A Chicken Named Blackie

1943 • Sonora, Tuolumne County, California ~ Our family lived at 104 Green Street, a white two-story house right in the center of town that rented for $35 a month, and where I would be born in five years. A wide porch ran on three sides. The back portion was enclosed and stored the mangle where Carleen ironed  sheets and pillowcases, and where Mom had one of the first electric washers and dryers in town. Daddy put up pantry shelves with doors where Mom kept her canning: fruits from the trees in the yard, vegetables from her garden, field mushrooms (she and the kids hunted for them behind the hill at the grammar school), and her homemade spaghetti sauce and chili. The giant elm tree out front was a hundred years old with a canopy so thick that even when it poured you’d stay dry under it. To the left Kelley's Garageflowed Sonora Creek, a small tributary of Wood’s Creek where the first big nuggets of gold were discovered in Sonora’s veins. It was filled with huge leopard frogs, rainbow trout, and wild blackberries until the early fifties, when that section of  pristine waters was polluted and slick with oil and car fluids dumped directly into it through a waste pipe by mechanics from the Kelley’s Central Garage.

rear: Larry and Carleen, front: Betty and Claudia, 1948, Yosemite

rear: Larry and Carleen, front: Betty and Claudia, 1948, Yosemite

Out back, Mom raised chickens, the family’s source of meat during the war; she sold the eggs or traded them for flour and sugar. When Mom butchered the hens, it was Betty’s job to collect the chopped-off heads while the headless Leghorns chased Claudia who ran screaming around the yard. Mom put the bodies in a big pan of boiling water to soften the feathers, and Larry and Carleen had to pluck and clean them. Larry also had to clean the big metal chicken house out back, a job he hated more than anything.

You weren’t supposed to keep chickens if you lived inside the city limits, so if the roosters ever crowed before daybreak, Daddy went out and whacked off their heads. Each Thanksgiving they bought a live turkey, and Mom raised ducks too, but they flew away every year.

Betty was forever bringing home stray or wounded animals and hiding them under the porch. Our house was high off the ground and she kept her feral kittens hidden from Mom, spending months trying to tame them. Making a pond from the leaking well out front, she created a sanctuary for the pollywogs and tiny fish she toted up from the creek. Her only real pet was Blackie, one of the chickens. It had limber legs as a chick, and Betty begged Mom to let her keep it so the other chickens wouldn’t peck it to death. Mom finally said okay, she figured it was going to die soon anyway. It didn’t. Betty raised Blackie and kept her safe in its own little box, petting her soft brown feathers and clucking to her, training her by giving her water and grain several times a day from her hand. She loved Blackie.

One day Betty woke up with a sore throat. Mom cooked a big pot of chicken-rice soup for supper. Daddy, sitting at the head of the table, said grace: “Bless us Oh Lord…” When everyone raised their first spoonfuls to their mouth, Betty smelled something was off. “Where’s Blackie?” she asked. Mom and Daddy carefully studied the rice in their bowls, the other kids’ spoons dangled halfway to their mouths, their eyes lowered. Betty stiffened, shot a look at Mom, fell back from her chair and sprinted from the table, screaming “Nooo!” The rest of the family bolted down their supper. They were hungry.

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  1. Deborah Orton says:

    Yikes, I understand times were tough, but to cook your sisters pet… Guess it was one of those moments you had to live through to understand!

  2. Juliette Andrews says:

    Your words are magic. I always want more

  3. NOT BLACKIE! I didn’t see that one coming Catherine. Did she ever forgive your Mother?

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