A week before Thanksgiving in 1938, my teenage brother and I walked through vast fields that sprawled behind the house where we lived in Queens, New York. In those days most of the area consisted of woods and farmland.
Dan wore Dad’s old Mackinaw coat which was worn on the sleeves at the elbows and a little tattered about the edges. We got to the top of the hill and the woods smelled sweet after the rain the night before.
“Dan, can we pick some berries up by the stream?” I asked.
“Sure, but what’s the use? We’ll have a pie for dessert and no turkey for dinner.”
I heard a funny noise and said, “Dan, you hear that?”
“Hear what?” he asked.
“That!” I said as I pointed at a large bird staring at us from behind a big oak tree.
“That’s an honest to goodness gobbling turkey,” Dan whispered back. He looked around and picked up a big rock.
“Talk to it,” he said, “while I creep around and pound him.”
Visions of a steaming bird on our Thanksgiving dinner table filled my head. I said, “Hey, Tom, Mr. Turkey, I mean, how are you? I guess not too good since next week is Thanksgiving.”
Dan threw the rock but missed. The bird ran right past me in a flash and disappeared into the dark woods.
“Did you see how fast that bird ran?” I said. “He’s faster than Jesse Owens!”
Dan said, “Say nothing about this to Ma and Pop, okay?”
“Sure, if you say so, Dan.”
“We’ll take Pop’s shotgun tomorrow after school and we’ll roam these woods until we find that bird and bag ourselves Thanksgiving dinner.”
For the next few days we did the same thing after school: we came into the house, kissed our mother, put our books away, and sneaked into Pop’s closet and took his shotgun. I carried the shells and Dan rested the gun on his shoulder as we walked quickly toward the woods. Each day seemed to get colder and the darkness came earlier. On the day before Thanksgiving we heard the funny little noise again. Dan put his finger up to his mouth. “Don’t make a move,” he whispered.
“Do you want me to talk to him again?” I whispered.
“Yes,” Dan said, “I’ll go over and get him from behind that bush.”
The turkey stared at me with dark eyes, its big black-banded wings fluttering ever so slightly. It made little curdling noises while bending its head to the side as if to study me. It suddenly came into my mind that this bird was a victim, a lost soul in a world of lost souls, and we wanted to eat him for a holiday dinner and couldn’t care less about his troubles. I looked up and saw Dan as he started to take aim at the bird. I ran forward, waving my arms back and forth yelling, “Run, Mr. Turkey, run like Jesse Owens and get away.”
Dan had pulled the trigger but the turkey once again flew past me faster than my favorite athlete. Dan ran toward me and screamed, “Are you nuts?”
“I felt sorry for him, Danny,”
“Sorry for him?” Dan asked.
“I thought he might have a family.”
Dan grabbed me by the coat and shook me. “If I wouldn’t get in trouble, I’d beat you up.” He let go of me and went off into the woods and back towards home.
As we came toward the house we could see Pop waiting for us on the front porch, the lit pipe glowing in his mouth. Imposing in his police uniform coat and hat, Pop asked, “Where have you boys been with my shotgun?”
Dan handed it to Pop nervously. “We were trying to shoot a turkey for dinner tomorrow.”
“A turkey?” Pop asked. “There’s been no turkeys around here for twenty years.”
“We saw one, Pop,” I said.
Pop said. “Get inside and wash up.”
The next morning I woke to the aroma of Ma’s cooking. I went into the kitchen and found my mother basting a huge bird. I said, “Ma, did Pop get that from Krauss the butcher?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “He surprised me this morning with it.”
I went out to the garage where Pop was sawing wood. I asked, “Where’d you get the turkey, Pop?”
“You boys said that you saw a turkey out there in the woods, so I went to take a look.”
I felt my stomach turn and asked, “You shot Tom?”
“I didn’t stop to ask him his name,” Pop said.
I felt sick and went outside and started up the hill in the cold, thinking about the turkey and how my father had shot it for us. He didn’t think about the turkey’s family, or if it was lost, or even if it had a name. These were hard times and people were starving all over our country. Who was going to mourn the loss of one bird?
I started thinking that I was going to enjoy this meal just as much as anyone in my family would. The gravy and the stuffing and the bird itself would be delicious. The Fantinis of Queens, New York, were going to have a true feast this Thanksgiving, one to rival ones being eaten by those rich people living on Fifth Avenue.
I thought about my mother’s pie made with the raspberries I had picked along the stream. Ma said it would be one of the best pies we had ever eaten. I stood up and looked at the smoke coming out of my chimney, the windows of my house so warm against the cold, and at that moment I couldn’t have wanted to be anyone else or live anywhere else in the world. I was more certain of this than anything I had ever known in my young life as I started back down the hill and headed home for dinner.