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Traumatic Turkey Memories

11/21/07 7:13PM By Philip Baruth
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(HOST) These days Commentator Philip Baruth spends Thanksgiving in a big dining room full of food and family. But, when he was growing up, his Thanksgivings didn't always come so easy. Sometimes he had to fight for his turkey.

(BARUTH) For the most part, my Thanksgivings have been times of plenty. My family usually returns to my mother’s house, and I eat so much that after dinner I have to lie down on the living room carpet, and stay close to the planet. Every year I tell myself to ease up a little bit, but every year I don’t, because there are worse things in life than lying like a bloated walrus on my mother’s living room floor.

But not every Thanksgiving of my life has been packed so tightly with food and family. Some years the food in particular has been more hit or miss.

Growing up, we had a dog kennel in our back yard, with anywhere between 18 and 25 Siberian Huskies at any given time. The property was fenced in, and we used to let the dogs run in little packs of six or seven at a time for exercise.

So on Thanksgiving, and even on the day before, when my mother started cooking, the huskies would circle the house and moon around the sliding glass door, ears up, masked faces intent. It had to be torture for them, with their intense sense of smell. The huskies knew that there was a massive bird of some kind being cooked inside the house, and they also knew, every year, that they wouldn’t be offered any of this cooked bird.

No, their bowls would be full of dry hard pellets, and I think it's fair to say that the dogs collectively, as a pack, held a grudge about Thanksgiving.

When they could disrupt it, they did. One year a little black-and-white female named Zipper overturned the pie table, and ate two of the three pies my mother had made: the Dutch Apple and the Pumpkin, but she left the Lemon Meringue upside down and essentially untouched.

From that point forward, there was a total ban on huskies in the house on Thanksgiving. But the dogs just changed their timing and their tactics: three years later, on the day before Thanksgiving, a pair of dogs ripped off the frozen turkey my mom had defrosting on the counter.

Between the two of them, Thunder and Lightning got the turkey down on the floor, dragged and slid it out the back door, but at that point it was useless to them. When my mom finally spotted them with it, out under the pine trees in the back yard, they were taking turns pawing at it and licking it suspiciously. There was an almost palpable sense of disappointment out there: they had finally captured the massive bird, but humans had done something treacherous to make it inedible.

Don’t get me wrong: the dogs weren’t giving that bird up, and they defended it against all comers, including me - because my mom eventually sent me out to wrestle it away from them. Still, it was a pyrrhic victory, and you could tell their grudge would only deepen.

Later, when I moved out to Southern California for graduate school, I couldn't afford to come home for Thanksgiving, so I usually ate turkey dinner at Denny's or mahi-mahi tacos at a ramshackle little Mexican joint down the street called Wahoo’s.

All of which makes Thanksgivings these days seem sleek and fat and traditional by comparison. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course. But I'm here to tell you: nothing beats a turkey you’ve had to wrestle out of the jaws of a large animal in a mask.

Philip Baruth is a novelist who lives in Burlington. He teaches at the University of Vermont.
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