One of the few benefits of moving is that I’m forced to look in boxes I haven’t opened since the last time I moved. If we haven’t opened the box in a year we usually throw it away, but pictures and family mementos usually pass the “keep” test no matter how many times we move. While going through a hodgepodge box of family photos, I came across a Polaroid instant photo from 1991. It was a friend of mine named Dawn, a tall and buxom girl with 80’s big brown permed hair and a mouth as big as her personality. She sat in my dad’s recliner smoking a Winston and drinking sweet tea out of a red Solo cup.
The photo brought back a lot of memories of my high school days but also a sense of sadness at how the youthful friendships I thought would last forever dissipated after graduation. College and careers took us all in different directions. We saw each other in the community on occasion, but by and large the people I knew in high school weren’t the people I knew in college. As an adult, I had almost no connection to the folks who wandered the halls of Starmount High School with me from 1988 to 1992. I bought the yearbooks when I was in school but, as with the photographs, they ended up in boxes only to collect dust. Yet this photograph made me smile. It took me back to 1991 and a ride in a red and rusty Chevy dually truck in search of the perfect Christmas tree.
My graduating class was only 116 people, so opportunities for leadership positions were abundant. I was senior class president, president of Future Teachers of America, Future Business Leaders of America state champion, and president of the Social Studies Club. I genuinely wanted to serve my fellow students and my school, but I also knew the only way I could attend college was to earn a full scholarship, so I filled my schedule with as many extra curricular activities as time would allow. Of all my activities, the Social Studies Club took up the least amount of time. In fact, I had only one real duty: I was responsible for the school’s Christmas tree. Each year in the lobby between the main office and the cafeteria just outside the gym our school sponsored an angel tree for gift donations for needy children. The Social Studies Club president secured the live tree and delivered it to school.
I had two problems. First, I wasn’t working at that time and had no money. I quit working for Barry’s Pizza two months prior and picked up odd jobs mowing the lawns of a couple of local churches. But that income was gone now that the grass had turned brown. My parents couldn’t afford to buy a big tree for the school so it was on my shoulders alone to figure it out. Second, we didn’t own a truck at the time, so even if I could get a tree donated I had no way to get it to school. Just when I was at the end of my wits, Dawn came to my rescue.
I was in the depths of despair after not finding a suitable tree. I knew of a beautiful Douglas fir tree in the front yard of a home on Gwyn Avenue in Elkin and I was tempted to drive over there in the middle of the night and cut it down. It would have made a truly magnificent Christmas tree. In their younger and more rambunctious days my mother and father were known to take flowers and shrubbery from peoples’ yards to complete their own landscaping. Their subterfuge ended only when their deeds were the subject of an article in the Elkin Tribune and they feared going to Hell if they got caught. In my case conscience interceded because I was afraid I would either get caught and face suspension from school, thereby saying goodbye to any scholarship offers; or, I would get caught and probably shot because the area was full of 2nd Amendment enthusiasts.
It was in this most desperate hour of need that Dawn came to my rescue. As I thought about going out into the woods to find a scrub pine my telephone rang. It was Dawn.
“Hey, why did you not answer when I called a few minutes ago?”
“I was outside on the porch trying to figure out where I can get a Christmas tree.”
“Why the hell do you need a Christmas tree? It’s November, dumb ass. I can’t stand it when people put up their shit before Thanksgiving.”
“It’s not for the house. It’s for school. I’m president of the Social Studies Club and I have to get the tree. We’re having our annual Christmas Sale fundraiser next week and I have to have the tree at school tomorrow morning. I’m screwed. I have no money to buy a tree and I have no way of getting a tree to school.”
“You really are an idiot. Why didn’t you call me? There’s a dairy farm below my house with a pretty fir tree in the middle of a field. I know the dude who owns the farm. He won’t care if we take the tree. I’ll bring my brother’s truck. You bring an axe or saw or whatever. I’ll be there in ten minutes.”
“You are a life-saver. Thank you, Dawn!”
“You’re still a dumb ass.”
I borrowed one of Daddy’s hand saws and waited on the front porch for Dawn to get there. She rolled up in her brother’s old red and rusty Chevy dually truck. Dawn lived a couple of miles away and Starmount was ten minutes farther away down Longtown Rd. My Christmas tree dilemma would be over within the hour.
We pulled up next to a huge pasture surrounded by a barbed wire fence. I couldn’t see a barn or a farm house from our vantage point because the grassy field inclined up a steep hill for a couple hundred yards. At the top of the hill sat a group of cedar trees and single Fraser fir tree. I asked Dawn again if she was sure it was OK and she swore that she had spoken to the farmer and that we could take the tree. Twenty-six years later and I still don’t believe her. But I needed the tree and Dawn was there to protect me if the shit hit the fan.
I grabbed the saw and walked over to the fence. I figured I better be a gentleman and lift the fence wires up so that Dawn could squeeze through. We were both full figured, both of us having an affinity for good Southern cooking while avoiding unnecessary exercise. But we were both young and relatively active, so we able to get around without trouble. Dawn bent over and stepped between the two rows of barbed wire without catching her clothes or her boobs. I waited for her to lift the wires for me but she told me I was a man and could damn well crawl under them myself. I scrooched under the bottom wire, caught part of my t-shirt on a prickly end and had to free myself before I could slide all the way through. When I was finally free we began the long walk up the hill to the patch of trees.
The Fraser fir was really a beautiful tree. It hadn’t been trimmed the way a Christmas tree farm would create the classic cone shape. Its natural shape made it bulge in certain rows and there was a bare spot on one side, but Dawn and I both agreed it was perfect for our use. I lay down on the ground and started sawing the trunk at the base.
“Dawn, why are there no cows out here? I thought you said this was a dairy farm.”
“I have no idea. Maybe they’re being milked.”
We both looked around and saw a large barn at the bottom of the hill closer to the main highway. It wasn’t connected directly to this field, though. And I didn’t detect the earthy aroma of cow dung either.
“Just keep an eye out for cows while I cut this thing. It’s taking longer than I thought it would.”
After ten minutes of sawing the tree finally gave up the ghost and fell to the ground. I checked to make sure no branches were damaged and that I had a solid branch to grab as I worked my way down the hill with the tree in tow. Suddenly, everything seemed so quiet and calm. Dawn had stopped talking as we stood at the top of the hill with the tree in hand. It became painfully aware to us why we saw no cows. This was not the pasture where the farmer kept his cows. That, apparently, was a field on the other side the barn. This was the field where he kept his bull. And he was standing at the bottom of the hill staring at us.
Dawn froze in place. “For God’s sake, don’t move,” she whispered.
“What are we going to do? I need this tree.”
“Forget the damn tree! Just start backing up slowly.”
“We’re not wearing any red, so I think we’ll be fine,” I whispered.
“To be so smart, you really are stupid. Do you think this is Buggs Bunny and Daffy Duck? Bulls see movement not color. Just back up slowly because he can’t see us on the other side of the hill. Drop the damn tree! It won’t do you any good with a bull horn stuck up your ass!”
My heart broke as I dropped the tree. We slowly started walking backward still watching the bull. Suddenly, he scraped his front leg on the ground. “Oh, hell!” I whispered. Our hearts were pounding in our chests and we tried to pick up a little speed as we backed away. The bull shook his head, snorted, and began to trot toward us.
“Run, bitch, run!” Dawn bellowed. I still held my Daddy’s saw. I couldn’t let it go. It was one thing to suffer the wrath of Mrs. Clark for not having a tree but it was a whole other issue to have to explain to my daddy why his heirloom handsaw sat in the middle of a bull pasture. We ran as fast as two fat people could to get back to the bottom of the hill. I damn near got a concussion from my belly flopping up and smacking me in the face with each loping stride. We reached the bottom of the hill and scooted under the fence just as the bull reached the top of the hill, triumphantly straddling my once glorious Christmas tree. Heart broken and dejected, I rode back home with Dawn to sulk.
We never said a word on the way home. When Dawn pulled up in front of the house I told her I would talk to her later but she didn’t say anything. She was still recovering from running down the hill. I walked into the house and sat at the dining room table staring out the window trying to figure out what I would say to Mrs. Clark the next day. By that time it was getting dark outside and I knew I needed to fix my dinner and clean up before Mama and Daddy got home from work later that evening. Our house was bordered on one side by the post office and on the other two sides by an old motel that had been converted to low income apartments for the elderly. On the corners of the post office parking lot were street lamps that came on at dusk and turned off at dawn. We threw rocks at the bats that fluttered around the lights devouring insects each autumn. As I sat at the table the street lamps turned on. As if a sign from heaven, the rear street lamp shined down on a cedar tree in our back yard that had been there for years but had never attracted my attention. It was nondescript, not a necessarily beautiful tree and not something we planted with a purpose. The tree had been there before we moved in and no member of my family had ever talked about it. Yet here it was as if an answer to a prayer. I walked out in the backyard and circled the sweet smelling cedar. It wasn’t really shaped like a Christmas tree but I thought it would pass for one if I trimmed it up a bit. I got out Daddy’s hedge trimmers and clipped it down to something like a warped cone. Then I sawed the tree off at the base. By then it was eight o’clock and I needed a way to get the tree to school. I called Dawn back and told her I needed her to come back to my house and help me take the tree to school. She asked me why in the hell I hadn’t picked that tree in the first place, but I explained that I never thought about that tree and, in truth, never really even recognized that it was there until that night. She cussed me out, but she also drove me and the tree to Starmount High School. We set it up next to the old one room school house where our Christmas sale would be held the following weekend.
Later that night I was lying in bed reading when I heard Mama and Daddy come home from work. I had no intention of telling them about the events of the day. We had a poodle named Fifi who waited each night by the door for my parents to get home. My dad, as always, took Fifi out to the back porch to let her do her business while he smoked a cigarette. Just as I was turning off my light I heard Daddy yell out, “Where the hell is my tree? Somebody stole my tree!” He came flying in the back door.
“Janie, somebody has stole my tree!”
Mama replied, “What tree?”
“The cedar tree behind the clothesline! Some asshole came in my yard and cut my tree down!”
I covered my mouth to keep them from hearing me laugh. Not one single soul in my family ever mentioned or acknowledged the tree until that night. Yet my father noticed it within the first draw of his cigarette. I told them the next morning what happened. Daddy was aggravated that he’d lost a tree but Mama said it was karma for having stolen all those plants back in the 70’s.
Dawn came to the Christmas sale that Saturday and so did Mama and Daddy. We all smiled knowing the odyssey involved in making sure the Starmount Rams had their annual Christmas tree.
About twelve years ago not long after I moved to Raleigh Mama called me to tell me that Dawn had committed suicide. I nearly dropped the phone and my knees wobbled. Weeks later I found out she had gotten herself into some financial troubles and couldn’t see her way out. I was hurt. I had achieved a degree of financial success and could have helped had I known, but at that point I had not spoken to Dawn in over ten years. My heart broke that night.
When I see the photo of Dawn sitting in Daddy’s recliner I am reminded how much my brother didn’t like her. Dawn never knocked. She pranced right through the front door, took the remote control from my hand, and turned the television to CMT in the hopes of seeing Clint Black or Garth Brooks. I never minded that she was so aggressive. She may have been a first class bitch, but she was a fierce and loyal friend. I’m glad I still have that picture. For a brief moment I am 18 again catching my breath in the side seat of a red Chevy dually having just escaped the clutches of death in the guise of a sharp-horned bull. Those were some of the best times of my life and I have friends like Dawn to thank for it. I can’t help but wonder, though, what the farmer thought when he found his Fraser fir lying in the middle of his bull pasture.