By J.F. McKenna
Thanksgiving Day. Let all give humble, hearty, and sincere thanks now, but the turkeys.
– “Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar”
My first brush with entrepreneurship, once commonly known as small business, came complete with turkey, duck and chicken feathers as well as the gentle aromas of cow stalls. My father’s bachelor brothers owned a 35-acre farm off Sprague Road in Columbia Station from the late 1940s until 1966; all the McKenna boys, their spouses (those that had such), and my cousins and my sister participated each in his or her own way to this business affair over time. Being the youngest of the next generation, I typically contributed the least during my weekend trips to the farm family.
Were they still with us, Uncle Leo and Uncle Don would most certainly agree with that assessment.
By the time Ike was settling into the White House, I was settling into life on Cleveland’s West Side—a mere ten houses from the home in which my father was reared—along with settling into weekly visits to the farm. By then, all family adults stressed to me the importance of careful listening and strict observance to adult commands: “Do not…do not…touch the fence at the front of the barn, Joey.” No comprehensive explanation was ever included with this caution, or any other commands, for that matter: just stern tones laced with references to Michael the Archangel and the constant temperature of Hades.
As I reached age four, my curiosity went into an early stage of overdrive—I touched the fence in front of the barn, I wasn’t killed instantly, and I confidently, if erroneously, assessed that adults were often wrong in their warnings. I carried that notion as an iron chain around my neck for many decades.
But in youth I took time out from resentment at family to enjoy the pleasures that came from being part of a clan that owned a farm. Uncle Leo brought me a puppy to our West 100th Street home; it was back at the farm by the end of the weekend.
Never easily deterred, UL decided a pair of rabbits would be perfect companions for me; he should have checked with Mom. Back went the hoppers.
The uncles finally compromised with Mom: I could keep a duck at the farm. The duck was christened Joey Jr., and he proved to be the most disagreeable creature in Ohio, reestablishing his reputation every day by chasing customers around the front of the property and biting their legs.
Of course, even the youngest of our brood got a victory to savor every so often. One day while Mary Ann and was doing a chore or two, Uncle Leo came through the backdoor of the house and announced he would be “doing an egg run.”
“Can I go with you, Uncle Leo?” asked Mary Ann, applying a pleading voice that she would later hear come from the mouths of her own children.
“No,” said Uncle Leo. “Look you have cow crap on the front of your coat. I’ll take your brother, instead.”
That day I went on the egg delivery with Uncle Leo, who started our journey with a stop to the corner market for a box of Dutch Masters and a box of Tootsie-Rolls. Sometimes it pays to be five and quiet. And to be wearing a clean jacket.
The fact of the matter is that my older male cousins—Tom, Dick, Jerry, and Michael—were pulled out of school before Thanksgivings to help with dressing turkeys. As they related their tales at family gatherings much later, the hard work of the latter cancels out the pleasure of the former. And as a frequent ringside observer of fowl preparation myself, I can attest that Uncle Don was a master of the game but he never raised poultry prep to the level of a sweet science. Frankly, it’s just messy.
Of course, cousin Jerry told the tale best at one family gathering: “I hated helping prep turkeys—hated it. You know, I haven’t tasted turkey in years.”
When I got a little bigger, Uncle Don entrusted me with candling eggs for customers. I quickly proved so inept that my good uncle pulled me off that duty posthaste. Many an egg was saved because of that fine business decision.
Bachelors running a farm do not a particularly good business plan make, especially when strapping nephews show more interest in other working pursuits. But all of us McKenna kids learned how to present ourselves to customers and how to be as helpful as possible. Uncle Leo often headed up our customer-relations classes.
“Uncle Leo, babshi walked over from her farm to get some duck blood,” Mary Ann said. “Do we have some fresh?”
“No,” said our uncle. “But there is some chicken blood. Give that to her.”
In 2011 John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley was the inspiration for a magazine article about Lady Carol and my regular turnpike shuttles between Cleveland and Pittsburgh. The hook of this human-interest feature was our loud and loveable Beagle, Holly, aka The Duchess of Hollingsworth. As four-legged companions go, Holly was the best. (See: http://www.steinbecknow.com/2014/07/19/travels-with-charley-portable-steinbeck/ ) After more than two months suffering with an intestinal blockage, our sweetheart died on November 10. Carol, Max and I miss her terribly. Reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org .