Family memories are the best trophy

November 29, 2008 at 06:05 PM

In 1621, near Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts, the Pilgrims celebrated their first harvest with a three-day feast.

Almost half of them who came ashore in December 1620 already had died of starvation, sickness or exposure. Those who were tough enough — and lucky enough — to make it through their first year also were humble enough to give thanks for what little they had.

As preparations for the day of thanksgiving took shape, the governor sent four men with fowling pieces out hunting, hopeful that they could bag some birds to roast for the feast. The hunters brought in enough birds to feed the settlement for a week. The game bag probably held wild turkeys, ducks and geese, and a seagull or two wouldn’t have been surprising. The surviving Pilgrims were not picky eaters.

If the bird hunters had come home empty-handed, the feast might have been canceled. That would have changed history and deprived me of my favorite day of the year.

As it was, the Pilgrims had enough extra drumsticks to invite the neighbors over. Ninety American Indians showed up. The guys with the bows and arrows were pretty good hunters, too. Instead of dinner rolls and covered dishes, they hauled in five dressed deer. Thanksgiving Day took root, and Americans still celebrate the day almost 400 years later.

While some modern day Thanksgiving feasts include wild turkeys, roast pheasant or a back strap from a young hunter’s first deer, the bounty on the dinner table seldom hinges on a successful hunt. Still, for many outdoor families, Thanksgiving Day hunts offer the opportunity for a multi-generational experience when Grandpa, Dad and the kids all go hunting. It’s as much a part of the day as turkey and dressing, mashed potatoes and gravy, and falling asleep during the late football game.

Lloyd and I used to wolf down Thanksgiving dessert and be on our way to hunt the hills and stalk fields before the old folks were done eating. We still go hunting every chance we get, but now we skip it on Thanksgiving Day.

The Big Little Thanksgiving Dinner brings a passel of Littles back to La Harpe. We eat dinner at noon (supper is the meal farm folks eat after dark). Nobody comes late or empty-handed. Nobody eats and runs — not even to go hunting.

I was a lucky kid. I saw some of my aunts and uncles nearly every day when I was growing up. I went to high school with several of my cousins. Now, I get to see everybody once a year. Everybody sticks around to visit for as long as they can.

Our Thanksgiving hunting tradition has morphed into telling stories about it. The deer have grown a few more points, the birds fly faster, the shots that started out pretty easy are now double-tough. For one afternoon, we’re better hunters than ever.

My favorite Thanksgiving leftovers are memories of the day. I hope that’s true for all of you.