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Tucson Weekly Ghosts of Thanksgiving Past

A wistful look back at the holidays of yesteryear.

By Tom Danehy

DECEMBER 1, 1997:  THIS IS MY favorite time of year. The days are shorter, nights are longer. Somewhere in the United States leaves are turning colors and falling off trees. Football's going strong and basketball is coming on.

Tomorrow is one of my favorite holidays. I just can't wait to see the costumes all the little kids wear when they come to the door asking for candy.

Wait, what do you mean it's Thanksgiving already?! Wow, I guess whoever said time speeds up as you get older knew what he was talking about. I'm surprised he found time to say it. Darn! I had this cool Halloween column ready; I guess I'm just going to use it next year. If I remember to submit it before October whizzes by again.

I guess it makes sense now. A few weeks back, I was getting in my car to go to the Amphi-Salpointe football game and the streets were full of 4-foot-11 people all dressed like the slasher in Scream. I just figured it was an adverse reaction to all the healthy food I'd been eating.

Actually, Thanksgiving is a cool holiday, too. It allows you to get together with people you only see a couple times a year and listen to them have a burp-off.

Myself, I never burp. My saintly Italian mother told me, in the strictest terms, that such behavior was unacceptable; and she reinforced it with many a well-placed spoon upside the head. So I taught myself not to burp or do that other thing, either. But it has to go somewhere. That explains why, when I was growing up, my friends would walk along beside me and wonder why my ears smelled like stale spaghetti sauce.

I've had lots of great Thanksgivings over the years. Live as long as I have and you're bound to have a few. Two of my favorites are:

Thanksgiving, 1963. This wasn't a great one, but certainly memorable. President Kennedy had been assassinated six days earlier and the whole country was stumbling around in a state of shock. My personal daze was magnified by my on-the-horizon pubescence and the fact that I'd had my tonsils removed the day after the assassination.

They'd been removed badly. Mom should have been skeptical of anyone who spelled his title, "Doctor," with a "k." We wouldn't become aware of the significance of the surname "Mengele" until years later.

I guess the surgical team figured that since I was so skinny, they could skimp on the anesthesia. I remember being partly awake during the procedure. All I can say is that "Oops!" sounds the same in German as in English.

I had several more stitches than normal on the (inside) left side of my throat. I remember when he worked on that side. He'd muttered something in German. I assume it meant, "Wow, that scalpel's really sharp, huh?" or "This is for Normandy!" (Which is a big joke on him. My people are Italian and we surrendered years before his homies did.)

Anyway, I was unable to eat that Thanksgiving Day, meaning I was going to have to miss our semi-annual lasagna dinner. We'd always have lasagna on Thanksgiving and Christmas. I used to beg Mom to have it on Christmas and the Fourth of July so we could savor the experience. Scornfully, she asked what we were supposed to eat on Thanksgiving. I wasn't sure, so I told her I'd check on what other people ate.

So that Thanksgiving I hung out with my friends, and we played a couple hours of street tackle football. (Hey, my home town was rough. Hoodlums in my neighborhood were so tough, they didn't shoot each other; they inserted the bullets manually.) Then I went over to my friend's house after assuring him about 8,000 times that I wouldn't (indeed, couldn't) eat any of his family's food.

I was stunned to learn that people ate turkey and potatoes. I would later find out that just about everybody eats that stuff, even people who can afford to make lasagna. It was mind-boggling.

I went home and told Mom. She gave me that look that only mothers can make. The one that says, "That Nazi doctor butchered my son, and now the lack of food has made him delirious!" I guess every mom has made that look at one time or another.

Thanksgiving, 1974. This was the first time in my life I had turkey on Thanksgiving. Weird but true. It was also the day when Clint Longley, The Mad Bomber, engineered the incredible comeback by the Dallas Cowboys against the Washington Redskins in the annual Thanksgiving Day football game. Just one more reason to hate the Cowboys; they get to play at home on Thanksgiving and then take 10 days off before heading into the stretch drive.

I was playing basketball for Cochise College. We were here in Tucson for a tournament at Pima College. They put us up at what is now the downtown Holiday Inn, across from the federal building. It wasn't a Holiday Inn then; I'm not sure if it was the Hilton or the Marriott. I should call Tom Hassey; he knows all that stuff.

Our team consisted of 11 black guys with huge Afros and me, with a huge Itali-o. They let us stay in their hotel, but we weren't allowed in the dining room. We had to eat in the kitchen, away from all the paying white folks.

I tried to convince my buddies that it was my fault we were being mistreated. I told them it was like that scene in Blazing Saddles, the hot movie at the time. When the immigrants and former slaves tell the residents of Rock Ridge that they'll help save the town from the evil developers in exchange for an opportunity to live in peace alongside their white brethren, the mayor says, "All right, we'll take the niggers and the chinks, but no Irish!"

The turkey was turkey roll, that scary processed hybrid thing with part white meat and part dark, making you wonder how a bird built like that could've gotten around. The food was cold, the mashed potatoes lumpy, and the service horrible.

I tried to fire everybody up by suggesting we thank Tucson for its "hospitality" by winning the damn tournament. My teammates thought it would be a better idea to shoplift stuff out of the hotel's Men's Shop.

But nobody got caught, and for that we were thankful.

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