Thursday, November 24, 2011

Saints and Strangers

Some things never change.  Story to be inserted tomorrow, but I wanted it dated Thanksgiving Day.

The following story appeared in the now-defunct Green Mountain Gazette 31 years ago today.
Saints and Strangers,
Let Us Give Thanks
by Joe Willis
   This is dedicated to my late high school history teacher, Homer Paulus, who taught me that wanderers should remember their roots.
   When that largely ignored holiday, Columbus Day, rolls around, I develop an atavistic desire for fresh cranberries.  It's not that I'm particularly fond of cranberries per se, but each fall it's the arrival of fresh cranberries that first triggers my  Thanksgiving memories which go back to playing on the lawn beneath a magnificent statue of Massasoit in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
   While growing up in what used to be rural, southeastern Massachusetts, children are surrounded by reminders of their heritage.  For me, it was an environment remarkably different from what my own children are experiencing while growing up here in Quincy West.
   During my cowboy and Indian days, I always insisted on being an Indian.  My brother and I, for reasons I've never discovered, sided with the underdogs at an early age.  We hid our bicycles - that's right, Indians on bicycles - in King Philip's Cave a few miles from our home.  King Philip's given name was Metacomet.  He was a son of Massasoit, the chief (or sachem) who allegedly befriended the Pilgrims.
   I always wondered why, if Massasoit was such a friend to the Pilgrims, his son Metacomet would wage one of the bloodiest wars in history against the colonists.  My teachers didn't want to talk about it, if in fact they knew anything about it.  Another mystery: while we were always taught that if the Pilgrims' advance began with their landing on Cape Cod in 1620,  it was never explained how the Indian, Squanto, met them on the shore already able to speak English.  I wondered about that as a Boy Scout during summer outings at Camp Squanto, but I never got an answer. 
   Just north of Plymouth is the Myles Standish Monument, a beautiful stone cylinder with a circular stairway inside and a statue of Captain Standish on top, rifle in hand.  While enjoying racing up that stairway and admiring the giant stone rifle in Standish's hands, we kids were vaguely aware that this early hero had some sort of peacekeeping role around the time of the first Thanksgiving.
   The nearby town of Carver is a memorial to John Carver whose compassion and sense of community enabled him to persuade a skeptical group of Mayflower passengers to sign a Compact for self-government.  This, of course, was a precedent to much of the best American political thinking of the next 300 years.  What mattered more to us kids, though, was that the town of Carver was the center of the cranberry industry, which, like me, has since moved westward. 
    My fondest memories of cranberries are not so much of the taste of Mom's cranberry sauce, but of the cranberry bogs themselves.  Much of Pilgrim territory is now taken up by numerous rectangular, diked cranberry bogs which are flooded in winter to protect the cranberries from freezing.  To energetic young teenagers like my brother and me, cranberry bogs frozen over in winter represent the ideal hockey rink more so than a source of Thanksgiving delicacies.  But, at our present ages, the Thanksgiving memories are becoming more important than the hockey.
    Another childhood activity somehow connected to our Thanksgiving memories and ties with our Pilgrim heritage was shooting herring with bows and arrows. The herring run of all herring runs was in a creek near Brewster on Cape Cod.  There were so many herring that we could aim anywhere into the water and hit a herring nearly every time.  During our teepee days, we even buried herring, like Samoset had shown the Pilgrims, in order to help the corn grow.  We forgot to put in the corn seeds, though, and local dogs and cats got the herring.  Brewster, by the way, was named after William Brewster, one of the most humane spiritual leaders among the Mayflower group.
    Among our strongest Thanksgiving memories, of course, are the traditional foods.  I never really cared for turkey, maybe because we'd always cook a 25-pounder then have to eat turkey sandwiches for about a month.  We'd run out just in time for our Christmas turkey!  Now, being mostly vegetarian, my memories are focused more on the pumpkin pie, Indian pudding, baked potatoes and onions, fresh corn on the cob, and endless desserts.  We began the feast each year vowing not to eat too much 'this time,' but we'd all end up immobilized anyway.
    In recent years, this mosaic of memories traceable, via my New England upbringing, to the first Thanksgiving, has become expanded and altered.  A changing philosophy has led to a few meatless Thanksgivings.  From the research of a number of Native American and black historians, I've learned that the relationship between the Puritans and the Indians was not so benign as I had been taught.  After all, the palefaces did invent the term 'redskin' and they also stole a lot of corn.  And Myles Standish turns out to have been a smallish, hot-tempered soldier looking for a war or some similar puberty rite.  The turkeys, who never appreciated Thanksgiving, are now being raised with such electronic, seasonal regulation, that it's an embarrassment to any humane-minded person who takes a close look.  Interestingly, that motley group who started all this were rather sharply divided, according to their own perceptions, into "Saints" and "Strangers."  The former term referred to those who had gathered together for a common religious purpose, and Strangers were all the others.
    So, what do I have to be thankful for?  After all, that is what this day is all about.  An obvious fringe benefit for the kids is the vacation from school.  Despite my discovery of some blemishes in the First Thanksgiving story, I love the story, and I'm glad merely to be aware of the personalities and events that took place in my first back yards long before I played in them.  As for my children, I am anxious to show them Pilgrimland at our first opportunity.  As for giving thanks, we are most thankful to the Pilgrims, despite their shortcomings, for imbuing us with the spirit of pulling together and sharing during the hard times and knowing how to share in celebration during the good times.  We can't ask for much more from a heritage.

Now, over 30 years later, I still have most of the same feelings and beliefs - except for that last paragraph.  I was too kind.  It turns out those first white settlers in New England were not very nice, and they now seem to me to resemble the current US Congress, mostly Strangers, not too many Saints.

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