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A Tale of Two Birds

November 21, 2011
This column is an excerpt from Kirk H. Neely’s new book
Santa Almost Got Caught: Stories for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the New Year.

Benjamin Franklin, one of the most famous Americans of his time, had many good ideas and at least one bad one.

Franklin helped to establish a new nation and to define the structure and function of American government.  The Philadelphia statesman played a major role in crafting our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution.

Franklin’s inventions reveal a man of varied interests, many talents, boundless energy, and great curiosity. Ben had poor eyesight. Tired of constantly taking his glasses off and on, he cut two pairs of spectacles in half.  Putting half of each lens in single frames, he invented bifocals. I am grateful for his invention every single day.

My family and I deeply appreciate the fact that Ben Franklin founded the first public lending library. What a great idea!

Franklin learned much about ships during his eight voyages across the Atlantic Ocean. He suggested dividing a ship’s hold into watertight compartments so that if a leak occurred in one, the water would not spread throughout and sink the ship.

In colonial America, people warmed their homes with an open fireplace, a dangerous practice that burned a lot of wood. Ben invented a cast iron furnace that used less wood and allowed for warmer, safer homes. His invention is still called a Franklin Stove. In the same vein, Ben also established the first fire department and the first fire insurance company. Think of that the next time you see one of the big trucks rushing to a fire.

As Postmaster, Franklin mapped mail delivery routes. He invented a simple odometer. When attached to his carriage, it allowed him to measure the distance of postal routes accurately.

Inventor, businessman, writer, scientist, musician, humorist, diplomat, civic leader, international celebrity, and ladies’ man, Ben Franklin was a genius.

Like most brilliant folk, Ben Franklin had a few crazy notions.  The story of Ben’s famous kite is well known. Rigging a kite with wire and a brass key, he flew it in a thunderstorm.  Not a good idea. Because of him, meteorologists now refer to thunderstorms as electrical storms. Out of his hair-raising experiment came Ben’s invention of the lightning rod.

Franklin had one very bad idea that could have altered the course of history and changed the celebration of Thanksgiving as we now know it.  Ben proposed to Congress that the wild turkey be designated as our national bird.  Thank goodness the distinguished group of legislators saw fit to overrule the patriot from Pennsylvania.  In their wisdom, Congress made the bald eagle our national bird, not the wild turkey.

Imagine how our lives might have been different if Benjamin Franklin had prevailed and the turkey, rather than the eagle, had become the symbol of our great nation. We can all be glad that Ben Franklin did not have his way.

  • Our coins might be minted with turkeys on the reverse side rather than with eagles.  A flip of the coin might require a call, “Heads or turkeys?”
  • The Great Seal of the United States of America might display the image of a wild turkey instead of a bald eagle.
  • The professional football team in Ben Franklin’s City of Brotherly Love might not be the Philadelphia Eagles, but the Philadelphia Turkeys.
  • When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed the Apollo 11 Lunar Module on the surface of the moon, we might have heard the radio transmission, “Tranquility base here. The turkey has landed.”
  • The Boy Scouts of America might never have become the character developing organization that it is today.  Scouts might not be as motivated to make their way through the ranks if the highest award were the Turkey Scout Award.  To call a young man a Turkey Scout just doesn’t have the same ring as the honor of being an Eagle Scout.

I have a notion that Thanksgiving Day might be a different kind of celebration if families who gathered at Grandma’s house were praying over and feasting on our national symbol. We can be grateful that the eagle is on our coins and the turkey is on our tables.

Both ornithology and theology point to the eagle as a rare bird.  The eagle is a symbol of strength and achievement, representing the qualities of clear vision and vigilant protection.

The Bible includes multiple references to the eagle.  Turkeys, however, are never mentioned.

Perhaps you will gather with your loved ones on Thanksgiving Day to enjoy a turkey dinner.  Before the meal, take a moment to give thanks for two birds, the turkey and the eagle.  You might choose to read Psalm 103, a beautiful prayer about the blessings of God that mentions the eagle.   Or perhaps you would enjoy the words of the prophet Isaiah in one of the best-loved references to the eagle:

But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings as eagles;
they shall run, and not be weary;
and they shall walk, and not faint. (Isaiah 40:31 KJV)

True thanksgiving is as rare and as endangered as the eagle.  Thanksgiving has nothing to do with the bird on our platter.  It has everything to do with the prayer in our heart.

Kirk H. Neely
© November 2011
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