Philadelphia II: The Love That Dare Not Gobble

Dare Not Gobble My wife’s cousin is usually calm, but when he called in mid-March he was agitated. Too much was happening. A tower company and a TV station were trying to erect an $8 million digital antenna on land adjoining the nature center where he lives in Philadelphia. David was leading the battle against it, showing up at meetings and tower sites no one had invited him to, often feeling intimidated. And something strange had happened. A wild turkey had begun appearing at his door. The turkey came every morning at 6:30 and left at 4. He gazed at David through the window. He wore his spring mating plumage but he was wild. He attacked visitors without provocation.

“Guess what his name is,” David said. “Dinner. The farmer next door named him.”

Dinner was wrecking David’s garden, tramping the tender stems of the scilla and Siberian iris. Still, Dinner felt like good luck. He had been there when The New York Times came. Frozen out by the Philadelphia Inquirer , David had called The Times and been bounced to a reporter in Washington. The reporter said tower battles were happening everywhere, but a battle in the Schuy kill Valley Nature Center sounded like a good one. He made a date for March 18.

When the reporter drove down the driveway with a photographer, Dinner came out to greet them. The Times people were charmed. The turkey showed off. He fanned his metallic feathers in the sun, then turned his body in shadow so he could be seen in silhouette. When they went inside, he came to the window and watched them. David was shocked by his good behavior, and grateful.

“Maybe it was because the Times people were dressed well,” he said. “They had on nice shoes and ties. They came with an air of authority and I think Dinner responds to authority. He picks up on that. I think he was trying to help us with our tower battle, and he did.”

I went down to visit on March 24, the day The Times ran Michael Janofsky’s article on the dispute. It described the pitched battle. It pictured David O’Neil and gave him a platform.

I took the Amtrak, then a commuter train, and walked up through the woods from the river. It was dusk. David called out to me from his window. “Where’s Dinner?” I said. “He left an hour ago. He’s roosting in his tree.” David opened a bottle of red wine and threw together his dinner. The Times had already had an impact. For weeks, the president of the TV station had refused to return his calls. The next morning at 8 he was coming out to meet with the neighborhood group.

I got up at 7. David was sitting at his table in the main room. “What can we get you for breakfast?” he said, smiling. A turkey stood a few inches away from him, on the other side of the glass wall. He was stock still and completely fanned-the Thanksgiving shot. His green and brown and orange and black feathers were puffed.

There was a story about Dinner. Someone in suburban Philadelphia found a turkey chick and thought he could raise it. Then it got big and wild, and the man dropped it at the Fox Chase farm in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park. The turkey raised hell there. It attacked children, it cut a girl’s cheek. The farmers asked the farmer who runs a teaching farm next to David to take it before there was a lawsuit. He brought Dinner over in a cage. He warned him that if there was any grief, he’d disappear in a heartbeat. David Weatherill is a strong rangy man. When Dinner attacked a woman, he grabbed it by the neck and held it up. “‘You just lay off,'” he said. “His eyes got a little buggy, and he wobbled away.” Mr. Weatherill hopes Dinner will wander off. But Dinner seemed to have all he wanted right here. I thought, he’s in love with David.

David and I had coffee, then drove to the meeting at an old stucco house on the other side of the nature center. Nine people sat around a table. The TV station president wore a three-piece suit. His shoes were brightly polished. It was a good meeting. The station had been dead set against the neighborhood group. Now the president hinted they might work together. It was inspiring to watch outsiders become players in an instant. The political question is how they might shift the plan to the Antenna Farm, a nearby high point that bristles with towers.

A truck from Channel 10 pulled up outside to interview everyone, and I walked back to David’s through the woods. It was a sunny spring morning. Some white-tailed deer went flying over a stone wall, and I heard traffic humming down on the expressway. I thought about the turkey’s sacred role in American life, a creature of abundance that Benjamin Franklin wanted to make the national bird. For Indians, the turkey represented the spirit of give-away, of a full life through generosity. My wife and I got married at David’s house seven years ago and she thinks it’s no coincidence that Dinner showed up on her cousin’s threshold during a crisis. David has never formed a lasting relationship with a woman-he loves his solitude-but he has tremendously vigorous relationships with communities and the land. He makes a living flying around the country helping design public markets.

I came up to the house through a field, then the compost heap. Later David would say my approach was not authoritative. Dinner was at the back door and he turned, then started toward me. David had described the scary rhythm his feet make as he shifts from walk to run, thump-thump-thump. The rhythm began and suddenly Dinner was in my face. Don’t turn, David had warned, he’ll just go crazier. I backed up and Dinner flew at my face. I kept my foot in the air, I hit his head with my boot, and it fell back for a moment. I ran up the yard and grabbed a long stick. Waving this at him, I scurried into the house. Dinner flew up onto the birdbath. I stood inside looking at his face, the ugly red skin on his head, his ruby wattles that drooped over his beak or curled and quivered in the air.

David got back an hour later. He was excited. They were going to jam the tower company’s request for a variance before the zoning board. They were going to meet all the mayoral candidates.

Dinner seemed pleased that he was back. David brought him a piece of bread and Dinner snatched that up then strutted around the patio following him. He made the turk-turk noise from which the turkey got its name. “That’s good, you’re being nice for a change,” David said. “I just wish you wouldn’t shit all over.” He used a broom to sweep up.