THE GREAT TURKEY RACE

swimmin hole

Aunt Mickey and Mom in the swimming’ hole.

My Aunt Mickey and my Uncle Ray had a little ranch in Watt’s Valley, not too far from  Tollhouse. Tollhouse is not a city or even really a town, in those days it was little more than a wide spot on the road to Shaver Lake. It marked the place where the tan and brown Sierra foothills changed to the stacked and twisted granite that make up the great backbone of California, the Sierra Nevada.

Their place was built on a sidehill above the little creek than ran through the property. The creek had a great advantage for the kids that lived and visited there. You see, it’s hotter’n the dickens in Watts valley in the summer. The weather slows things down some. Afternoons are for dozing on the porch and drinking lemonade, trying to stay in the shade because you might as well take aunt Mickeys Sad iron and rest it on your forehead as step out in the sunlight. The air grows heavy, taking a breath is a bit of work and the kids wait for Uncle Ray and my dad to get back from Humphrey’s Station with that 50 pound block of ice they use in the homemade swamp cooler in the living room. Works like this; a tin washtub for the ice which is then covered with an old burlap sack,  the cooling water on the sack is pushed around by an old electric fan. It sorta works, but really, it lets you think something is might be happening when it not. Such is the power of suggestion.

For us kids the best thing was Uncle Rays swimming’ hole. What could be better? Around ten o’clock mom and her sister would drift into the old kitchen. Not a modern kitchen with retro appliances made to look like old times, but the real deal. It had an old sink set in a wooden countertop just under the window that looked out on the corrals where the branding, notching, and nut cutting took place in the spring and fall. Back of that was a view up the hills covered with California Live Oaks, the occasional Hereford doing the same as us, resting under the shade of a tree. In the corner next to the dining room wall was the hulking cast iron stove where uncle Ray made breakfast most days. Bacon and eggs, fresh homemade biscuits from the oven served on plates stamped with ranch scenes, ropes,  brands and handsome white faced cattle. A jelly glass with milk fresh from the cow, a scattering of yellow cream on top, even the occasional captive fly. Put in front of each kid sitting around the kitchen table, some sitting in chairs, some on the bench under the row of windows looking over the road coming up to the house from the creek crossing, breakfast a comin’.

Aunt Mickey and my mother would gather up the fixings and make sandwiches for the trek to the swimmin’ hole. Pure white bread from the bag with the multicolored spots, mayonnaise from the jar kept in the cupboard standing out on the screened porch. Bright yellow mustard smeared on a piece of baloney and squished together with a firm hand then  folded into a waxed paper envelope and stacked in the bottom of an old wicker basket. Throw an apple or two in, some old tin cups and top it with a piece of red and white checkered oil cloth. By the time they were done they were surrounded by boys and maybe a girl, my cousin Karen, a tough little bird surrounded by some boys whom she took no lip from. The kids could hardly wait, they were literally dancing up and down with delight.

Busting out the back door, the only door we ever used, we headed down to the where the pasture gate crossed the road. The little guys would squeeze between the bars, a bigger boy would show off by opening the gate in a manly way. I’m almost grown it said. Down the road we would go the kids wanting to run ahead but held in check by the thought that the big black gobbler might be lurking in brush and trees along the left of the road. If he came at us there was no escape. The right side was a cutback you couldn’t climb, the left side was enemy territory and the only sure fire way to get by him was to be stealthy quiet. If he appeared the whole group would bolt, little legs carrying us a fast as they could go, helped by the downhill slope to the creek crossing. Aunt Mariel carried a kitchen broom for defense. Once we made the turn at the bottom we were safe, at least until the return trip.

Just before the creek a two track road veered off to the right and this we would follow through the pastures watched by phlegmatic cattle gently chewing their cuds. We knew to leave them be, no cowman ever runs cattle. Fat is currency in the cow business. It seemed forever before the little creek gently curved in front of  the cut bank that indicated where the swimming hole was. Down to the edge of the water, kids pulled off there Levi’s, tee shirts and jumped right in. No bathing suits. Modesty might indicate keeping your underwear on, thats what the moms did. They stripped down to their underwear and were mostly content to sit on the bank and watch their kids play.

We did what kid do, splashed water on each other, did a little dunking, big against little and pretended to swim. None of us could, you know. No need to worry much because the water wasn’t over 18 inches deep. Aunt Mickey and mom couldn’t swim either.

Those girls grew up in the oilfields. Oilfield brats didn’t get swimming lessons and they almost never lived near the beach or a river. In fact my mother was scared of the water and it took a whole lot of encouragement just to get her into a pond as shallow as this one. Temperatures in the nineties probably helped. Of course saying it was ninety would just have been a guess. Watts Valley in the summertime didn’t take a genius with a measuring instrument to tell you it was hot. Really hot.

With the youngest out of the water and napping in the shade it was time to take all that pink wrinkled skin home and get ready for dinner. The trip back was slower than the trip out kids completely worn out. As we neared the road up to the house, aunt Mickey walked a little ahead to spy out the pasture in front of the house, broom at the ready, to see if the big black Tom turkey was in sight. If he was hiding in the bushes we could be in trouble. If he was out in the pasture, same thing. He figured he was the boss and he wasn’t interested in having anyone trespassing on his territory. He would put his head down, spear you with his malevolent eye and charge like Ghengis Khan, blood in his eye, beak ready to draw the same. Flapping his wings he grew in size, seemingly moving like an express train as he boiled up the little hill. Kids, moms and aunts bolting for the gate, surrounded by shrieks like the secesh coming through the wheatfield. We, like the Yanks at Chancellorville, skedaddled as fast as we could. When we hit the gate, kids were squeezing through the bars like Cheez-It from the tube. Mom and aunt Mariel fumbled at the latch and at the last moment squeezed through. Turkey ran right up to the bars and stuck his head through, hissing, gobbling and jumping up and down, enough to strike terror into any kid. Just to show him who we were, we gave ’em the raspberries and skipped up to the house, triumphant.

About 7 o’clock we were all out on the front porch aunts and uncles, mom and dad sipping whiskey, smoking and telling stories, the kids quietly picking foxtail and clover burrs out of their socks, sipping lemonade and enjoying the cooler evening weather. Down in the pasture, uncle Ray had turned the sluice gate into the grass to keep the permanent pasture alive. Every few hours the gates had to be closed and the next one opened. He called out to my oldest cousin Bruce to “Get your fanny down there and move the watergate before dark.”  Bruce, being fourteen was reluctant to take on any job he could possibly get out of, grumbled his way down to the walk-through gate and ambled down across the pasture toward the creek not paying much attention to where he was. Whatever he was thinking about it wasn’t old Tom, that is until he heard the hiss of the charging turkey. Bruce yanked his head around toward the sidehill and saw the bird coming at him on the dead run. At fifteen you figure you’re almost grown and to show any sign of cowardice is the worst kind of self imposed sin. I’m sure he gave a moment of thought to standing his ground but self preservation won out and he bolted for the house as fast as his lanky frame could go, Mister Turk gaining at every step. Bruce didn’t bother with the gate, no time for that, no, he lifted off like a fighter plane and soared right over that four wire bob wire fence, clearing it by a foot. As he was airborne it occurred to him he’d just been humiliated by a bird in front of the whole family. Instead of stopping, he continued his flight right up onto the porch, flung open the screen door and raced inside emerging a moment later with his .22 to be greeted with gales of laughter by the big folks. Uncle Ray laughed so hard I swear he had whiskey coming out of his nose. Just a moments hesitation on his part was all it took for uncle Ray to say, “Jughead, put that damn rifle down, you’re not shooting that bird.” Bruce silently retreated back inside to nurse his ego and the little kids slyly smirked at each other to see their big cousin put in his place, not so much by uncle Ray but by a bird. In family lore the great turkey race has lived down the decades, each telling adding some little detail. Cousin Bruce became a legend with us little kids but perhaps not in a way he wanted to be.

Bruce got some measure of revenge though. Uncle Ray dispatched that Tom with an axe and we ate him up at Thanksgiving. I never have figured out what part was the best, the delicious terror at being chased, my cousins teenage humiliation or the taste of old Tom with all the fixings. Perhaps its all of them.

 

 

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