“Happy Thanksgiving, Daddy,” said little Robert, pouncing on his father’s bed at four in the morning.
“Yep,” replied his tired father, who was nearly comatose from sleep.
The year was 1939. Robert’s father staggered out of bed and stretched his lanky body. It was still dark outside. The Michigan air was liquid ice. Robert’s family got dressed while the coffee perked on the potbelly stove.
“Are you excited to eat turkey, Daddy?” Robert asked.
Robert’s father was an ironworker, and a man of sparse words. He was the sort of man who returned home each evening varnished in sweat and exhaustion. Robert’s mother was a commercial seamstress in a factory. Somehow the couple found time to raise four kids.
There was a Depression on. They lived in a meager house. They weren’t poor by any means—there were plenty of families worse off. But they weren’t high-steppers, either.
That morning, Robert’s father donned his nicest Sunday clothes—slacks pressed sharp enough to slice Pittsburgh steel. Robert’s mother wore a dress she reserved for weddings and funerals. Then, the whole family piled into the Ford.
“Happy Thanksgiving,” Robert’s mother said to the family.
“Happy Thanksgiving,” everyone answered.
“Happy Thanksgiving, Daddy,” said Robert’s kid sister.
“Yep,” was the reply.
The Ford pulled into the local high school. The parking lot was overrun with vehicles that morning; like ants on a Baby Ruth. People were everywhere.
Inside the cafeteria were dozens of volunteers in white aprons. There were clergymen pushing carts loaded with steaming vats of food. There were old women manning stoves. A large banner read: FREE TURKEYS.
A cafeteria line formed, snaking out the doors into the frigid parking lot. There must have been a few hundred people waiting in line. Maybe more.
In line ahead of Robert’s family were the McDavids. Robert went to school with the McDavid kids. Sometimes the McDavid kids didn’t have shoes or winter jackets.
When it was the McDavids’ turn in line, the sad-looking family placed their order at the counter for one turkey. The cooked holiday meal came in a paper grocery bag stained with grease splotches.
Robert’s mother whispered to his father. “I heard Mister McDavid lost his job.”
His father said nothing.
“Heard his wife was taking in wash from rich folks in town.”
“Heard they lost their house.”
“Next!” barked the cafeteria lady, an older woman wearing a hairnet and wire glasses.
Robert’s father approached the counter and said, “Ten turkeys, please.”
The woman in the hairnet gave him an incredulous look.
“What’re you, some kinda wisenheimer or something?”
“Ten turkeys,” repeated Robert’s father. “Please.”
The woman finally gave in. She shouted to the kitchen. “I need ten birds!” She turned to Robert’s father. “Cranberry sauce with those?”
In a few minutes, Robert’s father was navigating the Ford through quiet streets. Ten warm bags sat in the backseat. They drove into the hinterlands, past the grain silos, the clapboard churches, the stubbled cornfields, the abandoned service station, the feed and seed.
Finally, they arrived in a rundown place filled with weary houses and dilapidated cars.
This rural neighborhood was not really a neighborhood at all. This place was more akin to a municipal dump than a residential zone. Old shacks with chipped siding stood lined up like a tired platoon. Mildew was the preferred color here.
There were kids outside, bundled up, warming hands over fires contained in fifty-gallon drums. There were middle-aged men wearing thick parkas, working under the hoods of iced-over Chevys and Buicks.
Robert’s father tugged the parking brake.
“Stay here,” he told the family. “This won’t take long.”
Through the windshield, Robert could see his father carrying two heavy grocery sacks toward one home. His father approached an old man who stood on a lopsided porch.
Robert’s father gave the bag to the old man, then shook his hand vigorously. And the old fella began to weep. Then they embraced. Then Robert’s father wept.
Robert could read the elderly man’s lips.
“God bless you, sir,” the man was saying.
It was a marathon day. Robert’s family delivered several more grocery bags to several more homes. After which the family returned to the high school to pick up even more bags so they could do it all over again.
Robert’s father made drop-off after drop-off until nighttime overtook northern Michigan like a down quilt. And when the day was over, the family finally ate their own holiday feast at a small truckstop diner outside of town.
The kids stabbed lukewarm turkey and ate box-dressing. Robert’s dad took sips of high-octane coffee and massaged the stiffness from his neck.
Robert looked at his father and realized that this man still had to get up for work the next morning. In a scant few hours his old man would crawl on icy iron cross beams, put in his eight hours, and earn his wage. Even after spending his off-day playing Samaritan, work was work.
It was at this moment that Robert not only understood what an exceptional human being his father was, but decided that someday he wanted to be the same kind of charitable man.
When Robert’s father noticed his son gazing at him from across the table, he smiled and tousled Robert’s hair.
“Happy Thanksgiving, Robert,” his father said.
Robert smiled back. “Yep.”