Thursday, December 22, 2011


The holiday season is the time for reflecting on holidays past and your Curmudgeon is no different. Here's a tale from way back in the dark ages... 1973.

After spending the first three years of our marriage in western Maryland, a place that takes a back seat to nowhere else when it comes to winter snow amounts, my first wife and I moved to Fairmont, WV. This is a small city in the north central part of the state whose claim to fame, at least for us, was that it had a state college (now university) and that it was about 20 minutes on I-79 from West Virginia University in Morgantown.

We were living in one side of a duplex on a little cross street in town. The house was of the "I" house design. From the side view it was a narrow, two stories high with a sharply pitched roof line. Attached to the main house at the back were one story additions with low ceilings. A pretty typical early 20th century duplex in a college town. Oh, and one more thing. The front porch, which covered both front doors, was only about four feet wide up a short flight of steps. The front door opened to a closet directly opposite which required a sharp left turn to get into the living room. More on that later.

Our first Christmas in Fairmont found my wife working at her retail job and my friend and business partner, Ray, and I (we had a roofing and siding business) sort of off work because of the weather. This may have contributed to what was to come. The weather was typical for the area with 5 or 6 inches of snow on the ground. It's possible that a surplus of Christmas cheer, and too much time on our hands, lead to the brilliant idea that we should go out and cut us a Christmas tree.

So, after, perhaps, a bit more Christmas cheer, Ray and I and a saw and some rope piled into my Fiat 128 and headed out across the river to a cut your own tree lot we'd both seen in passing. That's not a picture of my Fiat, but it looked just like that. Bright red. As you can see from the picture, this is not a very big car. The good news was that it was front wheel drive and went very well in the snow. Off we went to the tree lot.

We pulled in and discussed our quest with the guys huddled around a 55 gal. drum fire and thus learned that all the trees were the same price. That seemed fair, so we paid the man, got out the saw and headed over a small hill to the actual trees. There, at the front of a small forest of Christmas trees, was the best looking tree  I had ever seen. It was perfectly shaped even with snow weighing down its branches. It was full, with no ugly voids or missing branches. This was the kind of tree that should grace the front of every Christmas card ever sent. It looked that good from the top of the hill. I just knew, this was the tree for me.

As we descended, saw in hand, the perfect Christmas tree seemed to grow. The closer we got, the taller and wider it became. But I was determined. This was my tree, damn it, and I was going to cut it down and bring it home.

The first thing we had to do was get some of the snow off the branches. It was easy enough to knock loose the snow from the lower limbs and with the saw we could reach a little way up, but there was a lot of snow still on the higher branches. Simple, I just reached in to shake the trunk. I could barely reach the trunk of this tree! I had to push lower limbs aside, and up until I finely grabbed a hold and shook with all my might. Nothing happened. I tried again. Nothing moved. The snow on the upper branches was still there. I backed out, stepped back, lit a cigarette and Ray and I just looked at the imposing thing. It was starting to get dark.

"Okay," I said, "The snow will fall off when the tree falls." "No problem." I finished my cigarette, grabbed the saw, and got down on my knees to crawl under the lowest branches. Now, I was what you might call a city slicker when it came to the fine points of felling trees. Our previous Christmas trees had come from a lot set up in front of the Jewel grocery store. I knew a fair amount about cutting wood having had a house framing business back in Maryland, but that was lumber. And an electric circular saw. This was a growing pine tree and a hand saw. Not a "Bow" saw with great big and sharp teeth. No, this was a regular old, cut a two by four hand saw. I started cutting.

The stump of the tree was about eight inches in diameter. I pushed and pulled and pushed some more on the saw. After about a minute I stopped to check my progress. I hadn't yet made it through the bark! That just made me more determined. More pushing and pulling and a bit of cursing that last cigarette resulted a some progress, so I backed out and handed the saw to Ray. I won't bore you with the entire ordeal. Lets just say that by the time we finely yelled, "Timber," the sky was pitch black. We'd been working under the lights for at least 30 minutes. But the tree was felled. We beat our chests in a manly way with what strength we still had and grabbed up the tree from each end... and barely made it three feet before we had to drop the load. This sucker was heavy. We beat as much of the remaining snow off the upper limbs as we could and then both grabbed the butt end and started to drag the tree up the hill.

Ten minutes later and the tree was next to the car and the tree cutters were somewhat winded. With whatever strength we had left we hoisted the perfect Christmas tree onto the roof of the Fiat. This was probably pretty dumb and would have done some major damage to the paint if the roof wasn't still covered in ice and snow. But on the roof it went and with some effort we were able to tie the pointy end to the front bumper and the other end to the rear. A tug on the rope made us realize that the ice on the roof also had a down side. The tree wanted to slip and slide. After a brief consultation we looped the remaining rope around the middle of the tree and put the ends of the rope through the car's front windows. With Ray holding his side with his right hand, and me holding my side with my left hand we started out of the parking lot. And immediately realized that I couldn't hold the tree, steer and shift gears at the same time. Something had to give.

Being young, cold and tired the only (to us) rational answer was for me to drive while Ray shifted gears. That way we could both hold the tree and make it home before the spring thaw. So off we went. Our path home included a toll on a small bridge. As I recall, the toll was only a Nickle, but there was a booth and a girl collecting, so we stopped and paid up. Until that point I really hadn't thought about how we looked driving a little red car with a tree on the roof. The girl taking the toll put it all into perspective when she said, "You look like a Christmas tree with a red ornament on it." "Is that the tree for the courthouse?"

"IS THAT THE TREE FOR THE COURTHOUSE?" What the heck were we carrying? We laughed, told her no and pushed on. Me steering with my right hand while Ray shifted with his left all the way back home. But we made it and without further incident. When we pulled up in front of the house we saw that my wife was not home yet. Perfect, I thought. We can surprise her with this wonderful Christmas tree all set up and ready to decorate when she gets home. Ya, right!

We untied and rolled the tree onto the sidewalk. Now that we weren't on the side of a snow covered hill we could actually pick up the whole tree and carry it up the stairs onto the porch and to the front door. Oops, we had it wrong way around. We went back down the stairs, made a 180 in the neighbors yard and headed back up to the door, butt end first. Now, remember I said the entry way was a little tight. Well, it no time at all to realize that this tree was not going through that door from that angle. Not goin' to happen.

There were two immediate problems before us. One was the direction of travel. In order to get this tree into that door we needed to come at it from the porch on the other side of the duplex. The second was the storm door on my front door. Number two was easy enough to solve. We were "in the business" so to speak, so we grabbed some tools and took down the storm door. In what may have been the only good decision in a day of not so good decisions we also removed the front door of the apartment. Just in case. We were ready now. We huffed the tree back down our steps, across the front of the house and up the neighbors steps with the cut end pointed at the door. There was a half wall between the two porches that the tree sort of sat on as we attempted entry.

By pushing, pulling, shaking and cussing we got almost three whole feet of the tree into the house. This was not working all that well. More pushing and pulling, followed by much more cussing, and we got it about a third of the way in. This continued through several stages, several more cigarette breaks and possibly more Christmas cheer. Finely the tree popped the final three feet into the living room. It pretty much filled the whole room. But, heck, it was still on its side. It wouldn't take up that much room once it was set up. Would it?

I'd actually thought ahead enough to have gotten out the tree stand. This was one of those with three screws that you turn in to hold, and plumb, the tree while it sits in a pan of water. Simple. Well not so simple. It seems that the eight inch diameter of the tree trunk was a bit larger than the ring holding the set screws. Maybe more than a bit. It was never going to fit. Okay, I thought, we'll just make a stand. We set up some saw horses out back, grabbed power tools from the car and some scrap lumber and in a little while we had a plywood and two by four Christmas tree stand. Back into the house we went and, with some pretty big nails, we nailed the stand to the base of the tree. We were all set.

Ray and I positioned ourselves at the pointy end and together heaved the tree top up toward the ceiling. And stopped dead when we realized that the tree was taller than the ceiling was high. By what seemed like a lot. It was time to measure the ceiling height and the tree. The ceilings in this old house were 10 feet from the floor. The tree, it turned out, was a little more than that tall. Lets just say that after grabbing the hand saw out of the car and cutting for what seemed to be another very long time we had made the big tree shorter. How mush shorter? I gave Ray the cut off top and he and his wife used it for their Christmas tree that year. It didn't need to sit on a table.

We huffed and puffed and finely the tree was standing in my living room. As I said, the house was an old "I" house. One of the features of this style of building was that the living room, and the bedroom above it, were big. 16 by 16 big. The tree took up a third of the room! And it was against, that is touching, both walls of the corner of the room. It was gigantic.

When my wife got home there were exclamations of wonder, as in "I wonder what you clowns were smoking," wonder. But all was, in fact well. Over the next few days we decorated with lights and ornaments and the old style aluminum tinsel. Lots of lights. Lots of ornaments. Pounds of tinsel. When finished it was, truly, the perfect Christmas tree. But the story doesn't end there.

In the modern world of the 21st. century we have a wide selection of available types of holiday tree. For example, this year the Queen of the Frontier and I put up Frazier Fur Christmas tree that we cut from a friends tree farm. Cut, wrapped in that net stuff and in the bed of my pickup in 15 minutes. A beautiful 9 foot tall Christmas tree. They even drill the butt end to fit the spike on the bottom of the tree stand pan were you put the water. Oh ya, water for the tree.

The home made stand that Ray and I had cobbled together held the tree. Okay, it held the tree along with some wire that I had to run to both side walls to keep this monster from falling over. Luckily this was done before the decorations went on. What we didn't bother with was a way to give the tree water. We figured that since it was fresh it would last just fine. We were wrong!

Now, knowing what it took to get the tree into the house I was in no real hurry to take it back out. By mid-January things were starting to turn a little brown. So one Saturday we commenced to remove the decorations and the tinsel and the lights from the perfect Christmas tree. Several painful hours later the tree stood bare in all its greenish brown glory in the living room. Our hands and arms carried scores of little red spots where the now dry as a desert needles had poked. And we still needed to get it out of the house.

I'm somewhat ashamed to admit that yes, I used my Skil Saw to cut off all of the branches right there in the living room. When done nothing remained but the bare trunk of the tree, the knobby cut ends of the branches ringing around and around. And then, so that I wouldn't have to take off the damn door again, I cut the trunk in half and walked the pieces out with a quiet feeling of relief. At least the ordeal was over.

Except for the needles. We stayed in that house until 1975. I can say, without hesitation, that at least once a week for those three years someone in the living room would step on, sit on or in some other way get stabbed by a very sharp and very dry, pine needle. And somewhere there's a picture of your Curmudgeon wearing a suede leather jacket, backwards, some leather gloves and a fencing mask standing before that tree with a circular saw in my hands.

Have a very merry Christmas and a wonderful new year!

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