Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Christmas Commando.

Twas a week before Christmas, and all through the house
One small creature was stirring, inside of my spouse.
The baby was due on December two-five,
The same day as Santa and gifts should arrive.

Happiness ruled on King's Highway, New Jersey in the winter of 1988.
We knew it would be a boy because the doctor who showed us the sonogram said, "Do you want to know what it is?"
"Yes," said Susan, before I could think.
The doctor then added, as he finessed the probe and watched the screen, "See that rocket ship between his legs?"
We had discussed names already. A girl would be "Jacqueline," but a boy was in dispute. I favored "Nicholas Conrad," the "Conrad" after my father, but Susan favored "Thomas," a name common in both of our families (I was named for my Uncle Thomas Davis, my mother's younger brother who was shot dead by a friend around 1935, at the age of thirteen, as the two boys played with real guns). "Thomas" eventually prevailed, but only, I swore, if we call him "Nick," so, his name became Thomas Nicholas. Of course, my dictates came to nothing as both families sang about the new boy, "Tommy, Tommy, Tommy!" The only reference to "Nick" came from my father in a phone call from Florida when he said, for the first and last time, "How's Nick?"

There was only one dark cloud hovering over our happiness in that last week before Christmas.
"We don't even have a Christmas tree," Susan brooded in our empty living room, rummaging through boxes of decorations.

Now, to me, a Christmas tree was just decoration, not important. In my many years as a bachelor (that would be until age forty or so), I never erected such a thing. Only once, spending Christmas Eve with a Navy shipmate onshore in California, he and I went on a lark to find a tree. All we found were abandoned Christmas tree sites and a few stray evergreen branches, so we scooped up the largest branch and took it home. It looked very promising after we propped it up and adorned it with crushed aluminum foil--even better after we added spaghetti strands like tinsel from dinner. I don't remember what we used to top off the "tree," but it must have been funny because we were very creative and I remember us shedding tears of laughter. You would think that we were drunk, but neither of us imbibed, except for huge amounts of coffee.

But, by 1988, I was hoarding my limited funds like a Scrooge. Twenty dollars for a tree seemed like an exorbitant expense in the face of a new baby who would need an endless stream of Similac gushing down his throat, not to mention piles of fresh diapers. And, being self-employed, I never knew where my next $20 would come from.

I thought I had made a compelling case for saving money and living without a tree, but I was genuinely touched by Susan on her knees, sadly and hopefully perusing all the gewgaws in the "Christmas" boxes, her swollen belly hovering over all. So be it, I thought. One night after dinner I rummaged through my wardrobe and prepared to accept my mission. I put on a pair of black jeans, several layers of shirts topped with a dark charcoal sweater, a navy blue woolen cap pulled down over my ears and an impressive pair of black boots.

As I stood at the front door wriggling my fingers into a pair of black gloves, like a doctor preparing for an operation, Susan appeared from the kitchen below to ask, "What are you doing?"
My eyes twinkled.
She often loved my antics, so I twinkled again and said, "Just call me the Christmas Commando."
I noticed she was smiling broadly as I went out the front door, myself tickled with glee.
It might not be easy, I thought, as I clomped along the road through the snow, even though we lived on the outskirts of town, mostly surrounded by woods. First of all, I didn't want to get caught, because I didn't really know who owned what, and I would absolutely not take a tree from someone's private landscaping. My friend, Brian, and I once planted a perfectly spaced row of trees at the front edge of his property only to see one of the trees disappear years later in December leaving a gap like a missing front tooth.
Bastard thief, we agreed--no Santa.

After stopping in the garage to grab a pruning saw, I walked about two miles before picking a spot to enter the woods, and I was disappointed with the meager prospects--a surprising number of wild trees are just crabby-looking--so I kept trudging through snow and going deeper into the woods aided by a mystically charming moonlight. When I saw electric light in the distance, I walked toward it, curious about its source, and it looked like some kind of warehouse or factory. As I approached, I could see a loading dock, and I could hear and see men dressed for the cold chattering back and forth.

Then--Holy Baby Jesus!--between me and the dock stood a perfectly beautiful evergreen tree. It was way too tall, but beautiful and perfect. "If only I could get that top six or eight feet," I thought. This property must be owned by that warehouse company, but it was not part of any developed landscaping. They probably wouldn't care, even if they ever noticed it was gone. But there was no way to climb up to get the top without being detected by the men on the dock, so I crawled on my belly, knees and elbows deep in the snow, to the base of the tree, which was about six inches in diameter, way too big for an indoor tree.

Slowly and carefully, I sawed through the base of the tree until it was ready to tip, then pulled on a low branch, keeping behind the tree and out of sight from the dock. When I heard a few wood fibers snapping, I moved back to the base to saw some more--saw, pull and snap repeatedly. I wanted to be there to cushion its fall so that no one would hear a crash. In the process, the tree, when it fell--heavier than I thought--overwhelmed me and pushed me deep into the snow. But, it was okay, because its fall was very, very quiet, and I squirmed from under it no worse for the wear, then froze for a minute or two to see that there was no reaction from the men on the dock.

After sawing the last few fibers from the trunk, I dragged the tree to a safe distance, huffing and puffing and staggering in the snow, cut about six feet off the bottom of the trunk and dragged the remainder out of the woods and down the road.
Susan appeared with her happy mouth wide open as I barged through the front door dragging the tree, then she gave me a look. "You didn't steal that from someone's yard, did you?"
"Of course I didn't steal it. This is from out there in the wild woods--complements of the Christmas Commando," twinkle twinkle.

Luckily, we had a cathedral ceiling, because the tree was still too tall for most living rooms. I used an eight-foot stepladder to decorate the top, and it warmed my heart to see Susan fussing below with the gewgaws and giving me directions. It turned out to be a magnificent tower of color and light, with a beautiful empty crib waiting nearby.

On Christmas day, Susan sprang up, and we spent five hours outside the delivery room at the hospital, a false alarm, as Thomas Nicholas refused to appear until December 28. On the 28th, I sat beside Susan in the delivery room squeezing her hand tightly--though not as tightly as she squeezed mine. Her suffering made my heart ache, and when Thomas Nicholas finally emerged, the doctor exclaimed, "Isn't that beautiful?"
No, I thought, not at all. Then the doctor gave me the scissors and instructed me to cut the cord, and we took the boy home and introduced him to his crib nearby the awesome Christmas tree.

The very next night, I crossed our gravel driveway to the landlord's house to pay the rent and he informed me proudly that Thomas Nicholas was the first baby born in our house, which he had built with his own hands. "Do you want to see the baby?" I asked. He jumped up, called to his wife and we trooped over to take a look at the new baby.
Of course, they gushed over the boy.
         "His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry."
         "He had a broad face and a little round belly.
          That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly."
          --He was chubby and plump, a right jolly young elf--
          "And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself."
When the landlord finally looked around the room, he was impressed and very happy. Susan had decorated the windows with charming, ruffled white curtains, but otherwise the Christmas tree and crib dominated the room, and he said, "I love the way you keep this space open," perhaps not realizing that I did not have $500 for a sofa, or any other stuffed furniture for a living room. Then, he looked up at the tree, "Wow, Where'd you get a tree like that?"
"Oh," I said, "You can find 'em."
He turned back to the crib, "Hey, did you notice? He's a Nicholas and he's a Saint--St. Laurent."
"Saint Nicholas," Susan said.
I walked with them to the door and out to the driveway, glancing up at the clear night sky.

He crossed the short drive, to his wife made a call,
And away they both flew, very pleased with it all.
But I heard him exclaim, 'ere they walked out of sight,
"Happy Christmas to all, and to all a goodnight."

1 comment:

  1. This story was very familiar but I still had to ready it beginning to end. A memory of Thomas Nicholas...Merry Christmas and Happy New Year Thomas! Love, LAM