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Pecking Order

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Anyone who has raised chickens understands "pecking order." A hundred new baby chicks let loose in a farm yard will run around nervous and upset until each chicken knows exactly her place, content—except for the bottom three who have been pecked to death—content to know they are number ten, number 58, and so on.

Wolves, elephants, and seals do the same thing. And so, of course, do humans. Only with people the choice of weapons goes far beyond beaks and fangs. Listen to this Rock Island story.

Near here is a small neighborhood of front porches, old trees, and widows. Even the few married women are widows-in-waiting, for widows in a small town are at the top of the social ladder, arranged generally in the order in which their husbands died. Being at the top of the pecking order means respect. That widow gets to serve morning coffee at her home, picks the books to be reviewed at the monthly Tuesday Study Club during the season from September to May.

In this neighborhood, however, there was a problem. Agnes and Elna's husbands died so close together it was hard to decide number one, and they were evenly matched in other important particulars, too. Their window boxes were both spectacular. Agnes's geraniums might have been a bit larger, but Elna's red cascade petunias were more splashy.

It came down to a Christmas cactus versus a Boston fern. Agnes' Christmas cactus had been in the family three generations and each fall it dripped red blossoms from its stand down to the floor. No one had to vote Agnes as top chicken in the fall. But by January, the blossoms were gone, and the widows began to remember Elna's four-foot showpiece Boston fern. In mid-January, there was a perceptible shift to Elna's for coffee and advice, and to admire the arching fronds of the fern.

I am happy to report that Agnes and Elna are happy with the arrangement. The younger widows have divided almost evenly over starting their own cuttings of Christmas cactus or divisions of Boston fern.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.