in about 7 different colors:  white, brown, blue, green, olive, pink, and a deep mahogany the color of a CEO’s desktop.  We sold them to a local organic food place in Nashville called the Turnip Truck.  They flew off the shelves.  One reason:  parents bought them because kids loved to pick out their own special eggs in the morning.  Plus, they were actually good for you.

The chickens lived in two chicken houses I built, one of them on an old steel trailer I traded for a .22 Luger pistol.  They had the run of about three acres all around the house.  They would hit the ground in the morning just after dawn when the ground was still wet with dew and immediately start pecking at worms that had emerged overnight.  Then it was off to the races, food-wise.  Bugs, caterpillars, seeds, ticks, mosquitoes, the occasional butterfly and even a nice fat lizard every once in a while.  Then at dusk both flocks would make their way back to their chicken houses and we would lock them up for the night against predators.  Same thing all over again in the morning, the evening…same thing the next day and the next and the next.

It was a farm, and they weren’t pets, they were livestock.  We loved those chickens, and it hurt when a hawk or a fox or a coyote would take one of them, leaving a pile of feathers where once a proud hen had strode the land.  But we would replenish the flocks once a year or so with a shipment of new chicks from a supplier out in Iowa, and raise them up and introduce them into the flocks, and our lives and their lives would go on.  Legions of words have been marched across the page over the years describing life on the farm…the seasons…the animals…the sometimes backbreaking labor…the thrill of new life and the heartbreak of lost lives…and I can attest that every single word of everything ever written about farming is true.  You love it and hate it in equal measure, but one thing is for sure.  A farm replenishes you every single day like almost nothing else on the earth can.

We took an oath right from the beginning that we would follow the natural laws of the farm and not take to our flocks as if they were pets, not get to close to them because we knew we would lose some of them and moving on would be necessary.  And for a long time, we followed that rule absolutely.

Then one evening on a cold February day I was standing at the kitchen sink slicing vegetables for that night’s dinner when something caught my eye, just at the right edge of my vision.  There were three windows in the kitchen:  over the sink, top half of the back door, and in the kitchen breakfast nook to the right of the door.  I leaned over the sink and took a good look out the window.  There were always chickens in the side yard, and I didn’t want to be day-dreaming if a hawk or coyote were menacing the flock.  But there were no signs of a predator.  The chickens were pecking away; the roosters weren’t sounding off; the peacocks were sashaying around showing off and not announcing a threat with their incredible fog-horn voices.  I went back to slicing.

Then, there it was again!  A flash of something caught my eye.  I looked out the window.  Didn’t see anything.  Again!  I saw it again!  Okay, I thought.  I’m not imagining things.  I stood there at the sink and turned my head so I could see it, whatever it was, full-on.  And then I saw her.  A chicken was sitting atop the fence just to the right of the kitchen door and she was jumping up, flapping her wings wildly, then landing atop the fence.  She did it again!  And this time I saw that she had her head turned and she was looking in the breakfast nook window.  She did it again!  I tried to force the thought from my mind…she was a chicken after all…but it was obvious she was trying to get my attention.

So I walked around the counter and opened the back door.  It was a White Faced Spanish, quite a regal black bird with a flash of white on either side of her head.  When she spied me at the open door, she immediately flew down off the fence and marched straight over and hopped up the back steps and walked right past me into the kitchen, clucking softly to herself.  She walked a few feet into the kitchen and spread her wings and fluffed her feathers and looked straight up at me, clucking.  I walked over and picked her up and held her under my left arm and stroked the back of her neck.  What are you doing in here, big chicken, I asked stupidly?  She clucked and I could feel her muscles relax under my arm.  I grabbed a kitchen towel and walked into the living room where MSNBC news was purring on the TV.  Sitting down on the couch, I spread the towel across my lap…chickens have a habit of depositing poop wherever they are, including your lap, so it’s necessary to protect yourself.  She didn’t hesitate for a second.  She thrust her legs straight out behind her and lay herself out, extending her neck across my right thigh, and she went right to sleep.

I don’t know how long I sat there like that, stroking the back of her neck.  I was astounded, struggling to wrap my head around the behavior of this gorgeous black chicken.  It was as if she knew exactly what she was doing…as if she had a plan or something…and now here she was where she wanted to be.  Not outside in February weather, but inside on my lap, comfortably warm and sound asleep.

After a while the kids came downstairs and saw me sitting there with her and we chatted about her in amazement.  No chicken had ever behaved like that before.  It was charming and wonderful in a way that’s hard to express.  And it definitely wasn’t farming.  Then the kids got hungry, and I had to pick her up and carry her outside and put her back down among the flock and get back to cooking supper.

You can no doubt guess what happened the next afternoon.  Same thing.  Big Chicken…yes, our whole farming rules thing fell apart and we named her…jumping up from the fence, looking in the window.  Me opening the door, she marching in, clucking and fluffing.  Me picking her up and carrying her into the living room.  She going to sleep on my lap.

This went on for a couple of days, and then one afternoon I went out to get in the car and drive down to the end of our private road to pick up the kids from the school bus, and Big Chicken was waiting for me and jumped into the front seat of the car and quickly took a spot in the passenger foot well.  She rode down to the corner with me, I parked and picked her up, and together we waited for the bus.  When the kids got in, she happily took her place on the floor and we drove back to the house, parked, and we all got out.  Big Chicken included.

Our little journey to the corner together continued for I don’t recall how long…days anyway, maybe a couple of weeks.  So did our sojourn on the sofa every evening, Big Chicken happily snoozing on my lap, me watching talking heads babbling on MSNBC.  Then one afternoon, Big Chicken wasn’t outside the window jumping up and down.  I went outside and looked around for her but couldn’t find her anywhere.  Maybe she’s just hungry, still pecking away for food.  Next day, same thing:  no Big Chicken.

We knew what happened.  Big Chicken was among the breeds, some of whom like to sleep up in trees at night.  Rare breed chickens are way smaller and lighter than conventional American chickens, the kind you see pictures of on egg cartons.  So they can fly for short distances and they can fly up into the lower branches of trees where they perch for the night.  Only one problem:  owls.  We had lost tree-perching chickens to owls before, and so it was that we lost Big Chicken, too.  I have to tell you, it was heart breaking.  That chicken was something to behold, and her behavior was so out there, you couldn’t help but love her.  We never found her body or even a pile of feathers, which wasn’t uncommon with owls.  They would often carry off their prey in their huge talons and have their nightly meal somewhere else.  But we never forgot Big Chicken, the hen who caused us to break our farmer’s pledge and drop our guards and take her as a pet.

I don’t think about Big Chicken all the time, but the memory of her came to me recently as I was contemplating what we do as boys and girls, men and women, even older men and older women.  Isn’t that what we do?  Jump up in the air and flap our arms and fluff our feathers trying to get each other’s attention?  Isn’t that what we were doing, really, when we walked down a school hallway gazing longingly at the gorgeous girl standing at her locker or the cute guy hanging out on the steps of the A Building stairway?  Didn’t we look down the bar on a winter night and see each other and long to be in each other’s arms on a nice comfortable sofa?  Isn’t what we’re doing in various online forums actually trying to jump up and get a look into each other’s windows?  To get the attention of someone on the other side of the glass?  Window, laptop screen, smartphone…it’s all glass, it’s all windows into worlds we would rather be in than the one we inhabit.

Isn’t that what we all want, what Big Chicken wanted?  To be picked up and taken inside where it’s warm and cozy to rest our heads on another’s strong shoulder or lean our necks across someone’s sexy thigh?  Could it be true that we haven’t evolved much beyond the behavior of a Black Faced Spanish hen on a Tennessee chicken farm?  And really, isn’t that quite wonderful?

I’m a retired chicken farmer, and that’s what I think.

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20 Comments

  1. I have really enjoyed your stories since I first met up with your writing a year or so ago. This one, however, came from your heart and touched mine. I’ll keep watching my mail for the next one always. Blessings.

    i

    Reply
  2. Reading this made me yearn for “Vietnamese” chicken salad, achingly human. Thanks Lucian, yes, blessings. Margaret

    Reply
  3. Brenda Kutz Honig

     /  September 26, 2015

    Hello Lucian, CHS class of 66 here- your brother’s class. Found this touching story as I searched you to find what, perhaps, you are writing these days. Sitting here w Full Dress Gray. My daughter contemplating Lucian as name for first child, and I reminded her of you. She and husband write in the side, she a psychotherapist. My cousin’s son a West Point Grade too.

    Reply
    • Brenda, thanks for the nice comment. I might be in Carlisle next month of 50th reunion. I still haven’t made up my mind.

      Reply
  4. David Miller

     /  October 2, 2015

    Thoroughly enjoyed this chapter. hopefully getting back to the farm has helped restore your soul, much as it did for our shared ancestor. Discovered this blog while reading the recent bio of your Grandfather. That was such a long tale of events with little about the man, while this has been a fascinating look at the man with a few events interspersed. Much prefer this one.

    Reply
  5. got me hooked – excellent story

    Reply
  6. Carmen

     /  October 31, 2015

    I need your help. Please read your story again…substitute Sally Hemmings for gBig Chicken. Your heart is big enough to love a chicken. I think Thomas Jefferson’s heart was that big too. Thanks for showing this to me. I did not like Jefferson until today. People would say “founding father” and I would correct them by saying “you mean slaveholder”. Now I can forgive all of that because he must have had a Huge heart, big enough to change his mind about his livestock. He brought it (Sally) in, took such great care of her she left Paris. They were not just wrong or stupid…love explains so much. I think it is even strong enough to bring Big Chicken inside!

    Reply
  7. Marjorie Mendenhall

     /  November 26, 2015

    Just discovered your Blog, and was just enchanted by the story of “Big Chicken”. Now that was a female who knew exactly what she wanted, and how to get it.
    I plan to check in a read more – so glad to know you are still writing and available.
    Last night I stayed up ’til 5 A.M. re-reading “Heart of War” Just couldn’t put down the last bit about the Court Martial. What a gutsy, determined woman !

    I really thank you so much for your superb writing and pacing !! What a break for all of us when you left the Point !

    Reply
  8. Marla Randolph Stevens

     /  January 18, 2016

    You called Big Chicken a White Faced Spanish early in the piece and a Black Faced Spanish near the end. As you said she had white on either side of her head, I wasn’t sure which name was the real one.
    I’m sorry I never got to meet her. She sounds like she was a grande dame of the finest kind.

    Reply
  9. Dave Kornfeld

     /  February 10, 2016

    I have enjoyed the hell out of this series. In turn, I think you will enjoy the following:
    https://www.warhistoryonline.com/featured/general-lucian-truscott-prioritized-competence-glory-humbly-apologized-dead-wars-end.html

    Reply
  10. J B Shelenhamer

     /  July 20, 2016

    Have just discovered your books. I have been busy reading each of them and have enjoyed each one. Being of the Vietnam era and having been in the Army, can relate. Have already recommended your books to grandson now serving in US Army. Thanks much for novels.

    Reply
  11. Ed Sweeney

     /  August 18, 2016

    Beautiful chapter.

    Reply
  12. Our Big Chicken’s name was Friend – although we’d never intended to name them. One of a half dozen battery farm hens rescued. Too scared to touch the ground when they first arrived they adapted and took over, free-ranging over three and a half acres. Friend was more dog than hen (although she and her colleagues gave us the best eggs we’d ever had) and would greet us and talk and indicate what she wanted through sound and gesture.

    The hens taught us their language. Got to the point that, when they made a certain sound, we’d automatically look up for any raptor circling the sky.

    When you’ve had a hen, you can’t imagine the horrors a battery ‘farm’ represents. I miss The Ladies. Thank you for your piece. It reminded me of some of the purest moments I’ve experienced.

    Reply
  13. Patricia Anderson-Boerger

     /  November 15, 2016

    Though I’ve lived in cities like Chicago and NY, I grew up on a farm so I know first-hand how Nature makes you love something and then takes it away. Not even moving to a city keeps the heartbreak at bay but you can try.
    Love your writing, Luc. Thanks.

    Reply
  14. Sarah

     /  December 2, 2016

    Found this story while perusing information about your father as I’m in the middle of reading his book “Command Missions”….and enjoying it, btw.
    Anyway, I live in Tidewater VA and also have chickens. Not as many as you —about 40…..but several are exotic, breeds with the wonderful colored eggs which the grandchildren love and Oooh and Aah over.
    Your story about Big Chicken brought me to tears. Oh! I have lost so many of these beautiful, totally helpless, such vulnerable creatures to foxes and hawks and it kills me every time even if it wasn’t one of my favorites to have gotten snatched away by a hawk or left partially devoured by a fox.
    For the longest time, I would grab the beautiful, old 12 gauge shotgun that had been my father’s and like Elmer Fud run around the field blasting away at the circling hawks who were just waiting for me to turn my back so they could zero in like a Messerschmitt and do their dirty work.
    One week I lost 3 hens, a rooster and two ducks in ONE afternoon!
    I have two Labs and a Jack Russell but they would just sit there and watch the death and destruction with a bland look that smacked too closely of “bon appetit”.
    So, we get to the part of this long story…sorry, I can’t stop myself when it comes to my chickens….where I want to suggest to you that you get yourself a Livestock Protection Dog!
    A Great Pyrenees, to be specific.
    I found a man who breeds them, brought one home, and a neighbor “loaned” me one of his full-grown GP for several months.
    This lovely, very gentle but fiercely protective animal lived here for several months and she trained my Great Pyrenees puppy. From the moment that dog stepped onto my property, the slaughter ceased. Instantly.
    It was such a joy to see those hawks sitting up high in the top of their pine tree retreats, looking down with sheer disgust. I knew what they were thinking: “The old lady’s gun was nothing to worry about but this is going to be a problem.”
    After a few months, my neighbor took back his dog and my young one stepped into her shoes.
    “Susie” patrols the rather large area where I allow the chickens to “free range” and watching her guard those little things is beautiful to behold. If a hawk accidentally flies over the property, Susie gazes skyward and tracks the hawk’s path until it is gone. If the hawk lingers, then Susie springs into action and barks and leaps and chases the varmint off.
    I just love it!
    At night she patrols the place like a sentry on patrol. One morning, she came in with a four-inch gash in her cheek. She had mixed it up with something during the night—-
    don’t know what but I bet she won.
    Recently, I got myself yet another Great Pyrenees pup. “Wolf” is his name…I thought about calling him “Trump” but reconsidered since that might be a bit controversial.
    Wolf’s mother was the GP who trained Susie. She is huge so I know Wolf, as a male, will be extremely large.
    Right now, as I type, Susie is outside showing Wolf the ropes.
    The Labs? Lazy as ever regarding Wolf as a bit of a nuisance.
    The Jack Russell tries to get in on the action but soon gets bored and goes and flops down with the Labs.
    The chickens? I don’t know what they think but I know I love them and every once in a while, one particular (usually) Barred Rock or a Buff Orpington will seek me out and ask to be picked up and loved, and my heart is stolen.
    Please….do consider a livestock protection dog. You owe it to your flock!
    And your own heart!

    Reply
  15. I wrote you a long letter as a Christmas card to your address in Franklin, TN, which came back to me yesterday with no forwarding address – so I will try again, with Sally Hemings stuff that no one knows and I sure don’t want to share with Monticello ever since Cinder Stanton said Sally Hemings was buried under concrete in a parking lot – I thought that was frightfully irresponsible – and I know where she is buried, too. But that’s another story. Anyhow, I will try again with that letter, and you will be convinced I am not the horrid person that Julia and the half-sister made me out to be. Signed Jean Dawes Jefferson.
    PS – McCullough is doing a biography on my three great-grandfather on the other side of my family! And there I am liking all the people you don’t like and don’t like the people that McCullough likes. Oh, well.

    Reply
  16. Richard hawleYujjkk

     /  April 3, 2017

    Greetings, Mr. Truscott. I recently read a magnificent account you posted on Facebook of Virginia Heffernan’s summary of Trump’s vacuity. I am writing about Trump myself and would like to know how to cite that piece. Was it from an article? A personal letter to you? Would be grateful for your help.

    Richard Hawley. richardhawley32@gmail.com

    Reply
  17. k e spooner

     /  April 14, 2017

    Mr. Truscott
    Over two days (barring distractions) I have devoured your writing. I have laughed, teared up and been reminded of similar instances. Reading about the 442
    a subject i was curious about courtesy of James Michener’s writings led me to your grandfather which led me to you and your writing. In spite of being a voracious reader my whole life and raised by voracious readers, I realize now that I had a rather large bias when it came to names of authors. I have ran into too many carbon cutouts with the IIs, IIIs, and IVs attached to their names in my childhood and made the ignorant assumption that you as author were the same. To my own loss ,I guess, since the cost is not enjoying your writing in decades past. I guess now I will need to fix this situation by reading your previous books.

    Thank you for the mix of emotions and insight.

    P. S. You might consider setting up Paypal, Patreon and similar services to help with financing your work and avoiding the “Maw” of the publishing/writing industry.

    P.P.S I recall enjoying the messhalls in Carson in the late 80s there was serious competition on getting soldiers to eat there because if they didn’t like your messhall they would eat at a different one and you would gain a reputation you didn’t want to carry.
    Perhaps some of the changes you started survived. And perhaps If they had listened to Kassandra in 69, my father and others wouldn’t have had to fight as much of a war with heroin and loss of morale in the Army in Germany in the early 70s.

    Reply
  18. I graduated in the USMA ’67 class, which has its reunion next week. I won’t be attending, because a) I’ve visited a couple times over the years, and the place still gives me the heebie-jeebies, and b) I just can’t imagine making any meaningful connections in an event like that with guys who’ve changed so much in 50 years.

    I’ve loved your writing, though I notice it’s been nearly 20 years since your last published novel. Loved the chicken story. Great stuff, from-the-heart writing.

    Also, I admired your role as a cadet to get the mandatory chapel bullshit abolished. I hated that dreary business and am so glad it no longer exists.

    I admire your courage as a young man to leave the Army despite the cost and pursue your true nature as a writer. We make choices every day, but it’s amazing to reflect on how certain choices in life, especially those where you follow your heart, change everything.

    Hope you find a publisher for your book.

    Reply

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