Happy Thanksgiving all…. Back by popular request, I’m reposting a story about our family gathering in 1944. “Thanksgiving Day 1944” was my first real accomplishment and was published in the Spring 2009 Southampton Review in the Memoir and Personal Essay section along with pieces by Frank McCourt and Melissa Bank.
Of the three generations featured in this story, only two of us are left — myself and my youngest cousin Mike Furgueson. Members of both families, spouses, children and grandchildren will gather again tomorrow to celebrate. Hopefully, we will be better behaved, but no one hold their breath!
Enjoy the holiday, George
Thanksgiving Day Turkey Shoot – 1944
I was twelve. The year was 1944. On top of the turkey and stuffing, the ingredients included theft, shotgun blasts, state troopers and a neighbor bleeding profusely from a self-inflicted razor wound.
The setting: The small town of Brightwaters, Long Island. More specifically, my Aunt T. and Uncle K. ’s house.
The cast: In addition to my aunt and uncle, “Gramp,” my revered but distant grandfather, patriarch of the family and a respected doctor, author and bank president; Ruth, his second wife; my parents, who for some reason were constantly kicking me outside, along with my brother Ken, 10, and our younger cousins, Tony and Mike.
The annual routine: Arrive early in the day, allowing ample time for the adults to down several rounds of Old Fashioneds, smoke hanging heavily in every room – a pleasant interlude, awaiting Gramp’s arrival. He took a dim view of drinking of any sort so, to pacify him while making Thanksgiving with the family more palatable, the adults pushed up the start of the cocktail hour. As my British Dad used to say, “It’s noon somewhere in the Empire.”
The doorbell rang. Glasses were hastily secreted under the couch, under a chair and behind a large framed picture of my aunt in her wedding dress on the piano. Gramp entered, followed by Ruth. Coats were hung in the vestibule closet. The grandsons were lined up to greet him. Ruth headed straight for the kitchen “to help,” muttering hello’s on the way. Her first order of business was to retrieve the chilled drink awaiting her in the ice- box, compliments of Uncle K.
Mother and Aunt T. soon followed. Back then, they took turns alternating preparing Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners at their neighboring homes in Brightwaters. Because of the war and stretched budgets, the days of maids and cooks had ended. We were home alone, and the time-honored familial rules of decorum had already begun to fray.
Dad, on his way back to the living room after a visit to the down-stairs bathroom, opened the door to the attached garage off the back hall. To his surprise and consternation, he spied two incarcerated turkeys quietly contemplating their uncertain future. Uncle K. had received them as a gift from a friend in South Carolina for use over the Christmas holidays. They were billeted in a cage with a latch secured by a large wooden peg.
Positive action was called for. Dad removed the peg, folded the latch back and rolled the garage door up and open. He returned to the chair he had vacated in the living room just moments before, no one the wiser. Gramp was clucking over his four grandsons who were soon ordered outdoors (yet again) to play. Just about this time, the delivery boy from our local drug store/ice cream parlor, Friedstadt’s, appeared with the dessert.
The kids had just started to play catch with the football in the back yard when cousin Tony noticed that the garage door was open. He went to check and let out a war Whoop, “The turkeys are missing!” Gramp and Uncle K. burst on the scene from the house. They concluded immediately that the culprit had to be the delivery boy. Uncle K. placed a call to the State Police Barracks, not far from the crime scene.
Dad was trying to be as inconspicuous as possible – happy for the turkeys and their new found freedom, but more than a little concerned for the fate of the unsuspecting delivery boy.
“We’ve got to retrieve the turkeys. Boys, start looking!” Uncle K. was now in command.
Uncle Donny and Aunt Bunny (close family friends) occupied the rambling two-story brick house to the south, across the wooded lot half cleared for a victory garden.
Uncle Donny had over-imbibed the night before with several of his Wall Street partners, arriving home just before midnight. He decided to sleep in and arose near noon to ready himself for the holiday feast he and Aunt Bunny were having at their home.
Their master bedroom was on the first floor with a large bathroom looking out over the victory garden. Still in his pajamas, lathered up and bare-chested, the straight razor in his unsteady hand, Uncle Donny absentmindedly looked out the window. There, perched on the ledge, was a live turkey staring in at him. Startled, his hand jerked. The razor slipped opening a gash in his left cheek. Blood spurted out, dribbling from the wound to the basin and onto the tile floor.
“Bunny, Bunny! Come quick, there’s a turkey staring at me!”
Still annoyed by her husband’s antics of the night before, Aunt Bunny opened the bathroom door. The turkey had disappeared into the woods and there stood her husband bleeding profusely from the four-inch slash in his cheek, the blood mixing with the shaving soap forming a dark pink coating on his chin, some of it dropping onto his hairy chest.
“Donny,” she screamed at him. “Your drinking is getting out of hand!”
The neighbor to the north was away for the holiday. Another neighbor, who knew about Uncle K.’s gift, phoned to tell him that he had seen a live turkey entering the first neighbor’s barn.
Uncle K. calmly unlocked the gun cabinet in the den, took out a 16-gauge double- barreled shotgun and four shells and headed for the neighbor’s property with Gramp in close pursuit.
Shortly after they departed, two uniformed troopers appeared at the front door. Brightwaters was and is a small community. In those days, everyone knew everyone including the troopers. Dad ushered them into the den where the bar was set up and poured them each a stiff holiday drink. He promptly confessed, “I liberated the turkeys.” The delivery boy was off the hook. The troopers, sworn to secrecy, finished their drinks, exited smiling and returned to their barracks.
Bang! The sound of a shotgun blast. That can’t be good for the turkeys, Dad later recalled thinking.
Uncle K. had spotted one of them perched on an overhead platform in the neighbors’ barn. Making sure everyone was well back, he took aim. Bang! The turkey dropped to the garage floor, followed by a haze of feathers fluttering in the light from the new hole that had just appeared in the barn’s back wall.
Gramp and Uncle K. walked back with what was left of the fugitive fowl. The rest of us continued the look for turkey number two.
Shortly after returning from “the hunt” empty-handed, the front door bell rang again.
Uncle Donny, still clad in his pajamas, robe and slippers and sporting an oozing bandage, was invited in. Bunny followed at a discreet distance. One look at the cut convinced Gramp that further treatment was called for.
“Georgie! Get my bag from the car!” Gramp always traveled with his medicine bag, which included a complete set of surgical instruments and other necessary items for emergency repairs.
Uncle Donny was led to the dining room, which had the best light in the house, and was seated on one of Aunt T.’s antique chairs.
A basin of water was heating on the stove. Ruth and Mother cleared the crystal water glasses, Wedgewood china and place settings from the near end of the table, then covered the linen tablecloth with towels from the powder room.
Gramp administered two shots of novocain, the stitching began, eight to be exact.
Aunt Bunny, still barely speaking to her husband, deferred viewing the repairs in favor of downing a double Scotch in the den as Uncle K. was replacing the 16-gauge in the gun cabinet.
As Gramp proceeded, the grown-ups disappeared one by one and joined Bunny in the den. Those passing in the hall could hear the unmistakable sounds of ice cubes clanking on glass.
The last stitch in place, Gramp excused himself, moved a strainer full of peas to the side of the kitchen sink and washed his hands and instruments before returning to the living room to read his paper.
Mother and Ruth removed the water basin, the bloodied monogrammed towels and gauze pads and placed them in the kitchen sink, next to the instruments and boiled peas, and just a few inches away from the stove where Thanksgiving dinner was simmering over a low flame. The table was reset.
Uncle Donny stopped by the den to thank Uncle K. and joined Aunt Bunny, who had now mellowed perceptibly, Scotch in hand. They finally exited after thanking Gramp, and dinner was served two and a half hours later as though nothing had happened.
Just before we sat down at the table, the phone rang. Aunt T. answered. “It’s for you, dear. The Troopers’ barracks.” Uncle K. picked up. “Sir, after a lengthy interrogation, we have concluded that the delivery boy did not let the turkeys loose. We’ll continue investigating and keep you informed. Happy Thanksgiving!” Dad greeted the news with a sigh of relief.
Two years later, same place, same setting. Just before dessert was served, Dad clicked his water glass with his butter knife, rose from his chair and cleared his throat. He started to speak, slowly at first. “I have a confession to make. I let the turkeys go.”
The first reaction was disbelief, followed quickly by anger. Uncle K. was furious, Mother even madder. Then, a pause. Dad still standing.
All eyes turned to Gramp. He looked out sternly over his thick glasses, glancing around the table from face to face, finally fixing his eyes on Dad. He began to laugh, “That was a day for the ages.” Dad looked more than a little relieved. Gramp stood up, raised his half-filled water glass, and toasted, “To family.” The grown-ups smiled and toasted back, “To family,” then one by one disappeared to refill their glasses. Once again, we were told to go out and play.
Oh! The day after that fateful fest, Turkey #2 was cornered and captured in the empty lot. Uncle K. pardoned him, and he lived out his life on the family farm on the East End of Long Island. I imagine the little fellow had somewhat mixed feelings about joining the clan.
GEORGE S.K. RIDER