Lost Turkey Day Tradition

An empty, sun-splashed Veterans Memorial Field unleashed a flood of holiday memories in passing on Thanksgiving morning as I took a spin around Greenfield hunting for a bottle of cognac.

No, no, no, I didn’t need a snooty holiday eye-opener. I’m way past that. The impetus was a YouTube turkey-gravy recipe my wife wanted to try. It called for corn starch instead of flour, with a final splash of the flavorful French brandy into the steaming mix of roasting-pan drippings and boiled-potato water.

She showed me the video on her phone, knew we had no cognac, but didn’t seem concerned. To her, it was optional. We could live without it. But, with the turkey in the oven and nothing better to do at the moment, I was game for a quick search.

“I think package stores are open on Thanksgiving,” I offered, lifting my keychain from its hook on an overloaded panel of old keys attached to the side of a kitchen cabinet.

Not so.

My first stop was Ryan & Casey. Closed. Not a good sign.

Undaunted, I continued east on Main Street and took a left up Federal Street to check a hole-in-the-wall “packie” I thought may be open for holiday business. Nope.

That’s when I circled back to my Meadows neighborhood via Silver Street and Nash’s Mill Road and, not yet willing to throw up the white flag upon returning to Colrain Road, doubled back to Big Y. Uh-uh. Closed.

Oh well. We would have to settle for lesser gravy. Can’t say I didn’t try.

When I returned home empty-handed, my wife, curious, went to her phone for online clarification. Maybe package stores opened in the afternoon. That’s when we learned Thanksgiving is one of two Massachusetts holidays when “packies” are closed. The other is Christmas.

Oh well. Like they say in Chicopee Falls, nothing ventured, nothing gained. It goes to show how out of touch I am these days regarding matters of, uhm… imbibement. I must have been thinking of bars – I know they’re open on Turkey Day.

My brief Vet’s Field sighting during the fruitless journey through ghostly quiet Greenfield triggered a string of thought that wouldn’t quit. It brought me back to the sidelines, the newsroom, my 40 years on the Greenfield Recorder’s sports staff – the last 32 as sports editor. The sports-editor job called for hiring and supervising staff, coordinating coverage and photo assignments, choosing content, editing copy, and packaging it all in a daily three- to five-page sports section. My focus was always the local sports scene – especially the high school teams composed of local kids whose parents and grandparents, aunts, uncles, and neighbors subscribed to the paper. But the mundane community stuff was worth chasing, too.

My belief from the beginning was that local news sells. Wire stuff not so much, particularly after 24/7 cable news, Google, and cell phones joined the dynamic.

Thanksgiving week was one of our busiest times; that, and production of the spring and fall sports supplements – special 12-page sections which, truth be told, were nothing more than clever, revenue-building advertising schemes.

On Turkey Day the focus was placed squarely upon traditional holiday high school football rivalries between a pair of cross-river rivals – Greenfield vs. Turners Falls and Athol vs. Orange (now Mahar Regional School). Then, late in my tenure, two other “rivalries” were added to the holiday mix, which only complicated the coverage strategy and, in my opinion, cluttered the pre-game layout packages with superfluous baggage.

Who, sitting in my seat back then, would have in their wildest imagination predicted that one of those much-anticipated holiday games, the annual Greenfield-Turners Turkey Day clash, would fizzle and die? It seemed inconceivable. But that’s exactly where we sit today, and that’s why the sight of that vacant green gridiron in a silent town stirred my introspective juices.

As far back as I can remember, Thanksgiving began with the morning Greenfield-Turners game – first as a young boy with my father, who once played for Greenfield, then as a high school student from a neighboring school, and finally as a sportswriter working the sidelines before scrambling to write a story and get home for the holiday feast we always hosted.

At the Recorder, the week leading up to the game was always hectic, with coverage to coordinate, stories to write, copy to read, and graphics packages to build and/or update. The best thing about it was that I could see light at the end of the tunnel, with my annual vacation for deer season staring me in the face. I’d cover the game, write the story, and put the newsroom in my rearview: first for a couple of weeks, then three, and then, once I reached 20 years of employment, for a solid month of rest and relaxation.

I’d speed home and walk into a festive, aromatic holiday atmosphere – turkey and casseroles in the oven, pies and pastries on the counters, hot coffee in the carafe, and the Detroit Lions losing on the TV.

The Turkey Day football games were also festive affairs, an annual gathering place for townspeople, including former players and classmates home for the holiday from faraway places. The parking lot would be stuffed as fans streamed toward the crowded gate, creating a gameday buzz with evidence of whiskey-breath (and -voice) detectable in the cool fall air.

The roar of the fired-up teams exiting their locker rooms would signal that the game was near. Then came the playing of the bands, the sounds of the tuba and bass drum, the cheerleaders, the PA announcer, the players grunting and groaning in cadence through warm-ups leading up to the National Anthem and kickoff crescendo. Even when the game was boring and one-sided, as they often were, the pregame buzz, the atmosphere, and the conversations were worth the price of admission.

Greenfield was dead this year on my Turkey Day spin around town, and it was palpable. Remarkably so. Perhaps that’s what first jostled my wheels of reminiscence into motion, before the empty football field revved them up to a shrill scream.

So, who was the best player I ever watched play in the Greenfield-Turners games? That’s easy. Peter Bergeron, hands down. In fact, I’d rate him a better, more impactful high school football player than even Mark Chmura, the Frontier Regional School standout who starred at Boston College and won an NFL Super Bowl as a Green Bay Packers tight end.

Bergeron was a speedy, elusive quarterback who was, frankly, unstoppable. Even when he appeared to be hopelessly trapped behind the line of scrimmage, he had the uncanny ability to wiggle free for big gains. He was one incredible high-school football player and probably would have been a good college player as well if had had chosen that path.

Instead, Bergeron chose baseball and was, a few short years after high school graduation, patrolling center field and batting leadoff for the Montreal Expos. Five years and 308 games later, his run was over, proving once again the fleeting nature of extraordinary athletic accomplishments.

I recently spoke to Bergeron for the first time in some 25 years. He and his dad, who I knew before he was born, delivered a load of seasoned cordwood to the sliding woodshed door in my backyard barn alcove. It was good, dry cordwood that had been stacked for nearly a year, difficult to find these days unless you split and stack it yourself.

The kid, now a big-league scout, looked great. Fit and sharp. Now 45 years old, he lives in Greenfield, is married, has three children. It’s hard to imagine. Time flies. Seems like yesterday he was lurking around the bench and the guys during his dad’s Mohawk Men’s League softball games at Cricket Field.

It’s also hard to imagine that a simple holiday spin around town and past an empty football field stained by lost tradition could trigger such a rich string of retrospection. It got me thinking, probing, lamenting; allowing my wheels to scream.

No cognac, no game, no problem.

Memories carried me through it.


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