I’ve always hated manure. So on my first day of work at the egg ranch, when Ron said, “the real fun here is manure day,” I thought he’d gone mad.
During high school, we worked on Marv’s egg ranch. Marv was the kind of guy who only washed from the waist up. A serious, bible-quoting Christian, thick-necked, bulbous-nosed, and rough-edged, he talked like someone had put sand in his toothpaste.
I drove my pea soup green 1953 Ford to work. When I had it painted, Marv and Ron mocked its gleaming metallic gold paint—“Hey, Ronnie! Jim’s car’s all brown. That sick cat must’ve crapped all over it.” And later when my ears reddened at their sexual jokes, they ate me like a baby marshmallow rabbit. I resented that they always targeted me, but now I realize that I took myself too seriously. And Marv always treated me well and paid me well.
My first day, Marv took me on a tour. “The chicken cages sit in ten long rows there, eight Leghorns to a cage. When they drop their eggs, they roll down the sloping wire floors into the trays.” He showed me how to push a four-wheeled cart alongside the trays, gathering the eggs, inhaling urine and manure smells. I picked up the eggs four at a time and placed them into cartons stacked on the cart. I smelled my own sweat while swallowing the dust that filled the stifling, motionless air. The eggs came with a byproduct—manure. Some fell on the eggs and left brown streaks, so we later had to wash them with a mechanical egg scrubber. Most, however, fell through the cages and accumulated on the concrete slab beneath.
Then I had to pee. My clothes were so dirty I couldn’t go up to the house and ask Frances if I could use their bathroom. So I did as Marv and Ron always did—leaned against a cage post and discreetly let fly, watching the little yellow rivulets in the manure beneath—an action which provoked the startled chickens to raise a clucking alarm, part commentary and part protest. After they settled down I returned to egg gathering, but when I exited the row, a whole stack of egg cartons dumped off the front, and dozens of eggs broke. Marv said nothing—he was a patient man.
While I gathered eggs, Marv walked down the cage rows to check for any wounded or dying hens. He saw a chicken with a red, tumid butt, pulled it out, and swabbed some foul-smelling purple stuff on it to staunch the bleeding. If he hadn’t done this the other hens would have pecked relentlessly at the bloody feathers until they disemboweled her, leaving her intestines to hang out like a lariat.
After a bit Marv saw a chicken that had a lariat and he yelled over to me, “Hey Jamie—look at the cowboy chicken!” He grabbed the cowboy’s feet, smashed its little head against one of the wooden support posts, and hurled the lifeless body onto the manure pile underneath the cage. “It would’ve died anyway,” he said.
One auspicious Saturday Ron and I arrived early at the egg ranch. It was my first manure day. Would I be able to do this? Ron seemed ready. He was a bit smaller than I was, but one of the most confident kids I knew, funny and smart.We walked over to look at the Model A truck and manure trailer, and Ron told me, “Marv’s dad designed this trailer.”
Marv walked up, and said, “The Old Man found this rusty trailer chassis with an axle and two wheels and built a steel bed for it. (I always call him ‘The Old Man’—it’s a navy term of respect.) Then the Old Man rigged up a small gasoline engine. This hydraulic pump here tilts the trailer bed to dump the manure.”
The Old Man maneuvered the truck and trailer down the narrow driveway between the first two cage rows. Ron and I trailed behind, shoveling manure from each side into the trailer. It became a silent competition to finish our row first, and Ron always finished a little ahead of me. Shoveling dry manure would not be so bad, but the night’s rain had turned the dry droppings into a sodden, slippery slurry that oozed out from under the cages. The stinking slime ran off the edge of my shovel and dripped over my tennies. My shod feet squelched through the sticky slush. The term “stepping in the cow pie” took on new meaning, although instead of dry, sterile pies, this was more like stepping into a smelly soup.
Then it got fun, because these manure guys planned for crazy. The Old Man loved driving the truck and relished the banter of his shovelers. You would have thought Ron loved this job more than anything—he seemed to savor every shovelful. We all took jabs at each other, but I usually ended up as the butt of their jokes. Marv drew upon his vast repertoire of manure stories, flavored with colorful Anglo-Saxon words. When he threw the “cowboy chickens” into the trailer, he made comments that were less than complimentary to the chickens.
After we filled the trailer with manure and bloodied, dead chickens, we drove out into the orange grove and stopped at a wooden access cover that hid a large, underground pit. Marv said, “Jim—Take off the cover.” The acrid, rotting stench of manure and decayed flesh almost overwhelmed me. We tilted up the trailer bed and shoveled all its contents into the hole, carefully scraping out the last of the slurry. Then we went back for another trailer load. After several more loads we were done, leaving only a manure-less concrete surface under the cages. The whole job took four or five hours.
* * * *
I knew I was destined to do great things for God, but never before realized it would include shoveling chicken manure. And yet shoveling taught me not to take myself so seriously. How could I, when my shoes were stained brown and my clothes smelled of rotting chicken flesh? Manure days taught me that even tiring, stinking work can make you proud because you feel as if you’ve accomplished something. Ron targeted me with his jokes, but he also helped me learn how to work well with other people. And I learned to love Marv—at once a good Christian and a worldly, somewhat profane man—one of the best bosses ever.
I confess that still today, I miss Saturday manure day.