A Christmas Tree to Remember
by Kevin Ahern


I haven’t set up a Christmas tree in many years, but one of the last ones I had I’ll never forget, thanks to my unusual mother. To appreciate this story, you need to know a bit about her. Mom is not your standard issue mother, very unconventional in many ways. I have my oddities and non-conformities, which I acknowledge and embrace and you only need to look at her to see where I get some of my traits. She had, and still has boundless energy and a love for life and laughter. She is a most unusual person and I wouldn’t have her any other way.

The Christmas tree adventure I had with her took place in 1977 when she was in her 40s and I was in my 20s. She had just entered into her new career, fresh out of school as a veterinarian and was practicing under another veterinarian at the time. I was a
technician in a lab in town and neither of us really had any money to spare. The town was Stillwater, Oklahoma and she had a lot of contact with local ranchers there from her work. As Christmas season rolled around, she told me of a rancher who said she could cut down some pines on his land out of town to use as Christmas trees.

We decided to take advantage of his generosity one frosty Oklahoma evening in early December. Oklahoma is a barren place where the wind really does “come sweeping down the plain” and this was a typical night for that time of year - not exactly a Clydesdale and sleigh experience. Our sleigh and horse was a friend’s ancient, rusty pickup truck lacking shock absorbers that Mom had borrowed to haul the trees.

I say trees because when she picked me up, she noted that she had promised four other people she would get them trees too, so we were in search not of one tree each for the two of us, but six. The enormity of that task didn’t weigh on us as we took off “down Santa Claus way,” bouncing in that rattle trap truck as it hit the numerous potholes of the red-dirt Oklahoma road leading to the tree property. Mom, as usual, drove too fast and that only added to the gyrations and squeaks of the truck.

We got to our destination, a scrap of land in the middle of nowhere, as the sun was setting and she parked the truck by the side of the road. We carried a Coleman lantern and a saw. After a hike of what seemed like two miles, thanks to getting lost in the deepening darkness, we reached a cluster of pine trees and, with Mom holding the lantern, I began my sawing. Though the cutting was strenuous, we had a great time reminiscing about Christmases past.

Finally, the cutting was done and we began the process of dragging what suddenly seemed like monster, old growth trees back to the truck, retracing our circuitous route. The lantern now was a necessity because the sun had long ago set and it was pitch dark and getting cold.

As we neared the road and our truck, a curious thing happened. It seemed innocent at first. A pickup truck was coming down the road where our truck was parked. It too bounced, raising dust as it careened across the same potholes we had traversed earlier. My mother, who was leading the way back with the lantern spotted the pickup, turned white as a ghost, and proceeded to jump into a drainage ditch. Then, about as much as one can exclaim in a whisper, she frantically gestured and said, “Get down!” three times, each with increasing vigor as she extinguished the lantern.

Fearing God knows what was happening - moonshiners, KKKers, or a bunch of rowdies looking for trouble - I let go of the trees, dropped to the ground, and laid face down about as flat as I ever have been. The truck stopped at our truck for a minute, apparently checking it out, and then drove on. After what seemed like a longer time than I’m sure it was, I crawled, belly down like a GI in a war zone, ahead to where my mother was.

Me: “What in the hell was that about?”
Mom: “Shh”
Me: “What do you mean ‘shh?’ They’re gone.”
Mom: “They might come back”
Me: “Who are THEY?”
Mom:
Me: “Who are THEY?”
Mom: “Let’s just wait here for a minute”
Me: “Why are we hiding here?”

And then it hit me.

Me: “Do you have permission to cut these trees down?”
Mom:
Me: “MOTHER! Did you get permission to cut these trees down?”
Mom:
Me: “Did you tell the owner you were going to cut down trees?”
Mom: “Sort of. Let’s get these trees loaded up.”

And then, partly to avoid answering my questions and partly to get away from a possible crime scene as quickly as possible, Mom started tossing trees over the fence into the road with an adrenalin-fueled vengeance that lumberjacks would have envied. We couldn’t re-light the lantern because (of course!) she had run out of matches, but something as simple as darkness wasn’t about to stop my mother at this point. She told me, no, she ORDERED me to get the trees loaded ASAP in the back of the truck. And with this, I came to grips with the circumstances - I was now a Christmas tree poacher, dragged into a life of crime by my mother. A life on the lam flashed before my eyes. Our Budweiser commercial had turned into Bonnie and Clyde and that particular criminal endeavor didn’t have a happy ending.

Then, for the first and only time in my life, the emotions of fear and funny collided inside of me. Let me tell you, they are not designed to be experienced together. To the outside observer, it probably appeared much more comical than it felt. I simultaneously laughed and screamed at her into the darkness of the air about what we were doing, as I trembled with the cold and the fear we were going to get caught by some Christmas tree lunatic.

You know those horrible Halloween movies where a crazy killer is chasing people? The person I envisioned was scarier than any of them - the ghost of Christmas presents, as it were. Meanwhile, Mom, ever focused on the true meaning of Christmas as can only be experienced by smuggling Christmas trees, kept shushing me and jostling the trees in back of the truck to get them to fit. All of this only accentuated my already heightened funny and fear emotions, inducing a sort of hysteria. I collapsed behind the truck paralyzed, shaking, laughing, and terrified we were about to get caught and hauled to the sheriff.

As I was experiencing the terror and humor of all this, Mom, the Cool Hand Luke of our Laurel and Hardy operation, did a quick tie down using the tiny piece of rope she brought, grabbed me by the collar and literally drug and deposited me into the passenger side of the truck. She then dashed to the driver’s side, started the truck, and, with squeal of tires, we raced homeward with six “hot” Christmas trees, traveling (lights off, of course!) at about twice our original speed over a road that was definitely NOT designed for her driving. How the trees kept from falling out, I’ll never know.

Later, after the chaos was all over, Mom claimed she had mentioned to the owner that she might come by sometime and cut down one tree (not six!), but he hadn’t responded. As she pointed out, he didn’t say no, so she took it as a yes (of course!). It didn’t matter. I had escaped the closest brush I ever had with the law, and a Merry Christmas was had by all, except possibly the rancher missing six trees. I wonder if the other four tree recipients that year would have believed the truth of how their tree got to their house.

 

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