Once upon a time, there was no refrigeration and no frozen turkeys at Thanksgiving. So often in life, we get used to something we never had before, and it becomes so common that we feel it always existed.
In the 1930s, there were no fluorescent lights, very few automobiles, no refrigeration or television. Everything was newspapers and radio and shopping for fresh meat and fish everyday.
At Thanksgiving, turkeys would be hung in the meat markets and grocery stores of the time. On Franklin Square, there was the First National Store, Beit Bros. and the Mohican Market. Behind the meat counter were headless turkeys hanging by their webbed feet.
Of course, scattered across Norwich were a host of turkey farms. Many of the farmers would deliver fresh-killed turkeys, but you had to pluck the feathers yourself. It was a messy job. Those who had automobiles would drive to the farms where many of them even cooked the turkeys to be picked up Thanksgiving Day.
To be sure, it was a different world. But, the best part of Thanksgiving isn’t the turkey. It is getting the family together. Except for mother, it is the only holiday of the year you don’t have to do anything except sit down, eat and enjoy the company.
As kids, Halloween was important to Thanksgiving, because in those days, all of the garbage cans were wooden. On Halloween, the children, mostly boys, would wear costumes, but they also did dirty tricks, which, looking back, I am ashamed of.
We would cut clotheslines, let the air out of car tires, wax windows, and, most important of all, we dumped all the garbage out of those wooden barrels and took the barrels, hiding them in garages and basements so that on Thanksgiving night we could have a traditional Thanksgiving barrel burn.
Norwich, with its nine hills, had many barrel-burning sites. There was a barrel burn on Fox Hill, Ox Hill, Jail Hill and Mount Pleasant. On Roath Street and at the Lake Street Playground, the legendary barrel-burner, Sal Colonna, had the biggest fire of all with the Baltic Street and Roath Street gangs collecting all the barrels, tires and boxes.
On Thanksgiving Day, it was football, turkey and barrel burns. On Thanksgiving morning, the Norwich Free Academy, in the early 1930s, had alumni day, and the game started at 10. All of the NFA players from the past — some of them college students, some of them in the service, but all alumni who could make it — would play the NFA varsity.
Let me tell you a sad story about the Thanksgiving varsity game of 1916. My uncle, Bill Stanley, who I am named for, was home from Holy Cross. He was injured in the game on that Thanksgiving Day, so long ago, and taken from the field. He died a year later, after never walking again. In the 1940s, the game time was the same, but the team was always the Worcester Commerce.
Most people walked to the football game. There were few cars. The hill in the back of the bleachers behind NFA would be packed. To have 3,000 people at a Thanksgiving football game was the norm. There are times, I am sure, there were 4,000 people and only 25 automobiles.
We were a lot healthier then. We did more walking, and we ate less – except on Thanksgiving.
There is something about looking back and remembering. I remember how wonderful it was getting out of school in autumn, walking home and smelling the burning leaves. It was almost as sacred as incense in church. They don’t allow that anymore, though I, for one, think there are too many silly restrictions. Did it pollute the air? Yes. Was that once-per-year pollution so damaging that a national tradition be abandoned?
When you consider the holidays, there were things we used to do that we can no longer do. No fireworks on the Fourth of July. That was so much fun for kids, and I am sure some were injured by the firecrackers, but, on balance, there are more dangerous things today that seem to escape regulation.
Thanksgiving to many is such a wonderful holiday. Looking back, as I do, Thanksgiving Day is symbolically the same, but actually quite different than years ago. You buy those frozen Butterball turkeys, and all of the veggies come in frozen packages. Instead of visiting, there is a football game on and the big Macy’s Day Parade. It is fun, and it is wonderful, but it is also so different. We would thank the Lord for all of our blessings as we sat around the festive table.
So, this coming Thursday, a lot of turkeys will make the ultimate sacrifice, and we will all enjoy more food than we should, but, more importantly, we will cherish the friendship of associates and family.
May everyone reading this column enjoy Thanksgiving and give thanks for all of the blessings that have been bestowed on this great country and all of us individually.
Read at Your Own Risk
My daughter, Mary, helps me greatly with my wife, Peg, who suffers from Alzheimer’s. I told her what I thought to be a funny story, but instead of laughter she said, “That’s gross, Dad.” So read on at your own risk.
When I was 5 or 6 years old, one Thanksgiving, my uncle Lefty Dugas, Norwich’s most famous ballplayer, my father, a mailman, and my uncle Henry Keroack bought a turkey for dinner, and we drove to Baltic, my mother’s hometown. In the big house, on the hill, we took the turkey to the cellar. It had a dirt floor and a chopping block.
My Uncle Lefty held the turkey, with its neck on the block, and my father with an ax, cut the bird’s head off. Lefty let go of the turkey which, for what seemed liked a long time, ran around the basement with no head. It traumatized me, and that Thanksgiving, as I looked at the big bird, I couldn’t eat, and it haunted me for several years. But today, at 80, I look forward to that big, stuffed turkey we are having this year at my son Bill’s house.
Happy Thanksgiving to everyone everywhere. We have so much to be thankful for.