Commentary: My old man and the Christmas tree

The Miami HeraldDecember 24, 2010 

It was 1955 -- a cold, snowy day in West Virginia -- when my lifelong incompatibility with this peculiar, possibly pagan icon called the Christmas tree took root.

The year would become notable in history for a riotous reaction by concertgoers in Jacksonville after Elvis Presley uttered, "Girls, I'll see you backstage.'' (I've tried the same line over the years, but the effect seems to have been limited to '55.)

The McDonald's chain and the origins of our national obesity epidemic were launched in 1955. Velcro was invented. Bill Gates was born. I desperately coveted the year's hot new technological gadget -- a transistor radio featuring a single plastic earpiece and marketed as ``no bigger than a pack of Camels.'' Probably I wanted the Camels, too, figuring they conferred the cool allure of James Dean.

Dad drove a Packard, a two-tone yacht with -- if he had exercised a smidgen of good sense -- a trunk that could easily accommodate one of the nicely proportioned spruce trees peddled in town.

I'd like to think it was a purely nostalgic impulse that propelled my father away from town, on foot, into the freezing forest to find his own damn Christmas tree. Not really. He was a cantankerous cuss who sure as hell was not about to pay good money in town for what grew abundant and free in the woods on the far side of our mountain.

What his macho Christmas tree quest had to do with me, I don't know. Probably he imagined the expedition would impart a valuable life lesson in self-sufficiency to a puny 8-year-old devoid of his brawny, insanely stubborn DNA.

Turns out, it was less a life lesson than a harbinger of Christmas tree follies to come. My life has since become a plague of conifer catastrophes. Trees that listed like drunks. Tree stands that collapsed and flooded the room with brown sappy water the consistency of axle grease. Tree lights that buzzed and shorted and plunged the house into darkness. Tree ornaments devoured by dogs. Dogs who insisted on relieving themselves on Christmas tree boughs. A buzzed-out hippie visitor, circa 1969, who tumbled backward into the loving embrace of decorated limbs, falling into a well-lit heap of furry friend and firry tree.

That first tree disaster was set in motion when the father-and-son lumberjacks unwisely waited until afternoon to hike over the mountain crest into the snowy forest, armed with an ax and undue optimism. Symmetry, we discovered, was not a common characteristic among impoverished pines languishing in the shade of oaks and tulip poplars.

Yet we pushed on with our futile search, ignoring a darkening sky and increasing snow. Hours later, my father, defeated in his Ahab-like search for the perfect tree, improvised. He climbed a tall, forlorn pine and chopped off the upper eight feet.

By then, the snow was a furious flurry that obscured the path home and the way around the smelly gray gook along the edge of a not quite frozen ash pond, pumped there from a chemical plant over the mountain, oozing with what would be considered toxic waste by today's standards.

I blundered into thick gunk the consistency of thickening cement. When I lifted my feet the stuff sucked the rubber galoshes off my feet. I stood in wet socks, ankle deep in sludge, miles from home, forever bereft of Christmas tree nostalgia.

Yet the mad man soldiered on. Me on his back. Tree in tow. Daylight fading. Snow falling. We would have been lost in the forest except the only way home was up -- up the mountain.

Finally, like Arctic explorers back from oblivion, we emerged from the woods with a tree so lopsided and bedraggled my mother -- not the sentimental type -- banned it from the premises. That night, the defeated explorers cranked up the Packard and headed to town, tree shopping.

Fifty-five years later, the old tree trauma manifests itself in the form of an artificial evergreen purchased last year from Home Depot in a very big cardboard box. Too big, I discovered in the parking lot, to fit in my non-Packard-like car. Had to unpack the disassembled wire and plastic boughs and shove them and my dignity into the back and passenger seats, tree limbs brushing my head all the way home.

At least this artificial version, however unconvincing, didn't list, collapse or catch fire. Except this year, as I pulled the fake tree out of storage, several days passed by before I remembered just where I had stashed the top section.

An undecorated hat-racked half tree, like the aftermath of a chainsaw massacre, stood in my living room, looking uncomfortably like a ghostly manifestation of that ugly, unsymmetrical pine tree my father had climbed and decapitated so many Christmases ago.

The way the dogs keep looking at the tree this year, well, I've been around long enough to know what the two Grinchy curs have planned for that poor tree.

Probably they're just waiting for Christmas Eve.

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