Wednesday, November 24, 2010

From the Archives - Thanksgiving Tales

Introduction

I’m having a bunch of relatives here for Thanksgiving: my brother Bryan and his family, and my mom. Some years we get all four brothers together, which is obviously the best-case scenario for this holiday, but the planets didn’t line up this year. Still, it’s going to be a blast. For one thing, our kids haven’t yet heard all the Albert stories, so we have ample excuse to trot out our old standbys. I enjoy watching the storyteller wring fresh life out these tales, and I like to try to track the embellishments.

One story in particular—the Baskin Robbins Simulated Vehicular Manslaughter Incident—has been told with great relish by both Geoff and Bryan, despite the fact that neither of them actually saw it, much less participated. They insist that they were there—“I remember it like it was yesterday!”—but Max and I are certain they were not. By the way, here’s a photo of the four of us, from December 1985, which we sent around as a Christmas card:

From left to right, that's me, Max, Geoff, and Bryan. But I digress. You won’t get the Baskin Robbins Simulated Vehicular Manslaughter tale in this post, because this is actually a From The Archives deal (I don’t have time for too much writing today, my relatives being on their way here as I assemble this). I have three stories to share. Two of them are good background for anybody trying to understand half of the comments that come out of our mouths every Thanksgiving. Following those is the tale of my most memorable Thanksgiving bike ride to date.

Thanksgiving Archives Tale #1 – The Gravy Incident

[This excerpt is from an e-mail I wrote to a cousin, who had asked for some background on all the gravy-related captions in a Thanksgiving photo album I’d sent around.]

The gravy-related captions relate to a Thanksgiving dinner back in the early nineties at our then-stepmother’s house. All the brothers were there. Once my plate was full I started looking around for the gravy. It can take awhile for the gravy to make its way around the table, and I try to be patient, but of course you can’t even begin eating until you’ve properly lubricated your food. I finally realized the gravy simply wasn’t on the table, so I headed into the kitchen. “I’ll get the gravy,” I said. I looked all around in the kitchen and still couldn’t find it. It was weird. Finally I asked my stepmother, “What does the gravy vessel look like?”

She just sat there at the table, silent, looking awkward. Finally my dad cleared his throat and said, grimly, “There isn’t any gravy.” There was a long silence. You could have heard a cat’s whisker twitch. “Wow, that’s funny,” I said. “For a second there I thought you said there wasn’t any gravy!” Actually, I only thought that. (This is the kind of embellishment I might allow in an oral retelling of the story, as an acknowledged fictional touch that enhances the dramatic effect.) In fact I was literally struck dumb. My brothers and I waited silently for a long while, to give Dad the opportunity to say, “Just kidding!” and burst out laughing, but he didn’t, so finally, without a word, we all filed silently out of the room, out the front door, and far away from that terrible place.

Actually, we didn’t. Of course we wanted to, but we couldn’t. We soldiered bravely on, trying to eat a turkey dinner with no gravy, but the meal was a very dour affair after that. I mean, how could they? What were they thinking? I can’t blame my dad, as (especially back in those days) he was a creature of appetites and would happily have eaten gravy by the quart like a normal person. I guess his wife had decided gravy is bad for you. Man, what a blow. She might has well have started off the meal by telling us a close friend or relative had just been killed in a gruesome accident and right after dinner we had to go try to ID the body.

Ever since that day, it’s become a family tradition, as Thanksgiving plans are made, to try to convincingly announce that for one reason or another you’re not serving gravy this year. Of course nobody has fooled anybody else for a second, no matter how perfect the poker-face and deadpan style.

Thanksgiving Archives Tale #2 – The Near-Buffet Incident

[Whenever I host the Thanksgiving meal, my mom struggles with the question of who should carve the turkey. On the one hand, it’s my house, but on the other hand, Bryan is the firstborn son. I’m happy to let him do it, because a) he has more kids, b) he’s bigger and stronger, and c) I’m not very good at poultry carving anyway. But one thing that is never questioned is that the bird gets carved at the table. The following was an explanation to my cousin of the photo caption, “Bryan, elder statesman of our generation, did the carving. AT THE TABLE, as a man should!” Note in the photo below the glowing eyes of our banished cat, visible through the kitchen-nook window in the background. Also note that in the following tale, “the Landlo’” refers to my mom’s second husband, who had previously been her landlord, and which name stuck. Note, finally, that this photo has nothing to do with the story that follows it.]

That caption about carving the turkey at the table goes back to our first Thanksgiving dinner at the Landlo’s house, around a decade ago. We’d never met the Landlo’s kids before. They were a bit on the shy side, and I felt kind of bad for them, thrust into the din of five loud Alberts talking over each other with great relish. It was an oddly early Thanksgiving meal; the Landlo’ had wanted to have the meal at some insanely early hour, like 1 or 2, whereas our family tradition was to have it around the normal dinnertime. Our mom conceded that point (which we boys were all happy to do, because we probably had to dual-dinner that night, having accepted dueling invitations in order to prevent a battle royale between our parents over who got the kids on Thanksgiving. In fact, it’s possible that this particular meal took place on the very same day as the no-gravy travesty recounted above).

Mom was less inclined to give in on the Landlo’s other tradition, which was to carve the turkey in the kitchen long before the meal and have people parade through buffet-style like we were at a Sizzler or something. Our family had always carved the turkey at the table, but the Landlo’ wasn’t having any of it. As the Landlo’s kids and my brothers and I waited nervously around the dining room table, the argument in the kitchen became more and more heated until pretty soon Mom and the Landlo’ were yelling good and loud at each other. Finally, the Landlo’ gave in and grabbed the turkey out of the oven to bring it to the table. There was no obvious place to set it down—he was acting very impulsively—but that didn't end up being a problem because the turkey never even made it to the table. He dropped it! Right on the floor of the kitchen!

Now, Mark Twain might have done a nice job with some really artistic swearing at that point. I’d have liked to hear that. I’d like to think in the same situation I might have offered up a splendid mosaic of creative profanities. (Geoff and I fancy ourselves innovators of the form, and when we land on a particularly satisfying profane phrase we’ll even share it, like people trade recipes.) But the Landlo’s cussing fit had nothing to offer but volume and bile. It certainly could have drowned out just about anything, a jackhammer even, but actually everybody else was completely silent. The tension at the dinner table was complete. All of this seemed to last a long while, but in fact it was probably only a second or two before Stepbrother #1 leapt to his feet and yelled, “DAD!” as though his father were in great danger, like he was being dragged away by a bear or something.

As Stepbrother#1 raced into the kitchen, leaving Stepbrother #2 behind, my brothers and I completely lost it, becoming nearly hysterical with laughter. The harder we laughed, the harder we laughed. Geoff has this vein in his forehead that comes out at such times—we call it the pleasure vein—and I thought it might actually burst. The more we laughed, the more awkward it became for the stepbrothers. Poor Stepbrother #2: he was alone with us at the table had nowhere to go. His sister-in-law was there, but couldn’t support him as they themselves had only just met. We rocked in our chairs, just spazzing out with laughter.

I can’t remember anything more after that. Surely the turkey was resurrected, served, and eaten, but I have no memory of it. In the years that remained of that marriage, it was a long while before we invited back to the Landlo’s house, and never again with his kids, which was a huge relief for everybody I’m sure. Now, Mom makes a point before every Thanksgiving dinner to say, as nonchalantly as possible, “Hey, what do you think about just carving the bird beforehand, and people can help themselves?” Naturally, her chances of getting anybody to take her seriously for even a nanosecond are exactly zero.

Thanksgiving Archives Tale #3 – The Pre-Feast Bike Ride

[When my family gets together for Thanksgiving, we usually try to do a big ride on the big day, to work up a proper appetite. Here’s a photo of my brothers and me, along with Bryan’s daughter Rachel, before the ride up Dead Indian Memorial Road in Oregon that we did on Thanksgiving Day 2008. This photo has nothing to do with the story that follows it, for which I have no photos.]

[On years that my family doesn’t get together for Thanksgiving, I try to find a group ride to join. These rides are often impromptu and aren’t always easy to discover. Such was the case in 2005 when I went out with a group of local riders. This story is taken from an e-mail I sent my brothers right after it happened. I’ve edited it a bit to remove references that you wouldn’t get.]

My goal for this ride was simple: simply survive, riding with the boys, after the previous day’s grueling effort [a four-hour ride with 7,500 feet of climbing]. To my surprise, I didn’t feel completely awful as I hammered (late, as usual) to the impromptu bagel shop rendezvous. It’s a good thing my legs weren’t terrible, because of all the various Thanksgiving Day group rides, it seemed I’d stumbled on a pretty elite one. Several of them were guys I raced with at Cal in ’91, a couple of whom had later gone pro. There were a few other guys I didn’t know, but they looked plenty fit. I’d say the group totaled between fifteen and twenty guys.

It was a pretty mellow pace, until we reached the bumpy, winding downhill leading to the long, flat, straight stretch with the pedestrian crossing sign at its far end: site of the famous “Walking Man” sprint, which is always hotly contested, any day of the year, practically any time you have more than two guys in a group. When I ride this stretch of road by myself, I’m tempted to sprint anyway, just to see if I can still kick my own ass. (As sprints go, Walking Man actually suits my slow-twitch abilities pretty well, because it’s so long. My poor jump isn’t that big a problem on such a long sprint, and there’s plenty of time to get my 53x12 turning well and try to make the right tactical moves.)

At the top of the winding downhill toward the sprint, a guy on my bike club, Mike Ceely, said something about a lead-out and went to the front. I jumped on his wheel. Somebody said, “Is Freddie on?” which is kind of like saying, to a motorist who has just whizzed by you, “Easy there, Mario.” As you may have guessed, “Freddie” in this Mario context refers to Fred Rodriguez, the US Pro champion, kind of the Mario Andretti of American pro cycling. So now I was worried that somebody might expect some rider among us to be like Freddie in this sprint. Of course I couldn’t be up for a really fast sprint, given how hard I’d ridden the previous two days and my iffy sprinting skillz anyway. But Mike seemed to want to lead me out, so I let him. I (facetiously) gave him instructions to drop me off fifty meters from the line.

Ceely did a fine job for a long time, hammering away and keeping the speed well over 30 mph on the pancake-flat road. But he’d taken it up from really far out, and I knew he’d falter well before the line. He was really suffering, practically lying on the top tube to be more aero. I knew he wanted me to come by so he could finally sit up, but I was way too far from the finish to bring ‘er in, probably 350-400 meters out. So I stayed on, waiting for somebody to come up the side. Finally Ceely actually waved me past, and I knew he was blown. So I took off as fast as I could, keeping my speed as high as possible and hoping that whoever came by me jumped hard enough that he he’d open a gap behind him, so that maybe I could slip in and catch his wheel. (Of course, if the guy jumped too hard, I wouldn't be able to latch on.) I reckoned that maybe—just maybe—I could grab the guy’s wheel, whoever he was, sit on it for just long enough to recover a bit, and then try to come back around him. It’s worked before and, my back to the wall, I was just crazy enough to try it.

Well, sure enough, some guy came by, and his wheel was open, but he was absolutely flying. Getting that wheel would be about like a hitchhiker trying to climb into a car that was still traveling at highway speed. I gave it my all, but the guy was just gone. I did manage to hold on to second, at least six or eight bike lengths out of first but pretty far ahead of third. I rode up to the guy—nobody I knew—and said, “Nicely done!” He looked up and I realized, to my astonishment, that it was none other than Freddie Rodriguez! I couldn’t believe it! Suddenly, second place didn't look so bad. I’d only just lost to the fastest sprinter in America!

I’d had no idea he was in the group. I’d seen him, but he was just some guy in a Lotto jersey. When you see an American in a Lotto jersey you just assume he bought it from Trashbar or something, and it’s usually the sign of just another moneyed novice. Now it all made sense. The question “Is Freddie on?” was asked by somebody who wanted to make darn sure that Fast Freddie was in position for a sprint, because the guys wanted a show!

Man, what a cool sport. What other sport gives a guy like me the opportunity to go head-to-head with the best in the business? The last time I’d seen Freddie was at a bike race, and I asked for his autograph. Needless to say this was much, much cooler. I could be both an adoring fan (because he was Freddie and I was just Dana) but also something not totally unlike a peer, since we were on the same ride and had just contested a sprint in which, for lack of anybody better, I was the guy to beat. “Man, your teammate led out a little early,” Freddie observed. “Kind of hung you out to dry.”

Later I learned that another of my teammates, Eric Zaltas, had been on my wheel and was just about to come around me when he saw Freddie blow past at such a speed that, his hopes shattered, he just sat up. If he hadn’t, I’m sure he’d have beaten me. It’s a good thing he didn’t, because of course being beaten in a sprint by Fast Freddie is an honor that has given me a proud memory. Glorious.

Epilogue to Tale #3

This last story is one of those ones that isn’t any good unless it’s true. A fictional account of a nobody being beaten in a sprint by a star would be pretty lame, I think. Thus, I made every effort to tell it is accurately as possible in the e-mail to my brothers. If honesty wasn’t a goal, I might have suggested that I was part of two-stage lead-out that didn’t quite work out. In fact it probably was supposed to be a two-stage lead-out, with me going earlier and swinging off for Eric to come by, but if so I was ignorant of this, blindly pursuing my own ambition. In that context, the truth of the story is actually kind of embarrassing.

So imagine my shock when I was recounting this tale to another teammate a week or so after the fact and another guy, who had been there, denied not just some detail of my tale, but the very fact of the sprint itself! He said to me, incredulously, “Dude, we didn’t sprint!” I didn’t know what to say. The guy was so firm in his conviction, I started to doubt myself: could I have been completely deluded about what went down?

In fact, no. I had uploaded the ride data from that ride to my PC, and still have it. Along that stretch of road, my top speed was 37 mph, with my max heart rate at 165. (My bike computer takes data samples every 20 seconds, so in a sprint scenario chances are it won’t catch the highest speed, nor the highest heart rate, for that interval.) So, how would this ride-denier explain a speed of somewhere near 40 on a flat road? Did we have some kickass tailwind? And my heart rate: was I just really excited about the tailwind, or was I on drugs? And I distinctly remember that Freddie was out of the saddle when he came by. What, was he just stretching out his back? At 40? I’ll have to send this post to Ceely and Eric and ask if they remember the sprint. If I hear something back, perhaps I’ll attach it here, in the Comments section below.

Gratitude

I hope your own Thanksgiving plans are grand, whoever you are. Be thankful for your gravy, unless there isn’t any, in which case I suppose you can feel thankful that you’re not clogging up your arteries. If your turkey is carved at the table, be thankful for the observance of that fine tradition; if it’s cut up in the kitchen and served buffet-style, be thankful that you’re laid-back and reasonable enough to enjoy that, and don’t have to share the meal with a fascist like me.

And if you don’t have big plans at all, be thankful that you’re not participating in a bizarre celebration of ersatz gratitude for a people who, after they saved our ancestors’ lives, were driven onto reservations and subsequently turned into scavengers of human misery via casinos. And if you don’t have big plans but wish you did, keep your chin up, as other years are sure to be better. I’ve had Thanksgiving at Sizzler before; another time I made a mini-feast at my tiny apartment (chicken legs, canned cranberry sauce, powdered mashed potatoes, Stove-Top™ stuffing, gravy from a mix); and my brother once had to go by himself to McDonald’s, only to find it closed. But that’s another story.

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