I spent my 10th summer on my cousin Stanley’s poultry farm in New Jersey, 2,000 White Leghorn layers plus a few Barred Rocks and Rhode Island Reds, because he liked to look at them. A flock of ducks wandered around gobbling up caterpillars that dropped off two trees in the yard. I got a ladder and picked every leaf clean tossing each fat green caterpillar to the wildly quacking ducks.
Everything was “organic” then, and “factory farms” were unknown. Stanley’s chickens had spacious coops with sunny yards. As we entered a coop, he’d croon, “Here chick chick chick,” or the fidgety birds would explode into a turmoil of flapping wings.
Daily chores were feeding, watering, and gathering eggs. Leghorn hens produce almost an egg a day. When a hen got “broody” she needed to sit on her eggs, so Stanley showed me how to slip plastic eggs under as I took out the real ones. I also learned to candle, passing each egg through a light to separate any that had a blood spot.
Three farm dogs, a Shepherd named Pooch, and two mongrels, Buff, and Blue, named after the colors of Cornell where Stanley had majored in Animal Husbandry. Pooch followed me everywhere except into the chicken coops because he wasn’t allowed.
An old mare, Duchess, might have pulled a plow once, but Stanley didn’t do dirt farming so she wandered freely. I’d climb on her broad back and she’d head to an abandoned apple orchard. The trees, not realizing they’d been abandoned kept producing apples, which Duchess ate. Stanley warned me not to let her eat green apples because they gave her gas. I built a tree house in one of the apple trees.
The farm had a single shot 22 caliber rifle which I was allowed to use. My targets were old Caruso and Galli-Curci 78 rpm phonograph records. Not one survived.
In the wooded acres across the dirt road, “The Russians” moved in. They were Refugees from a Revolution and minor aristocrats said Stanley. They worked like peasants. First they lived in tents but by mid-summer had built and moved into a long narrow wooden shelter. “When we build house, this chicken house,” said one.
At the end of the magical summer, I bid a sad goodbye to Pooch. Two months later he miraculously appeared in Sheepshead Bay! Around November, Stanley suggested I sell eggs in the neighborhood. Soon I had a route, large white day-old eggs, 45 cents a dozen. The A&P sold large white storage eggs for 27 cents. A customer with an Irish accent said, “We drink them right out of the shells, and can taste when an egg is fresh.” I sold a case—30 dozen—a week, earning 15 cents a dozen, $4.50 a week. Great money for a 10 year old. I took to Brooklyn, biking to Floyd Bennett Field and Coney Island, going to the movies and school. But part of me always felt like a farm kid, and still does.