Christmas Tree Hunts – III

Chapter four

As a kid in Manhatten, the hunt for our family Christmas Tree consisted of a trek three blocks over from where we lived to where someone from Maine had set up to sell trees. My sister and I would eye every tree in the lot until our father that, great urban forest ranger, would select one, stomp it on the pavement, watch how many needles fell off, and pronounce the choice sound.

Later on, I got introduced to much less urban hunts that led to woodlots. Through I would still stomp them onto rocks to see how many needles fall off. Old habits die hard.

I remarried in the 1980s, and we soon started a family. The kids accompanied us to the local wood lots on sleighs as soon as possible; before they could walk. We have four children, but this story features our oldest Nick and our youngest, Louis,

It had been a very snowy early December in Central Massachusetts that year, and the snow was deep on the high slopes of the woodlot in which we were tree hunting. We had been coming to this tree farm for years, and our children already knew the routine which brought them the most joy:

  1. Run around.
  2. Check out every single tree.
  3. Walk up as high as the farthest meadow and tree copse.
  4. Finally, pick a tree in the most inaccessible location.
  5. Cut it and have dad put on the sleigh.

That year there was a hitch in the plan. Louis, junior, our youngest, had pretty much reached the limits of his endurance. He would have to ride the sleigh back down the hills, and dad would have to carry the tree by himself. Mom would have her hands full, shepherding our twin girls. Nick, the oldest, was detailed to pull the sleigh with Louis on it. We started back towards the bright red barn with everyone assigned their job. The goal was to get down the hill to where the hot cider and free candy canes were. With the winter light failing and the snow deep, we had a harder slog of it than we had expected. At the rear of the convoy, Nick was fuming about pulling Louis.

At last, we hit the high spot from which we could see our destination. We were standing on the brow of a high ridge. There are two ways down. The trail to the right snakes gradually down, or the steep descent straight ahead. The steep slope is not a safe way down, so we turned to the trail after a short break. Everyone except Nick and Louis, As I turned to make sure that everyone was following, I saw a gleam in Nick’s eye. He gently put his foot on the back of the sleigh, and before I could say anything, he softly pushed the sled down the steep slope. I heard my wife yell as she realized that her baby was hurtling towards the bottom of the hill. There was a small satisfied grin on Nick’s face Until he realized that only a snowbank separated his brother’s path at the bottom from a road. By now, we had hurled ourselves after the sled. We reached the base after the sled had slammed into the snowbank. We had to dig to extract Louis because all that was exposed was the sled’s back tip. Luckily the snow was fresh and soft. He was shocked, had massive amounts of snow all over him and in his clothes, but was unharmed. Louis was in better shape than Nick, whose look of panic suggested that he got much more from his impulse than expected.

The story became memorable in the family, and luckily the two brothers are close friends.

Winter, Bah, Humbug!

I am most organized when I write lists of things “to do” and then gradually check off the items. The undone are transferred to the top of the next day’s list. It sounds like a simple thing. It’s the simple things that work when you have more than a bit of an affection for the term procrastinate

Between the end of the Christmas Season and the third week of February, I get seasonally effected by the intolerable dark, wet, snowy, gray, and generally cruddy weather of New England. To use a German term, I am VERKLEMPT – just overcome with emotion. I could gladly go to bed, pull the covers over my head at nine PM, and not wake until nine AM. These are not the lighter sort of emotions.

So the list-making assumes a more critical task; keeping my mood balanced. 

  1. January first, begin sorting and looking through seed catalogs.
  2. January fifteenth, begin online orders of plants. 
  3. February first, get together all my “Sugaring” supplies and clean and sterilize taps and tubing; Wash buckets. 
  4. Finalize seed orders.
  5. February fourteenth, the fourteenth, is the traditional tapping day in my area. But with climate change, It’s started as early as the end of January.
  6. March first, start seed inside the house. 

At this point, I’ve made it through a rough spot of winter. Parallel with the list above is one for the shop. Working in a cool greenhouse shop in February has challenges, but I’ve done some of my best work then – just let the little heater kick in and turn on the marine weather forecast from NOAA.

My lists help me get over the seasonal slump of winter, and it allows me to say: ” Winter, Bah, Humbug!”

Train yard

The building was an ancient mill building overlooking the Boston and Maine railroad tracks in Charlestown. A coffin maker, a butcher block company, and various other woodworking concerns took up most of the space. On the third floor, a cluster of artist lofts provided cheap studio space for a mixture of painters, ceramic artists, a weaver, a poet, and one woodcarver – me. Monday through Friday, the building hummed with activity from about 6 AM till 6 PM.
Afterward, most of the activity was in the railyard separating Charlestown from Somerville. The crash and bang of boxcars being sorted could run through the night. But the mill building and all its adjacent buildings were silent, the parking lots empty. It was not the most savory of Boston neighborhoods. The lack of evening and weekend activity was why the landlord tolerated the art studios. We weren’t supposed to live in them, but live tenants seemed to discourage unauthorized visits.
It was a small community centered on periodic parties, impromptu gatherings, and small gatherings on the roof.
The land across the tracks rose towards a large hill on the Somerville side. Behind us, on the Boston side, the land tended upwards to where the Bunker Hill Monument stood. Our building stood on a wide flat spot that stretched away to the north. The unplanned effect of this was panoramic views of sunrises and sunsets that could astound. It was not uncommon to wander up there and meet another resident in silent contemplation. For me, it was like being back on the water either in coastal waters or in the deep flow of the Gulf Stream. Here, unlike on Beacon Hill, you had an impressive horizon view.
I charmed my female friends with Hibachi cooked dinners at sunset on that roof. When our small community was in gather mode, it made a unique setting for parties, with the oft-repeated reminder to guests to stay away from the edge. The views proved that you could not hang the urban experience of life in Boston from one peg on the rack. It wasn’t that simple.
I eventually moved away. I moved because of romantic entanglements – there was none. No girlfriend, no matter how interested, would ever stay more than one night. I served at sea where the ship’s sounds always surrounded. I was also noisy New York City bred. The noise of freight being switched below on the train tracks was something I slept through. Not my hoped for girlfriends. The more involved invited me to their quieter homes. But the issue of my home always remained. So eventually, I moved.

I detoured to the old neighborhood late last summer. The building is still there, But it looks like it’s been converted to upscale “lofts.” I imagine that with lots of insulation and triple-glazed windows, you could filter out much of the noise. With the price, I am sure that those units come with hardworking painters, ceramic artists, poets, painters, and carvers can’t afford the cost of listening to the freight cars below.


There was a Magic Eightball under the Christmas tree one year for my sister. I spent weeks ( it seemed at the time) waiting until I was allowed to use it; under supervision. She is four years older than me, and frequent eye-rolling ensued because she considered the things I’d ask childish. Since she was a teen, there was much drama about her requests that I couldn’t understand. So I determined to wait till night, swipe the Eightball, and use it without her.
That night under the canopy of blankets and lit by a flashlight, I began exploring the world of the Eightball. Having spent the evening watching horror movies, some of my questions ranged to the macabre. The Magic Eightball’s answers did not help me get to sleep that night.
After that when my sister wanted to play with it, I played elsewhere. One weekend the Magic Eightball got left at a cousin’s house, and we never bought another.
I didn’t give the toy another thought until I was in the Navy. Fixing logs and reports is a Naval tradition dating at least to the late 18th century unless the Phoenicians invented it. It’s called “Gun Decking.” There are many maintenance reports, logs, and summaries to fill out. Minimal changes occur in the reporting periods. Sometimes the entire report is make work. There is lots of make-work at sea. Eventually, clever bosuns came up with innovative ways to make the process easier. Sitting around the shop shaking the Eightball while having your tenth cup of Navy coffee worked fine. At one point, I worked for a master of the technique. Mahan never got caught, and his shop was acclaimed as an object of efficiency. He claimed the Magic Eightball was responsible.
Recently I’ve learned that many bloggers use the Magic Eightball as assistance in plotting their stories.
Should I end this post now? “It is certain,” says the Eightball. Bye.


What’s your favorite holiday, tipple? Wassail, red wine or white, Eggnog with a kick of brandy? Perhaps you are a hot spiced cider fan? It hardly matters. It’s all in the company we keep, or currently – can’t keep. Zoom, Facetime, or Skype calls are fine, but the holidays were not about wine or tipple; they were about the company of friends at concerts, tree lightings, and dinner parties. The Christmas dinner and game nights when old rivalries are revived, and siblings recall holiday shenanigans past.

I make most of my living as a videographer. So last night, I began editing together snippets of old holiday video. I’ll share it with family and friends. In the video, my children are fifteen years younger. The dog and cat are “supervising” the tree decoration. The cat jumps at the train running under the tree. And all that is old seems new again.

As bad as the current situation seems, it will pass. A favorite professor was a former Royal Navy officer who introduced me to the old toast: To Absent Friends. So as you drink your favorite drink this holiday toast to absent friends and family, may we all be reunited soon.


I thought I’d worked through all the issues. But the leftover residue from my days as a folksinger had other ideas. In this case, an awful internet meme on Facebook. Some smarmy, smart-ass comment with an absurd photo. In this case, a heavily bearded male nude with a guitar concealing his groin.
We lived a wild existence at the Folkie Palace, and this image brought one of the worst theatre of the absurd incidents to mind.

We were bored. Being bored on a Friday night was a dangerous thing. We were sitting around drinking Narragansett from Giant Imperial Quarts while our alcohol enhanced minds turned over the possibilities for the weekend. Jack, one of the Folkie Palace wannabe’s, suggested that we head up to Maine. He knew of a church-sponsored coffeehouse. I could grab a gig, Bill could spook the locals, and all would have a good time. Why not? So we laid plans to drive up Saturday afternoon.
The next day we needed to secure transportation. Borrowing the Teahead of the August Moon’s car was as easy as teasing the keys from his pocket as he slept on the couch. Within two hours, we were careening through backroads in rural Maine to a midsized town dominated by old mills and a roaring river. Near the center of town stood a white-steepled church. A small sign near the side entrance read Fellowship Coffeehouse – All Welcome. Truthfully we were not sure that we’d be welcome if they knew too much about us, but the sign did indicate that all were welcome.
Like other church coffeehouses, Fellowship Coffeehouse was in the church hall. Tables and chairs clustered around a small stage with a bare-bones amp, mic, and single spotlight. In Greenwich Village, I’d worked with much worse. There was no live act scheduled that night, and I got greeted as a conquering hero.
In those days, song lyrics were nowhere as suggestive as today. My blues riffs today are seen as dated or misogynistic. In the ’60s, at a place like Fellowship Coffeehouse, they were almost obscene. Wanting to shock, I lead into my first set with Mr. Jelly Roll Baker.

Mr. Jelly Roll Baker, let me be your slave.
When Gabriel blows his trumpet, then I’ll rise from my grave.
For some of your sweet jelly roll, crazy ’bout that sweet jelly roll
Yes, it’s good for the sick, good for the young and old.

I was sentenced for murder in the first degree.
Judge’s wife calls up and says, “Let my man go free!
He’s the Jelly Roll Baker. He’s got the best jelly roll in town.
Only man can bake jelly roll, with his damper down.”

Can I put in my order for two weeks ahead?
I’d rather have your jelly roll than my home-cooked bread.
I’m crazy about jelly, crazy about that sweet jelly roll.
That evening I played, and Bill took out his sketch pad and drew caricatures of people in the audience. We also made the acquaintance of Sally, Allison, and Carol. Late the next day, we returned to Boston.

For several weeks we thought no more about our northern expedition. Then one Friday evening came a knocking at the door of the Folkie Palace. Outside the door stood three lovely young women: Sally, Allison, and Carol. They came in like they owned the place, and it seemed that Sally thought she owned Bill and Allison had grappling hooks in me. Carol just seemed amused by it all and sat down to take it all in.
There was a fair bit to take in too. Bill was the resident artist, and had painted the murals on the walls. The murals ranged from the profane to very sexually suggestive. A full-tilt boogie Folkie Palace party was in a full career that night, and we wondered what we’d do with our sweet but morally upright guests. “You said we should come on down some time, so we did,” exclaimed Carol. Carol made herself at home with the group attempting to get an ouija board to make pronouncements. I was fooling around on the guitar and had been trying to engage Judy, who, as usual, wanted to treat me as her younger sibling. Sally was doing an excellent job making Bill uncomfortable as she ran her fingers through his red beard. The attention did not sit well with Audrie, who thought of herself as his regular girlfriend.
Things proceeded in this vein for several hours. The regulars wondering why there were the “normals” hanging around, and the young ladies getting more and more embarrassed but refusing to budge. Allison seemed to think that I should drop everything and gaze only into her lovely, jade green eyes. My discomfort amused Judy.
At last, Bill got up and asked me to lend him my guitar. I was reluctant because it was shielding me from the totality of Allison’s attention. It’s always uncomfortable when the hunter becomes the hunted. Grabbing the guitar away from me, Bill announced to all tonight he was going to make his debut as a folk musician. But first, he needed to prepare.
Bill went into the Teahead of the August Moon’s bedroom. Moments later, he emerged in his hirsute nude glory. Have I described Bill before? No? He was stockily built, about five foot ten with a full shock of long red hair and a full red beard. The rest of him was just as red and very hairy. The guitar was strategically poised over his groin. He then announced to the excited gathering that “my first song will be Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” He then lifted the guitar and exposed the rhinestone-encrusted g-string that failed to conceal his package. Before the first notes got sung, the party-goers began laughing, hooting, hissing, clapping, and tossing peanuts at him—all except Sally and Allison. They began to back towards the door and were outside as fast as they could shove past the raucous participants. Carol was throwing popcorn and having a great time with the rest.

Carol stayed for several days before heading home. The Teahead pronounced her an honorary member of the Palace, welcome to return whenever. But we never saw her again. We also never saw Sally and Allison.
I hadn’t thought of that caper since then until the idiot meme.

Battle Ready

Clancy, the Gray Menace, started early. He was the runt of the litter. But he had been kicked out of the family first for fighting. We heard this from the neighbors familiar with the family of feral cats living in the neighborhood. So tiny, but pugnacious. We had no clue about that when he first came to live with us.
As a playtoy, I set up a swinging attack dummy. I should have noticed how rapidly Clancy took to throwing himself at it and refused to let go. We failed; we thought his natural aptitude for the attack was cute. After all, he was a tiny kitten. It was amazing what not having to fight for every scrap did for that little kitten. As a bodybuilder does, he began to bulk up and exercise.
Then there were the visits to the neighbor’s Siamese, Hunter. This massive brute took our little thug into his training school and taught him some of the finer points of thuggery.

Around the end of November, I left Ottawa for Boston. Little Clancy already made his rep weeks before winning spite fights with larger siblings. He was ready to take on the “States” next.

Mall Frenzy

It is Black Friday, the day following Thanksgiving here in the “States.” But there is no reasonable way I’d ever include the sort of sappy cyber version in the definition of Black Friday. No, it has to be the full tilt buggy expression of sheer madness, sharpened elbows, flailing feet, and desperate anticipation of combat for the last Voodoo Doll available. No frenzy, no Black Friday.

If one were to ascertain – discover with certainty – why recently there have been decreased mortality and fewer emergency calls at the malls, it would be due to “doorbusters” going cyber. Of course, the current pandemic has also taken the shine off this particular apple.

It is with great pleasure that my friend Bill and I plan to create a virtual Black Friday game for Oculus and other Virtual Reality platforms. DoorBusters will bring back the real insanity of a Black Friday on ‘roids. Starting at the mall entrance, you fight your way through to the big score. Along the way, you knock out crazy cart lady in stiletto heels, annihilate Biker Dude with chains, walk over Grannie with a sword cane, and terminate Todd King of foot crushers. Available soon for Christmas purchase and delivery!


In our house, I cook the Holiday meals. My wife works nights, and it would be brutal to expect her to prep a feast right afterward. So I cook. But there can be some significant planning obstacles.

The obstacles are our cat Xenia and dog, Sam. They don’t consider themselves obstacles. They see it as supervising the main event of fall, Turkeylurkey Day – a term they know well. They ensure that everything from a cheese and crackers board served at noon to the turkey and dessert get sampled for Quality Control.

The Bird:

Prepping requires all the grace of a professional dancer. You weave and twist among the cat and dog. They are footloose between your feet until the bird is in the oven. They may leave the kitchen at that point, but they don’t travel far. After cooking the bird, they assume worshipful positions by the cutting board. The small scraps belong to them as their due.

The Meal:

Only human family members are allowed in the dining room. That does not stop Xenia and Sam from “passing through” from the kitchen to the living room. A few calculating looks get tossed at the area under the table…just in case something needs a fast and efficient cleanup.

The Cleanup:

A full crew of humans and the two supervisors fill the kitchen. As the bird gets stripped for leftovers, the supervisory staff gets competitive as scraps get tossed or fall from the cutting board. Careful strategy is needed to maximize your haul at this point. Sibling rivalry is on full display.


How could I forget the year Louis, my youngest, made an incredible pumpkin pie? As it cooled, we watched a movie. The chief of quality control, Xenia, sampled the pie. Luckily she was uninterested in the apple pan dowdy I had made. The dog’s only interest was in the rum-soaked fruitcake. All the crumbs that fall belong to him.

After the feast, everyone reflects on what they have to be thankful for. Xenia and Sam, sleeping it off under the table, are dreaming of Christmas – next on their schedule.


There was no such thing as a typical holiday at the Folkie Palace. The personnel was always in flux, and the economic wherewithal to celebrate tended to concentrate on alcohol and marijuana rather than festive foods and decor. If you wanted a holiday motif, you’d best wander down to Washinton St. and the displays in Jordan’s, Filene’s, and Kennedy’s. And we did. We usually did this when at least half-lit and could stare at the lights on the Boston Common until our eyes dried out so much that we were forced to blink. Still, despite the slush on the Beacon Hill streets, Boston was lovely enough during the holidays that an absolute lack of charm inside the apartment did not bother us.

One night, just days before Thanksgiving, the Monk started going on about how festive it could be if everyone pitched in and decorated the Folkie Palace for the holidays. Reluctant at first, the holiday spirit grew. Over the next days, one than others brought in borrowed, swiped, and found items to decorate the windows looking out over Grove St. 

Dutchie found a discarded aluminum tinsel Christmas tree in the dumpster behind Filene’s and brought it home. The Monk, our chef extraordinaire, scrounged the market for a Thanksgiving feast. Having little money, we had to be innovative. Being folkies, we were unconventional in our choices of decor. The Teahead of the August Moon used holiday lights to illuminate the FUCK COMMUNISM sign that faced the apartment of some Socialists living across the street. They had attempted to correct our error in doctrine without success.

At last, Thanksgiving came. About twenty people showed up in waves to consume the feast the Monk had prepared. It would be fair to say that gobble was the best operative word; many of the guests did not eat this well on a regular basis. After dinner, the Monk announced that there would be the grand lighting of the Christmas decorations at sunset – officially opening the holiday season. But first, we consumed the pies. 

At sunset, we lit Dutchie’s Tinsel tree. Then the large Fuck Communism sign featuring glitter and blinking lights got lit. The Monk then ceremonially turned on the strings of lights in the windows looking out on Grove St. It was impressive.

My friend Bill then announced that his unique Christmas display was ready for unveiling. Bill was the only technologically capable individual in our group. We had wondered what he was keeping under old sheets. Bill had stunk up the apartment with the smells of soldering and burning electrical components for days. Finally, he whipped off the sheets and plugged in his magnum opus.

Bill had cannibalized defective strings of lights, an old motorized Santa display, and a phonograph to create a sort of Zombie Santa. It eerily went from dark to flashing lights in disturbing patterns. Santa seemed to lurch from one side to another, and smoke arose from an incense pot at his feet. The record on the phonograph ran at varying speeds, so the Ho HO ho – have you been a good little boy – sped up and slowed down, making Santa, with his lurching movements, seem to be more a part of the Cthulu mythos, and less an Elf from the North Pole. About sixty seconds into this apparition, something serious started to burn inside Santa, and we pulled the plug on him for good.

Afterward, everyone agreed that it had been an unforgettable Thanksgiving.

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