Tony Bender: That's Life

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Surviving Thanksgiving


I'm going to end the suspense right now. No one died from my Thanksgiving Day dinner. 


I did not realize that for the many years I have been making turkeys for the holidays, I have been putting people in mortal danger. I'm probably in denial about the very real possibility there has been significant loss of life due to my recklessness. Which would explain why I no longer get Christmas cards from some people. Then again, it might just be politics. 


This all started last week, when I was setting up tables and chairs and finalizing plans to host our family Thanksgiving in the repurposed Congregational Church I moved to my property several years ago. I suppose I should explain that.


Basically, I was tired of losing theological arguments—sometimes with real preachers trained in the art of hand-to-hand religion. I suppose I could have gone to seminary, but like vampires burst into flames in the sunlight or wicked witches melt, I figured I might be a victim of spontaneous combustion. 


I bought my own church. I even bought the pulpit. When I need to do some parenting, I like to stand behind it and pontificate. I feel it strengthens my position. Thou shalt clean thy room. 


And now, whenever I think I am losing a religious argument to someone armed with facts and historical perspective, I interrupt them. “Do you have your own church? Because I do.” End of argument, because moving a church 70 miles shows commitment. 


Anyway, I have the space, and I thought I would give my Mom a break. You remember my Mom, reigning Ashley Oktoberfest Cooking Champion? So, this offer of mine was already pressure-packed. But I was confident. Because up to that point, I had no idea of the carnage I had wrought. I suppose no one ever gave me the body count. They didn't want to hurt my feelings.


Even from 60 miles away, this thing was micromanaged from the start. I decided to do festive, but disposable, place settings, rather than drag all of that from the main house. 


Then Mom called. “Did you put the turkey in the refrigerator to thaw?” 


“Of course not. I've been thawing birds in cold water in the sink since the '80s. Thanksgiving is four days away.”


But, she explained, as one does to the dim-witted, in short succinct sentences, that it was much safer to do it her way. She made it sound like there are hand grenades in each bird. One wrong move and ka-boom! We negotiated. She agreed to let me use sturdy plastic dinnerware, if I promised to put the turkey in the refrigerator to thaw “the right way."


Well, I got up at 5:30 a.m. Thanksgiving Day and threw a ham into one oven and then trudged across the yard to start the turkey. (The church has a functional kitchen.) 


The turkey was a brick. It might have even been more frozen! Apparently, the hunters who had rented the church earlier had cranked up the cold. But I blame my mother. None of this would have happened, if she had just let me continue my annual unintentional killing spree. 


I went from despair to anger. I considered calling her at that ungodly hour to chew her out, but thought better of it. I realized she'd probably just give me more bad advice.


Meanwhile, my sister, Sherry, who is bossier than my mom, and my sister-in-law Pam, who I have nothing bad to say about, because she scares me, were already contemplating the disaster that awaited them. They wondered what I would forget, or what I would burn. And about the phone number of the county coroner.


Meanwhile, I called the Butterball hotline. I never got a real answer. Just hysterical laughter. Can you cook a frozen turkey? As a matter of fact, yes. It came out a delicious brown and the meat fell off the bone. And it was done on schedule. I'd rather not talk about the giblets. 


The minute Mom arrived, I lit into her, though, just as a matter of principle. Our family functions are usually combative anyway, so throwing the first punch is a widely-respected strategy. I had her on her heels all day. No matter what the subject, I brought it right back to flawed turkey-thawing methods and the heroic efforts required to overcome them. 


I sensed my sister hovering, looking for something to worry about. I placated her with wine. 


My brother, Mike, prayed before we ate. “Please Jesus, don't make us eat this food. Amen.” 


Mom called the next day to report that the debriefing went well. Everyone was suitably impressed with my organizational and culinary skills. 


Mike was still praying, though, in case of a delayed reaction. “It's nice to meet the low bar of expectations,” I said. 


The turkey soup is on simmer. 


© Tony Bender, 2016


The Last Drops 8-15-16


You don't need a clock, don't need a calendar. 


The first swath of hay marks the midpoint of summer. Fallen wheat fields, gold and finished, remind us it is time to put up stores for winter. Now, as more time is behind me than ahead, the swiftness of the season reminds me of things to be done, old friends to see. That's what last weekend was about.


You wouldn't think it would be hard to steer three of us in the same direction at the same time, but India and Dylan have packed so much into one summer, it sometimes felt like we were ships... no, fast jet airplanes, passing in the night. 


It took The Great Harriet Howe to bring us together. Harriet is one of those foxhole friends who also happens to be The World's Greatest Storyteller. She's Irish, so the details may be suspect, but the plot is always delicious. 


When she insisted, after several years had passed between us, that we visit her on the occasion of her consort Bill's 76th birthday, we couldn't say no. Nor did we want to. The kids love this provocateur and the feisty squall of laughter around her. We couldn't wait to meet Bill.


It was Harriet, then The World's Greatest Science Teacher, who introduced me to an epic cast of characters in Hettinger, North Dakota, a time and place, a confluence, a conjunction of stars, asteroids and killer comets, that could never be recreated. It takes powers greater than ours to align such things. We dare not try.


It was, auspiciously, the Fourth of July, 25 years ago, when the revolution began in earnest. I was a young editor in that pugnacious West River town, hired as cannon fodder for a newspaper in bankruptcy. Before my arrival, the highlight of the paper was the front-page advertisement for a toenail clipping service. I started reporting the news, which caused all hell to break loose in complacent government circles. Thus, I think, the invitation to meet what I realize now was the rest of the Boston Tea Party. 


There was Ted Uecker, self-proclaimed World's Greatest Lover and Biggest Liar, and his beautiful blond wife, Nancy, who, as a matter of survival, had to become almost as flinty as Ted. Tom Secrest, a local attorney, towered silently over the gatherings. A former executive director of the North Dakota GOP, he had a picture of President Nixon in his office. A political rival of his picked up the paper one day and seeing Secrest on the front page said, “That's him, all right, a horse's ass!” In spite of that endorsement― probably because of it―Tom and I became great friends.


There were the Johnsons, the Dangeruds, token liberals, Harriet and her classic cowboy husband, the late Jim Howe, and another Irish imp named Al McIntyre, a local radio host who had the ability to instigate a fight even among saints. When bedlam predictably ensued, he would shake his head and complain how sad it was that people just couldn't get along anymore. 


And so, Harriet dragged me into the scrum that Independence Day. To this day, I keep my fists raised high and my head bobbing. Without dredging up details, even if I could, it was argumentative, festive and wickedly funny. I would discover that was the template for all the impromptu gatherings, almost always in the Uecker kitchen, fueled by the finest wine. If you were foolish enough to bring a bottle as an offering, Ted would wrinkle his nose at the first taste and declare it, “rat piss.” 


We argued politics. We said outrageous things to each other. Harriet, always on the side of truth and justice, Ted on the other side. You could say anything, no matter how dark and malicious, as long as it met the unwritten code―it had to be funny. We would look up, and it would be 1 a.m. 


McIntyre, having instigated some brouhaha, had long ago slipped out and was no doubt slumbering away in bed with a satisfied smile on his lips. 


At evening's end, Ted and Harriet made their peace. OK, sometimes it took a few days, but it always ended with goodnight hugs among us and sincere declarations of our affection. “Antoine,” Ted would say, “I love ya... in spite of your bone-headed politics.” 


How could you not adore the woman who introduced you to that universe? So, this weekend, we forgot about the clock, the passing of seasons. The three of us allowed Harriet to regale us with tales of grand adventures and to demand great things from us. Bill, a brilliant introvert with uncommon common sense, floated in and above it all, surely thinking internally how lucky he was to be with her. 


There were a thousand things to do at that lake cabin. We did almost none of them. “Harriet,” I said, as she listed possible entertainment for the kids, “They're here to see you. They're here to bask in your presence.” And, she smiled, quite pleased with herself.


When we talked of old times and the loyalty that bound us, Harriet called Ted and passed the phone to me. “Ted, we were discussing your redeeming qualities,” I told the troublemaker on the other end of the line. “It was a pretty short conversation...” He roared and insulted me back until it was time for breakfast.


There was champagne, blended with orange juice, and Bill's famous omelets. Even though the clock was relentlessly ticking outside those walls, inside we were immune. We lingered for most of the morning. 


Following Harriet and Bill's lead, it seemed as if we were extracting every last drop from the day, like a well-squeezed orange. 


© Tony Bender, 2016