By Michael Miller
Autumn in the hills of East TN is a very special time. The smell of fresh-cut hay hangs heavy in the cool crisp air. Hills and hollers are dressed in their Sunday best; sporting vivid hues of orange, red and gold. An elegant mist hovers at tree-top level, just as a bride wears her veil on her wedding day. Ridges and hill tops randomly pierce the fog; a high vantage point reveals an illusion of scattered islands in a distant sea.
I love walking through this wood in Autumn, it’s a delight to the senses, the fallen leaves give way under foot with a pleasing crunch. Squirrels are heard chattering in the tree-tops as they go about their day; collecting hickory nuts and other winter staples. A nip hangs in the air; just enough to tingle the nose and cool the lips.
A few years ago, I was enjoying such a bucolic setting as this, as I recall, it was in the month of November and Thanksgiving was closing fast A cool Friday afternoon found me on my way home from work; via one of the many mountain back-roads. Life was about to change suddenly for three complete strangers, and, if I may be so bold as to speculate; I don’t believe any one of us would ever be the same.
This little story involves myself, a stranger driving an old pick-up truck, and one shall I say, soon to be mortally wounded wild Tom turkey.
You see, Autumn in the hills of East Tennessee usually requires accommodating the seasonal influx of tourists, hundreds of thousands of millions of em, [leaf peakers,] as the locals know em.
Driving about in mass; wearing funny outfits while snapping countless pictures of our little slice of paradise. All the while managing to assault what-ever species of local wildlife, unfortunate enough to have been caught out in the open.
The main roads are soon congested with vehicles sporting tags from all the lower forty-eight, and a few regions of Canada as well. Traffic jams ten miles in length are not uncommon; forcing tempers to run high and patience to run low. It’s an annual ritual local folk have come to expect; and subsequently prepare for.
The best defense is a firm familiarity with the countless backroads and trails; known only to the fortunate folk who call this place home. Failure to provide one’s self with a proper means of ingress and egress usually result in countless hours, sitting grid-locked within a sea of vehicles.
This particular year found me to be the fortunate owner of one nineteen and eighty-five Chevy Celebrity. A fine chariot to say the least, lime green in color both inside and out. The color was further highlighted with a rich earthy patina, providing this chariot with an aura of maturity and glamour unmatched by the likes of newer vehicles. The look was further accentuated by no less than four, that’s right, four doors.
The interior was no less awe-inspiring, cool lime green velour seats complete with the highly sought after, spilled coffee stain option. The head-liner was covered with delaminating fabric, sagging down and rubbing the top of my head it clung tenaciously to the ceiling, held in place by countless strategically placed thumb-tacks in a rainbow of colors.
Of course, at least two of the power windows were non-functional. This combined with the broken air-conditioner and coolant leak blessed the lucky driver (me) with a free sauna on the way home. “Hey, you know people pay real money for that stuff, right?”
The ol’ girl ran pretty well; even considering the fact she burnt nearly as much oil as gasoline. She even had a built-in mosquito repellent. A simple stop for traffic or red lights brought puffs of smoke from around the hood. Thereby causing the occasional panic among fellow motorists, while eliminating those pesky insects so bothersome during the summer months.
This busy fall afternoon found me on my way home via one of the many back-roads. There I was, driving along, admiring the fall colors, and enjoying the cool fall air, with hints of oil smoke. Behind me a fellow motorist in an old truck followed at a distance.
November meant Thanksgiving was just around the corner, so thoughts of the coming celebration filled my mind. Filled it to such an extent as to leave me oblivious to the sharp curve slowly approaching. I came to my senses just in time to set the car into a comfortable path around the bend, when there he was, out of nowhere. Smack in the middle of the road, smack in the middle of the curve.
The biggest dog gone turkey I had ever laid eyes upon, and friend I’ve seen a few. There was no time to react, no time to swerve, the situation looked calamitous for sure. I’m certain this predicament looked even more depressing from that poor ol’ turkey’s point of view.
There he was, minding his own, having a joyful little turkey sort of day, hens were all happy, little turkey babies were all happy, by all account’s turkey life was good.
Just then out of the blue, a big ol’ green piece of what-ever it was comes careening around the curve, barreling down on this poor feller at a breakneck speed. At this point you gotta wonder, did his life pass before his eyes, were there things left undone, things left unsaid.
These are questions best left to poets, philosophers, and truth seekers alike, sadly we may never know. For a split second, I believe we made eye contact, a connection of sorts. Two hapless souls for whom on this particular day fate firmly placed them in the wrong place at the wrong time, and then it happened… A sickening thud.
I felt the poor fellers body bounce between the undercarriage and the road for what seemed an eternity, finally and gruesomely exiting the rear of the vehicle. I looked to my mirror to witness this poor lifeless bird flailing about as he tumbled down the road. Finally, coming to rest in the left-hand ditch row. There he lay, lifeless by the roadside.
Now here my dear friend is where that hardwired hillbilly instinct of mine kicks in. Like I said, it was almost Thanksgiving; and that was one hell of a bird lying there in yon ditch. Hunters dream about a bird such as this, most never come across one of this magnitude in a lifetime. The only ones that could possibly compare sit mounted on walls at the local sporting goods store. Yet there it lay, in a ditch, on a lonely country back road.
I threw the green hornet in park and ran to the ditch where the body lay. By this time, the ol’ boy in the truck had caught up and had stopped dead in the middle of the road to watch the goings on.
He shoved his head out the door window and yelled; “That’s one hell of a bird boy.”
I looked down at the lifeless body; then gave the head a sharp kick, all the while ready to sprint to the car with the first sign of life.
“Is he dead?” He yelled.
Yea, looks like it I said, knocked his left eye clean out of his head.
“If you don’t want im, I’ll take im off yer hands fer ye,”
Naw, I got im, I hollered back; trying my best to appear calm in light of the prize laying at my feet. Here lay some heavy bragging rights. I imagined the accolades, the atta boys, the pats on the back. Did you hear about the turkey ol’ Mike got?
Sure did, they would reply. I heard about it, big-un too I reckon.
Yep, I was gonna be a bonafide rock star.
I had been given, no blessed, with the means to supply my merry band of cracker-snatchers, with a bird the likes of which hasn’t been seen since Ebenezer Scrooge delivered the prize goose to the humble Cratchit family.
I grabbed the beast by both legs, his wings fell open as I hoisted him in the air. A five-foot wingspan if it was an inch, what a prize. With two thumbs up from my new-found friend in the truck, I made my way to the green hornet, prize in hand. Opened the rear door and chucked him into the back seat. After a quick wipe of my hands, I jumped in and resumed my way home.
As I drove down the road my heart was full of pride, my head full of, well, myself really. I practiced the story over and over in my head, honing each word until they were razor sharp. Surely, this story was destined to be repeated at all the Miller holidays for years to come. And then it happened!
Suddenly an explosion of noise and activity. I wasn’t sure where it started; it seemed to be coming from everywhere. All hell had broken loose in the back seat; and I didn’t know what to make of it.
Massive wings tore at the dangling headliner; thumbtacks flew about the interior like shrapnel. I was getting the hell beat out of me, those massive wings landed punches a prize fighter would have been proud of. The back of my neck was getting torn to pieces by the claws and what felt like twelve inch long daggers. It soon became apparent that there was only gonna be one winner in this fight, and my chances of victory looked mighty slim.
I fought to maintain control of the ol’ green car, swerving back and forth on the twisting mountain road. All the while I was being showered with turkey blood and feathers. I was afraid I was gonna run off the side of a ridge whilst I was trying to protect my face. It was complete and absolute bedlam in the purest sense.
In the midst of the confusion it dawned on me, the damn thing wasn’t dead. He had simply been knocked unconscious or playing possum. I didn’t really know or care which, but boy howdy was he ever upset. I just knew one of us had to have some relief, and it had to be quick.
He seemed to be everywhere at the same time, flapping, flailing, screaming (that’s right I said screaming.) I’m talking some God-awful screams. Well… looking back, the screams might have been mine, I’m not entirely sure.
In a split second of reasonable thought, I did the only possible thing. I slammed both feet on the brake petal and pushed with all I had.
The car came to a sliding halt; smack in the center of the road. It was all I could do to find the door handle. I fumbled about blindly, desperately, and with a final desperate lunge, jerked the handle with all my strength. As soon as I sensed an exit, I kicked open the door, and fell with a thud to the center of the road in a heap of blood, feathers, and turkey crap.
Needless to say, but I will anyway, it took a few seconds to regain any manner of composure. There I stood; alone in the middle of the road; staring at my car crammed tighter than corn on a cob with a whole bunch of raging turkey.
It was at this time my ringing ears detected a blaring car horn and the awfullest laughter I have ever heard. I turned around to see the ol’ boy in the pick-up; slapping his dash and laughing uncontrollably.
Boy he sure as hell showed you; that’s the funniest thing I ever saw.
Time after time he threw his head back laughing and gasping for air; sounding a lot like an old donkey.
He began to slowly pull around my car. Enjoy that bird boy; you might want to ask him for a ride home. I could hear the laughter as the old truck disappeared around the curve.
I stood there for a second, pondering the damage to my reputation once the driver got into town, what to do next.
Well, of course I needed to get him outta my car. I knew what to do, simply open both doors on one side and the bird would escape right? It’s common sense.
I ran over to the right side and grabbed the handle, locked, I grabbed the handle on the other door, locked, well that figures I said out loud. I ran back to the driver’s side; I knew those doors were unlocked.
When I opened that rear door that ol’ Tom shot outta that car like he had been fired from a cannon. He stopped about thirty feet away and stretched his wings, mocking me. He stood there, but just briefly, enjoying his victory, left eye dangling at the side of his head. Then turned and ran down through yon field.
I could only imagine the stories he was about to share with his turkey friends. He was about to be the bonafide hero not me. His story was about to be told to his turkey family not mine.
I grudgingly got in my ol’ car, the headliner now scattered about in pieces. Thumbtacks were scattered about like miniature landmines. Blood, feathers, and turkey crap was everywhere. I got stuck by at least three or four em. How the heck did crap get on the front windshield.
I wasn’t sure if the blood on my neck and face were mine or his. This was gonna be one heck of a story all right. And by the time the ol’ boy in the truck got home, I was gonna be famous that’s for sure. Lord, I could hear the tales now.
I put the car in drive and once again started home. Yes, we still tell stories about the turkey every Thanksgiving. My kids sit around with bated breath; tell us about the turkey daddy, tell us about the turkey. I do; and they laugh and laugh.
I’m grateful to that ol’ bird, and you should be too. If it weren’t for him, we wouldn’t be able to laugh so hard every time we see a group of turkeys by the side of the road.
So… this holiday, after you and yours enjoy that fabulous meal. Tell em about the turkey, and how he…well, you finish that last part.