Photo credit Paul Rausch
LuAnn and her family had moved away from the tiny town ten years ago. She brought them all back to celebrate the most important annual holiday, Annual Chicken Day. She was shocked to notice a new business downtown. It stood out like a sore thumb. LuAnn was horrified when she saw the large sign up 15 feet in the air: “Popeye’s Chicken.” She was reminded of the line from the old Joni Mitchell song, “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot” only she substituted the words Popeye’s Chicken for parking lot. In the windows to the fast food restaurant were posters boasting the best fried chicken in the state.
Oblivious to their new surroundings, the local chickens strutted throughout the parking lot as if it had been there forever. Nests with eggs in them were shaded by the shrubbery surrounding the black paved parking lot. Strangers driving past might have thought, “Wow, that place must serve really fresh chicken! I wonder if they have breakfast sandwiches made with the eggs.”
The town councilmen had tried to keep the business from opening but corporate lawyers used words and referred to documents that council members had never heard before. They were no match for the big city attorneys. On the day of the grand opening nobody showed up but it wasn’t long before the parking lot was filled with cars driving through on their way to the big city ten miles down the road. The locals were curious. The smells emanating from the structure were tempting, but they did not give in. Today the lights were off, the doors were locked and the parking lot empty except for the roosters and hens.
Spirals of red, yellow and orange balloons formed arches that criss-crossed diagonally over the intersection. They were anchored on each end with sand-filled gallon sized Glad Bags covered with red tissue paper and tied up with ribbon like birthday presents. Broadway and Main Street were blocked to vehicular traffic to prevent disruptions to the festivities. Someday there might be a traffic light here but for now the four way STOP signs sufficed.
People walked from all directions toward the stage that was erected under the intersection of the arches. The lawn in front of the First Baptist Church was dotted with people and their picnic baskets. Canisters of iced tea and fresh-squeezed lemonade lay side by side like sleeping lovers on red checkered cotton cloths. Tuna fish, peanut butter and jelly and roast beef sandwiches were waiting to be eaten, but no egg salad or chicken salad.
Twenty one years ago today a new ordinance had been put into effect. “It is decreed that no chickens are to be kept in pens or coops. They shall be allowed to roam freely throughout the town. Anyone caught harming a chicken or egg in any way shall be sentenced to 67 days in jail and a fine of $248.” Chickens and roosters had gained freedom to wander the streets of downtown and mate to their little chicken hearts delight.
The doors to Ace Hardware on the opposite corner of the street were closed in honor of the celebration. No tools, paint or propane—not today. The oak trees outside of Ace provided a lot of shade. It was a favorite nesting place for the chickens. The employees often put on gloves and carefully moved nests and eggs out of the driveway to the safety of the grass around the side of the building but today there was no need.
Suddenly the church bells started ringing. The excitement was generating from the small crowd as the mayor climbed the three steps onto the stage and took the microphone in his hand. As soon as the bells had rung their final tone, the mayor greeted everyone.
“Hello ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls. Welcome to Oviedo’s 21st Annual Chicken Day celebration. As always, Huey Lambert is going to play our theme song on his fiddle. C’mon up here Huey.”
The crowd cheered as they rose to their feet.
“Is everybody ready?” Huey asked. Everybody knew the song. They played it at all the community functions and school dances. Even those with two left feet were not ashamed to participate. And then Huey started fiddling and people started dancing. Everybody knew the chicken dance. First they closed their fingers twice then like chickens clucking, then flapped their elbows twice like wings, then wiggled their tushies to show off their best waddle and clapped two times. And then it all began again. When the song was over everybody yelled, “Woo-hoo, Happy Chicken Day!” and sat down to eat their sandwiches and drink soft drinks as the band took the stage. LuAnn sat with her back to the Popeye’s and hope that her children would remember their first Oviedo Annual Chicken Day.
Excerpts from Leroy Cooper's memoir as told to me during conversations that took place during the 2 years we knew each other. I also write humor, flash fiction, celebrity interviews, real and made up stories--see if you can guess which are which.