Turkey Capital of the World

Returning to the town of his youth, a writer finds that much has changed — both in the town and in himself.

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From the year of his birth in 1914 until the outbreak of war in 1941, my father lived in a mostly white, mostly working-class, mostly Irish Catholic neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. He was an altar boy. He played stickball and freeze tag on safe, treelined streets. To hear my dad talk about it, one would’ve thought he had grown up in some long-lost Eden, an urban paradise that had vanished beneath the seas of history, and until his death a few years ago, he held fast to an impossibly idyllic, relentlessly romanticized Brooklyn of the 1920s and 1930s. No matter that his father died in 1925. No matter that my dad went to work as a 12-year-old to help support a family of five. Despite such troubles, my dad’s eyes would soften as he reminisced about weekend excursions to Coney Island, apartment buildings festooned with flower boxes, the aroma of hot bread at the corner bakery, Saturday afternoons at Ebbets Field, ice cream cones that could be had for a nickel and a polite thank-you.

Following Pearl Harbor, my father joined the U.S. Navy. He served on a destroyer at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, met my mother in Norfolk, Virginia, got married in 1945, and, for reasons unclear to me, set off with my mom to live amid the corn and soybeans of southern Minnesota. My mother had grown up in the area, but even so, why hadn’t they chosen to settle down in a more exotic spot on the earth — the Cayman Islands, maybe, or along the coast of Maine, or virtually anyplace other than the repetitive prairies of southern Minnesota?

I showed up in October 1946, an early explosion in what would become a great nationwide baby boom. My sister, Kathy, was born a year later. In the summer of 1954, after several years in Austin, Minnesota, our family moved across the state to the small, rural town of Worthington, where my dad became regional manager for a life insurance company. To me, at age seven, Worthington seemed a splendid spot on the earth. There was ice skating in winter, organized baseball in summer, a fine old Carnegie library, a decent golf course, a Dairy Queen, an outdoor movie theater, and a lake clean enough for swimming. More impressively, the town styled itself Turkey Capital of the World, a title that struck me as both grand and peculiar.

My father, though, did not care for the place. It was too isolated, too dull, too pastoral, and too far removed from the big city of his youth.

He soon began drinking. He drank a lot, and he drank often, and with each passing year he drank more. Over the next decade he twice ended up in a state facility for the treatment of alcoholism. None of this, of course, was the fault of the town, any more than soybeans can be faulted for being soybeans. Rather, like a suit of clothes that may fit beautifully on one man but too snugly on another, I have come to believe that Worthington — or maybe the rural Midwest in general — made my dad feel somehow limited, squeezed into a life he hadn’t planned for himself, marooned as a permanent stranger in a place he could not understand in his blood.

Then, as now, Worthington was a long way from Brooklyn, and not just in the geographical sense. Tucked into the southwestern corner of Minnesota, the town was home to roughly 9,000 people when our family arrived in 1954. For centuries, the surrounding plains had been the land of the Sisseton Dakota Sioux, but by the mid-’50s not much remained of that: a few burial mounds, an arrowhead here and there, and some borrowed nomenclature. To the south was Sioux City; to the west was Sioux Falls; to the northeast was Mankato, where, on December 26, 1862, 38 Sioux were hanged in a single mass execution.

Founded in the 1870s as a railroad watering station, Worthington was an agricultural community almost from the start. Tidy farms sprang up. Sturdy Germans and Scandinavians began fencing in and squaring off the Sioux’s stolen hunting grounds. Throughout my youth, and still today, the town was at its core a support system for outlying farms. No coincidence that I played shortstop for the Rural Electric Association’s Little League team. No coincidence that a meatpacking plant became, and remains, the town’s primary employer.

For my father, still a relatively young man, it had to be bewildering and depressing to find himself in a landscape of grain elevators, silos, farm implement dealerships, feed stores, and livestock sales barns. I don’t mean to be deterministic about this. Human suffering can rarely be reduced to a single cause, and my dad may have ended up with similar problems no matter where he lived.

Yet, unlike Chicago or New York, small-town-Minnesota did not permit a man’s failings to go unnoticed. People talked. Secrets did not stay secret. My dad, whom I loved fiercely, was a town drunk. And for me, already full of shame and embarrassment, the humiliations of public scrutiny began eating away at my self-esteem. I overheard things in school. There was teasing and innuendo. I felt pitied at times. Other times I felt arraigned, tried, and convicted.

Decades later, my memories of Worthington are colored as much by what went on with my father — his increasing bitterness, the gossip, the midnight quarrels with my mother, the silent suppers, the vodka bottles hidden away in the garage and basement — as by anything having to do with the town itself. I began to hate the place. Not for what it was, but for what it was to me, and to my dad. After all, I loved my father. He was a good man. He was funny and intelligent and a terrific storyteller and generous with his time and great with kids. Yet every object in town seemed to shimmer with an opposite judgment. The water tower overlooking Centennial Park seemed censorious and unforgiving. The Gobbler Cafe on Main Street, with its crowd of Sunday diners freshly invigorated by church bells, seemed to hum with rebuke.

Again, this was partly an echo of my own pain and fear. But pain and fear have a way of influencing our attitudes toward the most innocent, most inanimate objects in the world. Places on the earth are defined not just by their physicality, but also by all the joys and tragedies that transpire in those places. A tree is a tree until it is used for a hanging. A liquor store is a liquor store until your father almost owns the joint. (Years later, as a soldier in Vietnam, I would relearn this lesson. The paddies and mountains and red clay trails, all of it pulsed with the purest evil.) After departing for college in 1964, I never again lived in Worthington. My parents stayed on well into their old age, finally moving in 2002 to a retirement community in San Antonio. My dad died two years later.

A few months ago, when I paid a return visit to Worthington, a deep and familiar sadness settled inside me as I approached town on Highway 59. The flat, repetitive landscape carried the feel of eternity, a world without limit, the horizon bending away into foreverness just as our lives do. Maybe I was feeling old. Maybe, like my father, I was conscious of my lost youth.

The Gobbler Cafe, where they once served turkey every day.

I stayed in town only a short while, but long enough to discover that much had changed. In place of the almost entirely white community of 50 years ago, I found a town in which 42 languages or dialects are spoken, a place teeming with immigrants from Laos, Peru, Ethiopia, Sudan, Thailand, Vietnam, Guatemala, and Mexico. More than 40 percent of the town’s citizens are Hispanic, many of them first-generation immigrants, and soccer is now played on the field where I once booted ground balls. In the town’s phone book, alongside the Andersons and Jensens of my youth, I discovered such surnames as Ngamsang and Ngoc and Flores and Figuera.

All this startled me. What had once been true was no longer true. The new, cosmopolitan Worthington, with a population of about 13,000, did not arise without tensions, resentments, and serious assimilation troubles. According to a county web page, the local jail hosts a hefty percentage of inmates bearing Spanish, Asian, and African names. Although the town’s unemployment rate is low, wages are also low — substantially below the state average. At the local meatpacking plant, which employs about 2,400 wage earners, nearly a third of the workforce is Hispanic. The jobs there are grueling, monotonous, and often disgusting. (The blood-stink will suck mucus from your nose.) For many immigrants, I’m sure, any work is better than none, but no one is getting rich inside the plant where decades ago I stood trimming fat off pig jowls.

Altogether, in numerous ways, the town’s transformation has mirrored that of America itself, sometimes smooth and uncontentious, other times bumpy and contentious in the extreme. Once or twice, race relations in Worthington have turned outright nasty.

In the summer of 2016, during a traffic stop, a young resident named Anthony Promvongsa, whose background is Laotian, was violently kicked and beaten by a local narcotics investigator while the young man was still strapped to his seat and putting up no resistance. A second officer stood watching. A police dashcam captured the incident on video, which later led to an ACLU lawsuit charging both officers with the use of excessive force.

A shopping block in Worthington circa 1955

The senseless, animal brutality of the incident is shocking to behold on internet websites. But compounding the shock, at least for me, is that it occurred not in Los Angeles, not in the Bronx, but on the streets of Ozzie and Harriet country, in the Turkey Capital of the World, amid fields of corn and soybeans, in a landscape as bland as a slice of Wonder Bread, within striking distance of a dozen or so well-attended churches, and not far from the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks.

I stayed that night in a motel on the outskirts of town. In the morning I made the seven-minute drive to the first of two houses in which I’d lived during my years in Worthington.

I was alone in a rented car. I was feeling very lonely.

Except for the watchful presence of the kid I used to be, there was no one with whom to share my thoughts. Worthington had become a place populated by people as distant and unknown to me as the citizens of Pago Pago. Several old friends were now dead. Almost all others had fled for Minneapolis or wherever else soybeans did not grow.

I pulled over and parked in front of 1018 Elmwood Avenue.

The house of my youth remained pretty much as I remembered it: tiny, low-slung, not quite ugly. Oddly, or maybe not so oddly, I had trouble looking at the place; I’d steal quick glances, look elsewhere, then glance back again. Here, inside an undistinguished rectangle of nothingness, my dad’s late-night drinking had made the shift from now-and-then to all-out-and-always. And it was also here, in the hours after midnight, that I had lain awake listening to my mother’s weeping and my dad’s bitter yelling. I was a third-grader then. I was terrified.

Now, in the car, I smoked a couple of cigarettes, composed myself, eventually opened the door, and got out and stood in the center of Elmwood Avenue. It was just after 9 a.m. There was no traffic at all. The morning was sunny and motionless. Across the street, behind a row of much nicer houses, lay the velvety 17th green of the Worthington Country Club, where, as a fourth-grader, I had sold glasses of lemonade to golfers worn down by hole after hole of frustration. My buddy Mike Bjerkesett and I worked the lemonade stand as a tag team, sharing the toil and the booty through hot summer afternoons back in the early ’50s. Most evenings, after dusk had fallen, Mike and I strapped on our helmets and played soldier out among the sand traps and water hazards. Mike was now among the dead: a terrible car accident, decades of paralysis, then suicide. Though he never knew it, and though it won’t help him now, my old lemonade pal had found his way into my novel The Things They Carried, where I still hear his voice in the character of Norman Bowker.

A few blocks away, the model for another character once lived, a little girl named Lorna Lou Moeller, who, decades later, was transfigured into a very similar (though not identical) little girl named Linda. Linda and Lorna Lou are also dead. They died at age nine. Brain tumors.

In a way, as I stood in front of 1018 Elmwood Avenue, these and other people from my youth seemed to be there with me. In fact, they were with me, just as your own dead father is with you during moments of remembrance. Not the body, but surely something. An absent presence, maybe, or a present absence.

In part, probably like many people of my age, I was under the melancholic spell of a long-delayed and long-feared homecoming. For decades, I had borne a knotty, cancerous grudge against this place. I still did. The citizens of Worthington, Minnesota, had sent me to war, and I took it personally, and I took it personally because it was personal. Back then, in August of 1968, there was not yet a national draft lottery. Luck was not yet an issue. Mathematics did not yet govern. In those grim days just prior to the Democratic convention in Chicago, hometown draft boards did the dirty work. One father chose another father’s son to go off to the other side of our planet and kill people and maybe die. Or it was that housewife and no other housewife — a housewife with a name, maybe Helen, maybe Dorothy — who circled the name of another housewife’s fresh-faced little boy — or a man who had very recently been a little boy — and then, after the circling was done, it was that living, breathing circler of names who scurried off to Wednesday-night bingo or Friday-night church suppers or Saturday-night square dancing. How monstrous, I’d once thought.

How monstrous, I still thought. Circle the name of your own darling son. Circle your own name. Circle the name of your precious daughter and your husband and the guy in the cowboy hat calling your Saturday-night square dances. And if you’re so hot for war, what are you doing in Worthington, Minnesota? What are you doing choosing other people’s kids to fight a war you’re unwilling to go fight yourself? I used to yell these things, and many similar things, as I drove around Lake Okabena with a yellow draft notice in my billfold, and if my kids Timmy and Tad were here, and if a Vietnam replay were in progress, I’d be yelling again and yelling louder and never shutting up — I’d be yelling at Tuesday-night country club socials and at Thursday-night meetings of the PTA — and if they don’t like it they could get off their hypocritical asses and go do some killing and dying of their own, and if they don’t get killed, if they just get wounded, they can lie in some filthy rice paddy and mutter to the Methodists, “Oh, darn, I shouldn’t have drafted myself.”

This fury may eventually go away. I hope not.

But as I sat looking out at a Worthington that was no longer Worthington, it became plain that my lifelong bitterness, though still present, had been noticeably softened — even a bit shrunken — by an emotional fuzziness that was brand new to me. I didn’t — and don’t — have a name for it. A creepy feeling, but creepy was not the word. A kind of dread, but dread too was not the word. In part, I guess, the buzzing fuzziness in my head had to do with a realization that what happened to my hometown was also happening to me. We were both old and getting older. Nothing had endured as it once was.

And just as the names in the town’s phone book had been replaced by new ones, so had my own name — I had been Timmy back then, and now I was not. Nor, beneath the old-man skin and the abbreviated new name, did I resemble the 1953 or 1968 version of myself, so confident in my moral rectitude, so certain of my courage, so naive and ridiculously romantic about what the world would deliver to me. On the plus side, I suppose, I could no longer hate the way I used to hate. I had to work at it. But neither could I love the way I used to love — lemonade stands and playing soldier and Lorna Lou Moeller and my father and myself and the future. It wasn’t that love was gone — it certainly was not gone — but love’s urgency seemed diminished, and its immediacy now seemed vaporous and far less promising. “Getting old,” my dad once told me, “is like sitting too long at a blackjack table. You hear the math chewing away at happy endings.” Then, a second later, stone sober, he said, “But what can an old guy do? Cashing in is suicide. It’s forever.”

I’m pretty sure he thought about it. I’m pretty sure he thought about it for decades.

Around noon, as my final stop, I pulled up in front of 230 11th Avenue. Before me was the house in which my parents had lived from 1960 until they checked into a retirement home a quarter-century later. Here I had spent my high school years. Here my father’s alcoholism had gone from bad to horror. This was my hanging tree.

For a while I just sat in the car, half hoping for some closing benediction. The day was still sunny, still weirdly silent. I didn’t know what I was doing there or what I was waiting for. Maybe a ghostly glimpse of my dad. Maybe the two of us playing catch on a summer afternoon. But of course he was gone now, and so was the town I grew up in.

Best known for his novels on the Vietnam War, Tim O’Brien is author of Going After Cacciato, which won the 1979 National Book Award, and The Things They Carried, a Pulitzer finalist and a New York Times Book of the Century. He was awarded the Pritzker Literature Award for lifetime achievement in military writing in 2013.

This article is featured in the July/August 2022 issue of The Saturday Evening PostSubscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

Featured image: Daily Globe, Worthington, MN

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Comments

  1. But memories of Labor Day golf! Tim signed his book for me. good friend of Bill.

  2. I also grew up in Worthington. I am a few years younger than Mr O’Brien, but also remember the place with a similar horror. Not sure why because I know it was a nurturing place for many of my childhood companions. I recently stopped at Worthington as I was passing thru, and I find my feelings are still ones of horror. That said my life after leaving has been wonderful.

  3. Tim was a classmate of mine..remember sharing classes with him, confirmation at the Methodist Church, and a Magic Show he put on. My heart hurts for Tim and his circumstances! For this farm girl, The Turkey Capital of the World was a beautiful place to grow up with caring people. This article gripped me as this isn’t the hometown I remember! The farmers helped each other out and there is nothing more lovely than fields of soybeans and corn! I realize it’s all in your perspective!

  4. So sad my life, I have cried and cried reading Turkey capital of the world. Thank you for the article. Should of, Would of, could of!!

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