My Life in Turkey Guts
I got my first job when I was fourteen. Down the street from my house in Holliston, Massachusetts, was a turkey farm called Out Post Farm. My brother Tyler had been working there since he was fourteen, and he tried to talk me out of it.
“You have to slaughter turkeys, you know,” he said.
“I can do that.”
“Rip their guts right out.”
“With your bare hands.”
“Gloves are for wimps!” I said, blanching.
“I warned you.”
I started during the July before my sophomore year in high school. Slaughter didn’t start until September, so I spent most of my time washing dishes and sweeping. They didn’t trust me with the sandwich bar yet. I worked fifteen hours a week and made enough to buy video games whenever I felt like it, which is really why I’d gotten a job in the first place.
One day in September, I saw my boss tacking up the fall schedule as I came in. “We start slaughtering on Friday, Mitch,” AJ said. He was in his thirties, but smiled like a teenager telling a dirty joke. “You ready?”
“One hundred percent,” I said. I tied my apron and headed into the store.
I probably wouldn’t have been lying, either, if everyone weren’t trying to put the fear of God into me. Everyone at the farm asked me if I was ready, speaking like they were telling ghost stories. “You’re gonna be on the line, Mitch! You’re gonna eviscerate ‘em!” I didn’t know what “eviscerate” meant, but it didn’t sound good. Still, I thought if the hundreds of teenagers and townies who had preceded me at the farm could handle it, so could I.
School started that week, and, as usual, it sucked. Friday afternoon, all I really wanted to do was watch cartoons in the company of a turkey sandwich, but work started at three. I didn’t know what to expect. The only informative thing anyone had said to me beforehand was, “Make sure you wear an old shirt you don’t care about.” The teenage slaughtering contingent met in the break room beforehand. Kevin Haberski was missing. Andy Hashey, who was a year ahead of me at school and an Out Post veteran, called him.
“You coming or what?” Andy asked. He listened for a minute. “That’s bullshit. Ok, then. See you in hell.” He looked up at us. “He’s not coming. Doesn’t want to do it anymore.”
“What the fuck!” was the chorus from the rest of the kids.
“That pussy,” my brother grumbled.
I stood off to the side, feeling young and nervous. Kevin had apparently decided he couldn’t handle another season of whatever went on in that slaughterhouse. The place had now assumed for me a Lovecraftian dread. I could only imagine what faceless evil lurked there.
Fortunately, or maybe unfortunately, the slaughterhouse did not have gothic spires, gargoyles, or even a moat. It was a one-level concrete building with a metal roof, situated about a hundred yards behind the store. The door opened into a cramped hallway with a coat rack, off of which dangled heavy duty wet weather gear. Since I was the newest, I got last pick. I ended up with a pair of yellow wading pants that appeared to have been made for a three hundred pound man, and boots that were a size too small. The clothes felt like they were made of lead, and they smelled a little like Thanksgiving.
“Is all this stuff necessary?” I asked.
“Oh yeah,” said Andy. Everyone else snorted.
The adults were already getting things ready. AJ handed me a pair of iron pincers and told me to haul some ice out of the walk-in freezer. I figured we were talking about soccer ball-sized ice cubes. Turned out they were three foot high blocks of ice. I had trouble moving them, since the heaviest thing I’d lifted to that point in my life was a Nintendo controller. I could drag a block about five feet before I’d stop to catch my breath. Eventually I pulled one over to a big vat filled with water. I clamped the pincers tight around the ice and, in a feat of superhuman strength, lifted it several inches before dropping it back to the ground.
“Move,” my brother said. He grabbed the handles and swung the ice into the water, which splashed all over me. “Go get one of those.” Tyler pointed to a spot in the wall that had a half dozen ice picks jammed into it.
Finally, some fun. I was to break the ice up into little bits. I stabbed at it, picturing myself on some medieval battlefield. The only problem was, the ice wasn’t breaking. Every time the pick hit it, the block spun lazily in the water, like a swimmer rolling over to a backstroke.
Tyler grabbed his own pick. “Like this,” he said, and in a flurry of motion that reminded me of kung fu movies, he bashed the ice apart. I picked a smaller portion and struck at it, determined to blow it up like the Death Star. I missed and punched the water. Fortunately, no one noticed, because they were busy filling the other vats with ice and demolishing it like pros.
We were ready for the main event. I was led into the next room, which contained a metal trough. Above that ran a series of hooks attached to a conveyor. Actually, they weren’t really hooks, although often when I think of the slaughterhouse I remember them that way. They were just some metal things that looked like a curved letter W. This room adjoined another one, separated by only half a wall with two windows big enough for a man to step through. Through there, I could see an open garage door. A flatbed truck was backing up to the door, carrying a hundred turkeys. They were looking around and squawking, but I don’t think any of them realized what was about to happen. If they did, they definitely didn’t realize that nothing was keeping them on the truck except some boards running alongside the bed.
In that room were Denny and Pie, two Jamaicans who worked at Out Post from April until Thanksgiving. They sent most of their money home, and spent winters there with their wives. I’d never met any Jamaicans before, but I’d always imagined them to be jovial pot-smokers with dredlocks. Denny and Pie were jovial and stoned most of the time, sure, but between the two of them couldn’t muster one lousy dredlock. I never could understand a word they said. They pronounced my name “Meetch,” and neither one of them ever said, “Mon.” Their job was to kill the turkeys.
They did so by picking a bird up by the feet and hanging it upside down on a separate conveyor, then cutting its throat. Sometimes the birds struggled, but by then it was too late. The other birds waiting on the truck never seemed bothered. I imagine them thinking, “If I just stay still, the Jamaicans won’t see me.” It never worked. I was a little concerned that getting one’s throat cut might be a painful way to go, but my boss told me that the knife was electrified and stunned the birds, so they didn’t feel a thing. It’s only recently that I’ve begun to suspect he was lying. The knife wasn’t plugged into anything.
By the end of a slaughtering session, feathers were piled waist-high underneath the kill zone, and blood coated the wall as high as a man’s head. Once, I glanced over to see a turkey that had fallen to the concrete. A pool of blood was spreading out from its neck. It turned its head slowly and died. I resolved never to look into that room again.
After they’d killed a few birds, they piled them in a contraption that looked like a stainless steel washing machine. Clumps of bristles stuck inward from the sides. A flip of a switch, and the birds went into spin cycle. The bristles tore the feathers from the turkeys, and then they spilled down a chute, naked. That’s where Pam came in.
Pam was like a drill sergeant. She didn’t take any shit and demanded everything be done right the first time. Once you’d proven yourself to her, though, she’d fight to the death for you. I hadn’t earned her good graces yet, and to be honest, Pam scared the hell out of me. She smoked Marlboro reds and looked like a dragon when she exhaled through her nose.
She picked up the birds and hooked them onto our conveyor. Their necks went in the middle scoop of the metal Ws, and then their feet hooked into the outer ones. Sometimes a turkey’s leg would be too thick, and she’d have to snap the bone to make it stick. Pam carried a thin, sharp knife. She slit the birds under the stomach, a gash about six inches wide, and then sliced around the anus like she was carving a Jack-o-lantern eye.
Finally, it was my turn. Now I knew what “eviscerate” meant. Andy showed me how to do it.
“Grab the turkey by the neck to keep it still,” he said, doing so as he spoke. “Reach right in through this big hole here. The first thing you’ll feel” – he yanked out a gummy yellow thing the size of a baseball – “is the gizzard. We save this. Pull off any of these tube things sticking to it and toss it in that bin. Then all this crap comes out.” He produced a handful of wormy intestines and threw it in the trough.
Andy and I walked slowly sideways along with the turkey, and he continued the demonstration. “The next thing to look for is the liver.” The liver was composed of two brown, squishy halves that flared out and met in the middle by only a tiny connection. The only thing I can visually compare it to is a Tie Fighter. Also in the middle was a sac that was almost neon green. “This,” Andy said, “is very important. The stuff in here is poison. If you get it on your hands, wash them right away. If it gets on the turkey, make sure you tell me. I’m rinsing them down the end of the line, and they need to get washed off good.” He grabbed the base of the sac between his fingertips and plucked it off. “Save the liver.” He dumped it into another bin.
I couldn’t believe how much viscera fit inside one turkey. As Andy talked, he slopped more and more tubes, organs, and miscellaneous goo into the trough. I imagined someone yanking out all the things that keep me alive, and decided I didn’t want to think about it.
We were almost to the end of the line. “By this point you’ve pretty much got only the heart and lungs left. The heart’s easy to find, but a little hard to get out. Just think of Mortal Kombat. You ever play Mortal Kombat?”
“All the time.”
“Finish him!” Andy said in a deep voice, and produced the heart. It was the size of a golf ball, and a much darker red than I expected, almost purple. “Save the heart. Then the lungs, you just scoop ‘em out. And you’re done! Then I rinse ‘em. Got it?”
I swallowed, but my mouth was dry. “I think so.”
“You do one.”
I approached the next bird coming down the line with some trepidation, but the kids on the line were older than me and most did well in gym class, so I refused to show fear. I plunged my hand in, and I was surprised by how warm it was. The blood was practically hot. As the months went on and temperatures in the open-air facility plunged to below freezing, I’d learn to appreciate the sensation, but for now it served only as a reminder that this turkey had been alive minutes before.
I got the gizzard out no problem. Some of the intestines split open and their contents, yellow and grainy, spilled out onto my arm. That was the first time I met my best friend in the slaughterhouse, the faucet. There were three of them mounted on the inside lip of the trough. A metal rod stuck out from each one. I pressed my palm against it and water sprayed off my hand. It was the most technologically brilliant thing Out Post Farm had.
I kept pulling guts out, and ignored whatever mystery fluids splashed on my face. The tactile sensation honestly wasn’t too bad – kind of like Nickelodeon Gak, only less fun. The smell was the killer. Turkeys, you see, are animals, and as such they poop. Only, some of these turkeys were dead before they got the chance to drop one last deuce. That stuff doesn’t just materialize out of thin air, people. It’s in there, waiting, and once you’re handling a rectum, you can think of little else. Especially when it splits open all over you and you think, “There’s shit on my hand there’s shit on my hand there’s shit on my hand,” as you rush to the nearest faucet.
My first evisceration went well except for the lungs. I couldn’t figure them out. “You gotta scoop,” Andy kept saying. He cupped his hand to demonstrate, but it didn’t help. It took me weeks to realize that I was scooping perpendicular the turkey’s ribs, when the trick was to go parallel and use the space between the bones as a guide. This only failed me during the surprisingly high number of times a bird’s ribs were broken, because I’d cut my fingers.
After I finished, I went back to a fresh bird. I found myself standing next to my brother. “You gonna hurl, dude?” he asked like he was expecting me to boot right then and there.
I took a deep breath. “No,” I said. “I don’t think so.”
“Really?” Tyler looked me up and down. “I did, my first time.”
I hid my smile. We moved down the line and I picked up confidence. Then, as I was reaching for the heart, the turkey’s wing flapped. I jumped from the line.
“That thing fucking moved!”
Tyler squinted at it. “Yeah, they do that.”
“It’s not still alive.”
“Nah, just one of those things.”
Once we’d ripped their guts out, Andy stuck a hose through their collar into the body cavity and rinsed them out. Then Fernando, a middle-aged Colombian, snipped off their heads and lower legs with a trigger-activated hydraulic scissors and threw them in the vats of ice water. I usually paused at the end of the line to watch, because a big-ass scissors gun seemed like a lot more fun than what I was doing.
I failed to notice everyone looking at me as I returned for my third evisceration. I was feeling good about the whole thing, but something felt unusual inside this turkey. Something hard. Something… with a beak. I pulled it out to see I was holding a turkey head. I dropped it and leapt back for the second time. Fortunately, I didn’t have time to say anything stupid, because everyone was laughing at me.
“We do it to all the new guys,” Andy said, trying to catch his breath.
He was right. We pulled the same gag on at least five other people over the next two years, and it felt much better to be on the inside of the joke. Especially when a kid exclaimed, “It ate another turkey!”
We spent an hour disposing of the hundred turkeys in that load. Since it was September, that was the end of it. The entire week before Thanksgiving, we had to go to the farm directly from school and slaughter straight until nine o’clock. But my first time was an easy one. We sent someone back to the farm to pick up food and drinks for break, and set to work cleaning up. Once again, I felt the brunt of being the new guy.
All the innards we didn’t save, which is to say the vast majority of them, had collected in a plastic bucket underneath the trough. The bucket had holes punched through it to drain the water, but intestines and stomachs were clogging them. “We need you to drain that bucket so we can pick it up,” Andy said to me.
“Stick your arm in there.”
I pushed my t-shirt sleeve up and plunged my hand in. It felt a little like soup. I was up to my shoulder in it. I swirled my arm around, wondering why we didn’t have a big stick or something for this purpose. The water was coming out, but every time it started flowing towards a hole, entrails would come with it and gum up the works all over again. It took about five minutes of constant motion to clear enough liquid to lift the bucket, and my face was right above the swirling surface the whole time. That was the closest I came to throwing up.
The break supplies arrived: soda, muffins, and cinnamon rolls. We lined up by the hot water heater to wash our hands, this time with soap, glorious soap! I scrubbed like I never had before, but the smell wouldn’t come off for another day. I didn’t care. I was hungry enough to take a bite from one of the hearts I’d just ripped out.
We each overturned a bucket to sit on and grabbed a soda. Tyler turned to me. “Well, what’d you think?”
I contemplated my feet for a moment and spoke honestly. “It was nothing.”
He raised his soda. I clinked mine against it. “Knew you could handle it,” he said.
For $4.25 an hour, I could handle anything.
-Published July 27, 2016