A lot of people are wondering this year, what is there to be thankful about at Thanksgiving?

Indeed, 2020 has been a helluva difficult year.

Medical, economic and political issues have not just dominated our lives, they have bulldozed us. Not even 1968 was this crazy.

And now Thanksgiving — that uniquely American holiday of family steeped in tradition — won't be the same in 2020.

The Coronavirus is surging across the nation again. More people are sick. A lot of people are dying, alone, in hospitals.

So traditional Thanksgiving gatherings are probably going to be tamped down this year. Who wants to fly to see relatives and possibly get Covid in a plane?

And nobody wants to be the one who gives grandma the virus.

Better to stay home this year, wear a mask and stay away from others as much as possible.

•••

I've always liked Thanksgiving.

In recent years, it's been a good time for us to travel to foreign countries since our deadline schedule is early for the week. Alex and I can finish up our work over the weekend, then have a week to travel when the rates overseas are lower.

Last year, we took a family trip to Austria to see the Christmas markets, a staple in many European cities.

It was cold there, but we stayed warm walking the streets of Vienna while drinking the ubiquitous mulled rum toddies. 

Older son Blair got engaged to his fiancée, Greer, while we were there, proposing in a garden outside a famous castle.

That's a Thanksgiving to remember!

For Thanksgiving lunch last year, we had traditional Wiener Schnitzel in a Vienna restaurant. Who says Thanksgiving has to be just about turkey?

This year, I'm not sure they're even having European Christmas markets due to the virus. Those events attract large — massive —  crowds and although they're outside, it's often shoulder-to-shoulder.

So much has changed in the past 12 months.

Last year and its merriment seems so long ago.

•••

But even before adulthood travels, Thanksgiving was a special day for me.

It was the one day that my dad and I would spend together quail hunting. 

Back then, there was a lot more open land around the county and wild quail were plentiful.

One of the main areas we would hunt was on the property owned by Miss Monte Cheatham on Holder Siding Road in Jefferson.

Today, it's a large subdivision, but in the early 1970s, it was a mix of overgrown pastures and woods, unkempt and perfect for quail.

And that era was also before the resurgence of hawks and other birds of prey that eat young quail.  Quail were everywhere in North Georgia.

My father didn't have a lot of hobbies; work was his passion.

But he did love quail hunting and had done it most of his life. 

And he was good at it.

At Christmas, we'd go to Northwest Georgia to visit my grandmother. Dad and his brothers would quail hunt all day long, much of it spent hiking around Lavender Mountain on the backside of Berry College near Rome, or among the fields and woods of Texas Valley, the home of the Buffington and allied families since the end of the Civil War. 

At the end of the day, they'd bring back dozens of quail they'd shot. My grandmother would make biscuits and gravy and cook the birds in a pan while aunts, uncles and cousins milled around her ancient kitchen.

Good eating, that was.

•••

One of the most interesting parts of quail hunting are the dogs. Watching a good bird dog work a field is a thing of beauty.

When I was very young, we had a bird dog named Casey, an English Setter, I think, with long hair, white with black spots.

Later, we got a German Shorthair Pointer named Charlie Brown, white with brown spots.

Charlie was a good bird dog, full of energy. His barking at night became legendary in the neighborhood.

But he could hunt. Charlie would work a field in a zig-zagging pattern, nose down to scent where quail had been. 

He would cover every inch of a field, sometimes getting too far away from us as we walked behind him.

And when he found a covey of quail, it was a sight. He would point and hold point for a long time, shaking with excitement as his body language said, "They're here! Right here! In front of me! Come get them!"

When quail hunting, you want the dogs to hold point until the hunters get close. It's the hunter, not the dog, that should flush the birds up to shoot.

Charlie had a little trouble with that. He'd sometimes get so excited as we approached, he'd jump into the covey, flushing them before we were ready to shoot.

There was a little cursing.

But he was a good dog in that he could gather a covey of quail. When it was especially cold, snowy or wet, quail would run rather than fly. Sometimes, they would split up to confuse the dog (harder to do that with multiple dogs).

But Charlie would circle around a covey, forcing the birds to huddle back close together so that when flushed, they would come up in a bunch and fly in one direction rather than scattering in different directions.

That was important since quail often gathered on the margins of woodlines in a thicket rather than in the middle of an open field.

When that happened, we would have to circle around the edge of the woods so that when we approached the covey, it would fly toward the open field and not into the woods where we couldn't see them. Shooting a dark bird in front of dark woods is difficult; better to have the dark bird with a bright sky in the background.

After the shooting, Charlie had another job to do; find the dead birds.

"Whoa, get'em!" Dad would shout as Charlie began running around like a crazy dog searching for dead quail.

We would have a pretty good idea where the birds fell, but sometimes they would be wounded and able to run on the ground.

Charlie's job was to find the birds, pick them up gently with his mouth and bring them to us.

He mostly got it right, but sometimes didn't want to let go when he brought them to us, his eyes pleading, "Just let me keep one!"

•••

Like all sports, quail hunting has its accruements.

Our clothing was plain, brown canvas pants and coat. The pants had briar-proof fronts — the brambles I mentioned were mostly large briar patches we'd have to walk through.

On our feet were leather boots, waxed with oil to keep out water from creeks and streams, rain or snow. They also served to protect from snake bites should we cross a rattlesnake on the hunt (I never did.)

On top, we wore a brown canvas hunting jacket with lots of pockets. A special pocket was made inside the back to put the birds in after shooting.

If it was cold enough, I had a canvas vest with slots for my shotgun shells to wear under the coat. I looked like a miniature version of Rambo with that thing on.

We had bright orange hunting caps and later, we began wearing an orange vest to protect ourselves form other hunters in the woods. We didn't want to be mistaken for a deer.

•••

But of all our accruements, it was the gun that was the most treasured.

Every hunter has his gun story. For me, it was an old Fox 20-gauge double-barrel shotgun that had belonged to one of my uncles. He apparently bought it in the 1930s or 1940s and later, gave it to my dad to shoot.

When I was old enough to begin hunting, it got passed down to me. 

It's a great gun for young shooters. Lightweight for carrying in the field and the kick wasn't too hard.

I shot a lot of quail with that old gun, many of them on Thanksgiving day.

•••

Eventually, I got another gun, an over-and-under 12-gauge that looked good, but didn't shoot worth a lick.

One day while visiting in Rome, dad and I went to my uncle's house and gave him back his old 20-gauge.

Tears came to his eyes.

The prodigal gun had returned home.

•••

Over time, we began hunting less and less.

Life intruded. Charlie got old and eventually went to the hunting fields in another realm.

Our guns sat silent in a closet, taken out to clean, then put back in their silent cases.

In the mid-1990s, I had a Georgia Press Association meeting at a hunting plantation in South Georgia. Dad came with me and after the meeting was over, our little group of newspaper editors went quail hunting.

Dad killed a lot of birds that day.

Me, not so much.

But watching the dogs work the fields was special and the camaraderie of a group of old friends hunting together is something I'll never forget.

•••

Not long after that hunt, Dad began to lose his eyesight.

It was his last quail hunt. 

I haven't been in the fields again, either.

Just wouldn't be the same.

•••

Before my uncle died, he wanted me to come by his house.

There, he gave me back the old 20-gauge shotgun. He wanted it kept in the family, he said. 

We agreed to pass it down to the oldest son in the family line, keeping it in the family forever.

He smiled.

•••

Dad died a few years ago. Since then, there's been an empty chair at the Thanksgiving table.

But it was never just about the meal.

It was about the Thanksgiving morning quail hunt, the dog, the gun, the sharing of a moment that, like most of life's moments, doesn't last forever.

This year, the world may have gone to hell, but I still have these memories.

And for that, I give Thanksgiving.

Mike Buffington is co-publisher of Mainstreet Newspapers. He can be reached at mike@mainstreetnews.com.

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