Musings from the Darkroom: The Christmas Tree

2 christmas pictures

Thought I might share this with you again.  It’s that time of the year.

Getting the tree up and decorated after Thanksgiving signals the beginning of the Christmas season and grants official permission to be excited about all that looking forward to and celebrating Christmas has to offer:  family, friends, fun, food, music, memories, the Savior’s birth and, yes, presents under the tree.  This year has me longing for the Christmas tree outings my father, brother and I made each holiday season.

Not too soon after Thanksgiving, the sight of my father piddling around the workbench under the carport and the rhythmic metallic grating sound of file across the business end of my grandfather’s old Kentucky ax meant the yearly ritual was forthcoming.  Surplus paper mill work gloves, leather chaps, freshly sharpened ax and baling twine were all located and loaded into the family Oldsmobile.

I have no idea why we had a roll of sisal baler twine.  We did not live on a farm.  The only time I recall ever using it was once a year for the Christmas tree.  We didn’t use much but we still had a whole roll.  I would bet my brother’s best clip-on tie that the roll of twine is still somewhere in my father’s workshop.  After packing the trunk, my brother and I would jockey for front seat position on the long bench seat of the 63 Olds.  Eventually, one of us would give up the window and slide to the hump, neither of us ever willing to concede a place in the front. Off into the west Alabama countryside we drove to find the perfect Christmas tree, a cedar tree.

I remember being fully astonished when I realized that Christmas trees could actually be other species besides cedar or, worse yet, store-bought and even aluminum or plastic.  To us, cedar trees were Christmas trees.  This was not by accident.  The regional black belt soil with underlying Selma chalk limestone is littered with cedar trees.  Besides being plentiful, when good Christmas tree height they are the perfect shape, have fairly dense foliage and fill the home with a woodsy-fresh spicy aroma.

In the course of his regular travels to and from work, or on the way to the local air strip, Dad sometimes would have already had his eye on a tree and retrieval was all that was required.  If not, we would drive the back roads searching for an appropriately Christmas shaped tree.  The best trees were always lone trees in a clearing with even growth on all sides, but they were hard to find.

I don’t recall ever wandering onto just any property for a tree, but the truth is that I am not so sure that sometimes that wasn’t the case.  There was a fair amount of timber property owned by the local paper mill to which we presumably had access, especially out by the airport or across the highway by the union hall.   But I am not so sure about the legal status of the trees we harvested north of town across the Black Warrior river bridge on the road past the turnoff to Runaway Branch.   It was certainly tempting after a long search, spotting a particularly nice looking tree with only two or three strands of barbed wire between it and us.

I reckon there is the possibility that some might brand us Christmas tree rustlers.  But really, it’s not like we were stealing cattle or shooting someone else’s turkeys, we were just gettin’ the Christmas tree.  Later on after my brother and I started making the trip on our own, we usually ended up taking trees more legally on railroad right-of-ways.  After they grew to a certain size, the railroad company came through with sprayers to kill them back anyway.  We were simply providing them a more noble ending.

When we were young, Dad wielded the ax.  As we grew he let my brother and finally even me take turns at the year’s honor, always with admonition to not cut off a foot.  Getting to and dragging the tree back through the Alabama brush was a chore.  Dad donned his cowboy boots and chaps for tree hunting trips.  The only things separating my brother and me from the briars were our Sears toughskin jeans and dollar store sneakers.  Toughskin jeans were akin to wearing chaps, at least for the knees.  They were guaranteed hand-me-downs.

We only forgot to wear long sleeves or bring gloves once.  A cedar tree scratches and itches bare skin more than any other evergreen.  The sap sticks to your skin like gummy superglue and leaves a black stain that only time and new skin cells can remove.  But oh, how the smell made the drag back to the car worth all the trouble.  Even the frightful timber, space, timber, space, timber walk back across the old wooden railroad trestle seemed to pass more quickly while dragging the tree.  Long after my brother and I had matured beyond Santa Claus, we still made the yearly pilgrimage to the same set of tracks, talking about life and walking a good country mile or more from the car in search of the right tree.

One of the key features of the 1963 Oldsmobile was the size of the trunk.  No matter how big the tree, we could usually get the bulk of it in the trunk and not have to tie it to the roof, even though we had enough twine to tie a forest to the car.  Once home, the bottom squared up with a hand saw, placed in a bucket of water and leaning against the clothes line, the number one axiom of Christmas tree harvesting again becomes evident.  That is, they grow an extra 2 feet on the drive home.  So, we trim a little more off the bottom, being careful not to mess up the shape.  Even with 10-foot ceilings, it seemed every year the very top would have to be trimmed in order to mount the star.

The above picture on the left was taken when I was 4, the very first Christmas in our new home on Strawberry Street.  The cedar Christmas tree remains bent from being too tall and the star is not yet placed.  Yes, those are strings of popped corn hung like garland on the tree.  That was an old school tradition my mother’s mother always enjoyed.  I recall sitting around the back hall table with my siblings, stringing popcorn and having my grandmother scold me for eating more than I strung.

I was 8 at the time the next picture was taken in 1968.  For some reason we were late getting to the tree that year and Dad proudly showed up one day with a store-bought fur of some sort, shipped down south from some Yankee tree farm.  There’s no telling what he paid for it, but we were like, “Aww, Dad. That’s not a Christmas tree!” It’s the only year I can ever remember not having a cedar tree that we harvested ourselves.

Christmas 1969

I do love that Christmas 1968 picture. The more notable things that make me smile are the pajamas, the old 19 inch black and white TV, the Wilson football, the vintage Easy Bake Oven, my big sister’s curlers, my little sister’s unwavering gaze at Mrs. Beasley, our crew cuts, my brother’s ears and the store-bought Christmas tree.

Enjoy your tree this year and the memories it will bring for years to come.

Merry Christmas.

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Book Review: Sweet Music on Moonlight Ridge by Ramey Channell

IMG_4888

I haven’t done a book review on my blog before now.  But one of my followers is a writer and after looking at her site I had to get her book.  Thanks to Amazon, I managed to procure a signed copy, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

It has been said that in the South there is no denial of colorful family characters.  It only matters from which side they come and how best to show them off.  Well, Miss Ramey has opened the door and invited us all in the parlor for a refreshing glass of sweet ice tea while she trots out the best of Eden and Moonlight Ridge for our enjoyment.  I love southern writers, southern characters and southern stories.  Lilly Claire’s had me from the get go and left me wanting more, and so will you.  It just goes to show you, there are still some great southern stories being told.

http://sweetmusiconmoonlightridge.blogspot.com/

 

Before Black Friday? The Christmas Tree Hunt

2 Christmas Pictures 2To commemorate my 2nd anniversary as a blogger, I decided to share with you an update on my very first post.  I don’t think it was read by anyone, but it was my first.  Like most stories it is better with some more stuff added after thinking on it again.  There is nothing like being immersed in a season to dislodge new and old thoughts.

The Christmas Tree

Getting the tree up and decorated after Thanksgiving signals the beginning of the Christmas season and grants official permission to be excited about all that looking forward to and celebrating Christmas has to offer:  family, friends, fun, food, music, memories, the Savior’s birth and, yes, presents under the tree.  This year has me longing for the Christmas tree outings my father, brother and I made each holiday season.

Not too soon after Thanksgiving, the sight of my father piddling around the workbench under the carport and the rhythmic metallic grating sound of file across the business end of my grandfather’s old Kentucky ax meant the yearly ritual was forthcoming.  Surplus paper mill work gloves, leather chaps, freshly sharpened ax and baling twine were all located and loaded into the family Oldsmobile.

I have no idea why we had a roll of sisal baler twine.  We did not live on a farm.  The only time I recall ever using it was once a year for the Christmas tree.  We didn’t use much but we still had a whole roll.  I would bet my brother’s best clip-on tie that the roll of twine is still somewhere in my father’s workshop.  After packing the trunk, my brother and I would jockey for front seat position on the long bench seat of the 63 Olds.  Eventually, one of us would give up the window and slide to the hump, neither of us ever willing to concede a place in the front. Off into the west Alabama countryside we drove to find the perfect Christmas tree, a cedar tree.

I remember being fully astonished when I realized that Christmas trees could actually be other species besides cedar or, worse yet, store-bought and even aluminum or plastic.  To us, cedar trees were Christmas trees.  This was not by accident.  The regional black belt soil with underlying Selma chalk limestone is littered with cedar trees.  Besides being plentiful, when good Christmas tree height they are the perfect shape, have fairly dense foliage and fill the home with a woodsy-fresh spicy aroma.

In the course of his regular travels to and from work, or on the way to the local air strip, Dad sometimes would have already had his eye on a tree and retrieval was all that was required.  If not, we would drive the back roads searching for an appropriately Christmas shaped tree.  The best trees were always lone trees in a clearing with even growth on all sides, but they were hard to find.

I don’t recall ever wandering onto just any property for a tree, but the truth is that I am not so sure that sometimes that wasn’t the case.  There was a fair amount of timber property owned by the local paper mill to which we presumably had access, especially out by the airport or across the highway by the union hall.   But I am not so sure about the legal status of the trees we harvested north of town across the Black Warrior river bridge on the road past the turnoff to Runaway Branch.   It was certainly tempting after a long search, spotting a particularly nice looking tree with only two or three strands of barbed wire between it and us.

I reckon there is the possibility that some might brand us Christmas tree rustlers.  But really, it’s not like we were stealing cattle or shooting someone else’s turkeys, we were just gettin’ the Christmas tree.  Later on after my brother and I started making the trip on our own, we usually ended up taking trees more legally on railroad right-of-ways.  After they grew to a certain size, the railroad company came through with sprayers to kill them back anyway.  We were simply providing them a more noble ending.

IMG_1409 - Copy (2)

 

When we were young, Dad wielded the ax.  As we grew he let my brother and finally even me take turns at the year’s honor, always with admonition to not cut off a foot.  Getting to and dragging the tree back through the Alabama brush was a chore.  Dad donned his cowboy boots and chaps for tree hunting trips.  The only things separating my brother and me from the briars were our Sears toughskin jeans and dollar store sneakers.  Toughskin jeans were akin to wearing chaps, at least for the knees.  They were guaranteed hand-me-downs.

We only forgot to wear long sleeves or bring gloves once.  A cedar tree scratches and itches bare skin more than any other evergreen.  The sap sticks to your skin like gummy superglue and leaves a black stain that only time and new skin cells can remove.  But oh, how the smell made the drag back to the car worth all the trouble.  Even the frightful timber, space, timber, space, timber walk back across the old wooden railroad trestle seemed to pass more quickly while dragging the tree.  Long after my brother and I had matured beyond Santa Claus, we still made the yearly pilgrimage to the same set of tracks, talking about life and walking a good country mile or more from the car in search of the right tree.

One of the key features of the 1963 Oldsmobile was the size of the trunk.  No matter how big the tree, we could usually get the bulk of it in the trunk and not have to tie it to the roof, even though we had enough twine to tie a forest to the car.  Once home, the bottom squared up with a hand saw, placed in a bucket of water and leaning against the clothes line, the number one axiom of Christmas tree harvesting again becomes evident.  That is, they grow an extra 2 feet on the drive home.  So, we trim a little more off the bottom, being careful not to mess up the shape.  Even with 10-foot ceilings, it seemed every year the very top would have to be trimmed in order to mount the star.

 

2 christmas pictures

The above picture on the left was taken when I was 4, the very first Christmas in our new home on Strawberry Street.  The cedar Christmas tree remains bent from being too tall and the star is not yet placed.  Yes, those are strings of popped corn hung like garland on the tree.  That was an old school tradition my mother’s mother always enjoyed.  I recall sitting around the back hall table with my siblings, stringing popcorn and having my grandmother scold me for eating more than I strung.

I was 9 at the time the next picture was taken in 1968.  For some reason we were late getting to the tree that year and Dad proudly showed up one day with a store-bought fur of some sort, shipped down south from some Yankee tree farm.  There’s no telling what he paid for it, but we were like, “Aww, Dad. That’s not a Christmas tree!” It’s the only year I can ever remember not having a cedar tree that we harvested ourselves.

I do love that Christmas 1968 picture. The more notable things that make me smile are the pajamas, the old 19 inch black and white TV, the Wilson football, the vintage Easy Bake Oven, my big sister’s curlers, my little sister’s unwavering gaze at Mrs. Beasley, our crew cuts, my brother’s ears and the store-bought Christmas tree.

Enjoy your tree this year and the memories it will bring for years to come.

Merry Christmas.

Saban headed to Vatican

nicksaban1

(photo – The Birmingham News)

Vatican City (@humbledpie.wordpress) – Reports of unrest within the Catholic Church’s College of Cardinals over the current leadership’s direction have resulted in the calling of a secret conclave.  In a move rarely seen in the 2000 year history of the papacy, though not without historical precedent, the College of Cardinals has reversed their decision on current leader, Pope Francis.  Last evening’s conclave was brought to a close early this morning as a cloud of crimson smoke signaled the replacement of the Argentinean Friar with the unanimously elected American collegiate football coach, Nick Saban.

The church is no stranger to controversy.  Recently, it has been increasingly under fire for previous actions and in constant defense of what many view as archaic doctrine influenced political positions while both attendance and contributions are in decline and its detractors on the rise.  According to sources within the Vatican, church leaders from around the globe are calling for new leadership to help reposition and maneuver the church through these difficult economic, political and spiritual times.  Apparently, in a rather savvy business move, the CoC were willing to buck centuries of internal promotion and for the first time considered external candidates for their new CEP, chief executive pontiff.

“We are in dire need of leadership that is able to mount an aggressive defensive strategy, reinforcing our current positions, and has a history of successfully venturing into hostile territory with offensive schemes capable of putting up the numbers required to fill the pews on Saturday night,” said Cardinal Timothy Dolan,  Archbishop of New York.  He continued, “After a thorough and exhaustive search, fellow church leaders and I have come to the conclusion that the person most qualified to conceive and implement a victorious game plan for the 21st century Catholic Church is Coach Saban.”

“We feel very blessed to have him in the Vatican.  It was difficult to convince him to grant us an audience in the first place.  He evidently already had a pretty good job and we look forward to including his many followers in the Catholic Church of tomorrow.  Frankly, we are all excited about the talents Coach brings to the church’s sidelines as Christ’s Vicar on earth.  This all takes me back to the heady days of Pope Urban II and defending the Holy Lands against Saracen subjugation.”

When asked about the obvious implications of a non-celibate ascension on the future inclusion of married men and even women in the priesthood, Cardinal Dolan responded, “Well…American football is a male dominated sport.”

During a brief news conference after the conclave, Coach Saban handled the select group of reporters much like his previous encounters with the American sports media.  His answers were short on content and long on implied context.  “We’re not going to talk about what we’re going to accomplish, we’re going to talk about how we’re going to do it.”  “The scoreboard has nothing to do with the process. Each possession you look across at the opponent and commit yourself to dominate that person. It’s about individuals dominating the individuals they’re playing against. If you can do this…if you can focus on the one possession and wipe out the distractions…then you will be satisfied with the result.”  When asked about the influence Jesus had on his career, Coach replied, “Jesus didn’t talk about winning championships, he talked about being a champion.”  Coach Saban did say that he had not chosen his official church name, but that he unofficially hoped that his 1.2 billion member team would call him ‘Pope Coach.’

Holiday Letters…Humbug

Just once, wouldn’t you like to see a real holiday letter.

Season’s Greetings from (…ohhhhhh, let’s say…) the Simpson’s!

Good god, has it really been a year since I wrote last year’s pack of lies?  If you are reading this, consider yourself lucky.  The mutt ate most of the address book because the economy is so bad and groceries are so expensive we stopped buying dog food, except for grandpa.

2012 really sucked big gnarly ones.  Nobody did anything.  Nobody achieved anything.  Nobody was awarded any medals for anything.  I didn’t get a raise.  My job still sucks.  The people I work with still suck.  I still suck.  That’s why I’m still stuck in this dead-end job ‘till I die of a heart attack.

Lisa is still playing her saxophone.  God help us, she’ll keep playing the blues and probably marry some loser drummer and have to live with us while her sorry husband searches for that pot of grunge drummer gold.   At least she’s not pregnant, yet.

The baby is still sucking on that nunu.   Her teeth will be messed up but it does keep her quiet.

Bart managed to stay out of jail this year and, to date, as far as we know, has not sired any offspring.

Marge is still my blue haired old lady.  I can’t believe we’ve stayed married all these years.  We have managed to work ourselves into subsistence, requiring a minimal amount of communication and sex only on a seasonal basis… whether we need it or not.

But truth be told, I am thankful for Baby Jesus and the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  You see, even though it was used as a medical ointment and burial spice, myrrh was also used in early recipes for mead.  And from mead we got…beeeer, mmmmm.  For that I am truly thankful!

DOH!  Happy Holidays!

Musings from the Darkroom: Does this thing shoot far?

My most favorite example of geographical dialect confusion comes from Chilton County, Alabama.  A co-worker of mine in Birmingham who lived south of the city on a large farm in rural Chilton County was birthday present shopping for her little brother at the local Walmart in the county seat, Clanton.  In the toy section, she closely examined all the various models of super soaker water guns with which a young boy could ever hope to terrorize his sisters.  Pumping the action of the magnum version, she asked the woman working toys, “does this thing shoot far?”  To which the astonished employee responded, “Oh NO MA’AM, it just shoots WATER!”

Papa Allen and the Oysters

Known to most as Coach Allen, Papa Allen or Papa Lou to the fortunate that knew him outside school and church, and his wife, Trice, were close family friends. I was too young to have had him as an instructor. By the time I matriculated through the public school system, he was finishing his educational career at the local private school. My memories of Papa Allen center around both the church and the kitchen table in our home on Strawberry Street.

Attending First Methodist, we usually sat several rows back on the left hand side right behind Mr. and Mrs. Allen. When called upon, he always spoke the most amazing prayers. They were beautifully ornate without being pretentious. I always felt that surely the Lord couldn’t help but answer prayers so thoughtfully composed and elegantly delivered. I know now that the Lord cares only that the words come from our hearts, but his words seemed to always come from a humble heart and thoughtful mind, a rare combination even within church walls.

If I didn’t know better, given the amount of time he spent in our home one might think something untoward had gone on between my mother and Papa Lou. If, indeed, he indulged any unhealthy appetites on North Strawberry Street, it all happened in mother’s kitchen. Like most southern kitchens ours was the center of activity, always with something baked sitting on the counter and a fresh pot of coffee on. Whenever he made a run into town from his home out Range Line Road, he always found an excuse to stop in for a visit.

Like all of our friends, he would let himself in the back door, heading straight to the kitchen looking for the day’s treat and some good company. You see, Papa Allen was a diabetic, but he knew mother would let him cheat on his diet, or so he thought. Unbeknownst to him, mother and Mrs. Trice had been in cahoots for years. She always called mom to let her know how his blood sugar was that day so, if necessary, she could hide the sweets.

Whether it was over a piece of caramel cake or cheese and crackers, Papa Allen spent plenty of time in his chair at the south end of our kitchen table drinking black coffee sweetened with saccharin from a bottle he always had in the pocket of his sport coat and participating in one of the other great southern activities, storytelling. The number or length of those stories seemed directly correlated to his appetite, “June, cut me off another smidge of that pie, just enough to finish off my coffee.” And then another tale would start, sometimes tall and other times taller, it seemed in some way reimbursement for the hospitality. Praying or storytelling, he was a master southern linguist with impeccable timing and always captivating content. The oyster story is classic Papa Allen from his youth.

Oysters Come to Marengo County

On a family trip to Mobile father had eaten oysters for the first time, had thoroughly enjoyed them and was determined to have them again. This was difficult in a time when few country folk owned automobiles.  Living a good day’s train ride up from the coast and long before refrigerated shipping, father’s prospects for fresh oyster stew seemed slim.  But father was persistent and finally managed to locate a seafood house that arranged to have a barrel shipped upstate on the train. One day word came that the oysters were finally arriving. Father ordered him and Brother Bill to hitch up the wagon; they were going to the train station to retrieve their Mobile Bay delicacies.

The oysters arrived intact and still cool, having been packed in alternating layers of ice and moss. Once back at home they unpacked the barrel and took the oysters into the kitchen where mother proceeded to demonstrate to their cook, Miss Margaret, how to use the short dull knives they had picked up in Mobile to shuck the oysters. Placing the insides in a clean bowl and leaving Miss Margaret to her duties, mother went on about hers.

After an hour or so, mother came back to check on Miss Margaret’s shucking progress and found her over the sink scrubbing the mud and moss off the last of the oyster shells, placing them with the others that had been cleaned, dried, polished and lined up on the countertop alongside the empty oyster bowl. When asked how things were going, a bewildered Miss Margaret replied, “Missy, I dun’ cleaned ‘dem oysters and th’owed da’ guts to da’ hogs, but fo’ God, I don’t see how you gon’ cook ‘em tender.”