It was based on an annual tradition in the tiny town in Arkansas where my wife, Gwen the Beautiful, and I lived for almost a decade.
Well, we didn’t actually live in the town but on our property, Cloud Creek Ranch, which was about 12 miles away.
Today being Thanksgiving, my thoughts have turned in the direction of this now far-famed activity, so here’s the piece I wrote about it for my newspaper column, Live! From Paradise! back in 2005:
Last weekend, tradition and weather converged (I love using that word regarding something other than media) to create an end of summer ceremony that had great significance. At least for me.
The tradition is this.
Last weekend, in our beautiful town of Paradise (population all of 1206), the 60th Annual Turkey Trot took over, as it always does the second weekend in October. How crowded was it? It was so crowded that traffic was backed up all the way down Highway 62, from the White Oak Gas Station clear to Fred’s Pharmacy. We’re talking a quarter of a mile of police-controlled slowdown if we’re talking an inch!
People were outraged by the traffic delay. Uttering the same kinds of comments I’m sure were heard in L.A. a few weeks ago during that blackout. Well, not quite the same. No cuss words, as we say. And everyone agreed it was for a good cause.
Sponsored by the Paradise Chamber of Commerce and intended for the enjoyment of the entirety of Paradise County (at least), the Turkey Trot is North Central Arkansas’ primo Autumn Festival…and, yes, you’ve got it, its only Autumn Festival as well. It celebrates the harvest and the coming of winter and no doubt is descended from some sacrificial ceremony the local Indian People – now “lost” through the wonders of assimilation and the Trail of Tears – found necessary for their survival back in the day.
That’s right, I said “sacrificial,” and that’s the right word. Paradise’s sacrifice is really something. In fact, it inspired what for most people is the most memorable episode of the classic comedy series WKRP in Cincinnati.
Ah, you’re starting to get it, right? I’m talking about that episode. The one with the turkeys. Dropped from a helicopter for Thanksgiving. Live turkeys. Hitting the ground KERSPLAT! Because, as the punchline had it (more or less; my memory isn’t exact), “We forgot one thing. Turkeys can’t fly.”
Actually, turkeys can fly. A little. Short distances. Enough to get up into and down out of trees when threatened. In the old days, when the turkeys were dropped from the courthouse roof, their flying skills served them well. See, the way it worked back then was that during the daylight hours for two days a plump, juicy, live turkey was dropped from the roof every fifteen minutes, into the town square.
Waiting there were eager families with lots of kids. The good folks of the town of Paradise and Paradise County and points all around would catch the turkeys, or miss them and chase them and finally grab them up. Caught/grabbed turkeys went home with their catchers/grabbers, to become pets or be fattened up for Thanksgiving dinner, as the situation warranted. Some turkeys were able to flutter and run – “trot” – like the terrified sons of bitches they were, and escape into the woods. (Paradise being a very small town – only about 1200 people, remember – the woods are just a football field away from the square.)
But about forty years ago the Turkey Trot became an excuse for a craft fair. Booths of Ozarks-made saddles and tie-dyed T-shirts and bone-handled knives and chainsaw sculptures and taffy, sold in booths located around the square and on the 62. Night time square dancing. Country music and hillbilly blues bands playing all day.
And with the modern mercantilism came an upgrade of the turkey drop. Some sharp shopkeeper got the idea of going high tech. Why throw the turkeys off the roof when you can drop them from fucking airplanes?
Low flying planes, to be sure, but airplanes nevertheless. Little single-engine jobs, crammed with a pilot and a dozen or more turkeys at a time. Instead of falling forty feet, the turkeys now fell about a hundred and fifty, which was as low as the pilots could get.
The Turkey Trot turkey mortality rate started to climb. And climbed higher too, after 9/11, when the FAA cracked down on the unsafe, low altitude flying and made the boys buzz the square from a little higher up. Two hundred feet at least.
What’s that I hear? The sounds of animal lovers crying out, “Where’s the Humane Society? Where’s the SPCA?”
Let me remind you, boys and girls. This is North Central Arkansas. Land of the Free. A shotgun under the seat of every truck. And no fucking Humane Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Anything that breathes.
Hell, my neighbors are still castrating their calves with a rope and their teeth.
Now mind you, even heaved out of a plane most of the turkeys make it to the ground and into the arms of their hungry – I mean, playful – new human pals, or into the woods. But last year I watched as three in a row didn’t even try to flap their wings, instead just plummeting down—
It was those three that did it for me. No way was I going to the Turkey Trot this year. Instead I took advantage of the weather, which was cool and slightly overcast. Goin’ outside weather. Workin’ and walkin’ in comfort weather, for the first time since May. And I look forward to spending Turkey Trot day the same way next year, and the year after that, and that…
That’s what I love about traditions. We can all create our own.
As I said, I wrote the above. But I never sent it in to the newspaper for the neighbors to read. In the words of an old friend from my days as a rock ‘n’ roll drummer, “I may be crazy, but I’m not stupid.”
Now, however, I’ve got different neighbors to offend, so…
Uh-oh, did I just give my future plans away?
Oh, and speaking of the speaking of the WKRP episode, here’s a little tribute to it that I found on the web:
EDITED TO ADD: I just found the real last line of the WKRP episode, and it turns out to be the exact opposite of what I remembered…and much funnier: “As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.”