Everyone remembers their first job, and I am no exception. Even after many years, I still smile when I think about it. Our neighbor, Mr. Weston, was one of those old-time, crusty bachelor farmers, the type of guy with weathered, wrinkled skin and an expression that told a story of resilience.
One summer, he approached Dad and inquired if he might hire me. Mr. Weston had to have an operation followed by time in the hospital to recuperate and wanted me to look after things. At 9 years old, I was keen to show I could handle responsibility like a grown-up.
Before he left for the hospital, Mr. Weston showed me around his farm. He had a herd of beef cattle, a flock of woollies (everyone called sheep woollies back then), and poultry.
Mr. Weston showed me the poultry barn last, and no doubt there was a reason for that. It turned out he had a big flock of turkeys and geese. Not the dozen laying hens I’d expected, but a hundred birds in two large stalls. He explained the feed schedule, what animals got which feed, when to muck the stalls, and instructed I let them run outside — just be sure to close them in at night since the foxes were around. Finally, he asked if I had any questions. I told him not to worry; the property would be safe under my watchful eye. He sighed and told me to be careful and not get hurt. At the time, I was thinking something along the lines of, “What could possibly go wrong?” Well, it was more premonition than baseless worry.
My first morning on the job, everything went great until I opened the turkey stall. That stall door opened, and a blizzard of white turkeys rushed me, the birds clearly having no sense of personal space. I jumped back, slamming the door. How was I going to fill the feeders and not get swarmed? Putting that question off for the time being, I decided to look at the geese. I opened the stall door and stepped in carefully. The geese seemed better behaved and were all waiting to go outside.
Then and only then did I realize that a superior method would be to let the stock out and fill everything while they were outside. Of course!
I ran outside to the goose pen, opened the door, and out waddled the geese. Pretty smooth operation I was running here! Closing the door, I hustled over to the turkey pen. I swung open the door and … nothing. Those genius turkeys never even looked out. I stomped back into the barn and tried to shoo the turkeys outside. Have you ever tried to herd turkeys? There’s a trick, but I hadn’t learned it yet. Every time I managed to chase a couple outside, they walked back in as soon as I turned my back. Then they began to chase me, and I had to retreat. This wasn’t going to be so easy after all.
I finally decided to lure them outside with feed. I filled two pails, entered the turkey pen, and soon had the whole flock interested. Then I ran outside to the feeder, dumped the pails and stood aside as a sea of turkeys swept past. At least they were out.
Filling the feeders wasn’t easy. The feed sacks were up in a loft that I had to climb a ladder to reach. Hauling pails of feed down the ladder was a tough chore. With no water tap, I had to lug pails over from the house. I used a wheelbarrow to bring water pails over, and spilled plenty. It took a long time, but I got it done.
After finishing the inside chores, I went to feed the geese. The big white bullies had become impatient waiting for breakfast. As soon as I entered the pen, they rushed me. They knocked the pails from my hands and snapped at my face. When I tried to water the geese, I got watered myself, and pretty thoroughly.
The first day at a new job is always tough, but I was plucky for a 9-year-old, and no quitter. After a week of similar days, though, I was beginning to feel pretty defeated. The birds got more belligerent every day. They didn’t want to go out, and they didn’t want to come in. I spent a good part of each day getting snapped at and slapped. Lugging water from the house to the waterers, and pails of feed down the ladder, had me exhausted.
One evening, I got roughed up by several angry geese, and slipped and fell into a couple piles of fresh goose droppings.
Dad could see I was wearing down. My chores weren’t getting done, and I smelled like goose mixed with turkey and other foul unpleasantries. I broke down and asked Dad if he knew any tricks to herding poultry. He cut two long alder poles and instructed me to hold them out to the side as I walked into the flock. “You can push them in any direction, if you hold them up to their heads. Push them around and show ’em who’s in charge,” he said. Then he got a long water hose so I could be closer to the barn. Two major problems solved.
Those two long poles worked like a charm. Even the orneriest goose minded those poles, and the turkeys seemed to enjoy being directed. I was in charge now, and the work got easier. The water hose reached to the barn door saving on sweat. Making an executive decision, I dropped several feed bags down to the barn floor. After these changes, it got a lot better for this hired hand.
Although I had a tough start, things ended well thanks to Dad and his help with the feathered bullies. Mr. Weston was so impressed that I hadn’t lost a single bird that he rehired me to help get the flock to market. He paid me extra and threw in a turkey and goose as a bonus. No paper route for my first job. No sir. I was a poultry wrangler!
Cary Rideout lives with his artist/photographer wife, Lorain, on the rocky farm in Carlow, New Brunswick, Canada, where he grew up. He writes for a wide variety of magazines in the United States and Canada.