Pull liver and cut hearts
All I used to do
From 5 until about
3, 3, in the afternoon.
One time we did
Like, 28,000 birds one time.
And the next day we did 27,000 birds
Too damn bloody!
I’d clean my face off
And I’d wait until
I could go back down and do the same
Thing all over again. – Robert and Billy Penner, two of The Men of Atalissa,
These words sound like lines of poetry, don't they? So do these:
I get them out the coop
Send them in the kill room.
I pat them on the belly
When I get them on the shackle.
I say, "Okay, okay, Tom...quieten down." - Willie Levi, another of "The Men of Atallissa*
Except that these are not lines of poetry, but rather words spoken by three of the men who are featured in The Men of Atalissa,
a documentary that chronicles the story of how a group of men with intellectual disabilities ended up being used as cheap labor, to slaughter chickens and turkeys, in Atalissa, Iowa beginning in the early 70s.
I am a documentary fan, but I read this particular story with keen interest because the action (if you can call it that) takes place not far from where my mother grew up in Iowa. My mother began telling me stories about that countryside and what it was like to live there long before I ever had a chance to visit.
When I finally did go to Muscatine, Iowa, (which is just a few miles from Atalissa) along the banks of the Mississippi River to spent a summer with my Aunt and her daughter, the images of the landscape - the sky, the suffocatingly hot air saturated with dragonflies and grasshoppers, the endless plains stretching out in every direction for so many miles my small girl's body couldn't begin to fathom the end of it - were baked into my brain so thoroughly that the voices of the townspeople in The Men of Atalissa
resonated with me like I knew these men and women personally, like I had sat at their kitchen tables...on their porches.
There are many reasons I like documentary films and the genre of nonfiction...and many of those reasons creep out in the telling of this story.
_"Routine can be a dangerous thing for all of us
Because we stop looking outside of our to-do list for the day so things that are happening around us, sometimes we miss them…because we just weren’t looking."_ - from The Men of Atalissa
There are things going on around each of us all the time that escape our notice and attention. Big events make the news. We often learn what is going on half way around the world before we find out what is going on in the deserted schoolhouse down the block.
We get up each morning and, Yes, we check off our To Do list, wrapping up our tasks and tidying up our lives so that we can get through today, tomorrow, this week...this year.
We know the over-shared details of celebrities' and politicians' lives. We know the housewives of Beverly Hills and New Jersey. We cheer for the survivor of Survivor.
We vote for a new American Idol.
We latch ourselves onto glittery headlines to divert our attention from the everyday, the mundane, the banal, the hum drum, the Ho Hum.
We put on our shoes and don't think about the lives of the factory workers who made them. We eat off of plates made in China and don't think about working conditions in a country most of us will never visit. And, for many decades in a town called Atalissa, Iowa, people sat in front of the telly watching the news and eating chicken slaughtered in a food processing plant by men whose lives were in many ways no better day in and day out than the chickens the calmed before the kill.
The things that go on right under our noses...until, one day, one person decides to say something, decides to speak up. Suddenly the Ho Hum becomes the Oh My God.The Men of Atalissa
smacks of Billy Bob Thornton's Swing Blade
, and Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofksy’s My Brother’s Keeper,
both of which are Must See documentaries.
The clip about The Men of Atalissa
is compelling. It will take about 35 minutes of your time. It's worth watching. And then if you can read the accompanying article, because that, too, is well told.
The 'Boys' in the Bunkhouse, Toil, Abuse and Endurance in the Heartland, by Dan Barry, the NY Times:http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/03/09/us/the-boys-in-the-bunkhouse.html?hp #TheMenofAtalissa