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Column: In a fowl mood? Well, this column should be fitting

WORTHINGTON -- There was a time when we wondered nearly every day, "Why did the chicken cross the road?" 

When would this have been? Fourth grade?

Why did the chicken cross the road?

(1) The light turned green. (2) She wanted to lay it on the line. (3) He wanted to prove he wasn't chicken. (4) He was running away from the Colonel.

Why did the chicken cross the road?

Lately a young relative asked me, "Why did the chicken run on the basketball court?" He heard the referee was calling fouls. (Get it?)

Another funny thing about chickens. This is true: To this 21st century day it is difficult to know whether a newly-hatched chick is male or female. Try posing this problem on the Internet. There is a list of answers/suggestions. You can tell male/female by comparing the length of the emerging wing feathers? This is one answer offered.

The problem with baby chicks reminded me of another example of Worthington's long-standing diversity. 

In the years before World War II, both Worthmore Produce and J.C. Boote Produce were established as major U.S. poultry operations. By several measures it is surprising Worthington did not proclaim itself Chicken Capital of the World. Worthington did indeed produce turkeys, in season, but day by day the Worthington produce houses were turning out chicks and chickens in huge, largely-forgotten numbers. 

On spring days when you went to the Worthington post office there often was a chorus of, "Cheep, cheep, cheep." Some local chicken growers were receiving boxes of chicks from distant sources. Local chick producers were sending out orders. There were boxes with thousands of chicks in the post office.

And almost no one knew whether they were baby boy chicks or baby girl chicks. Pullets or cockerels. Hens or roosters.

It was about this time of year -- oh, maybe 1939 -- J.C. Boote hired two young Japanese men to spend their days at what was called "sexing chickens." The story was that, long ago, the Japanese learned the answer to the question of whether a chick was male or female. The Japanese who knew (it was said) kept their knowledge a closely-guarded secret. It was worth a great deal, in Worthington and Japan, to know the difference.

Why did anyone care? Well, among several things, if you were planning a flock of chickens on your farm, you wanted layers -- hens -- not a flock of roosters. 

The two young men hired by Boote found rooms at the home of Rachel and Carl Moen in a house now razed at 1519 Second Avenue. They were genial young men. They became friends, especially with Rachel Moen. She cooked for them and did their laundry.

Very many Worthington people called them Japs, and I think many did not think this was a racial slur. As surely as someone might say, "Chicken," when they saw a chicken, they said, "Jap," when they saw someone Japanese.

The two men who came to Worthington knew English. All Japanese students, now and in the 1940s, learned English in their schools.  It was never clear to most local residents whether the prized Boote workers were from Japan or whether they were Japanese-Americans. A thing noteworthy in this regard. Carl and Rachel Moen had one son, Glen, who had a second-floor room opposite the rooms rented by the young Japanese. 

The Japanese worked at their jobs at Boote produce in 1941, although they were not here in December -- not on Dec. 7. Their across-the-hall friend Glen soon enlisted in the U.S. Navy

It was generally speculated -- Jack Boote knew certainly, of course, and others knew -- it was speculated the men at Worthington were from California. It must be guessed they were sent to one of the internment camps which the U.S. set up in Western states. It is possible the Worthington pair became a part of the famed, brave 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a unit of Nisei or Japanese-Americans, who were committed to heavy combat in Italy.

There was no reason to suspect the loyalty of the men who worked at Worthington. And -- why was this? -- young men at Worthington of German and Italian heritage were never taken from their homes and sent to camps.

Ray Crippen is a former editor of the Daily Globe. His column appears on Saturdays.