My earliest recollections of Thanksgiving are from the Ranch at Bonita Creek and are synonymous with hunting turkey. The Pyles were cowboys and ranchers, but living high up under the Mogollon Rim, we were also woodsmen.
Wild turkeys were abundant in the Rim Country in the 1940s and 1950s. I was approaching my fourth birthday in 1948 when my dad, Gene Pyle, threw me atop his shoulders astride his neck, took a 30-30 from the gun rack and walked into the woods where at some selected place he squatted behind a fallen tree and talked to the turkeys in their own language. He knew just when and how to use his hands like a trumpet for his lips.
His squawking was answered by a big gobbler and we waited for what seemed like hours to me before dad called once again. Instantly his call was answered, and again, he waited a long while before he responded.
Finally, a big Tom Turkey stuck his head, bobbing like a cork in water, around a tree as he surveyed his surroundings. This was his last look at the world.
The rifle cracked and Tom dropped, flopping in the pine needles.
Grandmother Belle Lovelady had her Thanksgiving turkey. The next evening, the procedure was repeated and we had another turkey for Grandmother Verda Pyle.
Often before this, Dad had called turkeys up for me to see. Usually, it was just for fun, but if we needed a change of meat from elk, deer and beef, there were always turkeys and there were fish in Bonita Creek.
This year we would eat Thanksgiving dinner in town with my Grandmother Belle and Granddad Walter Lovelady. Grandmother was, I believe, the greatest holiday cook the world has ever known.
Days before she had been baking pies and cobblers using the abundant fruits brought down from Bonita Gardens -- mincemeat, Dad's favorite; pumpkin, mine; apple, everybody's; and blackberry and peach cobbler cooled on shelves in the large pantry at her home in Payson.
Belle had a refrigerator where she kept the cream from Suke Boss, our milk cow. There would be plenty of whipped cream or cream for the pies and, of course, for the strawberry or blackberry shortcake.
On the big day, Grandmother Belle and my mother, Dorothy, rose early to prepare the dinner. The big wood stove in the kitchen was fired up, first with juniper, then with blackjack oak. The fragrance of the wood intermingled with the steam from the teakettle and coffeepot hung rich in the air.
Soon the dressing was being prepared, and the scent of sage, corn bread, and others mingled in the warm kitchen.
That old kitchen became too busy a place for a little boy, so I contented myself with the slice of date loaf Grandmother handed me from under a piece of cheese cloth and went outside to watch Granddad Walter start his donkey engine and cut a little jag of wood for Mrs. Casterson, who had sent word that she needed it to finish her cooking.
Finally, it was time to cut the turkey. Grandmother's dining room table easily seated 10, but it was barely big enough to hold the steaming platters of food. My favorites included potatoes and peas swimming in cream gravy, pear halves topped with a quarter-teaspoon of mayonnaise and covered with grated Longhorn cheese, buttered yams, huge slices of acorn squash, and every platter of food garnished to the max, decorated to make the mouth water.
Grandmother Belle loved to cook for men who appreciated her cooking and we were there in abundance.
I recall many other Thanksgivings dinners at the Myrtle Ranch, the R-C, and one in particular at the Buck Pasture on top of the Mogollon Rim. We were short a couple of bulls so Dad and I were trying to find them before the snow flew.
Mom was in town and it looked like we were going to have a birdless Thanksgiving. But a couple of days before the event, Dad was riding the bench of Dane Canyon and I was coming down the bottom of the canyon.
I heard Dad yell and looked back and up the canyon, expecting he had found some cattle. Rather, he had jumped a flock of turkeys and they had taken to wing.
They were headed my way and flew right over me to land in the canyon right in front of me. Once a wild turkey lands it can't fly again until it has time to recover.
As they came down, I easily rode up on them and knocked one down with my rope. The town drunk could probably have caught one had he been there. That evening Dad and I scalded and picked the bird clean, then left him to marinate in apple cider vinegar made from Myrtle Ranch apples.
The next day we found the two bulls and Thanksgiving Day of 1976 we feasted on one of the best turkey dinners it has ever been my pleasure to sit down to.