By Tony Murphy
On a hot afternoon in March 1953, soon after I bused home to Milperra Bridge from St Luke’s school Revesby, Eileen, my mother, offered me a chocolate biscuit and a glass of milk. I knocked back the biscuit, a hated choc delta, but downed the milk and shot out of the house.
I had an adventure to live. Or, at least, fulfil some heroic role of the moment a boy of six imagines. So, with the strength of Tarzan, I climbed the two metre paling fence between us and our neighbours. Then, with the daring of Desert Hawk, I managed to lift myself up another half metre onto the corrugated iron roof of a long white-washed, cement block and timber chook shed my father, Mick, built.
There, high above the world, I was any hero. Look west and the Georges River is before me. North, the Bridge, and just beyond, Bankstown Aerodrome. Behind me, Henry Lawson Drive and to the east, bush.
Laying along the cool corrugations, with my cupped-hands behind my head, I saw Polar bears and me wrestling in clouds high overhead. Occasionally, I’d change positions to machine-gun almost touchable Tiger Moths as they floated low above me and down onto the ‘drome’. Or, sit and bask in the glow of the glorious ball settling into its reflection on the shimmering -brass Georges. Fantastic.
After a while, the corrugations got uncomfortable for the hero. To spell my back, I rolled onto my stomach. Still seeking comfort I rolled again. And again…
This was one of two sheds Mick built in 1951. Both identical size – ten metres long and three metres deep. Each was divided in half with a door between. Four separate coops for teams of laying hens, the eggs from which provided a part-time income supplementing the family wage Mick received as a full-time soldier, working in Holsworthy Army Camp. Then, there were five of us to feed: Mick, Eileen and my younger brothers Mike and Paul. My third brother, John, wasn’t born until 1956.
Gradually, over three years, my parents gave away keeping fowls exclusively for eggs. Largely because, even then, the dictatorial and bureaucratic behaviour of the Egg Board made any possible profit almost negligible for the small-timer. So, by 1954 Mick had set up a reasonable vegetable garden on what was left of our half acre, growing potatoes, carrots, spinach and the like, and selling them to local people. Apart from the eggs, Mick’s arithmetic told him there was quid to be made from chicken meat. He had killed and dressed a few roosters and there was a big demand. Poultry meals were expensive and not as easy to get as they are today.
In June 1954, Mick bought some day-old male chicks – called cockerels – from a breeder in Horsley Park. They were fed, housed and protected from winter under a large, warm kerosene heater called a ‘brooder’. Brooders were shaped like flying-saucers a metre in diameter and supported on four 150mm legs. Inside and underneath, a ring of fire, fuelled by kerosene, burnt all night and radiated a warmth which kept the chicks huddled under it as if magnetic. These big, round, grey surrogate mother-hens kept 250 chicks warm as toast.
For a couple of weeks that winter it was wet and very cold. One day, rain had drenched the chook pens. Rather than risk losing the chicks, Eileen brought them up into the kitchen. We came home to find a yellow mass of fluffy, cheeping chicks corralled contentedly in front of the house heater! They were returned to their brooder the next day after Mick fixed drainage in the shed.
By August and warmer weather, the cockerels were big enough and feathered enough to look after themselves, so the brooder is removed. Soon after, the young cocks start testosterone-driven antics like fighting each other and flying about. Apart from the damage they do to themselves and each other, they lose weight. No good when the idea is to have plump chooks on the Christmas table. So every cockerel was caponized; a form of chemical castration. Mick would grab the chook with his left hand and with his right push a small chrome syringe-like injector loaded with a pellet of capon into the back of the chook’s neck. A pellet a chook. Having been a medical corps Army sergeant stationed in Darwin and Alice Springs during the War, Mick knew how to give injections. Not that soldiers were given…! You know what I mean.
Within a short time, the young cocks lost their aggression, becoming positively genteel, and importantly, putting on weight.
In June of both 1955 and 1956, Mick bought 500 day-old cockerels for 10 pounds ($20) a hundred. Despite the TLC they got, you normally could expect to lose 100 or so fowls each year due to chill, rats or other causes.
However, on morning soon after Mick got the 1956 batch of chicks, he found them lying dead in several neat piles against the shed wall. The distinctive tiny blood-stained mark on the neck of each chick was evidence that a ferret killed them during the night. The next door neighbour’s rabbiting ferret got out of its cage. Lots of apologies but the damage was done and my parents had to hastily get together some money to buy replacements.
Lots of people in suburban Sydney – at least in the western suburbs – had a rooster and a couple of hens in their back yards. Back then. In Milperra, from the Bridge round Henry Lawson Drive to Horsley Road, there were quite a few large poultry businesses – eggs and meat. People here never commented on the incessant droning cacophony of thousands of clucking and crowing chooks in that geographic wedge. Because, like living near the sea, one accepts the rhythmic tumult of water crashing against land and rust from salt spray.
Two fresh-faced (young Ronald Reagan types) who I remember then always being dressed in ex-army shirts, trousers and boots, were the local grain and feed merchants. The Byron brothers had a huge barn-like corrugated iron store, which had two levels, in Bullecourt Avenue near to where Milperra shops now stand. They had a thriving business – such was the concentration of poultry farms and livestock needs in the 50’s in Milperra. Regular as clock work there would be their green Bedford truck delivering our chook feed in large Hessian bags.
Christmas is here. Time to swing into action. And a time I dreaded. The chickens were no longer chicks and their time had come. No ceremonial last meal for them even though they were soon to be ceremonial meals in hundreds of homes!
About 5am on the morning before Christmas Eve the grueling physical and emotional rigor begins. My brothers and me, each grab a chook as best we can often after much chasing and cornering and slipping on chook crap. Though bare feet was the go, that lousy stuff often oozed up between our toes. (Perhaps some penance for what were doing?)
Mick had a large, sharp axe ready and stood by the stump chopping block in the centre of our lawn. As we deliver an agitated chook to him ‘chop’! The head falls to the ground, eyes frozen, gapping in their sockets. The chook usually flaps violently while blood pumps from its headless neck. Time and again, we witnessed decapitated chooks blindly running frenzied for thirty metres or so into fences, sheds and even us. Catch them again and hang them by their feet from hooks on our paling fence for their bodies to be drained of blood.
Quickly, Mum collected a chook off the fence and plunged it into her 25 ltr clothes copper full of warm water. This loosened feathers she plucked. As several chooks drained on the fence, Mick grabbed a plucked one, gutted it, snipped its legs off and put it straight into one of the sinks, tubs, basin or bath; all chock-a-block with ice. All through the hot day and night until midnight and Christmas Eve. The job was done. Exhausted. Silence.
Thinking back, it was a ghastly sight – the scene and us. Headless birds. White death spattered with blood, hanging off a scarlet and burgundy paling fence and surrounding lawn – only a day before grey timber standing on green grass.
Each fowl is packed into a plastic bag on Christmas Eve and they are mainly delivered to meet orders Mick got from other parts of Sydney and some sold to neighbours. We hose the fences down. Get rid of the rubbish. Christmas has come. Phew.
1956 was the last year my parents did this. And half way through that year’s slaughter, a neighbour, twelve year old Bruce, showed my father and me a new technique for preparing the chook. Death before decapitation. Bruce demonstrates: catch the bird and hold it by its legs in your left hand. Grab its neck with your right hand and slide it into the ‘V’ between the index fingers with thumb wrapping around the whole neck. Next, sudden flick of the wrist, a ‘crack’ and the bird was limp. Broken neck. Bruce had the satisfied glint in his eye of a real achiever. Frankly, I couldn’t come at it. Bruce had himself a job and the rest of the chooks went silently to the guillotine, saving us the bloody horror dash after it.
Today, these activities sound callous and even surreal in our sanitized world of the chicken take-away. In the 50’s lots and lots of dads, and more uncommonly mums, did the odd beheading and dressing of fowls around Christmas. Not many took on what Mick and Eileen had to, so that we could be fed, housed, clothed and educated. Slaves could not have worked harder.
I rolled right off the chook shed roof and down onto a concrete path two and a half metres below. Face first.
Ambulance to Canterbury District Hospital, (the closest). After some hours there, I recovered sufficiently from mild concussion to be discharged that night to my parents.
No bones broken. Spirits shattered.
In the words of Alexander Pope.
Who sees with equal eye, as God of all,
A hero perish, or a sparrow fall,
Atoms or systems into ruin hurled,
And now a bubble burst and now a world.
For some time after my fall, I felt a bit ginger about climbing and carried the indignity of a hero whose bubble well and truly burst.
Desert Hawk indeed; I was Pope’s sparrow!
Still, it wasn’t long before the imp within me spoke fantastic boy-kid’s logic:
Be another hero. The Phantom…he never dies.
(First published in Bankstown The Book - BRFAWNSW Inc. 1995)