It’s true, we didn’t have much money. But father, being a resourceful person, willing to try new things, got together with Uncle Mike and decided to make good use of some of the available resources on the rented property on Sumas Prairie Road. Just off the back yard was a rickety old building, barely hanging together with rusted nails and rotting boards. In its better day it may have been an animal shelter or storage shed for farm gear. It was decided, back then in 1965, that it would become a turkey shed, the foundation for a new entrepreneurial venture. Turkeys. The building would become a turkey coup. We would raise turkeys (and a few chickens) from poulet to dinner plate and become rich.
So together father and Uncle Mike toured the auctions to purchase necessary equipment, supplies and accoutrements. I even got to go with them once. It was pretty cool, picking out feed troughs and drinking jugs with water spigots, sawdust for the floor and bags of turkey feed. Things were purchased, junk was hauled out of the coup and everything was ready for the arrival of the little baby turkey chicks (and chicken chicks, which all turned out to be rooster chicks). It seemed like forever before the birds arrived, but it was a great day when they did. Except they weren’t little baby chicks fresh out of the egg. They were already young adolescent turkeys. Still far from full grown, but not baby birds.
There were turkey chores to do. Feeding, watering, sweeping up the sawdust and wood chips with turkey poop clinging to it. They were not the brightest animals and were easily dominated even by the roosters, which were much more aggressive and less tolerant of things intruding on their space. The roosters and turkeys were housed in separate rooms in the coup, with a door between them that was always to be closed.
The adolescent turkeys grew fast and it wasn’t long before they weighed a good pound or two. But they also seemed quite vulnerable to turkey maladies. Now and then I found birds walking about with their head permanently bent backward onto their body so they were in a continuous skyward gazing posture. Uncle Mike said this was called ‘Star Gazing’ disease. Incurable. Others became blinded in both eyes, infected with sawdust so that their eye sockets became greenish blue puss-tulant orbs. Terminal, father said. It would be cruel to let them suffer; they had to be put down.
“How do you put them down?” I asked.
“Chop their heads off,” Uncle Mike said.
But we had no axe. I had visions of trying to hack off the birds heads with a butter knife or maybe the dull rusty steak knife I found behind the barn.
“No axe, no problem,” Uncle Mike said. “We’ll do it this way.”
Uncle Mike was a butcher so I was confident that he would have the perfect solution for euthanizing the sick turkey birds. He gathered up one of the sick turkeys, we went outside the coup, he laid the turkey head on top of the fence post and smashed the birds head flat with a piece of two-by-four. There wasn’t a great gushing of turkey brains and blood, just a reddish grey mass with an eyeball and bits of beak. He tossed the bird to the ground, it flopped about for a few seconds and then keeled over dead. Uncle Mike asked if I wanted to do one.
“No thanks,” I said.
My job became the master cremator. Behind the coup was a 45 gallon steel drum, tilted on its side, with a big rectangle cut out of the middle. It was where we burned our burnable garbage. I was charged with starting up the fire and tossing the turkey corpses into the flames so they would be humanely disposed of. The smell was not wonderful. I imagined the turkey souls rising to heaven mixed in with the smoke from the incinerated garbage.
It was bad. The turkeys were so dumb. You could make them gobble in unison just by saying “Gobble” at them. They would chase you and peck at your legs if you were in the coup carrying a bag of food. They had no patience or restraint and did witless things like peck at a rooster, only to have the rooster peck its eyes out in return. Another trip to the crematorium.
But the worst was the time an empty cardboard box was left in the turkey coup overnight. When I went the next morning to do the feeding, the box was filled to the top with dead turkeys. They had climbed in on top of each other until they squished themselves flat and suffocated. There was layers of turkey corpses in the box. It made for a mighty funeral pyre with a stench that must have invaded every breath of air in Greendale. It was the greatest turkey suicide in history, I bet.