The Thanksgiving Turkey
The sixth of ten children, I was born on Thanksgiving Day, November 25th, 1954; less than a decade following the end of World War II. It was not a bad thing to be born on Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is when most families make a concerted effort to be together. Naturally, our Thanksgiving gatherings are huge. Since my birthday always falls on or near Thanksgiving many members of my family feel obligated to get me a present. Consequently, I get a disproportionate number of birthday gifts compared to family members who were born on virtually any other day of the year. Pretty cool.
But sometimes it seems as if my birthday is April Fools Day.
On my second birthday, my great aunt, Emma Biner, passed away. I didn’t know about that until many years later, but it makes perfect sense. Memorable events, including death, seem to wait for my birthday.
The first memory I can actually date occurred on my 3rd birthday in 1957. That day Mom came home from the hospital with an unusual birthday gift; a baby brother named Bob born two days earlier. I remember it vividly. In the world of a tiny boy the new baby Mom brought home seemed huge. And I wasn’t too excited about it. I doubt that I was aware it was my birthday, but like any three year-old I am sure I couldn’t understand or appreciate why my mommy had been gone for two days. And why did she need this helpless thing when she already had me? Oh yeah, and six other kids, too, since my little brother Dan had been born the year before.
On my 6th birthday, my mom and my Irish Catholic grandmother, along with most other Americans, were excited by the news that our newly elected president, handsome young John F. Kennedy and his gorgeous wife Jackie, announced the birth of their son, John F. Kennedy, Jr. Great, now I had to share my birthday with a celebrity…and he was younger than me!
Sadly, three years to the day later, on my ninth birthday, little John F. Kennedy Jr. stole the hearts of all Americans as he saluted the flag-draped coffin of his slain father. Yes, President John F. Kennedy was buried on November 25, 1963 and no one in my family was in the mood to celebrate a birthday. As I recall, most of us were crying.
On November 25, 1966 I was deathly ill, bedridden, and would continue to be in bed for another week. Two days before my birthday, and the day before Thanksgiving, I contracted food poisoning when I participated in an awful Catholic school tradition known as Box Lunch Day. Every student brought a lunch to school in a decorated box to be auctioned off. The lunch I bought, for 10 cents, had a sandwich with weird tasting mayonnaise. I became violently ill within hours. I spent both Thanksgiving and my birthday on a toilet or curled up in a fetal position. To make matters worse my fantastic Godparents, Fred & Mollie Lynch, were visiting from Seattle. Uncle Fred and Aunt Mollie had no children of their own so they liked to spoil me rotten, but nothing could ease my pain those few days. Ever since that miserable experience I don’t even like to attend potlucks.
My 16th birthday in 1970 was memorable because my parents took me out to dinner at a restaurant in downtown Portland. We never went to restaurants. We were too poor. In fact, we never even owned a car and that might explain why I didn’t bother to get a driver’s permit on my 15th birthday or my driver’s license on my 16th birthday, like most normal kids. Besides, I had the entertaining Rose City buses to get me around town or better yet, I could run. And I formed my first of three track clubs on my 16th birthday. I called it The Peace and Freedom Track Club. Hey, it was 1970.
On my 18th birthday I went to the Lloyd Center and registered to vote. This was a very big deal to me. Eighteen year-olds had gained the right to vote the previous year and I was already very political. On the same day my cousin Naomi Fulton McConnell died. Our great-grandfathers were brothers.
On my 21st birthday in 1975 I made the obligatory trip to a bar even though I really wasn’t into drinking at the time. My friend Jose Amaya took me to a place called Flapper’s Alley between Corvallis and Philomath. Jose and I were rail-thin distance runners at Oregon State. I think we each sipped one beer. I have long since developed a stronger attraction to alcoholic beverages.
On Thanksgiving Day, November 24, 1977 my first child, Chloe, was conceived. Of that I am positive. The next day was my birthday and I joined 121 other protestors in front of the Trojan Nuclear Power Plant near St. Helens, Oregon. Our aim was to shut the power plant down. Ironically, I was the very first protestor arrested and processed, which meant I had to wait while state troopers slowly processed the other 121. My hands were clasped behind my back and held together with unbreakable plastic handcuffs.
Here’s the problem. I had hitchhiked from Longview, Washington to get to the protest and when I finally got there I needed to take a leak. There were no toilets anywhere so I held it…and held it…and held it. About three hours after my arrest we were all carted off in school buses to the Columbia County Fairgrounds where a local judge would decide what to do with us. Meanwhile my bladder was about to burst. Mercifully, a state trooper finally cut the binds that restrained me and I raced into the restroom for what was truly the most pleasurable pee of my life. It was the best birthday present I got that day and I forgot to send the officer a thank-you note.
A postscript to this story: All of the protestors, except for my best friend Marv Pace and me, pled not guilty to criminal trespassing and were released on a technicality. Marv and I pled guilty and were willing to suffer the consequences of our actions. That’s what Gandhi would have done and we were very idealistic. At our trial the following August both the judge and the district attorney commended the two of us for our principled stand and we were both given a 30-day suspended sentence.
On my 30th birthday I was staying at the Sheraton Hotel in Seattle when Michael Jordan, the rookie guard for the Chicago Bulls, walked past me in the lobby. I didn’t know he was on his way to becoming God or I would have asked for his autograph. The day before, my 15-16 girl’s cross-country team, part of another club I started called The Timberhill Harriers, won the national team title at Seattle’s Woodland Park. For my birthday the young runners gave me a cane.
On November 25, 1987, my old buddy Marv Pace was working for the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. He asked Senator Mark Hatfield of Oregon to raise an American flag over the U.S. Capitol Building to commemorate the tenth anniversary of our arrest and faithful adherence to the principles of non-violent civil disobedience. And so on my 33rd birthday a flag flew over the Capitol in my honor and I cherish that flag to this day.
On my 40th birthday I received a gift that compelled me to take up writing and intensified my interest in genealogy and American history. I received from my sister Mary over 100 letters written during the Civil War by my great uncles, who were Union soldiers from Illinois. The letters had been written to their sister, my great-grandmother, Mary Paschal Hobson. Mary Hobson passed them on to my grandmother, Clara Hobson Fulton, who gave them to my father, Charlton Paschal Fulton. My dad never spoke of the letters and fortunately my sister Mary discovered them when he died and surprised me with them as a gift on my 40th birthday.
I went on to publish those fascinating letters four years later in the book From Beardstown to Andersonville. A second printing, commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, was published in 2011. And this brings me to another oddity I discovered after receiving the letters so lovingly preserved by my great-grandmother, Mary Paschal Hobson. As I learned more about this woman I discovered that she died unexpectedly on Thanksgiving Day, November 25, 1897. She died of food poisoning. Maybe she bought a box lunch!
But the strangest and by far the most difficult thing that has ever happened on my birthday occurred on my 55th. On November 25, 2009 my beloved mother Betty Biner Fulton, passed away. She had been ill since early October and my sisters Char, Mary and Leslie; my brother Fred and my daughter Chloe were caring for her around the clock at her home in Seattle. Many of us were at her bedside on November 13th. We thought she was going to die that day. Somehow she held on. Mom would not have a thing to eat or drink for the next 12 days, but much to everyone’s astonishment she held on. Of course she did.
I was on my way to see her that morning when she died. Like everyone else who knew and loved Mom, I was devastated. Our entire family gathered for Thanksgiving the next day, fifty of us, and wept as a note was read before dinner, written by our remarkable mother, telling us all how much she loved us. It is safe to say that we will never have another Fulton Thanksgiving without thinking of, celebrating and missing our dear, sweet and very funny mother. And that was especially true on the first anniversary of her death, when November 25th fell, once again, on Thanksgiving Day.
Contrary to what some might think, I am happy and honored to share my birthday with the passing of Mom. But then it seems appropriate to celebrate Mom on any Fulton birthday. After all, she was one of those great Baby Boomer mothers, giving birth to ten children herself and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren exist today because she did.
One final curiosity: Mom was born on February 20, 1918. My wife Debra was born on February 20th, 1958: Mom’s 40th birthday.
I don’t know what this means, if anything. I’m not exactly into numbers or fate or astrology. But I do believe in the lessons of history and the historical data is pretty clear. There is something strange about my birthday. But then again, my entire life has been one strange adventure.