“You just grab it at the neck, step on it there and jerk your hand up real quick like this here, see?”

Before I could process the instructions that had just been grunted at me, I stood in total horror as I watched a headless white chicken begin to sprint in wide circles, flapping it’s wings as though it were about to take off on an adventurous flight.

My brother stood close by looking at me and laughing, but then became distracted when a fowl came close enough for him to give chase.

There were soon two chickens, minus the heads, rumbling around the yard in a panic. They took forever to just fall over dead and that bothered me more than the beheading.

I was six years old, my brother twelve. He seemed to be fully aware of why we were there that day. Me? I thought we might go fishing. Fishing is, after all, what we did most times we went out to Uncle Jim’s pond.

There wasn’t much there but a large gravel driveway, a couple of new metal barns, and a beautiful pond. Everybody in the family had made trips out there. It was a great farm pond, loaded with big blue gill and nice large-mouth bass.

I stood there, paralyzed in shock. I was not prepared for this. Had I known this is why we were going with my Great Uncle Sonny that day, I would have stayed at home and rode my big wheel.

Uncle Sonny is now 83 years old, and if you were to pick a fight with him even today, my money would be on him.

He is as old-school country boy as they come. Big, strong, cornbread-fed with skin browned like leather. His biceps seemed as big as most people’s heads. Even well up into his 70s.

Raised with very little, in a big family of other big strong country boys like himself, he knew a thing or two about being tough – hardened by life, by war, by hard work. Despite his successes in life as a working adult, he still enjoyed doing things the “old country boy way” and really seemed to like hard physical labor.

An old friend once told me while at Sonny’s 70th birthday, that as a teenager he’d look out the window before going out of the house. If he saw Sonny working in the yard, he would not go outside because he knew Sonny would put him to work. He said often you’d see the kids that lived on that street called over to “help”.

When he told me this, I just chuckled and nodded my head. Why didn’t he just say “No”, you might be ask yourself. Well, you have to know Sonny, you just don’t tell him “No”.

Sonny is one of those strong personalities. He likes to give orders and expects people to follow through. If they don’t, he doesn’t simply ignore it or let it go, he calls you out.

Sometimes, we really didn’t mind helping out or committing to do something with him. He always took good care of us, fed us well and rewarded us for our labor. It was the times you didn’t go along with him that could be difficult.

The best thing you can do is to be honest with him though and stand firm as he reacts to it. It may upset him, but at least he knows where you stand and respects you for it. I learned that about him and I think he is a big reason I am always truthful, no matter what, even when I know my answer is not what the other person likes to hear.

“Now, YOU do it!” Sonny demanded. I stood there, still frozen with panic, trembling in my Scooby-Doo underoos. I watched until one of the two birds finally collapsed to the ground. I looked up at my Uncle Sonny and calmly said, “I’m not doing that.”

“Yes you will. Now we came here today to get some chickens and we are going to get some chickens.” He growled.

“Uncle Sonny, I just don’t like that.”

“You like eat’n don’t ya? I’ve seen you put away Doll’s chicken!” Doll was the pet name Sonny had for his wife, my Great Aunt Jessie, or “Jet” as most of us knew her.

Sometimes when Sonny was mad at her, he’d start off with…”Well Shit, Doll!” He did this often enough that I was about five years old before I realized her name was not “Shuh-doll”. My mom still laughs when she tells the story of how I “corrected” her when I heard her call my aunt “Jet”.

Uncle Sonny had a name like that for everybody. Nobody was called by their actual name. Bryan was BryanCat, I was Pipper, or just Pip for short. Even his own adult children still go by Tom and Jane although their names are Mike and Nancy. Nancy even married a Tom.

A gift from Sonny; a belt buckle with my Sonny-name on it.

That’s typical Sonny. His way, your name was whatever he wanted it to be. You did what he wanted you to, whether you wanted to or not. Everybody just gives in and appeases him, it just isn’t worth the hassle to tell him “no”.  There I stood though, at six years old, defiantly opposing him.

“I won’t eat chicken anymore then.” was my response to him calling me out.

“Now Pip, get in there and chase one of ‘em down and do like I showed ya.” He reasoned.

“No, I don’t want to.”

Sonny enjoyed making me do things he thought typical boys should do. He once made me work in the garden with him in my bare feet. I remember spending most of my time looking for snakes and spiders that I knew I’d surely step on. To him, this wasn’t about me getting a chicken. It was about teaching me something or perhaps just out of respect for my mom and keeping my shoes clean.

He knew I was a bit of a momma’s boy. My Grandpa Whitaker passed away when I was two. I have no memory of him really, but I truly think Sonny took it upon himself to be “Grandpa” to me and Bryan. We lived right next door to Uncle Sonny and Aunt Jet for a while, then just down the street for many years.

Sonny on the porch of my childhood home. Mom, Aunt Janie, and Bryan on the motorcycle.

My mom said that Sonny would call and give orders like, “Have the boys ready at 8:30, I’ll be picking them up.” Mom would object, but give in to Sonny and just say “Okay”. She said half the time he wouldn’t even tell what his plans were, what we’d be doing, or how long we’d be gone. She would fret over how she should dress us.

Being shy and passive, and pretty fearful of antagonizing him, she’d just go along with it.

If you weren’t ready when he said he was picking you up, he would just leave you. He once picked me up but left Bryan because Bryan was in the bathroom. Sonny wouldn’t wait a few minutes, he just buckled me in and we left.

Mom says she did stand up to him one time, though. When taking us to get fast food or a movie theater, Sonny would buy us kids the largest pop the place sold. A five-year-old’s fantasy, getting my hands on “The 36 Ounce Big Gulp”.

Mom said after one such time, Sonny brought me home early. He had, in fact, left in the middle of the movie.

He burst through the front door, his truck still running in the driveway. He was holding me under the arm pits, his arms extended as far as they could reach, and his face showing frustration.

“He’s peed his boots full!” Uncle Sonny barked.

“Well, Sonny! What did you expect?…Giving a five-year-old that much pop?” she snapped back.

If I know Sonny, he probably liked her going back at him like that. With him, he respected that type of thing. Although I’m sure he continued spoiling us with the big sodas. He loved kids and was always spending time and money on us.

With a chicken head and neck still in his right hand, my hand in his left, he chuckled.

Sonny said “Well alright then.” and went off to kill another chicken. He and Bryan beheaded two each.

I rode home in the back of the pick up truck…with the headless chickens.  They weren’t in bags, just clumped into one corner of the truck bed. I was on the opposite, trying to squish as much of myself into that corner as I could.

To this day, I’m not sure why I rode in the back. I don’t recall asking, and can’t imagine I would have wanted to as scared as I was of those headless birds. Maybe I wanted to prove something? Maybe I was just a boy who liked riding in the back of a pick-up truck more than I was scared of those birds.

The memory of that day has lived with me ever since. I’ve even had nightmares here and there over the years about that day.

At the early age of six, the experience gave me two great things though:

An appreciation for store bought chicken

…and also, the power of a simple “No.”

My Uncle Sonny, last year at age 82.

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