by Debra H. Goldstein
A Political Cornucopia was previously the November 2013 Feature Story at Bethlehem Writers Roundtable.
It was nearing Thanksgiving 1969. America had put a man on the moon in July, Kennedy had been dead six years, Nixon was president, and for most of us, it was the Age of Aquarius. For me, after graduating Alabama and spending months banging on doors in New York, I’d come back home and was covering the political beat for my dad’s paper, the Wahoo Times.
At 83, the incumbent mayor had decided not to run again. The two main contenders for the job were Sheriff Tom Eden and City Councilman Bob Foster. Ms. Sadie Mae Jones was also running, but as she had been on every election ballot for the past twenty years, the only ink the paper devoted to her was mentioning her name.
Eden and Foster were different. They hated each other and their followers respectively had names like McCoy and Hatfield. Over the years, each had won his job the old-fashioned way – by kissing babies, eating barbecue and buying votes.
Buying votes in Wahoo County is a simple process. Someone the candidate trusts parks a car about twenty yards from the voting station and pops his trunk. The trunk has a bag filled with singles, fives, tens, twenties and a stack or two of rubber-banded hundreds in it. People come up to the car and negotiate how much it will take for them to vote for the candidate. Once a deal is struck, there’s a handshake and a young guy, like me, walks the voter into the polling place. The agreed amount is handed over once the ballot is marked.
I used to wonder why voters didn’t shop between the open trunks, but I’ve learned that once a going rate is established, there isn’t much wiggle room – besides, it wouldn’t be considered honorable. Honor is a big thing in Wahoo.
Honor is why Sheriff Eden called a press conference in early October. He stood on the steps of Wahoo’s City Hall with his gun and holster prominently displayed against the expanse of his belly. With the microphone echoing his words, he talked to the gathered crowd. “This mayoral election is important to you, the people of Wahoo. You need to elect the man who can get the job done the way you want.” Pausing to let the applause die down, his eye was caught by Ms. Sadie, who was standing at the edge of the crowd twirling the parasol she used to protect her pale skin from the sun. He corrected himself to “person” before continuing. “That’s why I’m announcing today that I will not tolerate anyone buying votes on my behalf. I’m running on my record.” His hand glided over the top of his gun. “I challenge my opponent to do the same.”
Applauding, I did what most of the crowd did and looked over to see if Bob Foster was going to respond. Sure enough, he already was hoisting himself up the stairs. His immaculate white linen suit highlighted his equally white beard and bushy eyebrows. He paused on the steps only when he stood a head above the six-foot Sheriff.
Slowly, he leaned forward toward the microphone. “Unlike some, I’ve never had to buy a vote in my life. So, not only will I not have anyone buying votes for me, I’ll offer $1,000 if anyone catches me tampering with your right to vote. Of course,” he said, tipping his fedora to the crowd, “I’d be much obliged if you did cast your vote for me.” His supporters roared.
Sheriff Eden, not to be outdone, thrust his hand out as he stepped up even with Councilman Foster. He bent back down to the microphone, clasping Foster’s hand as the two locked eyes, and said, “Same for me.” Then, letting go of Foster’s hand, he turned back to where Ms. Sadie stood and, palm upward, extended his hand toward her. “Sadie, will you join us in this pledge?”
Ms. Sadie didn’t miss a beat. Moving carefully, making sure not to hit anyone with her open parasol, she joined the two on the steps. “I don’t need a pledge to do what’s right, but I’m glad you boys have seen the error of your ways.” She ignored the matching glares Eden and Foster gave her. “This is Thanksgiving season and win or lose, we should, like our forefathers, give thanks for our bounty. I think the three of us should host a community Thanksgiving luncheon on Election Day to thank God for the favor bestowed upon all of us.”
She fluttered her hand toward the crowd. Sheriff Eden tried to argue that Thanksgiving wasn’t for weeks and we shouldn’t tamper with its official date, but Ms. Sadie had them over a barrel. By the time she explained that it wasn’t until 1863 that President Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving to be held on the final Thursday of November, and that federal legislation didn’t mandate the fourth Thursday celebration until 1941, everyone’s eyes were glazed over. No one had the strength to argue with her when she said Wahoo needed its own day of thanks plus the traditional one.
The next morning, the Wahoo Times ran a picture of the three mayoral candidates hanging a wicker horn of plenty, overflowing with fruit and ears of grain, by the stage in the Baptist Church’s social hall. Its caption read, “A New day of Celebration – Turkey Eating Substituted for Buying Votes.” My editor father had whittled my story about the agreement to not buy votes, the $1000 pledge, the discussion about what to serve and the candidates joining together to hang the cornucopia as a sign of the abundance of good in this election to a picture and a caption.
If Dad had run my story, people would have known how the three agreed the luncheon needed to be in the church hall so people could eat and vote in one stop. Sheriff Eden had felt if it was at the church, the ladies auxiliary could be coaxed into making pumpkin pies. Councilman Foster had argued it would be cheaper, especially if the community helped out, if the three of them embraced the first Thanksgiving’s idea of fowl by serving chicken, but Sheriff Eden reminded him “Everyone looks at it as being turkey day, turkey.”
Ms. Sadie had pooh poohed their main course ideas, suggesting they embrace the historic tradition of lobster and vegetables. When the men challenged “lobster,” she started into another history lesson about how seafood rather than turkey was what the first celebrants had served, but Sheriff Eden interrupted her.
“Sadie, I’m allergic to shellfish,” Sheriff Eden said. “Besides, lobster would drive the cost of the election skyhigh.”
“How? You can each use the money you would have used to buy votes.”
“Not exactly,” Sheriff Eden said. He looked over at Bob Foster, who was shaking his head slightly from side to side.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Election day, the church hall was divided almost down the middle. One side had voting booths while the other had round tables set for lunch. Against the far wall, long tables were already piled with big bowls of salad, squash and sweet potato casseroles, cranberry sauce, individually plated slices of pumpkin pie, and sweet tea, but there still was room to squeeze in the bounty from the courtyard.
In the courtyard, three spits were slow cooking the plumpest turkeys I’d ever seen, under the watchful eye of Sheriff Eden. Word was that a few of the County’s finest had donated the birds. I couldn’t see into the closed grills Councilman Foster and some of the other council members were tending except when they’d open them for a moment to baste their chickens with barbeque sauce. Ms. Sadie was making trips back and forth from her car using a kitchen tray to bring in her little casserole dishes. A number of times, she was helped by some of the voters, who would carry a tray for her, wave “Hey” as they went in to drop off the tray and vote and then come back outside to salivate at the smell the grills and spits were giving off.
With kids playing on the jungle gym and swings, folks sipping tea and talking, and everyone eager to help bring in the main dishes, the churchyard, just before lunch, reminded me more of a trip to the circus than election day, But election day it was, and when the food was finally in and set up and most of us had filled our plates, Sheriff Eden motioned Councilman Foster and Ms. Sadie to join him on the social hall’s stage. Figuring this might be my story or that at least I could get a picture of the three standing under the ostentatious horn of plenty, I put my plate of turkey on the ledge behind the piano, where I could retrieve it later and moved forward with my camera and notebook in hand.
“I want to thank you all for voting and for joining us in this Thanksgiving celebration today,” Sheriff Eden began, holding up his plate so that everyone could see he had filled it with turkey, chicken, and Ms. Sadie’s casserole. “Ms. Sadie, I was the first to think this was a ridiculous idea, but it truly has brought Wahoo together in a time of thankful celebration.” He recited a short prayer of thanks. When he finished, Ms. Sadie smiled. She took the plate and held it steady so I could get a picture of the three of them under the cornucopia each holding a fork over the plate, but she didn’t move to take the microphone like Bob Foster did.
I don’t know what really happened right after that. Sheriff Eden had just swallowed a piece of turkey followed by a generous forkful of Ms. Sadie’s casserole and Councilman Foster was saying something about it being a fair and positive election when someone yelled out, “Fair? While you guys were cooking, she was buying votes left and right every time a tray of casseroles was carried in.”
Someone jumped the guy who was yelling because even if he was telling the truth, it wasn’t an honorable thing to share with this crowd. A table went over and the fight was in full force when Sheriff Eden grabbed his holster and pulled out his gun. I thought he was going to shoot into the crowd but he began flaying it around as his free hand went to his throat and he started gasping for air. He must not have had the safety on because when he hit the floor, the gun went off. I heard a whoosh and then a clank as Commissioner Foster dropped the microphone when the overflowing wicker cornucopia dropped like lead onto his head.
Dad ran my eyewitness story of how an abundance of lobster instead of turkey casserole combined with a Thanksgiving decorated cornucopia killed two men and made Ms. Sadie Mayor of Wahoo. The wire services picked it up and wouldn’t you know it, my first published story got nominated for a Pulitzer.