I was 5 when the turkey exploded. We lived on Long Island then. My father's cousins lived in New York in a triplex apartment on Central Park West directly above the route of Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. We were very close to his side of the family. We saw them once a year, at Thanksgiving.
There were gumdrop trees and Tootsie Rolls and Indian corn for breakfast. And overlooking the park there were picture windows that still smelled of Windex. In the distance, through the barren trees, I could see the carousel, which was boarded up for the winter.
There were policemen on horses and children on shoulders. They shivered while I laughed. One year, we left home late and I had to watch on the street like everyone else. A year later, we went downtown to my father's office and got locked in a stairwell for the entire parade. We returned to his cousin's window the next Thanksgiving. I went every year until I left for college and the cousins moved out without telling anyone the apartment was available.
Clowns and bands and majorettes in fishnet stockings floated by beneath us. Sometimes they looked up and waved. Sometimes I waved back. I was above it all. Except for the balloons. Standing on the window ledge with my nose pressed against the glass, I came face to face with Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. The adults always thought this was dangerous. I never could understand why.
The balloons were big but friendly. Their smiles were half a block wide. Nowadays, for instance, Garfield the Cat is filled with 18,907 cubic feet of helium, enough to make the entire city of New York talk funny for a week. Underdog has 40 dog-walkers. Dino the Dinosaur retired in 1977 and donated his body to science -- he now resides at the American Museum of Natural History. Olive Oyl, who liberated the parade two years ago, is 75 feet tall. Raggedy Ann, who makes her debut on Thursday, has a 566-inch chest and 792-inch hips. There is nothing subtle about them. They are America.
Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Hopalong Cassidy and Howdy Doody marched in 1953, my first year at the parade. Celeste Holm appeared as Little Bo Peep and Eddie Fisher was Prince Charming. I don't remember much except the turkey. He was a big tom with a full plume and an angry red wattle, and he strutted his stuff down the avenue. You could see him coming for blocks.
I knew he was the only turkey I would see that day. As a family, we always had problems with fowl. Either it was overcooked or undercooked or just plain uncooked. One year deep in the Depression, an aunt in South Carolina sent my grandmother a turkey for Thanksgiving. He arrived in the Bronx via Railway Express and squawked until the neighborhood butcher killed him. My mother told the story every Thanksgiving as she carved the roast beef.
So I stood in the window waiting for the big bird to come by. Mummers strummed. Bands blared. Majorettes twirled. The turkey headed my way. Thirty guys in yellow and orange monkey suits chased him down the street holding onto their ropes, trying to keep him from flying away. They were having a hard time -- there was a lot of wind that day. On the pavement, the confetti was going amok.
Closer and closer he came. He had never come this close before. We were cheek to cheek, beak to beak. There was only a pane of glass between us.
The bird was totally out of control. Then, with a gasp, he was gone. It was an awful sucking sound, the death rattle of an institution. The bird collapsed on Central Park West. Fresh killed on Thanksgiving.
It was never clear whether the fatal wound was incurred when the bird collided with the window ledge or whether he tore himself apart in those winds. According to the official history of the parade, there were 45-mile-an-hour winds that day. Only Mickey Mouse made it all the way downtown.