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Oh, Christmas Tree


Bob Schackner

O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum Wie treu sind deine Blätter O Tannenbaum, O
Tannenbaum Wie treu sind deine Blätter Du grünst nicht nur zur Sommerzeit Nein
auch im Winter wenn es schneit O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum Wie treu sind
deine Blätter

When I was a kid growing up in the Bronx, it was a family tradition that we always bought a live Christmas tree. The thought of an artificial tree with it’s pipe cleaner-like needles would surely send Kris Kringle hurtling right past my house,
with no clear intentions of stopping. No sir, my sister and I were taking no chances.

Of course you must realize that when you live in an inner city, the chore of obtaining a live Christmas is fairly easy. My big sister and I (she’s nine years older, but I’m the one who looks like I’ve got more mileage) would venture out about ten days before the big day with a compilation of dimes, nickels, quarters and a dollar bill or two. We would walk down the three flights of stairs to the ground floor of our apartment building, shuffle along seventy-five feet of narrow hallway, and out the narrow door and into the street. From there it was a mere three blocks away to Pasquale’s Christmas Trees and Wreaths. Nobody knew where Pasquale came from. Nobody knew where Pasquale lived. He’d just show up every year about a week after Thanksgiving and go away at ten PM on Christmas Eve. But while he was there, on a vacant lot on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, he sold the best Christmas trees in the world.

Pasquale never displayed prices on his trees. Whenever you picked out a tree you liked, you simply went over to Pasquale and asked how much the tree cost. He’d turn, his gray hair just peeking out from his frayed wool cap and then he’d begin to rub his chin (with its two day-old stubble). "You wanna deessa tree, here?" He’d begin in his heavy-accented English. "Deessa tree?" He’d point with his crooked index finger poking out of the hole in his matching wool glove. My sister and I would nod in wide-eyed wonder, trying to suppress the excitement of another Christmas so close. Pasquale would then smile a squirlish grin and repeat, "You wanna deessa tree? Deessa no good tree. I gotta betta tree." And we’d follow Pasquale a row or two over and sure enough, he’d find the right tree for us. Carol, my sister would speak up, "Okay, we’ll take this tree."

The ritual would begin all over again. "You wanna deessa tree?"

In unison, Carol and I would nod our heads. "How much?"

Without fail, Pasquale would say the same thing every year. "How mucha you

Carol and I would then slip out all of our hard-earned money (some of it subsidized by Mom) and begin counting it out. We’d always come up with about four bucks, some change and some coat lint. Of course, in retrospect why we never counted the money before we left the house is a mystery that will probably never be solved. And the magical part of this was that no matter how much money we managed to scrape up and offer to Pasquale, it was always the correct amount. "Perfecto! Datsa justa how mucha deessa tree costa." And away we’d go, our evergreen in tow. I can still recall with fondness all the huffing and puffing it took to get that tree through the narrow apartment entrance door, down the seventy-five feet through the narrow hallway, and up the three flights to our apartment. But it was all worth it. Then, somewhere along the way, I grew up. There seemed to be no more time for real Christmas trees. Artificial trees were made better, they looked like real trees and there was little fuss in putting them up and taking them down. My wife and kids always accepted them, although every year I still felt a pang of sorrow for not having a real tree. I missed the smell of fresh pine and the beauty of nature’s own creation.

That is, until I moved to Connecticut where Christmas tree farms are in as much abundance as Internet web sites. And the for first Christmas we spent in our new home here in Connecticut, I made a decision that we were going to have a live tree in our house. No more plastic for me, so sir-ee-Bob. So we started going to Christmas tree farms and cutting our own trees. Let me give you an idea of how that process went the second year we decided to get a live tree.

About a week before Christmas, I said to my wife, "Hey, why don’t we go up to Massachusetts to buy a Christmas tree?" My wife bowed her head slightly and looked out over the top of her glasses – the way Mrs. Beattie, my eighth grade history teacher looked at me when she knew I blew an assignment. "I’m sorry, did you say you wanted to get a live Christmas tree?" Some sarcasm here. "As in getting in the car with our lovely children, driving to Massachusetts and cutting down our own tree? Have you suffered an embolism? Has your memory been impaired since last year’s ‘Great Christmas Tree Adventure?’" I looked back at her, clearly not having any idea to what she was referring. "What?"

Oh, she was ready. I’m sure she rehearsed this conversation in her mind ever since last December. "Excuuuse me, but have you forgotten the fight we had over which tree we were going to cut down, the seven stitches in your cheek and the ticket you got from the state trooper after the tree fell off our car and caused an accident between a septic tank truck and a Pizza Barn delivery van? If I recall, you were the one who told the two guys who wanted to tie the tree to our car, ‘No that’s okay boys, I’ll tie this puppy up! I was a Boy Scout don’t-you-know.’ And of course there was round two of that fight that continued on the way home from the hospital. I’m sure some of those nasty things you said to me are still lingering somewhere in the frozen atmosphere above Granville."

I replied softly, "Never mind."

The next morning, we piled the kids in the car and drove up to Granville,
Massachusetts. It had snowed during the night, roughly about eight inches. The kids were excited, I was excited, and my wife was taking inventory of the first-aid kit. We pulled into the Christmas tree farm and I drove up to the farmhouse to see the owner. He came out of the house, dressed in a thermal underwear shirt covered by overalls. His snow boots made a crunching sound in the snow as he approached us. "I see you bought a four-wheel-drive vehicle. That’s good for you." I thanked him and asked why he seemed so interested in my four-wheel-drive Explorer.

He started to chuckle, which was rapidly replaced by a deep hacking cough. At no time did the butt of the cigarette ever leave his lips. "Cause you’re gonna need it to get to where the remaining uncut trees are." He pointed up to a ridge probably no higher than Pike’s Peak.

"Swell," I said with more sarcasm than the poor guy deserved. "Lemme have one of your famous bow saws so I can go up the mountain and retrieve this year’s prize." Now for those of you who have never laid eyes on a bow saw, permit me to explain what it is. A bow saw is a saw that is in the shape of a bow (bow and arrow type bow). It has very sharp teeth and cuts through a tree like a hot knife through butter. Of course, that’s the way it’s supposed to work anyway. After 40+ years on this earth, I’ve learned the difference between what is and what should be.

Anyway, back to the story. My new-found friend began to search his cache of bow saws, shifting the ½ inch cigarette butt from one side of his mouth to the other, smoke curling up into his eyes. His eyes were half-closed, the smoke no doubt causing a great stinging sensation in both of his occipital orbs. He reached into a brown, rusted-out 55-gallon fuel-oil drum and began to toss bow saws over his shoulder. It was then that I began to dodge those same bow saws for fear of getting some extremity amputated. Of course, the saws would have had to have been sharp in order to create any real damage (please refer to previous paragraph). "Junk." A saw came flying over his right shoulder. "Dull as my ex-brother-in-law." A saw came flying over his left shoulder. "Wouldn’t cut my wife’s mashed potatoes." Whoosh, over the right shoulder. Finally, he pulled out a saw and with a triumphant grin coupled with a long coughing spasm declared, "Here is your saw, my friend."

I looked into his nicotine-stained eyes and accepted the saw with some reluctance. I kicked myself mentally for not buying my own bow saw. Of course when you live in a condo, there’s not a whole lot of call for that kind of tool. Jackhammers I have, bow saws – none. I rounded up the kids who by now were having a snowball fight and urged them toward the Explorer. We all climbed in and as I drove toward what once was a road back in August, I heard the old man say, in between hacks, "If you’re not back by sundown, I’ll call the ranger station in Hattahoochee."

"Swell." I looked back over my shoulder one more time, hoping to get a final glimpse of what civilization looked like. I stole a glance toward my wife who pulled her glasses down toward the bottom of her nose. She began to peer over the top of her glasses, but before she could utter a single word, I put my hand up and declared everything would be fine. This year would be different from all the others. This year we would revel in the spirit of Christmas, yadda, yadda, yadda. I slipped the Explorer into 4-wheel-drive and we started up the hill. My wife removed the first-aid kit from under her seat.

As we climbed the steep escarpment, I saw groups of trees that looked quite appealing to me. My wife saw things somewhat differently than I. "Too small. Too big. Too wide. Too skinny." So on we pushed. I imagined myself at the helm of a dogsled, transversing the pristine Alaskan countryside, a late entry into the world-famous Iditarod. My trusty dog team lead by Mike – my faithful old friend of a dog. I imagined facing all sorts of perils such as near-collapsing snow-bridges, wild bear, and the threat of an avalanche at any given moment. I then heard this distant voice calling to me and someone pulling on my parka. "Hey, Nanook. We’re here." I looked over at my wife who was saying she found the spot she wanted. I stopped the car and we all climbed out, full of high hopes. It was a good thing my wife found the spot she wanted, because we ran out of road. Literally. We had arrived at the final stop on the tour. I looked around and the first thing I noticed after I realized that the only tracks in the snow were ours, was the quiet. It was so wonderfully silent. Except for the snowball fight that picked up where it had left off.

I immediately took charge as I turned to my wife and said, "Where shall we go, Dear?"

"Oh, let’s head that way." Off she went with the rest of us following obediently.

After about forty-five minutes, my wife settled on a group of three trees. Among the choices were a Blue Spruce, a Canadian Pine, and a Fudster Alsation (you may realize by now that I don’t know anything about trees). My wife shifted from one foot to the other. "Hmmm." That wasn’t good. The only thing I could hope for was that she would make up her mind before asking… "What do you think?" she asked. Too late, I was brought into this arena like an unwilling Christian being dragged, kicking and screaming into the Coliseum 2000 years ago. At least the Christian knew how his day was going to end. "I like the spruce," I piped up. Mostly because it was the smallest and easiest to carry. I looked for my two kids who were still engaged in a Death Match Snowball Fight. No help there.

"Hmmm." Shift back to the other foot. Tilt head slightly to one side. "Okay, I’ve made up my mind. We’ll take the Alsation."

This was good. A new record in making up our mind. I was living high now. I turned to pick up the bow saw. It was nowhere to be found. I peered over at my wife, still leaning on one foot, one hand on her hip. Afraid I already knew what the answer might be, I asked reluctantly, "Have you seen the bow saw?"

Shift back over to the other foot. Place other hand on the other hip. "Ahuh. It’s in the car."

I walked the two miles back to the car and returned with the bow saw in short order. I then walked down the hill toward the tree (my wife never picks a tree that can be dragged down the mountain. The best trees grow at the base of the mountain and can only be hauled up the mountain. Sorry if I’m whining). I knelt down and realized there was too much snow at the base of the tree and I wouldn’t be able to get the saw under the branches to cut the trunk. I looked at my wife full of hope and said, "You brought the shovel, right?"

A clicking noise emanated from her mouth followed by, "Duh! Of course I brought the shovel."

I swung my head back and forth, scanning the countryside like a lighthouse during a nor’ easter. I didn’t see the shovel. "Sorry, I don’t see the shovel," I said cautiously. "It’s in the car, Silly," came the reply.

I walked the two miles back to the car and returned with the shovel in short order. I pulled the soft, billowy snow away from the base of the tree. I lowered myself down and scooted under the lower branches. I began to saw through the piney base and my expectations were confirmed. My friend had selected a saw, which, on a good day might have cut through margarine in a tub and still leave jagged edges. After about forty-minutes of cutting, sawing and cursing, the tree was nearly cut through. I asked my wife to reach in to steady the tree with her hands but to be careful not to…

"Okay Dear, I got it." She reached in, shook the tree and all of the snow that had settled on the inner branches during the night made their way down length the tree. I heard the rush of snow from the very top of the tree. And in the far reaches of my mind I thought I also heard, "Run for you lives, it’s an avalanche…" The snow came down in powdered form, running all over my face and migrating its way into my shirt and well into my long-johns. The shock from the cold made me sit bolt upright. Remember now, gentle reader, I was lying under a tree. A Christmas tree. With very low branches. In my feeble attempt at sitting bolt upright, a large, thick branch thought, "You will not sit bolt upright." The branch was right.

Without moving out from under the tree, I asked my wife, "Ah, where’s the first-aid kit?"

"It’s in the car. Why?"

I scooted out from under the tree and said, "Never mind. I’ll be right back."

I walked the two miles back to the car and returned with the first-aid kit in short

As it turned out, later on we found out the cut above my eye wasn’t as bad as it originally looked. And there really was no concussion. After cauterizing the wound and attaching a snow-pack wrapped in a cravat around my head (to keep the swelling down), I scooted back under the tree and continued my labor. My wife asked, "Is there anything I can do?"

I considered asking for a burial at sea and thought twice about it. "Yeah, I’m almost done. Get the kids so we can tie this tree and drag it up the mountainside."


Eventually, I managed to saw through the pine’s sticky trunk. The tree fell without ceremony, a victim of tradition. Much like me.

My wife returned without the kids. She shook her head and said, "They’re having a snowball fight. I thought since they were getting along so well, I’d leave them alone."

Swell. "Okay, can I have the rope to tie this baby up?"

She shrugged her shoulders and said matter-of-factly, "It’s in the car."

I walked the two miles back to the car and returned with the rope in short order. I carefully tied one end of the rope to the tree and the other end around me. Feeling like the lead sled dog, I pulled and cajoled the tree up the mountain. After the chest pains subsided somewhat, I then lifted our trophy onto the roof of the car and secured it. We gathered up the children and began our trek back down the mountain.

I returned the bow saw and paid the man for the tree. Don’t be looking for any other misadventures here, dear, gentle reader. There are no more. As we drove home, the sun slowly setting, the shadows on the road becoming longer, the sky turning reddish-brown behind sliver clouds, and my long johns still soaking wet, I couldn’t help but think about next year. Perhaps I’d spend the month of December with my sister decorating her artificial tree – in Florida.

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