I was baptized in a bathtub. The exact same tub that housed the sinewy corpses of dozens of elderly, free-range chickens just one week before.
By this time, our family had moved into a new house in a decent neighborhood — nary a naked hippy or homeless grad student to be found. Plenty of drunks though. It was the era of the cocktail hour, after all.
Ours was a yellow split level, with redwood deck and screened porch and a crawl space just big enough to lock away our Llewellyn Setter, Belle — the second-best quail dog who ever did live. When she wasn’t in heat.
When she was in heat, she was an infernal creature chained inside the crawl space, where she commenced to fumigate the entire house with ripe, gamey smells that drove my mama half-crazy. No amount of Spic and Span could rid the house of that stench.
But back to the cockadoodle carnage and bathtub baptism…
Daddy decided one day that poultry production would be an economic way to feed his evangelical, not-a-cult-yet, bible-study group. That, and he could trade rough-hewn fence posts for a couple hundred Plymouth Rock hens, so why not?
As a newly-ordained shepherd in the Discipleship Movement of the 70s, he took his duties seriously. And one of those duties was to provide for his flock. We had a newly-planted victory garden with acres of okra and peas. And now we had chickens.
Let me tell ya, physicists have no business playing farmer. And in this tale, there are TWO physicists… my dad and his fellow Ole Miss faculty member, Dan. (We’ll call him Dan because he was a no-nonsense Yankee with clipped vowels from Michigan State, so Boaz or Silas as a scriptural pseudonym just never would fit.) So, Dan it is.
Now this was a cockamamie scheme (wink, wink) from the get go, for all sorts of reasons. First off, these were some tough old birds — Methuselah-old in chicken years. To say they were ready for the Purina pet food factory would NOT be an exaggeration. That, plus the fact Daddy didn’t have the proper equipment to butcher and clean poultry were just two reasons.
But a man who understood alpha particles and chaos theory wasn’t gonna let a bunch of chickens get the best of him. So he gathered up his meagre-but-eager flock of neophytes and in no time, they’d assembled a paltry little poultry production line:
- canning pots
- table for plucking
- buck knife
The carnage began in the backyard. It was like Salome and John the Baptist out there — chickens losing heads right and left — with a particularly large and gregarious gentleman wielding the machete. We’ll call him Rufus because, well, he had red hair and lived in a trailer park, so it suits him. That, plus he’s the hunter who taught Daddy to pop off quail heads and feed them to Belle as her point-and-retrieve reward. (The ensuing belches rivaled Hell’s sulfurous fumes.) If a red-haired, trailer-park-living, bird-dog loving southern man ain’t tailor-made for the name Rufus, I don’t know who is.
Back in the kitchen, Daddy baptized the newly-headless chickens in 20-qt speckled enamel pots chock full of rapidly boiling water. (He was always looking to dunk somebody, so this was great practice.) The birds got two minutes each, just prior to plucking. No more. No less. Too long, boiled flesh. Too less, torn breasts.
The plucking came next. In the hallway. With a dagger. (Not really. I just couldn’t pass on the Clue allusion …). But it really did happen in the hallway, only with bare hands.
It was a sticky, heinous job. Rufus (after making mincemeat of the machete business) and Dan-the-physics-man found themselves covered top to toe in soaking-wet, blue and black and white and silver feathers. They looked like fish with fluffy scales. Or Harpies.
Harpies are typically half-bird, half-female creatures, but travel back to Oxford in the summer of ’76 and you’ll find two of the male variety, squatting over a table, fingers puckered from plucking, lashes dripping with downy detritus — one well over six feet; the other, not-so-much.
Last on the production line, the newly-naked corpses were tossed upstairs to the bathroom, where they lost their innards and feet at the hands of Hiram — a former Vietnam chopper pilot. Entrails were dropped in orange paint buckets, birds in the ice-filled tub.
Where they were left in waiting on the womenfolk.
The women were charged with dissection — 200 cadavers at ten pieces each. No small undertaking. Even with steel buck knifes. And once the dismemberment was final, the job was far from over.
Those chickens had come to a sticky end. And my mother soon found herself in the STICKIEST of situations.
Here’s a little-known chicken butchering fact (at least for physicists-turned farmers): If the fatty scent glands of a chicken aren’t excised properly, they leech a stinky, oily grease.
And these weren’t. So these did. All over Mama’s gold fiberglass tub/shower combo…
The clean-up was monumental. Exxon Valdiz monumental. No way Dawn Dishwashing Liquid was taking that grease out of her way. It stucketh to that tub closer than a brother.
Second little-known chicken butchering fact: fatty scent glands are the mark of Cain. They are made of impenetrable stuff.
My mama scrubbed her fingers raw. That grease still probably lingers to this day, haunting all past, present and future tenants.
Which brings us to our baptism side of the story on a Saturday evening a week or so later… when this narrator was washed in the blood of the lamb — and the oil of the fatty scent glands of two-hundred plymouth rock poultry.
I had just walked down the aisle as a junior bridesmaid and is a day that will forever live in fondness and infamy.
For the wedding, I wore a dotted swiss, lemon yellow dress with square neck and white rick rack. The collar just highlighted the tiny raised mole above my right breast — along with my burgeoning need for a training bra.
Those sprouting acorn-sized lumps must’ve constituted an emergency. That, plus the strawberry lip gloss the bride smeared across my mouth like a Sodomite stain…
Whatever the prompting, I found myself sitting in a tub full of water in a scooter skirt and tank, Daddy praying fervently over my soul.
I’m sure I looked wild-eyed and mortified.
I’d attended baptisms before, but never my own. And always at the riverside. Never tub-side. Where was the murky water? The threat of cottonmouth nests? The promise of fried chicken and RC Cola after? This felt all wrong.
Rufus, Hiram, and Dan made it the requisite Two-or-Three-Or-More-Are-Gathered-in-my-Name official. They sang a slightly off-tune “Let’s Go Down to the River to Pray,” which calmed me. A little.
Until Daddy dunked me.
At ten, I was a long-legged filly (maybe another reason Daddy decided he could tary not one second more), so I’m not entirely certain my knobby knees made it under. Which is worrisome. Because it’s total dunk or no deal in Daddy’s nondenominational eyes. On sprinkle or pour, he casts aspersions.
But my noggin knocked fiberglass, of this I know. So here’s hoping it stuck.
I know the grease from the 200 fatty scent glands of the Plymouth Rock hens stuck. My hair had enough oil to light the lamps of the ten virgins in the parable for perpetuity.
I was one prepared virgin, at least. I know this much is true…
(And as for those chickens… chewy and tough as Methuselah’s boots. All Mama could do was grind them down to chicken salad — with a wallop of Duke’s mayonnaise and a half-a-patch of dill weed, you could still taste those fatty scent glands.)