Earlier this week as I started thinking about the millions of people throughout the United States who are preparing to gather with families and friends on Nov.22 to celebrate Thanksgiving Day, I reminisced about how magical this holiday was when growing up on the outskirts of Chicago.
In the late 1950s, my paternal grandparents lived in a frame home in the small central Illinois town of Paxton where my father’s Uncle Fred, who was sheriff of Ford County at that time, also lived. The men in our family followed a tradition of hunting for pheasant and rabbit on the morning before Thanksgiving. One year when I was in 7th grade, my dad invited me to tag along. This was my first time going on a hunting trip with the men of the family.
My dad and I got up at 4 a.m. on a very dark and cold morning and drove south in our dark blue 1950 Ford to Paxton on the back roads of rural Illinois. Everyone going hunting that morning met at the courthouse, which was next door to Fred’s home, at daybreak. Our group, which included several of Fred’s deputy friends, piled into two cars and headed to the hunting fields several miles away, which were blanketed by about seven inches of snow that fell days earlier.
Within several hours, the men bagged their limit of pheasant and rabbit and we took our share back to my grandfather’s home to clean them in his tiny basement. My job was removing shotgun pellets from the carcasses. On Thanksgiving Day, my grandmother prepared the rabbit and pheasant along with the traditional turkey and fixings...and I’ll never forget that day as everything smelled and tasted so good...and it was nice having the family together as we only saw my grandparents and my dad’s aunt and uncle once or twice a year.
As it turned out, that was the last time I went hunting with the men in our family as my grandfather and dad’s uncle were getting up in their years and they decided to end this tradition that year.
Fast-forward 13 years later. I was around 20 years old and serving on the USS Lloyd Thomas, DD 764, in the 12th Fleet based in Newport, Rhode Island. Many men on the ship were career Navy men who lived with their families nearby. I volunteered to take duty over Thanksgiving for one of my local friends since I couldn’t afford to go home for the holidays anyway. Anticipating a gloomy Thanksgiving dinner with anything but traditional Thanksgiving fare since we had a skeleton crew, the chief mess cook surprised us all by serving a huge, traditional turkey dinner with all the fixings. Forget about the myths that all military food tastes bad...this dinner rivaled the best white table cloth restaurant dinner. What’s more, the 15 or so of us on board ate turkey for days (and for breakfast, lunch and dinner)... but no one complained.
Now, here we are more than 40 years later. Although my love for turkey persists, my family doesn’t care for the noble bird so my wife will once again be preparing Betsy’s Chicken this Thanksgiving. This recipe includes boneless, skinless chicken breasts with seasoning and Swiss cheese layered on top, homemade cream of chicken velvet soup on top of that and home-made toasted, seasoned bread crumbs sprinkled as the topping, which gets popped into the oven. This very old family recipe features all the traditional flavors of Thanksgiving, but served in a convenient casserole format.
As our family prepares to gather for Thanksgiving at our house, I once again give thanks for the blessings bestowed upon me, my family and friends – plus for the many wonderful memories of Thanksgivings-past. A special thanks should also go to the many meat and poultry companies that donated food to food banks and homeless shelters for the less fortunate so they will not go to bed hungry Thanksgiving night.
And we should all say a special Thanksgiving prayer for the brave men and women serving in the armed forces; many in dangerous, faraway places. I know most of them will be remembering Thanksgivings-past as they go about their duties that special day.
Last but not least, here’s wishing you and yours a safe and happy Thanksgiving and one that will serve up happy memories for you, your family and friends for the rest of your lives.
I’d like to sign off with a special Thanksgiving prayer by Edgar A. Guest for those who work in the US meat and poultry industry:
When turkey’s on the table laid,
And good things I may scan,
I’m thankful that I wasn’t made....