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Spring Chickens

Who could be calling at 7:25 on a Sunday morning? A serious, working man’s voice says, “Your mail-order chickens are in. Come to the gate, and we’ll buzz you through.”It’s the main post office in Colorado Springs. They could have waited until Monday. The day-old chicks would have survived on absorbed yolk until then.Ah, the gruff old mailmen. You know, the ones that lock the post office door at 4:59 p.m.? The ones that don’t want to hear about the snake-bite antidote that you must get off to your dear, tottering granny today. At the precise tick of 5 p.m. they’ll lock the door in your face: “Tomorrow. 8 a.m. See you then.” Those guys, right? Their stony masks and tough-guy disguises fall to the floor every spring at chicken time. It’s Sunday, but they say, “C’mon down, we’ll let you in. The little peepers need to eat and drink, right?Yep, 364 days of the year we’re bulk rate to postal workers. Today, Ilene, my “trophy wife” of 20 years, and I are first class with our small, peeping box of day-old chicks. All through the main post office warehouse, grizzled postmen smile. I think smiling is against company policy, but I see no supervisors. We show a warehouse man the peepers. Charmed, he talks of his younger days. Soon, we’re back in our automobile and buzzed through the gate feeling like royalty riding in our coronation coach, instead of country folk in a battered old car with a cardboard box full of anxious little chickens.Immediately, Ilene and I head for home, 30 miles east on the undulating prairie. A late winter cold front buffets us on Highway 24, east of the Springs. I have the heater on high to keep the chicks warm. The little car hunts in the gusting wind, and I herd it along, keeping it between the lines. My thoughts slip back through the years to when our onetime little girl, now a teenager, wouldn’t have missed this day for the world. As a child, she eagerly held the ventilated chick shipping box in her lap. Reaching into the box with wide, shining eyes, she’d shriek with delight at the feeling of downy softness and the pecks of tiny beaks on her hand. Every chick was special. “Feather Foot,” “Betty Bomber,” “Brave Heart.î She named them all and loved them with all her heart, as only a little girl can.As little Jessie got older, she showed her chickens in 4-H at the county fair. She did well, too, precisely documenting their growth and the feed consumed. Her chicken book was a labor of love that any animal researcher would envy. How she adored and doted on those hens! The chickens would stick around our ranch house and hunt on their own, but Jessie would herd them with a stick to the spots where grasshoppers were thickest. Sometimes, a favored hen even got a ride in her lap on the swing set. I know; I pushed them.Ilene is enthralled. She tells me to slip my hand into the box, and I do. Little chirps, downy softness. Tentative little pecks from tiny beaks. I can’t help but smile. She asks me to notice their rear ends, still in the shape of an egg! “Honey, I’m driving,” but I smile at the thought. The strong wind helps our car make a right turn into the ranch supply parking lot where we pick up a new brooder light and some chick mash.I can’t help but miss my little girl and think on how she’s grown and changed. Gone is her young, carefree smile, wide and warm as sunshine. Broody, moody ñ these days she spends lots of time in her bedroom with the door closed and won’t look me in the eye. “Chickens are disgusting,” she says now. “They’re so stupid and messy. When I grow up, I’ll always buy my eggs from the store. Yuck!”This from the girl who spent entire summer days at our cattle pond. She used to raise tadpoles and slugs in her bedroom! Now a self-aware young woman, her pond nets and collection buckets gather only dust. These days, our new spring chickens go unnamed and none seem the worse for it ñ but I am.Ilene makes little voices to the chicks as I again shoulder our little old car into that icy north wind on the remaining drive home. I think of how the circle is complete. Just Ilene and me alone once again ñ two graying heads marking yearly rituals together without the wonder, awe and myriad questions of little children for company.Jessie now seems so unsure of everything; yet, eager to be grown up. I wonder if I will ever have my little girl, my little buddy again. When or if she gets over this teenage girl phase, will she be my little friend once more? I remember when she changed. It came with my demotion from “daddy” to “dad.”I miss my little friend so much. I know that life isn’t about me and my wants. Life is about change. In the blink of an eye, little peepers grow into hens, no matter what. I hope for the best and realize that my innocent little girl is no longer so little. Jessie is learning about the world away from mom and dad. She’s not a spring chicken anymore.

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