Monday, November 30, 2009

The Christmas That Almost Didn't Happen

Things had slowed down considerably around 1970 in the Youngstown Area. A recession was well under way. My mother lost her job at a car dealership when they went out of business and my father was laid off from the food warehouse he worked at.

Of course, as a fourteen year old, I didn't pay too much attention to things. All I knew was that food was always plentiful in the house and I was enjoying the fact that both of my older sisters had moved out of the house and the entire upstairs now belonged to me. I guess my folks shielded me from the fact that we were broke and tough times lay ahead for our household.

Mom found another job as a Switchboard Operator at Cafaro Hospital. Dad was called back to work on and off for the remainder of the year. Things were improving. Dad even reinstated my two dollar a week allowance. I could continue blowing most of my money at Ben Franklin's Five and Ten Store buying Comic Books or at Isaly's Dairy Store, buying Skyscraper Ice Cream Cones, White House Vanilla, of course.

Right around Thanksgiving time, I asked Dad when we were going to get our Christmas Tree. I relished the Annual Rite of going to the local vacant lot on Youngstown-Poland Road with Dad to watch him barter for the fattest tree he could find.(Yep, right out of the "A Christmas Story" movie.) He always got a tree a foot too tall for our Rec Room ceiling and would have to whack off the base with his Carpenter Saw. Dad said since I was the only kid left at home and financially things weren't good, we were not going to get a Christmas tree this year. Ya could have knocked me over with a feather! I was devastated! As much as I whined and pleaded, the answer was NO! In Fourteen year old rage, I said I would get a Christmas Tree by myself! I think my father's reply was, "Knock yourself out!".

Our house was Party Central for my Mom's extended family of about twenty people at Christmas time. I couldn't fathom everyone gathered in our basement, passing out presents that were stacked on our Bar or piano and not under the tree. I had to come up with a plan to acquire a tree and defy my father. My mom of course, wouldn't get in the middle of this "Christmas Tree Feud", so transportation in the Family Car was out of the question. Then, The Light Bulb went off in my tiny, little head! Eureka!

Beside our house was a large, abandoned plant and tree nursery that belong to a neighbor several door down. This nursery was bigger than a football field with huge craters in it from bushes or trees being dug out and the empty hole not being filled in. Weeds and sapling now dominated it's rows. Around the perimeter were Blue Spruce Pine Trees, 25-30 feet tall. A tree hadn't been sold in that nursery as long as I could remember, so I figured what could it hurt to "Trim" one of those Blue spruces about seven feet from the top.

Next problem was no ladder. Dad's old wooden extension ladder weighed more than I did, so that was out of the question. I climbed many a tree in my youth, so I figured I could shinny up one of these with a good pair of gloves. Dad's cowhide work gloves did the trick, so up I went with his hacksaw hanging from the crook of my elbow, as I climbed. It must have taken me twenty minutes to lop the top off of that tree, while balancing on a swaying branch. The top fell to the ground and I slid most of the way down with sap covering any body part and clothing that came into contact with the tree. I dragged the tree to our back door through about six inches of snow. I made my Dad's mistake and miscalculated the height I needed. I grabbed the saw again and cut off about a foot. I pulled the tree down the basement steps, put it in it's stand, and placed it in it's proper Place of Honor in our Rec Room.

I spent the rest of the afternoon decorating the tree. What a chore alone! I got poked numerous times, reaching around the tree to string the lights. Blue Spruce Needles are pretty unforgiving. I added the Silver Traditional Icicles and even put the train set around the base of the tree. I liked the fact that since I was decorating the tree myself, I could put my favorite ornaments on any branch I wanted to. I finished just before my parents got home from work and waited in the front window in anticipation.

My folks came in the house and said hello. I gave them a few minutes in their normal routines after work, then asked them into the Living Room. I must have had the look of The Cheshire Cat as my Dad asked that all-too-familiar question," OK, What happened?" I told them I needed them to follow me down the Basement. "Geez, what the heck did you do now?", Dad asked. With no reply, I made sure I went down the steps ahead of them, so I could see the looks on their faces. It was a look of Wide-Eyed Wonder is all I could say. My Mom gasped, "Oh, My Stars...!", something only my Grand Mother used to say. Dad just said," What The...!" He would never admit it, but he definitely had a tear in his eye. Christmas would go on as usual.


  1. I remember when my sister and her boyfriend said they were going to get the family Christmas tree. He lived in Slickville and said there was so many in the woods, why pay for one. I tagged along for the adventure. I found out it was no fun trudging thru the woods with 6 -8 inches of snow and no decent tree in sight! He too climbed a tree and cut off the top. Then it seemed like forever to haul that tree out of the woods (this is PA woods - many hills and valleys). We never did that again!

  2. What a great story, Tom. Fortunately, we were never in that tight of a financial situation, although I certainly remember Christmases that had less "things". Thankfully, they still had all the great family love and fun in them.

    I was pretty impressed with your determination to make sure that your family had a tree. I don't know that I would have gone to the lengths that you did to make it happen. I'm sure that that Christmas ended up being one of the most special as a result of your efforts!

    I remember that we had a little mom and pop store in Seattle where we most often got our trees from, and we could usually pick one up for like $2.99 or $3.99. Funny how some of the traditions of the holidays are kind of what helps them to seem like the holidays.