The year we ate Red, my pet rooster, for thanksgiving is right up there with the best of the neuroses that I have accumulated over the years. It was not that we could not afford to buy a turkey that year, which on second thought may have been true, or that Dad didn’t shoot a clutch of grouse that weekend because the leaves were still on, but that my Mother said Red had to go, pet or not.
We did have other family pets when I was growing up. We shared an aged Springer Spaniel named Rags who liked to walk behind my dad when he was hunting. There was always a barn cat around that we played with until she had another batch of kittens. For one summer we had a rabbit called Peter that was supposed to be a pet, but who was always in Grandpa’s bad books because Peter ate his flowers. We were told a fox got him.
My Dad was forever trying new ways of adding to the meagre income afforded a school bus contractor, and after we had tried market gardening with nominal success, we moved on to chickens. Dad thought he knew a little about chickens because we had half a dozen hens that lived in the old barn with our one-eyed jersey cow. Bossy, the cow, kept us in milk and the hens supplied enough eggs to meet mother’s cooking needs and an omelette once a week. So Dad thought we should get into the egg marketing business. How difficult could it be?
White Leghorns were known to be the most productive for egg laying so that was the chicken breed of choice for the first two years. Unfortunately, Leghorns are very skittish, have a long non-egg producing moult and were too skinny to eat after they passed their best egg laying years. Dad decided we should try Plymouth Rocks the next year. These are bigger birds, lay almost as many eggs as Leghorns and did not fly into a panic every time someone opened the coop door. The roosters grew to a big enough size to make a great dinner, about 4 pounds dressed.
Selling eggs is not all it is cracked up to be. First you have to gather the eggs, and for some reason there was always three or four of our 150 hens that decided they wanted to sit on their eggs, hoping to raise a family. Getting those eggs out from under a brooding hen requires some determination but I soon learned the distraction techniques needed to gather the eggs. It helped that Grandpa found some old door knobs that we put under the hens to satisfy their mothering instincts.
Next was the washing of the gathered eggs. We cleaned the eggs and then candled them – holding them up to the light of 25 watt bulb to see if there were any spots in the egg that would make them unpalatable to city folk. All went well until January when people seemed to stop eating eggs and our hens reached the peak of their production. We had no refrigeration in those days so we applied a product called ‘egg glass’ that was supposed to keep eggs ‘fresh’ for at least 30 days. Supply outstripped demand until Easter. Then in the summer when demand was high, our hens all went into moult.
After two years of eggs, Dad decided to go into capons. Rhode Island Red was the breed of choice and that’s how I came to get ‘Red’ my pet rooster. The thing with selling capons is that you have to kill and dress them. All week we would take orders and then on Saturday we would get the chickens ready. Catching, killing, plucking, cleaning and washing a dozen or more free range chickens takes more time than you might think. Especially the catching. And the plucking.
The chicken enterprise quickly slipped into oblivion when Dad bought a small sawmill. We had several hens and a few roosters left over from the previous year, and one was my pet, Red. Red was big rooster at the end of his first year, weighing close to 10 pounds (4 kg). He would follow me around and was always up for a game of tag, taking turns chasing each other. He would eat from my hand and even ride around on my shoulder. These games had nothing to do with me mesmerizing the rooster, but that’s another story. Red was the undisputed boss of the chicken house. As my personal pet, he escaped the chopping block all that winter.
The next summer my younger brother was four. I suppose he saw me playing tag with Red and thought it was something he could do as well. Red did not agree. After the first game of tag, my crying brother reported to Mother that a chicken had pecked him. Told not to tease the chickens, all was well for about a week when Red and my brother clashed again. This time my sister, armed with broom, chased Red off.
Red was now becoming more aggressive, a trait I blamed on my sister chasing him with a broom, but by September when my sister and I returned to school, Red was chasing anything that moved near his hens. The cats and the neighbour’s dog gave him a wide berth - an angry rooster with two inch spurs being a serious threat, even if he was too heavy now to fly.
A four year old who has forgotten his protective broom was no match for Red. Red would jump on my brother and knock him to the ground. He never pecked him or used his spurs, and as soon as my brother cried out, Red would retreat. Finally, Mother saw Red in the act and that was it. Since I was the only one who could catch Red, I had to capture him and hold him while Grandpa applied the axe, my Dad no longer being involved with killing chickens.
Red smelled mighty good in the old wood stove oven but there was no way I could eat any roast chicken that Thanksgiving. My dad had lost all appetite for chicken the previous year, but had a slice of breast meat just to keep mother happy. My sister went into one of those female fits of pique that can last for years and said she was no longer eating barnyard fowl. Grandpa applied his usual hardy appetite for fresh chicken and heaped his plate. I’m not sure if my little brother realized it was Red he was eating, but for the first time in his life he asked for and ate a whole drumstick.
My siblings are still wont to go into that Smothers Brothers routine around Thanksgiving, the one about Mother never liking me and having a pet chicken, but it doesn’t bother me. Much.