Thanksgiving is like the hot cheerleader’s younger sister –the one that everybody chats up just to get a chance to meet her much lovelier sibling. Stores start putting up Christmas displays right after Halloween and when people discuss a day of that long weekend in November they’re more apt to be talking about the day after Thanksgiving – scoring bargains on Black Friday. That wasn’t always the case and in 1973 my Thanksgiving was infinitely better than my Christmas despite the lack of deep discounts on home electronics.
I was winding up my third and last semester at Ricks College and I was on a roll. I was working hard and doing very well in my classes, I had lost thirty pounds and was in great shape…and in a month, I would be reunited with my Best Friend. The Thanksgiving holiday was almost more a hinderance than a respite and when I told Conrad1 I was staying put and working on a project instead of going to Provo with him he was not very happy. After a few rounds of our usual bickering we compromised on an abbreviated visit with his sister Chris at BYU, after which we’d speed home, so I could finish the project.
The trip started out nicely enough as we sped south on I-15 with two other room-mates who would be riding just as far as Malad ID crammed in the back of Conrad’s Mustang. We laughed, joked and talked about girls until someone pointed to the sky to the southwest at an ominous storm front blowing in. Someone joked about singing hymns to somehow divert the storm but as we passed Pocatello we started to run into real trouble. The Mustang began running rough and within minutes we were stalled.
At this point our two backseat passengers decided to bail, leaving us with a non-personalized check for their share of the gas money. In a string of minor miracles, we waved down a car, rode in wrecker and put the Mustang’s 8-track tape-deck in hock to pay for the services and finally got the Mustang running again. By then it was obvious the Provo trip was a bust, but we were still a long way from home and it was late at night. Luckily our ROTC instructor MAJ Gary Tomlinson lived with his family in Pocatello and kindly put us up for the night.
We woke up to a cold cloudy morning and drove back to our apartment in Rexburg, stopping at a Circle K to buy our Thanksgiving feast: a freezer pizza and an apple pie. We were both thankful we’d gotten out of the predicament losing only the tape deck and not our lives, but with our four other room-mates gone (along with most of the college student body) it was going to be a rather bleak holiday.
It was at that point that an idea came to mind which shortly had me resorting to one of the most bald-faced shameless acts of manipulation in my life. I went upstairs to talk to our landlords the Hansen’s, who were surprised to see us. I responded: “Oh, we had car trouble and had to come back, but we’re OK. We’ve got a freezer pizza and an apple pie between us – and we’re buddies from way back, so it will be just like being home… almost” trailing off into a barely audible sigh as I went back down to our apartment.
Stephen Hansen was a good-hearted man and I could predict almost to the second what he would do after our conversation. I started counting down “Five – four – three – “
Conrad was lost “What’s going on?”
“Shh -two – one! “
KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK!
It was Brother Hansen “Now boys, we want you to come upstairs and have Thanksgiving dinner with us” to which both Conrad and I made the requisite protests, which we ceased when he got to “I won’t take no for answer”. We trooped upstairs for a grand feast – and in the process got to know them as individuals with personality and depth and not just one-dimensional characters hammering on their floor when we got too rowdy in the downstairs apartment.
The storm that had stranded us left a thick blanket of snow which made our street look like a Christmas card and the bulk of the holiday was quiet and I spent most of the time finishing up projects and studying for tests. We did manage to get out of the apartment a couple of times; stocking up on some groceries, attending a consolidated church meeting and viewing “Willi Wonka and The Chocolate Factory” at the Manwaring Center Cinema more times that I ever cared to. I was surprised at how quiet Rexburg was, but then I’d never been in town when school was not in session. As I said: the days were quiet, but the evenings turned out a little differently.
Even though I had never seen it in use, our living room was equipped a fireplace complete with a small supply of wood. Midway through the holiday we decided a fire was in order and as we were preparing I noticed several short lengths of 1”X12” wood in the wood-box, leftovers from a remodeling project. During my brief marital arts training I’d learned if you properly positioned a plank between supports and swung your hand “through the board” with the grain you could break it without hurting yourself.
After demonstrating the process to Conrad by splitting a few boards I coached/coaxed him into giving it a try. I helped him position the plank and stood by while he took several deep breathes, wound up and swung his hand with a deafening cry.
“HI-YAHHHHHHHHHHHHH!” It was like watching the Coyote in a Roadrunner cartoon. Conrad jumped up – board intact – and continued jumping up and down around the room, grabbing his hand and screaming that he’d broken it. Upon inspection we found that a bad bruise was the extent of the damage and when he calmed down we went back to building the fire.
I laid the kindling and wood in a neat log cabin formation, and when we put match to paper it all started to crackle and flare in a most warm and satisfactory manner. We were most pleased…. until we realized that the smoke was not going up the chimney but in fact was pouring into the apartment. I quickly doused the fire but not before the smoke had collected along the ceiling which had the apartment looking like a New York City summer afternoon.
…and the smoke didn’t look like it was going anywhere soon, no matter how hard we tried to fan it out the door. We also found out why the smoke had poured out – the fireplace damper had been firmly closed – but we had to clear the smoke and smell out of the apartment before our roommates returned and/or the Hansen’s found out…which is why we both slept fully clothed that night, wearing our winter coats and hats while all the windows in the apartment were left slightly open.
We were lucky – when the other guys started drifting in the next day the smoke was all gone, and the slight woodsy smell was easily explained away as dinner getting burned the night before. Conrad and I listened to everyone’s holiday stories and we all happily went into our usual “night before” drill, cleaning up, setting out clothes and planning the next day’s activities when the final Thanksgiving adventure happened.
“EEEWWWWWWWWWW” It was Syd, pointing at one of our bedroom windows and looking like he’d just lost his lunch. He stammered “It was horrible – I looked out the window and saw the ugliest guy in the world looking in. His face looked like it had been burned or doused with acid and was sloughing off like an old scab AND THERE HE IS AGAIN!” pointing out our window.
I looked over to see the lower torso of a man’s body standing in the snow then turning and bolting away from the window. I ran for the door and when I reached the sidewalk in front of the house I could see footprints leading from the side of the house out to the street and up the hill. Glancing up I saw a ragged figure briefly illuminated by a street lamp, but the deepening snow ruled out any sort of pursuit…. for which I was grateful. Between Syd’s description and what little I saw of the prowler I was not sure I wanted to confront the guy. . I also kind of wanted to stick close to the neighborhood; channeling as ever for Batman I wanted to keep a watchful eye out after a cursory check revealed that our prowler had been loitering around the windows of two girls’ apartments located nearby.
It was almost midnight by the time I got into bed, but I was too jazzed from the chase to fall asleep. Lying in my bunk, I couldn’t help but think back over the long weekend: every Thanksgiving before this one had been very predictable and comfortable, either spent with my family or my Best Friend’s relatives, but I felt more thankful than I had ever before. It had been more of a slapstick comedy than a holiday, with one disaster after another, but each disaster had been resolved without serious harm.
It was the best Thanksgiving of my entire life.
- Donald/Don/Donny Thomas: somehow Don acquired “Conrad” as a nickname just before we left for school in the late summer of 1973 and he was known by that name to all our other roommates. My oldest son Conrad is named after Donny in this manner