Thanksgiving in Pleasant Grove has always been a time of family gatherings, joyous feastings lubricated with good gravy, and parades and football games on TV. Except the year that Maple Shepherd stopped the annual turkey shoot with her crazy notion that turkeys deserved to die with dignity—by which she meant a hatchet. That year, all 4’10” of her skinny meanness stood on the old stump out under the trees in the little park on the corner of Main and 200 South and shouted to all who would listen that shooting turkeys wasn’t right. No sir. Her grandmother taught her that a turkey had to die on a cottonwood chopping block on the very week of Thanksgiving, because that’s the way the Pilgrims did it. To do otherwise was an offense to their memory and to yea, even God Himself. Harken even unto Him who hath ordained it such, she would cry. We paid no heed. We all knew Maple. She was always as angry as a badger with the clothespin on its tail, and we took a don’t-get-too-close-or-you’ll-get-bitten approach.
Well of course we were used to her rantings—she did it every Thanksgiving. Nonetheless, the turkey shoot went on year after year and neither God nor the ghosts of the Pilgrims appeared to have a mind to put a stop to it. Until that one fateful day that permanently ended that which had gone on since pioneer days. And those of us that were there, who saw what happened . . . well we won’t forget.
It was one of those warm years. Here it was, near December, and Timp had not a lick of snow on her sides. The news was reporting every night about the ski resorts being downcast and troubled about the weather, but we who had neither the money nor means to hit the slopes were enjoying every minute of the extended fall.
The shoot was a tradition I enjoyed. I kept my 12 gage shotgun all oiled up just for this event because I was getting too old to go out after ducks any more and pheasants required a good dog to flush them out and mine was a lazy dachshund that would have died of a heart attack if it ever met a pheasant, so my gun was kept around just for the turkey shoot. And not to brag, but over the course of my life I’d won the event a time or two.
That year, on the day before the shoot, however, crazy Maple went out to the fairgrounds where we held the event and let all the turkeys go. Every one. All two hundred+ of them. They put out a call for the volunteer fire department, of which I was a proud member, to come and round them up.
We all had walky-talkies that we set on the same channel and started trying to round them up, but it was strange, the turkeys didn’t scatter like turkeys should. No. They all made a run for it up Battle Creek Drive. All of them stampeding like a herd of miniature buffalo. And more strange still, they were running along at a good clip. I’d never seen the like. Their heads were bobbing and their waddles swinging with a hypnotic rhythm—you know how their red waddles can set you in a trance.
Anyway. We tried to stop them. Waving our arms and shouting, trying to steer them away, but they weren’t scared of anything. And there was Maple, skinny as a winter cutthroat in a brown trout stream, jogging in the center wearing a housecoat and her fuzzy pink slippers, calling out encouragement and cadence to the turkeys. Someone tried to talk to her, but she just flipped them off and gave them a look that would have frightened a mama grizzly bear.
Well more and more of the town’s folk joined in the chase until we had about as many people as birds. We tried to set up a human chain to herd them back but every time we thought we were making progress, one of them would just make a jump and give one of those noisy, wing thumping, short flights right over people’s heads and the rest of the turkeys would do the same.
Well, they turned up the gravel road that runs alongside the Murdock Canal and we knew we had them if we hurried and surrounded them completely. If they jumped one way they’d end up in the waters of the canal (which was still flowing because the warm weather was keeping some people’s tomatoes alive even though it was that late in the season). If they leapt to the other side they would be met by the Benton’s three fierce Mastiffs, which were running back and forth behind the wire fence making such a fuss at the two hundred birds they would be crazy to fly that way. And we owned the road with a good bunch of Pleasant Grovers ready and willing to capture the birds with nets and hands if necessary.
Now, this next part you will not believe. No one does that wasn’t there that day. They’ve called it ‘Mass hysteria’ as if that explains what we saw. What more than two hundred of us saw!
The birds all of the sudden got real quiet. And started all staring up towards the mountains. All of their eyes and beaks directed the same way. Watching. Their waddles as still as death. All of them intent on something we could not see. Even Maple, still standing in the center of the birds, was peering out shading her eyes with her hand, trying to see what the fowl were attending to. Then we saw it. Flying low toward us was a flock of Canadian geese, winging it south in a well-formed ‘V’. All of them honking to one another as they do. The turkeys (and everyone was watching and we saw it) all of the sudden exploded into the air with their feather rattling racket and joined those fast-flying geese in their V. Six of them grabbed Maple with their weird feet—two toms on her boney arms, two on her knobby legs, and a couple clutching her housecoat. With extraordinary effort, they pulled her skyward. She looked at us and gave a big smile of surprise and delight, then flapped her little hands at the wrist as if she were trying to help achieve liftoff. As her feet left the ground, she angled her face toward the wind and grinning like a bear in a beehive left the confines of the earth.
Now all of us knew turkeys can fly only a short spell, not like geese, but there they were powering their way South as awkward as my dachshund trying to swim in a pool of Jell-O. Some of them holding onto an adult-sized woman! We chased them a bit but soon they disappeared in the distance with Maple’s pink slippers bobbing along behind like a couple of giant pink bumble bees. We could could see them bouncing behind the graceless flock of fowl for a long while. It was the last we would ever see of Maple.
Now I know you don’t believe me. Or any of the many people there. You’ll make up some story about a conspiracy among us. Or something. I’ve had a BYU biologist patiently explain why turkeys can’t do what we saw them do, telling me that the wild ones are only good for a few hundred yards, but these domestic turkeys would be lucky to make it 50 yards with a hurricane pushing them from behind.
Yet they did. And those of us who know it, call it ‘The Day the Turkeys Flew.’ After that, we didn’t hold the shoot anymore. Most of those who were invested in it, were there that day, and we haven’t had the gumption to go against whatever it was that let those birds do what they did that Thanksgiving Day.
So now every year I raise a glass over our store-bought oven-roasted Butterball, and toast Maple and the ones who got away and wish them happy trails wherever they finally landed.