It was in early November 1961. I was unhappily working at a California Youth Authority correctional institution in Sacramento, where I was just as unhappily living. I had moved there on a promotional transfer from Southern California.
I replaced a very well-liked man who had been fired. His dismissal was strongly resented by the staff members. They directed that resentment at his replacement – me. I had not expected this, and I was having a difficult time.
I missed my friends in Los Angeles and Long Beach, and I missed the beach. I was lonely and discouraged with my first step up in what I thought would be my life career.
Not making friends at work, and the demands of carrying 10 units at Sacramento State College while working full time kept me from developing a social circle or finding a girlfriend.
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Thanksgiving was coming, and I could not get enough time off to go home for the holiday. My dismal prospect was Thanksgiving dinner by myself at McDonald’s or Burger King. My dejection ended when my closest friend, Bob Petersen, called to invite me for Thanksgiving dinner.
He and his mother and another friend, Dallas Hissom, had all moved to St. Helena in the Napa Valley. I was living with Bob and Dal when I moved to Sacramento. I not only wouldn’t be alone, I would be with good friends and I would have a great Thanksgiving dinner – not just a hamburger. My spirits soared.
I embarked on the two-hour drive to St. Helena with the anticipation and enthusiasm of both an adventure into the new and different Northern California countryside, and a joyful time with good friends. I would be spending Thanksgiving with people I cared about and who I knew cared about me.
The dinner would be all that I could want, and the company even better. I would enjoy two days in a small Northern California town, different from anything I had known. It would be such a reprieve from the strained relations of distance and resentment that I dealt with daily. The trip over would be through unknown country.
When I eagerly left Sacramento, it was gray, cold, overcast and damp. Such a very different Thanksgiving from sunny Southern California, where the temperature was often in the 80s at Thanksgiving, and from my dreary expectation of dinner alone. I didn’t know where.
Crossing the Sacramento Valley in the fall was in marked contrast from driving through the palm trees, citrus groves, eucalyptus breaks and the mountains of Southern California. The mostly flat land and softly rounded hills were punctuated by small areas of forests, streams, farm houses, small towns and various wildlife.
I saw hawks, different species of birds, several deer, a skunk, and a pair of coyotes: uncommon sights in Los Angeles, Hollywood, Beverly Hills and on Southern California beaches. I had the exciting tinges of feeling like a child in a new world.
In one forested area, abundant moss hung from the trees dripping accumulated fog. In the middle of it, I saw a dead deer lying by the side of the road with a huge stomach. I felt sad thinking she had been struck by a car while very pregnant. I wondered about the fawn inside of her that would never know its life. I later learned that it was most likely her bloated stomach. It was another part of the day’s experience and something else not seen in Los Angeles or on the beach.
When I reached the small mountain range on the east side of the Napa Valley, fall colors were still left on a few trees. It looked like the autumns in pictures.
It was a glorious homecoming when I arrived in St. Helena. Bob’s mother greeted me with a big hug. Bob and Dal handed me a scotch on the rocks with a splash of soda (my drink du jour at the time when away from the customary cold beer on the beach). It felt so good to be with genuine friends.
There were plates of nuts, nibbles and tidbits. A good, warming fire was crackling away. It all felt so good. I hadn’t seen them in eight months. It was a welcoming contrast to the dank and damp 40 degrees outside, and my long and stressful days at work.
I unwound, struggling my way through two scotches and the abundance of food, including smoked oysters served Bob’s way (the oil drained off the oysters, which are then covered with lemon juice and a sprinkling of Tabasco sauce). Before dinner, Bob, Dal and I went for a walk through charming St. Helena.
It was near freezing, light rain and drizzle – and wonderful! I could live very happily in St. Helena. We stepped into a small and friendly little neighborhood bar with welcoming fire. Chilled to the bone, I had not experienced such cold since the winter I spent in the Bavarian Alps in the Air Force.
When the congenial bartender asked what we wanted, I told him I was so cold that the only thing I could think of was, brandy. He offered, “How would you like it if I put it in a hot toddy?” I asked, “What is a hot toddy?”
“I’ll mix the brandy with some hot water, lemon juice and a little sugar. It should be just the ticket on a day like this.”
We all went for hot toddies. They went so well, we went again. They kept us warm all the way back to the house.
The visit and dinner were all that I had hoped for and more. It was truly a time for giving thanks, and remains the most memorable and enjoyable of my 82 Thanksgivings.
Don Farris is a licensed clinical social worker in Fresno, providing counseling and psychotherapy to individuals, couples and families. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.