You never knew how turkeys were going to kill themselves, but they paid for Christmas

A solid year of constant worry and work was stuffed into my family's Thanksgiving, which paid for Christmas.

Not the trivial stuff of today - paying off last season's holiday splurge - but the unending suspense of waiting to see how many turkeys were going to kill themselves in creative ways before they could be sold.

My city-dwelling Washington grandparents had their own cruel struggle with the Great Depres-sion, but my Wyoming grandparents' Depression was even harder, and certainly more colorful.

On a ranch on the sublime east side of the dry Wind River Mountains, my mom and her brothers and parents not only somehow survived deprivation, but gained by it.

The early 1930s were a time of daunting scarcity on a scale we today can only barely imagine. The nation's economy collapsed, and it wasn't just a few thousand Enron employees who lost all their savings. There was no money. It wasn't uncommon for people to work 12 hours for little more than room and board, or for heartbroken parents to exile hungry children to better-off relatives.

Farmers and ranchers, in a pattern that repeats itself over and over again right up to these unhappy days of globalization, saw commodity prices implode to where it cost more to ship cattle and crops to market than it did to raise them.

One of the few exceptions were turkeys. American people can pare our lives down to the bone if we have to - or at least we could then - but the holiday turkey is vital to our sense of ourselves. It's a mighty desperate family or an awfully strict vegetarian who will forego "maybe just one more helping" of roast bird this feast day.

So my Bell family and most of our neighbors up and went into the turkey business in that sort of spontaneous chain reaction that's both the beauty and part of the horror of agricultural free enterprise.

Mom and Uncle Tom have vivid memories of the turkey business.

Until butchering week, it mostly was all Grandma's job. She'd feed, doctor and defend six or eight hens and a gobbler through the Siberian winter while every predator in a 10-mile radius circled the ranch waiting for the sentry to let down her guard. "Your grandma would fret over her turkey hens," Uncle Tom recalled for me this week.

Come spring, or what passes for it in the mountains, these hens with wild strains still in their genes would try slipping away to make their nests in the willows or roughs, Easter treats for every passing coyote and bull snake. Mom remembers seeing one giant old snake in the pasture with four or five turkey eggs bloating his ribcage, looking like a weird multi-knobbed barbell.

After they hatched, those that didn't vacantly wander off into waiting jaws or irrigation ditches would be pampered along, until at last in late November, 30 to 50 mature 10-15 pound birds were ready for butchering. All the small-time ranchers would help each other with this daunting project, first hanging the turkeys by their feet out of reach of the cats and then piercing their brains and a main artery so they would die and bleed. (Sorry, but if the gory details bother you, you shouldn't be eating them.)

It was a festive occasion for the ranch families, in a very ancient way - a sort of harvest celebration that permitted visiting, coffee drinking and pie baking.

But the work went on out in the freezing cold, with carcasses being plucked and finally being taken down so the pin feathers could be removed. Uncle Tom remembers a turkey once jumping up at this stage, alive despite all, running naked through the barnyard until my granduncle George, a World War I veteran, popped her through the head with his 30-30.

Grandpa loaded the wagon shortly before the holiday, and he and Tom set off for the scales in our little town. The train waiting to take their cargo east gathered steam at the depot. Wagon loads of turkeys lined the street, excited men and boys waiting to get a check for real silver money.

"Mom squirreled away what she could for what few presents we got," Uncle Tom said, with the bulk of money going toward taxes, which were due about then.

There were turkeys left for the Bell family's own holiday feasts - the best birds in the world - according to two skinny kids, now in their late 70s, who still honor their parents' sacrifices and love across the gulf of all these long years.

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