Like a Chicken With Its Head Cut Off

It’s a good thing we at least know what we’re doing now.   Because the rest of the world is still chaos, and, at times, actively campaigning against us.

This year we discovered a Mobile Processing Unit was available to rent nearby  for the cost of $35 a day.  An MPU is a boon to small farmers  like us, who want to process our chickens ourselves but aren’t independently wealthy enough to purchase the necessary equipment.  The MPU has everything in it and it comes in a small trailer.  All we needed to provide was manpower, utensils, ice…. And chickens.

So I went to pick up the MPU on Friday afternoon, with the intention of filling and lighting the scalder that night so that it would be ready bright and early the next morning.  So naturally, the first real, and hard, frost settled in on us as the sun started going down… which found me scrambling to harvest or cover the remaining crops which are not frost hardy instead of unpacking the chicken equipment.  Around 8pm, when we finally went outside to start the project, we discovered with dismay that the hoses had already frozen solid and our four-way had split.  Recognizing the futility of trying to heat 50 gallons of water to 150 degrees using frozen water from our well in 21 degree-and-falling weather overnight, we bagged the project and vowed to get up the next morning especially early to start.

Lionel had the brilliant idea of filling the scalder with hot water from our tap to jump start the process, so we started filling up available buckets, pans, and bowls with hot water to transport out to where the scalder had finally been released out of its trailer.  Lionel poured a few gallons in as I connected the propane up and prepared to light the pilot.  After successfully lighting the pilot I turned on the burner to heat up the scalder and got… nothing.

Then…. BANG! And then rattatatatatatatat!!!!! ….and then silence as I rapidly jumped in to turn it off.

Much more warily this time, I tried again, with the same worrying result.  I get nervous when propane-fueled items make explosion noises, so I called the man who keeps the equipment.

“Must be ice in the line,” he said, in his southern drawl.  “Just bang on various parts a few times, and try again.  It should light.”

So I banged on some things.  A few times.  And, eventually, it lit.

Well!  That crisis was averted!  Things should go smoothly now….. right?

Both kids woke up on queue and wanted breakfast and clothes and shoes.  My aunt was  coming to take them to a new Children’s Museum in Keene, and they were very excited.  She arrived shortly into the breakfast routine, so I took the moment to go down and open our farmstore.  While I was there I took our new, snazzy, digital, Certified for Sale scale and put it in the back of the car, intending to give it a recharge before we use it on our chickens.  Then our help arrived and I set them with the task of setting up the other equipment –feather plucker, tables, hoses, extension cords, utensils, etc.  Then the guy from whom we borrowed a wood processor came to pick his equipment up, and he had to drive over our lawn, right through where we’d set up, to get to it.  So…. We picked up the hoses, and the tables, and the extension cords, etc.   Then he left.  We put them back up again.

My aunt was finally ready to go but wanted to drive our car instead of her car.  She needed the diaper bag.  I got the diaper bag.  She needed a change of clothes.  I got a change of clothes.  The kids needed coats.  I got coats.  Finally they got strapped in and I turned away to do something else.  Five minutes later I looked up and they were still in the driveway.  I went up to them and discovered that all four windows were down.  “What’s wrong?”  I asked.

“How do you make the windows go up?”  my aunt asked.  She was in our Prius, which has automatic windows.  Vague alarm bells went off in my head, but I merely opened the door and made the windows go up, all four.  I wondered aloud how they had gotten down in the first place, but my aunt claimed they’d been that way all along.  Who knows?  Maybe, in the chaos that was happening around us, Lionel had gotten in the car briefly and, for some reason, probably a perfectly valid reason, put all four windows down.  I said goodbye again and headed off to do some other stuff and, five minutes later, noticed that they were still in the driveway.

“Is something wrong?”  I asked again. 

“Do you have a street address?” she asked, holding out her GPS unit.  “’Colony Mill’ doesn’t show up on my GPS.”

Colony Mill Marketplace is as big as day, there in the middle of Keene, but I suppressed the vague alarm bells again, resisted handing her the map in the glove compartment, and  Googled the damn address.  That accomplished, I watched with relief as they finally left the driveway.  Everything was finally ready, so I got two birds and set them in the cones.  A few seconds later, they were on their way to becoming meat.

Five minutes later, I started to curse.  “What?” my friends asked.

“The scale is in the back of &%@#!! car!!”  I ran off and leaped into our other car, hoping to find her on the side of the road, perhaps trying to figure out how to work the steering wheel—but no, they were long gone.  I came back despondently, but Lionel  was confident that they’d come back before customers came to pick up the birds.  We’d just bag them and put them in the refrigerator without weights until we had a proper scale.  Reassured, though still mad at myself, I went to check on the progress of the scalder and found that it had gone out.

I tried to relight it.  BANG….ratatattatatat!!  I banged on some things.  BANG!  Ratattatatatat!!

Okay, this is a big problem.  And it’s already 10:30 am.  And I have two dead birds, with feathers that won’t come off unless I have hot, 150 degree water.

We dithered for a while.  Should we try to locate another scalder?  Should we call it for the day and try again, maybe tomorrow?  Except someone was coming to pick up the equipment that night for their own use the next day.  We called the guy again, but he was at a market with no cell service.  So we dithered some more, and then finally tried to light it again… and it lit.   Our friends speculated that it might be the regulator, which we might or might not be able to pick up in the local hardware store, which is at least 20 minutes away.  At any rate, the scalder stayed lit, and finished warming up the water….so, finally, we began.  By now the sun had come out and had warmed up the landscape considerably, and things were pleasant for quite awhile.  The scalder went out again, but re-lit without making ominous bomb noises, so I was able to establish a fairly regular pattern of chicken slaughter-and-scalding with dashes of scalder-relighting here and there.  Once you are juggling a whole bunch of balls in the air, what’s one more?

Once we got going we made a good dent in the chicken population.  But there were 60 some-odd all told, and because of the late start we were racing against the clock, both to finish before our customers got there (we think it is bad form to be splattered in chicken guts when people come to buy their chicken), and to finish before dark and incidentally with enough time to clean the equipment, so that it could be carted away.  So naturally, around 4pm Lionel came back out of the house, where he’d gone briefly, to inform me that my aunt had borrowed someone’s cell phone, and left a message to tell us that she was unable to get the Prius doors to unlock and wanted to know how to open them?  And, naturally, since she’d borrowed someone else’s phone, there was no way to answer her question since there was no way to call her back.  And she had our scale.  And customers were coming in an hour.  And none of the birds had been weighed.  And we weren’t done.

Those vague alarm bells ringing in my head?  Oh yeah, I remembered.  The remote key no longer works, and so you can’t lock the car with it.  Or, in this case, unlock the car either, if you happen to be really ambitious and judicious about locking the car and lock it manually, even if, previous to that, you were unable to figure out how to open and close the windows.

Because the remote key function hasn’t worked for ages, we’ve actually taken to not locking the car, even when we are in places where we normally would lock the car.  There’s nothing of value in the car generally, except some juice-and-cracker-stained car seats, so, you know, have at.   I’d forgotten about it entirely… until now.

Fortunately, though, the remote key actually has embedded in it a manual, old fashion key with which you can open the front door should you happen to find yourself in just such a situation.  Which we’d gladly tell my aunt, assuming that we could locate her in the Colony Mill Marketplace.  But none of the merchants had seen her.  And she didn’t call back.

With foggy images of my aunt and my two children wandering aimlessly in the mall begging random strangers to help her figure out how to open her niece’s car, I managed to do in the remaining ten birds while Lionel retrieved our old, hokey, kitchen scale and began to backtrack on the weighing project.  Not a moment after we were done, the first car pulled into the driveway.    Birds began to disappear rapidly.  It was getting colder again and beginning to get dark, so I retrieved the tractor and hoisted the gut buckets into the bucket, traveling down the private road at as high a speed as I could muster to dump the offal far enough away so as to not encourage predators.  By the time I came back, it was dusk….and lo and behold, there was a Prius in the driveway.  My aunt had belatedly remembered that she had AAA and had managed to find her way back home.

We scrubbed chicken equipment in the rapidly cold and darkening night, put it back into the trailer for the next crew to use, went inside to change and wash off the day’s work, and then set out again with aunt and children to find food.  At the restaurant I showed her the hidden key and listened to the kids’ excited recounting of their day, and finally was able to relax into my dinner and glass of wine.  Lionel, who was supposed to come after the equipment was safely away, never showed up, so we boxed up his dinner and brought it home…. Whereupon he informed me that, just after all the equipment had left, something had gotten into the turkey fence and attacked and killed one turkey.  Still reeling from the day’s adrenaline rush, I replied “I’m gonna do it right now!!” and whipped out our largest pot.

 It was 9:30.  I was exhausted.  As I stared at the pot, envisioning how I was going to accomplish this feat of scalding the bird, on our stove,  with a pot that was clearly not big enough to accommodate an almost fully grown 20 pound turkey, I realized that I had to let it go.  Something had to give.  We’d spent all day beating back reality and Nature, and it was time to let reality win a point.

 Up 64 chickens.  Down 1 turkey.  2 kids in bed and 1 Prius (with scale in the back) in the driveway.  All in all, not a bad day’s work.


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