Thursday, December 22, 2005


In Which We Succeed By Letting Things Slide...

A few feet away from me, from the Jeep--the Jeep with a flat-tire and us two or more miles up in the middle of some forested nowhere--I could see my father sawing away, oblivious to the latest crisis. I yelled and waved, but then he turned his back to me. Even at 5 I knew better than to come up behind him while he had a running chain saw in his hands, so I picked up a small chunk of wood and lobbed it. It must have been heavier than I thought, or maybe it was so cold out it just hurt more, but it pinged him in the ear. In a flash the saw was off and he whirled at me angrily.

"You throwing rocks again, you little shit?" he yelled. Granted, my father had more reason than most to be mad at me when it came to having objects hitting him, seeing has how I had once smacked him in the balls with a rock during a little impromptu science experiment. I knew he could be gruff, but this was short-tempered even for him.

"But, but there's something wrong--" I said, teeth suddenly chattering.

He clambered over a stump and set the saw down. His ears were still ringing from the noise of it. "What?" he shouted.

I just pointed at the Jeep. That's when my dad saw the back end almost entirely in a snow bank. "Oh, shit," he exhaled.

It was just a stripped-down Jeep chassis with wood nailed on the back, so there weren't exactly a lot of nooks and crannies on it. In seconds it became obvious to my father that there was no spare tire attached. Growing up, his family had dozens of slapped-together vehicles like this--you can still find their rusting hulks up on the hill today, left to rot where they broke down because it wasn't worth finding the spare part to fix it. A spare tire for a Jeep would be easier to get compared to some of the items often needed to repair these old road warriors, but it didn’t help us in our current situation. The fire wood was fine. We could stack it and leave it all winter. But hauling 30 trees through three miles of forest was something else. It's one thing to haul wood out of a forest when you don't care what it looks like. But even if we had managed to drag so many tree down hills, over rocks and such...well, they sure wouldn't look like something you wanted to display in your living room when we got to the bottom. And there was no bringing either truck up here, not in the winter.

My father began swearing a blue streak, throwing logs hither and thither. One came very close to hitting me square in the head. I crouched down and pulled nervously on my silly scarf hat, waiting for my father's temper flare-up to pass like one might wait for a storm to blow over. He didn't even seem to know I was there. I wanted to leave, walk off and leave him alone to vent his rage, but behind me was all woods and to get to where my brother and his friend and his friend's dad were, I'd have had to go right past my father and I didn't feel I could do that. Something told me I didn't want to get within arm's reach of him. So I was stuck there. Freezing, I might add. When you're not doing anything, when the fire's out, when you haven't had much lunch because your wiener fell off and you're all alone with your father, who’s yelling loud enough to cause snow to fall from the boughs of nearby trees, well, it feels very cold indeed.

"Dad?" I finally ventured. "Can we--?"

"CAN WE WHAT?" he whirled, roaring at me.

It was very quiet all of a sudden, there in the forest.

And I honestly don't remember what I was going to ask him. Because in the next moment that awful silence was filled by a voice calling out clearly and sharply from woods nearby.

The voice was calling my father.

Calling him by his first, middle, and last name.

It sounded familiar to me. Sounded just like how my mom would say my name if I was in trouble.

The effect on my father was galvanic. He slumped a little and turned in the direction of the voice. "I'm right here," he said in a voice that was the exact opposite of his shouty voice.

"I guess half of Sullivan County knows where you are, Mistah Man," said the voice from the forest. Branches shook, snow fell, and my grandfather stepped from the woods.

My grandfather was a tall man anyway--standing well above six feet. But that day he positively seemed to tower over us, looking down on my father, who wouldn't meet his gaze. "You memba what happened when you yelled at the oxen?" he said in that same clear, sharp voice.

My father, still slumped, nodded. I had never seen him behave this way before (and never would again). He was subdued.

Papa looked at me. He had grown worn and haggard in the two years since my grandmother died, but he brightened just a little when his eyes fell on me, crouched in the snow in my silly hat. He gave me the quickest of winks, then turned his attention back to my father. "I shouldn't think hollering at my Jeep will have any more effect than it did on them oxen."

While my father followed him silently, my grandfather looked the back end of the Jeep over, ran his index finger over his top lip, thinking. "Got no spare for it neither, and she's too far to walk."

Finally he pointed his grizzled chin up in a direction more or less over my shoulder. "What about the old road?" he asked.

"Ain't even a road no more," my father said. "The water will have--" he paused, and now he did look up into my grandfather's eyes.

"Ayuh," Papa said nodding.

"There's a road in the woods?" I asked.

As I mentioned before, I don't have a lot of memories on which to form an impression of my grandfather (this moment being one of the very last), but I knew this: he always suffered me and my brother to interrupt him. And if we asked him a question, he always talked to us like adults.

"Yessir, there is, or used to be. Once it were the King's Highway and it run from Hanover to Manchester and well beyond that. I used to walk on it with my grandfather and back then it was a road you drove on with a car or a cart. But it flooded out ages ago. Just a brook now. Cept in the winter. When she freezes over."

By now, my brother and Zack and his dad came over to learn what was going on. My brother gave Papa a crushing hug. "I thought you weren't coming with us!" he said.

"I wasn't. Just gone for a walk. Heard some noise, thought I'd come see what's doing," he said, giving my father the barest of looks, then introducing himself to Zack and his dad, who apologized for stranding the Jeep.

"Oh, hell!" Papa said dismissively. "Won't hurt it none. Just a flat tire. But it'll get dark soon and be a shame to leave your trees up here."

And then he explained his idea. I don't remember their exact words, of course. As I've said before, when you're a kid you get the gist more than the actual vocabulary. But Papa proposed we wrap the trees in bundles of five or six, taking scrap boughs or scrub trees and putting them on the bottom to protect the other trees and to act as runners, like on a sled. And slide them we would, down the frozen brook. Which ran all the way to the bottom of the hill.

My grandfather didn't stock that Jeep chassis with much, but one thing he did have under one of the seats was a length of clothesline, which we would have used to secure the trees to the truck bed. Instead, he cut up the rope and made the first bundle. He laid two lengths of rope on the ground, then put some sticks and pieces of scrap wood across the rope. He ran a couple of knots through this wood so that it formed the bottom of a makeshift sled, on which we stacked five or so trees. While we boys pressed down on the trees, my grandfather and my father cinched the rope tight around the bundle. Together they carried it the hundred or so yards into the woods behind me. There was small rut in the woods, mostly covered with snow, that led to a larger path that finally led to what was essentially an ice-filled ditch, about 10 feet across. Hard to imagine this had ever been a road, and almost as hard to imagine that, in the spring, this was the prettiest babbling brook you ever saw. After a month of freezing temperatures, it was solid ice with only the occasional rock jutting out. With a heave, Papa and my father tossed the bundle onto the ice and gravity did the rest. It shot downhill--at about the speed of your average sled on a sledding hill--until it came to a bend, then got stuck.

And that's how we moved 30 Christmas trees through three miles of forest. We ended up with about seven bundles of trees, and I honestly don't remember how we got the chain-saw and other equipment back down. But I do remember my Papa sitting me on the top of one of the bundles and looping a length of rope around it, then putting the rope in my hand so I could steer the thing like a sled.

"That there is some hat you got on," he remarked as I straddled the bundle. I thought he was joshing me, but now I see he was sincere. "Ain't that cunning, a scarf and a hat in one. Mum make that for ya?" I nodded. He nodded back. "Sandwiches taste better when someone makes 'em for you. And I think mittens and hats and are warmer when someone makes 'em for you too," he said, rubbing the one on his own head. His was a sensible black cap, not like my circus freakshow hat, and I knew without being told that Grandma had made it for him.

But before I could say anything, Papa yelled "Off ye go!" then gave me a mighty shove. And it was just like a sled run. Two bundles ahead of me was my father, using his feet and a stick to more or less keep his bundles straight on the ice. I came up behind him fast and bumped him, which caused all three of our bundles to slide along even faster. When he hit rocks or bends in the brook, my father would kick out with a foot or reach out with the stick and get us back into the middle of the icy runway. It was a crazy, scary, semi-dangerous, but ultimately wonderful sled ride. In time, it became one of the great stories of my family: The Time We Slid Our Christmas Trees Down the Brook.

It was dark when we got to the bottom. There, the brook ended in a culvert by the road, just a quarter-mile from where the trucks were parked. And it must have been freezing. At that age, I should have been scared of the dark. I should have been crying from the cold or from sheer hunger. I should remember some level of discomfort from that unexpected journey, at least as much as I remember being scared by my father's tirade.

But I don't. All I remember is how quickly it all happened. How it went from pretty bad to pretty good to pretty fun.

It must have been late by the time we got the trucks loaded. I do seem to recall that only a few trees--the ones on the very outside of the bundles--suffered any damage at all (which really wasn't mich). My grandfather might have taken a few of those--I seem to recall he decided to have one for himself after all, and some to sell or give away. But I don't really remember. It's funny how some details stick with you and some don't. I know we sold all our Christmas trees and made a little money to tide us over and had a nice Christmas and my father got another job in the new year just as he said he would, but I don't remember the details of the rest of that Christmas season, when money was tight.

On that night, when it was time to leave, I'm sure I said goodbye to my grandfather, but once again my memory lets me down, because when I think of this story, the last time I see him in my head is just after he pushed me. He stood at the edge of the frozen brook, wearing his old XXL L.L. Bean wool hunting jacket, his hand-knit cap back high on his old head. He's smiling a sad, old smile, and waving to me as I slid away from him, faster and faster and faster still.

Papa died just a couple of months later, a few weeks into the new year. Massive coronary in the kitchen of the old house. He never felt a thing, just fell to the floor, ending his life 12 feet from the living room, where he'd been born.

I don't remember anything about the funeral services either. All I remember is that last glimpse of a man standing at the end of a road, a road that had become deep and black and icy in his lifetime. And while it was a road he no longer cared to travel on, he had been willing, at the last, to meet his last grandson on that road, and to have a kind word for him just before giving him one mighty push and sending him on his way.

In the end, I guess my memory is no better than anyone else's. In some ways, it's probably a lot like that silly hat: Some homemade thing that sits on our heads, that embraces and occasionally engulfs us, at times seeming so colorful and obvious we don't know whether to be fascinated or embarrassed by it. Over time, colors fade and threads come loose. It becomes patchy in places--if it's old enough, we'll see outright holes worn through it in some spots, while in other spots it looks as fine and new and bright as the day it was made.

But even though it's old, and no longer fits like it once did, we can still take it out as the mood strikes us, slip it over our heads once again, just to see how it fits. And to marvel at the warmth it still holds.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

(L'il epilogue about that hat>>)

Cool story, MM. I never really knew either one of my grandfathers, unfortunately. It's nice you have some good memories of yours to share...and quite the ingenious idea on his part to move those trees downhill.
Man, you almost made me cry. Quite a feat.

Well done.
It sure is hard to type through teary eyes. What a wonderful Christmas memory. Thank you very much for sharing it with all of us.
Very sweet.

I especially like the part where you got to see your father turn into a little boy being reprimanded.

Don't kid yourself - you have a memory like a steel trap. I can't remember what I had for lunch yesterday, nevermind an event when I was 5!
Great tale MM.

I never knew my grandfathers. My paternal one died in '56. My maternal one died in '61, a few months before I was born.

I don't subscribe to it but every once in a while I am at a loss to explain it away coherently; the notion that the souls of the recently dead pass along to the next born.

My mom believes in it pretty strongly and I think its because she adored her father and I was what she had to hold on to as an immigrant in a strange new country.

But whatever the case, my one grandfather, my father's father, was a railroad engineer.

My mother's father was a writer.

Merry Christmas old boy.

Your pal the Caustic Bunny.
Great story MM. Brought tears to my eyes. I am so impressed with your memeory. Thank you for sharing this bittersweet memory.
Sweet story. =)
What a wonderful story, MM, and what a wonderful's quite endearing and shows part of the little boy you once were. What an expressive face. :)

Merry, Merry Christmas, MM.
Lovely story. Thanks.
What a beautiful story for Christmas. Thank you.

Merry Christmas MM.
Without a doubt, one of your best. Have a Very Merry, MM!

Time has not changed your ability to look like a TOTAL RETARD in that stupid hat Mom made you.

Too bad it's not big enough for me to strangle you with it anymore.

yr. bro

PS: Forgot about Papa's LLBean jacket. You know the old man has it now. Damn thing's older than he is.
I enjoy your stories so much. Thanks for the lovely Christmas gift of your memories. :)

Merry Christmas!
I'm usually a lurker on your blog, but this entry particularly brought tears to my eyes. Made me think of the people in my past and to relive certain fond memories, which I suppose, is part what the holidays is about.

Thanks for the great story. Merry Christmas MM.
MM, Well done on this day-after-my-birthday and day-that-is-close-to-Christmas-Eve. You have warmed my cockles, my heart and anything else that was even remotely nippy. Thanks for sharing that...StraightPoop
This story was passed on to me from a friend. I loved how the story started so negative but turned in to a positive life long memory. Your writing is mesmorizing, I believe I will add you to my RSS. I think you should highlight the "tree sled" again with Christmas coming up.
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