I’ve always hated manure. So on my first day working at Marv’s egg ranch when Ron said, “The real fun here is manure day,” I thought he’d gone mad.
During high school Ron and I worked for Marv. Ron was a bit smaller than I was, but one of the most confident kids I knew, funny and smart.
I would drive 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 dirty. 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.
Marv always treated me well and paid well. He 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. My first day, he 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.” I inhaled urine and manure smells as he showed me how to push a four-wheeled cart, gathering the eggs. I learned to pick up the eggs four at a time and place 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. Most of it fell through the cages and accumulated on the concrete slab beneath. But some fell on the eggs and left brown streaks, so we later had to wash them with a mechanical egg scrubber.
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 a furious clucking, part commentary and part protest. After the chickens settled down I returned to egg gathering, but when I exited the row, a cart wheel caught on the post, and the whole front stack of cartons dumped off the front, breaking dozens of eggs. 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. He said, “You gotta do this, or else the other hens peck at the bloody feathers until they disembowel her, leaving her guts to hang out like a lariat.”
Then Marv saw a chicken that had a lariat and he yelled over to me, “Hey Jamie—look; a 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.
On one auspicious Saturday, my first manure day arrived. Would I be able to do this? We walked over to look at the Model T truck and manure trailer, and Ron told me, “Marv’s dad designed the trailer.”
Marv walked up, and explained, “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 for respect.) He rigged up a small gasoline engine that powers this hydraulic pump here. The pump plunger 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 into the trailer from each side. 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. The term “stepping in the cow pie” took on new meaning, although instead of dry, sterile pies, this was more like trodding in a smelly soup. My shod feet squelched through the sticky slush.
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. Then it got fun, because these manure guys planned for crazy. 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, short 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 piled a few bloodied, dead chickens on top, we drove out into the orange grove and stopped at a wooden access cover that hid a large, underground pit. Marv said, “Jamie—Take off the cover.” The acrid 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 assumed I was destined to do great things for God, but until now I never knew it would include shoveling 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. Marv and Ron targeted me with their jokes, but they also helped me learn how to work well with other people. And I learned to love Marv—at once a worldly, somewhat profane man, and a good Christian—one of the best bosses ever. I confess that even now, I miss Saturday manure day.