A Family Holiday Story

Family stories are important to recall and be told during the holidays. One that I shall always remember was told to me by my father, Earl Cooper.

In October 1929 the stock market crashed and it was the beginning of the Great Depression. Earl, my future father, would turn fourteen in three months. There were no millionaires in his family, so there was no wealth to lose. They lived from payday to payday. But like millions of American working families, jobs disappeared including his father’s. His family lived a hardscrabble life on the coast of Washington State where jobs were pretty much limited to fishing and logging. One day Earl’s father announced that he would try to find work on the docks of the Seattle waterfront. Earl never saw him again, but years later he learned that his father survived the Depression and ultimately became a dockworker Union boss.

The holidays of 1929 and for the eight ensuing years of the Depression were hard times on the Washington Coast. His mother began working as a cook in a logging camp, toiling long hours over a wood-burning stove, baking and preparing meals for hungry loggers. She had little time to see about Earl’s upbringing. He, his brother George, and his cousin William were left to be raised by an old Indian whose name was Unck. In a way, it was a good match. Unck was a self-sufficient person. If he needed food, he hunted or fished for it. If he needed certain items to survive, he made them himself. He passed these skills on to Earl, George, and William. When not in school, they paddled canoes up North River to fish, crept through the tidelands of Willapa Bay to hunt for ducks and geese, and walked for miles on the broad beaches and tide-flats digging razor clams or collecting oysters to sell for a few dollars. Because of everything Earl learned from Unck, there were a few additional dollars to support the family and there was always food on the table.

One year, the day before Thanksgiving, Earl’s mother called him into the kitchen. “Earl, we have no money to buy a turkey for our Thanksgiving dinner. I need you to go hunting.” Earl readily agreed as he had become a good shot and knew he could get what they needed. His mother added to her request. “There will be ten people to feed. So, bring me five large ducks.” Earl went to get his shotgun and discovered that he only had one shotgun shell. He had no money to buy any more ammunition. So, he took his gun and went to find Unck. The two of them set out for the marshes near his home not knowing how they would meet his mother’s request.

The annual water foul migration had begun and the ponds in the marsh were resting locations for thousands of ducks. Unck picked out a likely pond and they hid in the reeds and waited. They waited for hours as ducks flew in and landed on the pond. When Unck gave the word, Earl jumped up and fired his one shot. Dozens and dozens of water foul rose from the pond and flew away but when the scene became quiet, the bodies of five ducks lay floating on the surface of the pond. Earl and Unck gathered up the ducks and headed for home. It would be a fine Thanksgiving dinner of roasted duck, oysters, and fresh-baked apple pie.