The story below is an excerpt from our Nov./Dec. 2015 issue. For the rest of this story and more like it subscribe today, view our digital edition or download our FREE iOS app!
The fatherly ritual at the table was the culmination of several other sets of every-year behaviors, including turkey-call practice for the kids.
When I was growing up in Virginia, my parents gave me the priceless gift of letting me just be a kid. Looking back, it’s obvious that money was tight but I never knew it. I was queen of my kingdom, with acres and acres of woods and fields to explore, my very own dog, and a hot meal on the table every night. What more could I have wanted?
My days were spent exploring, building forts in the woods, throwing sticks in the river, discovering hidden wildflower patches, taking a book to my special reading rock, and staring at clouds. There was lots of time for daydreaming and I was pretty darn content.
In the summer, I was sent outside after breakfast and told to be back in time for dinner. What child these days gets eight hours of autonomy? It was a half mile through the woods to the river and it took a fair amount of time to get there because I had to visit all my animal pals on the way. I knew every squirrel nest, owl hollow, rabbit tunnel, beaver dam and turkey roost. I knew the white tail deer slept in a soft depression under the protective overhang of a thorny blackberry thicket. I knew the buzzards were killing the pine tree they were roosting in and would soon move to another. I counted all these creatures as my dearest friends, even though they were openly suspicious of me.
I was really disappointed after I saw Disney’s “Cinderella.” Why weren’t the animals I knew showing up to help me clean my room? Were all the animals living on our property lazy slackers? I opened my bedroom window and sang, just like any proper Disney princess would. Not one chipmunk or bluebird showed up to fluff my pillow or sweep the floor. Not a one.
My daddy had a different relationship with woodland creatures. He was an avid hunter and fisherman, and was happiest in a tree stand or a boat. He received his first shotgun on his 10th birthday and did not miss a hunting season from then until he passed away at 85 years old.
Daddy would have hunted even if he had Rockefeller’s money, he loved it so. I did not realize until I was much older how vital his hobby had been to our dinner table. We had venison, doves, turkey, catfish and bream all the time. I have eaten squirrel. I have eaten things more dubious than squirrel that I don’t want to discuss. I will admit, there’s not much that can’t be made delicious by grilling it with garlic butter. That rule might even apply to cardboard. For all I know, I’ve been served cardboard. I was not a picky eater. I do know that beaver showed up just once. Mama warned Daddy that if he ever brought another dead beaver home, she’d throw it out for the buzzards and make him take us all to Bonanza Steak House.
Thanksgivings were special and always featured a wild turkey. In the month prior to turkey season, Daddy would practice his turkey calls every night. Every night. If you’ve not heard a turkey call, let me tell you it is decidedly not melodious. It’s somewhere between a croaky cat and fingernails on a blackboard. Try to watch television with a turkey call soundtrack. It can not be done, my friend.
While Daddy enjoyed hunting birds, he hated plucking. Mama refused to get involved until the bird was stove-ready, as she called it. So when a hunting buddy told Daddy about a surefire shortcut to plucking a turkey, he was excited to try it.
As I understand it, the directions were as follows. Tie the dead bird’s feet to a stick. Have someone hold the stick so the turkey piñata is suspended at shoulder height. Scorch the feathers off with fire. Ta da, a clean bird with minimal fuss. More details might have been really helpful because I’m pretty sure Daddy misunderstood what he’d been told.
He tied the turkey’s feet together and slung the bird from a plant hanger on the back porch. He rolled up some old newspaper, lit it, and held it under the bird. He went through a lot of newspaper, then some kindling, and while the bird didn’t look any cleaner, the porch ceiling paint peeled and the boards started to smoke.
Smelling burning wood, Mama panicked and grabbed the big pot of water in which she was boiling spaghetti and ran out the back door slinging hot water and pasta on the porch ceiling. Picture this. A wild turkey, blackened quills sticking out like some pitiful porcupine with a bad case of mange, dripping with spaghetti. If that bird had ever possessed any dignity at all, it would have gone up in smoke. It was the saddest bird I’d ever seen and even though it was dead, I felt truly sorry for it.
The humiliated turkey did make it to our table. It was cleaned up, stuffed, and basted properly, turning out fine. It held court with all our favorite holiday side dishes and everything looked like a Butterball ad when we sat down to our Thanksgiving meal. We all bowed our heads and Daddy gave our family’s traditional holiday grace which never ended with the word “Amen” but always with this phrase instead.
“Chew carefully. There might be shot.”