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from the July 2015 issue

In Praise of an American Egg Wholesaler

May 6, 1946, thirty miles east of Dayton, Ohio, at an altitude of six thousand feet, in an old C-54 transport plane. John Conkey, six feet four inches and still completely pale after the fudged takeoff, unbuckles himself and wriggles forward through the gutted interior of the aircraft to Ray Melanchthon Petersime, who is sitting in one of the two remaining rows of seats and watching as a backwater called South Solon emerges beneath him, a heap of houses dumped between sodden fields by the Almighty in a moment of carelessness, preceded by a postal depot cobbled together by God knows who at the edge of some tilled acreage and which . . .

“Mr. Petersime?”

. . .

“Mr. Petersime, sir?”

“Yes.”

“We can get started with the interview now. If it’s all right with you, that is.”

“Interview?”

“For the Hatchery Tribune.

“Solon was also a tribune.”

“Uh, how so?”

“Have you ever seen chickens roosting on a tribune, John?”

“You know, I could try later . . . ”

“No, no, have a seat. Come sit by me and take my mind off things a little.”

“Thank you, Mr. Petersime.”

“Ray, call me Ray.”

“Of course Mr. Petersime. Ray.”

“Well, have at.”

“First I should let you know that the Hatchery Tribune isn’t the only poultry-farming trade magazine I write for. I mean, American eggs don’t fly to Poland every day.”

“At least not in this form, John.”

“Mr. Petersime?”

“Ray.”

“So, what I was meaning to say is that a piece will also appear in American Poultry Journal, and the Poultry Tribune has reserved two pages in its Midwest edition.”

“And you’re the goose who lays the golden eggs with a typewriter.”

“You could say that.”

“Well, then let’s get started.”

“Before we begin, I’d like to, I mean, just for my files . . .”

“I’m listening.”

“Ray Melanchthon Petersime, born April 6, 1899, in Darke, Ohio.”

“Absolutely correct.”

“Son of Ira Melanchthon Petersime, who developed the first electrically heated incubator in 1922.”

“A true marvel of American engineering.”

“You yourself are the inventor of a poultry incubator with multiple patents.”

“You said it!”

“And the owner of the Petersime Incubator Company in Gettysburg.”

“Unfortunately not the Gettysburg where we had the Confederates by the heuvos. In the war whose three great generals all came from Ohio. Ulysses S. Grant”raising his voice“Philip Sheridan, and”standing up“William Tecumseh Sherman.”

“Do you happen to know the patent numbers?”

“Of the generals?”

“For your incubators.”

“Oh, of course: 1884843, 1918125, 2248296, and, hold on—“

“Thank you, that’s good enough, one for each article. I mean, then it will look like, as if . . .well, you know . . .”

“. . . as if the goose that lays the golden eggs had three typewriters?”

“As it were.”

“Good. Where were we?”

“Your eggs, Mr. Petersime.”

“John!”

“Please forgive me.”

“Ray.”

“I mean, we wanted to talk about Poland, and the fact that you’ve chartered this plane to bring 55,800 eggs to Warsaw to stimulate Polish poultry production.”

Now the moment has come for the pilot to turn to Mr. Petersime.

“Sir, we’ll be landing in a few minutes in Newark, if you could take a seat and fasten your seatbelt.”

“Newark?!” The word tumbles from John Conkeys mouth in unpremeditated wonder, after which he turns in disbelief, seeking an explanation, to Mr. Petersime, who is looking not at him but at the pilot.

“Thank you, Jakem.”

And then quietly, very quietly, to John Conkey:

“We got him from the Air Force. We should do what he says.”

 

 

 

Just after takeoff from Newark, somewhere over the western Atlantic, at 8,000 feet.

“Mr. Petersime.”

“Ray.”

“You’d said that the idea about the eggs came to you when you saw fifteen hundred head of American cattle boarding a ship for Europe.”

“It was many ships, John. And to be honest, it all started with Ben Bushong’s bulls. On May 14 of last year, they boarded a ship in St. John’s and sailed to Greece.”

“Greece?”

“Athens, to be precise.”

“And the ship?”

“The M.S. Boolongena, John.”

“I’m not sure if I can write Ben Bushongs bulls board the Boolongena, Mr. Petersime. Ray.”

“I understand. Too much B-grade material, right?”

“You said it!”

“Well, then you just write that the idea with the eggs came to me on September 6, 1945, when I saw a hundred and fifty heifers on board the S. S. Zona Gale leaving the harbor of Baltimore.”

“Heifers, sir?”

“Cows that haven’t calved yet.”

“Oh, right, of course.”

“The craft conveyed the cows to Caledonia, accompanied by the cowboys of the sea. They were the first of their kind, John. Men who had just gotten their social security numbers at the Boston harbor and were now haunting about on the open water, pressing their leathery faces into the warm sides of the cows.”

“Ray?”

“John?”

“Didn’t the cowboys get seasick?”

“They were all seasick, John, every last one of them . . .”

“And what became of them?”

“Pacifists. Every one of them became a damned pacifist!” This of course comes from Jakem. “And now buckle up again, we’re about to dig our landing gear into the very last bit of concrete in all of Newfoundland . . .”

 

 

Over the Atlantic at 12,000 feet, flying southeast.

“Mr. Petersime.”

“Ray.”

“I’d like to return to the starting point of your journey.”

“Transporting the cows?”

“Actually I was thinking of how you collected the eggs. Fifty-five thousand eight hundred, you said.”

“Absolutely correct, John. Fifty-five thousand eight hundred eggs laid by certified hens and approved by no-less certified experts.”

“What kind?”

“White Leghorns and Rhode Island Reds.”

“Two exceedingly robust breeds.”

“Absolutely, and that’s why they’re perfectly suited for Poland. After all, the external conditions there aren’t the best at the moment as far as the husbandry and breeding of chickens goes.”

“You’re telling me.”

“And I’ll tell you another thing, John. The chickens that disembark from our American eggs know that they have to scrape out their own existence in Poland from the very first minute. As soon as they break the shell that currently protects them, nothing will be as it once was.”

“Beautifully put, Mr. Petersime, Ray. May I quote you on that?”

“Of course, John. But don’t forget to add that the first American chickens set foot on Polish soil on May 7, 1946.”

“But why? I mean…”

“Listen, John, the thing is: as far as I know, Don Turnbull, president of the International Baby Chick Association, is also planning a Polish egg transport.”

“You don’t say?!”

“You’d better believe it! Supposedly Turnbull wants to fly out  fifty-six thousand eggs and personally present them to the Polish minister of agriculture.”

“That’s two hundred more eggs than we have on board!”

“Right. But the aircraft that the IBCA chartered won’t be ready for takeoff until May 18, which is why we’ll be the first to bring eggs to Poland—on May 7. Less than a year after the official end of hostilities.”

“I see, Mr. Petersime.”

“Ray.”

“If you want, you can tell me about the political dimension of your journey.”

“Oh I don’t know much about politics, John. For politics, you’d be best off asking”loudly“Mr. Quibble!”

A hatch opens at their feet and a smooth-shaven pate thrusts up from the bowels of the aircraft, rising to the level of Mr. Petersimes knee.

“Mr. Quibble negotiated permission to land from the Russians.”

“But”—John, confused“I thought we were flying to Poland.”

“And you see, that’s just why,” Quibble speaks, looking insistently at John Conkey and beginning to lecture. “European geography is an amalgamation of imponderables, a lake in which everyone throws their stones, claiming that the ripples mark their empire. And it doesn’t matter if they’re throwing from the shore or dropping their stones from the sky. Sometimes they even skip them up out of the deep.”

“You mean . . .”

“I mean you need a good lawyer if you want to cross the big pond, Mr. Cockney.”

“Conkey.”

“You never know who the land you’re setting foot on belongs to at the moment.”

Pleased that Mr. Quibble has appeared before him and cleared up this politics business, Mr. Petersime interrupts the dialogue and turns to John.

“Mr. Quibble is a lawyer. In other words, a specialist for quiddities of all kinds.”

“Mr. Petersime!”

“Don’t worry, Quibble, I’m glad to know you’re on my side.”

“Glad to hear it, Mr. Petersime.”

“Ray. But in any case, tell our young friend a little about the political dimension of our journey.”

“Let’s just say that the UNRRA organized the whole thing, and the BSC helped to make sure that everything took its proper course. I mean, the boys were there for the Minnesota Starvation Experiment, and they know what they’re getting into.”

“Ahem, Mr. Quibble, if you could . . .”

“Listen, Cockney, I don’t have much time. We have our hands full down there.”

“Problem, Quibble?”

“You could say so, Mr. Petersime. We were just trying to stuff a few chickens back in their eggs. Apparently they think they’re already in Poland. Professor Jull is completely stumped. He said he’d never seen such a thing.”

“This Jull should come topside.”

“He should stay down there, if he’s such a chicken. We’re all going down anyway.”

 Jakem, of course . . .

“Jakem, where are we?”

“About to reach the Azores, sir.”

“And what’s that below?”

“It’s a major American airport, sir.”

“Military holding, Jakem?”

“An air base. The Holy Virgin watches over it personally. There’s no better place for your eggs, far and wide.”

“Then take us down, Jakem.”

“That’s what I’m doing . . . ”

 

 

Just after taking off from the Azores.

“Professor Jull.”

“Yes?”

“Come up here and tell us what’s going on down there.”

Morley A. Jull sticks his head up from the hatch as if it were a trench.

“Gladly, Mr. Petersime.”

And nudging his glasses aright, he turns to John Conkey:

“I take it the young gentleman is aware of my study.”

“Which study?”

“The one about the influence of air pressure and temperature on flying eggs.”

“What?”

“Apparently he hasn’t seen it.”

“Well, then I’ll have to hold forth a bit.”

And nudges his glasses back a second time.

“Two years ago, Dr. Philipps and I conducted a study whose purpose was to find out if the transport of breeding eggs can be accelerated, that is to say, if your garden-variety egg can be sent via air freight. Our findings were of extraordinary interest, but before I share the results of the study with you, I’d like to note that Dr. Philipps and I are employed at the Poultry Science Department at the University of Maryland and that—and you should note this in your article—the study was financed with the support of American Airlines.

Got it? Very good. So, what did we do? Basically it was a simple comparison. But in order to even execute such a thing, you need a point of comparison, a—as they call it in Europe—tertium comparationis.”

“Could you please spell that, Professor Morley?”

“We’re sitting in an American airplane, my young friend.”

“Sure, but we’re flying . . .”

“ . . . with a C-54 from American Airlines. Just like our eggs did two years ago, or half of them anyway, since we left the other half at the Poultry Science Department at the University of Maryland.”

“For the purpose of comparison, I take it.”

“For the purpose of comparison, precisely, and because the Poultry Science Department at the University of Maryland offers ideal storage conditions for this sort of experiment.”

“Sir?”

“One hundred eighty eggs at PSDUM and  one hundred eighty eggs in the air with AA—and now take a guess at what happened?”

“Nothing?”

“Exactly, nothing! Absolutely nothing happened. Fifteen embryos died on the ground and twenty in the air—not a significant difference. And the hatch rate? 88.7 percent for the American Airlines eggs and 91.5 percent for the University of Maryland eggs—not a significant difference. Unfertilized eggs? Three here, three there. Absolutely no difference. Even though the eggs flew through the air for thirty-six hours at an elevation of twelve thousand feet.”

“Just like we are.”

“Yes, just like we are, except that in our case there is a teensy little problem.”

Which provides the cue for the poultry-farming egg-wholesaler to enter the dialogue.

“Problems, Mr. Jull? With the chickens?”

“That’s correct, Mr. Petersime. They’re beginning to hatch from their eggs in significant numbers. I mean, they’re still just chicks but they’re starting to . . . ”

“What are they starting to do, Mr. Jull?”

“To grow . . . ”

“And you don’t know why?”

“Well, I’m worried it has something to do with the time change. With our eggs, we just flew back and forth between Washington and L.A., which means, we only had three hours’ difference, and even then they ended up canceling each other out. Three one way, three in the other, until we were home in Maryland again. But now . . . now we’re getting farther and farther from Maryland.”

“We’re flying to Poland, Mr. Jull.”

“Poland, right. And the chicks are hacking through their shells like Silesian miners.”

“How many are we talking about?”

“A few dozen, but it’s more by the minute. We can count ourselves lucky the eggs are stacked in there so tight. Most of the chicks just peck into another egg when they break their own shell.”

“What does that mean, Mr. Jull?”

“To be honest, I don’t know. Maybe they’re fraternizing in there, and pecking on together, maybe they’re founding communes, colonies, entire cities.”

“In this airplane?”

“I would like to hope not, Mr. Petersime. But the Poles should throw up a couple of chicken-wire fences before we land. Otherwise it could be that their country is overrun by white Leghorns and Rhode Island Reds.”

In response to which, John:

“Mr. Petersime, I’m afraid I’d have to write about it if it happened.”

“It won’t happen, John!”

“But how do you . . . ”

“Who is in command in the cargo space, Mr. Jull?”

“Mr. Martinet, he’s an experienced soldier. He says he held a troop of Germans in check for days in the Ardennes. Alone, with a Quaker gun.”

“A Quaker gun?”

“A tree trunk painted to look like a Howitzer.”

“And the Germans fell for it?”

“And how!” shouts Mr. Martinet from the depths of the airplane, “But you won’t get these damned chicks here back in their eggs with that, so why don’t you get down here, Mosley, and help your comrades with stuffing them back in.”

Morley A. Jull takes a step back.

“Mosley, the whole time he’s been calling me Mosley.”

And opens the hatch and disappears.

“Now let’s hope that they manage it, isn’t that so, John.”

“Shouldn’t we . . . ”

“Help?”

“Yes.”

“Listen, John, the belly of this airplane is full of men who are just waiting for something to do.”

“And I thought we only had eggs on board . . . ”

“Have you ever seen American men without heuvos, John?”

“No, Mr. Petersime . . . Ray . . . I mean, I’ve never . . .”

“Well, if there are no American men without heuvos, why do you think that there are American heuvos without men?”

“And why the hell should American heuvos fly alone to Paris?!”

“Paris, Jakem?”

“You got it, Johnny-Boy. You just make sure your heuvos are securely packaged, ‘cause we’re almost there.”

 

 

On the way from Paris to Warsaw.

“Mr. Petersime.”

“Ray.”

“Is there anything else I should know?”

“Unless you have something else . . . ”

“Well, there was one more thing.”

“Good. Have at.”

“Are you aware of the fact that the A&P supermarket chain has established a Chicken-of-Tomorrow competition with a cash prize of five thousand dollars?”

“Yes.”

“Will you participate?”

“No.”

“But . . .”

“Listen, John”leaning forward, in a suddenly threatening tone“I don’t give a damn about these grocery schmucks”and then, as if he had stored his contempt over the course of decades just for this moment“They can take their five thousand dollars and stick it up the nearest oviduct, those chickenshits!”

At which point Quibbles high-polish pate pops up.

“What Mr. Petersime is trying to say is that, because of his many years of personal experience, he himself knows best how to breed the chicken of tomorrow.”

And, because he wants to avoid any more stupid questions and correspondingly stupid answers, he continues to describe what the animal is like himself. “Down below a pair of magnificently juicy thighs with soft yet firm flesh, pale pink in color, on top of it all a breast that you can carve plate-sized steaks out of, and bones buried deep below in thick layers of flesh.” And then to the egg wholesaler: “A pretty bird for the whole family, right Ray?”

“That it is, Quibble, that it really is. A pretty bird for the whole family . . . ”

And then Quibble snaps back at Conkey with his skin stretched tight over his skull.

“You see, John, the days are long gone when our industry bought up old chickens who were no longer fertile and pumped predigested grains and buttermilk down their gullets by the pound. Their meat just wasn’t good enough. Too dry. At least until Mrs. Steele from Maryland came along. Ask Professor Morley, he can tell you all about it. He’ll tell you that the fryer industry was born in Maryland.”

At which point, he submerges and said Morley A. Jull pokes his head out from the hatch.

“In Maryland—and in a moment of error, John. One day Mrs. Steele’s chickens simply hatched too many chicks. So she slaughtered the little ones and sold them to the local butcher. And what can I say? The people were enraptured and the butcher paid her sixty-two cents per pound, six times what she got for her old chickens. As far as we’re aware, at that moment, the fryer industry was born. But now, John, this magnificent branch of all-American business is expanding immeasurably, which is why we call it the golden age of the fryer industry. After all, we’re in the middle of turning chicks into chickens that taste like chicks, but are bigger than any chickens that came before them. And how do we do that? Well, it’s easy, we increase the animals’ vitamin and mineral rations. Just three years ago, we still needed four and a half pounds of feed to get a pound of pure poultry to your plate. Today—thanks to the University of Maryland and a handful of chicken feed producers whose names I’ll write down for you in a minute—we don’t even need two pounds. And what does that tell us? Exactly, the fryer industry is booming and we’re leading the pack. Today Poland, tomorrow—who knows . . . in America millions of carefully bred hybrid hens are awaiting their deployment, in genetic uniform and unafraid to be stuck on a plane and sent overseas. That’s why, John, you should write down what I tell you: American chicken breasts have brought peace to Europe! American chicken breasts will keep Europe at peace!”

And out.

“Ray.”

“Yes?”

“Thank you.”

“What for.”

“For helping me to finally understand. And for . . . ”

“Petersime, get down here right away! The chickens have surrounded us. We have to negotiate!”

“Damn it!”

“Hold steady boys, we’re about to land!”

That's Jakem, of course, at which point Ray Petersime turns to the cockpit.

“Are you sure, Jakem?”

“Less than three minutes, sir.”

“Fine work, Jakem, really damned fine work!”

“Thank you sir.”

“But say . . . ”

“Sir?”

“What’s that down there?”

“A church.”

“A church?”

“Affirmative, sir.”

“It’s enormous!”

“Correct, sir.”

“The tower is at least a hundred meters tall.”

“At least, sir.”

“But why is such a big church in the middle of a field?”

“That’s no field, sir.”

“Not a field?”

“No, sir.”

“What is it then, Jakem? What?!”

“Warsaw, sir.”

 

"Hymne auf einen amerikanischen Eiergroßhändler" © Francis Nenik. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2015 by Amanda DeMarco. All rights reserved.

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