Some Christmas trees are average beauty at best but not ours during Christmas ‘82: a majestic blue spruce pine, the queen of all Christmas memories.
Part One: A Discovery
Small-town New England ahead of winter offered months of cold-weather things to look forward to: skiing, sledding, afternoon pond hockey games down the road, shoveling the goddamn driveway, ice storms knocking down powerlines, frozen wells — all the wintertime stuff you can shove into around five months.
But that was still a couple of weeks away. It was Thanksgiving, and on that bright, cool afternoon, with a few hours to go before we sat down to a thankful feast, the old man goes, “Let’s get some air and give your mother a break while the turkey’s in the oven.”
The day was sunny and seasonal — somewhere in the 40s. My old man was emphysemic, so it was surprising that he wanted to go for a long walk and cross the highway into that broad, unmarked pasture where the break in the wall indicated a field road of some kind. This was right across the highway from Carmel’s Diner, which was closed for the holiday.
The honey-colored meadow grass was flattened here and there by bedded-down deer that the old man said he’d seen earlier in the season while hunting. Leaning down to touch the softness of the winter grass I could almost feel the warmth of the deer. “They were probably here this morning and moved on into the woods,” my dad said. We nodded: that’s probably what they did.
We continued on the overland field road toward the woods. Cardinals and blue jays flashed through the leafless boughs. There’d been some weather a few days before so patches of dusted snow lay in the more shadowy corners of the nearby woods where there was little sunlight. There was a comforting silence among the black pine and maples, broken only by our rhythmic steps and conversation. This logging road led somewhere eventually.
We continued along to where it thinned out and the honey-brown pasture grass started again. And there, in the long shadows of a Thanksgiving afternoon, a grove of pine trees stood majestically like gatherers at a grange hall.
“Are these Christmas trees?” my brother asked.
“Looks like it,” the old man said. “Those are blue spruce over there.”
Dads knew things about trees so I had no reason to doubt the variety; they certainly looked blueish in the fading light, and they were definitely pines.
“Do you think these were planted here?” I asked.
We looked around. We were about half mile from the highway. The pasture wasn’t farmed for anything and these woods had a mix of old and new growth, so whatever logging done here was probably over with. And so it was kind of strange: here, in the middle of this woodland clearing, amid this fragrant, shadowy forest, were pine trees. Christmas trees — several dozen of them. Blue spruces, Scotch Pines, cedar — all more than six feet tall.
“Let’s remember this place next month,” the old man said. “We’ll come back and cut one down for Christmas.”
Part Two: A Mission
One day in mid-December, as I was bringing in chopped wood for the fireplace, my father pulled me aside and said, “Remember that Christmas tree grove we found across the highway on Thanksgiving? Let’s you and your brother get out there on Friday after school to cut one down.”
My brother laid out the plan further. We’d huff out there with the old rail sled and the dog at around 3:30 pm (“It’ll still be light, and I like your idea about taking the sled. Just like that Budweiser commercial.”). We agreed that we’d cut down the tree, then sled-rail it out through the new accumulation snow, which was more than a foot in some places; our dog Llyr would tag along, because why not? We were country boys, and dogs are almost always down for vanilla conspiratorial adventures.
“And be sure to bring some change for the phone,” Jack called up to me. I pocketed a couple of quarters, remembering that there was a payphone outside of Carmel’s. With that, the plan was set and we bundled up beneath several wool and down layers, grabbed the sled, a hacksaw and the dog, and headed down the road.
“Just be careful,” our mother called after us.
It was cold but we made good time to the highway. By mid-December there had already been several notable snow storms, so the snowbanks along Route 9 were several feet high.
Reaching Carmel’s Diner, Jack said, “Go check that phone.”
I quickly dashed into the old phone booth and grabbed the handset. Yeah, there was a tone. I gave a quick thumbs-up and rejoined my brother and the dog on the edge of Route 9. We waited for a pause in the late afternoon traffic, then dashed across the highway and up over the tall snowbank where we plunged into the snowy pasture.
There were no tracks that could be interpreted as having been laid by people, which meant that, so far as we knew, no one else in town had similar plans to fell a tree from this mysterious grove. Jack said that whoever owned the property wouldn’t even notice the tree gone.
“They will in the spring when they see the stump,” I said, then gestured toward the west. “The sun’s getting low. We should pick up the pace a bit like the dog.”
Llyr, our middle-aged black-and-tan coon hound, had darted ahead, his wet nose picking up a scent trail of something. He had the right idea: move faster in the cold, stay warm.
The sun had dropped behind the treetops by the time we got to the grove. We scouted through the stately pines for 20 or so minutes and, like in a movie, there it was: a gorgeous, stately blue spruce — massive, commanding, beautiful.
“That one,” Jack said.
“It’s kinda big, isn’t it?” I said.
Jack nodded, then said, “Lemme have the saw.” He kneeled down and began to cut. After several minutes and a few breaks to catch his breath the spruce began to lean.
“You know what they do?” he said at length through hard breaths. “They hack off the tops of those trees and flatbed them down here from Canada. The tops! That’s why they’re so thin. Not like this sucker.”
When it finally fell, a great plume of snow powdered up into the frozen air.
“Jesus, how big is this damn thing?” I said.
We stood there for a moment studying the blue spruce. The trunk was much larger than any Christmas tree I’d seen before— at least 10 inches in diameter. We walked the length of it on either side up and back and figured it was at least 14 feet long.
We glanced back toward the logging road. It was much darker and the afterglow began to illumine the woods.
“That’s a big tree,” Jack said, leaning down to grip one of the thicker lower limbs. “Grab a side.”
What they don’t tell you at the tree lots is how heavy a mature blue spruce is. This thing must’ve weighed at least a hundred-fifty pounds, probably more. And the rail sled we thought we’d use to Norman Rockwell this thing out of the woods was useless; we dragged the remarkably large tree onto the sled and watch it disappear into the snow under the weight of it.
We decided to simply haul it out of here on its only limbs, each of us taking a side. I pulled the useless sled behind me, and Llyr more than kept up despite the knee-deep snow.
They also don’t tell you how heavy a couple hundred pounds is after a half mile in a foot of snow. We could see the logging road ahead of us; occasionally, distant car lights would barrel past on the night highway. The streetlight was the beacon we steered toward: Carmel’s Diner and the phone booth in the side parking lot.
When we reached the snowbank berm, I scrambled up over the top and ran across the highway and called home. My mother picked up and I told her that we’d gotten the most amazing one in the grove, that it was huge, and to please bring the truck ASAP because we were freezing our asses off, and the dog was, too. She said they’d be there in a few minutes.
When she and the old man pulled up, we wrangled the massive spruce over the snowbank and hauled it up into the back of the pickup and drove it back to the warm cabin on Poocham Road.
The old man backed the pickup down the driveway, and Jack and I worked at getting our winter guest out. When we finally stood it up next to the house, the old man said, “We’re gonna have to lob off at least two feet.”
Part 3: A Family Pets Guide to Christmas Trees
The majestic blue spruce was so fresh that the needles’ fragrance was as intoxicating as the finest perfume to be discovered gift-wrapped under the other trees in that town that year, I’m sure. The bright bouquet filled the room to a lovely, calming effect. And the tree was so large that the cats — all three of them — took turns climbing the thing. Thankfully, the living room had a cathedral ceiling of at least thirty feet at its peak; we later estimated that the tree was 12 feet by the time St. Nick paid a visit.
The thing is, it was fresh tree, not some sad dying thing bought at a town gas station. It never lost a needle in the two-plus weeks we had it up. And in that time, the cats made trips up and down the trunk — exploring the upper boughs and knocking off ornaments before being coaxed down with Friskies.
It was a fine, noble spruce — the likes of which we would never quite have again. We would go back to that grove a year later but it was agreed that we wouldn’t haul another out of the woods again; it was too big and, anyway, my mother concluded, “Those trees belong together out there in that grove.”
Part 4: A Changing Season
Years later the property would be sold to a company that put up a distribution warehouse right around the spot where the grove had been located. I drove out there one time on the paved road that ended at the huge sheet metal building and office space. The lot had been mostly leveled to accommodate a parking lot and turn-around for the freighter trucks that were coming and going at all hours.
The grove was gone. All the pine trees — the Christmas trees — maybe sold off for firewood or just mulched. But we were able to do something poetic, something decidedly nostalgic: we lived a moment in a much longer story that we could pass on to our kids: the early chapters are the important ones, because they include Christmas tree adventures in clandestine groves.