Monthly Archives: November 2014

The Captain and Me – A Thanksgiving Memory

Thanksgiving dinner was truly a feast when I was a kid because of the special menu items we rarely ate the rest of the year. Canned yams. Real dinner rolls. Big black olives we stuck on our fingers before eating them. A lime Jell-O salad made with cream cheese, pineapple and celery. Mom would stuff the remaining celery sticks with leftover cream cheese or peanut butter to munch on before dinner. And, of course, that cranberry jelly with the rings around the center.

Mom would have gotten up early Thanksgiving morning to start the turkey. She would boil the giblets to make broth for the stuffing, which was made out of old bread, since no one had invented ready-made seasoned croutons yet. Then she’d stuff the turkey, cover it with a cotton dish towel and put it into the oven, basting it several times until it was done. We didn’t have a roasting pan and this was decades before oven bags (which I used before my wife told me I was committing a mortal sin).

I’d remember one Thanksgiving for the rest of my life.

It was November 28, 1963. We’d gotten a television in January, a present from my grandmother who couldn’t believe we existed without one. Three days before we watched as a caisson carried JFK’s coffin from the White House to St. Matthew’s Cathedral and then to Arlington Cemetery. Macy’s had considered cancelling the Thanksgiving Day parade but decided to let the show go on to raise the spirits of a country in mourning.

I watched Captain Kangaroo when I got up that morning, as I did almost every morning, waiting for the parades that would follow. NBC traditionally broadcast the entire Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade. CBS showed parts of the Gimble’s parade in Philadelphia, the J.L. Hudson parade in Detroit, and the Eaton’s Santa Claus Parade in Toronto in addition to the Macy’s parade. It would be exciting, even though I would be watching in glorious black and white on a 19-inch Admiral TV. (We actually had cable back then since there was no other way to get a TV signal from Tucson across the mountains).

A few minutes before the end of the show, Captain Kangaroo and Mr. Green Jeans silently set a small table and brought out Thanksgiving dinner while “We Gather Together” played in the background. Then they sat and bowed their heads, as millions of others would be doing later that day, pondering that for which they could be thankful in the midst of tragedy.

It didn’t mean much to me until I was well into my forties, worn down by adversity, often brought on by my own mistakes. The memory of that simple ritual helped me through some dark times. Many years later I found welcome in the arms of another family for whom Thanksgiving is sincerely a time for reflecting upon what we have and not what we’ve lost.

Burning the B

Most people have fond memories of childhood Thanksgivings. One of mine is of a flaming hillside.

Many of the towns founded in the mountains of the American West would, after many years of existence, construct a large letter on a nearby hillside as a monument to tenacity, a symbol of civic pride, or part of an interscholastic rivalry. Arizona sports about 60 such “mountain monograms,” including competing A’s in Tucson and Tempe for the University of Arizona and Arizona State University.

My hometown, Bisbee, sits in a canyon in the Mule Mountains of southeastern Arizona. In 1927 the townspeople decided to build a B near the top of Chihuahua Hill, the rust-colored mountain overlooking the downtown area. Local businesses ponied up $300 for concrete and other construction supplies, hauled up the mountain by mule. The Phelps-Dodge mining company donated a ton and a half of lime to whitewash the giant letter. “The B,” as it became affectionately known, was finished in May, 1928 with the help of most of the high school boys.

The Drillers Club, a group of Bisbee High School upperclassmen, assumed responsibility for The B’s upkeep a few years later. Every fall they supervised a group of freshman boys that hauled cans of water and fifty-pound bags of lime up Chihuahua Hill to a spot below The B, where their loads were combined in 55 gallon drums. The boys then carried buckets of fresh whitewash farther up to The B, dumping their loads and trekking back down for more. Dan Smith, a member of the Bisbee High School Class of 1967 and a veteran whitewasher said, “As the day went on, it began to look like there was more whitewash on us freshmen than there was on the B.”

The B became a symbol of high school spirit for decades. It also was once the target of Bisbee High School’s arch enemies, the Bulldogs of Douglas High, about 24 miles to the east. Dating back to 1906, these two teams have played more than 140 games in one of the oldest high school rivalries in the country. According to alumnus Ralph Echave (BHS ’48):

“On the evening of our Lettermen’s Banquet at the Copper Queen Hotel, people from Douglas climbed the mountain and painted over the middle bar of the B turning it into a “D”. The next day, miners, former BHS students and their families, gathered… ‘sticks of Dynamite’ and full tanks of gas (and) were going to Douglas to blow up the D. Fortunately, they were stopped on the road and DHS and the City of Douglas apologized, came to Bisbee and fixed our B.”

Every Thanksgiving Eve Bisbee held a pep rally before the Bisbee-Douglas football game played on Thanksgiving Day through 1963. The students and the band marched up Main Street to the athletic field above Horace Mann School in full view of The B. The Drillers had outlined The B with rags and other waste soaked in motor oil and diesel fuel; the start of a bonfire on the field signaled the Drillers to start. I was lucky enough to see this final Thanksgiving Eve burn.

People gathered in the Phelps-Dodge Mercantile parking lot, on porches of houses that were high enough to afford a good view, or along the new Route 80 bypass cut into the southern mountain range above the town. We found a good spot just above the old post office and stood on the shoulder by our deep blue Chevy Biscayne, a car whose back end looked like a manta ray.

We waited patiently as dusk turned into night. Suddenly, two small flickers appeared in the corners of The B’s interior circles. Another torch lit the lower edge of The B’s perimeter. Slowly, the fire started to burn, then rage, crawling around like a fire-breathing dragon on the prowl. The conflagration grew until the entire B was completely outlined in an inferno, prompting cheers and whistles from the crowd below. We watched as the fire burned itself out and drove home.

Burning B

The Burning B – 1959

The next day The B looked charred and battle worn, like a boxer peering through a black eye. The appearance shocked me; maybe because one morning I’d watched a house just across from Lincoln school burn just before class started. I didn’t realize that in time the Drillers would gather a fresh batch of freshman boys to restore The B to its former glory.

But some traditions fade. Solar-powered lighting, capable of changing colors, now illuminates The B instead of fire. Freshman boys no longer trudge up Chihuahua Hill to whitewash The B. I left Bisbee in 1966, but that memory has never left me.

Special thanks to the Bisbee Memories Group: Ralph Echave, ’48; Ed Swierc, ’53; Jay Lane ’57; Robert Tanner ’61;Jim Sharp ’62; Dan Smith ’67; Jane Decker ’72; JA Jance; and the Copper Chronicle.