November has a peculiar color, at least in New England. It’s not the flashy display of October, it’s a bit more conservative. The suddenly bare branches of the trees dominate the few leaves that are left so that the palette is mostly gray with some splashes of burnt umber and deep gold .The ground has a soft carpet of rust-color pine needles that highlight the path through the woods, and the smell of composting leaves is pungent in the cool air. It’s quiet and still, and somehow a little sad but I don’t know why. Maybe because this time of year things die, hide or fly away. The only sound I hear walking through the woods today is my feet on the soft trail and Rosie trotting ahead, or an occasional splash as she plunges into the pond for a drink.
But in the quiet, in the November woods, my memory picks up a strange sound, and I smile: it’s my dad’s turkey call, a peculiar silly high-pitched warble and with the wild turkey call I hear the steps of a small mob of armed children running through the woods. Yes, armed. The children were my siblings and me, and we are on the annual Thanksgiving Turkey Hunt.
I know my dad invented the Turkey Hunt, but he died long before I ever got to ask him questions like: Why? He had on overactive or maybe hyperactive imagination which made him any child’s dream daddy. As long as any of us can remember, we did the Turkey Hunt.
I don’t think you could pull it off today without getting arrested. My father owned two civil war swords with sheaths, an old musket and a real bayonet. I’m not sure what type of rationale he used to decide who to arm with what, but we pulled into the parking lot down at the local beach and took off through the woods, waving swords and shouting as my father ran ahead making turkey calls.
Now that I think about it, he must’ve gotten up really early, gone down to the beach and planted the turkey in the woods. And he must’ve thought of a way to remember where the turkey was hidden. The turkey was fake. In hindsight, it was useless, a small plaster or wax turkey that eventually the youngest member of the family would scream at and point to in a tree. But the turkey wasn’t the point. It was the unknown trail, the brisk November air and that even as kids we all knew it was crazy to be out in the woods chasing a turkey when other folks were inside watching the game and cracking walnuts. But we were on the hunt, my dad running like a madman before us, the rest of us taking position as the older ones pushed the younger ones ahead yelling, “I think I hear him over here!” and watching with uncontainable glee as the little ones ran ahead, probably waving a bayonet, shouting “Where? Where?”
The hunt always ended in laughter. I don’t know how we all knew to step aside as we grew up and let the younger ones win. I think it was just one of those amazing things my parents fostered in us; grace to the weaker, a helping hand. Those things have remained in place to this day.
We still all talk about the Turkey Hunt. In fact I’m going to New York Thursday to see my brothers and sister, our families and my older brother is meeting us all in the woods for a walk. I doubt we’ll have weapons. Over the years I think we have made attempts at replicating it with our own families, trying to hold the tradition down but it never took off, for various reasons. The one attempt I made when my first-born was three received chilling reviews when he looked at my cheap turkey candle like, “That’s really not a turkey. Even a three year old knows that.”
The woods were silent before me as the Turkey Hunt faded back into a long ago past. I’m still grateful for my crazy dad and his child-likeness that I see in my siblings and in my own children. The Turkey Hunt never took off in our generation, but some things did, like grace, love and a lot of laughter. If my dad was still alive I’d tell him, “Thanks”… and I’d ask him when he hid the turkey.