Playing Chicken

Travel with me back in time to a little house built by hand at the edge of a cornfield on a hill overlooking a valley. The house still stands, empty but for the memories of four generations which somehow keep it from falling down. It’s all but invisible to the infrequent motorist who passes by on the paved road, but when the house was younger, children walked barefoot on the dirt and gravel lane, climbed the apple trees, explored the old barn, played hide and seek in the cornfield and fished in the creek.

This was the home of my grandparents, where I spent the weekends and summers that made it the home of my favorite memories. As I’m writing this I hear our rooster bidding farewell to the day, and the sound of it invites the image of my grandmother on the way to her henhouse with a pan of scraps. Then as now, the sun is casting long shadows, and a cool breeze is gently rolling down from the same mountain that watched over her labors, inviting more memories…

We didn’t live on the farm back then, but in a big town some of us who grew up there like to call “Chicken City.” It wasn’t the place closest to our hearts, but it was the closest town where my folks could find the jobs they needed and still be close enough to support our grandparents as they needed. It was a good home, and we tried to live as much country life as a city limits.

Grade school in those days was magical, but high school was something to be endured on the way to whatever came next. I played football, then baseball, but my folks knew me better than I knew myself and encouraged martial arts over team sports to tame their lone wolf.

Karate class was held in a small dojo in the industrial section of town across the railroad tracks. I took to it like a hen after a June bug, as Dad used to say. I practiced in our basement, read every magazine I could find, and watched every Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris movie I could watch. One of the core lessons in any quality martial arts program is humility, but teenage boys don’t start there. “Kung Fu” sounds a lot like “Young Fool,” and I learned to repair plaster when Dad made me fix the hole I knocked in the wall practicing punches.

One night on the way back from class we were bumping across the railroad tracks in the family station wagon and saw a white bird standing in the middle of the road. A broiler had fallen off one of the many poultry trucks which passed over those tracks. Much to our mother’s chagrin, we caught that bird and took him home.

“Foghorn Leghorn” was given a home under the big slate table in our back yard. With a diet of scratch feed and kitchen scraps, and with nothing much to do except eat, he grew rapidly. We soon discovered that he was, indeed, a rooster. One morning he confirmed that suspicion when, right at the break of dawn, an awful croaking warble emitted from under FL’s table.

Roosters raised in isolation don’t learn how to crow properly. He never in his life managed a proper “cock a doodle doo.” The sound he did make is difficult to describe. Suffice it to say that one morning at 6 AM our neighbor called, very upset, thinking that someone was being violently strangled in our back yard. Luckily, or so we thought at the time, the grandparents were missing a rooster for their flock, so FL was boxed up for a trip to the mountains post haste.

It’s funny now, looking back, to realize that Foghorn and I were on similar learning curves. When we delivered him to my grandmother’s hens, he had a similar experience to mine when, invincible in my role as “Young Fu,” I sparred with a girl half my size but possessed of a much higher belt. I escaped with a welt on the side of my head, but FL was bloodied, battered and missing several feathers after the hens finished expressing their opinion of him.

He was a tough bird, old Foghorn, and he survived to become cock of the roost. He grew into a magnificent creature, healthy, virile, handsome, just don’t ask him to sing. Unfortunately, like many roosters raised by hand, he was missing any fear of humans – and he had three inch spurs.

“I wouldn’t go near that old rooster,” my grandmother said. “He’s bad to flog, but if you’re going down to the barn take this bundle of sticks to protect yourself.” She handed me a tightly bound little bundle of alder branches with her warning.

You can already guess where Young Fu went straight away – right down the hill to where the chickens were scratching around. I never made it to the barn. When Foghorn saw me I think it reminded him of riding in a cramped cage on the way to the executioner. He came at me faster than I would have thought possible, and in slow motion time compressed by adrenaline, I saw those deadly spurs airborne and headed for my leg.

That front snap kick I had been practicing was useless. He was too fast, and his kung fu was stronger than mine. In the end, it was baseball, not martial arts, that saved me. I swung that bundle of sticks like Reggie Jackson. I hit him hard, again and again, but he just kept on coming. Exhaustion was approaching rapidly, but fear mustered enough force for one mighty swing that cleared the bleachers and laid old Foghorn out flat on the ground.

Triumphant, but with a mantle of humility beginning to form, I headed back to the house to tell my tale of playing chicken with a dangerous rooster. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Foghorn get up and shake himself off before running into the weeds. He who flogs and runs away lives to flog another day.

“Floghorn” lived, but he didn’t learn. Not long after that, he flogged my grandmother on her way to feed the hens. The next Sunday we had chicken for dinner, and no one said a word about the rooster from across the tracks.

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