The catching crate was a structure designed by necessity and arrived at by means of error. It took its eventual form from what was left after the mistakes were discarded. What the crate was intended for was to catch turkeys. Several times a year, each of the hundred thousand turkeys that were distributed over a 360-acre hillside of weeds and dust had to be caught for vaccination, breeder selection, or marketing. The catching crate figured so importantly in this need that it is hard to imagine how we could have managed without it.
All of us -my father, my brother, Rowland, and me, the farm hands, even my mother and little sister- called this simple structure “the catching crate.” It was a name spoken in reverence and aversion. To catch turkeys in the thing was to know that misery is relative. We were always thankful that our situation wasn’t worse. Since “worse” would have been more or less intolerable, we looked upon the catching crate as a sort of saving presence, and our loathing of the task associated with it was tempered with a grudging yet heartfelt gratitude verging on the religious. This needs explaining.
Turkeys are hard to catch. Just to get them into some kind of enclosure and keep them there long enough to get your hands on them is an ambition fraught with serious difficulties. For one thing turkeys can fly, not well, but well enough to get them sufficiently airborne to clear an eight-foot fence. So you can’t just herd a bunch of turkeys into a fence corner and expect to hold them there long enough to catch them. As soon as you grab for one, the others, frantic to escape, explode upward in a colliding tangle of thrashing wings. They pile up against the fence, claws scratching for a foothold, straining to get to the top, some scrabbling over the fence and dropping off on the back side, a few managing to get airborne and, in a directionless frenzy of flight, crashing into the fence or each other or into whoever is trying to catch them. The dark side of this absurdity is that the birds trapped on the bottom of the heap are being smothered to death, their bodies raked by the claws of those above them.
When you realize what is happening and start throwing turkeys off the top trying to save those underneath, you find yourself reaching down into a pile of limp turkey carcasses, their feathers wet with smeared manure and blood. When my father first went into the turkey business, we tried to catch turkeys this way. We ran a bunch of them into a corner and started grabbing. It was a method abandoned on first try.
A second difficulty in catching turkeys is that they’re big. A full-grown tom can weigh as much as forty pounds, a hen thirty. A lot of that weight is concentrated in the breast muscle, and it is this powerful muscle that drives the wings and legs. This accounts for the third major difficulty, which is that turkeys are strong. So even if by chance and adjustment you eventually design a catching crate that is portable, strong, yet light enough to be moved, a crate that restricts the birds’ flight, and prevents their piling up, you will still find that the thirty to forty birds you hope to contain in the crate will simply walk away with it unless it is staked to the ground.
The aesthetics of beauty has always recognized simplicity of form as a fundamental virtue. This is not to say that we should admire any object that happens to lack complexity; such a thing might be merely dull. The simplicity I speak of has an inevitability about it that suggests that a form cannot be otherwise than exactly as it is. It is frequently a form required by utility. The lines of a canoe or sailing ship, for example, bear a clean and unadorned beauty necessitated by function. The catching crate was like this. It could be nothing other than what it was.
After all the modified fence corners, the cages of various designs, the darkened and lidded boxes, and the adjustable squeeze chutes which could never be made to accommodate more than a dozen turkeys, the structure that finally emerged was a simple three-sided containment that could hold up to three dozen turkeys at a time. It consisted of two right-triangle side-pieces fronted by a gate, which could be shut after the turkeys were driven inside. The back of the crate –and here is where the genius of its design was realized- was a panel angled at forty-five degrees, which prevented the birds from piling up on one another. The crate was built of slats, because we discovered that although turkeys balked at entering a solid structure, they walked unperturbed into one they could see through. They would try to push right on out the back, thus wedging themselves into the slant. With the gate closed, there was just enough room for a single man, kneeling on pads, to reach in and grab the turkeys by their legs. Shaped by necessity, the catching crate with its slats and baling wire reinforcement was a most unlikely candidate for a kind of spare utilitarian beauty that even the dullest of us who worked with it tacitly acknowledged.
The catching itself was a ritual requiring a fair amount of skill, poise, and self-containment, especially if you hoped to survive the ordeal with any of your dignity intact. For one thing, it had to be done kneeling. For another, it exacted of the catcher a discipline of some severity in order to stay at the task for more than a few minutes. Catching turkeys required character. To catch a turkey, you must put on a pair of stout leather gloves, get down on your knees in the opening of the catching crate, pick out a pair of legs that belongs to a single turkey, and make a swift, hard, backhanded stab at them, hoping to pin the legs together in your grip so that you can yank the bird off its feet before it loosens one of its legs and claws itself free of you.
A frightened turkey always shits. Fresh turkey shit is a smeary mess of yellows, greens, and whites that smells utterly vile and has the unfortunate consistency of soft pudding. When the catcher yanks the turkey’s feet out from under it, those feet are invariably standing in a pile of this stuff, which flicks back on the catcher, again and again, until the catcher is plastered with it from where his knees contact the ground right up to his throat and, not infrequently, even into his face and hair. As the hours go on and load after load of turkeys is herded into it, conditions in the crate grow worse. The catcher’s clothes stiffen with accumulating layers of drying turkey shit, and there in front of the whole crew he suffers the humiliation of spitting out filth and wiping shit from his eyes. No one ever offers help. No one ever laughs.
So naturally no one really wanted to do the catching, a fact that obligated every one of us to do our share. This is no small matter. The manner in which labor is distributed measures the heart and humanity of any work community, even if it’s just a bunch of ragged farm hands trying to make a living or a family maintaining a household. Many (perhaps most) communities fail, forfeiting the one point of honor that gives their work lives its integrity. Who cleans the toilets, washes the dishes, picks up after the party, takes out the garbage? To ask this question is to inquire into the heart of fairness, where justice either succeeds or fails. Of course, those of us on the turkey crew never spoke among ourselves about the justice of anything, but we we’re nonetheless bound by its dictates. But what I want to suggest here because I feel it so strongly myself is that this is not a matter of principled behavior but one of love. It is a natural sympathy for others that moves us toward fairness, and it is this sympathetic capacity that brought each of us in turn to put on the kneeling pads and get down into the filth of the catching crate.
Yet there was a time when we lost faith, a dangerous time, a crisis that happened to coincide with my own childhood initiation into catching. It was also the time when Hector Berrens, driving home from the farm with the sun in his eyes, crashed into the rear end of a parked truck.
There were five hired hands on the farm who, along with my father and my brother, Rowland, and I, could make up a crew of nine. The hired hands had been taken on over the years as the turkey flock grew. Al Messeral had been the first, hired when I was just a baby. From my viewpoint, Al had been around as long as my parents had. Pete Haney came next, a refugee from depression-era Oklahoma; then Bob Townsley, who had lost his sharecropping rights to a small plot of gravelly ground in southern Arkansas. Hector and his brother, Ernie arrived only a year before the accident.
Hector had come asking for work when the eighty-acre lease he horse-farmed was sold and he was left with no way to care for his aging parents and for Ernie, who was retarded and couldn’t make it on his own. Hector had never married. He had been unwaveringly obedient to his father’s request that he “stay home and take care of things.” He had no pretensions, yet he carried himself with a degree of dignity that even a child such as I could sense. He came to my father’s office, standing dark and stocky in the doorway, a powerful man, big boned, with a thick neck and broad forehead. He took his hat from his head, stepped up to my father’s desk, and asked for work. He offered Ernie, at half wages, saying that Ernie was a hard worker but that they would have to work together since no one else could understand him. Father, realizing he needed more help, took the two of them on.
The next morning Hector was there at dawn, wearing new work gloves and carrying a lunch pail. His face that morning bore a certain characteristic flatness of expression that suggested reserve or resignation perhaps, or maybe just dullness. Ernie trotted alongside him in little spurts and stalls like a squirrel that can’t quite make up its mind whether or not to cross the road. He clutched his lunch pail in both hands as if he thought someone might take it from him, and his eyes, a little wild, darted from face to face. Hector had to calm him, show him where to stand, and separate him from his lunch pail so that their lunches could be put up in the lunchroom. It was later that same day that a danger, grave with consequence for us all, first arose.
We were in the midst of breeder selection on that first day of Hector’s and Ernie’s employment, which meant that in the space of a few weeks every turkey on the farm would have to be caught. As the day began, Al, Pete, and Bob took turns catching. Except for an occasional grab at a turkey or two, I had not yet taken my first turn in the catching crate. I was small and thin for my age. It was understood that catching was still beyond my strength and beyond that of Rowland as well. I never saw Father catch. He was the one who selected the breeders and it seemed obvious to me that he had more important work to do.
About mid-morning, Hector, seeing how things were done, strapped on the kneepads and took a turn. He made the usual mistakes of a beginner: he grabbed only one leg and the turkey clawed itself loose with the free one; he failed to guard against the bird that had turned itself in the crate, and all forty pounds of it launched itself from the back of his neck out the opening. He learned through sheer error how to look away at the right moment, his eye glasses, with their scratched lenses taped onto the frame, so splattered that he had to wash them off under a faucet in order to see what he was doing. But by the time Hector had finished his turn he was doing as well as anyone could expect.
As near as I can remember, it was a little before eleven when Al told Hector that he would take over for a while. I heard Hector say something to the effect that he would take a turn for Ernie, since we could all see that Ernie was not up to the task. How this could have happened I don’t know but, after the mildest protest, Al let him do it. We all let him do it. We let Hector go back down on his knees and catch the turkeys Ernie couldn’t catch. As a child, I simply remember feeling that something was terribly wrong. When we shut down for lunch that day, Hector was still in the catching crate.
After that the situation worsened. Hector, first insisting on catching for Ernie, later resisted being relieved from the task at all. He would be the first one in the catching crate in the morning, and it was hard to get him out of there. He took on this hardest and dirtiest of our labors as his natural lot, as though by right of some inherent virtue lacking in himself, the rest of us deserved better. He deferred to us in everything, anxious to sacrifice himself to us as he had to his father. In the beginning the others tried to take their turns, but when he declined, they were willing to let him have his way. By the second year of Hector’s employment, no one even made a pretense anymore. Hector did all the catching.
We had lost our way. Even I knew this. We had forfeited the one ritual that, above all others, redeemed the misery of our work and bound us together in common regard. In the off season we would come upon the catching crate idle in some corner of a field, weeds sprouting up through the slats. None of us could look at it without knowing our loss.
Hector saw the truck at the last second, too late to avoid hitting it but not too late to jam on the brakes. Ernie was thrown under the dash, which probably saved his life. Hector, with his great power, had kept his grip on the steering wheel, the impact bending it over against the dash. He’d managed to stay in the car, but his head slammed into the liner above the windshield. In less than a week he was back at work, his head stitched and wrapped in bandages that made his hat perch off to one side, an angry swelling above one eye. His eyeglasses had somehow survived, though they were patched up even more than before. We were in the midst of breeder selection once again and everyone watched Hector put on the knee pads, drop to his knees in the catching crate, and begin catching. Father, sitting on his stool, watched him; Al and Pete and Bob watched him; Rowland and I watched him.
Before an hour had gone by, Al put on the knee pads and began catching, insisting to Hector that that was the way it was going to be. Seeing this, I resolved that when Al was done I would take a turn. When I asked Al for the pads, he at first looked questioningly at me, and then handed them over.
It didn’t matter now how hard it was. Al had taken his turn and I was taking mine. Afterwards, Pete would take his, and then Bob, and maybe even Rowland. We’d found our way home again. There, under the slanting roof of the catching crate with its two triangular sides and a gate that snapped in place, I knelt at the site of our return.