By Mary Lenz
The Season of the Turkey is upon us.
Whether our ancestors hail from Sicily, Nuevo Leon, Ireland, Saxony, Nigeria, Norway or Vietnam, we U.S. citizens are called upon to pause in our busy lives and honor a small band of religious fanatics in pointy little hats with whom we have about as much in common today as Dennis Rodman does with Jerry Falwell.
Yes, of course, I understand the symbolism of Thanksgiving.
We are celebrating the first brave band of Yankee prigs to set up an established community on New England's rocky shores. They are the founders of one of our more domineering and snooty cultural streams. They are the Mayflower voyagers, from whom so many of us wannabe descended and so few of us actually are.
But what about the slightly later period in Colonial history when thousands of denizens of British prisons were landed on the soggy shores of the colony of Georgia? British to the bone, with prices on their heads and chains around their ankles, they probably outnumbered the Pilgrims a thousand to one.
In the interests of equal time and genetic reality, it would seem only fair that we celebrate their arrival to these shores as well.
The idea of a National Criminal Ancestor Day may not have the immediate box office appeal of our annual feast on turkey with all the trimmings. After all, the foods most appropriately consumed in celebration would be water, hard tack and weevils.
Possibly as a result, there is not, so far, any organized movement backing this proposal. I've never seen a notice announcing a meeting of the Daughters of American Crime Bosses or the United Descendants of Prison Inmates.
We have for years withheld even the slightest national nod to those of our elders whose faces gazed down through the years upon us, not from family portraits in the hallways of whitely-pillared mansions, but from placards on the walls of local post offices.
Given the mathematics, this seems to be a matter of collective denial.
Let's think for a moment of the sheer numbers of pirates, highwaymen, pocket-pickers, debtors, card cheats, wild-eyed sons of noblemen sent to the New World to avoid criminal prosecution, train robbers, bank robbers, cattle rustlers, robber barons, Tennessee-to-Texas pioneers dodging bill collectors -- all of whom have contributed to the national gene pool.
Don't forget, escaping from slavery and helping slaves escape were criminal offenses as well. And then there were the revolutionaries from Mexico and Eastern Europe who were branded, like Irish rebels and violators of Jim Crow laws, as criminal by the justice officials back home. To be convicted and serve time in jail, as old time feminists agitating for the right to vote would tell you, is not necessarily a badge of shame.
Honorable or not, it should be fairly obvious that more of us descend from fettered foreparents than can trace our bloodlines back to George Washington or John Adams, or any of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. And that, by the way, was a criminal action at the time.
Subconsciously, we must realize this. Much as we pay lip service to Old Nantucket, it's Butch Cassidy we prefer. As a nation, we plunk down trillions of entertainment bucks to watch movies about Robin Hood, Scarface, Bonnie, Clyde, and other glittering and bullet-riddled characters of Hollywood.
When was the last time you paid $5 to rent a movie about Cotton Mather?
Yet once a year, black-suited New Englanders are honored with turkey legs and a four-day weekend while the poor, little, Liverpool purse-snatcher who may be our great, great grandma lies forgotten in an unmarked Savannah grave. I ask you. Is this justice?
So why not set aside one day a year to eat a bowl of gruel, bang a tin cup on the table, and say a short prayer to St. Dismas as we remember time served by our forebears in the slammers of yesteryear.
Or maybe, just maybe, instead of pretending he isn't part of the family, you could drive over to the county jail, wave up at the barred windows, and direct a few glances of compassion and understanding toward your Cousin Bobby Lee.
Mary Lenz is a free-lance writer in Austin. Copyright 2000.