Topical Guide 157
Hobbyhorses; Chicken Fanciers
Pride; Tribalism; Resentment of the “Other”
Perhaps it was inevitable that the people in the Heights, stung by the rejection of the Old Babbingtonians, should band together and reject the people who rejected them. That is what they did. They turned against the old clam-based culture and developed a nostalgic affection for chicken farming, for a past and a way of life that they had never known. Like most converts, they quickly became zealots. Within a year or two, there was hardly a household in the Heights that didn’t have its small flock in a little homemade coop out in the back yard. Most people kept laying hens, but some specialized in roasters or fryers, one or two kept fighting cocks, and several had flocks of homing chickens, which they would allow to walk around the block a few times in the gathering dusk of a summer evening, summoning them home with elaborate whistle signals when night fell. I admired the ability of the whistlers, and my father became one of the best of them, but I never cared for those chickens.
Little Follies, “Take the Long Way Home”
WHEN a man gives himself up to the government of a ruling passion,—or, in other words, when his HOBBY-HORSE grows headstrong,——farewell cool reason and fair discretion! …
A man and his HOBBY-HORSE, tho’ I cannot say that they act and re-act exactly after the same manner in which the soul and body do upon each other: Yet doubtless there is a communication between them of some kind; and my opinion rather is, that there is something in it more of the manner of electrified bodies,—and that, by means of the heated parts of the rider, which come immediately into contact with the back of the HOBBY-HORSE,—by long journies and much friction, it so happens, that the body of the rider is at length fill’d as full of HOBBY-HORSICAL matter as it can hold;—so that if you are able to give but a clear description of the nature of the one, you may form a pretty exact notion of the genius and character of the other. …
But every man to his own taste.— … Nay, if you come to that, Sir, have not the wisest of men in all ages, not excepting Solomon himself,—have they not had their HOBBY-HORSES;—their running horses,—their coins and their cockle-shells, their drums and their trumpets, their fiddles, their pallets,—their maggots and their butterflies?—and so long as a man rides his HOBBY-HORSE peaceably and quietly along the King’s highway, and neither compels you or me to get up behind him,—pray, Sir, what have either you or I to do with it? …
—De gustibus non est disputandum;—that is, there is no disputing against HOBBY-HORSES; and for my part, I seldom do; nor could I with any sort of grace, had I been an enemy to them at the bottom; for happening, at certain intervals and changes of the moon, to be both fiddler and painter, according as the fly stings:—Be it known to you, that I keep a couple of pads myself, upon which, in their turns, (nor do I care who knows it) I frequently ride out and take the air;—though sometimes, to my shame be it spoken, I take somewhat longer journies than what a wise man would think altogether right.
Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (slightly re-arranged, MD)
Generally, I didn’t care for chickens. The fad of raising and training them had affected most of the fathers in the part of Babbington where I lived. Perhaps they saw it as a way of distinguishing themselves from their fellow fathers in nearly identical houses. They might live matching lives, but they could have the best-bred, best-trained homing flock in the neighborhood. The men generally taught their flocks to respond to whistle signals based on the swing tunes of their heyday, but because they didn’t get home until evening and tended to get right down to their beer then, they didn’t always have time for the day-to-day practice that kept a homing flock sharp, so that job fell to their children, and the weekday evenings in my neighborhood were full of whistling kids, commanding their fathers’ chickens to walk around the block to “Sing, Sing, Sing” or “Pennsylvania 6-5000.” It was a great relief to me when my mother declared one evening, the moment my father walked through the back door, “I’ve had it with those chickens! The dumb clucks are driving me crazy! Either they go or I go!” It was, of course, an even greater relief when the chickens went and my mother stayed.
Where Do You Stop?
Just then, Mr. Morton came by, walking his chickens as he did every evening. Raising chickens in the back yard was at that time and in that part of Babbington a popular hobby among adult males, and Mr. Morton had a flock of champion birds. When he reached the end of our front walk, he stood there and worked his jaw without speaking. My father squirmed in his chair. I like to think that he was experiencing the unsettling feeling that he looked ridiculous in the eyes of the chicken champion of Babbington Heights.
Finally, Mr. Morton spoke. “Sitting out on the lawn, Bert?” he asked.
My father snapped his head in Mr. Morton’s direction and said, “Spring cleaning.”
“Uh-huh,” said Mr. Morton. He looked up at me for a moment. I shrugged and rotated my forefinger beside my head. Mr. Morton nodded, gave a shake to the leashes on his chickens, and he and his little flock went on their way.
Inflating a Dog
I was friendly with the boys and girls in my neighborhood, but my roots were in the other culture—the bay owned my heart and my imagination. … When the population growth forced the town to build a new central upper elementary school, and boys and girls from all over Babbington were thrown together in that new central upper elementary school, they quickly took sides, as if they were choosing up for a mammoth game of dodgeball. I had grown up with a foot in each of the cultures; I tried to remain aloof from this tribalism, but it didn’t take long for me to see that—at least for the time being—I couldn’t. I could see the way it was going to be. If I was going to have any friends in school, I was going to have to choose one camp or the other.
Little Follies, “Take the Long Way Home”
[more to come on Wednesday, December 22, 2021]
Have you missed an episode or two or several?
You can begin reading at the beginning or you can catch up by visiting the archive or consulting the index to the Topical Guide.
You can listen to the episodes on the Personal History podcast. Begin at the beginning or scroll through the episodes to find what you’ve missed.
At Apple Books you can download free eBooks of “My Mother Takes a Tumble,” “Do Clams Bite?,” “Life on the Bolotomy,” “The Static of the Spheres,” and “The Fox and the Clam,” the first five novellas in Little Follies.
You’ll find an overview of the entire work in An Introduction to The Personal History, Adventures, Experiences & Observations of Peter Leroy. It’s a pdf document.