“The problem with this country,” the poet John Berryman famously said, “is that a man can live his entire life without knowing whether or not he is a coward.”
If he hadn’t jumped off a Minneapolis bridge back in 1972, Berryman might have retracted that statement today, upon observing the citizenry of Canton, Massachusetts. These people know cowardice intimately, thanks to a gang of wild turkeys that has been terrorizing pedestrians for more than a year.
“Those turkeys terrify me,” Canton resident Judy Klein told the local newspaper, the Patriot Ledger.
“The turkeys have become a public safety problem,” Canton Animal Control officer Ellen Barnett said.
Saturday’s Patriot Ledger revealed that, during the summer, Canton residents frequently called Animal Control to report “aggressive turkeys chasing joggers… and scaring mothers wheeling strollers with babies.” Pedestrians took to carrying sticks and umbrellas for protection. To combat the growing bantam menace, the town hired a hunter to kill the flock’s two alpha males with a bow and arrow. Alas, he bagged only one, so the threat level remains elevated.
Now, there are about 20,000 people in Canton. There are about 20 terrorist turkeys. The biggest–Osama bin Butterball–might weigh 24 pounds; the hens accompanying him are about half his size. They have no teeth.
But they’ve still managed to instill fear in this south-Boston suburb, where the town website offers a page entitled “Preventing Conflict With Turkeys.” (In addition to carrying umbrellas, the Cantonese might want to “harass” the birds by squirting them with water hoses and swatting them with brooms.)
To be fair, turkey terror extends beyond south Boston. In the western Massachusetts town of Pittsfield, near Albany, N.Y., police recently assassinated two female turkeys that had been deemed a nuisance by the town. “We’ve been monitoring their movements, and my guys decided that the safety issues were too great,” a Pittsfield police lieutenant told the Berkshire Eagle, defending the killings.
There was an outcry, of course. Apparently, Pittsfield schoolchildren had been feeding the turkeys (in direct violation of Rule No. 1 of Canton’s “Preventing Conflict With Turkeys”) and were traumatized by their demise. So, we must have sympathy for the towns. Their citizenry is going to be traumatized by turkeys whether they’re dead or alive. Years from now, these people will experience a bewildering, involuntary shudder every time they walk past the Butterball freezer at the grocer.
But the rest of us will sit down this week with a turkey that threatens only to sedate us. And, as we do, it’s a good time to contemplate how this Thanksgiving is different from the one just four years ago. Then, the concept of fear and terror was real–for many of us, for the first time in our lives. Then, many of us were still afraid to get on an airplane, and instead went over the river and through the woods for 1,000 miles by car.
Now, we’re more worried about whether our bankrupt carriers will still be around to honor our tickets next month.
I remember the fall of 2001, when I felt something resembling terror for the first time. I say “resembling” because it wasn’t real terror, like Nicholas Berg or the early-morning waitstaff at Windows on the World felt terror.
But I wasn’t used to fear then, so, when I was out running at a county park in Charleston, S.C., and a huge military plane appeared suddenly and then stopped directly over me, something close to terror tore through me. The plane seemed to hang in the air for less than a minute–probably far less, but of course, it seemed like forever at the time–and I don’t know what horrible thing I thought was going to occur, but we were freshly used to horrible things occurring back then, and so the fear was simultaneously both senseless and reasonable.
Like a lot of Americans, I didn’t fly for a long time after September 11. But I do now, and when I do and my mind wanders in the cabin, I’m usually thinking more about scenes from Oceanic Flight 815 than United Airlines Flight 93.
This is good. This is progress.
We still see the bumper stickers and buttons that say “Never Forget,” and we haven’t and we won’t. But the paralyzing fear has abated, so much so that we can now be terrorized by random incidents of poultry and again have to wonder if we are really cowards or not.
The war on terror goes on–in very real, painful, lonesome ways for many families. But in some ways, it’s won. Or at least, we all refuse to let the terrorists win–to really change our lives.
Meanwhile, in the Bay State, where tiny Pilgrim hats mark the Massachusetts Turnpike signs, wildlife advocates are triumphant that the wild turkey is thriving again. One hundred fifty years ago, they had vanished from the state; now, the National Wild Turkey Federation estimates there are 20,000 or so roaming Massachusetts, and they’re headed for a suburb near you.
Be afraid; be very afraid–and thankful, at the same time.