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Okay!  I haven’t been writing about turkeys as much as I should and Thanksgiving is on THURSDAY!  Where did the year go?  Fortunately, I still have some pictures left over from my trip home to my parents’ farm back in September. I have written about the geese and the renegade bourbon turkeys of the past, but this year my parents were passing by the grain store and there were poults for sale.  So now there is a whole new crop of turkeys running around again (which is good because they are my favorite barnyard creatures). Here  are some turkey photos and I show up in them too (both because of the shameful personal vanity which characterizes this era and because the lens on the front of my camera is cracked after an incident with some buttery fingers and an online fruit pie recipe).

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If you are curious what breed of turkeys these guys are, they are putatively broad-breasted bronze, but they don’t really look like the broad breasted bronze turkeys of my youth.  They are all lanky and tall!  These turkeys are pretty endearing and always come over to quizzically see what people are up to, but don’t be fooled–they are not completely domesticated and they are always getting in trouble.  Lately they have taken to escaping the poultry yard by walking way back into the woods where there is no fence and then coming back around the outside of the fence so they can stand in the road.  It isn’t a completely stupid strategy since there are all sorts of fat grasshoppers and suchlike tasty bus by the road, but people drive fast and carelessly and it takes a big bird some time to get off the ground.

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I don’t think my parents have any plans to eat these noble fowl as part of annual giving-of-thanks ritual sacrifice.  These are lucky ornamental (or pet?) turkeys, but they are flagrantly transgressing against America’s love affair with motor carriages, open roadways, and unsafe speeds. So maybe the turkeys are walking up the great pyramid towards sacrifice even if they are spared from the platter.  Hopefully they can learn road safety before it is too late, because I really like them.  Look at those droll facial expressions!

One of my readers commented about how much she enjoyed the fact that my “Swarm of Ideas” cloud ends with the words “Space Turkeys”, two very different topics which seem to be elided because apparently I write about turkeys as much as I write about the vast cosmos.  Well, I don’t have any stories about space turkeys, but I did have a rocket turkey back when I was ten.

Bronze Turkey Tom

My family had no luck raising our first batch of turkeys, which had been semi-feral specimens obtained from a disreputable stockman.  We next obtained a single pair of bronze turkeys, which are august and splendid birds.  The hen, Brown Sugar, was our favorite bird ever.  She would steal up to visitors, lay her head on their knees, and make delicate purring peeps of happiness as they stroked her iridescent feathers.  Unfortunately the tom turkey, Biff, went a bit…off and started attacking everything red.  Bronze toms are big: Biff probably weighed 50 pounds.  Since our chicken shed was red (as was my mother’s coat) the situation deteriorated and Thanksgiving time found us with only the hen turkey.  Brown Sugar was lonely, so next spring we ordered a large batch of bronze turkeys from the mail, and the flock of adorable little turkey chicks imprinted on me and followed me around field and hill as they grew to full size.

As all of this was happening, I was first tasting the joys of model rocketry.  Rocketry kits pictured a seductive spaceship ripping through the heavens, but when you opened the package what you got was a lot of unfinished balsa wood, some derelict cardboard tubes, a cheap plastic cone, and an immense fold-out sheet of finicky instructions.  You had to provide your own craft glue, exacto knife, and spray paint.  Anyway, I visited Grandma that year and prevailed upon her generosity and craftiness to participate in my new craze. Together she and I built a “Starship Vega” (it was mostly Grandma who built it, since I lacked the patience to properly set the fins).  But, when we went to launch it we discovered that the launching pad came separately!  For months thereafter, the glorious Starship Vega set on a shelf, taunting me. I had to wait till my grandparents visited the farm and brought me a birthday present before I could launch the thing.

The Starship Vega: except mine was spray painted the same burgundy as the family station wagon and had no decals (they all ripped or stuck together).

At launch time, turkey-raising collided abruptly with model rocketry. My flock of hand-raised bronze turkeys rushed over to see what my family was up to, and they were particularly curious about the rocket launch pad.  They kept sidling up to the pad just as I was done counting down, forcing me to initiate safety procedures, remove the launch key (yes Estes provided a safety key), and run onto the launch field to shoo away my turkeys.  Finally I got them all away from the miniature spaceship except for my favorite turkey, the dominant tom, Guy Smiley.  Guy was once again closing in on the launch pad, but still within a roughly safe distance.  All the other turkeys too started edging nearer.  The sun was beginning to head down.  I would never get a better chance.  I pushed the button.

My rocket leaped into the sky with a mighty hiss and a great white gunpowder cloud.  Poor Guy Smiley also leapt into the air.  He weighed over 40 pounds so it must have been a dreadful shock that propelled him up above our heads.  When he landed his poor head was a ghastly yellow (turkeys’ moods can be read by their head and wattle color, but this was the only time one turned yellow) and he uttered a weak croak before fainting and slumping into a heap.

In the mean time my rocket had turned into a distant twinkle above the cornfields.  Would the shoot deploy?  It did!  But unseen wind currents carried the spent vehicle far away, over the Amish neighbors’ cornfield.  I ran desperately, but it was no good—a botched recovery! For hours, I searched the August corn, until my mom called me in, but the Starship Vega was gone for good.  Only months later did a report emerge:  the Amish kids found it, and unable to comprehend the finer points of rocketry, crushed it to bits.

Pictured: The Right Stuff?

What about the poor swooning Guy Smiley?  Less ardent rocket enthusiasts among my family rushed to his aid, but he was already recovering.  After fifteen minutes of quivering, blanching, and muttering odd strangled chirps, he recomposed himself entirely.  His head grew ruddy again, his tail fanned up, and he strutted around the other turkeys with greater vanity then ever–having alone braved the noble pursuit of the heavens.  The incident also cemented my parents’ affection for Guy Smiley.  The other toms from our flock all eventually encountered the block and the axe, but, like Brown Sugar, Guy is buried under the old apple tree with my other beloved childhood pets.

I kept tropical aquariums as a child and, out of misplaced love, I killed ever so many poor little fish (I still have frequent anxiety dreams about my past mistakes).  My favorite of those hapless fish friends was a black ghost knife fish (Apteronotus albifrons).  Here’s a picture, but it doesn’t do the fish justice (because it’s hard to photograph things that are all black):

My black ghost knife fish, Ripley, was a fascinating character who would freeze into the shape of sword plant leaves and sway in the current to fool prey.  Ripley was an uncommonly gregarious fish who would always swim up to the front and show off for his (her?) favorite people when they entered the room.  During feeding time, Ripley would eat out of my hand and even lie across my palm.  He also liked to play in the bubble stream from the aerator and “surf” the water stream from the filter.

According to the redoubtable ichthyologist, Herbert Axelrod, Amazon tribal people believe ghost knife fish to be returned spirits of  dead ancestors and do not molest the fish.   Although I never heard a tribesman confirm this,  the fish do indeed look most ethereal.  Ghost knife fish hunt by reading/sensing electrical fields and they can emit an electric shock to fish who nip at their vermiform tail.  Because their almost vestigial eyes are not their foremost sense (and thanks to the remarkable fin which stretches down the length of their body), they like to swim backwards.

Although these fish can be bred in captivity, successful pairings are very rare.  Evidently Ripley was captured in the Amazon basin and shipped to the pet store where my little sister purchased him as a birthday present!  He lived in my community tank and one day I was trying to heal another fish’s fin rot so that it wouldn’t spread to Ripley.  But the medicine killed him.  Gah!  Rest ye in peace Ripley! You were the most likable fish I have ever known…

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