PAT NEAL: A Dirty Thirties Thanksgiving

THIS IS A story of an Olympic Peninsula family celebrating Thanksgiving in the olden days.

It was back in the Depression, the Dirty Thirties. Pa had somehow got some turkey chicks. The plan was to have them for Thanksgiving, Christmas and all of our holiday dinners. It’s a good thing we didn’t know how hard raising turkeys was.

I thought a turkey for Thanksgiving would beat what we had the year before, a grouse split between the four of us. Last Christmas we had a spawned-out salmon for Christmas dinner. It was rank no matter how much salt and pepper you put on it.

When Pa showed up from town with eight turkey chicks, they were helpless little fuzz balls that had somehow survived the long trip home in a gunny sack on horseback. We put the chicks in a box full of dried moss behind the cookstove, which smelled terrific after a few days. Then we gave them all names. There were eight turkeys so we named them after Santa’s eight reindeer. The only problem was the turkeys all looked the same. We couldn’t tell one from the other.

We fed the chicks cornmeal mush, but one of them — we figured it was Dasher — looked a little peaked. Dasher didn’t make it through the first week.

Then we were down to seven turkeys.

Once the turkeys were big enough, we put them in the chicken house. They got along with the chickens at first but after a little while the turkeys got too big to stay inside all day. We had to turn them loose. That’s when the trouble started.

They spent the day out in the woods catching bugs and taking dust baths. Pa figured it would save on feed letting the turkeys find their own grub until a big bald eagle swooped in and got Prancer and then we were down to six turkeys.

The real trouble started once the turkeys got so big we couldn’t get them back in the chicken house at night. Right before sundown, they would fly up into the limbs of a big fir tree to roost. There must have been a raccoon living up in that tree. Or maybe an owl got them. Next thing you know there was a pile of feathers on the ground and Comet and Cupid were missing.

That summer, what was left of the turkeys started serenading us with their gobble-gobble call, which acted like a dinner bell to every varmint in the country. Donner disappeared.

The coyotes got Blitzen and Dancer. Then we only had only one turkey left. She was a big hen we had named Vixen. We changed her name to Lucky and locked her back in the chicken house for safe keeping. Lucky got some extra grain to fatten up before the big Thanksgiving dinner.

As Thanksgiving approached, we were excited about our big dinner. Ma wanted a sage dressing. Pa wanted oyster dressing made with some canned smoked oysters he’d been saving for a special occasion. There was quite a disagreement but us kids didn’t care what kind of dressing we had as long as we had a turkey dinner.

The morning before the big day Pa came into the house with bad news.

Something broke into the hen house and Lucky was gone. Pa left the house with a shotgun and came back long after dark with a big blue grouse for Thanksgiving dinner.

We all gave thanks at our Thanksgiving dinner.

Pa said it’s better to give thanks for what you have than feel sorry for what you don’t.


Pat Neal is a Hoh River fishing and rafting guide and “wilderness gossip columnist” whose column appears here every Wednesday.

He can be reached at 360-683-9867 or by email via patneal [email protected].

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