The Egg Man
Ron Karpinski ©1997
Far to the east, beyond the rolling hills of the vast Diamond Bar ranch, a warm red glow inched above the horizon, giving way to a soft halo. First rays of daylight shot in through the open bedroom window. I opened my eyes.
Two crows, cawing high in a walnut tree, shattered the stillness. Down the hall, bacon sizzled in an open frying pan. Another warm summer day beckoned. Yawning, I rolled out of bed and eased onto the cold hardwood floor.
In the kitchen, Mom stood at the stove cooking breakfast. Glancing at the empty egg carton atop her prized O'keefe and Merritt range, she said, "Ronnie, we're out of eggs. Run down to the Egg Man for some more, will you?"
* * * * *
The heavy wooden screen door slapped gently in its frame, as I slipped out the back of the house. Mr. Russell's place lay a short stretch down the road in rural Hacienda Heights, California. In city terms, that would be about four blocks.
Drainage ditches lined both sides of the crowned asphalt road. Between the ditch and the road, a narrow band of grass provided room to walk. In 1956, sidewalks had not yet reached our little corner of the world.
Small, modest homes lined the way, built in a wide range of styles. Older ones were mostly white clapboard, while newer ones had been finished in stucco, wood, and brick. Most sat far back from the street.
Over the decades, home sites had been carved, one by one, from fruit orchards and cattle-ranches. Orange, walnut, and avocado trees dotted the front yards. Goats and horses grazed freely in nearby fields.
Down at the end of Garo Street, a green stucco house came into view, the last one on the left. There, Mr. Russell ran a small egg ranch. He supplied eggs for many grocery stores in the San Gabriel Valley. We knew him simply as the Egg Man, Mr. Russell, the Egg Man.
* * * * *
Mr. Russell owned more than an acre of land. The house sat forty feet back from the street. Behind the house, in the back yard, a tall wooden fence enclosed a small patch of neatly tended grass.
A concrete driveway ran along the right side of the house, ending at a two-car garage out back. To the right of the garage stood a small, square cinder block building. Mr. Russell called it his egg room.
Behind the egg room, ten or twelve rows of wood and wire chicken cages stretched to the back of the lot. A huge, corrugated tin roof covered the entire complex. The four outer walls were left open for ventilation.
To the right of the driveway, in front of the egg room, a bare tract of land spread out under the shade of six large walnut trees. Under the trees, a beat-up old 1936 Chevrolet pickup truck sat in the dirt. Mr. Russell had purchased the truck when it was only a year old.
Peppered with small dents, the old truck had seen better days. When new, the body had sported a deep rich green, and the fenders were jet black; but, after twenty years in the sun, the paint had oxidized to a dull, flat finish. Now, the cab appeared more like a muddy brown, and bare metal showed through the faded fenders in spots.
On the inside, wooden slats served as the floor boards, with cracks so wide you could see through to the road below. Both felt door panels had disappeared long gone, exposing window gears and pulleys. Sharp coil springs poked up through the threadbare seat cover.
In spite of its appearance, the old truck still earned its keep. The noisy four-cylinder motor cranked on the first try, and the cargo bed held a huge payload of eggs. People, working in their yards, heard the truck coming and waved as the old man drove by, heading to market.
* * * * *
The egg ranch had been a fixture in the valley long before we moved there in 1954. In addition to the stores, Mr. Russell sold eggs on credit to local families. He kept track of sales in a small green ledger book.
When a housewife ran short of eggs, she sent her child to the Egg Man for more. Mr. Russell never turned anyone down, and he never brought up the subject of money, either. On pay day, folks came around on their own to settle any outstanding balance.
If the business brought much of a profit, Mr. Russell could not bring himself to flaunt it. When it came time to buy a new car, he looked long and hard at all the major brands. Sporty two-door hardtops were in vogue at the time, with long tail fins, two-tone paint, and whitewall tires.
By-passing all that, the Russells bought a standard 1956 Chevrolet four-door sedan with no options. It had black paint, black wall tires, and no radio. "Don't need no radio to drive a car," Mr. Russell said.
Not long after the new car came along, a Thrifty Market opened up a mile down the road. The large chain store had its own source for eggs and didn't need Mr. Russell's. They also stole away many of his old customers.
With dwindling sales, Mr. Russell began using the new sedan for smaller deliveries. He must have seen the end coming. After that, the old truck sat neglected, for the most part, parked under the spreading walnut trees.
* * * * *
Mrs. Russell was a happy vivacious lady, always smiling, always in a good mood. She seemed to spend most of her time indoors, up to her elbows in the kitchen sink. When I came to visit, she would hear me coming and poke her head out the back door to say hello in that pretty singsong voice of hers.
One day, not long after they bought the new car, she failed to greet me. I asked Mr. Russell where his wife might be. "She's gone away," he said.
"What do you mean, she's gone away?" I demanded. "Where?" At nine years old, I didn't understand. Wives and mothers didn't just go away.
He gave me a long hard look but then softened and placed his hand gently on my shoulder. His own grief would have to wait. We sat in silence for a few seconds, while he searched for the right words to tell a young boy who hadn't yet grasped the concept of death.
"She got very sick," he said. "She had a terrible tummy ache, so I took her to the hospital. It happened so fast. They couldn't help her, and so she died."
* * * * *
The old man had lived through tough times. World War I and the Great Depression had stolen his best years. Faded blue overalls and a gray work shirt marked him as a man doomed to a life of hard labor.
Six feet tall, he had a slim, muscled physique, slightly hunched at the shoulders. Craggy lines marked a strong, angular face. His hair ran wild to one side, mixed strands of pale brown and gray. An old blue fedora shielded his eyes from the sun.
He had a gentle nature that his rough, rawboned exterior belied. Pain ran close to the surface. When he spoke of his late wife, his voice cracked.
Little boys can see things in old men that other adults are too busy to notice. A few of us started coming around more often after Mr. Russell's wife died. Somehow, we knew he needed us.
* * * * *
Three quick knocks on the back door went unanswered. That meant Mr. Russell, more than likely, had gone out collecting eggs. I turned and hollered toward the chicken cages.
A second or two later he hollered back, his raspy voice falling two decibels below the high-pitched cackling hens. That helped pinpoint his location. Guessing an azimuth, I set out to find him.
Walking between the long rows of cages, I listened for the loudest stir among the birds. Each time Mr. Russell took an egg, the victimized hen squawked. I had only to home in on the noise.
Each row of cages housed more than a hundred chickens. Made from half-inch wire mesh, the cage bottoms slanted downward at the front. When a hen laid an egg and stood up, the egg rolled down through a narrow slit in the front, coming to rest in a foot-wide trough.
Before long, I caught up with Mr. Russell and joined him collecting eggs. Each of us carried a large wire basket, as we walked up and down the long rows of cages, picking eggs out of the troughs as we went. As each basket became full, we set it on the ground, grabbed an empty one and moved on.
Close to noon, Mr. Russell took off the old fedora and wiped his brow. We had gathered enough eggs for now, he announced. With that, he picked up two large wire baskets filled with eggs and headed for the egg room.
With the sun nearing its highest point, it made sense to work indoors for a while. Thick cinder-block walls kept the egg room cool all day long. There, under the hum of a large electric fan, we washed and sorted the eggs.
The sorter machine took up the whole west wall of the building. Constructed of stainless steel, it made a loud racket when turned on. A five-foot-long conveyer-belt carried eggs from one point to the next.
As the belt moved, eggs were placed onto square concave-shaped plates -– one egg on each plate. The belt moved with precision, from one sizing chute to the next. There were four chutes, one for each egg size: extra-large, large, medium, and small.
If an egg weighed enough, the plate tilted to the right, and the egg rolled down into that chute. If the egg were too light, it stayed on the plate, and the belt shuttled on to the next stop.
Beyond the small chute, the belt traveled over a roller and down into the bowels of the machine, coming up again at the starting point. Round and round, it went. Chug, chug . . . squeak, squeak . . . clank, clank . . . flip.
As fast as I could place the eggs on the conveyer belt, they scooted on down the line. One by one, they rolled off into the sizing chutes. Mr. Russell scooped them up and put them into cartons.
Those thick gray cartons were not at all like the ones in grocery stores today. Instead of two rows of six eggs each, ours had three rows of four eggs each. That made them more square than oblong and much easier to carry.
If a youngster asked for more than a dozen eggs, Mr. Russell tied the cartons together, one atop the other. He ran a long strand of thick brown twine around them and tied it off with a bow on top. The gap between the twine and the carton made a perfect handle for small hands.
While we labored in the egg room, we talked. I asked Mr. Russell how things worked and why things were, and he answered with a logic that came only with age. He had a knack for breaking issues down into simple terms for young minds. When I missed a point, he laughed and tried a new approach.
* * * * *
After the eggs were all sorted, we took a break. Shoving the thick screen door aside, Mr. Russell stepped out into the oven-like heat. Blinded by the harsh glare of the sun, he pushed the brim of his hat farther down.
Under the trees, we picked up handfuls of ripe walnuts and put them in our pockets. Then, we moved over to the old pickup truck. Facing, each of us rested an elbow on the truck bed and propped a foot on the running board.
We lost all track of time. As we talked, we cracked the walnuts open and ate the nuts inside. They tasted fresh and crisp. There is a magic that comes from eating food grown on your own land.
Between bites, Mr. Russell taught me how to crack a walnut with one hand. First, he placed two hard shelled walnuts in the palm of his huge bony right hand. Carefully aligning the seams, he wrapped his fingers around them.
With his hand slightly cupped, he got a good grip. One walnut rested against the base of his thumb, while the other one pressed against his curved second and third fingers. Then he squeezed.
"You've got to squeeze hard," he said, "until the weaker of the two walnuts gives in to the pressure." When he opened his hand, one walnut remained hard and whole, while the other had shattered into pieces.
Cracked walnut shells fell to the ground. The old man told me about places and people and events from his life. I told him about places I wanted to see and things I hoped to do someday.
Running my hand along the roof of the truck, I peered into the cab and observed that the old girl needed work. She deserved a new paint job, and that would be just the start, if I were ever lucky enough to own her.
Mr. Russell only smiled. He knew it would never happen. Every boy in the neighborhood wanted that truck. If he gave it to any one of us, the others would all be heartbroken. In the end, he would sell it to a stranger.
Here we were, a man past sixty and a boy not yet a teenager, talking about life and dreams. As I spoke, Mr. Russell only nodded. Now and then, he added a word or two of his own, gently nudging me toward conclusions that bolstered my understanding of right and wrong.
* * * * *
At two o'clock, the old man looked down at me and asked, "Say, Bub, did you come down here on your own today, or did your mother send you?"
My face filled with panic. "Oh, no! Mom sent me down to pick up two dozen eggs for breakfast!"
Mr. Russell let out a harsh laugh, and we rushed back into the egg room. He grabbed two cartons of extra large, placed one atop the other, and tied them together with twine. Cinching the bow on top, he handed them over. "You'd better get going, young man," he warned, "before you get me in trouble with your mother!"
I ran all the way home, as though arriving five minutes sooner could atone for being five hours late. Barging in through the back door, I stopped short. My mother still stood in front of the stove. With breakfast long past, she now worked on dinner.
As soon as she saw me, she launched in. "Where have you been? What were you doing all this time? I needed those eggs hours ago! Thanks to you, the rest of us didn't have any eggs with our breakfast."
I hung my head and braced against the storm. When she had finished, I reached out and handed over the eggs. In a kinder tone, she added, "By the way, how is Mr. Russell today?"