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  • June 5th, 2011

The Four-Finger Chicken









By Joel M. Vance


(Most of this is from my memoir Down Home Missouri, available through my web site www.joelvance.com–no one can know too much about chicken judging)



Mr. T.F. Potter, a gentleman who looks as if (judging from his photo) he would be gentle with a hen, wrote a book called Don’t Kill The Laying Hen for the American Poultry Journal Publishing Company.

Mr. Potter was jealous of his information, for the first page of the book promises that anyone infringing on his copyright is “liable to prosecution to the full extent of the law covering this subject.”

However, since the 13th edition of the book (which I have) is dated 1909, I am confident that Mr. Potter has gone to the Great Henhouse in the Sky, and that the information he so jealously guards has become common knowledge.

In fact I know it has–I used it some 50 years ago, not knowing that it was a copyrighted secret.  I speak of the fingering of chickens.  Mr. Potter’s method of judging the egg-readiness of hens involves the use of your fingers between the “lay bones,” as he calls them.

There also is something he calls the “bowel method,” but I’d rather not know about that.  The finger check was traumatic enough.  Know that when I talked about the mechanics of egg-laying in the previous chapter, I spoke with some authority.

Not that I’ve ever actually laid an egg, but I certainly have become uncomfortably intimate with the hen’s productive and/or reproductive apparatus.  While it is not something that I would list on my resume, I once judged chickens.

Back in my formative years, I fell in love with agriculture.  It was a romance like all romances–filled with pitfalls and briar patches, and ultimately I decided that farming was possibly the last thing I ever wanted to do.  But it took three years of the Future Farmers of America and a stint as a chicken judge to lead me to that conclusion.

My father was a farmer in the same sense that an infantry general is a foot soldier.  He supervised the operation of a 900-acre farm in Missouri.

Mostly that meant he talked with the tenant farmers who told him what should be planted and then he said that sounded good to him.  He occasionally cleared brush with the Doom Machine, a circular saw without any safety features and with enough power to cut the world in half.  He also did other things that made him feel useful and in charge, but principally he stayed out of the way.

Even though his roots were on the farm, his maturation and training were city.  His rural roots had been pruned and now lagged far behind the roots buried in city concrete.   He didn’t pine for his city days, as far as I know, but he couldn’t have driven a tractor to save his life, nor did he have a feeling for the rhythms of crops and livestock.  He was a foreman.

And I knew even less.  I’d never been on a farm, save summer vacations amid the fleas and horses that wouldn’t do right by me.  But my friends were farm kids and they seemed to associate congenially with sheep and hogs and chickens.

Animal husbandry sounded like something I could do.  I doubted I’d ever make a people husband (what girl would ask me to marry her?), but from what little I knew, farm animals pretty well took care of themselves and then you sold them for big bucks.

Big bucks also sounded good.  I’d never had any.  So Foster Sadler and Tommy Coy and I joined the Future Farmers of America at Keytesville High School.

The aim of FFA is “development of agricultural leadership, cooperation and citizenship.”  The foundations of FFA trembled when I decided to enlist as a high school freshman at Keytesville High School back in 1948.  Although I didn’t know it, I was no more a future farmer than I was a future astronaut or physicist.

My motives were not to become a successful farmer.  They were simpler.  I wanted a blue corduroy jacket with the FFA emblem, a cross-section of an ear of corn, on its back.  It was a status symbol ranking close to a Tiger letter jacket (as an athlete who had shot twice at the wrong basket in an eighth grade basketball game and missed both times, I was not a prime candidate for a letter jacket).

The only one of the dozen purposes of FFA that seemed to apply to my motives was “To provide and encourage the development of organized rural recreational activities.”  I equated “rural recreational activities” with parking on secluded country lanes with my female classmates, none of whom shared my enthusiasm.

I thought FFA would be a good way to meet girls, specifically the farmer’s daughter of fable.  I was wrong about that, too.  The Future Farmers of America is to agricultural aspirants as the Army is to those who yearn for hand-to-hand combat.  It is the organized, uniformed cadre of those who study agriculture in high school.

The organization began in Missouri in 1928.  The first line of the FFA Creed reads, “I believe in the future of farming, with a faith born not of words but of deeds…” which should have given me pause, had I bothered to read it.  I was long on words then as now, but my deeds tended toward quitclaim.

For one thing, I was a town kid, though my father owned a farm.  Town kids in Keytesville High School FFA in the late 1940s were like women in the pool hall.  It just wasn’t done.  There were farm boys and townies and they did not intermingle.

But three of us townies decided to break tradition.  Foster’s father, like mine, was a rarity for the time, a man whose home was in town, but who owned a farm.  In fact he was the school superintendent, a fearsome entity who to this day intimidates me.

Farming sounded romantic to us townies.  What drawbacks could there be to the bucolic life?  Outdoors all the time, soaking up sunshine and healthful vibrations.  It would have saved much trouble had any of us asked a farm kid how much fun he had.       For example, slopping hogs in the dark of a bitter winter before sunrise or working in fields by tractor headlight after a long day at school.  Bucking hay bales in the relentless Missouri summer heat was another thrill that somehow escaped our notice.

We vaguely envisioned being one with the land, feeling the good earth squishing between our toes, seeing crops blossom and fruit.  We identified with the landed gentry, the squire’s son, not the red- knuckled farm boys who made crude jokes about animal husbandry in the literal sense.

We needed a “Project,” a farm enterprise that authenticated our presence in FFA, so I acquired a Duroc gilt, a lovely red pig with long eyelashes and a virginal look that belied the fact that she was with child.  God knows who the father was (I was supposed to, but my record-keeping was not the stuff of which passing grades were made).

The romance of caring for this creature soon gave way to cold weather, sniffles, chapped hands, intestinal parasites (hers, not mine), manure and the other realities of farming.  I found that pigs have an ongoing life and, as self-reliant as they are, they do require some supervision, winter and summer.  The pig was mine in name only.  I found a thousand reasons why I couldn’t quite be there for her and soon her care was given to one of the tenant farmers.

Even though I really didn’t work my project, I continued the fiction so I could stay in FFA and maybe find some raison d’etre for me in agriculture.  I’d eliminated the frolic of pig husbandry and so far no nubile classmates had coveted my blue jacket.

Foster found our Purpose.

Each spring, Future Farmers across Missouri competed in agriculture-oriented events such as livestock judging.  The district winners advanced to the state competition at Columbia.

The mere mention of Columbia set our juvenile juices a-stewing.  Columbia was the Big Apple for Keytesville boys, most of whom had never been farther from home than Moberly.  It was the Forbidden City.  Chicago had long since faded from my memory and anyway, I’d lived there when I was pre- pubescent.  Wouldn’t have known a sin if I’d found one.  Now, however, I knew all about sin in the abstract and desperately wanted some hands-on experience.

Columbia is the home of the University of Missouri.  If there was no sin in Columbia, with all those randy college students, then there was no sin in Missouri.  We had to get there.

The first ever national vo-ag dairy judging had been won by a team from Keytesville in 1926, before there was a state FFA.  They traveled all the way to Indianapolis, IN, which, for a Keytesville kid, was equivalent to being shot to Mars.

If a bunch of Chariton County rubes could win national honors, we intellectual townies ought to be able to breeze through regional competition and win a trip to Columbia.  We’d even read books other than the Soils Manual.  I had read all the books of Thorne Smith and knew what step-ins were or, more to the point, what went in them.

And there were movie houses in Columbia that showed things you’d never see in a Doris Day movie: one showed foreign films and we all knew what went on in foreign films.  There were rumored to be nude women in foreign films.

We dreamed of roaming Columbia in the heat of the night, meeting experienced women who would lure us into sultry, dimly-lit dens of pleasure where we would experience the first sweet pangs of debauchery.

Almost anything we could imagine was debauchery compared to life in Keytesville.  Debauchery in Keytesville was a cheeseburger with fries and a double chocolate malt which, at most, would make you so sick you’d puke.  Columbia doubtless offered sins you couldn’t even read about in 1948.

But first we had to qualify.  We looked over the available competitions.  We ruled out livestock judging in any form because even the most casual farm boy knew more about the conformation of cows, pigs and sheep than we ever would.  The only conformation we’d even halfway studied was that of the cheerleaders and even that was an awesome mystery, the textbooks to which were closed.

Besides, farm animals tended to be large and unpredictable.  We’d all heard tales of sows getting farmers down in the pig yard and chewing off their legs.  And a cow’s eye was larger than most of my muscles.  I wanted nothing to do with a creature that was far stronger than I and that perhaps had a dim perception that I was nurturing him to the slaughterhouse.  Revenge is not necessarily beyond the ken of a male hog, especially after you’ve started his life by cutting off his nuts.

Live animals were out.

“Hey, look at this!” exclaimed Foster, our ringleader.  “Seed judging!”  It was buried in the fine print, a contest so minor that a real farm boy would have dismissed it in fine contempt.  Just what we were counting on.  We needed a contest with no competition to maximize our chances for a trip to the big town.

We really didn’t judge seeds; we identified them.  It was a matter of memory and there was no involvement with hoofed creatures.

Mr. Schmid, our Vo-Ag instructor, was baffled by town boys in agriculture.  He was kind, but it was as if he had been asked to tutor Orientals or Eskimos whose way of life was totally foreign.  He searched for common ground.

Once he took us on a field trip to castrate hogs and showed us how to do it with his teeth.  The Townies all got lightheaded and Tommy trotted over behind a haystack and threw up.  He asked for volunteers and the three townies shrank to the back of the crowd.  A farm boy eagerly knelt to the feast, his teeth snapping.

When we told Mr. Schmid we wanted to enter FFA competition, he was delighted to see us finally interested in agriculture.  “It’ll help you all your lives to know one seed from another,” he promised enthusiastically.

“Why can’t we just look on the package if we want to know what’s inside?” I asked.  He looked at me for a long time, one of many such gazes to come.

But we decided to be the best damn seed judging team KHS ever had (not to mention the first).  We worked before and after school hours, pawing through seed samples and studying written material and we blew out the opposition (one other team) in the district.

Columbia, if anything, proved duller than Keytesville.  College students looked at us as if we’d just crawled out of a manure heap and the foreign film we skulked in to see was incredibly boring.  The only nude woman was built like Tugboat Annie and was dead.  I tried to whip up interest in her flabby exposed breast but it was no go.

Instead of a steamy boudoir, we fell into exhausted sleep on creaking Army cots in company with 5,000 other sweating Future Farmers in the University’s Brewer Fieldhouse.  The sultry air was filled with groans, moans, sneezes and snorts, coughing and snoring and some other sounds.

Our choices were two: we could abandon FFA or we could try again as sophomores to solve the riddle of Columbia (the riddle of agriculture was a lost cause).  Surely, Columbia held more for us than and the thousands of coughing, belching Blueclads in Brewer Fieldhouse.

But first we needed another snap contest.  Once you’d been in a competition, you could not repeat it.  Foster studied the catalog.

“Meat judging!” Mr. Schmid exclaimed, aghast.  We were joking with the gods of Agriculture.  We showed him the catalog.  “Why don’t you judge sheep or cows or something like everybody else?” he grumbled.

But we learned about marbling and other esoterica of the butcher and we finished second (among three teams) in district competition.  Good enough to send us on another expense-paid vacation to Brewer Fieldhouse.  The same group of air swallowers had returned, noisier than ever, and the foreign film house was closed for lack of business.

Instead, we went to a mainstream movie house which featured what must have been the last vaudeville act to play Missouri.  A sweating fellow came out and announced that he would play two trombones at the same time.    “Yeah, but you got two heads!” shouted some balcony wit and we all roared.  College humor was just as sophisticated as we’d imagined.  Still, sitting in a movie house in Columbia watching terrible entertainment wasn’t much different than being in Keytesville.

Then we became juniors.  One last chance to pervert ourselves in the city.  We studied the FFA competitions catalog far more assiduously than we ever did the Soils Manual.

No luck–we’d used up the easy competitions.  It looked as if we might have to deal with live animals for the first time.  Foster’s brow furrowed in concentration.  This was a test of his skill at finding the easy way.  Finally the worry lines smoothed, he turned to us with a broad smile.

“Chicken judging!” Mr. Schmid roared.  “What’s the matter with you boys, anyway?”

But judge chickens we did and some basic misconceptions quickly cleared up.  We had only a hazy notion of how you judge a chicken.  First, we assumed it was chicken meat we would be asked to judge, like those steaks and chops from the year before.  We assumed we would gaze upon the defunct bodies of chickens, rating their suitability for the roasting pan.

Our eyes glazed over when Mr. Schmid appeared with several live, smelly hens.  They clucked, fussed and, worst of all, held their droppings in reserve until the moment when a fastidious chicken judger was most vulnerable.

For those who may not be familiar with the way laying chickens are judged, let me explain: Assume you are right handed.  You scoop up a chicken, not an easy task since chickens resent scoopment, stuff her under your left armpit, tail to the front.

Hold her immobile with your left arm, lift the tail with your left hand.  The right hand contains the gauge by which you measure a chicken’s egg-laying ability–your fingers.  If you remember the Boy Scout and Cub Scout salutes, you can judge chickens because you give the hen a sort of Cub or Boy Scout salute, only horizontal, laying the two-or- three fingers against the egg vent to measure its span which gives you an idea of how large an egg the chicken is capable of delivering.

If there is such a thing as a one-finger chicken, it is destined only for the pot.  It would lay eggs an ambitious robin could beat.  Two fingers (a Cub Scout chicken) probably is a pullet, an egg virgin.  She may develop, but she is not yet a performer in the hot competitive atmosphere of big time egg laying.

A three-finger chicken is the standard and goes to the henhouse to perform her matronly duties.  She is a soldier in the trenches, reliable and productive.  She is the backbone of the egg machine.

Perhaps somewhere there is a four-finger chicken.  He who owns a four-finger chicken is blessed.  Egg producers dream of the four- finger chicken.  A four-finger chicken could name its price in any henhouse in America.

This is what I learned in chicken judging.  We went to the district meet, flexing our fingers, filled with competitive fire.

The top three teams would qualify for state.  Since we had not yet been in a competition with more than three teams, we were confident.  There were four teams and we finished fourth.

Mr. Schmid looked sadly at us and we hung our heads.

I decided that farming was not my vocation and told Mr. Schmid that I would not be taking Vo-Ag my senior year, nor be a member of FFA.  His face cleared, the furrows smoothed from his brow, he became expansive.

“My boy,” he said, “what are your plans?”

“I dunno,” I mumbled.  “Maybe become a writer or something….”

“Good!  Good!” he exclaimed expansively.  “Good!”  He wandered off to a small group of freshmen who were wearing their new blue FFA jackets.  Mr. Schmid had spent his life talking above the roar of tractors and was slightly deaf.

“That boy and his friends judged chickens,” he bellowed in what he thought was a whisper.  “Only chicken judges I ever had.”  Their eyes slewed toward me, as if they were looking at a two-headed calf.

I knew there would be no more chicken judges at Keytesville High School, that Vo-Ag at my high school had crossed a low water bridge and would not return by the same route.



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  1. chaz

    July 23rd, 2011 at 6:56 am


    Hey, are the Joel Vance that used to write for Stereo Review?

    • joelvance

      July 23rd, 2011 at 3:00 pm


      Not me–it’s hard to believe there could be two Joel Vances….but I’m the real one.

    • joelvance

      July 24th, 2011 at 8:23 am


      thought I had answered this, but it’s not here. I said “it’s hard to believe there are two Joel Vances in the world, but I’m not this guy. I’m the real one…..

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