My sister, who was four years older than me, was, at nine, the foreman on our egg gathering crew.
She and I gathered eggs as part of our chores. If you grew up on a ranch in the 1950's you had chores to do. Most of the paltry revenue earned on the little ranch my Mom and Dad operated was butter and egg money.
They sold cream to the local creamery from their small dairy of thirty cows, and eggs laid by the big henhouse stocked with 300 or so layers. In addition to them, there were another 300 or so fryers. If arithmetic ain't your strong suit, that means the chickens outnumbered the people and cows by a factor of about ten, begging the question just whose ranch it was, really.
The eggs went into the house to be cleaned, candled, and sorted by size before, ultimately, continuing their journey on to the Fergus County Creamery, where they were packaged and sold.
The basket we used to gather the eggs was a very large wire basket. The wires were coated with a thick layer of rubber to protect the eggs, with a big braided wire coated with thick rubber for a handle. The basket was easily large enough to contain a day's worth of eggs.I was only 4 years old or so, but I still have a distinct memory of the events I will recount here, in part because of my older sister's nobility in the face of the egg-based tragedy which was to follow, and partly because the Egg Affair of 1956 (as it came to be spoken of by hushed voices in Lewistown) were so shocking that they scarred my tender psyche forever.
On any normal day the gathering of eggs was pretty routine. Even boring.
So one day, my sister says "watch this," whereupon she swung the basket of eggs in a full, once, twice, and then on about the third swing she made a complete sweeping arc over her head. And though that basket went totally upside down, the eggs, to my utter bafflement, didn't come tumbling out onto her head.
It wasn't until High School that I had a word for what I had just witnessed: a demonstration of centrifugal force. The force that keeps the moon in orbit around the earth and the earth around the sun, keeps roller coasters on the rails during loops, and keeps eggs in a swinging basket.
I was a little shaver, and my older, wiser sister should have known better, but when I eagerly asked, "can I try that," she handed me the basket.
"Be careful you don't break them eggs," was her only word of warning. "Or Ma and Pa'll have your hide."
Being a first grader and not even the biggest in my class of well-muscled farm kids, I could barely heft the basket. But I have in my life been blessed, or cursed, with a lack of awareness regarding my shortcomings and a willingness to try anything once.
Blissfully unaware of impending consequences, I gave the wire basket a tentative swing. Heavy as it was, its weight did most of the work. I gave it another little swing, noting that I'd have to give it a little more juice if I really wanted it to swing the way big sis did. I'd need more momentum.
So drawing in a big breath, clenching my jaw, setting my feet firmly in the dirt, I summoned what seemed to me to a Herculean display of strength. Only, I couldn't quite get it with one arm. No matter, I thought. I'll use both my hands.
The basket swung a couple of feet in either direction, eggs just beginning to dislodge. I knew this was it. If my sister could do it, I thought, surely I could do it better - a notion of which I have been repeatedly disabused in the years since.
And then, just like big sister demonstrated, on the third swing, I tried to make the complete circle.
By now, of course, you've no doubt already predicted the result. Not strong enough to make the complete swing, perhaps too short to even make a complete circle with the basket at arm's length, the eggs, all of the eggs began their descent to earth, or rather, onto my noggin. I was now covered in broken eggs. Yellow yokes streamed down through my hair, off the end of my nose, and all over my coveralls, my little boots, even somehow into my underwear. It was doubly tragic: a waste not only of invaluable ranch income but a senseless loss of young chicken life as well. It goes without saying I started blubbering immediately.
Let's just say that it was hard to cover up what happened. Not just hard, but impossible; unbeknownst to us, my mother saw the whole thing while looking out the window of the farmhouse.
My sister told me to calm down, that she would tell mom it was my fault. I found that the notion of her taking the blame had a certain appeal to me. I knew mom would be furious, to say the least. We had just lost a substantial amount of the butter and egg money for the week - quite literally taking bread right off the table.
Now my dear mother endeavored to raise her children to be upstanding, and as such, could not abide liars. So when my sister told my mom that it was her fault, my mom came unglued.
"I saw what happened," she blurted out in a rage. "It is bad enough that you broke all the eggs, and it's even worse that both of you lied to me! Go to your rooms until I can come up with penance, as she called it." My mom was Catholic in the same way the ocean is wet, or a razor blade is sharp.
So now, after a quick bath, I sat in my room reflecting on how much trouble sis and I might be in. It seemed a little odd to me that my mom was madder at sis than me after I broke all those eggs. Couldn't she see the nobility inherent in a big sister laboring to protect her little brother?
But like a Nazi commandant of a prisoner-of-war camp, she did not like the idea of the officer trying to protect the foot-soldier. I'm still not convinced, especially since, as a writer, a bit of truth-stretching is a useful tool now and then, but I've often reflected on the philosophical and moral implications of that day: maybe honesty is the best policy?
Dad is going to whup me good, I thought to myself. The threat of dad's whuppings always kept me in line. Although reflecting back over the years, I cannot actually recall ever actually getting the dreaded whupping - at least not any worse than a couple of open-handed spanks to my tuckus. Not that dad was all bluff, but he was a gentle giant. Always in the end, he wasn't all that stern with me. He was gruff, sure, and would let you know he was unhappy, but Mom was the real Obergruppenführer of the family when it came to punishment. I knew she would take a while to cool off, and I confess that I'm not sure she ever got over it.
But then, I was never my mom's favorite. Being the middle child had definite disadvantages. My younger brother Neal was the favorite, a perpetual baby of the family who could do no wrong well into his forties. My sister was in a league of her own, being a girl and therefore subject to secret and terrible understandings between mother and daughter that I could never be able to understand.
But me? My memories comprise a lot of stern glances cast my way while sweeping the stairs and chopping the wood.
And to this day, if I ever drop an egg on its way to the frying pan, I get a cold shiver all through my body.
Gary Shelton was born in Lewistown in 1951 and has been a rancher, a railroader, a biker, a teacher, a hippie, and a cowboy. Now he's trying his hand at writing in the earnest hope that he'll make enough at it to make a downpayment on an RV. Hell, scratch that. Enough to buy the whole RV. He can be reached at [email protected] for complaints, criticisms, and recriminations. Compliments can be sent to the same place, but we request you don't send them - it'll make his head big.