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Woodworking column: A Thanksgiving tale from long ago

Driving past Black River Falls last month, I was tempted to jump off 94 and visit German Hill, a BRF neighborhood that is dear to my heart. That's where my Aunt Doree and Uncle Leonard lived when I was a little kid. When I was a really little kid I couldn't manage to pronounce their names, so Doree became "Docko" and Leonard became "Londy."

Those two were childless and overcame various rough patches, because Docko was a manic depressive. But I didn't know about such stuff when I was a kid. I just knew that they laughed a lot and would give me anything I asked for, which was almost everything. Times were especially difficult for Docko during World War II, when Londy was drafted and ended up in the D-Day invasion.

In 1943 after he had left, it fell to my mother's side of the family to take care that Docko had fine Thanksgivings, her favorite holiday. So Aunt Wyliss from Whitehall and the Wood family from Blair packed up the 1932 Pontiac and made the hazardous 25-mile trip to Black River Falls, an exotic town if ever there was one, with an Indian population, a reputation for tornadoes and later the setting of a famous book called "Wisconsin Death Trip." But most of that didn't concern this 7-year-old. All I cared about was seeing Docko, who had been enjoying the upbeat side of her nature for months. She'd be in the kitchen, doing what she did best: cook.

Sure enough. We arrived up on German Hill with only two flat tires on the way. Docko was in the kitchen, sharpening her big knife: swick, swick, swick, said the blade as it slid across the sharpening rod. The kitchen smelled great. The heavy hens were crackling in the wood stove's oven (I'd never seen a turkey), as was a Yankee pot roast "in case someone didn't like turkey."

Docko always aimed to please. She slid out the pot roast and plucked out a rubbery and very tough white cartilage, sliced it in half, popped one half into her mouth and said "Here Davy. Your mother and I called it 'lug-tug' when we were kids and we chewed on it, pretending it was gum. You try it. It will never wear out."

Before dinner, the adults sat in the little living room, smoking, having a cocktail or three and making small talk. I beat it upstairs to the spare bedroom where I would spend my infrequent vacations in years to come poring over Docko and Londy's collection of magazines, all of which dated from the 1930s when they were first married. Popular Science, McCall's, National Geographic, were fascinating with pictures of Hudson Terraplanes and Charles Atlas ads. I chewed away on the lug-tug.

And then it was time for dinner. The table groaned under the weight of two big fat hens, a roast with carrots and onions, mashed rutabagas, riced potatoes, dad's favorite because they soaked up more gravy, pumpkin and mincemeat pies, and a Docko specialty — squares of lime Jell-O in which floated minced onion and minced cabbage, topped with blobs of homemade tangy "cooked dressing." Don't laugh. It's great with roast beef.

Dinner over, adults loosened their belts and probably their bras, burped and talked about the war. My mother, Docko's younger sister, must have sensed that this was not a very good idea, so she suggested we play a parlor game. Docko dragged out the Ouija board, a game I had never seen before. Players carefully placed their fingers on the mover and asked funny questions and the Ouija board miraculously slid around answering questions.

Soon it was my turn. And this is where the story takes an ominous turn. In my innocence, I asked if Londy would make it back from the war. A silence fell over the room, as my little fingers (Docko called them "piggies") followed the mover. Miraculously, the mover went to "yes."

Dad said, "Well, it's time to go home. Cows to milk..."

We piled into the old Pontiac, Aunt Wyliss told me that we shouldn't ask serious questions to the Ouija board. All concurred.

Uncle Londy did return from Europe in 1946 and he brought home two purple hearts and a souvenir from France for Docko. It was a bronze ashtray with a statue of a little French boy peeing in a town square, while bombs rained down around him. Docko thought it was cute, very cute. And over the years so did I.

Happy Thanksgiving, to one and all.

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