Childhood Thanksgiving Memories Redux

Norman-Rockwell_Freedom-from-WantI get nostalgic this time of year. I may live in Northern California where we barely have seasons – summer was ridiculously long this year – but I grew up in western New York where we had all four in abundance. Fall has finally arrived in the San Francisco Bay Area and I love the crisp air.

I grew up thinking my Aunt Carole’s (my father’s only sibling) house was out in the country. The drive out to Scottsville, New York, seemed to take forever. It was picturesque as we drove past the horse farms that lined the road when we took the scenic route. For some reason I always took note of the rambling white fences that paralleled the road. As mom, dad and I approached the turn off, empty fields and barns dotted the landscape. The topography, architecture and open space cried country.

The house had once belonged to my grandparents, whom I never knew. My father’s father died in 1959, and my grandmother passed away in 1966, three years before I was born. My grandmother bequeathed the house to her two children – my father and his sister. I don’t know the whole story but Dad didn’t want to live in the house, my aunt ended up with it and lived in it with her husband, my Uncle Freddy, for the better part of her life.

The driveway wasn’t paved. A basketball hoop that never knew the touch of a net was loosely attached to the front of the rickety detached garage. There was well water. Eventually a pack of the meanest shepherd mix dogs I’ve ever known took up residence in that garage. You had to walk up an embankment to get to the path to the house. I say path because the sidewalk that led to the house came from the road and was worthless if you parked in the the driveway.

This was my Aunt’s house. It was built in 1906 and belonged to my grandparents. I spent many Thanksgivings in this house.

My parents and I would carry our dishes to pass, mostly my parents carried them, and I was a lazy ass who couldn’t be bothered with such things as a child. Aside from pies, the only dish I remember Mom making was a sweet dressing made with apples and prunes. Mom made a great pie crust, however, her apple pie filling left a little to be desired. Don’t get me wrong, it was delicious, it just could have been better. My aunt made a great apple pie filling. One year Mom and Aunt Carole combined forces…oh, man, was that a pie. I am partial to apple pie. I hate pumpkin pie, absolutely hate it.

More on pie later.

We had a rather old-fashioned, misogynistic (almost chauvinistic) kind of Thanksgiving, my four first cousins and I. My aunt and her three daughters – Tammy, Debbie and Shari – toiled in the kitchen with very little help from Mom, as we menfolk settled in for a day of feasting and football watching. Aunt Carole would tend to the bird which I am sure routinely tipped the scales at 22 pounds or more. I don’t remember much of what the oldest, David, did while all of this was going on, I just remember what it was like when he was of working age. School friends, later boyfriends and girlfriends, then husbands/wives, and associated kids would join us for dinner.

My father, my uncle, my cousin David, my mom and I (and later other invited guests), eagerly awaited the feasting while watching the Detroit Lions in their annual Thanksgiving match-up. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade had already been watched at one house or the other. For whatever reason, I always seemed to root for the Lions no matter who they played.

I was a finicky eater as a child. And to this day, there are certain Thanksgiving staples I don’t like. I won’t touch cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes (yams) or squash. Just give me turkey, mashed potatoes with butter, salad, soft fresh buttered rolls, and Mom’s sweet dressing and I was a happy boy. David would pile his plate a mile high at least three times. The army of cats would benefit from the leftovers as my female cousins picked the bird clean and tossed the unwanted scraps to the floor.

Then there was pie. Apple. Mincemeat. Lemon meringue. Key Lime. Pumpkin. Oh boy, was there pie.

Eventually, we’d settle down and watch the Lions, and maybe we’d catch some of the Dallas Cowboys game, have more turkey or pie. We never thought the Cowboys game was much of a Thanksgiving tradition – I would learn later that this was a mistaken belief. My cousins and I sometimes ended the day with board games. If I was feeling adventurous, I’d go sledding in the dark careening through the scrub brush.

We’d have as few as eight or nine, and as many damn near 20 for Thanksgiving dinner. As I got older, many of us took up smoking as a habit and we’d crowd on the enclosed porch (healthy) if it was too cold to go smoke outside.

The house itself had a distinct aroma, it was charming in some parts, dilapidated in others. It always seemed to be organized chaos. It certainly had something after the wood-burning stove was installed in the living room. Sometimes it felt like a sauna, even in the dead of winter.

All four parents are gone now. All that’s left of those Thanksgivings are memories. We didn’t take many photos of those events, despite my father’s shutterbug tendencies. I couldn’t find any pictures of Thanksgivings past. There could be slides somewhere, I’m still a little bit of a lazy ass. Maybe my cousins have some.

We weren’t rich people – far from it. We certainly were not the embodiment of the Norman Rockwell painting. But we did it this way every year with very few exceptions. I was in the Navy for 10 years, so I missed some.

Say what you want about what we did or how we did it. These were our Thanksgivings. We enjoyed them and each other.

I reset the trip-o-meter on a drive from my parents’ house to my aunt’s house in 1997. I had to know. I had driven out there a few times on my own as an adult. I still thought of it as the “country.” As I got older, it became less and less rural and more and more suburban.

Nine miles. An online driving directions site says just over 13. Not quite over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house.

The backyard belonged to the county after years of us thinking it belonged to the family. We used to play baseball, climb trees and pick cherries on land we thought was ours. Suburban expansion has ruined the quaint charm of the property.

You know what? I’ll always remember it as a drive in the country to Thanksgiving at my aunt’s house. Those fences and those horse farms will always line Scottsville Road, that barn a few hundred yards from the corner of Scottsville Road and Chili Wheatland Town Line Road, will always herald the turn.

These were our Thanksgivings and I wouldn’t have traded them for anything.

B-Boy Running Adventures: Mexican Style

A monument in Chapultepec Park in Mexico City.

I just experienced my first trip to Mexico. You’d think living in California would afford ample opportunities to venture south of the border and partake in adventures in the birthplace of the Aztecs, most of the American southwest and California, and the taco. But alas, this was my first trek and unfortunately it only lasted 36 hours. I accomplished a lot in a short amount of time and I enjoyed the experience thoroughly.

It was not lost on me that one of my literary heroes, Jack Kerouac, wrote of many Mexican adventures and I was hoping to have a similar Beatnik experience. Unfortunately I didn’t have enough time to explore even a fraction of what Mexico City has to offer. The New York Times’ Damien Cave actually went in search of Kerouac’s Mexico.

“I found Jack Kerouac’s Mexico on a strip of beach that separated the old hotels from the heaving Pacific, at a bar near where he sat on the sea wall and watched the sunset 61 years ago.” Damien Cave, New York Times

I landed at Toluca International Airport, (Licenciado Adolfo López Mateos International Airport), which was out in the weeds. The bus ride into Mexico City was long and winding. The sun went down shortly after landing so I didn’t get to see much. It gets dark quickly this time of year.

The view from my room at the Hyatt Regency, Mexico City.

I stayed in a hotel near Chapultepec Park (Bosque de Chapultepec), which many liken to New York’s Central Park. A colleague mentioned that it takes an hour to walk around the perimeter of the park.

After getting checked in I met up with a pair of colleagues/friends, Ambrosio and Fernando, who are natives of Mexico. I must admit it was really cool to drink authentic Mexican beer (Modelo Negro) with a couple of authentic Mexicans.

Mexico City, and Mexico in general, has a reputation among many people I have known. Much of that reputation is undeserved as far I can tell. Home to more than 20 million people, it is much like any other mega-city with sprawling neighborhoods, mixed eras of architecture, upscale areas, down-trodden sections, and everything between. The traffic sucks and the place definitely qualifies as a sprawling metropolis.

This taco chef at El Farolito became my new best friend.

After a few Modelo Negros, mis amigos and I set out to find some authentic tacos. We had a rough idea of where we were headed, but Fernando felt the need to ask directions every other block. We came across a Mariachi band serenading some tourists. The lead singer gave us the stink eye as Fernando began singing along as he was trying to put his mack down.

The three of us came across a couple of police officers walking the beat, and they pointed us in the right direction. Never mind the next set of cops we saw, who were apparently in the middle of a sting operation. I didn’t want to stick around for that.

We eventually found our destination – El Farolito – a neighborhood taqueria (18 locations). The first thing you notice when you walk in is the taco “chef” slicing pork off a giant rotisserie. The second thing you notice is the aroma. Your sense of smell is bombarded with the amazing aromas of several roasted, smoked and grilled meats. We enjoyed pork, chorizo and carne asada tacos. The first bite sent me into a tizzy. These were the best tacos I have ever had. And I’ve had authentic before.

Before you travel to Mexico, you hear all the stories and admonitions. Don’t drink the water, don’t eat this, don’t eat that. When you are with folks who grew up there, you trust them and my pals didn’t steer me wrong. Another Modelo Negro accompanied our meal.

Best. Tacos. Ever.

We definitely needed the walk back to the hotel to burn off some calories. The evening ended with a couple of obligatory pours of tequila. When in Rome (do as the Romans do).

If you are a loyal reader, or know me at all, you know that I like to go running in the cities I visit. I went on 10 trips in 2015 and ran in nine cities. So far this year I have gone running in New Orleans, Nashville (twice), Baltimore, Jacksonville and Tampa. Two years ago, I had the opportunity to run in Bagshot, which is not too far from London, England. So, of course I was going to go running in Mexico City. I met up with two other colleagues, one a native of Mexico, and we set out for Chapultepec Park.

img_0217Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Mexico City sits at 7,382 feet above sea level. I have run in Denver, the Mile High City, which sits between 5,130–5,690 feet above sea level. The last time I went running in Denver, the altitude didn’t bother me. Maybe that was because I run regularly. The time before, I was miserable but that was at the beginning of my fitness journey. Last winter I rather enjoyed my cold three-mile run in Denver.

I haven’t run in three weeks for various reasons. My back has been bothering me, and I had a head cold, which graduated into electric yellow snot flowing sinus infection.

Let’s just say I wasn’t ready for the elevation in Mexico City. We lost one pal less than half a mile in. I could call him out, but I won’t be mean. My other friend, Sal, and I managed a mile non-stop before I needed a break. After that we took a break every half mile or so. My body felt pretty good but I just couldn’t catch my breath.

We ran around part of and through part of Chapultepec Park. The park was stunning. The natural beauty was interrupted with historical monuments. That’s not a bad thing. Visitors walked, ran and paddle-boated their way through the expanse.

My run time wasn’t horrible had it been non-stop. That’s what I get for taking three weeks off from running. I highly doubt it would have made a difference. At my age, with my body, taking any time off from exercise is almost catastrophic. It is so easy to get out of shape, and so hard to get back in shape. I only feel good when I am exercising – or eating amazing chorizo tacos.

As I mentioned, I was only in Mexico City for 36 hours or so, and I was there to work. I didn’t get a chance to visit the pyramids of Teotihuacan, or the Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral. But I did enjoy authentic tacos and I got to go running in another exotic locale.

Muy beuno.

Muchas gracias, Ciudad de México.

The Post Election Podcast You Didn’t Know You Needed or Wanted

So much has been said and written about the 2016 General Election, why not throw a little more fuel on the fire? My good friend and Navy buddy Chris Ingalls and I dissect the election and all of the ramifications in this Veterans Day weekend edition of the Get the Knaak podcast. Follow us on Twitter: @GetTheKnaak | @Ingalls1969