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Monday, October 24, 2011

No. 77 My Rooster that was a "Chicken"

“What ya looking for?”

That was not an unreasonable question to be asked in this situation. Here I was bent over on my hands and knees with my head almost on the ground peeking under our neighbor’s house. I was trying to find an angle where some of the morning sunlight was bright enough that I could maybe detect if anything moved.

My older cousin, Sno’ball (Creston Gaskill) whose house it was, had stepped outside not expecting to see me, especially not there, so he was wondering just what was going on.

“I’m looking for my game rooster,” I told him. “He’s run away and he’s camped under your house and won’t come out for nothing, not even some corn pellets.

“I think he’s scared I’ll try to get him to fight again.” I explained. “He’s not much of a fighter, and he’d rather play hide-n-seek with me than risk having to 'rassle with another rooster.”

I was only ten years old but I had learned enough about chickens, at least this one, that all these years later I’m still convinced that I was right. That rooster stayed under Sno’ball’s house for another two weeks. He must have come out some at night, waiting for everyone to go inside, so he could eat the handful of feed that I used each day trying to lure him out in daylight. We could hear him under the house, and once in a while he would peek out around the block foundation that lined it. But he was determined not get anywhere close enough to the outside that I, or anybody else, might reach or retrieve him.

Finally, acting on a tip from my cousin Paul who lived across the road, we pushed another fighting rooster into the same space my bird was using, and sure enough, my game rooster ran out a cacklin’ to where my brother Teff was able to fall on and hold him. A few minutes after that he chicken-rooster back in the coop in the corner of our yard.

Later that same day we took the bird back to Mike (Lloyd Nolan) Rose, who had sold him to us just a few weeks earlier and told him to keep the bird and the four dollars we had paid for a full-blooded “War Horse” fighting rooster.

A photo of me with my "Fighting Rooster," taken by my
my brother Tommy the same day he bought it for me.
He invited some of my neighborhood friends to join me
and my dog, Dash, in the picture taken in our front yard.
Thus ended my days as a chicken-fighter. Don’t get the wrong idea. The chicken fights that were orchestrated by a small group of Island boys was far removed from the “cock fighting” that remains an ugly part of some cultures. And though our version may not have been pretty, at least by today’s standards, it was more an exercise in showmanship than in fighting.

We would stand in a circle consisting only of the boys who were watching and launch our birds into the middle. The roosters would then raise their wings and spread their feathers and ready themselves either to attack or defend, depending on their temperament. After just a few seconds, one of the roosters would begin to lunge at the other and the two birds would bounce off and start again. As they did, we would grab the ones that were ours and that was it. The parade that preceded the contact was what we loved to see. Once the fighting had begun, for us at least, the show was over!

For one thing, genuine fighting roosters cost money, sometimes lots of money, unlike the laying hens that everyone had in abundance. Two dollars, five dollars, sometimes even ten dollars may not seem like a lot now, but it was a small fortune then, especially if it had been earned picking up bottles out of ditches or opening scallops on the dock. No one was about to see that investment go to waste in an exhibition that offered neither money nor rewards, other than the excitement of watching two birds dance in circles.

There were dozens of adolescent boys in our neighborhood, and several of them had taken to the sport of roosters. The aforementioned cousin Paul (Hancock), Rennie (Moore), Billy (Beaman), and especially Dallas Daniel (Guthrie), each had at least one prized bird that they loved to show off against the other’s. Watching them perform I came to marvel at both the beauty and grace of the large birds. Sensitive to my interest, my daddy found me a small bantam rooster that had the same traits, if not the size, as the larger roosters. But “Junior,” that’s what we called him, soon became so much a part of the family that I couldn’t risk even a “show-dance” that involved the chance of his getting hurt.

So it was that I started hinting that I was anxious for one of the bigger and more storied fighting birds. Because of my young age and my family’s finances, I remained an onlooker until my brother Tommy came home for a visit from his Coast Guard assignment in Louisville, KY. (We used to say that he was stationed off the coast of Kentucky.) When he learned what was going on he offered to buy me a “game rooster” if I could find the one I wanted. Mike Rose was a few years older than me, and lived more than a mile to the east’ard, but he was recognized as having the best birds that could be found anywhere on the Island. One Saturday afternoon Tommy drove me to Mike’s house and a few minutes later we were headed home with a my chosen rooster nestled under my jacket and arm, and for less than half of what we had expected to pay.

After just a couple of days, Tommy had arranged for Paul to bring over one of his bevy of fighters so we could see just how willing my new pet was to be part of the combat dance. It was then that we learned why Mike had been willing to part with this particular bird for such a low price. He was pretty, and he was loud – you could hear him crow from anywhere in the neighborhood, but it was immediately evident that he was more a lover than a fighter. He refused even to make the stance of a fighter. He just turned his back and ran for any opening he could find to get out of the fighting circle. And not only did he leave the circle, he kept on running until he had found safe haven under Sno’ball’s house. And that’s exactly where he spent the next two weeks.

By the time we finally got hold of him again, Tommy was back in Louisville, and I was too ashamed even to watch another chicken fight. So my “War Horse Game Rooster” ended up where he had started, and I moved on to some of the thousand other things that made being a boy on Harkers Island such a never-ending adventure.

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