As ranch kids, my sister and I had many chores, not the least of which was collecting the eggs from the chicken coop to sell in town. And as sales of these eggs constituted a decent portion of our family income, it was an important chore - not the one that required the most skill, exactly, which is why they sent my eight-year-old sister and me, four years younger, to go collect the eggs.
At four, I could carry a small bucket of chicken feed but wasn't good for much else. In truth, I wasn't even that cute - I was a scrawny, undersized little thing, a trail of snot hanging pendulously from my nose, sunburnt, maybe a mite smarter than the chickens, but decidedly less useful. My saving grace was that at least I didn't smell all that bad. That is until I met my first skunk.
I can still see the old coop in my mind's eye. To a four-year-old, it was a gothic cathedral devoted to avian malice, a towering, dimly-lit structure filled with row after row of horrible, cackling, ill-tempered little monsters that wanted me there even less than I myself wanted to be there. The feeble light was provided by bulbs covered with a dome of protective glass over them; Dad told us, ominously, it was to prevent a dust explosion. The lightbulbs may have been dust-free but the glass domes were perennially dark brown with soot and God knows what else. Believe me, 300 chickens, can dust up a joint.
When the plight of the damned was first described to me by some or another crusty old nun in Sunday school, the image of Hell cooked up by my imagination sort of resembled the inside of that coop.
Fortunately for the chickens, they could exit that humid hellscape and explore the large, fenced-in run outside the coop by exiting through a chicken door. Then they could forage around outside.
My dad encouraged the chickens to have all the grasshoppers, crickets, ants, and other bugs they could scratch up as part of their daily diet, reasoning that the protein would improve the flavor of the eggs. When he got up, early but not as early as the chickens, he would open the main gate to the run and let them out.
The run outside was fitted with feeders filled with ground-up oyster shells and cracked grains of all kinds. Filling the cracked grain feeders was my main chore and feeding and watering the pullets, turkeys, and a few rabbits.
The eggs would go into the ranch house, to the mudroom sink for a wash, then to the candler where we searched them for defects, sorted them by size, and put them aside to be taken to the creamery and traded for cash.
One dewy spring morning, I entered that horrible coop with the usual trepidation. There was always a detectable tension when you entered a chicken house full of chickens, almost as if you're a drunk entering a church; the nervous congregation gives off an audible hum when disturbed. But this day, the hum was different than other days, exacerbated as if they were already disturbed. I wrinkled my nose. There was a strange, alien smell detectable alongside the earthy scent of the coop.
Suddenly, with no warning, a sickening wet jet of stench spurted from out of a shadowy corner and hit me square in the face.
I immediately gagged, the acrid scent so strong that I was sick to my stomach. The stench was so bad it was painful. My sister, who entered shortly after me, screamed just as all the chicken coop erupted into bedlam. Chickens tried to escape to somewhere, anywhere, but couldn't. For that matter, I tried to escape as well.
But the skunk fired again, and this time my sister got the brunt of the attack. She burst out the door of the coop, stumbling into the yard and shrieking like a banshee. Then the skunk and most of the chickens escaped out the open door and into the run. Now I too was screaming, bawling really, as were the majority of the chickens, not to mention the dog, which was just hollering for the fun of it.
Finally, the cacophony brought my mom out of the house. Not wishing to be left out, she too began to screech.
Holding her breath as best she could, she stripped off our clothes and dragged us through the house, down the hall, and into the bathroom.
We were placed into the hot bathtub and doused with vinegar and lemon juice and, when that failed, washed several times in dish soap. The only known reagent that will reduce skunk smell to any extent is tomato juice, so Dad was dispatched to town to get as much as he could haul home and beseeched to please hurry, which meant "don't stop for a beer."
By now, the whole of the ranch reeked of skunk. The dog had quit the place entirely, retiring to the creek. It may not have done any good, as it seemed to me that the whole world now stank. The stench was simply overpowering, coming from everywhere at once.
At least I had quit crying, but I saw no way that we would ever recover from this disaster.
A half-hour or so later, Dad stomped into the farmhouse carrying at least 20 large cans of tomato juice which he opened one by one with a small can opener and poured over our heads. I distinctly remember sitting in the tub with my sister, covered in what appeared to be some sort of hideous amniotic slurry. Tentatively, I stuck out my tongue and licked a little tomato sauce off my upper lip.
"Don't do that," my mother barked. "It's got skunk juice in it."
I confess that it would be a year or two before I could wholly give myself over again to the enjoyment of spaghetti.
I'm not sure when we finally quit smelling like a skunk. I was too young for school and was not, therefore subject to the remarks of my peers, but my poor sister had to put up with some nasty comments from her schoolmates. For that matter, her schoolmates had to put up with her, too.
In the end, we did survive. But then the next chapter in the misadventure began as Dad declared all-out war on skunkdom. Even then, I had some vague understanding that Dad had gone off to war before, serving under someone named "Patton" and fighting in the comically named "Battle of the Bulge," but he wasn't one to talk about it much. Let it suffice to say that if the Nazis got the same treatment as the local skunk population, Dad must have been a regular Sgt. Fury.
I've never forgiven them myself.
Some years later, while sitting in a rocking chair on my porch, I watched as a mother skunk and her twelve kits wandered into the crosshairs of my shotgun. While not as ferocious as Dad, I have occasionally engaged in my own partisan campaign against the little buggers, shooting or at least shooting at them whenever I'm able. But I find that I am going soft in my old age, and, looking at the little things padding through the grass, I reasoned that they're just as God made them, even if I sometimes question whether certain particulars of His infinite wisdom.
Finally, I did put the shotgun down as a wave of Christian compassion overtook me, but not before I closed one eye, scoped them along the sight, and whispered, "bang."
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.