In 1949 people couldn’t get frozen Thanksgiving turkey’s at the market. Normally, when our family got together for a Thanksgiving feast, the sisters and daughters would sit down in two or three circles to pick the feathers and pin feathers out of each of the birds. Being the youngest of seven children while growing up I had the dubious honor of going after the real difficult pin feathers with a pair of tweezers. This time it was going to be different as my husband, Vic, and I had decided to have the family over to our place in Albuquerque for this holiday. We thought that getting a fresh turkey for Thanksgiving was so much better than getting one from the store. Enterprising families like ours knew someone who knew someone else who could get live turkeys from a farm for very little money. In this case we could only get one bird as there were a lot of people with the same idea.
We had worked hard for a couple of weeks to build a pen before Vic went to get the bird. When the turkey arrived we were amazed by how skinny it looked. The poor thing didn’t look anything like those in Thanksgiving pictures with their tails all spread out and the feathers all ruffled up looking happy to dress down into a baking pan. Ours was jerky, molting around the neck, and looked anemic as well as slightly angry. It would fix its little beady eyes on whatever finger was stuck in its cage and attack with vigor. Vic said that we had plenty of time to fatten it up before the big day and our biggest problem would be keeping it from becoming a pet to the children. I remember I had asked Vic if it was a boy or a girl. The problem was neither of us knew what a tom or hen looked like, so we didn’t know what we had until at a neighbor asked us why we had purchased a tom when hens were more tender. I was a little disappointed because I had heard the same thing. These days I know it doesn’t make a difference but in those days Toms were, in fact, a lot more rangy.
Elaine, my daughter, was six years old and quickly learned that you don’t put your fingers through the bird cage wire. Actually that was somewhat of a blessing because now we didn’t have to worry about Mr. Turkey becoming a pet to anybody. As a matter of fact, I don’t believe it ever got any other name which was just as well. My two and a half year old son, Kirby, took his first look at it, judged that it was bigger, more agile, and meaner than he was, and he decided just to leave it alone completely and waddled away in his droopy diapers to find other things to do.
We made a weekly pilgrimage to the grain and feed store so that the pen was kept well-stocked with corn meal. The enclosure wasn’t that big, and the bird always seemed to be hungry all the time. So it grew, and grew, and grew, until it looked like every first grader’s picture of a fattened bird. Our Pilgrim father’s would have been proud of us. It had become a magnificent specimen of its species. But, it was still very mean and I had problems with it every day trying to feed it. That was okay because I knew who was going to win in the end, although I wouldn’t say I was vindictive or anything like that.
Finally the big day came in the turkey’s life because its days had run out. We had put Elaine in the bathroom to keep her from seeing the ritual axe killing of ‘The Bird’ thinking a scene like that would not be good for one so young. I also had laid Kirby down for his nap. Vic had pulled out a short chunk of firewood for a chopping block from the winter supply, although it wasn’t quite long or wide enough to accommodate the turkey.
Kirby was tucked away sound asleep blissfully dreaming about his next bottle and Kirby safe in the bathroom. Vic opened the pen and with everything but a bugle to announce the event, laid to and attacked that turkey. He was larger and stronger but it was quicker and although Vic won the battle of getting it out and tied up, he didn’t do it without personal damage. He had known about the beak being a weapon and guarded against it. But, his shins were cut to ribbons because the bird was, in fact, a Tom, and not only had a nice set of spurs, but knew how to use them too. Those puppies were a good three inches long and naturally very sharp. Vic, at the time,
With the bird finally under control, I wanted Vic to stop for while I bandaged his legs. He may not have known it but, he had left a trail of blood to the tool shed to get the axe which wasn’t the sharpest thing in there. To put it bluntly, it would lose a sharpness comparison to a old used ice skate. Some of the neighbors were smiling and pointing. I was able to doctor him up a little with some gauze bandages and ‘monkey blood’ which is what we called mercurochrome. I knew that it stung like hell and was thankful that he was wearing an old pair of pants because it stained everything it touched. These pants by that time had been shredded by the turkey below the knees and they were splotched with Vic’s blood. They were way beyond anything Heloise could ever do for them.
Now they had met each other in battle for the first round and with Vic being a ‘macho’, can-do type the guy, I became aware of a reddish glint in his eye. He was no longer concerned with getting the bird ready for Thanksgiving dinner. He was out for Blood Revenge. ‘The Bird’ had made a mistake and fought him and ‘The Bird’ must pay the price. The fact that the price to the turkey was the same as it was before made no difference to my husband. I looked up and noticed that more neighbors gathered about and one of them even offered me a beer but I chose to just smile in their direction. Vic had started to growl a little as he reapproached the bird.
Placing the entire turkey on the chopping block was difficult because of its size and shape. Vic finally managed a good enough fit, as it were, but only when the bird would cooperate which it seemed to do every now and then. He would lay the bird down on one side. Then, after it struggled a little it would settle down. He then grabbed its head and slowly stretched its neck across the block of wood. Now, turkeys are not the smartest animals to come down the pike and sometimes it would leave well enough alone and not move for several moments. It was during these long, still, b moments that Vic had enough time to grab the axe and start a mighty back, overhead, leg lifting, swing. The bird apparently was on to what Vic was trying to do,
Because right at the apex of each try, it would pull its head up from the wood and back towards its body. Sometimes Vic would be able to stop his swing and reset the bird only to wind up again, and sometimes not. At one point he actually succeeded in clipping a bit of the bird’s beak off which added the turkey’s blood to his own and made the bird very uncooperative for quite a while. The neighbors were all starting to chuckle at this point. Vic’s eyes were not only getting very red now from anger, frustration, and exertion, his face had taken on a scarlet hew reminiscent of a desert, sunset. After all, he was an office worker not a lumberman and I’m sure a little manic depression was setting in. He just knew ‘The Bird’ was doing it to spite him. Finally Vic said to me through jaws which were clenched real tight and lips that hardly move, “Barbara Jean, I want you to reach down and grab that [blankety, blank] turkey head and hold it out there for me.”
“Listen!” I said. “You may be my husband and I love you dearly. But, if you think I’m going to put my hand down there while you’re swinging that chunk of steel you call an axe, you are are out of your skull!” Now the neighbors were moving around like they had to go to the bathroom real bad while the saga continued.
Since he had missed and his timing before so many times, Vic decided he would speed this process up and try to catch the bird before it pulled its head back. This would give him enough time to grab the ax and swing his mighty swing. So once more he leaned down and pulled what was left of the turkey’s beak back across the chopping block. He held it with his left hand as he reached around and grabbed the axe with this right and put it on his shoulder ready for use. He then snatched his hand from the bird, grabbed the axe with both hands and pulled it straight up and then slashed downward with everything he had.
At last, the bird was cleaned, stuffed with grandmother’s corn bread with giblet and mushroom dressing and roasted to a turn. The family said it was the tenderest bird of the three on the table they had ever tasted. (My brothers’ Marshall and Sam had foreseen a possible shortage and brought in two more.) The rest of the dinner was scrumptious all away down to the rolls and the four types of desserts. My sister Dana Sue, had even had a hand in grinding coffee and with John’s homemade ice cream; the entire feast was well received by the entire family. The discussions during dinner and afterwards were of family things and remembrances of past events. Vic was moving a little slow and everyone was kind enough not to mention the limp that he didn’t have the week before.
The subject of conversation at all the neighbors’ dinner wasn’t so much about their food as the scene they were exposed to when Vic swung that ax that very last time.
The turkey had jerked his head back just a little right in the middle of Vic’s power swing and he couldn’t and didn’t stop the downward movement. The axe pushed halfway through the bird neck, severing several blood vessels while snapping the bird’s neck and smashing everything else at the point of impact. The cord which was holding the bird’s feet let go and the bird sprang up and started to run all over the backyard in uneven circles with its head flopping over this way and that, while spurting blood everywhere. Vic was chasing it with a hobble. He kept falling down because his shins were not only black and blue, he was leaving out another trail of blood to add to that of the turkey’s because the gauze that I had so carefully wound around his legs was unwinding and it was not only all bloody but it started to trip him as well. He would get up and take a step then fall over. Get up again and take another step or two then fall over again. I was trying to help but kept stopping to get sick, repeatedly. The neighbors were all howling when they could stand up and were no help at all.
While all this was going on, Mikey slept blissfully totally unaware of the battle transpiring in the backyard. His elder sister, Elaine, had pulled the tooth brushing stool from under the sink and placed it in the bathtub. She had climbed up and opened the bathroom window and was hanging halfway out of it while yelling at the top of her little voice over and over again, “Get’em! Daddy. Get’em!
Manzanillo Sun’s eMagazine written by local authors about living in Manzanillo and Mexico, since 2009