It was the late 1950s, my brother was a junior in high school and I was still in elementary school and Bobby came home from school just after the Thanksgiving holiday with a daunting assignment. Following a school tradition for Christmas at Newport News High, students in home rooms were divided into small groups, each with a specialized assignment based upon the luck of the draw. His group was selected to provide the class Christmas tree.
Sounds easy, right? Not so fast, for the rules of the game were specific. You could not buy a tree, you could not cut a tree from property without explicit permission of the owner and the tree had to be at least seven feet tall, either a small, live evergreen or a portion thereof.
Gathering his fellow team members together that night they discussed their options. The task was complicated by the fact that we lived in a small city, there were no open woodlands of any significance within five miles of the area and the preponderance of the land was in small to moderate sized city lots with little likelihood of finding what they needed. And it was Thursday night and the tree had to be in the classroom no later than the following Tuesday morning, so they had to work fast.
I was sitting in with them since they said they would take all the help they could get, but I could think of nothing. They adjourned looking down and dejected, but promised to gather again Saturday morning with a plan. They didn't want to be the only group to fail in the class although they knew it would have been much easier had they gotten the assignment to provide decorations or such other items. But alas, they had to work with what they had.
As I returned from school that Friday afternoon I found Mom standing at the kitchen window and gazing into the back yard. And then I realize what she was looking at. It was that big old evergreen over by the fence line that was now oversized and much too tall. We looked at each other, she smiled and went back to fixing dinner while I went to do homework. At that moment, I knew exactly what she was thinking without here uttering a word. She was going to offer Bobby the top out of that large tree if he could get in down safely. As we sat down to dinner that night, Mom casually spoke.
"So, Bobby," she queried, "Did you have any luck on your tree search?"
"No, Mom," he said dejectedly, "and the guys will be here at 9 in the morning. What am I going to do?"
"Well," she said with a twinkle in her eye, "you better get whatever it is you need to cut a tree tomorrow 'cause you're gonna' cut the top out of our backyard evergreen. That tree is just getting too tall so there's your answer."
Bobby jumped up and ran over and hugged Mom, almost forcing her to spill the pot of soup. But he was excited and so was I and Mom just stood there chuckling. And after dinner, Bobby called his buddies and told them the news made some plans. Mom and I only hoped that they knew what they needed and could figure out the right way to tackle the job. She didn't want the top of that tree falling on the neighbor's fence since it was over thirty feet tall.
Saturday morning dawned dreary and gray with heavy laden clouds indicating the likelihood of snow. Right at nine the group began to assemble. Philip from down the street came up whistling jingle bells and wearing climber's boots and carrying a roll of strong rope and thick gloves. Jerry came from the other direction with two different sized hand saws. I was tasked with being the "step-and-fetch-it" for the older boys, making sure they got anything they needed when they needed it.
Bobby bounded out the backdoor and greeted everyone then asked, "Has anyone seen Jack? We can't start without Jack."
"He'll be here", said Jerry, who lived close to Jack. "He was late coming in last night but I talked with him. Don't worry."
The boys grabbed a football to toss around while awaiting Jack's arrival when suddenly we heard the noise of a loud engine and the shifting of gears. Backing up the driveway to the point closest to the tree was Jack in his father's wrecker. He set the brace on the back end and pulled the metal cable over to the tree for use.
Now that things were in place, the boys went to work. Philip, the most agile of the group climbed the tree slowly, trying to keep branches from smacking him in the face from the thick tree. About four feet from the top he yelled down for the end of the two ropes that would be used as guidelines for dropping the tree safely. Jerry would man one and I would handle the second one, keeping a thirty degree angle from each in the general direction of where the tree would be cut to fall. After several tries, we couldn't clear the thick needled limbs so Bobby climbed with ropes in hand and left them with Philip. He attached them to the tree about five feet from the top, then tossed the other end to the two of us waiting below and we held them tight. Then he hooked the chain to the tree a few feet below, dropped below the level where it could kick back on him. He focused on that for a moment while Bobby made sure the chain wasn't tangled in the branches before getting ready to cut. Meanwhile, Jerry and I made sure the two guidelines were taut.
When everyone said all was clear, Philip went to work with his hand saw.It took some time to get the cable over and around the branches but it worked and finally Philip was up to the original guideline. He checked it for tightness, made sure the line was a straight shot down to Jerry, came down another two feet and hooked the cable to the trunk. Then he climbed down another four feet and began sawing. As he was working slowly on the thick trunk, he began singing a rather bawdy version of the Twelve Days of Christmas, eliciting a muttered comment from Mom who was outside with us and watching with a smile on her face. Later she would tell Philip if he sang that song at school he would likely get sent home from school. Then she laughed and walked back inside. We all knew that Philip would be Philip and so did Mom. That's why she smiled but Philip and all the neighborhood boys love Mom for she was always kind to all of them.from Mom which made him quickly stop.
As the saw neared the three quarter way mark on the trunk at the base of the tree, a slight cracking sound was heard and Philip yelled for tight lines, telling Jack to start to rewind the cable slowly on the tow line as the top began to lean. Jack, Jerry and I got into a rhythmic pattern and Philip lowered himself down a few more seats to avoid being hit by the tree and he was right on mark, avoiding any danger as the tree began to fall, hitting a large bough then falling down to the ground.
We all cheered when the nine foot section of tree fell right where planned and I do believe I saw Mom sigh with relief, but it was ever so subtle. Boy, were we proud of ourselves and felt like we were kings of the world. We trimmed the small branches and twigs near the base of the cut, stood it up in a ten gallon bucket containing sugar water and propped it up securely against the garage so it would stand and soak up the water to keep it fresh. Jerry said his father would make a stand suitable for the classroom. But for now, the tree would remain in the container until Monday morning when it would be delivered to the high school for display.
We awoke Sunday morning to snow, very unusual for coastal Virginia this early in the season. And when we walked outside to look at the tree, it had been decorated by nature. The rich green branches were decked out in a beautiful white coating of thick, wet snow and sitting on a number of the branches were a family of cardinals, the males showing their beautiful red against the green and white background. What a glorious site indeed.
One of the older boys came by Monday morning to take the tree to school. I even went to the high school PTA meeting with Mom the following night since the tree would be on display in Bobby's homeroom. The parents of all of the boys were there to compliment the job of their sons, who loved every minute of the adulation, yours truly included. It was beautiful and had been decorated with homemade decorations, white lights and red bows galore. And the handmade stand had been painted to look like a gift box. What a beautiful use for the top of that glorious evergreen and, what's more, maintaining its life status until school was closed for the holiday, it survived and continued to grow thanks to those drilled holes and he cold weather and was later planted on one of the city's school grounds where it survived for many years.
It took years for the original tree to fill in it's flattened top, resulting in a broader but still pointed tip. And the base became fuller and broader as it continued its march both skyward and outward. The last time I was back in my old stomping grounds I rode by the old house and the tree was still there, only much taller and still broadening. If it didn't die of disease or lose a battle with a hurricane over the years it's probably still there. But regardless, I'll always remember the special Christmas tree gift that the beautiful old evergreen gave to all of us on that Christmas years ago. One of those stories I can never forget.