As our national day of Thanksgiving approaches, I have been thinking about previous Thanksgivings with my family, and I recall many wonderful memories: The Macys’ Parade on television, delicious and abundant food, warm conversations around the table, and various activities afterwards. Recently, though, another Thanksgiving memory has emerged, a memory that involves not Thanksgiving Day but Thanksgiving Eve.
Rarely do I hear anyone mention “Thanksgiving Eve.” We all talk about “Christmas Eve” and “New Year’s Eve,” but does anyone remember Thanksgiving Eve? I don’t think so. In our small community church in Clifton Park, New York, we used to have a Thanksgiving Eve service, but since so many people travel on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, we now hold our celebration on Tuesday. So Thanksgiving Day itself gets all the glory, and Thanksgiving Eve is relegated to second-tier status. However, during a four-year period of my life, I have to admit that in many ways, I enjoyed my Thanksgiving Eves as much as I enjoyed my Thanksgiving Days.
In 1969, I graduated from Bishop Scully High School in Amsterdam, New York (the “Rug City”) and headed off to nearby Siena College in September of that year. Like most of my peers, I was a bit homesick at first, but I gradually adjusted to my new environment. During those first three months at college, we also did something almost unheard of today: we wrote letters to our friends attending other colleges.
I know that’s hard to believe, but long-distance telephone calls were expensive, and we didn’t have email or text messaging or any other modern communication conveniences. We actually had to sit down and write, then find a six-cent stamp, and, finally, drop the letter in the postal slot near our mailboxes. Then, every afternoon, as we returned from classes, we eagerly opened our small PO boxes and prayed for a letter from someone — anyone. And in those letters, we reminded one another about our upcoming Thanksgiving break and how we couldn’t wait to reconnect and share all of our college stories.
Thus, I remember Thanksgiving Eves during the fall semesters of 1969–1972 as vividly as I recall watching the Detroit Lions playing their traditional Thanksgiving game on television. Usually, Larry and his cousin Bobby would pick up Bernie and me, and we’d start at Burza’s on Midline Road somewhere between 8:00 and 9:00 p.m. The place would be absolutely packed with college kids everywhere, at the darkened bar on the left side and around the rectangular tables in the much brighter adjoining room on the right.
“What’s your major?”
“Your team stinks.”
Most of the conversations lasted for about three seconds. We were all mingling constantly, trying to see as many people as we could. Yes, we drank beers as we socialized, but the drinking was secondary, and, quite honestly, the beers were hard to come by; Stan and his wife, Irene, could barely keep up with the crowd.
“Don’t slip on the ice,” Stan always said as we exited about two hours later. Our next stop was Baia’s, which was basically around the corner on Lyon Street. This next stop on our tour was smaller, darker, louder, and even more crowded, so crowded, in fact, that we could barely squeeze in the front door. Once inside, we didn’t really move on our own. Instead, we just drifted along with the human tide as it surged counterclockwise from the entrance near the bar and dart board to the room on the right and all the way back around again and again. Forced into a more intimate setting, we might have conversations that lasted up to a minute or so. I shouted above the noise of the jukebox and television and shared my stories about playing on the freshman basketball team, and I heard descriptions of my friends’ experiences at much bigger and more prestigious schools: Fordham, Villanova, and Louisville, among others.
When midnight rolled around, we began to plan our next move. By then, most of us were talked out and hungry, so we left Baia’s and drove to our final “B” — Brownie’s — a diner on the hill where all the Polish people lived. There, we waited in line for a booth, so we could eventually order hots dogs with the works and French fries with gravy, a Thanksgiving meal almost as good as the turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, and cranberry sauce we would eat later that day with Mom, Dad, and the rest of the family. Once we settled into our booth and placed our order, we shared all our observations and all the stories we had heard during the evening.
“Did you see ‘so and so?’ She’s more gorgeous than ever.”
“I heard ‘what’s-his-name’ dropped out of school and joined the Army.”
“I can’t believe our ‘class couple’ broke up!”
By the time we finished our food, we were pretty exhausted. In my case, I had started the day with three early morning classes, then got a ride home later that afternoon, and shot hoops in the backyard with the Dufresne brothers before eating supper and heading out for the evening.
Looking back, I think having attended my 50th high-school reunion earlier this year stirred up these long dormant memories which are extra special. On Thanksgiving eve alone, everybody was home from college, and everybody was out socializing. My friends and I typically only visited those three particular locations, but I know similar locations around town hosted similar gatherings. On Thanksgiving Eve, the Rug City was alive, and the night was electric.
Since those magical days of our youth, when anything and everything was possible, we have all calmed down and settled in a bit. In fact, I have to admit that on many nights now, I’m actually in bed and sleeping at about the same time I used to go out when I was young. So as a reminder of those special memories, when we give thanks this Thursday, let’s take a moment to remember all our old friends and all our stories from a wild — yet innocent — time so long ago.