Way, way off across the valley, across the burgeoning Ohio heartland, the green bosom of America, the rising grain where cloud shadows walk and the skeletons of Tecumseh's warriors slumber, they could see something coming.
Thousands of good Americans leaned forward from pcinic blankets and grandstand seats. From the hill that bears the barns and homestead of the Bob Evans Farm, they scoured the distance with their eyes.
"Well, this is it," said Gene Herman, commander of the 13-member Takoma Park, Md., Chicken Flying Squadron, which had driven for two days to be here in Rio (rhymes with Ohio) Grande for this 10th annual International Chicken Flying Meet. They had brought two chickens, a tiny leather flying helmet torn from the head of a Snoopy doll and a tape recording of "The Ride of the Valkyries," to be played as Spirit of Takoma and Enola Gay went after the world's record of 302 feet, 8 inches, held by Lola B., Point Pleasant, W.Va.
And now they were here, watching the crowd walk past with their CAT diesel power hats, their "Hogs Are Beautiful" and Mel Tillis "Stutterin' Power" T-shirts and their "Smokey Joe" Bob Evans sausage sandwiches; studying the awe in their eyes from visiting the Coop of Fame where Lola B. nested next to the actual traveling coop that had brought her here for the record flight in 1979; and scrutinizing the chickens, with names such as Cluck Rogers, Black Stallion, Blue Licket Special, Kamikaze (two of them) and Mad Dog.
This was it.
Just now, the Takoma Squadron kept their eyes aimed across the valley for whatever it was that the man kept shouting about over the loudspeakers. They could see it moving, but it was no bigger than a sugar ant, the kind that never takes more than about a minute to show up after you spill a soda on the floor.
Then it began to grow. Not only grow but glow. A light came from it, a light not overwhelmed even by the beautiful clear crash of May sunlight through the little clouds.
It was a runner in a chicken suit, was what it was, and he was carrying a torch all the way from the junction of Shelterhouse Road and Granny's Creek to give it to Bob Evans himself, the sausage-and-restaurant-chain Bob Evans, who said into a microphone: "With this torch I hereby begin the 1981 Chicken Flying Games." He lit a gas flame. Out in back of the farmhouse known as "The Homestead," where the Takoma Squadron was now assembled along with most of the other owners and trainers of the entrants, the drums of the Gallipolis, Ohio, High School Band erupted, and the medieval bugles of the Pixy Trumpeteers sounded a fanfare.
The Parade of Chickens was under way.
The owners walked, the chickens rode in their coops and the photographers and TV people ran backwards along with them to record it all for posterity.They circled the flying field, which was marked out with yard markers, like a golf driving range. They stood facing the official flying platform, which bore the launch modules, which is to say two mailboxes, open at both ends, and 10 feet above the ground. Between them, the silvered statue of a chicken glittered in the sunlight. More glory has seldom been known by either man or chicken.
The Takoma Squadron retired to the shade of a big tree by the Homestead to watch, wait and let the crowd admire their gold and scarlet squadron T-shirts. This was it.
For weeks, Herman and the rest of the team had been fending off the anguished doubts of Takoma Park friends and neighbors regarding everything from the aerodynamic properties of chickens to the sanity of the team. The head-shaking had persisted even after their city councilman, David Weisman, interrupted a city budget meeting to get a resolution passed making Spirit of Takoma the official town entry and giving "said chicken" permission to march in the Fourth of July parade.
"I was down at the library and this woman started yelling at me that they'd been trying to get their book budget increased, and the next thing she knew, they were talking about chickens," said Sharon Werth.
As to the rationality of driving all the way to Ohio for such a thing, various team members had various explanations, such as "Because it's the internationals," or "To get to the other side." Esther Herman, wife of the commander, explained that she'd grown up on a chicken farm in California, and she loved chickens. "We used to eat chicken feet," she boasted. "My mother would take the feet, cut off the nails, put them in a pot and pour boiling water on them. Then you peel the skin off and put them in with the chicken soup. After they were cooked, she'd fish them out and we'd walk around chewing on them like lollipops."
"But no cavities," said Gene, a Public Health Service officer.
Anyhow, the Hermans, along with the Werths and the Allens, had spent all day Friday in a van and a VW bug, driving through the highest mountains and dankest May weather that West Virginia's Route 50 has to offer. Even when Nicholas Allen, eight months old, threw up on Alisa Herman, 20, just past Leesburg, morale stayed high, with everyone yelling out all the best signs along the road: "Berryville Moose Lodge! The Dew Drop Inn! Joan of Art Studio! Quilts 4 Sale! Mail Pouch Chewing Tobacco!" At the Exxon station in Romney, W.Va. there was an omen: The sun came out with the rain still pouring down, and when the team opened the back of the van to check on the chickens they found a new-laid egg. But then further down the road was a dead chicken, lying with talons groping for heaven. This was seen as a bad omen.
The team had stopped for the night at the house of friends, and then made the final assault Saturday morning. A tough silence had come over them as they crossed the Ohio River, the kind of silence that should have been accompanied by a harmonica playing "Shenandoah," like in the paratrooper movies just before they jump. The target area was the hillside of barns that is Bob Evans Farms, a major tourist attraction that features exhibits of farm lore and techniques and puts out a pamphlet that says: "America's hard-working heritage starts here."
This was it. There were over 2,000 spectators; there were 261 chickens. The Takoma Squadron had fliers Nos. 194 and 200. The waiting was the hardest part. Taking the Plunge
The first flier of the day was named Black Jack, one of at least two entrants by that name. Dr. Glyde Marsh, of the Ohio State University poultry science department, officiated. The owner brought Black Jack to the platform. Dr. Marsh, in apron and wool hat surmounted by a knitted chicken, leaned down from a stepladder to take it. He eased it into the mailbox. His 10 years' experience told him that Black Jack wasn't about to fly. He reached down for one of the two toilet plungers he had on the platform and nudged Black Jack into the air. For all the owner might have had visions inspired by those slow-motion nature movies of eagle wings flexing against the Sierra skies, the chicken, in flight, looked like most chickens in flight: like the loser in a pillow fight trying to catch a subway. cDown on the ground was a crowd of small boys honored with the duty of catching the contestants in big nets.
"That's a legal flight," said Marsh. The crowd cheered. An illegal flight is one that winds up behind the platform, or in the crowd, in a tree, on the phone wires or on one of the barns. All have happened. Black Jack, however, appeared to get out eight or 10 feet.
Earlier, Marsh had explained to three members of the Takoma Squadron that "the chicken is actually a ground bird. In the skeleton, the legs are just as well developed as the wings. But they'll amaze you with how they can fly. They're like pheasants. Pheasants only fly when they're frightened."
Frightened? Is that what good Americans are doing out on this May Saturday -- frightening chickens?
"No," soothed Marsh. "Chickens sometimes fly out of sheer play. It's the bantams that do the best. They seem to have retained more of the flight characteristics of the ancestors of our chicken. But we always get a few great big ones. People hope the bigger the better. They aren't. But the worst are the gamecocks. Some people have tried them, but they just go right to the ground to establish and defend their turf. Roosters in general will do that. You watch, that hen of yours will outfly the rooster."
The squadron had a bantam, Spirit of Takoma, but he was a rooster. Enola Gay was a hen, but she was part gamecock. Takoma hoped for hybrid vigor. And meanness. Nice chickens finish last, that was the theory. A Fowl Goes Afoul
Meanwhile, Bob Evans meandered through the crowd. He looked like a man to be reckoned with. He wore a string tie, bifocals and a white Resistol straw hat tilted to one side.
"We started this 10 years ago for the kids. I guess we got 50 to 100 people showing up. After you get started on something like this, you can't quit," he said.
The conversation was interrupted by a boy approximately three feet tall and wearing a coonskin hat and a "Hogs Are Beautiful" T-shirt. After shaking his hand, Evans continued telling an adult visitor that no, there had never been any complaints from the Humane Society. "Chickens like to fly. When I was a kid we used to throw 'em off the hay mow. Those doggone chickens can fly anywhere. That fella up there on the stand, Dr. Marsh, is from the state university. We make sure people teat 'em right."
Down in the on-deck area, Sherwood Costen, owner of the record-holding Lola B. (302 feet, 8 inches), fussed and scoled over six bantam entries. At first he denied using special training methods. But he was asked: What about those stories that he kept Lola B. in isolation so that she'd be as wild as the ancestral chicken herself?
"Well, yes," he said. "I didn't do that with these, though. These hens were setting. I took this one here off six eggs this morning.When they set, they lose weight because they won't leave the eggs long enough to eat very much."
And no doubt they were fired up emotionally by this rude interruption of their brooding. In one of the most thrilling flights of the day, his Jamie K., tipping the Toledos at a tidy 12 ounces, lit out of the mailbox like she was heading for Kentucky. Then came the awfullest bend in her trajectory and she arced back past the barn and over the fence into the crowd, where people leapt up to catch her as if she were a foul ball hit into the stands. "Illegal flight," ruled Marsh. Then the announcer called No. 81. This was a moment the crowd had been waiting for. No. 81 was Lola B. Had she gone smug, from sitting over there in the Coop of Fame?
The crowd never found out.
"I won't fly her unless somebody breaks her record," said Costen, who had already watched diaster greet other entries. (He lost two of them, but got a third in the featherweight division).
Moments later came the amazing flight of No. 88, one Ten Dollar Bill, who weighed in at 12 pounds, 2 ounces -- so heavy that the official couldn't fit him in the scale and had to string him up by his feet.
"I traveled the farthest and brought the fattest," said Rocco Rosi, 22, of New Stanton, Pa. "Look at the legs on this chicken. It's got legs like a dog on it," Rossi, with headband and Harley Davidson belt buckle, said he hadn't bought his chicken; he'd more or less leased it.
"The guy was asking $15 for her. I talked him down to where I gave him $5 with another $5 for an option to buy, and if I wanted to eat her, he'd dress her out for free. I'm going to forfeit the other $5 and bring her back next year, even fatter."
He'd driven all night in the "Whoopee Wagon" of Norm Slutzker, who's a contractor who sometimes employs Rossi.
Said Slutzker: "Rocco is full of life, adventure and a beautiful enjoyment of anything out of the ordinary. He's my demolition specialist. I had to demolish three walls the other day in a shopping center. I just turned him loose for about two hours."
It was all Dr. Marsh could do to stuff Ten Dollar Bill into the mailbox. The closest he came to flight was a peculiar corkscrewing motion as he plummeted. Some claimed you could hear him hit the ground, eight feet, 10 inches out from the mailbox.
The fly-offs were interrupted just then for the San Diego Chicken, of television fame, who had arrived on a helicopter and was being inducted into the Chicken Hall of Fame. After the induction, in which he was knighted with a toilet plunger, The Chicken was asked if it wasn't hot inside that suit.
"If you can't take the heat, stay out of the chicken," said the man inside, whose name is Ted Giannoulas. He said he was also at the meet "to promote the consumption of chicken. If you can't beat 'em, eat 'em. The Spirit Moves
Back at the Takoma Squadron flight control headquarters, under the big tree by the Homestead, the chickens were pecking at an apple and stepping in their water. Spirit of Takoma began making odd gurgling noises, which prompted Fred Werth, a plumber, to bend down and listen for obstructions. But ready or not, it was flight time. Fred stepped gravely down to the platform with Spirit just as the theme music hit the loudspeakers, the French horns of "The Ride of the Valkyries" barking out the berserker triumph you might have heard the last time as the soundtrack for the helicopter attack in "Apocalypse Now."
"It was a great moment," Werth would say later. "It exceeded all of my expectations."
Over the music, the announcer told the crowd: "This is the official mascot of Takoma Park, Maryland, and it will march in the Fourth of July parade."
Spirit stepped gingerly (do chickens walk any other way?) onto the lowered mailbox door and surveyed the big Ohio Valley sky spreading out like freedom itself in front of him. The squadron was cheering, the French horns howling. Dr. Marsh gave him a nudge with the toilet plunger. Spirit hung for a lifetime in front of that mailbox, and the squadron liked to recdon that it took a force no less primal than gravity itself to bring Spirit to earth at 9 feet, 8 inches, less than a foot farther than the monstrous Ten Dollar Bill.
"What can I say?" said the announcer, as they shut down the theme music.
Enola Gay fulfilled Marsh's prediction, reaching 19 feet, 9 inches.
The overall winner, at 134 feet, 2 inches, was one Debbie Stuart, a 21-ounce featherweight trained by Bob Knox, 21, of Parkesburg, Pa.
"Today is the first time I've ever done this. It's also the day I'm supposed to be graduating from Eastern College. I told them I couldn't make it, I was going on a job interview."
Various philoscopic analyses have been made to explain the urge to fly chickens -- that it's the American version of the myth of Sisyphus in its existential hopelessness, all meaning being in the doing of it, for instance. But it was probably Irma Price, of Tiffin, Ohio, a member of the Rock House Squadron, who summed it up best. She was attending for the fourth year, with her husband, Howard, a retired welder and farmer. She'd won a third place in the medium-weight division and, parenthetically, had once owned chickens who laid colored eggs.
"I had avocado, blue gray, chocolate and orange eggs, but then some dogs got in and ate all but the blue and gray chickens." She had a blue egg with her to prove it. She had a hat covered with eggs and feathers. And unlike a lot of the people there, such as the Takoma Park Squadron, she could say precisely why she was there: "When you get too old for the pig scramble, there's not too much to do."