A trip to the processor’s

Yesterday we drove a load of chickens to the processor.

My family had loaded up our gorgeous birds the night before while I went to sleep early. Then, at 3:30 a.m., my alarm went off. We woke my four-year-old at 4:15 a.m. so he could go with me because it’s hard to find childcare at such an early hour. Our littlest guy is an enthusiastic farmer, thank heavens. His cheerful young voice was soon chirping upstairs in the quiet house. He was excited to be part of this early morning outing.

My little boy and I were heading out to our truck at 4:30. It seems to me that whenever I go outside before dawn, I am surprised by the sensations of the morning air. Yesterday , the cool humidity was fragrant in the darkness, and the air was still and waiting. A rooster crowed from the crates on the trailer.

Sometimes I sing to my animals at this point, just before we drive them into the processors. I thank them, and I say a prayer that they should be given as much peace as possible on this day – their “one bad day.” I pray that they should not hurt and that I should be forgiven for any and all ways that I have contributed to suffering.

Yesterday I didn’t sing, because I was too nervous and distracted. I was worried about how my little boy was going to do with this early morning, and I was worried about the trip in general. My husband has run into a host of challenges while taking chickens into the processor. He’s been struck by another car going full highway speed. The trailer has popped off. A tire on the trailer has gone flat. A tire on the trailer has exploded. He has almost lost control on I-90 because of the wind from passing semis.

Because of this, my husband is taking a personal day from work several weeks from now so he can drive in our next load of 600 birds. Explaining this to someone on the phone, he said, “I’m taking that day off because I don’t like Elizabeth …” and then he trailed off. Of course he was going to say that he didn’t like putting me in a stressful situation, and that he’d rather take on the challenge himself than worry about me. This is a very loving thing for him to do, but the fact remains that he said he was taking the day off because he doesn’t “like Elizabeth.” This has given me no end of material for teasing him.

I was carrying a comparatively small load of birds yesterday – 200 instead of our usual load of 600. This makes the trailer much easier to control, and it puts less weight on the tires, so we both felt easy with me doing the job, but neither of us felt totally relaxed either.

As the truck sped through the darkness before dawn, my boy and I listened to the radio. Sometimes he piped up with a comment and a little conversation broke out, but mostly we were quiet. An hour into our 90 minute drive, my guy fell asleep with his sweet little body draped out over the back seat.

Dawn came as we were driving east on I-90 with the whole eastern sky stretched out flat before us. The horizon was a panorama of pink, blending gently into a gold and then tender blue. It was so expansive. I had to turn my head to each side to take in the full array of color, and we were driving right into it. Something about driving into the light like made me think of what it must be like to be born.

Finally at the processor’s, I headed inside to stand around with the line workers and the other farmers as the lady in charge decided which farmer would load in their chickens first. She and I were the only women in the room, so I jammed my hands in my pockets to match the posture of many of the men. I tend to do this when I am outnumbered men, especially working men. I notice how they are standing and then I imitate them. I pay attention to their rate of speech and the pauses.

When it finally came time for me to unload my birds – after everyone else, even though I had arrived first – I worked with some of these guys as a team. My job was to lift my birds from their crates and hand them to a couple of men who carried them into the plant. It was like doing a dance, and these people were fabulous dancers. They always knew where I was moving, and they were just there, doing the right thing. They were holding a crate door open or reaching out to take a bird from my hands or offering sympathy that my hair had gotten stuck again in the crate. I tried to be just as attentive to them and to move in anticipation of what would be needed next. It was beautiful.

For reasons that escape me, my son stayed in the truck during the whole unloading process. I thought he’d want to come out and “help,” giving me something else to manage, but he seemed absolutely content to stay where he was. Maybe the cool air was on my side because the truck was warm and cozy compared with the brisk morning. After the flurry of unloading had passed, I peeked in at him and discussed all the Amish buggies that passed as I secured our crates back to the trailer and packed up to leave.

Then we left, and in keeping with our tradition, we bought Amish-made cookies at a gas station before hitting the interstate. Halfway through the trip, my boy was asleep again with his head resting against the door and the seatbelt cradling his face in a way that looked surprisingly comfortable. He slept peacefully until we arrived safely at home.

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