Stevens: Our Thanksgiving traditions involved mules eating briars and potential cattle stampedes

tstevens@newsobserver.comNovember 22, 2012 

I grew up believing that over the river and through the woods was written just for my family.

Whenever we went to my grandmother’s home, my family would go through the woods and cross the old steel bridge that stretched across the Neuse River. It was a narrow bridge, but a glorious thing to a youngster who was crammed into the back seat of whatever old used car my parents were driving at the time.

The bridge looked like something built from an erector set with girders towering above the car. I remember mother calling ahead to see if recent rains had flooded the bridge and closed the road.

We always went early on Thanksgiving to visit my maternal grandmother. She had the first color television I had ever seen and watching the parades was a feat of magic, although I recall there was a greenish hue to every image.

Sports were not that big of a deal on Thanksgiving, at least not to me. I preferred to climb in the pecan tree, shoot the cows with my BB gun and scout out the mules, a white matched set who really did respond to gee and haw.

The mules chewed funny, or at least I thought they did because I always heard about folks grinning like a mule eating briars. I didn’t want to miss such a treat, so I watched the mules a lot just in case one of them happened to eat a briar.

The real farmers in my family found my temporary fascination with mules very strange. My uncle once told a Charleston horse carriage driver that he walked behind flatulent mules his whole life and he wasn’t about to pay for the privilege to see a horse’s backside. (He didn’t use those exact words, but you can probably figure out what he said.)

I got my BB gun at an early age. Daddy was a hunter and I guess the assumption was that every boy needed a BB gun. Most of my friends outgrew their toy guns, but I never did because I never had another, more lethal firearm. I felt out of place one Thanksgiving when my cousin asked his friend if he had his pistol with him. “Got my pants on don’t I?” he replied as he pulled a gun from his hip pocket.

Once, when three escaped convicts hid in the woods near my house, I wanted to telephone my buddies and tell them to bring their BB guns and we’d go capture the rogues, but mother said a BB gun wouldn’t hurt a convict.

I reminded her that she told me to be careful with my gun because it was dangerous and, besides, I planned to shoot the convicts in the eye.

Needless to say, my posse never assembled and the three desperadoes were apprehended without my assistance.

Not that I wasn’t ready. On Thanksgiving, my brother and I would go through a tube of BBs practicing.

We’d shoot the pecan trees and paper targets and I’d shoot the cows, who despite my best efforts, never stampeded like they did on “Rawhide.” I’d tell you that my brother shot the cows, too, except he’s a real badge-toting, pistol-packing police-type now and it probably wouldn’t be good for his career if it got out that he used to shoot cows. Not that he ever did.

The Thanksgiving traditions around my house were probably summarized best by my brother, who was a chunky fellow and, like me, often was tabbed to be fat King George III of England or Santa Claus in the school skits.

“We go to Mother Eva’s and we eat,” he said. “Then we go to Mama’s and we eat. Then we rub our stomachs and say, ‘I ate too much.’”

He would then rub his stomach and everyone would laugh like he was really funny.

There had to be sports on that color television at my grandmother’s, but I can’t remember watching a game on Thanksgiving. Maybe once. It was dark by the time we got to my other grandmother’s at dinner time, so there was more TV at her house, but it wasn’t always sports.

Looking back, that’s kind of neat. Our traditions had a lot more to do with people than watching a game on TV. Or even watching the mules.

I’m thankful for that.

Stevens: 919-829-8910

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