Lately, I’ve been watching some of the goings-on as a handful of people have been setting themselves up to live in the country, many for the first time.
I think it’s interesting to watch people dealing with things they’ve never encountered before. Never having bought a seventeen-ton-truckload of gravel, or hired a well-drilling crew doesn’t exactly classify you as a babe-in-the-woods, but that’s the feeling you get.
Watching all this take place always reminds me of when we moved here to Exclamation Pointe back in ’77.
When we came here, the farm had a few sheds, two big wooden barns, and a large chicken house. You’ll notice that I didn’t mention any dwelling—for humans, that is—I’d always wanted to design my own house.
I grew up not far from here. At the time we moved back, I hadn’t lived in the country for several years, and that had been long enough to develop a strong distaste for dealing with traffic, and for having neighbors right on the edge of my lawn. The year before, I’d bought an acreage on the other side of town that was surrounded by the National Forest, but the government gentlemen had finally made it clear that they weren’t going to let me bring in electricity, and we decided we weren’t willing to get by without it.
I’d picked a beautiful spot that was one of the more scenic locations in the Mark Twain National Forest that the government didn’t already own. They have since been able to correct that situation, having gotten rid of me.
Trying to squeeze a little compassion out of the state had wasted several months, and we were already a year behind our schedule for moving to the country. We decided that we could get out of town and on to the new property quicker if we were to convert the chicken house, the best of the buildings, into living quarters.
Funny, how easy it is to use those words, “living quarters”. They just sort of roll off your tongue, and if you’re anything like I was, maybe you don’t spend enough time thinking about exactly what they mean.
This was the summer of 1977. I was still married to my first wife, and Christi and Lorelei were about ten and five.
I was so anxious to move out of town that I’d have lived in a tent. My wife and I negotiated that she’d go along with my scheme if “reasonable living quarters” could be provided, and in this instance, that would mean indoor plumbing and electricity.
When I say this was a chicken house, I don’t mean a little 4 x 8 wire-and-wooden shed. This was what is known to poultry aficionados as a broiler-house, because it’s intended use was to rear young chickens, in fairly large quantities, to the appropriate age when one would want to broil said birds, whenever that might be.
Inside the bleak exterior, there was a cold and unforgiving concrete floor, a few dull windows that you had to stoop to see out of, and lots of bare wood.
We put batts of fiberglass insulation between the wall studs, and in late summer it seemed as if it would be plenty cozy in the winter. We hired a neighbor to do a nearly-competent job of wiring the place, and a couple of were plumbers to install a genuine bathroom with its very own septic tank just behind the building.
The building itself was about sixteen feet wide, and maybe sixty feet long. Not unlike a typical mobile home configuration. Beyond that, the comparison becomes strained because mobile homes are primarily designed for humans, whereas chicken-houses are designed, as one might suppose, for chickens. This one was built of rough-sawn oak, and someone had replaced the chicken-wire on the south side with casement windows of the sort more preferred by humans and the higher primates.
Perhaps you have never taken a moment to reflect on the essential differences between man and chicken, but I assure you that they are substantial.
First, there is the matter of lifestyle. Chickens get to party all day long, spending their lives cackling with their friends and relatives, while gorging themselves in front of troughs of food, their every whim (be it alfalfa pellets, water, or more alfalfa pellets, or more water) is catered to them by the doting and benevolent chicken farmer.
We poor humans, on the other hand, have to fend for ourselves.
Further, as the astute reader may note, more often than not, chickens are of markedly shorter stature than humans.
There were many occasions when this simple fact of physiology would become very relevant to our lifestyle, but the one that is most clearly embedded in my memory is this:
If you have any small children in the house, then you know that they are much easier to maintain and care for when they are asleep. That principle in mind, we always tried to maximize the amount of time that children in our care spent unconscious.
Up until the time of moving to the chicken-house, I had conditioned myself to come flying out of bed in the morning, then to sprint across the bedroom, tossing myself at the alarm clock, there to wrestle it to the floor and still the thunder in its infernal goozle, lest it wake the children. Now that the girls’ bedroom was only a suspended blanket away from ours, this situation was all the more critical.
I kept the alarm clock across the room because I knew that if I could reach it in bed, I wouldn’t be waking up. However, waking up didn’t prove to be as much of a problem as staying conscious.
When the alarm went off that first morning, I shot out of bed on my mad scramble for the alarm clock.
I didn’t make it.
Instead, I found that the ceiling directly over where we had located our million-pound waterbed was quite a bit too low for me to stand up. My forehead met with a rough sawn oak 2 x 8 rafter with the concussive force of two charging rhinos.
Oak is very durable stuff; both thicker and tougher than even the densest human skull (witness mine). Early man favored clubs made of strong, resilient oak for bashing in the skulls of his enemies. I learned that if, using extreme force, one strikes a seasoned oak timber with a large piece of hollow bone, a deep, rich percussive sound is produced.
Out-of-doors, I’m sure there would be a fine echo.
I don’t think I care to tell you how many times I had to crush my cranium against that rafter before I adapted my routine to it, but I’m a pretty quick study under such conditions.
There were other chicken vs. man issues that had to be dealt with. For example, chickens don’t use plumbing, not one of them in my experience. It’s just not part of their culture.
People, on the other hand, have evolved to the point where we consider it a virtual necessity.
However, seemingly to the contrary, our family learned that calm, well-mannered indoor plumbing is only a requirement if you slavishly insist on maintaining a certain amount of self-respect while staying warm at the same time.
There was a 50-foot well when we moved here, but naturally, that was the driest summer since blah, blah, blah, so we had to drill a new 125-foot well up where the real house was going to be, then run a line down to the chicken-house, an elevation drop of about 30 feet. We had great water pressure from this arrangement, so much so that we scarcely had the need for such items as hand-soap, scrub brushes, or paint remover.
I mentioned earlier that we had a septic tank installed behind the building. That’s because that was the only place for it. There was a creek on the other side, so we literally had no choice. Just behind the septic tank, was a large hill, causing the area where we buried the tank to have a tendency to fill up with water during wet times, which here in the Ozarks tend to last from November to around mid-July.
When that happened, which it nearly always did, we not only had pretty good water pressure from the well coming in, but we also had a fairly reliable flow from the septic tank backing up into the toilet and bathtub—when it wasn’t frozen, that is. The ladies chose to tolerate these conditions, but, having a weaker stomach, I opted to reopen the old outhouse on the other side of the hill. It wasn’t so bad, especially in comparison to spending time in the heady fumes of the Black Lagoon, and it was an excuse to get out of the house.
Another thing you may not realize if you’ve not had 30-odd years to think about it, as I have, is that chickens are not very materialistic.
Hardly any of them owns anything of any value, and storage space is just not a major issue among the pecking-and-scratching class. Give your typical chicken something that will hold a little water and a few pounds of alfalfa pellets, and he’ll consider himself well furnished.
We, on the other hand, had a history of dissatisfaction with the norm and possessed all the appropriate trappings of the typical American Family of Four, formerly known to habituate a three-bedroom suburban ranch house.
We had your Barbie dolls, we had your TV set, we had your 5-gallon buckets of triticale flour and brown rice. Naturally, you can’t be expected to be able to place everything quite so precisely and neatly as you once did, when you trade suburban closets and Formica for concrete and four low walls of bare insulation.
What we wound up doing was stacking everything along the walls and hoping that we didn’t need the stuff on the bottom too frequently.
I guess if you’ve lived long enough to learn to read, then you already know that it would only be natural that that winter be the coldest one that this country has seen before or since. It dropped down to 24 below one God-forsaken night, and we had a foot of snow-cover for two months.
Staying warm though, wasn’t really one of our problems. We had one wood-fired stove on the extreme end of the building (because that’s where the only flue was). In order to keep the plumbing, in the middle of the house, from freezing, which it did anyway, we usually had to keep things so hot in the west end, that nobody seemed to mind that the whole east section, where we slept, wasn’t heated at all.
About that time, inflation was going crazy and everybody wanted to buy real estate, so I was very, very busy. So busy in fact, that while we’d planned to start building what was coming to be called “the real house” the first spring we were there, that got put off as I needed to devote more time to the business.
Consequently, all the stuff piled up against the walls began to show all the dust that fell over those months of living with a leaky wood-burning stove, to say nothing of all those years’ worth of built-up chicken-dust. Things got filthy, and it became harder and harder to stay clean ourselves.
In the middle of all this squalor, Jessica decided to be born, and being dedicated back-to-the-land types (or something) my wife and I decided to have the birth there in our chicken-house.
When we headed into that second winter in the chicken-house, I’m sure my wife was beginning to wonder if “the real house” weren’t just another of my numerous flights of fancy.
I guess about now you’re thinking that I’m going to grace the whole experience with some heartwarming anecdote about Christmas in the Chicken-house, or how being stuffed into a really tiny space until our eyes bugged out made us a closer and happier family.
It didn’t. It made us all appreciate how cool it would be to have a bedroom with a door and a lock on it again. The truth is, it was pretty grim, and probably the worst part of it, for me at least, was that I started to think of myself as someone who lived in an old chicken house, and that wasn’t okay with me.
If I had it to do over again, I’d do something else.
The best memory I have about the whole episode is that of waking up in the new house. Everything seemed so bright and clean. I remember the smug feeling I had lying on my back and gazing up at the new ceiling, so clean, so white, and SO far away.
A few years ago, we burned down the chicken-house. Jessica invited all her friends and family to watch her birthplace go up in flames. No tears were shed. It made a nice party, and I finally got even with that rafter.