Thanksgiving is one of those holidays whose significance can change as the years pass, so too some of the people we hold dear. That’s true of Christmas as well, but for most, I think, Thanksgiving is less a time than Christmas for somber reflections on those who live forever in our memories, more a time for instinctively celebrating what you still hold onto in the here and now. That’s good in itself, but also an opportunity missed. Celebrating and giving thanks for the here and now is like the making of new wine, but it’s the savoring of old vintages that bring the most pleasure.
In my early years, we of course learned about the Pilgrims and the traditional story of the first Thanksgiving and accepted it all without a peep. In the third grade class of Mrs. Mary Williams (who just recently turned 100, bless her) at Falling Creek Elementary, the whole first half of the basic reading book dealt with the Plymouth Colony, that section intended to take the class at least through till the Thanksgiving break. As interesting as the history lesson was, at least to some of us, it was hard being in a rural Georgia county in late 1970 and feeling any particular kinship with characters in far off Massachusetts of 250 years before. The idea of a special day set aside to give thanks also seemed a little odd, as in the even more than now churchgoing times, giving thanks was pretty much an every day, every meal thing.
It wasn’t till years later, and again most recently after reading Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower(Penguin Group Publishing 2006), that the traditional story of the first Thanksgiving pretty much collapsed in my thinking on the day. First, we don’t have even an approximate date for the 1621 feast. According to Philbrick’s research, anytime from mid September to late November is as close as one can guess. After the harvest, when the colonists had “gathered the fruits of our labors,” according to the governor William Bradford, it was time to “rejoice together … after a more special manner.” Geese, ducks and deer (the deer supplied by the local Pokanokets, an estimated 100 of whom accompanied the colonists’ friend Massasoit to the feast) were also as much a part of the menu as the wild turkeys hunted in the woods. It’s also unlikely that anything ever took place like the traditional depiction of the colonists and Pokanokets sitting down at a long table covered with a tablecloth with tableware set out. Historians think instead that the celebration was more in the fashion of a traditional English country harvest festival of the time, with the various fowl and the deer roasting over spits on open fires and the revelers eating either standing or squatting. (And both colonists and tribesmen would have eaten the fowl and venison mostly with knives and their fingers. Forks were still decades away from being common. Any stews or potages of meats and vegetables would have been eaten from crude bowls with carved wooded spoons or small oyster shells.) There would have been no cranberry sauce or pumpkin pie, but there would have been beer, for the Pilgrims, as we call them (they called themselves Saints), were not nearly as stiff and Hellfire-breathing as they’re sometimes depicted. They liked their beer, and one of the bountiful crops being celebrated was the barley, which would ensure ample beer and ale through the winter.
Learning all this, I didn’t feel bad or deprived (as I had occasionally in fleeting thoughts over the years) at the Thanksgivings of childhood, which were not much like the traditional story. Thanksgiving then meant a big turkey (Thanksgiving and Christmas being the only times of the year we ate it), watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (which in my thinking “officially” marked the beginning of the countdown to Christmas − it still does), and being out of school for two days. In fact, thinking back our Thanksgivings probably had more in common with what historians believe actually occurred than with the traditional story. But there was always the hunting.
My father was not a hunter in the sense that he hunted for sport. He had nothing against hunting as a sport, and certainly had nothing against the killing of game animals for food, but he simply seldom hunted for the sake of it. Looking back, he never really had the time. Thanksgiving was an exception. He would take his 12-gauge shotgun and the 12-years-old or so me would have my .22 caliber single shot rifle (or later my single shot .410 shotgun) and we would spend three or four hours prowling the woods along Beaverdam Creek (our family then owned land almost a mile along each side of the creek in the Pearl Mill community of Elbert County) usually shooting into squirrels’ nests (we seldom saw any game or other signs of game). I don’t recall us ever actually killing any game; we tended to pay little attention to the noise we made slogging through the dry leaves, more than enough noise to forewarn any game. It wasn’t till some years later, after the fever of adolescence, that I realized that that the lack of success didn’t matter, in fact hadn’t been at all important even at the time. The idea was simply that we would hunt together, and something unspoken would be passed that would probably only later be appreciated.
It suited me that we didn’t kill any game. Like my father had, I have nothing against hunting game animals for food and have done a good measure of it, but the idea of killing an animal just for the kill doesn’t appeal to me and hasn’t since I was five years old. And that introduction gives me a good excuse to tell another story that comes to mind whenever talk of hunting comes up.
Like “Ralphie,” the hero of the movie “A Christmas Story” that came out nearly 20 years later, I wanted a BB rifle. But where “Ralphie” was 10 or 11, I was five, but my age didn’t matter to my grandmother. If I wanted it, then by God I should have it, and so I soon did.
Elberton had a Western Auto store in those days, on North Oliver Street, fronting the town square, and that’s where she made the purchase. Donald Brown, son of a neighbor in Pearl Mill was a salesman at Western Auto and he helped me pick out the multi-shot, lever-action piece of boyhood paraphernalia, the stock polished and the metalwork finished just like my father’s guns, and even threw in a cardboard tube of BBs and a handful of paper targets. These would prove useful after the initial outing.
Back home, in my grandmother’s backyard, I took aim at all manner of targets, a tin can, a plank that stuck out from a shed, the twig of the big peach tree that stood beside the chicken coop … and then one of the chickens wandered into view. It was about half-grown, as I recall, and was one of several that regularly made it out of the fence, usually only to wander back in again. It was strutting and clucking its way along the outside of the coop’s chicken wire fence, scratching for grubs and other bugs in the dirt.
I took careful aim down the barrel, the front sight blade squarely on the chicken’s head. I pulled the trigger and the rifle spit the BB at the target. The chicken collapsed without a sound. I had hit where I had aimed; the BB had gone right into the chicken’s head.
I walked over and nudged it with my toe, expecting it to get up and get away. So far as I then grasped the whole notion of death, it had never occurred to me that the BB rifle would kill or that the chicken I shot could and would die.
I recall a sense of panic setting in. How would I explain this? There was no way out of it. The chicken was dead from being shot with a BB and I was the only one around with a BB rifle. There would be no need for a trial, and the peach tree was handy. (That was the way things tended to play out on “Gunsmoke.”) Even though I was only five, Sherlock Holmes couldn’t have added up the evidence to that conclusion any faster than I did. There was nothing else to do but confess and hope for mercy.
It was a lenient court, and I probably got off far better than I deserved. My grandmother regretted the loss of the chicken, but she made sure I understood the idea of killing only what you intend to eat. She cleaned and fried the chicken and made me eat it, even though the experience had left me with no taste at all for chicken. Before that, she did make me walk down the hill from her house, rifle in one hand, carrying my kill by its legs in the other, and show my mother what I’d done. My worst fears as I’d stood there by the chicken coop fence looking down at the still and quiet chicken hadn’t come to pass − and I kept my BB rifle. But I never again shot it at anything that was alive.
That’s why I’ve never been a hunter, at least not a hunter for sport. (And I’m not especially fond of fried chicken, either.)
All such memories, often as the years fly by, peopled by those who live on only in your memory, are milestones that add up to lead you by whatever routes and meanderings to where you are. They’re one of the things I’m most thankful for, and not just one day a year.