December 24, 2012

A Christmas Story


Because it is Christmas Eve and I do not believe in frightening people unnecessarily, I will tell the end of this harrowing story first, then go back to the beginning.  And so, here goes:  I am happy to report that I am alive to write this, and Hank Rawlings is not going to get a set of bongo drums for Christmas.
Now, to the beginning of the story. 
Hank and me, circa 2007
This has been a rotten week, weather-wise, in eastern Massachusetts. It has been cold and rainy. The sun comes up after seven in the morning and sets a few minutes after four, peaking at just 24 degrees above the horizon.  On Friday, partly for the exercise and partly to enjoy the Yuletide spirit, Betty and I had planned to visit a small town along the coastline south of Boston where all the shops in the quaint village are beautifully decorated for the holidays.  The visit was enthusiastically recommended to her by members of a garden club in that town.  But there was a driving rain and cutting wind all afternoon.  And so we stayed home.
Yesterday morning, Betty suggested a better form of exercise: cutting down a tree.  (No, not a Christmas tree; a nine-plus-foot Frasier fir has graced our Great Room for the past ten days and is magnificent.)  The tree she had in mind is a tall, spindly oak that, since a snow storm last winter, has leaned precariously into our gardens even as it grew to a height of more than forty feet.  Last summer, the tree provided unwanted shade to several rock garden beds and Betty’s well-founded fear was that a winter storm could topple the tree once and for all.
To be completely honest, Betty has had the tree removal on my ‘to-do’ list ever since we had to shake a coating of snow and ice off of it to get it off our deck last January, but I have successfully put off the task by various subterfuges, the most persuasive was that the oak could not just be cut down with a chain saw.  It is less than thirty feet from the back of our house and, based on the direction it was leaning, it would take out our back deck and a portion of our Great Room, a Cornus mas (Cornelian cherry), and a very rare Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Snow’ – not necessarily in that order of importance to Betty.
The tree, I argued, needed to be cut half-way up so that its top half fell harmlessly into some minor shrubs and pathways.  To get twenty feet up the trunk of the tree required a suitable, sturdy ladder and the tall wooden one we possessed was more than half a century old and was – literally and figuratively – falling apart. 
Ten days ago, that excuse became moot when Betty spotted on sale and purchased a 22-foot Little Giant, 350-pound-rated aluminum ladder.  She ordered the ladder on line (who knew?) and my hope was that its delivery would be delayed until after the snow started falling, making the tree-removal task impossible for yet another season.  Instead, the ladder arrived in three days. 
And so, yesterday morning, with all excuses gone, I unfolded the ladder to its maximum height and set out to finally perform the feat that I had promised to do all year.  I secured a rope around the tree above the cut line and Betty positioned herself off to one side, ready to guide the falling tree into one of minimal landscape damage.
I made a practice cut, taking off a largish side branch roughly fifteen feet off the ground.  When the limb fell, the tree bucked and I had to hold on for dear life.  If that was the effect a smaller branch had, it was likely that the Main Event would hurl me and the ladder into the adjoining trees.
Betty suggested tying the ladder to the tree.  I thought this was a good idea.  She also suggested lashing myself to the tree.  I did not like this idea one bit.  I imagined the top of the tree snapping over, the base of the tree bucking violently, the ladder flying free, and me hanging from the trunk of the tree in a vignette out of the song, ‘Tom Dooley’.
My own plan was to cut (with a hand saw) at the 25-foot level and, as soon I even thought I heard the tree start to give, climb as far down the ladder as fast as I could.  I thought I heard the trunk begin to crack about the one-third way point.  I scurried down the ladder, expecting the tree to go over.  It didn’t.  Betty and I tugged on the rope for several minutes trying to hasten it along..  The tree did not budge.
I went back up, and gave the trunk a few more cuts, all the time listening for that tell-tale cracking sound.  And, I readily confess, I began to worry for my safety.  Here I was, at the top of a very tall ladder, sawing above my head, with sawdust falling into my face.
I began to think about… Christmas presents.
I am told that I am very hard to buy presents for.  That is quite true for the simple reason that I have long had all of the ‘things’ I ever wanted.  When Betty asked what I wanted this year, all I could come up with was the very practical suggestion that my bedroom slippers are worn out.  I was subsequently given a number of ultimatums to come up with better ideas.
"Desk Set" - for the man who has everything... bongo drums
One of my favorite Christmas movies is ‘Desk Set’, the 1957 Katherine Hepburn – Spencer Tracy vehicle that features possibly the best office Christmas party scene ever.  After Gig Young has found Tracy wearing the monogrammed bathrobe Hepburn bought for Young (don’t ask, just rent the film), Hepburn buys Young a set of bongo drums because the sign in the store said they were ‘for the man who has everything’.
So the question was, if the next cut was the crucial one and I did not get out of the way of the tree quickly enough, and the tree bucked me and the ladder onto one of the granite boulders that dot our woods, to whom could Betty give the bongo drums?  I decided my oldest friend, Hank Rawlings, was the right recipient.  My fear was that, with my dying breath, she might not understand this part of my last will and testament.
Maybe I was thinking too hard about bongo drums.  I gave the tree an insignificant but crucial cut and heard just a single warning ‘snap’.  The top twenty-three feet of the tree fell over.  Later, Betty would say she heard ‘snap-snap-craaaaaack’ before it fell.
Whichever is the case, I got down about four rungs when the trunk of the tree, now relieved of more than a ton of weight that had pulled it toward the earth, lost that burden and the trunk went ‘twang’ like an airline seat being returned to its upright and locked position before landing.
I hung onto the ladder with a grip I did not know I possessed and the tree’s kick was strong enough to slam the ladder into my thigh. 
But a second later, I was still on the ladder, fifteen feet above ground, shaken but very much alive.  The tree’s top was on the ground, having missed the house and deck by roughly five feet; completely missing the Cornus, and inflicting very minor damage on Chamaecyparis ‘Snow’.
Seeing that I was shaken, Betty asked if I was all right.  I responded that I was fine but that I hoped she had not bought me bongo drums for Christmas.  She looked at me quizzically, then smiled.

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