"For the Birds"
© By Jack Bogut
It was the day before Thanksgiving, a time to be counting your blessings. Why I was with John Steinhardt I don't know. He fancied himself to be a modern day embodiment of Jesse James; someone who robbed from the rich and gave to the poor...or took from those who had something they didn't need and shared it with those who needed it. Most of the time his heroics had something to do with pizza, keg and toga parties. Still, I should have known it was a mistake to talk to him about something like this.
We had a dilemma. Someone had stolen "Mom" Irwin’s bird. Mom Irwin was the House Mother at the Sigma Alpha Epsilon Fraternity house on the campus of Montana State College in
was the sweetest lady on campus and revered by all who knew her, so the thought
of her table without a turkey on Thanksgiving was fraternally repugnant. It was a matter of honor. Bozeman
"I heard it was the Kappa Sig’s that did it," I told him.
"Yeah, it sounds like them. Wouldn't it be nice if we got Mom Irwin another one?"
"Well yeah, but where are we gonna get one. We're broke!"
"Has it occurred to you that, uh, the aggies have 2000 turkeys in a big compound right out by the barns?" Steinhardt deadpanned.
Now, you have to understand that I'd been involved with Steinhardt a number of times before and almost always had to pay an extremely high price of either profound anxiety or potentially serious consequences for the fun we had. It was a tribute to my stupidity that I allowed myself to be pulled into one of his hair-brained schemes again.
He thought it would be a good idea if we just borrowed a turkey from the pen at the Ag School and left it at the SAE house. What they did with it after that was their business. Besides, nobody would miss one turkey out of two thousand.
"Yeah, right," I said. "But any dummy knows that if you try to grab one turkey out of a flock the whole bunch of them will go bananas." I knew that because I had second-hand experience with these birds.
To say a turkey is stupid is giving him too much credit. Intellectually, a turkey is a one cut below a mulberry bush. And they are among the most curious creatures on earth. My grandmother raised turkeys; she told me she had a flock of about fifty.
One time they got a hailstorm that almost wiped out the whole bunch. The hailstones were about the size of grapes and driven almost horizontally by the strong wind. In fact, the hailstones broke two windows on the north side of the house.
Grandma said the storm started as rain. The turkeys had taken shelter from the storm on the lee side of the barn and were just fine until hailstones started to clatter on the metal roof and siding. One turkey stuck his head around the corner to see what was making all that racket and a hailstone hit him right between the eyes. It was like he'd been shot. "Wham," he hit the ground. The other turkeys saw him stretched out and their curiosity got the best of them.
"Gee, I wonder what happened to Tom?"
One big, dumb bird after another wondered the same thing:
"Gollllly, there goes old George!"
After the storm those "DODO" birds were piled up like cordwood. Some of them were just knocked unconscious but many of them had gone to that big turkey coop in the sky. That’s why I was nervous about getting in a pen with 2000 turkeys. If you wake or upset one...you do it to the whole flock.
Well, Steinhardt got quietly serious and said, "Don't worry about it. I was raised on a turkey farm. I can talk turkey!"
I just looked at him.
"Look, the trick is to wait until the turkeys go to sleep," he said. "We'll sneak over the FENCES (key word here) one at a time and grab the first bird we can reach. We probably won't even have to go inside the last fence. And if one of them wakes up and gets nervous I'll just "talk turkey" and settle it right down. I've done it a lot."
"How?" I asked.
"You just cluck to 'em a little bit."
"Lemme hear ya," I said.
"Well, it's gonna sound kind of funny to you," Steinhardt said with a straight face, "But trust me, it's almost hypnotic to a turkey. One time I did this and the turkey thought I was it's girlfriend!"
I couldn't believe I was doing this.
John looked away for just a second (I think he couldn't look me in the eye) and went:
"Gobble, gobble, gobble." He waited a couple of beats and did it again.
"Gobble, gobble, gobble."
Honest to God, he did sound a lot like a turkey. I was impressed; I was still nervous but impressed. So without any more conversation the deal was struck and we started to make plans. Sunset was about . We agreed to meet at when it was really dark and the turkeys would be asleep. Unfortunately we forgot about the full moon.
We taped our pantlegs around our ankles (flapping cloth might wake a dozing turkey). We put lampblack on our faces (bald, alabaster, faces might startle standing turkeys). We wore black headbands (I have no idea why. Steinhardt said he had some left over from his annual "Banzai" party). After we were dressed we headed for the compound.
You should know that an enclosure for a large flock of turkeys is usually built in a circle with three fences around it. The inner fence, about five feet high, is the pen and contains the birds. About ten or fifteen feet outside the inner fence is another, higher one and outside that is the last, even higher fence. The Ag. School theory was that an full grown turkey might be able to take a long legged run across the compound and get in the air high enough to get over the first fence but not the second one. And on the outside chance that one of these big stupid birds might get a headwind on his next try, the third fence would stop 'em for good. The reason the whole affair was built in a circle was so that the birds wouldn't bunch up in a corner and trample each other to death.
When we got the compound I was a little apprehensive because the outside fence was about ten feet high; it looked twenty.
"No problem," Steinhardt said as he started up.
You have to climb a fence by putting your feet on the wire close to a post. That's where your footing is best and the climb is safest. That's also the noisiest place to climb because the wire sometimes squeaks on the post. Sure enough, when John was about halfway up the fence the wire shrieked and a hundred turkeys started to shuffle around.
"John. We're OUTTA' here!" I said
"Wait a minute, we're OK," he replied, cool as a zucchini.
But for me, it never got any better. Every time the fence creaked, the birds would shuffle and I'd die a thousand deaths. We kept going anyway.
Soon we were inside the second fence looking through the last wire barrier at more turkeys than I knew existed. And all were apparently either asleep or in a deep doze. The problem was that none of the birds were close enough to the fence for us to reach out and grab one. We had no choice but to go over the third fence and become part of the feathered flock.
Steinhardt made it without making a sound and had crouched down to turkey height. Just as he was reaching for the neck of a huge sleeping Tom, I put one foot on the wire and it shrieked like a cat with his tail under a rocking chair. I froze in midair and watched in horror as the big bird opened one eye and stared right at John. "OH, NO! Here we go!" I thought.
Steinhardt waved one hand behind his fanny, giving me a silent "OK" sign, making circle with his thumb and forefinger. John looked the turkey right in the eye and went:
"Gobble, gobble, gobble."
The turkey opened the other eye, spread his tail feathers and cocked his head.
"Gobble, gobble, gobble," Steinhardt went again.
The turkey started to look droopy again and I was beginning to feel better about the whole affair.
"Gobble, gobble, gobble," John went softly and the turkey closed one eye and started to go back to sleep.
Just about the time I was convinced we might pull it off the full moon came out from behind a cloud, illuminating the landscape like turning on the light in a basement; eyes popped open everywhere.
"John!" I whispered, voice full of alarm.
Steinhardt looked at me as if to say, "Oh ye of little faith," and went:
"Gobble, gobble, gobble,"
And two thousand turkeys went: "GOBBLE, GOBBLE, GOBBLE!"
We left skin, pantlegs, clothing and composure on those three fences as we clawed our way out of there. Dogs started to bark. Floodlights came on everywhere. In the distance we could hear a siren; I thought I heard a gunshot; we knew they were coming for us. When we finally got to safety we laid on the floor and laughed for two hours.
Steinhardt lives in one of the Dakotas now (I’m giving him some breathing room here), and has a RESPONSIBLE job with a public utility, something that still surprises both of us. We haven't seen each other in years. But every once in a while, on Thanksgiving, we've both gotten phone calls that start out with:
"GOBBLE, GOBBLE, GOBBLE!"
© from the storytelling CD – Mental Movies @ storytellerjack.com