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Going headless ain't so bad

By Walter Jowers

APRIL 24, 2000:  Everybody's heard the expression, "Running around like a chicken with its head cut off." But in this day and age, when virtually all of your roasters and fryers lose their heads to the neck saw at the chicken-packing plant, it's hard to find somebody who really knows the details of what happens when a chicken gets separated from its noggin.

But wouldn't you know, I've got a primary source for this info in co-inspector Rick. As youngsters, he and his older brother Charlie got curious one day, rounded up a chicken, and, well, cut its head off.

"It never took a step," Rick states flatly. "It just fell over dead. We were a little disappointed." He's quick to point out that the chicken caper was a youthful indiscretion, and he wouldn't consider doing such a thing now that he's all grown up. So you chicken-rights people, don't call or write.

Somehow, last week, the headless-chicken topic came up in conversation with a home-inspection customer. (I can't explain it, but my oral reports to homeowners sometimes turn into stream-of-consciousness things. No extra charge for that.) Anyhow, customer Pam told us about buying a Thanksgiving turkey at a butcher shop in New York City. She said she picked her turkey out of a bunch of live birds, then one of the butchers took it into a back room and cut its head off. Moving smartly, he threw the headless bird into a barrel, smacked a lid down on the barrel, and commanded a little boy to sit on the lid. Pam says there was quite a commotion in the barrel, which went on for a few minutes. After the commotion, uh, died down, the butcher plucked and dressed the bird.

Not that chickens, turkeys, and roach bugs are close kin or anything, but it's a scientific fact that a roach can live headless for days, even weeks. During this time, the bug can walk, run, fly, or even set up housekeeping in a big-ass beehive hairdo. Eventually, though, it realizes it can't drink without its head and dies of thirst.

But the king-hell, record-holding headless critter of all time has got to be Mike the Headless Chicken, of Fruita, Colo. Mike went headless for a year-and-a-half in 1945-46, earning--and I do mean by-God earning--himself a place in the Guinness Book of World Records.

It happened like this: On Sept. 10, 1945, Fruita farmer Lloyd Olsen went out to his chicken area to fetch dinner for his mother-in-law. He grabbed up Mike, a 5-month-old, 2 1/2-pound Wyandotte rooster. Because Olsen knew his mother-in-law was particularly fond of neck meat, he aimed his ax right at the base of Mike's skull, doing his best to leave as much neck as possible.

Well, let the record show, Mike took the blow, then did it his way. He ran, exactly like a chicken with his head cut off, to the chicken hangout area and started pecking around for food.

Now, I know y'all are thinking, "Jowers is making this up. That chicken still had some head left, or the head was kinda dangling, or something like that."

Nope. Chicken Mike had no head, not even a piece of one. There were pictures in Time and Life magazines; there are pictures on the Mike Web site, http://www.miketheheadlesschicken.org/about_mike.htm. What Mike did have was a little bitty piece of brain stem--enough to keep his chicken heart and lungs going, and enough to keep him eating, pooping, walking, and flapping.

The morning after Mike got the ax, farmer Olsen found the unfortunate bird sleeping peacefully. At this point, Olsen turned sympathetic. He started feeding Mike with an eyedropper--a grain-and-water mix. Mikey liked it. He more than tripled his weight over the next 18 months and got up to 8 pounds. That's a pretty-good-size chicken. "He was a robust chicken," Olsen told an interviewer, "a fine specimen of a chicken except for not having a head."

When news of the headless chicken got out, some proto-animal-rights types pressured Olsen to finish Mike off. But Olsen didn't do it. Instead, he hired Mike a manager, and they took that chicken on the road--to New York, Atlantic City, Los Angeles, San Diego, and beyond.

Then, one fateful night, as Mike, the manager, and the Olsens were heading home from a stop on the Headless Chicken Tour, Mike choked on a kernel of corn. Olsen made a dash for the eyedropper, hoping to suck out the deadly thing, but it was too late. Right then and there, in a lonely motel room in the Arizona desert, headless Mike flapped up to chicken heaven.

Today, Fruita citizens celebrate Mike's memory the third weekend in May with their annual Mike the Headless Chicken Days. They've got food (mostly chicken), crafts, prizes, and the 5K "run like a chicken with your head cut off" race. Extra-special this year: The townsfolk will unveil a 4-foot sculpture of Mike made out of ax heads, hay-rake teeth, sickle blades, and other sharp things. "I made him proud-looking and cocky," said chicken-sculptor Lyle Nichols.

Oddly, the sculpture has a head.

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