Tuesday, March 23, 2010

A Dog and Chicken Love Story

Some of my fondest memories while growing up very often involved family gatherings around the dinner table on a Sunday afternoon. These events were always at my grandparent’s house and the best ones drew in my mom, siblings, aunts and uncles, and their kids enjoying both my grandmother’s cooking and the simple pleasure of having everyone so close. The usual menu of simple Southern foods hardly ever changed during those countless Sunday gatherings but none of us cared. It was never about the food although to this day no one makes fried chicken or potato salad like my grandmother did and the sweet taste of her ice tea whose special technique in making it was lost with her passing is something I will always remember.
Those afternoons were more about the love and protection we felt in each other’s company. Being drawn together bumping elbows at my grandparent’s dinner table we instinctively knew it was safe to relax and set aside the demands and worries of daily life until Monday. These days the pace of modern life and the stress it creates leaves us little time for such respites.
Looking back at those Sunday afternoons I now believe our family gatherings satisfied a primal need to when the world was a far more actively hostile place with safety only found in numbers and around a roaring fire holding off the predators that lurked in the dark. It was not just the company and food that pulled us together, it was the stories told at that dinner table that after countless retellings kept us amazed and connected to events and people long past. One such story involved the strange love affair between Lulu the dog and a chicken.
The late 1940’s in Georgetown, South Carolina was a time of slow transition from a past still tightly tied to traditions and attitudes from the period after the Civil War to the era we live now. For the South, the Second World War had been the tipping point that began to break the cycle of poverty and ignorance that had seemed as immutable as the heat and humidity of a Southern summer.
It was the same for my grandparents, the war offered a way out of the life of a tobacco sharecropper that had bound both their families to poverty for generations around Marion, South Carolina. A bout with mumps as a child had left my grandfather completely deaf in one ear making him illegible for service during the war. However, opportunity to get away from the sharecropper life came in the form of a paper mill that had just opened down in Georgetown.
The change from working the tobacco fields to the production of paper brought a change in location but not a huge improvement in living standards. Instead of living in a rural cabin my grandparents, my toddler mom, and her new infant brother were living in a drafty house on the edge of Georgetown several blocks away from the paper mill. The pictures that survive of that house show a plain, unpainted structure raised about a foot or two off the ground resting on a foundation of brick columns spaced evenly underneath. A porch, covered by an extension of the roof, offered the only relief from the humid summer heat and in the back was a clothes line where items were hung to dry after largely being hand washed. Even with all this it was a vast improvement over what they had lived in before.
The transition from a rural environment to a largely urban existence required them to leave much of their old life behind. The garden they grew that supplied much in the way of their vegetables was no longer possible and just about all the animals that were a part of normal rural life had to be left behind.
There were two exceptions though, one was a small collection of chickens and a mixed breed mutt of a dog named Lulu. My grandparents kept the chickens for both the eggs they could produce and the when the time was right the stew they would be a part of once their egg laying days were over. The purpose for keeping Lulu had far more to do with practical reasons than for anything sentimental that might come to mind now. Lulu’s whole reason for being was to safeguard the chickens that roamed around my grandparent’s house scaring away any other dog or cat that might try to take away an important part of the family diet.
With the lifestyle today people have gotten use to and conveniences available now such a dreary and primitive existence is something they could never fathom. The mere mention of constructing something as simple and energy saving as a clothe line in most modern suburbs will send the members of the homeowners association scurrying like rats for the published neighborhood guidelines then the attorneys to force the removal of such an eyesore. I cannot imagine the near chaos that would ensue if someone dared to keep a few chickens around a suburban house in such an anal environment.
Still though in many ways, I believe people were generally happier and dealt with the struggles of life far better than many do today. I am separated from that life by several decades but I arrived on the scene far enough back to experience the echoes of what it was like. People just made do, did not complain, and looked for things that made life interesting. This is where the story Lulu and her adopted chicken usually started.
The way the story was told the strange affection between the dog and the chicken was first noticed late in the afternoon of a hot summer day as my grandmother and her best friend, Mrs. Wendell, were shelling butter beans on the porch. Down on the ground and underneath the house they heard the continuous chirping of what they thought was a lost baby chick. With plenty of breeding hens around and a more than ready rooster it was normal to have baby chicks all around the house. However, baby chicks usually stayed close to their mother hens and by instinct the chickens had long since drifted back into the protection of the small coop kept behind the house.
My grandmother came down from the porch and looked underneath the house to see Lulu laying down on her side in the cool shade with a baby chick resting in the crook of her neck. Wanting to get the chick back into the coop she reached for the bird only to have the normally placid dog growl menacingly at her, which was very strange behavior. After a couple tries, each with the same result, it was said my grandmother gave up and after fussing at the dog went back to shelling her beans expecting my grandfather to do something about it when he returned home after his shift.
My grandfather’s health during these years was not the best and he ignored the situation until his next off day. By this time it was clear that Lulu had adopted the small bird who followed her four-legged mother around the same way it would have the feathered kind. The best guess anyone over the years could figure was that some hen had laid an egg away from the coop and by sheer luck the egg had somehow stayed warm enough for the bird to develop and hatch. After hatching the newly born chick must have drawn the attention of Lulu and had imprinted her as its mother. Lulu, who had birthed many litters of pups over the years, was well versed in the maternal instinct and the connection was made.
The funny thing was that no one would have ever figured that the chicken would try to take up the behavior of its canine mother. As the months rolled by it was noticed that Lulu’s adoptive chicken had started chasing cars much in the same way as Lulu did. It was the same with squirrels, who it was said Lulu had a special hatred for and did her best to catch when they came close enough. The chicken would chase after them as well and if the story is to be believed one time actually jumped down from the porch onto one, grasping it with its claws until it was able to scramble away. This is where everyone, but mainly my grandfather who saw the incident, broke down laughing. Lulu’s chicken even hated the mailman and would peck at his feet as he walked up the steps of the porch. Lulu herself had long since been taught not to bother the mailman but was reported to have looked on in pride as her feathered daughter did her best to peck through his shoes.
The biggest astonishment and final tragedy came when a cat tried to get into the chicken coop one night. Lulu was already an old dog when my grandparents moved down to Georgetown and a couple of years went by after Lulu adopted the bird. Knowing Lulu’s time was drawing near no one could bring themselves to think about cooking her adoptive child although it never produced eggs like the other chickens that had been born around the same time. The two were never far from the other and always slept together under the house. However, one night the whole house was awaken to a huge commotion involving the chickens in the coop, Lulu barking, and the very irate squawking of a single angry chicken.
Once outside with a flashlight my grandfather spotted a cat cornered underneath a section of the house with Lulu barking and growling on one side and her chicken squawking and flapping around on the other. It was reported that the stray tomcat looked bewildered to have two such adversaries defending the coop and it unable to retreat. Still though a cornered animal is a dangerous thing and it lashed out one last time with its claws catching the chicken at the neck. Blood spurted everywhere but Lulu used the moment to grab hold of the cat in its jaws and did not stop shaking until it was a loose and bloody pulp. But it was too late for the chicken, her neck had been cut as cleanly as if a butcher knife had done it and was dead on the ground.
In this age such a strange story might end with a funeral of some sort for the brave fowl but the memory of the Depression was still too fresh and my grandparents would have been dumbstruck over such a foolish idea. Lulu’s chicken was cut up and stewing in a pot later that morning to be served as supper that night.
During the countless telling of this story over the years there was always a heavy pause as the family reminisced of how sad it was that Lulu had lost her final child in such a way. That did not stop them from sitting at the table that night and spreading her remains over the rice that my grandmother had cooked beside the steaming pot containing the confused bird. Maybe they should have had some sort of funeral over the chicken because for years my grandparents, my mom, her brother, and Mr. and Mrs. Wendell and their kids who had come over for supper that night all swore that the chicken tasted like dog. So much that they could not eat the meal and had to throw it away which was an unheard of thing during those years.
Lulu was the next casualty; she was devastated at the loss of her adoptive child and passed away quietly one night underneath the house a few weeks later. They buried her not far away in a stretch of woods that bordered the paper mill; her site was marked by a small wooden cross that my grandfather made.
My grandparents moved out of that house a few years later and into the one across town that I would know. That old house next the paper mill was eventually condemned, along with several others in the area, and torn down but the area itself stayed empty well into the 1970’s. It was after one of the first times I remember hearing the story that I asked if I could see the legendary dog’s grave. So on a cold winter morning one day my grandfather took me to the area and sure enough I saw the remains of an old cross still standing with “Lulu” carved into the wood.
As stories go, it is one of my favorites and if anyone wonders I believe every word of it. Not that it matters because it keeps me connected to those times and people who lived far fuller lives with much less than the tepid little souls now who cannot find satisfaction with so much.


sunshine said...

Oh my gawd!
I'm crying my eyes out over here!!

What a great story. :)


MRMacrum said...

Great story wonderfully told. And your last paragraph says it all. Truth or fiction, it ties you to the past better than any history book could.

Holte Ender said...

My wife's niece keeps chickens on John's Island, SC, and she has one hen, Dixie, who runs to her every time she goes into their fenced in area. She can pick her up and pet her just like you would a cat or a puppy. All of the other hens run a mile. Truth is stranger than fiction. Good story. Reminded me of my own, mostly deceased, family.

MadMike said...

This is a great story, as always Beach. I once had a Mallard duck that followed the family everywhere. It grew up with the dogs so they never bothered it. One day, some Republicans moved in next door and we never saw that duck again....

B.J. said...

“tnlib” sent me to read your story. I loved it! I live in South Carolina, but this brought back wonderful memories of childhood in Mississppi – and of my pet bantam rooster and hen Rudy and Judy. I wrote a newpaper column for several years and their story remains one of my favorites. Let’s hope childhood memories can be as dear for today’s generation. BJ

tnlib said...

I'm having trouble posting a comment. Frustration and my last try.

I love this story. It brings back so many memories and an equal number os smiles. Thank you.

Beach Bum said...

Sunshine: I did my best to be true to the story even though I worried it was more than a little strange for the times we live in now.

MRMacrum: If given the choice between this ear and that one I would be hard pressed to decided which one is better. As for truth or fiction I do believe it was true, although my granddad was famous for tall tales.

Holte: I really miss those times all gathered around that table. Those Sundays were nothing but for family, now Sundays are sometimes more hectic than the work week.

Madmike: Ain't that always the case with damn busybodies. I hope my seething hate of suburbia didn't overwhelm the story. I really have to get out of this place.

BJ: Welcome and email me, I'd like to know where in South Carolina you live. Maybe we could get together sometime.

Tnlib: I feel you on the comment deal, I had issues formating this story. Time is an issue with me and I tend to write on my laptop and then transfer it over when the main computer hooked to the internet is free. I spent a few hours getting it reformatted, and thats not including the time I spent looking for my typos.

B.J. said...

Thanks. If your email address is on your blog, I will look for it and drop a note. Really enjoyed the story! BJ in SC


What a story! Beautifully written too!

Beach, you should publish similar short stories. I have no doubt they will form part of first hand "fokloriana" that will do future generations a great deal of favour.

Thank you for this lovely and moving story.

Randal Graves said...

Lovely story dude, and honestly, I don't know if I could have eaten that particular chicken even after its terrible end.

TomCat said...

Beach, your heritage is truly a rich one. Great tale!

Jack Jodell said...

Beach Bum,
That was a touching down-home kind of story I enjoyed very much. Thank you for that, and for giving us a glimpse and feel of what "the good ol' days" were like in your area of the country. Priceless!

Beach Bum said...

BJ: Look up my blogger profile and you will find it.

Hill: I glad you liked it, part of me wondered if anyone else would get it.

Randal: Good point, I honestly don't know myself.

Tomcat and Jack: Thank you, it is full of nice little stories like this one. Now if I can only remember them.

B.J. said...

BB: I looked all over your profile, but didn't see it. I am legally blind. Perhaps you could tell me EXACTLY where to look for it. Thanks, BJ

Beach Bum said...

BJ: Try me at ronjohn31@gmail.com

lime said...

what a wonderful story. stories like these are family heirlooms as much as any tangible thing. and they do indeed root us to our respective hsitories if we value them properly. thanks so much for sharing it.

TomCat said...

A friend of mine, Marva Dasef, wrote down stories her father told about his youth and published it as Tales of a Texas Boy. You might consider a similar enveavor, since you have both the skills and the material.

Teeluck said...

I am sure that this story is true...I went through the same thing almost, I grew up with a baby chick when I was four...when she was older she would fall asleep with me in the hammock and when I awoke, she would have laid an egg for me...everytime...I remember it well...nice post bro.

Beach Bum said...

Lime and Tom: Got a call from my cousin Neo and he told me I had a few things wrong with the story. Namely that it happened in the 50's which is now that I think about it is totally correct. After some research I plan on rewriting it.

Teeluck: It felt good to write it, will try and drag a few more like them out of the dusty bins of my mind.