What came first — the chicken or the egg — is one of philosophy’s key questions. Christopher Columbus gave a brilliant answer to another question: can an egg stand on its blunt end? He slammed the egg on the table. The eggshell was cracked and the egg was standing! Since then, his eggs have become a common noun. The Romans didn’t begin any battles if their sacred chickens hardly pecked at their grain. Once I had to face a question: what to steal first: eggs or chickens? And life suggested the answer: everything must be stolen!
In the summer 1981 we found an interesting job at a poultry factory. Dear reader! How many eggs can you eat in one day? And what if you eat them every day for a month? I happened to find this out for myself. We were carrying eggs out in a galvanometer box…
Everybody stole in those days in the USSR! Everybody stole everything that could be stolen. How much money did we make in general? My wife earned one hundred twenty rubles a month, I made one hundred and forty plus travel and subsistence expenses (about seventy-eighty rubles), and we already had two children. The cost of eggs was ninety kopecks per dozen, but it wasn’t very easy to buy them. This was because everybody stole everything in the country, and theft was especially high in the poultry farms. Even the always-hungry chickens tried to stеal something from their neighbors. Unlike the sacred chickens of the Romans, they pecked at everything in sight, including each other.
But people were stealing in a more organized fashion. It all began with the poultry maids, who would each collect a tray of giant eggs for themselves and their families. Then a couple of dozens trays of eggs were taken for the Communist Party District Committee. Nobody was shy, and these eggs were taken away by Committee’s “Volga” (a famous soviet car). After that, it was time to pick eggs for the factory administration (including the director, chief engineer, chief of the energy sector, chief mechanic, chief accountant and lot of others, who were less chiefly). They were followed by the electricians, mechanics and others. After that…
However, I don’t know who ended this chain, if it even had an end. We were invited to renovate the factory. The old management went to jail because it plundered absolutely everything, and there was nothing left to steal. That was the limit! But only six poultry-houses were restored; there were not enough chickens for the other six. In fact, as well as eggs, the poor layers were stolen, even though they were pitiful, lean, and hungry. Incidentally, each hennery had been designed to ten thousand head. The new Director was planning to purchase Hungarian chicks because there weren’t enough domestic chicks to be found in our great country. That’s socialism!
Well, we were ordered to create a central control system. "Socialism — it’s about accounting and control," Lenin said. Alas, I raised the level of control to unprecedented heights, but for socialism it was like flogging a dead horse…
What was necessary to control? It was the temperature at first. Think about it: ten thousand chickens in a long, windowless and heatless barn. They are warm-blooded, and ones could heat any henhouse. But on each side wall stood powerful fans, which rotated even in the winter. In the summer they didn’t stop at all! The temperature was monitored by a Hungarian automatic system, which also managed the distribution of food, and water, and controlled the lighting. Its presence raised productivity in the opinion of Hungarians, but from our point of view, it only reduced the possibility of theft.
But even Hungarian equipment had its limits! I’m sorry, but hens poop. And ten thousand chickens do it more often than you think. Scrapers moving under multilevel cages rake guano into a special pit, from which conveyors carry it to the trailer. Once I raked out a whole pit, but forgot about the trailer — there was a big scandal and the whole factory smelled to high heaven. Even workers who were accustomed to the smell were impressed!
Guano is a valuable fertilizer. I never saw such luxuriant barley like the kind that grew in our factory’s fields! The smell, frankly speaking, was a spicy fragrance. We smelled, like everything in the factory and people turned their noses away from us on the way home. Our families did too…
You may interrupt me and ask what is the connection between the automatic system and the smell? The smell is no hindrance for machines! Smell — no, but the ammonia in the atmosphere corroded all the metal in sight: contact relays and contactors, terminal strips, etc. So the automatic system needed external control. Our system tested the functions of the hennery and read out the data on the display: if once in summer the automatic system would not turn on the fans, two hours later all the layers would dead.
The system showed its utility, but soon the factory canteen was closed for repair, and the leaner times began. Stomach ulcer was an occupational disease among my colleagues. We began to eat eggs. Multi-tier conveyor belts, made up of long linen strips, stretched along the hennery. At the exit, they merged into a broad white river and fed the cocoons at a delivery table. The conveyors were turned on by the toggle-switches on that table, where her majesty — the chief poultry maiden — was enthroned above.
And here I want to stop and ask the reader, have you ever been to an organ concert? Have you ever seen how the maestro approaches the organ, stark and otherworldly, sits down, pushes back his tailcoat, raises his arms and throws his fingers on the clavier? I have seen this time and again — in churches and organ halls — and in the hennery. The same wave of the hands after a short concentration, the harsh chief poultry maiden turned the toggles. She is gazed at the score, threw on the toggles and the first white chords floated in the twilight. Everything began to fade and a solemn silence fell over the space.
There is no such thing as silence in the hennery, of course. But people who were accustomed to anything had not noticed the birds’ smell and noise, and were hearing only a tense silence, when her majesty was striking the first chords. Well, you may breathe, she did it! A white stream of eggs floods along the belts and quickly fills one box after another.
And I want to disturb you again. If you ever heard organ concerts and sat not far into the nave, but in the transept, in the first row, have you ever gotten an idea to approach the organ, sit down, raised your arms over the registers and…
If this idea comes to your mind, I understand you; if not — I offer my compassion. This is divine! How often I turned the toggles by the same free, skillful gesture; a white stream of eggs rushed to me, and my assistants were hurrying, packing the galvanometer box with selected eggs! Fine-tuning is very close to art. Certainly, it is art — done by skillful hands — and I have though whether to title these memoirs “My Life in Fine-tuning”. Because my life consisted of setting up, installing, and fine-tuning.
My team and I were eating dozen of eggs during the lunch break and then we brought the eggs home. Every day, for a month! Our wives were very happy at first, but then they began to hate us. We cooked eggs in every possible way; we boiled, fried and baked them; drank them raw and shared them with relatives and friends. It’s strange but nobody came down with disease or allergy; only disgust! Many years have passed since then, but even now I don’t have any desire, aspiration or gravitation for eggs.
Yes, there are a lot of interesting things in the hennery. Chickens need grain — and barley was cultivated; they need fish — and anchovies were brought in dump trucks. Dump truck sprat! They need limestone — and had a chalk. Well, people need a lot of things too! In vain the factory was enclosed by a concrete fence with barbed wire. In vain were recruited the guard’s brigade that inspected all nukes. The management stole as well as all the staff, including security. They stole eggs, barley, chickens. Sprats were the first things stolen. Fences were stolen, even barbed wire. We were green dilettantes with our galvanometer case!
I remember those pitiful, always hungry featherless layers. The factory seemed to me like a model of communism: barracks behind the barbed wire, and a lot of multi-tiered cages in them. Nights and days were started according to a signal. The food was placed on the conveyor; everyone was hungry, open-mouthed, plucking and evil.
And on this sad note I would have to finish the story. But I did create a good monitoring system. I understood that I could take any job. There I was on the egg diet and learned to play cards for money. Just then, finally, I experienced an emotion of an organist-maestro and his inspiring concentration, when he sat down at the clavier. He threw up his hand and struck the first chords!