Sunday, February 28, 2010

Old School

I always knew that my Grandpa Summers was a harsh man, but I learned just how harsh he could be when he and my grandmother called me back into the cabin to announce their solution. My grandmother didn’t say a word but rather stared at me with a smug superiority that revealed her pleasure that my cure would taste of medicine. My grandfather tersely declared that we would be headed to Old Ben Herzog’s farm the following morning. I think he refrained from adding any further details in order to stoke the ominous impact of his proclamation.

The following morning I hopped into his truck, eager to discover whatever lesson they had devised for me. Once again my grandfather was silent for the duration of the trip, but he was at least kind enough to buy me a red cream soda for the ride. When we arrived at the farm he told me to wait in the truck and then proceeded to walk across the yard to meet with Old Ben Herzog.

Whenever two old men undertake deep philosophical discussions in a farm yard, they assume the postures and mannerisms of pitcher and coach having a timeout discussion at the mound. As my grandfather illustrated the importance of his arguments with greatly animated gestures, Old Ben Herzog just stared at the ground and kicked at the dirt, nodding his head to each argument. When finally my grandfather had said his piece, Old Ben slapped him on the shoulder to confirm his agreement.

Old Ben remained on the mound as my grandfather returned to retrieve me from his truck. As we crossed the yard back to Old Ben, my grandfather informed me that I was about to find out where a chicken dinners came from - and he wasn’t talking about KFC.

We followed Old Ben to his chicken coop. As he picked up the first chicken, it seemed to panic for a few moments but he quickly got it to calm down on his lap. As he sat petting the chicken he asked me if I knew what was going to happen. I told him that I thought he was going to kill it. Then he did just that. With a decisive twist of his big muscular hand, he broke its neck.

He laid the chicken at my feet and told me to describe what I saw. It was still conscious and actually breathing. It couldn’t move its body, and it knew that it was going to die. Its eye seemed vaguely aware that we were looking down at it, and it was the closest experience I could imagine at that moment to my grandmother’s passing. I knelt down beside the chicken and told him that the life was draining out of it.

He made me put both hands on the neck so I could feel where it was broken. I was pleased to feel the life energy in it. There was more energy than in a gasping fish, and plenty more than there had been in Amber in her drugged up state. Most importantly, the upturned eye revealed a much brighter beacon of life energy than I had experienced that summer. That chicken knew that it was about to die and also knew that I was aware of its imminent passing.

Then Old Ben asked me if I thought I could do the same thing. He seemed surprised when I glanced up at him and said yes. I think he was certain that I would back out at the last second when he selected the next chicken. He held in on his lap and calmed it down and then got me to pet it as well. I let my left hand slip up close to its head and then brought my right hand close to clasp the neck. It took all my strength, but with a hard snap I managed a quick, clean break. Old Ben gasped a bit, but he set the chicken at my feet and told me to watch it. I dropped to my knees and laid my hands on it, feeling where I had broken the neck and warming my hands in the life energy that pulsed from it. I leaned it close to watch the life drain out of the eye. The close proximity of its killer spiked the adrenalin in that dying chicken and the eye absolutely radiated like a tiny diamond. It was an extremely compelling experience.

Refusing to acknowledge that things were not going the way they had planned, my grandfather asked me if I was willing to eat that chicken. He turned a bit pale and gulped when I looked up and said, “I have to; I killed it.” I have to admit that I lost a bit of my resolve during the plucking process. Old Ben had fashioned a chicken plucking machine out of an old ringer washer. I’m not sure how it worked, but I didn’t like seeing the chickens bouncing around in there. I was also worried that I wouldn’t know which chicken was the one I had killed.

When Old Ben pulled the chickens out I was quite surprised at how thoroughly they had been plucked. He told me to feel their necks to see if I could tell which one I had broken. The first one didn’t feel quite right to me, but when I put my hands on the second chicken’s neck I could tell instantly that the break was exactly where I had made it. Ben had broken the first chicken’s neck really close to the body, but I had used both hands and broken the neck much further up.

Once again, Ben and my grandfather seemed disappointed with the way things were going, but old men never admit defeat. I wasn’t the least bit repulsed by the gutting process since it was actually far cleaner than gutting fish, and I had already watched Matt gut plenty of fish that summer. I was intensely interested in the organs that Old Ben showed me. Learning the difference between the kidneys and liver was a wonderful experience, and I was really proud of myself for instantly recognizing the heart. I don’t know how I knew it was a heart, but it just seemed instantly familiar.

As we left I heard Old Ben saying to my grandfather, “Maybe it went ok. Maybe her curiosity is full now.” My grandfather said he hoped so and we climbed into his truck. My chicken was in an ice cream pale in the truck box and I kept an eye on it all the way back to the lake, once again in complete silence.

My grandfather said very little to my grandmother when we got to the cabin. He just handed her the chicken and said, “It’s done.” My grandmother looked at me and asked if I would like to help her cook the chicken. I was very eager. Watching her massage poultry seasoning into the chicken’s skin was beautiful. I didn’t pay much attention to how she made the stuffing but I was excited to help stuff the cavity. I was very happy that she was roasting the organs with the chicken. I sat in the cabin for the rest of the afternoon, just enjoying the aroma of that chicken as it roasted.

I don’t think I had ever before so enjoyed a chicken dinner. It was the first time that I tried the organs. Previously I had always been grossed out over the idea of eating liver or kidneys. I didn’t like the heart very much because it was so tough, but the liver had such a soft texture that I came to enjoy the mineral-like taste. I was rather indifferent about the kidneys.

To my grandparents’ delight, I lost almost all interest in fishing for the rest of the summer. The experience of watching the fish die had completely paled to the experience with the chickens. My interests turned fully to cooking and I spent a lot of time with my grandmother in the kitchen. My grandmother always seemed a bit uncomfortable with all my questions about different cuts of meat and where the animals had come from, but she took comfort that I was finally interested in something that she deemed far more normal than watching fish die.

She tried as much as she could to peak my interest in baking. I didn’t entirely mind baking, but there was just something about the sound of flour rubbing between her hands that affected me like finger nails on a chalkboard. I persevered, however, with the goal of learning to make meat pie. I think that by the end of the summer my grandparents were convinced that they had cured me.

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