I should have said yes to the ear plugs. It had been a few years since the one and only time I’d fired a gun. Now the ringing in my ears reminded me the blast is a lot louder than on TV. I even forgot where I’d put my beer down as I struggled to regain my equilibrium. Safety first, I’d been told, always put your beer down when you’re handling a weapon. It was time to stop for a moment anyway, I had fired way high and possibly into a distant highway.
My first thanksgiving hadn’t quite been what I had expected so far. I was nervous I’d have to say grace as my adopted family held hands in a circle and discussed what they were thankful for. I’d never said grace before, never even been at a table where it was said. This was another Hollywood exaggeration. By the time we sat down to eat there were already members of the family passed out on the couch, just being coherent was manners enough.
A week earlier I’d been sitting in a hostel in Miami with no commitments and apprehensive about how I would be spending the coming long weekend, so I jumped at the chance to travel with a friend to a farm in Frostproof, Central Florida, and spend the most American of holidays with his family in the citrus farming community named, quite literally, for its resistance to frosting over during a freeze in the 19th century that ruined the rest of the state’s crop.
I was tired by the time we sat down to the banquet the family’s mother had worked on since 3 am for the afternoon sit down. I was tired because when the bonfire had run out the previous morning at 5 am we had taken the tractor out to collect more firewood, and then I had risen early upon hearing the first gunshots. Now the fire was smoldering and my ears were still ringing as I surveyed the spread of food before me, not sure where to start. I looked around the room at the family that had temporarily taken me in. One was passed out on the couch, one was stoned, one was missing, one rocked gently with eyes shut behind dark aviator sunglasses, another was only eating dessert. Dad was watching his college football team on the television and Mom was inspecting the new machine gun that the youngest boy had just purchased on the internet that looked like it could take down a helicopter. It was an educated family, all college educated with professional careers. They weren’t hillbillies, but it seemed at gatherings they got the urge to slap a bit of red on their necks.
Sensing my hesitation to eat Mom put down the weapon and offered to pour me a glass of wine. I looked at my amateur martini in a plastic cup next to my freshly opened beer, evaluated the situation and politely declined.
‘So what do you do for Thanksgiving in Australia?’ a voice asked me.
‘We don’t have Thanksgiving. What’s it for anyway?’
The brother swaying behind the sunglasses gave me an express history lesson.
‘Well, basically, when the first Americans came to America they didn’t know how to store or prepare any of the food here. So they got the Indians to show them how, and after that they killed them. And that’s how we have Thanksgiving.’
It sounded stupid but upon further research wasn’t too far off the mark.
After lunch was finished and I had punched a new hole into my belt we all piled into the pick up trucks to visit a neighbouring farm and celebrate the day with old friends by blasting the crap out of some trees and scattered cattle bones with an arsenal that could start a small army. It was like a taste-testing of firearms, an express course for the inexperienced and the perfect prelude to go tenpin bowling.
That night, as the bonfire roared and one brother danced shirtless around a pitchfork to an acoustic Eminem performance I couldn’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be. This was part of the America the tourist doesn’t see. The inner sanctum of family togetherness. Yams and pumpkin pie, turkey, excessive drinking, guns and pitchforks. That’s what I was thankful for.