If ever there was a year in need of Easter it was 1943. World War II was in full fury, the end not yet in sight. At home my parents spoke in whispered voices about distant battles, about high school friends and neighbors’ sons who would not return.
That year, my parents and I lived at The Cherry Place, an old farmhouse just south of Derby, Kansas, near where the road to Mulvane took a hard left turn. When I drove by the house with my wife years later, she remarked that the cherry trees must have died. There never were any cherry trees, I told her. The house was owned by Mrs. Cherry, and in the Kansas way of talking that made her house The Cherry Place.
The Cherry Place was a one-story house with no plumbing. Water came from a hand-pumped well just beyond the kitchen steps. For a bath, we’d heat water on the stove. An outhouse was out back. Cold winds merely tarried a little on their way through the house. Still, The Cherry Place had one advantage: It was close to the Boeing Aircraft factory, so my father’s drive to work didn’t require much gasoline. This was in the time of rationing.
That Easter my mother’s sisters gave me a box full of chicks. They were dyed red, blue and green. Chickens were not new to me because my parents kept them for eggs and for eating. But colorful chicks — now that was something special. My favorite was the blue one.
It was soon clear that my blue chick was a rooster, and he became my first pet. The world of a rooster is a hard one; to be a rooster means to fight. A young rooster will get pecked and spiked and chased to the far end of the barnyard, a dangerous area visited by circling hawks. But my rooster was up for the game. With wings outstretched, he tore into would-be rivals, feet extended, claws flying. I was proud of him.
Another young rooster eventually appeared in our flock, perhaps an offspring of my rooster. My father took a liking to the new rooster, and before long we witnessed father-son rooster fights. We didn’t stage them; they happened all on their own. Indeed, the only way to stop them was to put one of the roosters in the pen. I liked the fights because my rooster always won.
In every other way, my father was always the best. He was taller. He could run faster. He could throw rocks farther. But when the rooster fights were on, I was the best because my rooster was the best.
The day came, however, when I learned one of the hard lessons of life — nobody stays on top forever. It started as an ordinary fight. Instead of minding his own business at the edge of the barnyard, Dad’s rooster strolled into off-limits territory. My rooster intercepted him, and the fight was on: hackles up, wings flapping, feet outstretched, dirt flying, feathers floating. It went on too long, I thought. Then my rooster turned and ran. I was horrified. I threw a clod of dirt at Dad’s rooster, which just stepped aside. More fights followed. Despite my attempts at intervention, from that day on it was my rooster that skulked in chicken-hawk country. I continued to love my rooster but didn’t enjoy the fights any more. And from then on, my dad was the best at everything.
In 1944 we moved from The Cherry Place to Planeview, a war housing project in Wichita. It was time for me to begin the first grade, and my parents wanted to get closer to a school. But before we left The Cherry Place, we had to dispose of the chickens. On the appointed day, my dad borrowed a truck, and we put all the chickens into cages and drove them to a poultry house. As we walked out the door, I asked my dad, “Will they find a nice family to adopt my rooster?” He looked at me for a while and then replied, “I’m sure they will.” Then he gave me a 50-cent piece, a princely sum, and said, “That’s what they paid me for your rooster.”
When the war ended, we followed my dad’s dream and moved to Oregon. I spent the rest of my childhood as a city kid and kept city-kid pets — two black cocker spaniels. But whenever I got a longing for the country, I thought about The Cherry Place, about my rooster, about the chicken hawks and about the first discoveries of life.
One Sunday while I was in high school, we were eating dinner when a terrible idea formed in my mind. “They didn’t find a nice family to adopt my rooster, did they?” I said, interrupting my parent’s conversation. “They killed him!” My dad looked at me, a slight smile forming on his face. “It sure took you a long time to figure that out,” was all he said.
Dad lived until he was 91, and he died in 1998 while visiting his brother in Kansas. Four years earlier, he and I had returned together to The Cherry Place. The outhouse was gone. There still were no cherry trees, and we didn’t see any chickens. As we drove away, a small smile again tugged at Dad’s face. Did his college-educated son still remember, he wanted to know, what happened to chickens that were taken to the poultry house?
Ron Blubaugh is an administrative law judge for the State of California.