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An Engineer in the Woods, Installment 19: The Christmas Tree

Friday, December 21, 2018

Ever since my first Christmas we have had a tree that reached the ceiling.  Sometimes it has been a skinny tree, sometimes it’s a massive tree – but there have always been two basic requirements:
1. It must reach the ceiling (12 feet), and;
2. It must be a balsam.

This year’s tree was no exception.  For about two dozen Christmases, on the day after Thanksgiving we have gone to Tebo’s in the Jewel Foods parking lot at the corner of Caton Farm Road and Rte. 59.  We would pick-out two trees, an eight-footer for our house in Plainfield, and a twelve-footer for Mom and Dad, then just a an eight-footer for us and a twelve-footer for Mom, and now just a single twelve-foot tree for us now that we live in the “big” house.

This Year’s Tree
Kristen had to help me lift this one,
and we had to buy an extra string of lights…

One year (probably about 1999), when Mom and Dad were still picking out their own trees (usually the first weekend of December), they chose one that required three lumberjacks to lift it.  The three plaid-coated bearded body-builder types advised my two elderly parents that they should not tie the oversized timber to the top of Dad’s Lincoln, but that they would deliver it to them using their truck. On a Sunday afternoon the >200-pound tree was delivered and left in the driveway.  The delivery team offered to put the tree up, but Mom responded, “That’s okay, my son will take care of it.”  As I write this I have to remind myself that I loved my parents, I miss my parents, but WHAT THE #@@%&&*!!! WAS SHE THINKING!!!!!!

The following Monday evening, in the dark, in the bitter cold, during a snowstorm, with a dim flashlight, I looked at the 6½” diameter balsam trunk, and the 4 ½” diameter 1950’s era paper-thin metal tree stand that had served us well for my entire life.  My blood boiled silently.
Kristen held the end of my 25’ Stanley tape measure to the end of the trunk while I stretched it to the top of the tree, 12’-3”.  I collected an ancient 24” bow saw from the garage and for ten minutes I feverishly rubbed the dull rusty blade over the trunk until the tree was finally macerated to the point that it was 3” shorter.  I smeared the frozen sweatsickles and snotsickles from the tip of my nose onto the sleeve of my coat.  Although my extremities were becoming frostbitten, my blood temperature was now exceeding the boiling point, and Kristen’s and my silence was deafening in the icy cold darkness.  

“Do you still need me, or can I go inside?” my shivering wife asked.
“Get warm, I need to get a draw knife from the workshop.”

I found the tool quickly and twenty minutes later the bottom 5” of the 6½” diameter tree was reduced to a uniform 4 ½” diameter.  My hair had become a cap of frozen sweat and snow, and my ski coat was soaked from the inside out, but the stand fit snuggly over the whittled trunk and the woodworking portion of my job was complete. 

I went to college for a long time, but I’m really not very smart.  I estimated the center of gravity of the giant balsam, plunged my hands through the branches and under the trunk, bent my knees, and lifted thinking I could move the tree to the house.  Like an Olympic weight-lifter I grunted and brought the tree to thigh height where I cradled it, but it was too heavy for me to shuffle my feet and move it even an inch closer to its future home, so I dropped it and went inside to get assistance. With me at the trunk end with the stand, Dad in the middle and Kristen at the top we were able to maneuver the behemoth around the front of the house to the side patio, through the dining room sliding door, and into the living room.  We then stood the tree up, adjusted it for plumb, and I climbed the ten-foot fiberglass ladder (a gift to my dad from my younger sister and her husband that we still have as it stayed with the house).  I wired the top of the tree to a nail that I hammered into the main ridge beam.  The tree was a little wobbly, but the wire helped keep it erect.

A few nights later my sister Helen with husband Brian and their children along with Kristen, me and our kids enjoyed an evening of decorating the tree together with Mom and Dad.  Beautiful ornaments that I had carefully crafted as a child were placed on the best branches where they could be viewed and enjoyed by all.  Most of Helen’s pitiful efforts were left at the bottom of ancient cardboard boxes with old graying pine needles, shreds of tinsel and petrified mouse droppings.  The few that were placed on the tree were hung at the back on the lowest branches where they would remain obscured, thus sparing her the embarrassment of criticism of her inferior work. (obviously an inside joke among rival siblings – I miss decorating the tree with my little sis…)

The following Saturday, Kristen and I went to a client’s Christmas party and we left the kids with Gram and Gramps Hamilton.  We returned a few hours later to a scene from a disaster movie.  Here’s the story as well as I have been able to piece it together.

Grams, Gramps and my daughters Aileen and Sean with son Ricky (probably about 7, 4 and 3 at the time) had finished dinner.  While the kids played, Grams and Gramps cleaned-up and enjoyed their favorite evening cocktail of Beefeater’s Gin on the rocks with an olive and a twist.  Grandma then selected a family Christmas story book and she and the 3 kids snuggled around a leather arm chair near the base of the beautifully adorned, tinsel laden Christmas tree.  Aileen was facing the tree and she was the first to see it begin to topple.  Survival mode kicked-in and she pushed Ricky clear and rolled away as a crash of shattering ornaments and snapping branches narrowly missed Grandma and enveloped Sean whose back was to the tree.  Sean recalls that she was trapped, couldn’t move and was beginning to panic.  Grandpa couldn’t lift the tree, Aileen was frantically digging through branches and shards of ornaments to reach her crying sister and Grandma was comforting a traumatized Ricky.  By the time we got to the house the kids were asleep in bed, and some of the broken ornaments had been collected.  I was going to have to rebuild the crumpled tree stand and find a bigger nail and heftier wire to mount to the beam.  Eventually we purchased a larger and sturdier tree stand that we still use.

In 2016, several years after Dad had graduated to heaven and a year after my mother’s passing, my nephew Robbie hosted Christmas Eve at his home.  There was a competition for the best cocktail honoring my parents.  Sean (then 21) won with this recipe:

Sean’s Christmas Nightmare
- Too much gin, on the rocks
- One balsam sprig
- Three olives, one crushed under the balsam
- Shaken (not stirred)

My children make me proud in so many unexpected ways!

Merry Christmas!