Chicken Fat

by Janis Cramer

06/08/2015

Everybody at Alice Robertson Junior High in Muskogee, Oklahoma, was wondering why we, of all the students in the entire United States, had been chosen by President Kennedy to be the target group for physical fitness.

It wasn’t really the president. He had picked Bud Wilkinson, the renowned football coach from the University of Oklahoma, to be the first physical fitness consultant to the president. We weren’t sure why Bud chose Muskogee. We were all pretty sure the Russian Sputnik had brought all this on, just like it had caused our grade to switch over to School Mathematics Study Group, aka “the New Math.”

Every child was given a free physical by a Muskogee doctor and a dental check-up by a dentist to see if we were fit enough to participate in the program. Soon enough, over 10,000 children in Muskogee schools, grades one through 12, had to spend 15 minutes performing this rigorous workout every day.

The song we exercised to, sung rousingly by Robert Preston, the same musician who sang 76 Trombones, could get you panting if you followed the directions. Dressed in our little, blue gym suits with snap-up fronts and bloomer bottoms, we girls started off every gym class with this ridiculous song:

Touch down

Every morning

Ten times!

Not just

Now and then.

Give that chicken fat

Back to the chicken,

And don’t be chicken again.

No, don’t be chicken again.

Miss Chance, our PE teacher, ping-pong paddle in hand, ready to swat someone if she made a mistake, paced in front of us as we performed. This responsibility seemed to be stressing her out.

Robert Preston merrily sang on:

Push up

Every morning

Ten times.

Push up

Starting low.

Once more on the rise.

Nuts to the flabby guys!

Go, you chicken fat, go away!

Go, you chicken fat, go!

“Nuts to the flabby guys”?! We would snort out snot at that line. No guys in our class, flabby or otherwise. Miss Chance was roaming around behind us with that ping-pong paddle, so we had to keep on going.

Left! Left! Left! Left!

Left a good pound and a quarter.

Was it right, right that it should be left?

Yes, it’s left! Left! Left! Left!

Left a good pound and a quarter.

It was right (left), right (left) that it should be left!

Now, touch your toes with me. Ready!

This song was just the beginning of it, too. After the calisthenics, toe touching, push-ups, marching, sit-ups, twisting, pogo springing, jumping jacks, arm circles, bicycle pumps, inhaling, exhaling, running in place were over, PE class began.

The President’s Council on Physical Fitness devised a test to map our progress to see how much we improved individually in physical fitness every nine weeks. How many sit-ups could we do? How many pull-ups? (I couldn’t do any!) How fast could we run 100 yards? 660? (Panting, stitch in sides, tongues hanging out, most of us were exhausted before we struggled to the end.) How far could we throw a softball?  (My arm was worthless. The softball might as well have been a 10-pound discus, no farther than I could throw it!) How far could we long jump? (Those years of hopscotch helped me a little with that.)

It never occurred to us to perform poorly the first time so we could improve our scores in subsequent tests.  Still, 47 percent of the students in Muskogee failed the initial test. Embarrassed at our incompetence (model city, huh?), we tried to improve. The only good thing about practicing was that sometimes Miss Chance took us onto the football field and track in the fresh air instead of tromping us around in that stuffy girls’ gym. The boys, in white gym shorts and white T-shirts, were out there with us as we rotated through the different test requirements.

To inspire us, the Council on Physical Fitness sent Wilma Rudolph, the Olympic champion sprinter, to our school to give us a pep talk in our PE class.  We were all amazed to see her gold medal. I was impressed to have a black woman in our midst, since schools were not integrated at the time. We were barely past the time when “colored” and “white” signs hung over the two water fountains on each side of the goldfish aquarium at Kress’s, a five-and-dime shop, so to meet this celebrated black athlete really was inspirational for all of us.

Toward the end of the year, when every kid in Muskogee had “Chicken Fat” down pat, a team of photographers came to our school to make a movie of us working out to the idiotic song. We were the president’s guinea pigs. He was mailing a “Chicken Fat” record to every school in the nation! We were excited that we were going to be in a film to be shown in schools across the country—the only problem was that we were going to be wearing those stupid gym suits.

Bud Wilkinson himself came to the filming. It took several days for the photographers to get enough film of us in our PE classes and on the playgrounds at different schools in Muskogee. My mom bought me a new dress to wear the day they filmed us square dancing in the girls’ gym, the first time the boys had ever seen the inside of that room. We girls talked Miss Chance into letting us wear shorts and shirts instead of the blue gym suits the day every student at our school had to go out to the football field to work out to “Chicken Fat” in unison.

The tortoise and the hare next.

First the tortoise.

Bend the elbow, and run in place.

Ready?  Ready!

 

Running, (two)

(Run)

Like a tortoise,

(Okay)

Too far, and too slow.

Now double up, ready!

(Running)

Run two three four,

(Like a hare)

Run two three four,

(Now you are)

Run two three four,

(Getting there)

Run two three four,

Go you

(Run two three four)

Chicken fat,

(Run two three four)

(Go away!)

Everybody sing!

Go, you chicken fat, go!

Go!

Go!

Dismissed!

Then, back to the gym for our showers we trudged, sticking our toes and elbows in the water so Miss Chance would think we had gotten wet. “No more chicken fat, no! No! No more chicken fat! No!” we sang. It was impossible to banish that song from our heads.

We knew it wasn’t over. We still had that last benchmark to pass before the end of the school year. I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to be able to throw that softball any farther than I did the first time or the second time or the third time. I was also pretty sure that I would still have a stitch in my side and tears in my eyes as I followed all those faster runners once and a half around that track for 660 yards. With every student in America following our lead next year, we were pretty sure we’d have to put up with “Chicken Fat” again, and probably until a new president was elected.

How our loss of chicken fat was going to help America win the race for space, we weren’t quite sure.


 

Published in This Land: Spring 2015. Excerpted from Growing Up Thomas: ‘50s–‘60s Oklahoma by Janis Thomas Cramer, self-published and available at This Land Store in Tulsa and Amazon.com.