By Linda White-Francis, Florida
When the behemoth Pasco County truck pulled away, I turned to my husband in tears, not knowing whether to be happy or sad because the debris had lain at the curb for 40 days! “There goes life as we knew it,” I cried, watching nearly all of our once lovely furnishings now rotted and moldy reduced to mulch.
What happened to us and our pets on that fateful day, I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, but like the saying goes: “It is what it is,” which for sanity’s sake, I have made my new motto.
On June 24, 2012, life as we knew it took a bath in the waters of tropical storm “Debby”; before that time, my husband and I were living an idyllic kind of life and one of the biggest reasons why — recently we had discovered the joys of keeping urban chickens. To me, it was a calm and interesting way to spend part of my day down here on the sunny Gulf Coast of Florida. Chickens seem to thrive here. The weather is mild in the winter, no frozen water troughs to worry over or days of confining chickens to an artificially heated coop. Florida summers for chickens (not humans) are remarkably bearable as long as there is shade for them to retreat, lots of cool, clean water to drink, and safe dry lodgings at night to snooze. We had it all, and everything was just ducky!
In theory, I guess one would call my husband and me retired, but I had no intentions of living the easy life. I had a lot of energy and craved more ways to fulfill my life. I wasn’t a big TV-aholic, and these days, reading all the bestsellers was not on my agenda. As usual, I would work those in later in the wee hours when everything else was done. My plan had always been to remain as vital and physically active for as long as possible. And, that meant I had to maintain a confident amount of enjoyable exercise without spending hours in the gym. Happily, for the last year, I thought I had found the magic formula for staying fit.
I found tending chickens and all that entails was chasing all the little aches and pains away — in a fun way instead of boringly running the treadmill like a hamster, and lifting heavy weights like a boxer. I was building my muscles subtly by hefting feed bags, cleaning coops, raking barnyard hay; not to mention chasing chickens down for all the little things one must attend to, trying to keep chickens healthy: such as mite dusting, worming, wing clipping, bathing and nail cutting. Some may call that the hard way to stay in shape, but I call it a more productive way of paring down the waistline with a twofold payoff: health and entertainment. I was feeling rejuvenated and healthier than ever, and with a brand new burst of curiosity, I was really getting into the chicken thing.
I remember telling a good friend of mine a few days before my happy face turned into a frowny scowl, “You know, Bev, I am pretty happy with my life right now,” and she agreed, since I had become the poultry princess of the neighborhood, I sure seemed more content. Her comical statement got me thinking how blessed I was feeling to be living “the dream.” I was having more fun — that was evident.
To think we still had our neat little house where we had lived for almost 39 years; the place our four children had grown up, and now the grandchildren frolicked in the same backyard their parents once played, except the backyard was a lot different now. The swing set was gone, the redwood picnic table was broken down and made into a deck for the chickens to eat on, and the old rusty shed was scrapped to make room for a snazzy looking chicken yard. When I found two new roomy chicken coops for $99 each, I almost did a cartwheel. And four bright striped beach umbrellas I bought at CVS drugstore were less than $20 each.
All these great looking accoutrements replaced everything in the yard I didn’t need anymore. A bright picket fence separating the large layer hens from the bantam Silkies — topped it all off. The once lush green grass we grumble over mowing a short year ago was now spotty bald patches of greenery desperately striving to survive. Hay was slowly replacing the grass.
It was beautiful in its own way, and there is no way to describe the joy in the morning when I opened the coops and the barnyard came alive. Many things had changed since I had became interested in chickens, including me. The chickens were always on my mind. I didn’t know chickens could be so interesting, or so many different breeds existed. I devoured and digested everything I could find on the care and feeding of our feathered friends which amounted to five Silkie hens, two Easter-egger hens; two Rhode Island Reds hens; one Japanese O Shamo hen, which I had traded for a pesky Silkie rooster; and lastly, 23 Silkie chicks. I was absolutely absorbed and wide-eyed awestruck over chickens, especially since I had decided to raise chicks and sell them. I was having a great time watching the whole natural hatching process unravel. It was an exciting time. I was feeling good about my little backyard microcosm and the fact I had already sold 12 chicks. Little did I know how quickly my little world was about to change.
One of the last things I remember seeing on that ominous Sunday eve was the pathetic sight of my scared chickens ferrying down our street on a raft in waist-high water. They looked like drown rats with feathers. It was still raining, and like the rest of us they were dripping wet. I was grateful they were safe: my sons and grandsons saw to that, and a kind neighbor boy who offered his rubber raft to get all the chickens to higher ground which ended up being my son Matt’s pickup truck a block away.
Sloshing along on the arm of Oscar, my son-in-law, who kept reassuring me everything was going to be alright; I worried about the four newly hatched chicks in the nursery aquarium (no pun intended). I found them when I reached the truck sitting on the front seat of the cab all cold and damp. Heartbreaking to witness, the four frightened little bitties were huddled tight in a corner for warmth and security. I felt the same way. I wanted to go back home and find my own corner, but I would need thigh-high waders to enter my own house.
The rest of the caged chicks and chickens landed in the truck’s flatbed — ready for transport to Matt’s house; another backyard poultry enthusiast. I didn’t know it then, but it would be the last time I would see any of the baby chicks. It was decided that night the babies would go to a feed store in Tampa to be sold. My son would look after the hens until it was safe to go back home, but keeping the chicks would be a huge job for him and his wife to undertake. I was heartbroken when I found out, and it haunts me to this day, but it was the only solution in those uncertain days.
Basically, we were all homeless, and it looked like my husband and our five tiny Yorkies, would be staying at our children’s homes indefinitely. It is never easy living with anyone, not even your grown children when you have five dogs coming along for the ride, but they were all truly wonderful to us and tolerated our dogs very well. The moving around, house to house was exhausting, but under the circumstances, surprisingly we had some good times.
One thing for sure, this ugly flash flood had seemingly ruined my life! I was a mess inside, just like my house. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy getting that filthy place back in order. The house was so bad-off our precious children wouldn’t let us be there as they worked feverishly sanitizing floors, walls, and drying the place out with these (expensive) huge fans. It was constant insurmountable work!
Anxious to do my part, and the fact our children would have to go back to their jobs soon, I finally visited the house. It was nowhere near ready for us to live there. In fact, our kids were urging us to abandon the place for good like so many were doing. Although devastated by what I saw, that was not an option for us, and what would I do with my chickens?
I decided to tackle the many jobs that lay ahead to make the house livable. A few days later on July 5 with one clean room to live in, we moved back — regardless of the mess. I was actually relieved to be home, but witnessing the complete devastation of my entire house was extremely depressing for months to come. How we did it is beyond me!
The day the chickens came back they seemed ecstatic and picked up just where they left off – even though their coops were lopsided in the mud and the next day their eggs had rolled downhill against a thick crusty wall. The cute, red picket fence had buckled, and the yard was an uneven mass of crud and mudslides. The umbrellas were inside out and had ripped during the storm. Eventually we would take a tire jack and hoist up the coops’ sides with a tire jack and slide a couple pavers underneath the legs, but it would be weeks. The rest of the yard, fence and umbrellas stayed that way for a long, long time.
Quizzically, I was taking note of how unconcerned the chickens were of their fate. They seemed the sanest part of this equation. Perhaps I could learn a thing or two from these amazing critters, if I could only go with the flow. It took a while, but as the days marched on, I did notice the time I spent in the barnyard was making a difference in my demeanor. Watching my blissful ladies deal with their hardships was helping me deal with mine.
It’s been a long muddy, stinky road to hoe, but things finally got back to normal, but not the same; nothing is ever quite the same after a flood. It is said that time heals all wounds, and what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger and I can vouch for both of those old adages. I like to think that my husband Jim, and I, our children, older grandchildren, friends, and a few good handymen have worked miracles on our home. I owe each a debt of gratitude for all their help and love, but I must give my chickens then (there are many more now): Madison, Maize, Blondie, Paisley, Saki, Fifi, Annabel, Coco, Penny, and Trudy, most of the credit for keeping my spirits up during the dark days of despair. Their incredible wisdom and serenity soothed a very painful, tumultuous life.
And yes, finally this past spring I was brave enough to let our Silkie and Serama hens give us some darling chicks to sell.