I was 9. I woke straight up out of bed! It was Saturday, 7 in the morning. Another Middle Tennessee autumn day underway. The event that I had so looked forward to was happening right outside the backdoor of our little trailer. We lived on the school campus. Mom was a teacher.
I had things to do, round up some fast cash. I needed to get paid and hurry back by 9, in time to give the man my dollar. The big fellow they called "Stumpy," he was in charge of the turkey shoot.
I tried not to call him Stumpy. I kinda felt like it was disrespectful. I never really called him by any name. I'd just say hello to him. His family had a little farm right at the county line. I'm pretty sure that he was being looked after by his grandmother. His mother's mother. They said that Stumpy's mom just up and left one day. She couldn't take it anymore.
Stumpy was slow. The doctor told them, even when he got full-grown, he wouldn't have an IQ past a sixth-grader. He was in his 30s when I knew him. He talked a little different, stuttered a little bit. Stumpy had a high-pitched voice for as big as he was. He really wasn't that tall. More wide. Burr haircut. Fair complexion. His clothes fit him a size too small. He had a big belly.
Stumpy was somewhat in charge of two big events the little rural town put on every year: the turkey shoot and the July 4th fireworks.
He started setting up for the turkey shoot well before the sun came up. He stacked bales of hay out behind the school gymnasium in front of a little creek with thick pine trees on the other side. He attached targets to the upright bales. Back about 20 yards, he piled a few more hay bales and unfolded the legs to his official registration table. He started taking entry fees right at 9 a.m.
You couldn't ask for a sweeter guy than Stumpy. His world woke up happy. He was excited about life the moment he opened his eyes to a new morning. First stop, the kitchen. He could eat. They said Stumpy kept the Froot Loops cereal folks in business. Every couple of weeks, the local grocery store ordered an extra crate of Stumpy's favorite cereal. He ate Froot Loops along with every meal.
He got around on a red bicycle. He was way too big for that bike. He sorta hung over both sides. Stumpy wasn't allowed to drive a car. They told the story about how he got a chance to prove his ability to drive when he was in his early 20s. They let him get up in a tractor.
Stumpy was overjoyed, and his excitement level went way up. He dropped the tractor into gear, hit the gas, drove across the ditch and proceeded to run over some mailboxes and plow up several of his neighbors' front lawns and gravel driveways.
Why they let Stumpy, year after year, fool around with those Fourth of July fireworks is puzzling. Even after he lost all those fingers and one of his thumbs, he still loved shooting off explosives, and they let him. Somehow, the town considered Stumpy to be a fireworks aficionado. He'd sit right up there in front of the fuse and light it up. Fireworks and the loud blasts mesmerized him. Another thing, Stumpy didn't hear that well.
There were a few November red and yellow leaves still in the maples, hanging on by a thread. All it was gonna take was another good rain and a cold swoop of morning wind, and they were history. They'd join the other fallen leaves down below and eventually go up in smoke. A pile of burning leaves smells like home.
I swept Mrs. Stephenson's front sidewalk and brought her in a couple of short stacks of wood and got paid. Between her and a couple of chores for Preacher Man, I had made enough to buy me a ticket for the turkey shoot. I needed to get right back and give Stumpy my dollar. I was gonna win me a turkey.
The morning haze still hadn't completely burned off. It was just five days before Thanksgiving and pretty cold. Bundled up grown men, with their shotguns under their arms, dressed in heavy flannel shirts, John Deere caps and lace-up farming boots congregated around Stumpy's table. Thermoses of coffee, mixed with a little something, helped warm their hands and insides.
All us men gave Stumpy our money and waited for the competition to begin. I really hadn't given any thought to the fact that the rest of them were there to win a turkey to eat on Thanksgiving. I was there to win me a pet.
Problems. First off, I didn't own a shotgun. Mr. Jenkins loaned me his. A single-shot 16 gauge. Secondly, I had never fired a gun or a rifle, unless you count BB guns.
Mr. Jenkins told me, "Boy, just lay the barrel on that hay bale and aim. Put that front sight on the bull's eye, and squeeze it off. Git that butt into yer shoulder and hold on. She's got a kick!" I didn't completely understand what he meant.
The shooters spread out and lifted their shotguns up to the ready. About a dozen grown men and me. Stumpy moved another hay bail over for me to stand on. I tried to remember everything Mr. Jenkins told me to do. Stumpy was standing next to me. Me standing on the hay bale made me and Stumpy the same height. He grinned and gave me a thumbs-up with his good thumb.
Stumpy hollered out, "F-f-fire when ready, fellars!" Two or three of them took their shots right away. I was just about ready to fire when the man next to me fired off. I jumped a little. It took all I had to hold up the barrel of Mr. Jenkins' shotgun.
The gun's barrel wouldn't stay still. Stumpy told me, "When yuh come back across the bull's eye, p-p-pull the trigger." Everyone else had already taken their shots.
Here came the front sight drifting across the target from the right. When the front sight lined up with the bull's eye, I squeezed it off. Boom! I wasn't sure what had happened.
I was airborne. Backwards! I flew off that hay bale and landed on my butt 6 feet back. For a second, I thought maybe I'd been shot. I couldn't hear anything. I just lay there on my back for a few seconds. Stumpy was over me, red-faced and grinning and shouting something at me. I could barely hear him. My ears unstopped, and I heard Stumpy hollering, "You w-w-won!" I couldn't believe it! I won a turkey!
Stumpy helped me up, patted my back and told me to go pick out my turkey. There were probably 60 turkeys stacked up in spooled wooden crates. I got me a white one. I dragged the turkey cage up to my back door and went to get Mom. I was trying to think of a good name for our new pet turkey. I'd call him Casper.
The pet turkey thing didn't go over very well. Mom suggested that I take the turkey back down to the "shoot" and see if someone wanted it. I managed to sell it to a little raggedy man who had already taken several shots at the targets and missed them clean. He gave me $2 and agreed to my prerequisite, that I could come visit Casper anytime I liked.
I rode my bike out to his place a few days after Thanksgiving. The man told me that Casper had flown up to heaven to visit his mother, and he wasn't sure when he'd be back.
I'm sorry, Casper.
Have a great Thanksgiving, everyone.
Bill Stamps spent four decades in the entertainment business before moving from Los Angeles to Cleveland, Tennessee. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or through Facebook.