Victor J. Reeves
It was late November, 1946. Actually, the Friday before Thanksgiving. Six days to go.
I was working on an El Paso Natural Gas Company pipeline job, building a 26-inch line from Jal, New Mexico to the California state line. I say “working” with my fingers crossed. Although there is no harder, more degrading and disorienting job than pipeline construction, at the moment I was only a night watchman because my left arm was in a cast. So what I was doing could hardly be called work. I watched a specific spot on the pipeline and the equipment that was parked there at night. Most of each day was my own, to explore the beautiful scenery of southern New Mexico and Arizona, go into whatever town was in reach, shop or get better acquainted with my bride.
Randy and I were in Tucson on that Friday, trying to buy some groceries.
We had our trailer parked right at the job, moving every few days, and at this moment it was approximately 40 miles southeast of Tucson, mostly by very rough road. It was a good four-hour round trip. My young cousin, whom I hadn’t seen since we were kids, was a student at the University of Arizona at Tucson. We had gotten in touch with her by phone and invited her to come out to our trailer for Thanksgiving dinner. She had accepted (surprise, surprise) and instructed me about where to pick her up. I wanted to scope out the campus, and get the turns written down. We did that first, and were ready to find a grocery store.
I should point out that rationing and price controls had just gone off, and there was not a lot to choose from. Stores were mostly sold out, or what they had was high-priced and maybe a little old. I don’t think supermarkets had been invented yet. We looked for a meat market/grocery store. Sort of a Mom and Pop place.
We found one, and the Mom and Pop were an elderly Chinese couple. They were very polite, and helped us all they could. Randy soon found everything she needed to make dressing, pumpkin pie, and mashed potatoes and gravy. Now she needed eggs.
Mr. China brought out an egg carton, only half-full, and said that was all they had. He almost whispered the price: $.95 a half-dozen. Randy nearly choked, but asked the standard question: “Are they fresh?”
Wrong question. The little man squeaked. “Fresh? FRESH? Sure they fresh! Here, look … still DIRTY! You want?”
Now it was Randy’s turn to squeak: “Oh, yes, we want.”
Our little oven could not handle a turkey, so Randy wanted to get a nice hen for roasting. “Hens, no hens. Got nice Spam. Got TWO cans!” The old man was bragging.
I had seen all the Spam I ever wanted to see in the Army, and I hadn’t been out very long. I tried to forget all the new words I had learned in the Army and said, as politely as I could, “NO! NO SPAM!”
“Hokey, hokay. I got nice duck. Saved just for nice lady like you. You wait. I get.” With these words, he opened an ordinary cabinet (no refrigeration or ice, none in the store apparently) and pulled out a large duck. “You see? Very nice!”
Randy forgot herself. “Is it fresh?” she asked. Now there was no attempt to speak English properly. “FLESH? FLESH? Sure flesh. Eggs flesh. Duck FLESH! EVLYTHING flesh! You want?” was his challenge.
“Oh yes, we want. How much please? Let me pay you. Thank you very much!” She almost gagged over the price but he had us over a barrel and he knew it.
We just had to find some ice, and we’d be able to get out of this town. I imagine Tucson at that time was about 1/4 or less of what it is today.
Oh, no — there was a parking ticket on our car. A RED one, which meant I’d better look at it. It said I had to be in court at 10 a.m. Monday. Today was Friday, and nothing would be happening Saturday or Sunday. There was no way I could be in Tucson at 10 a.m. Monday. I’ve gotta find that cop and see if I can’t just pay the fine and go on home. I drove up one street and down the next until I was blue in the face and everywhere else. We finally saw a policeman about six blocks from where we had parked. I didn’t believe his beat was that big, so maybe this one would be more sympathetic.
“Officer, I need to speak to a policeman. I don’t suppose you’re Officer Ryan, are you? I’ve driven all over looking for him, but he must have gone off duty by now.”
“I’m officer Ryan, son. What’s the problem?” Oh boy, he probably recognized our car with the New Mexico license. “Well, sir, I’ve got a ticket here and it says I have to be in court at 10 a.m. Monday. That’s gonna to be awful hard. You see, I work on the El Paso Natural Gas Company pipeline about 40 miles from here and I don’t get off duty early enough to make it by that time. I just wondered if I could pay my fine to you? We are in town for the first time and I didn’t know there was limited parking there.”
“No, don’t suppose you noticed the sign. Your car has been there all day and I left you a yellow ticket a couple hours ago. That was just a warning, but when you ignored that, I had to leave you a real ticket. It would mean my job if I didn’t.”
He was a kindly looking older man — about the age of my dad — as most policemen were in those war years and just after.
I decided to try working on his sympathy. “Officer Ryan, my wife and I have just been grocery shopping for a Thanksgiving dinner — the first one we’ve ever had together, and my little cousin, who goes to school at U of A, is coming out to our trailer at the job site. We’ve been so wrapped up in shopping for that dinner that we lost track of the time. I don’t want to get out of paying the fine. I’d just like to pay it today if I could so we can get back out to the trailer and concentrate on the dinner. Is there anyway I could do that?”
He seemed to have a battle going within himself, but he either won or lost, I don’t know which. He said, “I never saw you. I never talked to you. If I were you, I’d take that ticket and frame it. Now get out of here!” We GOT.
We headed out to where I thought I could buy ice. We could only handle 25 pounds in our little icebox, which would last about three days. I got another 25, hoping to find something to wrap it in and make it last another day or so. The future of our duck depended upon it. We thought of something to help: Each evening, when the crew was ready to start back to town, they usually had four or five gallons of ice water left, which they dumped. Those three evenings (and every afternoon from then on) either Randy or I was right there to catch that ice water. We found lots of uses for it.
When the ice in the icebox had all melted, Randy took her duck out, wrapped him in two or three clean dish towels (made out of flour sacks by my mom) and soaked all of that every three hours or so, up to and including Wednesday night. She certainly tried hard.
Thursday morning came. “Five a.m. Uppanattum, Randy!” I growled in her ear. “Time for the great unveiling. Will we have duck or …. ooo … yech! That duck is green!”
He certainly was. Not all over, but mostly. All we could do was stand and look at each other. Not for long. My bride took charge. “Get me a pan of water; it’s warm enough right out of the barrel, some soap and a good rough washrag. We’re not licked yet.” And she wasn’t. That duck got a real old-fashioned GI scrub. She scrubbed until all of her knuckles were raw. The duck didn’t have much hide left, and there was a lot of stringy fat we pulled off. She picked the slimy thing up and … you guessed it. That yuckball just slooped out of her hands and went skidding the full-length of our trailer — 21 feet. I figured she would cry, kick the duck and run outside to cool off, where she couldn’t even see that poor excuse for a bird.
She didn’t. She said, “Go get the nasty thing and bring it back here.” I only had one arm, but I attempted to do as she asked. It was a losing proposition from the beginning. I could feel that squi-uck slipping out of my grasp, so I yelled, “Duck, Randy!” Well, she didn’t know which way to duck, so she opened her arms wide and when it hit her square in the chest, she just wrapped both of her arms around it and hugged it like a long-lost child. For about two seconds. Then, still very calm and coldly determined, she deposited the whole ball of duckanyuk in the middle of our kitchen table. She then stripped off all of her unspeakable clothes, threw them on the floor and booted them out the door. She got her bathrobe and put it on. Then she instructed me to take that nasty dishpan “way out in the four-letter desert, dump it, rinse it out and bring me a fresh pan of clean water, a clean washrag and …” now you’re not going to believe this part … “your razor.”
“Razor? No way, honey. No Thanksgiving dinner is worth slitting your wrists over it.” Ooops (pronounced deep in the throat GDNKKK).
Giving me a stare like maybe she would slit mine, she quietly told me to get started on the four-hour trip to Tucson and back so she could get to work. Thank you.
At this point, she still had never met Nancy or even seen a picture of her. I’m sure she could think of things she’d rather be doing than resurrecting, embalming and disguising a rotten duck to feed my relative.
Looking at her face as she told me to Get Gone, I went. Wouldn’t you? I was sure she just wanted privacy so she could clean up the mess and herself, and start cooking something exotic out of Spam. Not so. I deserved a tongue-lashing for doubting her determination.
When Nancy and I got back, the Port-a-Palace was spic and span, the dinner smelled delicious, but we would have to wait about 45 minutes for the bird to be done. We could visit, she and Nancy could get acquainted, and we would all tell about our lovely Thanksgiving day so far. When it was time, Nancy helped Randy get the food on the table and the two seemed as comfortable together as a mother and daughter.
The dinner was delectable. All of it, from duck, dressing and gravy, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce to a perfect pumpkin pie. It was obvious my bride knew her way around a kitchen.
When it was time to take Nancy back, Randy asked if we minded if she didn’t go. She just felt like kicking off her shoes and closing her eyes. We all agreed that was just exactly what she should do. The girls hugged, there were a few tears, and Nancy and I were ready to leave.
But there’s still another little chapter to this saga. Our trailer was a 1930-something model, made in the style of that decade, all rounded like a little loaf of bread. The only place in it that a normal person could stand upright was right down the middle. I couldn’t stand upright at all in it. This meant that the only door was about five-four in height, and very difficult to get through, worse going out than coming in. You just had to bow your head deeply, flex your knees, and sort of creep out like a butterfly emerging from his cocoon.
Nancy didn’t know that. I doubt she had been in very many cocoons, I mean Port-A-Palaces. And I had neglected to tell her. I saw that she was going to bump her head, and I did the only thing I could think of. I yelled, “Duck, Nancy!”
Too late. She went clunk, but was not hurt. We just laughed about it as we walked out to the car. But I could hear the faint sound of muffled sobbing coming from the trailer. Randy told me later, “I don’t ever want to hear the word ‘duck’ again!”
I got back very late. Randy had been keeping an eye on the equipment for me, and after I got home, we alternated the rest of the night, watching and snoozing.
I didn’t learn until Friday afternoon that, the minute I left for Tucson to get Nancy, she had flown into action. She delicately shaved that whole bird down to edible-looking meat, rinsed it inside and out, soaked it in salt water for an hour, then crammed it full of her magic-flavored dressing (with lots of sage and onion), popped it into the oven for approximately three-and-a-half hours (counting the 45-minutes after our guest arrived).
I told her, and I meant it, that it could not have been better if our moms had cooked it.
Sometimes when I try to save a little money I create additional problems (or adventures) for myself.
My new “real” job is across from a shopping center that often has seasonal kiosks out front. I’d been driving by a pumpkin place every day for a month. Last week I stopped in and asked if I could buy the leftover pumpkins cheaply the day after Halloween. The guy said the year before he GAVE everything (pumpkins, corn stalks, straw) to another farmer in exchange for her cleaning and sweeping the lot. He said she just took the pumpkins and left. He got into trouble with the shipping center managers over the mess left behind. He also said that a number of people had been coming by trying to get pumpkins for free. He said that if I did a good job cleaning up, he’d give everything to me. I thought that was great! So I said yes, believing he’d be open fairly late on Halloween and I’d be able to go over, collect everything and clean up after I was done working that day.
Well, turns out the guy who ran the pumpkin stand wanted to go home early that day, Halloween or not! I had already parked my truck and trailer behind his stand when he started calling me to come pick up the stuff. Unfortunately, I had an appointment with a customer at work that I couldn’t cancel so I called my brother and had him drive up with my kids before he went to work. My brother and the kids loaded up all the stuff and swept up while my customer took two more hours of my time and did not buy anything (this was his second appointment with me, too!) The kids said some “mean lady” with two big thug sons kept pestering them and the pumpkin stand manager. She kept asking why he was letting my kids take all the pumpkins and not her … over and over, even cussing in front of my 11-year-old daughter. During the hour the kids were cleaning up, she followed my kids and the manager around, bothering them.
A “nice lady” with a little girl dressed up like a princess came over and the manager gave her a pumpkin free to spite the “mean lady.” This, of course, made Meanie madder still. My son said the manager told the woman her problem was that she was too damn lazy and that’s why he wasn’t giving her anything. I’m guessing she’s the woman who got him in trouble last year.
When they were all done, my brother drove the kids over to my work and dropped them off. When my customer finally left, I left my kids in front of the TV in the customer lounge and went over to pick up my truck. As I was driving out of the parking lot, I went over a speed bump and wondered why the trailer was bouncing around so much. At first, I thought it was just an uneven load, until I went up the hill out of the parking lot and into the left turn lane. The trailer fell off the hitch and was held on the hill to my truck ONLY by a chain. I got out to look and saw that the ball hitch had been unlatched by someone … I think I know who!
I cranked the trailer tongue up, but because it was on a hill, I couldn’t get it high enough. I couldn’t lift and push it over, either. I dug around in my truck, looking for the jack so I could lift up the trailer tongue. The jack was too short. Meanwhile, even though I had my hazards on and waved my arms for people to go around, they kept pulling up behind my trailer … I was having visions of it rolling downhill and crushing someone’s little car.
The finance manager (Ron), bless his soul, noticed I’d been gone awhile and came over to check on me. (He’s also the fellow who keeps an eye out for me if I show a car at night to someone who looks a little unsavory. I owe him.) He ran into Kmart and bought a jack, thinking that would be faster than going back to the dealership and unlocking the shop. The jack he bought was too short. I climbed into the back of the truck and moved a few yucky wet bales of straw out of the way (I was wearing dress and heels … oh well) and found a few pieces of wood, which we put on top of the jack. Then we pushed and tugged the tongue of the trailer because it had moved about five inches from the ball hitch. People of all races and in varying vehicles, mostly new and nice, kept honking and flipping us off, like we lost a trailer in front of a traffic light on purpose.
Some nice Latino guy got out of his 1970s Oldsmobile, put a chunk behind my trailer and helped us pull and tug the trailer over. When we got it reattached, we said thanks and he got back in his Olds. Wish I’d gotten his name and address.
The kids and I left the dealership at 9 p.m. and just left the trailer in the driveway, still attached. The next morning I unloaded everything. Except for the trailer problem, we did really well.
I gave the goats three bundles of corn stalks. I spread out cardboard in the muddiest areas of the pig yard and covered it with wet straw. The straw was already sprouting, so chickens immediately covered it, as excited as a bunch of kids with chocolate chip cookies. I gave the sheep three bundles of corn stalks. I have four pigs in a 12’X7′ holding pen waiting for someone to buy them this weekend. I laid cardboard down in their “potty corner” and covered this with straw. Then I spread more straw down in their entire pen and put corn stalks on top of this. I gave these four pigs half a dozen big pumpkins I’d cracked open. The meat chickens got a pumpkin too … but they’re too dumb to know what to do with it. They just kept looking at it. The rabbits got a little pumpkin. The chickens and pigs in the back yard got more corn stalks and a dozen big pumpkins. I still have about two dozen corn stalk bundles, about 20 small pumpkins I’ve put aside for human use, and about 70 pumpkins for animal consumption.
I plan to do this again next year, but I will be there myself to keep Halloween tricksters away!