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BEN FRANKLIN’S BAD IDEA

November 14, 2020

Note to readers: During these difficult days for many people, Clare and I have been considering what we might do to help those in need. We have decided to continue our support for the charitable nonprofit organizations that are serving our community. Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider helping one charity. This week, please volunteer or donate, as you are able, to Spartanburg Soup Kitchen, 136 Forest Street, Spartanburg, South Carolina 29306, (864) 585,0022.

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the city of Philadelphia have been in the news lately. Both figured prominently in the recent national election. The city is well-known among sports fans. Their professional teams have won trophy cases filled with championship hardware in baseball, football, hockey, and basketball. The enthusiasm in the stands matches the intensity in the arena. Some of you will remember the December afternoon when Santa Claus was booed during a National Football League game.  I recall a Monday night game several years ago when Cam Newton, then the quarterback for the Carolina Panthers, endured a brutal pounding by the Philadelphia Eagles.  Newton was sacked nine times by the aggressive defensive line of the Eagles. The team from Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love, was not so kind to the team from Carolina.

I also recognize the historical importance of the Pennsylvania city. Independence Hall is a treasured location in American history, the site of origin for two of our defining documents, the Declaration of Independence and the United States of America’s Constitution. Philadelphia is the home of the Liberty Bell. The city was also the residence of the patriot pictured on our one- hundred-dollar bills, Benjamin Franklin. He is one of the most famous Americans of his time, considered to be a Founding Father of our country.

Franklin helped to establish a new nation and to define the structure and function of the American government.  The Philadelphia statesman played a significant 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 continually 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 sincerely 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 boat.

In colonial America, people warmed their homes with open fireplaces, 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 the 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. What a shock!  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 many good ideas. He also had at least one terrible 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. Avid hunters among us look forward to the first day of April each year as the beginning of turkey season.  April Fool’s Day might be a different kind of experience if the wild turkey had become our national bird as Ben Franklin proposed.

Other differences in our culture would have seemed a little odd.

  • 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 lunar module of Apollo 11 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 person 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 in Scripture. 

The COVID 19 pandemic will make our holiday celebrations different this year. Quarantines, social distancing, and face masks will alter the way we observe the day. Perhaps you will gather with fewer of 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 bald eagle.

While turkey has become a Thanksgiving tradition, I know that other fowl are sometimes substituted. One year just before Thanksgiving, Clare and I were given two wild geese with instructions about how they were to be cooked. We followed the directions, and the birds were tasty. However, our children were not favorably impressed. The following year we resumed the tradition of turkey.

Some people prefer quail, Cornish game hens, or doves for Thanksgiving.

I recently heard a five-year-old child ask an interesting question. “Grandma, do we have to have turkey for Thanksgiving? Could we have fried chicken this year?”

I am grateful for both turkeys and for eagles. The truth is that Thanksgiving has nothing to do with the bird on our platter.  It has everything to do with the prayer in our hearts.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. His new book and first novel, December Light 1916, is available at all bookstores and online booksellers. He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com

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