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November Rain

American elections and Thanksgivings share much in common. Technically, one is biennial and the other annual, but the intolerable aspects of each often lead to participants skipping a year. A single Thanksgiving may pass without disruption, but if you divide them into four and eight-year spans, the likelihood of an explosive shit show increases exponentially. A good Thanksgiving follows a set pattern: polite hellos and greetings at the front door followed by “take your coat off,” cocktails sipped in initial moderation, and the bird served late afternoon. By dessert, things get notably looser, booze and tryptophan take hold, and opinions slip through the cracks of sobriety. The kids retreat to the family room to get high and make fun of the old folks. A bad Thanksgiving ends in total disintegration; profanity screamed, plates broken, accusations of lives ruined, etc. After enough eight-year spans come and go, kids assume the pathetic adult role (save that even more troubling uncle who persists in drawing cartoons somewhere in a corner), and the simulation continues. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Our Thanksgivings often pitted my father against my Uncle Ned. Ned was a dead-ringer for the ‘Anderson’ next-door-neighbor character on Beavis and Butthead. He was the “conservative” uncle, childless and married to my grandmother’s sister, Aunt Adele. He called her “Mrs. Hib” — short for Hibbert. My dad was a fairly conservative sort, too, but we all need extremes to cement our starring role in the Hero’s Journey. Next to Ned, Dad was Jane Fonda atop a North Vietnamese tank, smoking a doobie and telling the pigs back home to kiss his ass. The Thanksgivings I remember most were in the 1970s when the old man wore his sideburns long and favored high-heeled Florsheim dress boots. By evening’s end, the conversation inevitably turned to subjects like the draft, presidents past and present, and, from my dad’s increasingly emboldened perspective, Ned’s asshole views. Dad was drafted during the Korean War but never saw action, serving instead in the Signal Corp in Panama. He reckoned the best thing about the army was “it teaches you to take shit from assholes,” something he figured was inevitable in a life long enough lived. Ned had a deferment during World War II, performing what was considered an “essential” job as an executive at the American Can Company. Ned’s childless status and military deferment gave Dad what he considered moral high ground and license to pass judgment on his elder uncle and his hawkish views.  What did this never-drafted man know about the military and how could he share a father’s empathy for his sons?

Fortunately, none of our Thanksgivings ended in complete melt-down, and for this, I credit Uncle Ned’s steady demeanor and tempered approach. I’m not sure I would have fared as well, faced with my father’s increasingly animated taunts. “Oh bullshit, Ned, BULLSHIT. You were a draft-dodger. DRAFT-DODGER!!” The universe leans curiously toward equilibrium, though, and the old man soon had to endure my pre-adolescent, pitch-perfect imitation of him coming from the next room. “Oh fuck you, Wiseass,” he’d say before the de-escalating relief of laughter kicked in and Mom served the pumpkin pie and coffee.

It kind of feels like an eighth-year Thanksgiving these days, as we roll toward November, quarantined, masked, and a bit nuts. De-escalating laughter is in short supply, despite having more than enough to make fun of. I’m placing the blame on smaller families and the lack of alternate uncles. You see, my grandmother came from a large Catholic family with twelve kids (it would have been fourteen, had the twins not died at birth.) She had multiple sisters, my Aunt Alice among them. Alice was the elder and she was married to Uncle Mick. I never met Mick but he assumed legendary status in my mind via Dad’s stories about him. Mick was fond of the grape, didn’t care much for work, but had a caustic wit and razor-sharp mind. He could recite voluminous lines of poetry by memory and was a voracious reader. Aunt Alice was the bread-winner and had a job at Podesta Baldocchi, the famed San Francisco florist. One year, Uncle Ned decided to pull some strings and get Mick a job at American Can — a favor for which Mick never forgave him. I’m not sure how long Mick lasted at the can company, but my dad said his most remarkable career accomplishment was finding what proved to be an undiscoverable hiding place for his bottle of hooch. The circumstances of Mick’s death, some years later, were re-told admiringly in the family. The corner grocer was the last to see him after he’d purchased his daily bottle of vino. He’d died in the middle of his afternoon nap, the bottle half-finished, and a book of poetry resting comfortably on his stomach.

I’m not sure where the Ned-Mick story fits in with the approaching November election, but it makes for substantially more pleasant reading.

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