I thought turkeys could fly . . .

As a fair warning, I’m not going to be writing anything on Thursday or Friday nights.  I have pies, stuffing and Thanksgiving to deal with so I need to focus on my kids and family.  I hope you understand.

That said, and since the season’s about to begin, I’m going to tell you a true Thanksgiving story.  Many of you won’t believe it, some might.  I need to preface this with the fact that our story pre-dates a now famous (infamous?) episode of the sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati.  In that episode, in a surprise publicity stunt, the station’s general manager decided to drop live turkeys out of the back of a helicopter to disastrous results.  “As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly . . . ”

I don’t know if the episode’s writer – dubbed Turkeys Away – Hugh Wilson has family in or knew people in my hometown, but the similarities to this story are eerie.  Bear in mind, I don’t remember the year but I have vague recollections of the events.  Added to that is the hilarious tale that my father tells, but only when asked of it.  It’s not a Thanksgiving tradition or anything.

When I was a kid giveaways and publicity stunts were normal things.  It wasn’t an everyday occurrence, not by any stretch of the imagination, but if you wanted to crowd of people to come to your store or restaurant or what have you a giveaway was the norm.  It never ceases to amaze me that if you cut the price of something by 50% people would still hem and haw and try to get a lower price.  But give them something free . . . even the craziest, most worthless item . . . and they come in droves.

This was the mentality of one Thanksgiving promotion at the Gibson’s store in my hometown.  If you haven’t heard of Gibson’s, and I’m sure many of you haven’t, it was a chain that existed years ago in the Midwest and parts of the Mountain zones of the country.  Think Pamida or Sears on a smaller scale.  It’s like the old Ben Franklin stores from the ’50s and ’60s.  Think of it as a medium-box store, a smaller version of Target.  My father at the time was still a pharmacist and this was years before he’d started his own separate store.  He owned and ran the pharmacy inside that Gibson’s so he was privy to the goings-on.  Not involved in the day-to-day decisions of the rest of the store, but he knew what was happening.

The giveaway was simple: come to Gibson’s parking lot at the precise time on the exact day . . . several days before Thanksgiving . . . and you will get a free turkey.  Sounds pretty simple, right?  No big deal.  Think about all the turkey giveaways you’ve seen in your lifetime.  Frozen turkeys given out and the frenzy of people in a Rugby-style scrum trying to vie for position to get the best, largest, most succulent bird of the bunch.

Except these weren’t frozen turkeys.

The manager of the store had contacted a local farmer who was raising turkeys.  Now, the local farmer sold these turkeys, as you can imagine, for a good price to people in the surrounding area.  I would venture to guess he had a reputation for raising a good bird as I can’t imagine how the store manager might have gotten his name otherwise.  Still, the reality was he was happy to have sold a large number of birds to the biggest retail store in the county.

The day of the giveaway arrived and the Gibson’s manager wasn’t particularly sure how many people would arrive for the giveaway, I’m sure, but he needn’t have worried.  This was, of course, free merchandise.  My father, in an effort to either document the events to come . . . or perhaps he just thought this would be comedy for the next several decades, was in the lot ready to take pictures as the giveaway unfolded.

The farmer arrived in the parking lot in his four-door.  The Gibson’s manager and the employees tasked with implementing the giveaway were more than a little confused as the car arrived with no sign of the turkeys.  Yet I choose to believe that in the middle of their confused questioning they could hear the muffled “gobbles” coming from the rear of the car.

It’s worth pointing out, in case the PETA folks start to furiously pick at their iPhone screens and email me that 1) this happened decades ago and it was a far different time and 2) Gibson’s no longer exists and 3) cars back then had trunks so big you could fit a side of beef inside them . . . uncut.  (sorry PETA, but it is the Midwest after all, and I loves my steaks)

The farmer opened up the trunk and there, crowded into the expansive luggage compartment were as many turkeys as he could fit.  Bear in mind, this wasn’t like a city drive.  The farm was miles out of town and over gravel, sometimes washboard roads.  So by the time the trunk was opened these turkeys were already dizzied from the drive.  Add the confusion and the fact that, really, they’re just not that smart a fowl, they were more than a little dismayed.

The number of people in the parking lot was likely far larger than they’d either hoped or even imagined.  It’s here that details, at least for me, are a bit shaky.  Maybe the large number of people involved forced the manager to think they needed distance from the burgeoning crowd.  Perhaps it was the plan all along.  Still, the decision was made at this point, that they would take the turkeys up to the roof of the store and toss them into the expanding crowd.  First-come, first served.  On the roof, I believe, were the manager and assistant-manager of the store, proud of their achievement and the success of their publicity stunt.

The two men picked up the gobbling Turkey-day fowl, and tossed them over the edge of the roof.  It wasn’t a massive space, this was what would be the second story of a normal building.  It was a one-floor, medium-box store, after all.  They waited as the turkeys flapped their wings, I imagine in my head feathers fluttering off and floating to the ground, and tossed the turkeys over the edge, waiting for the first couple people to walk away with their prizes.

Except, that’s not what happened.

It’s worth pointing our here that turkeys have wings, feathers, and as such, can spread said wings and feathers.  This is what our fine feathered friends did on this day.  But rather than landing in the waiting arms of the shuffling crowd the turkeys glided . . . yards and yards away.  Some perspective here . . . this was a rather large parking lot.  Bordering the lot, with driveways in and out, was Nebraska State Highway 20.  Highway 20 eventually turned into Main Street, but the Gibson’s store was on the East end of town and as such was in an area where the speed limit was faster and the traffic more bustling.  Those turkeys tossed over the edge spread their wings and soared over the parking lot, across Highway 20 and into the lot of the truck stop and auto dealership across the highway.  This, however, did not deter the crowd there for the free turkeys and, in the middle of near-highway speed traffic, they chased those turkeys across the highway, into the neighboring lots and . . . well let’s just say it wasn’t a good day to be a turkey.

It’s here that someone got the idea that this was becoming more than a little dangerous.  The best thing now was not, though, to end the turkey giveaway.  No, the best thing now was to clip their wings.  If they can’t fly they don’t glide and nobody (well, except maybe the turkeys eventually) will get hurt.

So clip the turkey wings they did . . . and like Les Nessman’s bane in WKRP years later . . . the turkeys plummeted to the ground.  Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever actually lifted a turkey . . . not frozen even a store turkey’s pretty heavy.  Add in the giblets and the head and feet and all the other . . . umm . . . parts that are not in the turkey when you buy it frozen and it’s even heavier!  The turkeys, to borrow from the same Les Nessman, hit like bags of wet cement.  Some were caught.  Others slammed into the hoods of cars.  Windshields.  People.  Some of the people were chasing the turkeys and clawing at each other to get the birds.  Others hid or ran because of the turkey bombs flying from the roof.

Only two pictures that I know of exist from that day.  Even those are little help.  You see, my father, taking the photos from a safe distance, was laughing so uncontrollably that the photos are nothing but blurry blobs.  Still . . . you can see the dark blob of a turkey in midair . . . one photo showing them flying.  Another showing them falling like a stone.

Eventually, the store had to pay out hundreds of dollars in body damage and windshield replacement for cars.  I have to think some people were even hurt . . . and maybe a few weren’t but claimed they were anyway.  The free turkey giveaway probably did net an uptick in sales for the store for the day . . . but then were those sales enough to offset the damage?  I don’t know and probably never will.

Years later, watching the CBS network television show WKRP in Cincinnati what seemed an innocuous program about Thanksgiving, we all laughed harder than we’d laughed before.  As Les Nessman described the turkeys coming out of the back of a helicopter we all pictured that day in the Gibson’s parking lot and thought it was the funniest thing we’d ever seen.

Then we all wondered . . . had someone in Hollywood stood in a parking lot in a small Midwestern town and think up the line: “as God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly?”

One thought on “I thought turkeys could fly . . .”

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