My best Thanksgiving choice

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thanksgiving place setting

The gray dullness of November finally made it to Illinois a couple of weeks late. The morning of its arrival began like almost every morning since Labor Day, warm and with a breeze. By noon, however, a sharp wind was blowing from the east and the low groan of thunder promised both a rain and a nap and nothing could be done to stop either.

Should all of November stay gray, few in farm and ranch country could complain after the stunning weather we’ve enjoyed this September and October.

It was more than stunning; it was spectacular. Only one day of rain slowed combines during the whole of harvest in my neighborhood. No one, not even the oldtimers, could recall such a perfect fall. Despite this year’s luxurious delay, winter weather — even November weather — will arrive soon enough.

Thanksgiving past

Forty years ago, 1975, a relatively mild central Illinois fall ended with a sledgehammer of a snowstorm the night before Thanksgiving. I remember it well because, as both a student and farmhand at the University of Illinois that year, I spent Thanksgiving Day milking Holsteins and pushing snow off the cow lots of the university’s South Farms.

I had stayed on campus for two good reasons. First, I had a choice on where I would milk cows that Thanksgiving: I could either milk the university’s cows in central Illinois for $2.10 an hour or I could go home to the southern Illinois dairy farm of my youth and milk my father’s less-pedigreed cows for $1 an hour. Right, I saved the 10 hours of car travel and pocketed the double dollars.

The second reason was equally straightforward. A girlfriend had invited me to her family’s home for a big party the day after Thanksgiving. There was a catch, however; the bash was 90 miles from the campus cows and I, like every college student in 1975, had no car. Right, I bought my first-ever bus ticket. Yes, a bus ticket. Back then, buses were everywhere and went everywhere so bus it was because bus it had to be.

The ticket completed my holiday week planning: class Monday through Wednesday (mostly); cows every morning plus all Thanksgiving Thursday; then a Friday bus trip to a new town, new people and new fun. Even better, I had Thanksgiving dinner plans. The dormitory kitchen boss where I washed dinner dishes every evening invited me to her house for the holiday meal with, she explained, other “odd ducks and lost geese” that she knew were on campus. Dinner was at 7 at her house and I was told to be there. Mrs. H. was my boss; so I went.

But first…

When I returned to my boarding house after sharing turkey with ducks and geese, a note taped to the my door informed me that “I need you to milk in morning. Pick U up at 4. Will get you to bus in time. Wayne.”

Wayne, too, was my boss, he managed the university’s dairy, so at 4 a.m. the next day I was on the porch waiting for my ride to milk cows for another four hours. True to his word, though, Wayne had me home in time to shower and change clothes, then drive me to the bus station to catch my ride. (He also fell asleep on my sofa — cow-enhanced coveralls and all — as he waited for me to get ready.)

An hour later, my girlfriend and her chaperone brother (oh, brother) met me at the end of the line to take me to their hometown and the big party. Her eyes sparkled brighter than the snow that blanketed the Illinois prairie that day and her smile warmed me like no fire ever could or ever would.

That was 40 years ago this week and the lovely Catherine, she of the sparkling eyes and heart-melting smile, and I — cows and snowstorms and an occasional bus ride notwithstanding — have spent every Thanksgiving together since.

Lucky, thankful me.

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Alan Guebert was raised on an 800-acre, 100-cow southern Illinois dairy farm. After graduation from the University of Illinois in 1980, he served as a writer and editor at Professional Farmers of America, Successful Farming magazine and Farm Journal magazine. His syndicated agricultural column, The Farm and Food File, began in June, 1993, and now appears weekly in more than 70 publications throughout the U.S. and Canada. He and spouse Catherine, a social worker, have two adult children. farmandfoodfile.com

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