This story was originally published in the Nov. 27, 2003, edition of The World-Herald.
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This is a story of life-and-death choices, powerful politicians, sweetheart dealings, big business and an epic journey.
It also is the story of two turkeys.
It begins with two tom turkeys hatched July 10 on a farm just outside Carthage, Missouri. The two birds, and 38 others, were selected for a special but dangerous mission. The competition was fierce. Some perished along the way. But for the victors, the rewards would be great.
Bob Wright, then president of the turkey business unit at ConAgra Foods Inc., had used his position as recently elected chairman of the National
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Turkey Federation to steer a high-profile deal — the coveted presidential turkey contract — ConAgra's way.
Every year since 1947, during Harry Truman's administration, the National Turkey Federation has presented a bird for the presidential Thanksgiving dinner. And every year, in a show of magnanimity, the president has spared the bird and instead dined on another turkey.
For four months, the 40 ConAgra turkeys trained at a special facility near Carthage — a spare barn, actually. Three employees were charged with raising the birds to be sociable and prepared to interact with dignitaries, schoolchildren and the press.
As the birds grew, they were judged on their size, feathers and coloring. Every so often, another group would be voted off the farm.
A good turkey will have a bright blue head and bright red wattle, said ConAgra spokeswoman Julie DeYoung. The final two turkeys — which later were named Stars and Stripes — had both.
The trainers made sure to frequently handle the birds to get them used to human interaction. Sometimes bright lights were used to prepare them for camera flashes.
The birds were paraded like beauty pageant contestants before judges who looked for the one with the "most proud walk," said DeYoung.
"It's like humans — some people walk stooped over, others hold their heads up high," said Jim Stockam, the birds' veterinarian.
After several rounds of competition, Stars and Stripes were the last two in the running.
"They look so similar," Stockam said, "we had to choose on some pretty minor points" — like whose tail feathers formed the most symmetrical semicircle.
Some of the best-looking contestants have been sent to petting zoos. Others will appear on Thanksgiving tables, along with about 50 million of their brethren.
Friday, ConAgra held a farewell ceremony in Carthage for the two winners before the 1,100-mile drive to Washington, D.C. Stars was to be presented to the president; Stripes went as an alternate. "In case," DeYoung said, "the presidential bird is unable to fulfill his duties."
Veterinarian Stockam and Tom Fix, farm production manager, rented a passenger van, removed the back seats to accommodate the birds' cages, and set out as a crowd of well-wishers waved them off.
That first night on the road, Fix slept in the van.
"I had insisted on sleeping in the van," Stockam said. "There was an argument. Finally I said, 'Fine, sleep with the turkeys.'"
Still, he said, he woke up twice during the night to check on the birds.
When the four arrived in Washington, the turkeys were presented to the president, who formally bestowed on them the names Stars and Stripes. Those were the most popular names on the White House's Gobble the Vote Internet poll, beating out Pumpkin and Cranberry, Hope and Glory, Lewis and Clark, Plymouth and Mayflower and Harvest and Bounty.
"It was a neck-to-neck race," President Bush said in a statement.
Monday morning, in a Rose Garden ceremony, Bush bestowed the presidential pardon on Stars. According to news reports, the turkey squawked through the ceremony, prompting Bush to ask if he wanted to give the speech himself.
Fix and Stockam, standing quietly in the background, appeared in newspaper photographs around the world.
Stars and Stripes, their moment in the limelight over, will savor their victory as long as they can. The two are now in Frying Pan Park in Herndon, Virginia, where they will live out their natural lives, as presidential turkeys have for more than a decade.
But according to a spokeswoman for the park, the pardoned birds rarely make it to their first birthday. They have been bred to grow quickly and put on an unnatural amount of weight.
Stockam reported that Stars and Stripes seemed pretty happy the last time he saw them.
"I guess what you don't know won't hurt you."