A phone call at 5:30 a.m. at our house is either from the East Coast (3 hours ahead) or someone needs help. At the first sound of Bernice’s voice, I knew Walt was in trouble. They were at the ER, Walt, 91, awoke that morning with chest pain.
It took me an hour to get to the hospital after Bernice’s call. Walt was in pretty good spirits when I arrived.
As per the usual routine, our conversations the next few days covered many topics. As Walt shared his favorite grilling recipes we segued to homegrown meat chickens. I told Walt we’d have to get together and grill some fresh chicken from our spring chicken harvest.
The day before, we butchered our first batch of meat birds for this season. We hang our chickens by the feet. The birds are calm in this position. While grabbing the head in one hand we quickly severe it with one slice of a sharp knife with the other hand. The bodies thrash a bit, but it’s a quick, clean death for the chickens. Sometimes though, the headless bird bodies thrash a lot and dislocate wings or legs. Meat birds are fragile that way. Those birds get parted out rather than freezing whole. This method also tends to fling a fare bit of blood about, leaving the butcher looking like a scene from a B grade hack and slash movie.
After sharing this with Walt, he shared a tip. When a person lives over 90 years, they accumulate a lot of life experience.
When Walt was a boy, his folks raised meat birds to supply local restaurants. They harvested over a thousand chickens in a season. This year we raised 32, a paltry poultry number by comparison. Walt’s job was to dispatch the birds. Like our method, he also hung the birds by their feet. Then he poked the knife through the open beak to the back of the throat to slit the jugular vein. He explained, “They calmly bleed out without the thrashing.” I made a mental note to remember this for our next round of chicken harvesting.
This last weekend, we harvested two batches. Starting out, I dispatched the first couple of birds like I had in the past with a quick slice to remove their heads. Then I decided to give Walt’s technique a try. It was a little awkward at first, but then both Tim and I got the hang of it. It certainly was a calmer method of dispatch, and much easier on the meat.
Walt would have been proud of us successfully using his tip. He also shared how to capon a rooster…but we haven’t tried that yet.
Walt was always happy to share information to make others’ lives easier. His tidbits of fatherly wisdom usually came in the form of “Just one more thing…”
Our last words in the days that followed were the familial, “I love you.” Our last moments were while Bernice and I prayed with him as he passed.
His stories, “Just one more thing…” will always hold a special place in my heart. And many, like this one last thing, have become a part of my life experience.
Walt was laid to rest at the Northern California Veteran’s Cemetery yesterday.
May we all be as loved as Walt was, and may we all love as Walt did in his lifetime.
Walter Ernest Matthews
March 5, 1924 to
May 16, 2015.