Christmas 1982 (Corinth, NY)

When I was growing up, I lived in snowy places in New England. The holiday season would start – in my memory – with a huge dumping of snow {some years it was taller than I was!}, followed by getting our Christmas tree, like everyone else.

Only… it wasn’t like everyone else.

Let me be honest here: we would start the holiday season by stealing our Christmas tree.

This was the norm in our family, so I never really thought about if it was right or wrong. I don’t know if it was because we weren’t always living high on the hog or if my parents got some weird adrenaline rush from it, but it was just something we did.

Legend has it that the first tree we stole was from the front lawn of the state of Connecticut’s governor’s mansion {at night, naturally!}. As the years went by, our tree’s locale mellowed, and we’d usually drive to a forest and search all day with sleds and cocoa and a bow saw, or we’d steal one from a neighbor’s woods behind our house.

Sometimes when I’m on my lunchtime walk home from work, meandering through the woods near my neighborhood, I get a whiff of woodsmoke that mixes just right with the crispness of the air, and it is this thought that pops into my mind: This is Christmas tree-stealing weather. And then I have to call my older brother Frank, the goofy teenager in the bathrobe in the picture above, and reminisce once more about our most covert tree-stealing operation…the time we did it all by ourselves.

The year I was probably twelve and he was twenty, our parents left it up to us. One day we trekked to some woods a couple of cleared acres behind our Connecticut farmhouse and found the perfect tree.  We marked it with my blue and brown checked scarf with the blue fringe on the ends that always reminded me of Bert and Ernie somehow. We didn’t want to get caught dragging it home, so we made plans to go back that evening with only the moon to light our way. We were forever watching old war moves and loved the prospect of this “mission.”

After dinner, the full moon was up. The temperature was below freezing. There was no snow yet. We bundled up, put on our L.L. Bean boots, and grabbed our walkie-talkies {my, how the times have changed!}. We crossed the field behind our non-functioning dairy barn after tiptoeing past its looming, ominous silhouette. We scooted over the ice that covered the stream that fed our pond, the moonlight glinting off of its surface. We ambled over the rock wall that separated our property from another’s field, then passed the gigantic rock near the side of the field that must have been too enormous for the pioneers hundreds of years ago to clear away. We did all of this in complete silence.

At last we reached the crumbling rock wall at the edge of “the hidden field.” We had names for all of the places behind our house, and this was aptly named because it was a forest of saplings that had sprung up between what had once been probably an acre of now-ancient orchard.  A rock wall and dense oak trees surrounded its perimeter, lending it a darkness that was both literal and visceral at the same time.  Whether night or day, it was a place that could only be described as downright spooky.  It was a spot my younger brother Jimmy and I dared not go when we were there without Frank, which was saying something, since we were fearless explorers of the Connecticut countryside.

The tree was on the other side of the hidden field. Somehow, both Frank and I knew that I would not be accompanying him any further that night. It was like that rock wall was a barrier between our world and another that I didn’t care, or dare, to get acquainted with, especially on the night of a full moon…I was raised on too much Washington Irving and New England lore. I parked my tush on a frigid rock while my brother made the crossing. I was armed with only a walkie-talkie, but he had a saw.  I couldn’t help but to notice the imbalance. He reminded me of my job as the look-out and to signal if anyone was coming, saying he’d signal if he got caught and we needed to book it home. I laugh now to think that if we ran into someone else wandering about in the moonlight of the Connecticut farmlands, we’d probably have bigger things to worry about than where we got our tree!

He disappeared into the barely-visible night. I beeped the little morse code button on the walkie-talkie to make sure he was still there.  He beeped back. I sat.

My butt was freezing.

I waited.

A cloud passed over the moon. All sound stopped. It felt like hours were passing rather than moments. I was shivering; my braces-clad teeth {complete with red and green bands} were chattering. I tried Frank on the walkie-talkie.

Nothing.

More clouds obscured the moon, piling up on one another and making it an even more shadow-laden night.  I tried him again.

Still nothing.

It occurred to me that perhaps he was out of range, but that just seemed too awful a possibility to dwell on, so I buzzed the heck out of that little morse code button.

Silence, save for the breaths that were  now coming shallowly and rapidly from my chest.  Visions of the Headless Horseman started to pop into my brain.  I tried to be cool and reason with myself that it takes time to cut down a tree, but it just wasn’t soothing me.  Finally I pressed the talk button and squealed, “Frank!  Frank?  Where are you? I’m scared!”

I started to get up from my perch, when a crackle came over the walkie-talkie, “Kel? Kel? Are you there? Come in.” Good, I thought, maybe he didn’t hear me freaking out. “Roger,” {we loved to talk like the truckers we’d hear on the c.b.} “I’m here. Are you okay?” “Oh, yeah. Get ready. I’ve got our tree. See you in a few. Over and out.”

Relief. Warmth sprang from the sigh I heaved, and all was right with the world. The cloud had blown away from the moon by then, and I heard the sweet “shush…shush…shush” the tree made as it was dragged forward, footstep by footstep. Frank came into view, face aglow and eyes shining from the cold and from the adrenaline of what he –we – had just done. Suddenly, all I felt was the buoyancy of adventure, a tale that we could tell. I grabbed a branch near the trunk of the tree and started walking, victorious and ever the starry-eyed little sister.

The End.

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