The Tale of the Headless Chicken

I recently saw a Facebook status update in which someone said that today she was a “chicken with its head cut off”—meaning, of course, that she was running around without direction. And it struck me that I may be one of the few in my circle who have actually SEEN a chicken running around with its head cut off. It wasn’t pretty. In fact, it was terrifying.

Let me tell you the story….

I was six years old, an only child living with my parents in Evansville, Indiana. We were a lower middle-class family at best, my father employed by the railroad and my mother a housewife. Our typical daily diet was not what you could call adventurous. My mother’s complete repertoire of cooking spices was salt and pepper—and she wasn’t too damned sure about the pepper. I particularly remember, with no fondness whatsoever, the meat loaf (dry as wallboard) and the macaroni and cheese (crusty and…let’s say “chewy”).

We weren’t a very social family. I had friends and they were welcome at my house, but my parents never had anyone but the rare visiting relatives join us for a meal. Or perhaps everyone else had learned to avoid such occasions.

Anyway, it was a very big deal when my father’s parents came up to visit from Nashville. These were country folk. They lived in what amounted to an old plantation house well outside the city. You could tell it had once been among the elite homes because the outhouse was a three-holer (and was still your only option).

Being country folk, and no doubt being already familiar with my mother’s cooking, they brought dinner—in the form of a live chicken. They were all prepared to kill it, pluck it, cook it, and even season it. Not that any of that meant anything to six-year-old me.

But, being a city boy, I was of course fascinated by the chicken and followed along when my dad and granddad took it with them to the alley behind the house.

It was, by the way, what was called a “shotgun house” back then—meaning that if you fired a shotgun in the front door the pellets would pass through all the main rooms and out the back screen door. From the back door the pellets could have kept going right down a narrow concrete walkway, about thirty feet in length, to the alley where my dad and granddad were setting up a big block of wood for some reason. I didn’t even notice that they had a hatchet with them.

I can see in retrospect that everything that was about to transpire was just business as usual as far as they were concerned. My dad was holding the chicken, my granddad was making sure the block of wood was firmly set, and I was standing maybe six or seven feet away just looking at the chicken. It was a very big chicken.

On the ground (as I soon learned) it would come almost to my waist—or would have if it had still had a head.

My dad casually placed the chicken on the block of wood, my granddad produced the hatchet that must have been stuck in his belt, and whap! Just like that, no warning for the chicken or me. I don’t think I knew what had happened and I’m sure the experience would have been less traumatic if at that moment the chicken hadn’t gotten away from my dad.

But it did.

Suddenly there was a headless chicken running in circles right in front of me, blood fountaining from its neck. I’m sure I must have been paralyzed for a moment, maybe longer, maybe until the chicken stopped running in circles and came straight toward me.

At which point I screamed and took off down the walkway toward the house, probably running faster than I ever have since, with a headless chicken right on my heels. I didn’t even attempt to open the back screen door; I just hit it and tried to go on through. Which doesn’t really work when you’re six years old and not much larger than a chicken. I bounced off the screen, but thank goodness the chicken had not made it all the way. It had given up its pursuit about ten feet short of the house.

My dad and granddad meanwhile were still standing back by the wooden block in the alley, laughing hysterically. It must have been pretty memorable from their point of view. It certainly was from mine.

Remarkably, however, this experience did not put me off chicken dinners—not even the one we had that evening. Which was indeed nicely seasoned.

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