Lucy van Pelt: Charlie Brown, I’ll hold the ball and you run up and kick it.
Charlie Brown: Hold it? Ha! You’ll just pull it away and I’ll fall flat on my back and kill myself.
Lucy van Pelt: I wouldn’t do that. It’s Thanksgiving.
Charlie Brown: What does Thanksgiving have to do with anything?
Lucy van Pelt: One of our most cherished traditions is the Thanksgiving football game.
Charlie Brown: Gee, I guess if it is a tradition, it would be an honor. She wouldn’t pull it away if it is a tradition. This time I’m gonna kick that ball clear to the moon!
[he runs to kick the ball, but Lucy pulls it away]
Charlie Brown: Aaauuugh! [falls flat on his back]
Lucy van Pelt: Isn’t it peculiar how some traditions just fade away? – Charles Schultz, “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving”
The Thanksgiving Day football game is a rich side dish served on a day where each American consumes an average of 16,000 calories while at the same time giving thanks for life’s simplest pleasures. On this gilded holiday, we are reminded of the blessings that we often take for granted such as proton pump inhibitors, analgesic heat rubs, knee braces and a gluteus minimus that does not swell into a gluteus maximus after a long touchdown run. The Turkey Bowl is a ritual whose championship trophy is forged from silver bragging rites and golden nostalgia. It’s principle ingredients are any ambulatory human aged 6-60, a beat up football and most importantly, mud – – caked, brown malleable clay, a symbol of our temporal toil and a timeless tribute to our agrarian DNA. As Americans, we landed in the mud, we rose out of the mud, we fought in the mud, eventually we hired other people to work for us in the mud and then we invented Tide to eliminate any evidence that we ever actually consorted with mud. But, each Thanksgiving morning, we return to the peat bogs of our past to refresh old rivalries and lay claim to another year of bragging rites and hyperbole.
In California, Thanksgiving arrived unceremoniously on a warm desert wind sweeping down across silent, vacant freeways and empty schools. Our house fashioned out of Marine Corps dogma and the testosterone of five men grew restless at the percussion of chopping knives and the regular entreaties for someone to “please peel the potatoes and green beans.” The low dulcet tones and punctuated spikes of laughter from a generation of kitchen matriarchs mixed with the reassuring aroma of sautéed onions and baking turkey. A football suddenly bounced off the den window. Outside, a boy in sweats had appeared, grinning in a tear away shirt and cleats. There was a sudden rush of motion as we mustered outside ready to bike the two blocks to our local junior high school where a sea of jerseys and baseball caps pitched and argued over the balance of talent and rules of engagement.
The local Turkey Bowl was a one time annual opportunity to run with the larger dogs of our neighborhood – – siblings home from college and older kids that would normally look right past you as too small or too insignificant to join them in any sport. Yet, on this day, a spirited tackle or timely body block might win a rare compliment from an older idol that would be gratefully deposited in one’s shoebox of memorabilia and taken out many times over a lifetime of self reflection. There were broken bones and stitches – -badges of honor and fodder for the bragging rite debates that would ensue later in the winter. As in life, there were broken plays, personal fouls, selfless acts, winners and losers. There was instant acceptance when one was picked to play on a team. It was a Christmas morning thrill to watch as an older teenager opened his muddy, catcher’s glove palm and designed a play, especially for you – “Turp, go five yards out and turn around.” It was the old button hook and it was my play, designed exclusively for me like a jewel encrusted Faberge egg. Me! – a mere 11 year old paramecium was deemed worthy of possibly receiving a pass from this multi-celled seventeen year old God. Just one problem, I was being guarded by a sixteen year old with bad acne, mood swings and suborbital ridges that suggested that someone in his family was discovered by Dr Leakey.
“Ready, set, you bet, go Charlie go, hike!”
As I sprinted to my spot, the older defender shoved me roughly to the ground like a rag doll. “Sorry kid” he flipped with a smirk. Back in the huddle, everyone was hissing that they were open. I was busy rubbing the dirt out of my eyes. Each down, I was repeatedly tossed to the ground unable to complete my “button hook.” By the fourth quarter, I had eaten more mud than an earthworm. The score was tied 49-49. I had not touched the ball.
Someone’s sibling rode up with a summons from home and there was talk of ending this year’s grudge match in a tie. “That’s like kissin’ yer sister” someone yelled. Another shouted,” One more set of downs!” I was once again lined up against my delinquent tormentor but instead of running my assigned button-hook, I turned suddenly and sprinted long as if the devil himself was chasing me. I screamed and waved my hands. The ball was launched in my direction and my heart leapt as I stumbled through the mud never taking my eye off the spiraling pigskin. My opponent had fallen down and I was alone behind the defense. The pass seemed to hang in the autumn air for an eternity. It fell into my arms and bounced off my chest careening away from my body. I dove forward grasping like a drowning man, my arms and fingers straining for the deflection. My fingers clawed under the muddy ball preventing it from hitting the dirt. I fell awkwardly feeling a white flash of pain in my knee. But I held on. Celebratory screams from down field confirmed my reception and as I rose grimacing, I spiked the ball. With the TD, the game disintegrated. But, our team had won.
As I limped to my bike, I heard the deep baritone of the seventeen year old icon, “great catch, Turp”. I blushed with self conscious satisfaction and weaved my way home, tossing the ball in the air and catching it. Later, as I donned my dreaded holiday dinner ensemble, the shirt collar did not feel so tight, and the gray wool slacks did not itch so much, and the hand me down loafers did not bite my heels That night, turkey never tasted so good. The mashed potatoes melted on my tongue like butter on a hot skillet. The pumpkin pie seemed snatched straight from the open window sill of an Amish farmhouse.
On this day, I had much to be thankful for. I had entered the pantheon of Turkey Bowl heroes, scoring the winning touchdown. Me, the single cell amoeba. Perhaps, I was on my way to evolving into something bigger, and more noble. Alas, I would have to wait until next Thanksgiving. Only 364 days to go.