One of my best memories of Christmas as a boy was helping my older brother find a Christmas tree for his high school homeroom class. It was a different time back then, a time when you couldn't just ask your parents for money and you often had to use sweat equity to earn what you wanted. It wasn't easy, but it usually turned out to be fun and worthwhile and it made us stronger, wiser and taught us the value of a dollar.
It was the late 1950s, my brother was a junior in high school and I was still in elementary and he came home from school just after the Thanksgiving holiday with a daunting assignment. In an established tradition of assigned students decorating their classrooms, the class was 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 a full evergreen, at least seven feet tall, assymetrical and very fresh.
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 gazing in 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 really getting tall. We looked at each other, she smiled and went back to fixing dinner while I went to do homework.
As we sat down to dinner, Mom casually said, "So Boo, 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."
Boo 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.
After dinner Boo called his buddies, told him the news and 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 house, after all it was about thirty-five 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 role 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.
Boo bounded out the backdoor and greeting everyone then asked, "Has anyone seen Jack? We can't start without out 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 rope. It took Boo several tries at tossing it because of the thick overhanging branches, but finally the line reached Philip who tied it to the upper trunk, then climbed down.
As Philip reappeared out of the trick branches at ground level, he asked for the cable hook, telling me to watch from ground level to make sure it didn't wrap around any branches on the way up. Philip grabbed a hand saw and hitched it on his belt, Brother Boo went up the tree behind Philip with the cable, working to clear it on the way while Jerry was standing by with the hand line. The hand line was about a thirty degree angle from the cable and further away from the house, designed to make sure the fall came away from the house.
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 scolding from Mom which made him quickly stop.
"Nice try, Philip," she laughed. "I knew you'd come up with something but, don't worry, I won't call your mom if you behave".
Philip's mom was a straight shooting Southern Baptist who would have taken him to the woodshed for sure. But Mom knew he was just the normal mischievous sixteen year old, just needing a little "word of caution" once in a while.
As the trunk began to make a slight cracking sound, Philip yelled for tight lines, telling Jack to start to rewind the cable slowly as the top began to lean. He and Jerry worked in unison while Phillip scurried down a few feet, not wanting to be in the way if the trunk just above the cut kicked back. It's a good thing he did, too, because as it finally came loose it swung over where Philip would have been had he not moved.
We all cheered when the nine foot section of tree fell right where planned and I do believe I saw Mom sign 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 Boo's homeroom class. 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 was later planted on the schoolgrounds 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 twice it's size. 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.
AND A MERRY CHRISTMAS TO ALL OF YOU!