Monday, December 27, 2010

Charles Cooley: The Best Tree Ever

Christmas at the Randolph Center elementary school, 1930-something. The little red schoolhouse is now part of VTC. This piece is one of several that were read by the authors at a get-together at Joslynn House in Randolph last week.

“Tomorrow,” Mrs. Knight reminded us at the end of the school day,“you boys who are going after the tree must bring what you will need so that you will have it here when you start out. Don’t forget.”

We had been preparing for Christmas since Thanksgiving and for Herb and Bob Farnsworth, Olin Bradbury, Allen and Harrington McMurphy, Nelson Chadwick, Buddy Sawyer, Joe Lawsing and me this was one of the highlights. The rehearsals for the theatrical production that we would subject our parents to had become tedious and boring to most of us. The yearly allotment of colored paper that we called “construction paper” was nearly used up on the cutouts that we had stuck to the windows and hung from light fixtures. The week following Thanksgiving Peggy Bickford had decorated one section of the blackboard at the front of the classroom with a gorgeous rendering of a wreath drawn with colored chalk. The McMurphy boys had made arrangements with one of their neighbors to cut a tree from his woodlot for the school. What would ordinarily be considered extra curricular activity had gradually crowded out the primary tasks of elementary education by the last week before Christmas vacation. Getting the tree and setting it up for the girls to decorate would consume most of our time on the last two school days before Christmas vacation.

The next morning, when the last bell summoned us we rushed in to the classroom. Sleds were not permitted so they were left at the bottom of the steps but there were no rules covering saws, ropes and hatchets so we kept these as evidence that we hadn’t forgotten Mrs. Knight’s admonition of the day before. After the Lord’s Prayer and the salute to the flag Mrs. Knight sent the “tree detail” with a few stragglers off, reminding us that we should try to be back before noon. We set off in a noisy cavalcade down the East Bethel Road.

The McMurphy boys had done some scouting so when we got to the woods they led us to a tree that they represented as the best one for our purpose. “It’s not big enough,” Bob Farnsworth said. “Let’s look for a bigger one.” It was only fifteen feet tall and we were looking for a candidate for Rockefeller Plaza. Harrington said, “My dad said it was plenty big.” “Fathers always want to get little trees.” Joe observed. “We should look for a bigger one. We’ve got plenty of time. Mrs. Knight only said we should try to be back by noon. She didn’t say we had to.” As we looked at the tree it shrank before our eyes and the image of our classroom allowed for cumulus clouds floating below the ceiling. The discussion made a lot of sense and the weather was inviting more sylvan adventure. Herb stashed his Flexible Flyer sled near the entrance to the woodlot and we dispersed to explore.

Our activity began to stimulate our appetites after an hour of searching for the perfect tree and we began to think about what remained to be done before lunch time. Bob Farnsworth had located a tree that appeared to be a hybrid including some Sequoia heritage but it was near the back of the woodlot and the task of cutting it with the tools we had brought looked impossible even to us. We reconvened before the fifteen-foot specimen recommended by Mr. McMurphy. It was near the entrance to the woodlot and it did look well filled out and symmetric so we attacked it with a saw.

When it was down as many of us as there was room for got under it and tried to carry it. It was apparent that it was impossible to carry the tree on our shoulders as the branches tangled our feet and we couldn’t walk. We decided to drag it. Fortunately we had brought some ropes and we attached them to the trunk close to the bottom of the tree and commenced the march back up the hill to the school. Joe thought we should use the Flexible Flyer to support the bottom branches and protect them from wear and tear but after trying it out we decided it was too much trouble. The boys pulling the sled kept pulling it out from under the tree and after putting it back a few times we gave it up.

The road was nearly bare but the surface was frozen. We had good footing once we got to the road and we could take turns dragging the tree so we made pretty good time getting back to the school. But our search had consumed so much time that the other students had been reconvened following lunchtime. Our arrival with the tree rendered any semblance of order null and void.

No one had brought anything with which to fashion a stand to hold the tree upright but a reconnaissance in the basement yielded some scraps of board and a few nails. While Joe and I were looking for those the tree was ascending the stairs to the upstairs classroom. During the ascent it was noticed that the contact with the road had scraped one side of the tree down to “the bone.” “We’ll have to turn that side toward the wall,” Buddy said.

While the stand was being built and attached the cumulus clouds blew away and some skeptics began to comment that the tree was too tall. Nelson suggested that we should stand it up to see how much to cut off, if any.

After struggling with it for a few minutes Herb said, “We can’t stand it up unless we cut some of it off.” Olin grabbed a saw and took hold of the trunk of the tree a couple of feet below the top, preparing to cut off the top. “No, no Olin!” said Allen. “We have to cut it off at the bottom.”

“Then it won’t stand up.” But Herb was already prying the stand off and Olin began to see the light.

By the time we had made two reductions of the tree’s height and rebuilt the stand twice the tree was more or less upright and the worn side was rotated toward the wall so the girls could have at it. The first thing was finding enough string to guy the tree into a more vertical position. While the girls did this and started decorating, the lumberjacks ate their lunch it being nearly three o’clock. Tomorrow we would complete the decorations and come back in the evening with our parents to do what the adults referred to as “celebrating Christmas.” Poor Mrs. Knight had earned a Christmas vacation. But the most fun was getting that tree!

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