chicken little


Everyone remembers the good old summertime. Everyone remembers the season they worked as a lifeguard at Ocean City, waited tables at a seedy resort in the mountains, scooped ice cream, cut lawns or babysat. Even people who never had summer jobs remember them because it was psychically part of the American experience.

When I was a teenager, my friends spent summers working on their tans, flirting with girls and playing cards in the caddy shack while they waited for the high rollers to show up for a quick 18 holes.

Meanwhile, I caught chickens.

My father and uncle owned a number of agricultural businesses that provided exciting job opportunities for the young and the restless and one of those was a chicken processing plant. A key part of running a chicken plant was rounding up the chickens—all the romance of a cattle drive with feathers—so they could be processed. (“Processed” is a figure of speech. Use your imagination.)

Since you are probably unfamiliar with the mechanics of chicken catching, let me explain that it’s done at night because chickens do not move about much in the dark and therefore are easier to catch. It’s also quieter. Or so we were led to believe. Chickens are nervous. I suppose they have that in common with cattle. They can stampede. Well, not really stampede but panic and then pile up in the corner of a chicken house and suffocate or injure themselves. And that would not be a good thing for the owner of the chickens.

Every evening, Ora, who was the foreman, would drive around and pick up the crew. Our merry band might include persons recently released from prison, drunks, a dour Penobscot Indian, two brothers with the strange biblical names of Rama and Ephraim (whom my uncle, not the most sensitive person in the world, called “halfwits”) and me. We rode around the countryside in the middle of the night catching chickens. Thousands of chickens. I can still hear them squawking. And I can smell them, too. You never forget that smell.

I caught chickens all over central Maine—Norridgewock, Skowhegan, Vassalboro, Pittsfield and Weeks Mills. The caddy shack looked mighty good from where I was standing covered with chicken feathers and wearing a gas mask (to prevent respiratory distress). We were pariahs, forbidden to enter even the all-night diners. The sight of a half-dozen guys covered with feathers and smelling of chickens puts folks off their breakfasts.

That summer job was an experience that I knew would always at some level shame me. And turn me forever against manual labor. Which, on reflection, is not a bad thing, come to think of it.
Forty years later, when my daughter was a teenager she got as much as $15 an hour to watch little children while their mothers played tennis, swam laps or had lunch. She could charge a burger at the country club. Work on her tan. Talk to boys. Nary a chicken in sight.

My daughter did, however, have one brush with the real world. The summer before her senior year in high school she worked as a shampoo girl at a fancy salon, washing hair, sweeping up and bringing in the lattes and Cobb salads. She returned home to report that the more the customers spent on themselves the less likely they were to tip. Some gave not a cent! She did not make much money, and I believe it successfully turned her against manual labor, as her father had been turned decades before.

The next school year, my daughter read Barbara Ehrenreich’s book “Nickel and Dimed,” a popular account of Ehrenreich’s adventures as a waitress, a Walmart employee and a house cleaner. It helped my daughter understand her summer at the salon. And she got a swell college essay out of it. She had learned firsthand what it’s like to be nickel and dimed.

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