Chapter 1 1948 - Henry

Henry Mall began his shift at the chicken farm much like he did every day. Rising at 4 AM, he walked the short distance from his modest home over to the hatchery building. In this line of work, he was literally up before the chickens and the rooster took its cue from him to begin the day.

The smell was atrocious, as one would imagine when 1,500 chickens were cooped up in the building, providing the farm with a modest output of eggs, and occasionally, a new batch of hens.

“Cock-a-doodle-doo!” began the rooster as Henry entered, and he failed to let up for nearly 30 minutes. The chickens began rustling from their slumbers and Henry went about the business of checking each and every coop for the presence of that day’s bounty. Before his shift was over, he would collect hundreds of eggs and clean up gallons of manure. One would think it to be an existence that no one could tolerate, but Henry had the secret to keeping the job on this side of fun. It was the rats. Yes, rats. They scurried off to wherever they hid during the day when Henry arrived in the morning, but a brave one would show his whiskers and as often as not, it would be his last time in the light. For Henry carried with him each shift a .22 caliber pistol, and liked to take pot shots at the rats when they would appear.

Henry’s passion for rat killing was his only vice. He was a good employee, arrived on time, worked unsupervised, and was responsible for the success of the hatchery in more ways than even his bosses suspected. His diligence was not unobserved, and soon Henry was promoted from egg gatherer to egg inspector. This gave him the opportunity to work with the automatic machinery, and be even more responsible for the success of the business.

Once collected, the eggs were carefully placed into a large vat with a feed tray off of the end. The eggs rolled individually onto a conveyor belt, making their way to the inspection station. Along the way, they were graded for size, quality, and color and most important of all, the light test. Each egg was individually checked in front of a strong incandescent light to ensure there were no surprises inside. Occasionally, that randy rooster would get into the chickens’ areas and one never knew if a new little chick was going to appear.

The strong light would reveal the tiniest speck of blood, a new life, and that egg would be taken off the production line and into the “nursery” portion of the hatchery, where it was allowed to grow for twenty-one days to become a new chicken life. Henry nurtured each of these eggs as if they were his own, and named each emerging chick.

But Henry had a lonely life. Sure, he had his friends at the hatchery, but his family was gone. No, they didn’t die, but they were stuck in a time and a place where life moved even slower that it did on the hatchery. Henry had to get out, find the excitement, so he left his family when he was just fifteen, gathered all his worldly possessions and took the train to California on his first great adventure.

Henry wasn’t exactly unhappy in his time in North Dakota; in fact, some of those times were the happiest of his life. The cold brutal winter storms would sometimes take a break, and the skis and sleds would come out. His brothers and sisters, there were eight in all, and the kids from the neighboring farms would all get together and race. There were no hills, but that didn’t stop them from pairing up and running through the snow, pushing their partner on his or her sled, striving to be the first over the finish line. And summer, though a tough time in general due to the Great Depression, still could be fun with cow patty throwing contests, horse riding, sleeping in the hay, hiding in the corn fields, riding on the tractors. It seems there was no end to the fun.

But still, Henry knew there was more. His parents weren’t happy that he wanted to leave, but gave their assent. When he arrived in California, he moved in with an older cousin who helped him get his job at the chicken hatchery. Although Henry hadn’t worked with so many chickens before, he was raised on a farm. He did have the basic skills, if it could be called that, to do the job.

Henry continued to clock in each day at 4 AM, until his promotion, when he got to “sleep in” until 6 AM. But what a difference the two hours meant. For Henry, accustomed to getting into bed at 8 PM, could now spend a little more time in the land of the living, checking out the nightlife, so to speak, of the big city.

Henry wasn’t a big drinker, but he liked music, and the local bar, the Stomping Grounds, had the best Country Western band in the area, at least in his opinion. The “Scuffling Scrappers” knew what people liked, and every weekend the place was full, people dancing, drinking, and occasionally fighting. But the music kept going, and the Scrappers were gaining a reputation as the Next Big Thing. When word got out and a local talent agent saw them, it looked like it was their ticket to stardom. They went off to the big city to record their first record, “The Boots are Covered with Manure.” Henry adored the band, and wished he could be a part of it, and in time, was able to sit in with them while he was learning to play the guitar. He wasn’t very good at first, but with practice and perseverance; he found that he was improving daily. He also started to build up a small record collection, and listened to the radio vociferously, learning all the songs from his favorite County Western artists.

When Henry was invited to join the band full-time, he was overjoyed, and soon began playing the circuit. He dabbled in writing songs, but could never quite get past the first verse before running out of ideas. There wasn’t a whole lot you could write about in the life of a Chicken Farmer that would inspire folks to kick up their heels and dance to the tunes that the band put together.

Fridays and Saturdays now had a special meaning to him. He was out with friends, playing the music that he loved, and most importantly, meeting girls.

His first great love was Sandy Thompson. She, like him, was born in the mid-west but came to California as a young child when her father joined the U.S. Air Force. He was gone much of her early life, and when he was killed during World War II, it was a blow to her and her entire family.

That tragedy left Sandy a broken teen, and she took to drinking, smoking and general carrying-on. But, she had the looks. A lot of guys at the high school wanted what Sandy had to offer, and Henry, even though he was not a student, admired her from afar as he saw her in the bar each weekend. No one seemed to care that she was only sixteen, they still served her beer, and she would slip out every once in a while, returning a half hour later, her clothes a little tussled, her perfectly coiffed hair a little messed up.

Henry longed for a chance to be with Sandy, but she never gave him as much as the time of day. Maybe it was his shyness, maybe it was the constant stench of chicken manure that never quite would leave him, but there was to be no love for Henry and Sandy, despite his claim to his friends that he “would marry that girl, someday.”

When Sandy turned up pregnant one day, to no one’s surprise, Henry knew that he had lost her. Truthfully, if he was willing to admit it, he never had her. She would not his girlfriend; she would not be his wife. She and her family moved, and he was sure he would never see her again.

Then there was Miriam Jonas. Miriam did not have a lot of friends, and she didn’t frequent the bar. Her father was the local veterinarian, and she spent a lot of time with the animals. But outside of that she was quiet, kept to herself most of the time, and spent a lot of the quiet time in the library. Henry enjoyed reading, but rarely had time for it. He would drop in the library from time to time and Miriam would always be there. She was pretty, in an odd sort of way. Something wasn’t quite right about her, but Henry found her attractive nonetheless. Perhaps it was the way her nose sat to one side a bit; perhaps her eyes weren’t quite the same color. Perhaps it was that streak of white hair among her brown tresses. Still, he was attracted to her solitude, like his own, and thought once again, “that’s the woman I’m going to marry, someday.”

After months of visiting the library, Henry finally decided to ask her out. She, shy as she was, said no. Henry was crestfallen, but he would not give up. The next week, he asked her to go on a picnic with him, and she finally assented.

Saturday at noon, he picked her up in his 1945 Dodge truck, and they took off for the park. Laying out the blanket and the food, they enjoyed the warm weather, and found that they were beginning to hit it off. Although she was born in the area, they did not share any mutual experiences. Their mutual shyness, however, was a topic for conversation. They spoke of missed opportunities for friendship and young love, and hours they had each spent alone. They found they had much to converse about: their thoughts, their dreams, their plans for the future. When Henry told her about his thoughts on marriage, she was taken aback, but on reconsideration, fancied herself a bride and even warmed to the idea. “It’s too early to speak of that”, she said, but they did allow themselves time to fantasize about their life together and what their kids would be like, and what it would be like growing old.

Henry and Miriam seemed a perfect fit, instantly compatible, a match made in Heaven. By the end of their day together, they were in love, and the future seemed so bright.

It was just past 6 PM, when they left the park to head home. They were talking and laughing and still thinking about their life together when they were about to pass the Stomping Grounds. Jerry Naylor, already with a few beers in him, pulled out in front of them, giving Henry no time to react, and the two vehicles came together in a horrendous crash, throwing Miriam through the windshield. When the ambulance came it was too late, Miriam was dead.