A fowl dancer steps outside the box

What's for dinner? Tracy pops leftover turkey into the microwave and we watch the bird on the turntable bop and jump to the techno hum. Ding! goes the bell, and the bird stops dancing.

I am transported back to a dark night in New Mexico, 1968. We were coming back from Carlsbad late - my Uncle Fred, one brother, two cousins, and I. The cousins, George and Otto, were our age, 11 and 12. The memory is like a movie: The dusty road, the heat, the darkness, and the energy of being in a far-away desert land. There was no air conditioning, just the wind going by at 60 m.p.h.

The road was remote. It still is. But in those days, 100 miles was forever. It was late, and we were goofy. And there, in the exact middle of nowhere, was a roadside attraction. It was the Route 66 kind, the real enchilada. Uncle Fred did the avuncular thing and pulled over. This was so boss. Our folks never stopped to let us explore these places with hand-painted billboards announcing their spectacles. Now we were going to see one for real.

It was marvelous. There were gag gifts like rattlesnake eggs. There were guns owned by Billy the Kid. But the thing that got me most was the dancing chicken. Outside. around back, under a dim bulb was a cage with a sign: "See the Dancing Chicken - 5 cents." It was a chicken-wire cage, maybe a three-foot cube, with a little painted gingerbreadlike house on one side. In the middle of the remaining space was a turntable. I put in a nickel.

The nickel did not drop, it rolled. It rolled down to where it triggered the door to the little house. The door on the house shot up, a tinny 78 r.p.m. record started playing, and the turntable turned. Sure enough, a chicken came out. It got right on the center of the turning turntable and danced to the music. After so many seconds, the music stopped, a food pellet fell out, and the bird shot back into its house, pellet in gullet. The door snapped shut.

I was beside myself. Who had taught the bird and why? How long does it take to teach a chicken to dance? I had seen it with my own eyes, yet my curiosity had only increased. Let's see it again.

The second time I focused on the mechanism. The magic had already waned. Nickel in, door opens, music, dance, pellet, chicken home, door closes. In preparation for the third show, I found a grasshopper. Nickel in, door opens, chicken out, music starts, turntable turns, and I offer the insect through the wire.

This broke the order of that chicken's universe and probably had (still has) consequences in my own. It didn't dance on the turntable. Instead it lunged for my fingers. I dropped the bug, which fell to the corner of the cage. The chicken stepped on the turning wheel in order to get to the grasshopper, but the wheel just turned under its feet, causing the chicken to fall just shy of the insect. The bird jumped up and tried again with the same frightening yet comic moves. Then the music stopped.

As the music ceased, the turning stopped, and the frenzied chicken paused. At the same moment, a food pellet rolled down, further confusing this fine, previously disciplined, fowl. There was a suspended moment. The chicken went for the grasshopper, got it, snatched up the pellet and headed for its little house. Too late. The door was closed. If a chicken's beak could form expressions, then this one would reflect what we now call "thinking outside the box."

I fed the chicken all the bugs I could find, and kept putting nickels in the slot. The bird was gorging itself. It had lost all interest in his station in life, the music, the door. The attraction's owner, who had obviously moved here after his ship had crashed somewhere near Roswell, did not share in the epiphany, however. His alien scowl had me scooting.

I will always remember that place. I would not say the chicken and I bonded, but for a moment, we shared something special on that dark night in the desert.

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