'Tis the season


Sandhill Cranes fly over Indiana's Bee Hunter Marsh at sunset. - COURTESY OF MAGIC ISLAND PHOTOGRAPHY VIA FLICKR CREATIVE COMMONS
  • Courtesy of Magic Island Photography via Flickr Creative Commons
  • Sandhill Cranes fly over Indiana's Bee Hunter Marsh at sunset.

Editor's Note: Mr. Hoppe is on vacation this week. This column originally ran November 30, 2009. For this reprint we include a special video bonus.

When I was a little kid, Christmas won the holiday derby in a walk. Let me count the ways: there was snow, lights and colorful decorations, time off from school and (drum roll) presents.

Christmas began with the arrival of the Montgomery Ward catalog. That thing was thick as a big city phonebook, with every page in living color. We pored over it, folding pages and circling items, making mental notes and dropping hints. Arriving in the mail at just about the same time of year that darkness started falling at the unnatural hour of 4:30 in the afternoon, the Montgomery Ward catalog was, for a few weeks, at least, a hedge against what we later learned to call Seasonal Affective Disorder.

I'm still nuts about Christmas. But, over the years, I think I've come to love Thanksgiving even more. I finally realized that last week.

We celebrated the annual feast up in Michigan City. As fate would have it, both my wife's folks and my own happen to live up there. The past couple of years haven't been easy for either set of parents. Health issues have made it increasingly difficult for one or another of them to get around. To tell you the truth, it's a gift that both couples are still with us.

On the other side of the spectrum, our son lives in Chicago, where he's been lucky enough to find a job. He has to work a lot of nights, and there's not much left in his wallet after he pays his share of the rent. But in an economy where roughly one out of every five young men between the ages of 25 and 34 is unemployed and a third of young workers that age are living at home, we're proud he's holding his own.

Anyway, thanks to public transportation, the Chicago South Shore Railroad, the last interurban train in Indiana, our son and Amy, his partner, were able to finish work Wednesday and be in Michigan City before dark.

Meanwhile, my wife and I picked up a fresh turkey at Goose the Market, packed up our dog and the fixings for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner and headed north on Highway 421. We've made this trip more times than either of us can count. At this time of year, the fields have been cut down to scrub and the trees are bare. You realize more than ever how big a part the sky plays in a Midwesterner's sense of place. Whether it's low and stormy or high blue, it's a show that never quite repeats itself and never, ever, rests.

We did the cooking at my in-laws'. Everybody that could, chipped in. I know it's fashionable at this point in a holiday story to crank out a bit of snark about a cross-dressing cousin, blowhard uncle, or munitions-dealing brother-in-law. Some grotesquerie to help rationalize our inability or unwillingness to find comfort in anything that might be called traditional. Sorry, but that's not the way it happened.

At least not this year.

The fact is, we did a pretty good job of taking care of each other. The turkey was moist, the stuffing was amazing, the mashed potatoes had a whiff of rosemary and, as usual, there were way too many sweet potatoes. We dimmed the lights in the diningroom and the grandfathers trailed off to nap to the white noise of a football game. Light from the kitchen washed over the faces of the grandmothers, who pulled up chairs in the doorway to reminisce about past reunions while watching their young ones perform the laughable choreography that ensues when eight hands try cleaning up in a small space.

The next morning there were leftovers to pack, a train to catch. The sun finally came out. My wife heard that the sandhill cranes were making their annual migration from Canada and the upper Great Lakes states. Each year at this time, from late September into December, thousands of these birds gather in the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area before going on to parts of Florida. Since we were passing the refuge on our way home, she suggested we stop and have a look.

The sun was setting when we got there. We heard the cranes before we saw them -- a great, raucous, choogling sound. The birds themselves are formidable, they stand over 4 feet high and their wingspans can be as much as 6 feet across. There were thousands of them milling on a green, marshy pitch, with hundreds more arriving in flocks from all directions.

The birds gather twice a day, at dawn and again at sunset, to call back and forth and to dance with one another. They flap their wings and jump up and down. This may be a form of courtship, but apparently there's also a chance they do it simply because it feels good, it's a bonding experience and, yes, it might even give them joy.

And they do it at Thanksgiving.


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