Tuesday, December 20, 2005


In Which We Speak of Layoffs and Lost Wieners...

"So you got fired?" my brother asked, as we jounced down a county road not far from our destination.

"No," my father answered. His answer was patient enough, but his voice carried a certain thread of strain to it. It was the voice of a man who didn't want to explain this any more than he had to. "It's like I told you last night at supper. You get fired when you don't do your job right. You get laid off when there's not enough for everyone to do. You can't pay people to stand around and do nothing. So they have to let you go. That's what laid off is."

My brother frowned, digesting this. I sat between them, the heater in the dash of my Dad's old blue GMC pick-up blowing hot in my face.

"Now, it's nothing bad," my father added, trying to anticipate our fears and worries. "In fact, it happens all the time. It happens every time. When you work in construction and you finish building something, what work is left to do? Nothing, right?"

We nodded.

"So, what happens?" he asked.

"Everyone gets laid off?" my brother ventured.

"Ayuh. That's right. The only thing different now is that I usually have another one lined up so I can jump from one job to the next. But no one is starting any new jobs until after New Year's," my father said, and now he frowned. That was really the crux of it. Ever since he graduated from college, he'd been working steadily. He had joined the local union and that had helped immensely in terms of job security.

But it was the early 1970s and there was just no new construction being done in New Hampshire, at least not the kind my father was qualified for, not the kind that paid the wages he needed to support a family. And so, for the first time in my memory--but not, by any means the last--my father was between jobs. As we would soon discover, when he was between jobs, he generally didn't know what to do with himself, which was a problem in all sorts of ways, not the least of which being how it affected his mood.

Meanwhile, my brother, being just a couple years older than I, made a connection that hadn't yet occurred to me. "You have to have a job to get money, right? So we won't have any more money til next year? How will we buy food?" My brother always had his eye on the priorities.

This actually made my father laugh and I breathed a sigh of relief. Even though he was trying to make it seem like it wasn't that big a deal, my father was agitated by the circumstances and we all knew it. My mother had pulled my brother and me aside separately over the previous week and told us not to rile each other or stir up trouble--it was a common speech around the beginning of the holidays, usually with the warning that misbehavior might induce Santa to put us down for the dreaded Lump of Coal. But this was the first time--and again, not the last time--I could remember getting the speech so that we wouldn't upset my father.

It was also the first time my mother had ever told us not to expect much Christmas.

"Now as long as you're good, I'm sure Santa will bring you what you deserve," she had said. "But we have to save our money til Daddy gets a new job, so we won't be giving each other a lot of junk and nonsense." She smiled and tried to make this sound a like a good thing, but she had that same strained thread in her voice, too.

"Trust me, Mistah Man, you are NEVER gonna miss a meal!" my father said, laughing. It wasn't like we were destitute, of course. My parents had a little money in the bank and my father had just signed up for unemployment benefits so there would be some cash on hand. And even if there wasn't, we'd never have starved. My parents planted such a large garden and canned so much food, we could have lived off the preserves alone til I finished high school. And of course, if we needed meat on the table, my father could always hunt, perhaps bag us a raccoon, as he had before.

Still, in ways I couldn't articulate back then, the whole situation was daunting, something was different. Up until then I had never given such thought to money. Now it--or rather its absence--was a problem. It was tight. We had to be careful with it. We had to find some creative ways to supplement it.

And thus we were on the road early this Saturday morning, heading north, with one stop to make, then heading into the country.

Even without cash, my parents had resources. The greatest of these was the 120 acres of timberland my father had purchased--in increments of 20 to 40 hard-earned dollars a month for years--from my grandparents. By the time I came along, my parents owned it outright, and the land would be valuable to us in so many ways in the years to come, not the least of which was as an asset for car loans and mortgages and other things I was too young to understand. But even at 5, I knew that the land had value because it was full of trees. My father had been cutting up the dead ones and selling them as firewood. Now that Christmas was approaching, he thought we could earn a little extra by selling Christmas trees. The land was certainly perfect for it. Quite aside from the dense forests of ash and maple and pine, the land was also filled with fields that held acre after acre of fir trees of every size and shape. Why, with just one load--my father figured we could tie down close to 30 or 40 trees in the back bed of the truck--we could make a few hundred dollars, which was more than enough to afford a nice Christmas in the 1970s.

The plan was simple, even fun, at first: Mom would pack us a lunch and while she stayed at home, we'd head for the hill, the boundary of which was about 90 minutes away from our current home, but only 100 yards away from the old family homestead, where my father grew up and where my grandfather had lived alone since my grandma died two years earlier. Papa had fallen into a steep decline since her death. No one saw him around town any more and he had turned down our invitation to come back home and stay with us over Christmas. He had even said he wouldn't join us up on the hill that day. "I'm getting too old to trudge around in ass-deep snow, hauling Christmas trees down a hill. But you can use the ol' Jeep to get up in there," he had told my father over the phone, referring to the jalopy my grandfather used to traverse the various old logging roads and tracks that criss-crossed much of the wilder areas that composed his farm. We could only take our truck so far up the hill anyway, so borrowing the Jeep was a great idea. We could lash as many trees as possible to it and bounce down the hill with impunity.

My grandfather promised to leave the keys in the Jeep. "We'll bring you down a tree," my father said by way of thanks.

"No need to be bothering with that," Papa had replied. "I got no more reason to celebrate Christmas."

As much as we would have liked my grandfather along, the rest of the day was shaping up nicely. We each got permission to bring a friend. My best pal Chris was coming while my brother's friend Zack (one of the few older kids who was actually nice to me) and his dad lived on the road we took to get to the hill, and they offered to come and help in exchange for their pick of the trees.

It all seemed very promising until Friday night. Chris's mom called with the news that he was sick in bed and couldn't go. I suspect my father was just as happy not to have two of us little guys to watch.

I was mopey, but to make up for it, my mom presented me with an early Christmas present, which she decided I'd need on the hill. Excited, I opened it.

And out fell the hat.

I was kind of fussy about my winter wear. I didn't like getting snow down my neck, so I was forever rearranging my hat and my scarf so as to provide maximum coverage. At one point, I told my mom what I really needed was a hat and scarf made together somehow. My mom had taken the challenge literally and made me a cap with the longest peak in the world, long enough to wrap around my neck like a scarf. Heck, long enough to wrap around someone else's neck too. It was the Rapunzel of hats.

I don't know what I was expecting in the way of a hat/scarf hybrid, but this looked like a fool's hat to me. "I have to wear this?" I asked, with all the tact of a five year-old. "It's so stripey and...dumb looking."

Of course, what I didn't realize--but I was hotly informed moments later--was that my mom had knitted the hat herself (as well as a matching set of mittens she was working on).

"Well, that's fine!" she said, snatching the hat out of my hands. "If you don't want it, fine. I'm sure I'll find some other child who needs a hat and scarf this winter and isn't picky!"

Even at 5, the buttons of guilt were already installed and I responded contritely. "I'll wear it!" I insisted. Although 5-year-old shit that I was, I couldn't even muster the faux grace to thank her. But that's okay, as I would spend many years wracked with guilt over the fact that one Christmas, when we were short on cash, my mom made me something she thought I wanted, and I pretty much threw it back in her face. See, Ma? Some gifts just keep on giving.

Anyway, I tried it on. It was huge. The brim slipped over my eyes and I was able to wrap the peak of it around my neck four or five times. My brother giggled and snorted and pointed at it whenever my mom wasn't around.

"What IS that?" he asked. "Is it a hat or a scarf? Let's call it a 'harf.' No, let's call it a 'scat'!" and then he laughed and laughed, because my dad was a hunter and we both knew "scat" was another word for, well, wild animal shit.

I had the hat, scarf, scat, whatever, jammed well down in the seat of the truck now, wedged against the large grocery bag that say between my father and me. The bag was our lunch, also made by Mom, and included Thermoses of cocoa and coffee, bags of chips and cookies and other goodies.

"Where are the sandwiches?" my brother had asked, inspecting the bag of food about 4 seconds after we were in the truck.

"Never mind," my father answered.

And now that were arriving at Zack's house, my brother had something new to take his mind off of food. With a brief warning not to discuss my father's job situation, we hopped out and greeted one another. A quick review of our assets made us realize it was best to have Zack and his dad follow us in their truck, rather than try to cram us all into one cab.

And thus this raggle-taggle, carnival of the half-assed continued on its way into hillier country, until finally we rounded a familiar bend that led up a hill and past an old farmhouse, My father tooted the horn as we rolled by, but we could see no sign of my grandfather--indeed, no signs of life at all through the gray windows. We pulled up off the road about 100 yards farther, into a snow-filled access road at the base of a steep hill. Our hill. Zack's dad's truck pulled in behind us.

We moved with admirable precision now as I gathered tools--a saw, an axe, gloves--from the back of the truck, leaving the chain saw and a can of gas for my father or Zack's dad to get. I also grabbed a small cooler from the back too, but my brother and Zack ended up commandeering this. My brother got a quick peek inside, giggled in a gleeful way, then abruptly closed the lid and sat on it so I couldn't see what was inside. Instead, he pulled something out of his pocket and threw it to me, "You left this in the truck!" he said, giggling. "Go on, put your scat on your head!"

And right then I thought, Someday, a technology will exist that will allow me to tell the whole world what a big fat turd you were to me when we were growing up and you won't be able to do anything about it. Well, maybe those weren't the exact words, but something close to it.

Meanwhile, my father trudged over to a snow-covered form just off to one side of the access road and kicked it. Snow showered down, revealing a black, beat-up Jeep cab whose rear had somehow been modified to carry an elongated wooden bed, much like a truck. My grandfather used this as his hauling sled for carrying trees out of the woods. It would be perfect for our plans. Having found the keys where my grandfather said they'd be (indeed, where they always were--in the ignition), my father had only to crank the motor a few times before the Jeep barked and roared to grumbling life.

We loaded everything into the back, then all five of us squeezed into the cab. My father put the Jeep in gear and we roared off up the hill.

Maybe the Jeep was just back-heavy and tilted a bit, but I thought we were pointing up at an awfully steep angle as we headed up the hill. I wasn't used to off-roading, so the heavy whap of every snow-covered branch startled me afresh. At last, about 15 minutes and perhaps two or three miles up into the woods of the hill, we came to a sort of clearing, but was really more like an open area. Because it sure wasn't cleared.

It was filled with hundreds of short and tall, snow-covered Christmas trees.

"Oh my," said Zack's dad, looking around. "We'd make a fortune if we had these trees down in Boston."

My father agreed. It was a huge field, had once been cleared pasture for the cows my family had kept. But now the forest was slowly reclaiming it. The 30 or so trees my father planned to take today would barely register as a dent in nature's progress.

It was decided that Zack, Zack's dad and my brother would work at one end of the field, where there were some particularly choice trees. Zack's dad could cut; my brother and Zack would drag the trees back to the Jeep. On the other side of the clearing and down the hill, my father had a seen a stand of taller, older pines. He wanted to thin them out somewhat--one or two had already died and fallen into their living brethren, Aside from offering us readymade firewood, my father felt that the very tops of a couple of the trees he wanted to cut were still green and vibrant enough that they could be lopped off and made to serve as Christmas trees themselves. My job, then, would be to stay out the way, yell "Timber!" when a tree came down, and haul away logs my father cut.

"But I want to work with them!" I whined, pointing to Zack and my brother. Even though they made fun of my hat, working with them was still more fun than working with my father who, you know, expected you to do actual work.

"I don't think so!" my father said, apparently reading my mind. "Three boys working together? Ain't you never heard the saying? When it comes to work, one boy is all boy. Two boys is half a boy. Three boys is no boy at all."

Zack's dad roared at this while Zack and my brother and I looked at each other. Resigned, I followed my father.

We worked for a goodish while, certainly most of the morning. I had hauled what seemed to me to be a lot of wood, but whenever I went back to the stand of trees, it seemed that my father had even more cut. I did not haul the firewood all the way back to the Jeep, by the way, but had stacked it neatly at a mid-point in the field, near a stone fence. My father said we'd haul what we could in the Jeep and what we couldn't would be fine to leave there. He'd let it season and come collect it next year.

The sun had no weight that day, so it was still mighty cold even when it was directly over us and my father shut off the chainsaw and decided it was time for lunch. We could hear Zack and his dad and my brother some distance away, the zsssh-zsssh-zsssh noise of the hand saw as Zack's dad worked, and the squealing and distinct sounds of goofing off. My brother and Zack had hauled about five trees across the field to the truck.

"Half a boy," my father muttered. He left me by the wood pile and went back to the Jeep, which he drove over to our side of the field. While I started loading wood on the elongated bed, my father cleared a spot in the snow some distance away, threw a few logs in the spot, splashed the merest of gasoline from the container onto the wood. Then he produced a match and lit the pile. In a few minutes, we had a merry little fire crackling and my father produced the cooler from the back. He opened it and inside were packages of hot dogs and buns.

"Your mother thought we might like a hot lunch, and by gorry I guess she were right" he said. "Go find us some sticks."

I moved with a will, stomach growling, urging me on. I found several good sticks that my father showed me how to peel the bark off of. Then he sharpened each stick with his pocket knife and I impaled hot dogs onto them.

My brother's food radar had gone off as soon as the cooler opened, so he arrived and took three hot dog sticks for himself, thrusting them into the fire eagerly. My father, Zack and his dad soon did the same, taking two each. I was little and never a huge eater, so the one hot dog left suited me fine.

Problem was, I must have picked a bad stick because just as the dog was looking well browned, there was a tiny crack and the end of the stick plopped into the fire.

There were no extra dogs. My brother, the greedy pig, had already eaten most of his three, so he just laughed and pointed at me.

"Haw! Haw!" he hooted. "What happened, kid? Lose yer wiener?" Then he and Zack looked at each other and giggled. "Burned his wiener off in the fire!" they cackled. Oh, this was the very zenith of humor for them.

My father gamely gave me the last bite of his hot dog, but I was famished from all my work in the cold and snow. I ended up supplementing with a pitiful makeshift lunch, pouring the bits out of the bottom of a near-empty potato chip bag onto my hot dog bun and eating that, silently wishing that somehow, kind women everywhere would know of my plight and make boo-boo faces and crush me to their ample bosoms and offer to make sandwiches and bake pie for me. In the event, I had to console myself with the cookies that were left, so I ate a couple of those and felt a little better.

We scuffed snow over the fire while Zack's dad and mine talked and shared pulls from a flask of brandy my father just happened to have on him. Working with a hand-saw Zack's dad had done pretty well. About 10 more trees and we'd have our limit. My father offered to switch, let him have the chain-saw for a while, but Zack's dad had never used one and figured he could use the exercise of the saw. So back he and the big boys went to their trees, while my father continued to saw fire wood and I laid as much as I could of it in the back of the Jeep.

But it was hard to do, I realized, because something was off. The back of the Jeep, with its extra-long wooden bed, always seemed to be dipping downward, but now one side of the back end was actually touching the snow.

I looked around the corner and saw why.

The back tire on that side was completely flat...


D'oh! That's not going to be fun to deal with...

And you poor thing, you didn't even get a hotdog :(
the sun had no weight that day- love it.

Poor MM, it's not easy being green is it?
Ugh, I actually groaned aloud at this one. I can't even imagine...

bless your wee heart for not getting a hot dog! I felt so bad!!
Patiently waiting for the turd to chime in here.
I was 12 when I wanted nothing more than one of those loooooong striped hats. They were 'in' then.
I feel your pain. My brother could a be a real prick some times when were kids. I'm sure I helped fuel the fire though.

Merry Christmas!
See, so many things I WANT to say, but am feeling all Chrismassy and stuff.

And also I know you sent me the tiny DVD player and the Netflix thing. See this is what he does people. He gives you really nice things out of nowhere--power rings and free cameras and suitcases full of great stuff (actualy did we ever see what was in the case?) and mp3 players and computer games that aren't even in stores yet.

And then he thinks that buys him the right to make fun of you when he thinks you aren't looking. You just wait and see.

So all I will say is: Mom still has that friggin hat. And I totaly forgot I called it a Scat.

Hehheh. I was a fat turd, but I was funny.

And I hadn't thought of Zack in years. Should give him a call.

Yr. BRother
silently wishing that somehow, kind women everywhere would know of my plight and make boo-boo faces and crush me to their ample bosoms and offer to make sandwiches and bake pie for me.

This line cracked me up! I busted out laughing at my new job, so they're all probably a little wary of me now.

Poor baby.
Cool story, MM. It always sucks to lose your weiner, though.
A more perfectly crafted title I doubt I'll ever find. Giggle.
Touché big bro, touché. I deserved that one for calling you a turd. I promise, the story of the locked case is coming. It takes time to make it MM worthy.
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