Thanksgiving Day “1989” was wet and miserable, with the cold kind of November drizzle that doesn’t have the decency to become snow, nor the courtesy to yield to the ineffectual warmth of a mid-autumn sun. My hunting jacket was not quite soaked through, but my Austrian Loden pants were damp from the knees down. I carried a Browning A-5 12-gauge shotgun at port arms as I aimlessly moved through the brush, barely conscious of the task at hand. Technically speaking, I was hunting pheasants, without a dog, and without much hope of seeing anything on a day where forest life stays hunkered down against the elements. But the inside of my head was as bleak as my immediate surroundings and I was numb to my circumstances, as I walked aimlessly through fields and woods in the company of a beautiful, Belgian-crafted firearm.
All I could think of was getting the letter in the mail... The one that began: Riepe vs Riepe.
The first round of my first divorce knocked the wind out of me. I returned from a business trip to find the closets in the apartment empty. My wife, a former newspaper reporter and an accomplished writer in her own right, had taken our five-year-old daughter and fled to the sanctuary of her pit-bull of a mother. These were days of my early thirties, when I wrote for politicians and anyone who could guarantee the check would clear. This apparent lack of editorial ethic, coupled with other things (like a hair-trigger temper and the inability to see the other side of a philosophical argument) constituted my growing list of character flaws and genetic defects.
Yet as bad as things had apparently gotten, I didn’t think they were anywhere near the possibility of getting divorced. This was just one result of assuming that everyone on earth really thought like I did... Or that silence from the person closest to you means tacit agreement. But she was gone and there was a whole new set of rules in place for seeing my kid. This was going to be the first Thanksgiving — and the first really big holiday — on which my daughter would be shared between families. In an attempt to be magnanimous, I told Maryann that little Katherine could spent the holiday with her family.
Magnanimity does not come naturally to me, and I was sorry the instant I made the gesture. It felt like I was consigning some part of myself to a void that was to become a new unthinkable norm. My family used to be a lot closer than they are now, but that was when my mother was still the center of the universe. Each of her kids felt that unique gravitational pull that ended in a hot kitchen permeated with the aroma of holiday baking. It was my thought that at least half of many future Thanksgivings would start with Maryann, little Katherine, and myself stepping through the door, and completing the family circle around the table.
But now I would be arriving like a sprocket with missing teeth. Instead of showing up with the first grandchild, I would be the sole representative of domestic failure. And I couldn’t believe just how much I missed my daughter. My first thought was to spend the holiday alone, cooking for myself, in the apartment that held the relics of crashed dreams and the tokens of my inability to hold things together. A call to my mother quashed that.
“Don’t be an ass,” she laughed. “Jackie, you’re going to have to find a bright side to this. Here’s one... You’ll never have to spend another holiday with that desperate pain in the ass, Maureen, and that face she makes, like she’s smelling shit, every time you come into the room.” She was referring to my future former mother-in-law. “Just come down here... The sooner the better.”
My whole family lived in New Jersey then, and distance was relative. My mom’s house was inland from the shore, in Ocean county. (You could smell the Atlantic on most days, but you couldn’t hear it.) This put her 86-miles south of my place (on the Palisades, overlooking the Hudson). The horror of driving to the shore on the Jersey Turnpike (on Thanksgiving Day) was not to be seriously considered, and I left late the night before. The memory of some family traditions linger long after they have ceased to exist. I grew up on instant coffee... Yet on special occasions, my mom would set out an electric, chrome percolator, which brewed Folger’s coffee (just like the commercials). On this Thanksgiving day, the fragrance of hot coffee mingled with the aroma of coffee cake right out of the oven. And this was at 5am.
Yet despite the allure of sitting around sipping coffee in a warm kitchen, I felt I had to get out in the open... To release the doldrums that were nailing me to a cross of mental reality. It was barely first light when I carried my hunting gear out to car and headed off through the pine barrens. New Jersey is odd place. It has some of the ugliest open urban sores that you can imagine, yet harbors some of the most beautiful spots in the United States. These are Cape May, the countryside around Peapack-Gladstone, and some rare wildlife management units down in the pine barrens. It was to one one of these tracts deep in the scrub pine that I headed.
There were five or six other cars in the muddy parking area, and hunters —with the kind of dogs that point at pheasants in a highly accusatory manner — were heading out into fields planted in millet or other bird candy. They were all wearing florescent orange hunting gear that had LL Bean stamped all over it. I was wearing an old army fatigue jacket, under a bright orange New Jersey Department of Transportation vest I’d grabbed at a flea market for $2, and an orange watch cap. I had no dog and the other hunters looked at me like I was a bad joke.
“Fuck all you assholes,” I thought to myself, as I smiled and said, “Good morning.”
I had never been to this place before and just set out across a field that was loaded with knee-high underbrush. My mind was not exactly on the task at hand, and I might have left the shotgun at home for all the hunting I was doing. All I could think of was my first wife, and what my little girl was up to. She had a dog at her grandma’s... A huge golden retriever named “Duke,” who was like the dog world’s goodwill ambassador to humanity. At five-years-old, my daughter had the kind of personality that gave her the character of a circus midget. She could get into really good mischief, then amaze you with an observation that went far beyond her years.
I passed through several stands of hardwoods, wandered around some pines, and ended up in a sticker patch that must have covered three acres. Thorn bushes come in two varieties: the little ones that scratch skin, and the bigger ones, that scratch expensive Browning gunstocks. I had apparently located a thorn bush convention.
Surrounded by a sea of thorns, I sat on a rotting tree stump that was dead center in this maze of sharp edges. The rain started coming down in earnest and I felt as if my entire world was thorns and wet clothes. I must have sat there almost 20 minutes. I had long since ceased to hear the dog whistles of the other hunters, nor the cow bells on the collars of their dogs. I didn’t even know in what direction lay my Surburban, the first of five I would own.
But you can never tell what effect your troubles might have on the world around you, or when things might change. My odd behavior on the tree stump was annoying the living shit out of a huge cock-bird of a Chinese Ring Neck pleasant. He had a tail like a comet and an attention span shorter than mine. With that cackle peculiar to their species, he set off at a 40-mile-per-hour jog.
I was dumbfounded.
Then I started to chase him through the thorns like the late John Candy in one of his hysterical movies. I scratched my face, and my gun, and left my hat on a low-hanging branch. The pheasant was a sport, and cackled a taunt every now and again. He and I broke out into a clearing at the same time, and the bird sailed aloft with a final cackled obscenity. The Browning A5 (the BMW K75 of shotguns) barked once, and the cockbird was mine.
The other hunters were calling it a morning back in the parking lot. All they had to show for three hours of wading through the millet was a half-dozen smelly dogs and unfired firearms that would each require an hour of serious cleaning. I had a cockbird with a tail as long as a moose’s dick. I could feel their penetrating gazes, never congratulatory in New Jersey, as I put my stuff in the trunk.
My mother met me at the door.
“Did you catch anything,?” she asked.
“It’s not like fishing, Ma.”
Then she saw the pheasant.
“You shot a peacock,” she exclaimed. “How could you kill such a beautiful thing?”
“It pulled a knife on me,” I replied.
I cleaned and prepared the bird in the kitchen. My mother watched in fascination. It went into a much smaller roasting pan alongside the turkey in the oven.
“This will be done in less than an hour,” I said. “I’m going to take a nap.”
I awoke three hours later. The house was filled with the mixed aromas of baking, roasting, and pots steaming on the stove. In the kitchen, my mother and sister had just about finished the pheasant, leaving me three ounces of meat.
“That was delicious,” said my mom.
It was the first and only time I’d shot something for Thanksgiving dinner, and almost missed it. But gone were the doldrums... And they didn’t come back for a long time.
I really gave thanks for that pheasant.
I hope all of my Twisted Roads readers who are celebrating Thanksgiving in the US today have a warm and special holiday. I hope their tables are full, and I hope their families are there to share in it.
©Copyright Jack Riepe 2011
Thursday, November 24, 2011
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Happy Thanksgiving Jack! The pheasant sounds like a mouth-watering treat, unlike the official state bird of New Jersey, the mosquito.
Happy Thanksgiving Jack! I'm going to perform my Thanksgiving ritual, changing the oils in my R1100S.
What a gift you've offered with this story on Thanksgiving-- for anyone who has experienced that cosmic loneliness after a divorce when your kid seems like they are hurtling away, well, your story brings it back and glides me on to the life ahead. Thank you for that.
And for bringing me back to those bleak days of hunting pheasant or grouse. It's been nearly 40 years since I've wandered the woods with a gun. Right now I feel like I just returned home from a hunting trip.
Scooter in the Sticks
Happy Thanksgiving to you Jack!
Thank you Jack and I hope your Thanksgiving Day goes great.
Colorado Motorcycle Travel Examiner
a very enjoyable read into your life on thanksgiving 1989...it took me there wonderful stuff.
I had many pictures in my mind during this read...i could see you sat there on the stump and the other hunters faces upon your glorious return with bird in hand!
len ( scootering adventures )
Great story Jack, and a Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.
A great story and, like Steve said, anyone who has gone through a divorce can relate. The dreary Fall setting really adds to the mood. I like the response from your mom, it sounds familiar. I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday. Thank you for the story.
Banging a bird seems like a great thing to do on Thanksgiving!
Have a good one, as they say in Bognor Regis, N
Happy Thanksgiving to you too. I felt cold and miserable just by reading your words
Riding the Wet Coast
Great story. I am glad you got a few bites of the bird. I have one correction. I have a Browning 12ga A5 and I agree it is a fine gun. With the right barrel I was able to score 50 at trap. I disagree the A5 is K100 of the gun world. The Browning sweet 16 is the K75 of the gun world. Just sayin'
Answer your phone you sentimental bastard.
Generally I find most of your writing very touching. Where it touches me is another issue. This story was indeed touching, and I believe it touched my tattered soul. Well done my friend.
Happy Thanksgiving Mr. Riepe,
That which does not break us... only makes us stronger.
Your story reminds me of my brother, who got his surprise divorce announcement (a couple years ago)... three weeks before Christmas. Yeah, it was a pretty sucky holiday for him too, and the lonesomeness he felt cannot be shared. No matter how hard you try to ease the pain... it's just the way it is.
I'm glad to know you don't break easily. It would be a shame to bind the mind that entertains us all so well. Happy Thanksgiving Jack, and cheers to better days yet to come... I think you still have some in you!
Your melancholy friend,
I hope you too were able to enjoy some Thanksgiving comestibles yesterday. Thank-you for sharing that very personal story.
While having no children, I do know the heartache of an empty home in the midst of a divorce. And know the solace of being loved by family regardless. My wish for you is new found joy and a lighter heart in the days to come. It will come. Erik
Jack thanks for sharing your humorous yet touching story.I hope the wounds have healed, both physical and emotionally.
My favorite line " the pheasant was a sport"
I used to love hunting birds, when my knees could take the walking. Pheasant and grouse are remarkable game, and so very different. The pheasant may be the king of game birds... But the grouse comes off the ground like a teller mine.
I have taken 17 grouse on with 749 rounds.
Thanks for reading Twisted Roads. I hope you had a great holiday.
The last time I attempted to change the transmission oil on the K75, I overfilled it by a quart. I now leave all maintenance to the professionals.
Thanks for reading my tripe. I hope you had a great Thanksgiving Holiday.
There is nothing like a quiet walk in the woods, on a misty day, with a loaded weapon to dispel divorce blues. That day went from being a horrible Thanksgiving Holiday to being one of my best... With the thrill of actually shooting dinner.
I'm delighted you got to come along.
Thanks for reading TW and I hope you had a great holiday.
You and I will have a game dinner, or something like it, in Yellowknife — if it's the last thing I do.
Thanks for reading TW and for posting a comment. I hope you had a great Thanksgiving.
Dear Charlie6 (Dm):
I spent my holiday in the company of my two brothers, my sister, my niece, and my mom. It was the first time we were all together in quite a while — and no shots were fired.
I hope your holiday was warm and meaningful.
There is nothing like being the underdog coming in from the field with first prize... And on this day, it was the only prize.
Thanks for reading TW and for taking the time to comment.
Thank you for the kind holiday wishes... I hope all of your special days ahead are warm and meaningful.
Dear Richard M:
My mother is now lost to the ravages of dementia and Alzheimers... But she used to be a pisser of a good time, as well as straight to the point. Once the bird's feathers were in the bag, it was just another meal to her.
For the longest time, I learned that a good exhausting walk in the woods was the cure for a lot of things.
Thanks for taking the time to read my stuff, Richard.
Considering the different defination for "Bird" in your neck of the woods, I quite agree.
Thanks for reading TW and for always finding the sense in my stuff, Nikos. My regards to Mrs. Nikos.
All The Best,
You are one of the first of my readers to finally admit the stuff I write makes them all cold and miserable inside.
Thanks for reading TW and for coming clean about it.
Dear Joe Dille:
I never had a 16 gauge Browning. I did have a matching 20 gauge A5, and that was pure honey.
Thanks for reading Twisted Roads, and for writing in.
Why? Did I win something?
Happy Thanksgiving, my friend.
If I were writing with the intent of touching your soul, I use a forceps instead of a Keyboard.
Speaking of your soul, please look for the January Issue of the BMW MOA magazine. Your soul is the focus of my column.
Dear Lady R:
There is never a good time to get a divorce announcement -- even if you have initiated it. I am now on very good terms with my first ex-wife, who is a great person. She once admitted to me that getter her copy of the "Riepe vs. Riepe" letter made her feel awful too.
We are the sun total of our experience... And whatever happens to me usually surfaces with a punceline — 20 years later.
I hope you had a great Thanksgiving! Thanks for reading Twisted Roads, and for writing in.
Dear Lady R:
I hope I did not make you melancholy today... The sun is shining here and I am thinking about getting laid — at least once more before I die.
I actually worked on this blog and on the latest chapter of my new book on Thanksgiving morning. Then I went off to spend the rest of the day with my family (2 brothers, a sister, and a niece). We had a great time.
Sometimes and empty house, and a space in one's heart, is nature's way of saying, "Guess you'll do that a little differently next time."
I hope your Thanksgiving Holiday was warm and special
Dear Newd Okies:
Thanks for reading Twisted Roads and for leaving a comment. I'm thrilled you liked the Thanksgiving story. Every time I reach a point where I ask, "How does this happen to me?", I remember it always seems to start with noticing a long-haired woman in a skirt.
And I wouldn't change that for the world.
Thanks for reading Twisted Roads and for writing in.
"The sun is shining here and I am thinking about getting laid — at least once more before I die. "
Well don't look at me! That's something you'll have to handle yourself. Wait, I'd better rephrase that...
Great reading, as always. Sitting here in the basement, next to the LP stove, sipping hot cranberry juice, reading one of my favorite authors. (You !!! )
Loss is loss. There is never a good time for it to come around. I don't think time heals it. Just dulls it.
I'm glad your mother and pheasant helped to bring you around to seeing a peaceful time.
I'm glad a beach house, cabin in the woods, friends, and moonlight helped this time around.
My nightmare is just starting, not divorce, but a different major loss. I know there is life beyond, though it is hard to see.
Thank you for giving me hope and waiting for a walk in the silver moonlight.
Dear Dan McKenzie:
Trust me on this one... I never need any help getting something started!
What a pleaure to hear I'm one of your favorite writers!
Dear Steel Cupcake:
Whether the issue is a divorce, loss of a loved one, loss of a job, loss of a limb, loss of a home, loss of health, or even loss of a dog... A person can generally be amazed at the existing options just by looking inside themselves and by asking the question, "What's the next step?"
If you can ask that question, you can generally get the answer and take it. It is when you think you're beaten that the fear of defeat gets its foot in the door. Yet there comes a time when you're even reluctant to discuss defeat because you feel you should be well beyond it at a certain point... And because everyone has some kind of problem.
I didn't feel wounded this time. I felt at a great disadvantage for a lot of reasons. And now I'm just madder than hell, which usualy triggers a wave of professional determination.
I ran the Thanksgiving Pheasant story because it happened to correspond with the holiday... But if it had a moral that applied to my life today, it would be, "It only takes one degree of self-accomplishment to change the entire equation." Go for it.
If the loss is of a loved one... Think how they would want you to feel now.
If the loss is a lover... Just think about what must have been happening behind your back, and be glad this person isn't going to make the decision to disconnect your respirator.
If the loss is a job, just imagine how your former boss is going to look taking it up the ass in a Turkish prison. (There is nothing worse than working for a moron.)
If the loss was a house and your possessions... You'll get new ones... Better ones... Bigger ones... The person who had lost almost everything now has nothing left to lose... And hence that much less to be afraid of.
If the loss was something deep inside an irreplacable... There are still options.
And if the loss is a dog... Well you have me there. I would suggest hanging his/her collar in the window where the morning sun can catch it... And in a year, or so, let the new puppy sniff it.
Lori, drop me a line or give me a call. You know the number.
Thinking of you,
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