Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Christmas tree: Yesterday, or was it a century ago?

Simple Measures
The Christmas tree
Yesterday, or was it a century ago?
By Stephen L. Wilmeth

            Growing up in Grant County, New Mexico pretty much guaranteed you were never hungry but you weren’t eating off white table cloths with linen napkins, either.
            It was fourth grade when a salad fork was finally brought to our attention. It was almost Christmas, 1960 when we got that lesson. Mrs. Borenstein had been on the prod all week for reasons none of us could rationalize. Poor Ramon Leyba had even taken a direct head shot from her dictionary when he couldn’t come up with the proper spelling of some word now lost in time.
            She was screaming at us when she grabbed somebody by the ear and shrieked when she looked closer in it. She ordered us to stand and served notice she was going to inspect us!
            “You children are not only insolent you are filthy,” she continued.
            We stood as she inspected us. She concluded each and every one of us was deficient and inspections would continue until there was improvement.
            “If you want to come to my class you are at least going to be civilized,” she concluded. “Not a bunch of barbarians!”
            The next morning we arrived polished and honed. We endured the promised inspection. With ears pulled, hair parted, and collars checked, we lived through the ordeal.
            “While we are at this you are going to get a lesson in table manners,” she groused. It was obvious she had decided to give us the works. She cleaned the top of her desk and set it starting with a white table cloth. Each of us in succession was seated and put through the drill.
            “Only unfold that napkin half way … start with the outside fork … spoon the soup forward and away from you … elbows off the table … dab that napkin … ask to be excused!”
            In that hour, we got more training in civilization than many of us had before or since. To this day, I remember the lesson.
            Later that week, she lined us up again as we waited for the bell that would release us for Christmas vacation. We were excited!
Giving us final instructions, she hugged each and every one of us as we marched by her on our way out the door.
            “I expect you to remember the significance of this season,” she shouted, “I’ll see you next year … have a Merry Christmas!”
            If there was an artificial Christmas tree around in those days, I don’t remember it. We cut our own.
            Even then, the Forest Service was protecting all those trees that should have been thinned. Rules and regulations complete with a permit was the legal course. The best trees, though, were those out on the fringe of brush expansion without growth constraints.
            Randolph Franks’ place was the best spot close by to get that kind of tree. My mother would look for them all year in our frequent trips out to Cliff. She would have a tree or two in her mind when she called the Franks to get permission to climb the fence to cut it.
            The tool of choice, of course, was a double bitted saddle axe. Like a good pack tarp, anybody with any moxie at all had a saddle axe. Several times a year there would be a conversation about them. There would be the obligatory point that it was good to take good care of them. I must admit, though, I really didn’t understand what care implied since the extent of care ours got was to anchor it in a chopping block after kindling was cut. It would be there and retrieved when it was time to go cut the Christmas tree.
            Before I was 10, I was a regular on the end of the axe when the tree was cut. By that time I was swinging (cross handed) a baseball bat right handed, but I always swung an axe left handed. I’d get down there and trim the lower limbs away and let fly. By the second or third swing, rhythm was achieved, and, with several more, the tree was ours. Like a dog with a bone, we’d head to the truck with our Christmas prize in tow.  
When we got home, we would take the meat saw to square the cut to fit the stand.  The stand would be 2X4’s nailed together in a cross. We’d have to hunt for something bigger than a 16 penny nail to anchor the tree in place. The tree would then be ready to haul into the house. We then endured the placement process.
“No, turn it clear around,” it would start. “Just a little more the left.”
“Oh, Mom!”
Finally, we’d get to that certain spot … if we could just fill in a hole. We’d go outside and cut limbs off what was trimmed. Then the task would then be to find a bit big enough to fit in the brace to drill a hole to insert the limb. More than once, I’d trot a quarter mile across the flat to Hanks’ to borrow one. We would end the affair with a short piece of baling wire to hold the transplanted limbs in a natural position, and the tree, in all of its Christmas glory would be ready to decorate.
The Ritual
We’d stoke a fire in the fireplace. It would be a grand fire. It would start without the screen. By the time the greener juniper logs were launching sparked missiles out into the middle of the living room, we would have to put the screen in place just to keep from burning the place down.
Mom would commence carrying decorations out and laying them on the table. She’d be in a dither about where everything was. I guess she may have been prone to unsubstantiated suspicions that I had robbed the stash of Christmas balls to serve as BB gun targets.
Billy Vaughn or somebody would be spinning Christmas from the record player. My dad would elevate paternalism to a seasonal high. Invariably, he would remind us if he had life to live over he’d be a musician. He’d even light his pipe and the sweet smell of the tobacco would waft visibly into a silent odoriferous harmony of the tree, the smoke from the near uncontrolled, three alarm fire, and …the pine pitch still on our hands.
The spirit was upon us!
We’d start by hanging lights. If I could now offer a short list of lessons to young couples, it would start with the suggestion that stringing lights on Christmas trees should be avoided at all costs. By the time that little foray was concluded the pipe was gone, Billy Vaughn was silently bumping against the repeating stop, and the veiled threat was no longer even veiled for attempting to add one more log to that blankety-blank fire!
Mom would regain a bit of composure and everybody would be conditionally welcomed back to hang the balls. That would last until the ubiquitous reminder that balls must be placed uniformly around the tree not in just one place. It was also then little brother was found to be the victim of being robbed of his share of the good balls or sister had her feelings hurt for looking at her cross-eyed.
Finally, the foil icicles were relegated to the care of Mom and whoever needed the most compensatory remuneration … little brother or sister. Dad would be lying on the floor mesmerized by the next LP visualizing his date in the next turn as a famed musician. Seasonal bliss was hanging by a thread.
Hope, though, was stirring. The fire was finally at a pleasant and safe rate of burn. Mom was ready to light the tree formally, and she was again in a mood of higher cheer.
At her call, there it was … the lit tree stood in all of its glory. Christmas Peace … Goodwill to all, and to all the promise of what would come when Santa finally made his way to southern New Mexico. That would happen, but that is another story.
For now, Merry Christmas to all … God bless you and your families. God bless our land, and … God bless our way of life.

Stephen L. Wilmeth is a rancher from southern New Mexico. “Mrs. Borenstein’s husband, Barney, was a well known and respected businessman in Silver City. He was never without a big, black stogie. He would come into school to see his wife and that big cigar would be spewing smoke like a freight train. On one of those visits, Mrs. Borenstein suggested to us boys we could do worse than to emulate her husband. Playing workup at recess, we discussed that matter. Chintis suggested we not wait until we were old to emulate Barney. All we needed was a box of stogies! We embarked diligently on that task.”

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