Jan 16

chicken checker

Over the holidays, I stumbled across a picture taken just after showing my prize-winning goat, Victoria, at a local fair. This was the inspiration I needed to post a story I’ve been working on for a while. Hopefully my father will forgive me for retelling it here!

Showing Victoria when I was 8-9 years old

Chicken Checker

“Are you hungry?” my father asked as we coasted down the Oklahoma interstate in our beaten-down farm truck. Our truck had no radio or air-conditioning and, oh, those woolly bench seats scratched in summer! But the prospect of joining my father, an over enthusiastic Renaissance man, on a road trip outweighed every inconvenience. When we weren’t counting hawks on telephone poles or singing television jingles, I peered through the holes of the rusted-out floorboard where sun-bleached road rolled underneath my feet. I could entertain myself for hours in this small cabin.

We were still hours away from meeting my mother. While judging a goat show in Oklahoma, she had stumbled across a prospective buyer for a spring doe from our Missouri goat dairy. Now my father was generously driving hundred mile stretches of wheat fields with a talkative five-year old and the almost-sold goat in tow. It was a noble deed.

“McDonalds?” I replied instinctively, ready for fast food billboard scouting.

“Ah no, I’ve got a better idea!” This was not typical Happy Meal excitement, “Let’s barbecue some chicken!”

Though we were separated by thirty years, I would always relate to my father’s thirst for adventure. I didn’t fully grasp his proposal but I was already an eager accomplice.

A few exits later, we pulled into a parking lot and my father launched into action. He sprung onto the truck bed with our goat and brushed away straw and feed sacks to reveal his secret stash of barbecuing supplies including an iron cooking pit, coal, chicken, and a few cooking utensils. He spoke aloud as he tore open bags, hypothesized how to pile the briquettes, and speculated on our feasting time. The details were lost on me but I was mesmerized at the thought of cooking while driving… genius!

We stopped one or two more times to adjust the coals. When my father deemed that we had achieved optimal barbecuing conditions, he rested the chicken gingerly on the grill and promoted me from “daughter” to “chicken checker” which entailed keeping tabs on our dinner by occasionally glancing back into the truck bed through the cabin window. I accepted the title and responsibility with pride.

While our dinner was cooking, my father teased me by pretending to drive with his eyes closed while I squealed in horror and delight. I asked if there were other children at the fairgrounds. Perhaps the Mennonite twins would be up for playing some games in the show-ring sawdust later? In our conversation lulls, I diligently looked back and reported that all was well in the truck bed.

It was hard to imagine a better August evening, driving carefree with my father with the windows rolled down and a few lightning bugs dotting the fields. Even the Oklahomans seemed to get friendlier as daylight waned. Our dairy goats always attracted attention on the road and tonight was no exception. Drivers and their companions waved as they passed. “That’s so nice!” He nudged me to wave back to our highway friends.

A few more vehicles passed us and waved. We waved too. And then a few more. In hindsight, we should have become suspicious of our well-wishers sooner. And then a startled elderly couple passed while mouthing an unintelligible message to us. My father’s smile waivered.

“Elaine… I think it’s time to check the chicken.”

Sensing urgency, I spun around and pressed my hands and face to the window. The glass was warm against my fingertips and nose. A split-second later I discovered why. Our situation was dire. Flames spewed from our truck bed and smoke billowed down the road. Our show goat pawed frantically at the spreading flames. Cars were swerving to avoid our sparks and debris. We were a 50 mile-per-hour bonfire on wheels.

Within seconds of hearing my “uh oh,” my father swung the steering wheel and made an emergency halt. He ran around the truck while I struggled to keep up, pushing open the heavy door and jumping down from the cab. He passed me the goat and shooed me a safe distance away. From afar, I watched as he tossed our gear from the truck and stomped down the flames with a plank of wood.

The seriousness of the situation eluded me entirely. We were isolated on the road with a flaming truck and no water. Many years later, my father would reveal that his gravest concern was the gas cap he had lost a few weeks prior and the fear that the tank would explode at any second. I turned my attention to teaching our goat to sit like a dog as onlookers streamed by.

After some time, my exhausted father emerged, wiping his hands with a rag. The soot had gathered in his forehead creases making him appear years older. Our belongings were scattered on the side of the road and charred straw still blew from the truck bed on the evening breeze. He started scooping our belongings back into the truck. Approaching me, he eyed the scorched hair on the goat’s hooves. I saw a troubled “your mother is not going to be happy” thought cross his brow but he didn’t say anything aloud.

After all of our gear was accounted for, we continued down the road again. When the adrenaline had subsided, my father pulled off again and found a payphone to relay a message to my mother that he was going to be late as “something had come up” on the road.

When he returned from the payphone, his head had cleared enough to remember our original mission – the chicken was still in the iron pit and we were both very hungry. After inspection, he returned triumphant with a tough, dry, but still salvageable chicken, especially with a generous smothering of barbecue sauce. He presented our winnings wrapped in aluminum foil, a trophy of our gourmet ingenuity and absolute proof that I had the best father in the world. And with miles to go, we sat on the tailgate eating in rare silence.