When I was 5, my parents decided to move “off the mountain.” We lived somewhere between Coalmont and Monteagle, Tenn., where my father worked strip-mining coal. They moved because they wanted me to start school in a better, safer school than I would have “on the mountain.”
We moved to a little town at the foot of the mountain and lived in a farmhouse outside the city limits. Our farming consisted of a big garden, 100 Rhode Island Red chickens every year and, for one year, two pigs. My job was to haul water in two 3-gallon buckets each day to water the chickens and pigs.
My most vivid memory there was receiving the shipment of chicks about this time each year in a big cardboard box at the post office. I can still see the tiny newly-hatched, about as big as a small supermarket egg and light as a feather, toddling around and pecking on the box or on other chicks. Each year there was one particular chick that the others pecked on. Sometimes the pecked-on chick died; sometimes it survived with one eye, but always was frail.
One year, I adopted the frail chick as my pet. Growing up on cowboys and Indian movies, I named it Tomahawk. That summer, when I was out of town with my grandparents, my parents decided to have chicken for dinner. Unbeknownst to them, they killed Tomahawk, probably and ironically with an ax.
Yes, when I came home and couldn’t find Tomahawk, I was devastated. Both my parents cried.
I didn’t make a connection at that time, but at some point in my religious pilgrimage I came to believe that the essence of true religion is befriending and advocating for the pecked on, the weak, sick, out-of-favor, low-in-the-pecking-order, shunned untouchables around us.