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25 August, 2017

Charlie's Thanksgiving

                Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday.  Here are the true stories of two unforgettable Thanksgivings in our family.   One, in Scotland is funny, the other, well...in North Carolina, USA, would be funny for adults but not animal lovers This is not for children.  Or those with weak stomachs...
My ancestors were there at the First Thanksgiving!
             My great-great-great (back 10 generations) grandfather, Governor William Bradford, started this holiday, unofficially.  The Mayflower pilgrims decided to have a feast at the end of their second fall in America, and the Indians were invited, too.   Thanks to them, the starving pilgrims had made it through a very hard winter.    Their first Day of Thanks was nothing like the ones we celebrate here in the US.

             They had five deer, according to journals,  and turkeys for sure.   There may have also been lobsters, swans, pheasants and even a seal.    Plus nobody got a “little bit of everything” on their plate like we do today.   Author Cheryl Bowman says,

          “The first Thanksgiving feast would have looked very strange to our modern eyes, consisting mainly of corn and meat … “
 
         “Common fruits and vegetables included pumpkin, peas, beans, radishes, carrots, onions, lettuce, plums and grapes.  Walnuts, chestnuts and acorns were also plentiful.   Though there was no pumpkin pie, the Pilgrims did make stewed pumpkin.     They had cranberries, but no sugar, so they did not make cranberry sauce.   Sweet potatoes were not common, so those were probably not on the thanksgiving table.”




             What?!!   No pumpkin pie heaped with whipped cream?  Yep, those were very different days way back then in the 1600s.

              When I was married for the first time (of four) my initial Thanksgiving meal totally bombed.   I won’t forget it, ever, but it was funny.

             It was in Scotland, where Thanksgiving was NOT a holiday and folks didn’t have turkeys around.   My husband Tom, a sailor in the US Navy there, had bought a frozen turkey from the Navy Commissary on base.  It was 1966 in Dunoon, Argyll, Scotland. 

           I’d defrosted it and attempted to make my VERY FIRST roasted, perfectly golden, scrumptious Thanksgiving turkey.   In my head, at least, that’s how I imagined it.  It would be just like my mother’s at home.

             The day would have gone pretty well if the propane in the stove had not run out during the roasting process.   I kept checking the turkey frequently over hours and it was still not “done.”   After six long hours, feeling very little heat in the oven in our tiny mobile home (or caravan) I gave up and pulled my poor bird out, sighing in frustration.   


             I set the pathetic half-cooked turkey on the tiny fold-out table in the living room while my husband, Tom, checked out the oven.  (We had about a foot of counter space and that was totally occupied with salad makings.)

             As he was busy poking around, head in the oven, I got distracted with making a salad.  Our Alsatian dog, Brutus (“Pain in the Ass” as I referred to Tom’s dog) was skulking inside our home that day.   He had been sleeping on the living room floor, snoring as dogs do.   But the scent of a nice, partially-cooked turkey woke him right up!    


This is an Alsatian, a lot like a German Shepherd
              His eyes popped open and he sat up, licking his chops.   The pan of turkey was just a foot above his head, right within reach.

                                 My big mistake….

                  When I made a dash into the loo (bathroom), Brutus launched himself, STRUCK fast as a rattlesnake!   He locked his smarmy jaws on MY turkey and swiped it right off the table!

                    Tearing into my precious FIRST turkey, he ripped it in half!   Aluminum foil flew everywhere!  Tom heard the ruckus, banged his head hard, trying to pull it out of the oven to see what was going on.   By the time I rushed out of the potty and looked into the living room, it was too late…  Ole Brutus, seeing my shocked, angry face, and Tom, getting to his feet, grabbed his huge chunk of turkey and bolted right out the open door!   


             The other half of my poor turkey, all dog-mauled and slobbered on, lay ruined on the unclean floor.  Thanksgiving ruined!

            Well, that was my very first Thanksgiving as a wife and it totally bombed, thanks to Tom's unruly mutt.   We ended up cleaning up the mess, snatching the stolen half of the turkey carcass from Brutus, and going into town to a restaurant for our meal.   It was NOT turkey and dressing…  Not in Scotland!



            Our Thanksgiving today, in 2011 would be a traditional gut-busting feast.    Our groaning table would be festive with a giant golden-roasted turkey, with sumptuous mushroom and chestnut bread dressing.  A big bowl of golden yams, creamy mashed potatoes and tasty gravy, green beans mixed with mushroom soup and fried onions would also reign on our table.  

My dear parents in North Carolina.  They are both gone now.
          There would be other dishes, yummy cold salads, tart crimson cranberry sauce, and pies, LOTS of pies.   I always fix a mincemeat pie just for my husband William, these days for our Thanksgiving dinner, plus pumpkin.   Whatever we had to eat would be as close to what my Mom would have made at home many years ago.  A true feast!  She was a fabulous, traditional Southern cook.

            My parents were thrifty people, as I recall, growing up.  They bought food and household supplies in bulk and they always were on sale.   Two freezers and a gigantic walk-in pantry bulged with food in our home.   We had so much food stockpiled we could have fed the WHOLE US Army! 

         Thus, it was not surprising that my parents decided on buying a LIVE turkey for Thanksgiving in 1954.  They finalized this plan one fateful visit to the Farmers' Market in Asheville, a few days before Thanksgiving.  The turkeys there on display for sale were monstrously huge.   I could not believe they were getting a LIVE bird.  No, not frozen for my Mom that year.  Fresh!

          At fifty cents a head, the turkeys were a bargain neither of my parents could resist.     Dad picked the biggest turkey of the flock and paid for it.  So, “Charlie” the turkey became ours.   My Dad loaded the trussed bird into the back of our station wagon, where I sat.

       I remember crouching among the bags and lugs of fall produce in our 49’ Chevy station wagon that day.   I was staring at the biggest, ugliest bird I had ever seen in my life.  This turkey was white, with a blue, totally naked head.   It had beady red eyes and a rose-tinged wattle hanging down grotesquely, bobbing under its beak.   Its feathers were snowy, and soft except where poop had smeared on its backside.   Well, hey, it was trussed up.  That wasn’t its fault!

       That live turkey was a wonder.   I just sat staring at it all the way home.    Me and the turkey, both in the back of the station wagon, just staring at each other.  A-mazing…


Charlie looked just like this handsome fellow!
         I don't know why I didn't protest at the start, the very real, eventual demise of this bird.   I guess I was just too stunned, realizing that at last, even if only for a few days, I might actually have a “pet!” 

        I would make it MY pet, even if it was going to die and be eaten.   Such was the mind of a 9 year-old.

          They installed "my" turkey in our deep, huge basement bathtub (slave quarters in our antebellum old home) with a bowl of water, on a bed of newspapers.   Still fettered, the turkey assumed a somewhat ruffled stance and just glared at me.  His ruby eyes blinked a challenge.    Yeah, poop on his feathers and all, he was a regal sight in my childish mind.

             I named my turkey "Charlie.”   Rapidly “Charlie” began to grow on me.  After just a few hours, I knew he was MINE.   At first that blue-headed fiend hissed at any approach of my hand.  A few blows from his sharp beak discouraged my initial attempts at petting him.  Finally, hunger wore him down.  I won.

           I raided our bread box, the freezers where more frozen bread was stored, sneaked all the popcorn I could find, and my father's precious hoard of fishing worms in the spare fridge in the basement.  (Good thing it wasn’t fishing season.  He would have lit my tail on fire!   Fishing was my father’s only escape from my mom’s nagging.)  I stuffed "Charlie" with everything he wanted to eat that I could pilfer.

            “Charlie” and I developed a special relationship in the days before Thanksgiving.  Things were coming to a head.   He would look at me with his soulful, wise, red eyes.   He would turn his head gracefully and peck gently at food I procured for him.   I knew the day was approaching when “Charlie” would be a pet no longer.   Hey, I didn’t even LIKE eating turkey!

           The fateful day arrived that “Charlie” was to die.  It was the day before Thanksgiving.  My parents made preparations.    I fumed.  Reality hit home.

          My father had sharpened his axe.   He had pounded some long nails into the tall pine out back of our garage.  “Charlie” was to be hung from these nails and whacked in the neck.   I had heard him tell Mom that she should begin several trips to the huge cellar garbage can with boiling hot water.    That was to facilitate stripping poor dead “Charlie” of his feathers.  I shuddered at the vision.

Mom and I a few years later.
             My Mom was an Alabama girl.  She had wrung many a chicken's neck.  She would expertly scald the feathers of my pet, and pluck him for dinner. 

           Mom had Dad convinced she was a professional “killer!”  Of course, this was something she’d never admit to her cultured friends.  After all she was a LADY.  A lady who kept certain talents a BIG secret.

           My “Charlie” would be a “piece of cake” for her to pluck, she boasted.

          Dad heroically announced that HE would do the “dirty deed,” out back.   He would chop off "Charlie's" head, gut “the turkey” and carry the carcass into the basement.    UGH!!!    Mother would be in charge of scalding and he'd help her pick the feathers off.   They'd roast “Charlie” for Thanksgiving tomorrow after his poor body had chilled in the fridge overnight.   


              It was unimaginable to me.  I began to get really upset!

             It was too much for my young heart.  I stroked “Charlie's” soft white feathers and looked him right in the eye.  Those beautiful red eyes, framed by that bumpy, blue, naked head – he was MY “Charlie.”  I could bear it no longer.    Hot tears began to flow.  A deluge of them.

                  With a trembling chin, I followed Dad out back of the garage as he carried “Charlie,” who was flapping his wings, hanging by his feet from Dad’s grip.   My heart thumped wildly and I began to sob loudly.   Dad ordered me to leave.    I refused.   I had tried pleading, begging.   No avail.   So, he got down to business.  He hung “Charlie's” feet up on the nails on the tree and got the axe ready to swing.

                    I SCREAMED!  Shrieked with anguish!   The language that spewed out of my nine-year old mouth would have MELTED a sailor’s buttons!    I called my dear Dad every bad word I had ever heard ANY grownup speak in anger.   Mid-swing, Dad took his eyes off the turkey and for a split second glanced over at me.   


                   He MISSED his perfect strike!  The axe nicked the side of “Charlie’s” neck!   In terror and pain, he launched himself right off those nails on the tree!

                 His feet may have been tied, but “Charlie” still had WINGS.   He flapped his wings, bounced with his feet, and swiftly evaded my Dad’s wild lunge at him.   Spewing blood out of his neck, that poor turkey began bounce-flying through the woods behind our house.  My Dad, still clutching his axe, chased him, running until he was out of breath.



                   The neighbor’s Boxer dog saw the action, burst from his yard and joined in the pursuit.   Dad fell down, too winded to chase “Charlie” any further.   The boxer whipped past Dad and kept on going, rapidly gaining on my dying bird.   I gave in to hot angry tears, turned away and stomped back toward my house.   


                        It was OVER.   I could not stand to see the final desperate minutes of “Charlie’s” life.

                     Mom came out of the basement, wiping her wet hands on her apron, asking where the turkey was.  I was crying so hard I could not have said a word. 

                     Pretty soon Dad came up, carrying a disgustingly mauled, dog-chewed, bloody, totally dead “Charlie." 


                   That nasty Boxer trotted close on his heels.  The aggressive boxer had brought my bird down and enjoyed chewing and shaking him until he expired.   It was a ghastly, horrible way for my beloved pet to die.   I was speechless with agony.   


                  Never again could I look at a big dog the same way.

                 Not wanting to waste the turkey, my frugal parents carried the carcass down into the basement and immediately plunged him into the boiling water Mom had prepared. 

                  Wow!  It wasn’t two seconds until they BOTH came flying back out of there - with green-tinged faces! 

                  In their wake from the basement outside steps, billowed out the most horrendous STENCH I’ve ever smelled.   


                   It reeked so bad, they gave up after a few minutes of angry exchange between them.  Apparently, that dead, chewed-on turkey was really stinking up the place after they put it in hot water!   Mom ran to the bathroom, to vomit, and Dad had to bend over and gulp fresh air, eyes bugging out.   I ran to my room crying in anger and grief, but smiling inside.    
                             Even dead, "Charlie" had his revenge!

                  “Charlie” ended up in the garbage can outside by the garage, wrapped in burlap (plastic bags were rare in those days).   Dad would not let me touch "Charlie", the body smelled so awful.  They were afraid I'd end up stinking like the carcass.  For the rest of the evening Dad hauled buckets of gross, stinking, bloody water out of the basement until Mom’s turkey feather-stripping container was empty. 


                  Even grosser and Dad suffered doing that nasty job.   I was glad.

                Mom showered and sulked upstairs, for the rest of the evening.   She knew they had planned to wait until AFTER Thanksgiving to buy up lots of on-sale frozen turkeys, and there wasn’t a spare frozen one in their freezers.  


                Now we had NO turkey at all to eat for Thanksgiving Dinner.  The local stores were closed already that late Wednesday afternoon. 

               So, after all her hard work, making ahead her dressing,  three pies, several salads, casserole of beans, cranberry sauce, and all else, there would be NO golden roasted turkey to adorn our table.  (All that was left for Thanksgiving Day had been roasting her turkey and fixing the yams and white potatoes, and gravy.)    


I grew up in these beautiful North Carolina mountains.

                    She did what ANY hardworking American housewife would have done:  she pitched a FIT and demanded that Dad take us out to eat on Thanksgiving Day!   

                    Well, it would have all worked out just fine if there had been any restaurants OPEN!     In the 1950s, in my town, family restaurants closed on holidays, not like today.

My Dad back in that day.
          After we got all "dolled up"  the next morning on Thanksgiving Day, dressed in our finery, and loaded into our baby blue 1954 Buick Road Master, we drove into Asheville, N.C.   Restaurant after restaurant that we passed was closed. 

        We drove all over town.   Mom began fuming.   Dad was grumpy, and I was starving, hunkered down in the back seat, watching steam coming out of Mom’s ears.   I kept my big mouth shut for once.

                 Two hours later, we finally ate, but it was very disappointing.   A Chinese restaurant happened to be open (and not a nice one either.)    We all choked down greasy, second-class oriental food, and went home very unhappy and cranky.    Mom went to her room and didn’t speak to Dad for DAYS.   


                   I stayed out of range of both of their BAD  tempers.    I thought of “Charlie,” of what could have been – a real PET.

                  Dad disappeared the day after Thanksgiving.   He came home late, with a TRUNK LOAD of frozen turkeys, hams, trout, salmon, AND beef roasts!   He was not taking any chances on Christmas dinner.

                  Me?  I still HATE eating turkey.  And I still mourn my “Charlie.”

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