With apologies to the late Walt Disney for whom it all started with a mouse, my life as a community journalist really launched thanks to a chicken.
It was my first summer at the Shopper-News office in Halls Crossroads, Tennessee. I was working the front desk, answering the phone, taking classified ads, and writing news as assigned, along with a million other tasks. I was the cub reporter, and my boss nicknamed me “Short Straw,” as in “you just drew the short straw.”
Now, Halls Crossroads is a weird mix of country and suburb. You’ve got McMansions rubbing elbows with old homeplaces. But one neighborhood you can count on to have country people is Tell Mynatt Road, named for the legendary William Tell Mynatt around the time of Moses and populated by Mynatts and Mynatt descendants.
My boss walked out of her office that day with a lost and found ad phoned in by a Mrs. Mynatt of Tell Mynatt Road. Mrs. Mynatt had found a lost chicken, and the boss lady with her nose for news felt there was a story there.
Let’s be clear. I’m from East Tennessee. I was raised right up the road from Halls in the booming metropolis of Plainview, population 200 humans and 500 cows, more or less. I’d just spent four years living in Savannah, Georgia. Savannah is the South, but it’s a different kind of South. It’s Deep South, and it’s not Country. I was homesick and reveling at being back among my people.
But still, my first reaction to a lost chicken story was:
“Holy smokes. I’m in Mayberry.”
I called Mrs. Mynatt on the phone, and she was sweet, grandmotherly, and very, very country.
The chicken in question had wandered into her backyard the day before. She knew in an instant that it must be someone’s pet “because it was one of them fancy chickens, them silkies with the fancy feathers.” Said chicken sat down under her dogwood tree.
Mrs. Mynatt did what any Appalachian grandma would do. She gave it a pan of cornbread.
Next stop for the fancy chicken, a certified Japanese Silkie, was a cousin down the road, also a Mr. and Mrs. Mynatt, who happened to raise chickens and had a nice coop. I asked for their number and scheduled a visit that day.
There, I took a photo of Mr. Mynatt under a shade tree, wearing clean jeans, a button-down shirt and a meshback cap from the Farmer’s Co-op, holding that lovely chicken. He smiled as he said that he kept chickens for his grandchildren so they could enjoy fresh eggs and feeding livestock.
Unfortunately, the photo only exists in the paper archives of the Shopper-News. But I remember it clearly. Mr. Mynatt was smiling down at the chicken, its feathers like the softest fur, his lined face gentle and peaceful, and the bluegreen light under the shade tree making the best filter ever.
On my way to the car, this Mrs. Mynatt stopped me. She’d just pulled a ripe cantaloupe out of her garden, and she wanted me to have it. I cried happy tears all the way back to the office, and I ate that cantaloupe right there at my desk. It was the best of its kind I’ve ever put in my mouth, before or since, juicy and sweet and still warm from the sun.
I was home for sure, and I suddenly knew why I loved that job. Yeah, it’s a story about a chicken. But it was important. The story of an exotic chicken walking into Mrs. Mynatt’s yard and her feeding it cornbread would be family legend, and now it could be community legend, too. Three years later, I saw that story clipped out and taped to the wall at the local furniture store, also owned by Mynatts.
So that’s where it happened. That random exotic chicken cemented my love of showcasing the small things, because the small things are really the big things. I hope she’s found a nice dogwood and a pan of cornbread in chicken heaven.