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Mutt and Jeff and me.

Recently, the Royal Oak City Commission was asked to review the ordinance regarding raising chickens within the city limits. That got me to thinking about when I was growing up. A lot of people were still keeping chickens in their backyards then, including me.

In the 1930s and '40s, you could go down to the Kresge dimestore in Royal Oak and buy live chicks during the Easter season. Not only that, they colored the chicks like Easter eggs, in shades of yellow, pink, and light blue. They really did.

The year that I was 13, I decided I had to have a couple of them, so I walked to the store and looked over the box of chirping peeps. After careful study, I made my choice. I bought two, so they could keep each other company, and they were both yellow. For some reason, though, one was tall and thin and the other was short and fat--just like the characters in a popular comic strip of the time. That inspired me to name my chicks Mutt and Jeff. They were always getting into trouble, just like their namesakes.

One complaint I got about them came from a neighbor who claimed they'd harassed his dog. The man didn't make too much of a fuss over it; I think he was embarrassed to admit that two chickens could chase his bulldog back to his house and up on his porch.

When they were very small, I kept Mutt and Jeff in a coop that I had built for them. But when they got older, I'd let them out and hope that they'd stay in the backyard. Naturally, this didn't work. The good thing was that all of our neighbors knew the chickens were mine, and so they left them alone. Thankfully, the neighbors' pets did, too.

It got to be a routine. I would let the chickens out in the afternoon to roam the neighborhood, but they'd always come home for supper. By 5:30 p.m., they would be pecking and scratching up the driveway that led to our backyard. This went on most of the summer. As they grew, so did my notoriety. I became known as the neighborhood "farm boy."

One day, my mother planned a trip downtown. She didn't drive then, but going into town was no problem; you just walked east up Fourth Street a few blocks to the corner at Washington Avenue and you were there. Montgomery Ward took up the whole block on the avenue. Across from Ward's, looking north, was the Royal Oak Theater. Near the theater was one of my favorite stores: Sanders Ice Cream. Next to Sanders were some other shops that catered to women.

As my mom got ready for her trip downtown, she dressed up. I thought she looked pretty classy in her fur scarf and high heels.

Somewhere between our home and downtown, Mutt and Jeff spotted her and like a couple of dogs--started to follow her. They had never done this before, but probably figured that it would be alright to go with someone they knew. Unfortunately for them, Mom felt just the opposite.

Now, you can confront a dog, and they will usually turn and run away. So my mother tried this tactic with Mutt and Jeff. It didn't work. After about three blocks of trying to shoo them, she formed the distinct impression that they thought this was fun. They left her with no choice but to return home without completing her trip. She didn't want to be in the middle of town and have people ask, "Where did those chickens come from?"

When I got home from school later that day, I got the word: The chickens would have to go.

Old Man Bytes lived behind us. He had been raised on a farm and knew how to take care of chickens. I was curious to see what he had in mind.

Then the chopping block was brought out. I don't know why, but I felt the need to watch what came next.

When I was called to dinner that night, chicken was on the menu. I asked to be excused from the table, and ate a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich instead.

I knew Mutt and Jeff wouldn't live to be a ripe old age, but I still felt sad. In a small way, I felt like any farm kid who knows that this is what happens to farm animals. It's a part of life.

A few months later, we went to the dog pound and brought home a nice spaniel mix that I named Chum. Chum wasn't afraid of anything. But that's a different story.

Tom Wurdock, a retired language arts teacher, was born and raised in Royal Oak and still resides there. He is also a past president of the Royal Oak Historical Society.
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Title Annotation:remember the time
Author:Wurdock, Tom
Publication:Michigan History Magazine
Geographic Code:1U3MI
Date:Mar 1, 2012
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