Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The indestructible Tree Stand and other Christmas memories

I need to find a photo of the Christmas trees of my childhood.
This Christmas card is a few years before my time--1913!
It's the season to share memories.  I have written about Christmas memories in the past, hopefully there is something new in this post.

Early in December we would head to an empty lot on Oleander Drive where the Optimist Club, who sponsored Little League baseball at Hugh McRae Park, sold trees.  It was always dark.  There, under bare lights strung up from posts, we would make our way through the lot trying to find the perfect tree.  It was never an easy task as we all had our own favorite ones.  It couldn’t be too tall, as the ceiling in the living room was only eight feet, or too short for that wouldn’t show much of a tree in front of the picture window.  We wanted neighbors and those driving down the road to see and enjoy our tree.  Nor could it be too expensive.  There was so much to consider which makes picking the tree a major feat, but it seems that we always found a perfect one.  Having settled on the tree, dad would pay the men who were standing around a barrel where they were burning wood scraps to stay warm (even though it was never that cold).  We’d tie the tree into the trunk and head home, happy and satisfied. 

We never put the tree up right away.  Dad felt that since these trees had come from Canada or somewhere way up north and had been cut for a few weeks, it needed water.  So he would cut a few inches off the bottom of the trunk so that the tree could draw water and then sit the tree overnight in a pail of water.  Putting up a tree was a two-night task. 

The next evening, after dinner, we would decorate the tree.  Before bringing in the tree inside, my dad would lug the tree stand into the living room and place it on a piece of plastic to protect the floor.  I am not sure where he kept the stand for ours was unlike any I had ever seen before or since.  Dad made it himself.   I don’t know what became of it after my parents switched to artificial trees, but this was a stand to survive a nuclear attack.  It was built on a piece of plate steel, maybe 18 or 24 inches square and 3/8 of an inch thick.  Onto this, he had welded a tube with a three or four inch in diameter pipe (another tree requirement was that’s trunk had to fit into the pipe).   He had drilled and thread holes in the top where he ran bolts to hold the tree upright.  One of the problem with this stand is that you couldn’t put much water into it, so after the first year, he drilled holes into the first pipe, then welded on an eight inch metal pipe around the first pipe.  The second pipe was a few inches shorter than the first and made it easy to add water and hold water.  The stand was so secure that the tree itself would break before the stand would sway over.  As a kid, I was a little embarrassed about the tree stand.  Why couldn’t we have a flimsy store-brought stand like everyone else? As an adult, after having several trees knocked over (first, when I was in my mid-20s, by a drunken guest, then it was by Happy, the cat and the final time by Trisket, the dog), I see the wisdom of such a solid foundation.   I have no idea what became of this stand.  My parents switched to artificial trees shortly after my siblings and I vacated their home.  Perhaps the stand rusted away as a boat mooring.   It could have held a battleship.

The first thing in decorating was putting up the lights.   During my childhood, instead of using miniature lights that are now so popular (and a lot easier on the electric bill), we used screw-in lights with larger bulbs. These bulbs not only burned a lot of electricity, they created a lot of heat so we only turned the tree on when we were in the living room because to burn the bulbs too much would risk drying it out and making the whole enterprise a fire hazard.  After the lights, we were allowed to place ornaments on the tree.  There was a star that my dad would place on the top.   The final thing to go on the tree was the icicles.  My mom insisted that each one of the foil icicles be hung individually, which meant the tree never had enough icicles because we would tire of the task long before the tree was covered. 

On a table, we set out the nativity scene… the ceramic figures crowded into a manager that my dad had built out of plywood (and looked a lot like the three-sided shelters I’ve spent many a night in along the Appalachian Trail).   The living room, where the tree was at, was full of activity in December as we spent as much time as possible marveling at the tree.  During the rest of the year, the room was “off limits” except when we had company.  It was the visiting room.  But during those weeks from early December to New Year’s Day (when the tree was taken down), the room was full of life.  On Christmas morning, we were forbidden to enter the room until my parents were up (they were always sleepy and the last up and a few times we did slip in to see what was waiting around the tree).  When my father was ready, Super-8 movie camera in his hands with flood lights as bright as an atomic explosion, we’d run in all excited only to quickly shield our eyes from the blinding lights, as we checked out the presents from Santa (the unwrapped presents that circled the tree).  Favorite memories include an AM-FM radio, a microscope, an erector-set, a lever-action BB gun, and a bicycle.  When I was 12, there was a rifle (that is still in my gun safe but hasn’t been shot in decades) and the next year there were golf clubs.  Thanks to having a much younger sibling, my brother and sister and I kept receiving “Santa gifts” well until high school!  After checking out what Santa left, we’d open the wrapped presents and eat candy and fruit.  An hour or so later, my parents would fix a big breakfast, but we were not that hungry.  Afterwards, we’d play in the yard or get in the car for the ride up to Pinehurst to see grandparents.   

By Christmas night, we’d all be tired.  One year, for some reason, I remember listing to that AM-FM radio (that replaced my little 9 volt transistor radio) and they were playing “Judy in Disguise with Glasses.”   

May you have a  Merry Christmas! 

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Lingering into winter

All ready for Christmas
Fall has been lingering around here.  Every so often, since back in October, I’d spot a glimpse of autumn.  First it was the dogwoods, they've been bare at least two months.  Then, in early November, the Sweet Gums began to change color.  They seem to be a multitude of colors, from yellows to reds.  It seems the water oaks have been changing for months now, but many of the trees are still green.  They are a mystery to me.  The highlight, however, are the hickories which are a brilliant yellow.  In the early morning, with a bit of fog and the sun burning through on it, the hickories are stunning (and I need to get a photo of this!).   Of course, most of the trees such as the pines, live oaks, magnolias, American holly and palms, remain green all year.  And then there is the Spanish moss that is always gray.    According to the clock, fall is about to run out as winter moves in next week and I am still wearing shorts and, at the most, a light coat.  If the trees are an indicator of a bad winter, we’re in for a whopper, for the live oaks have produced a bountiful harvest of acorns.  There have been times it sounds like I am driving on plastic packaging wrap, the kind that has the air pockets that pop, when driving out the driveway or pulling into a parking lot shaded with oaks.  What would a bad winter feel like here?  The lights remind me that Christmas is around the corner, but it still doesn’t quite feel like it is time…   Even in what they consider hard winters around here, there is seldom snow.  No white Christmas this year, but still the season is one of joy and excitement and I am looking forward to celebrating.  
A recent foggy morning

Friday, December 05, 2014

Closely Watched Trains and the Folkston Funnel

This blog post is named for a 1966 Czech movie by the same title.  The movie is the coming of age story of Milos Herma, a young man during the Second World War when Czechoslovakia was under German occupation.  The young man takes a job with the railroad as he attempts to have his first sexual encounter.  It’s a world of Nazi agents as well as underground fighters against occupation.  The movie ends with Milos becoming a martyr, as he blows up a German munition train rushing to the front lines.

Folkston GA watertower
Of course, there were no such sabotages (or Nazi or partisans) on that day when I visited the Folkston Funnel (after spending most of the day paddling in the nearby Okefenokee.  The "funnel" refers to a length of double-track line owned by CSX transportation which handles much of the rail traffic in-and-out of Florida.  Just north of Folkston, rail lines that run to Savannah and the eastern corridor connect with lines that run through Waycross and Atlanta and up into the Midwest.  Over sixty-five trains a day pass over these rails. For those of us who get an itch whenever we see a train, Folkston capitalized on our addiction.  They built a viewing stand which is raised, shaded (and protected from rain) as well as complete with overhead fans to keep railfans cool and the gnats and mosquitoes at bay.  This prime location that allows one to safely closely watch trains, brings tourist into the small hamlet of Folkston.   A local business has been formed to offer “rail side lodging” in which they have restored two cabooses (one is right across from the train platform) and a station house.  Here, for a hundred bucks and some change, one can spend the night be awaken regularly by the trains moving in and out of Florida.
Train Observing Platform

Caboose for rent!
There were six or eight people on the platform when I was there.   One was a couple who were driving to their winter home in Florida.  The wife assured me they stop again in the spring when they head north.  I understood… 
A very long train of containers heads north
If you’re looking for a great place to watch trains, this is it!  To learn more about the movie and its link to the Czech uprising in 1968, read this article.  

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Ten Years After

Ten years ago tomorrow, December 3, I was coming to the end of my first year in Michigan and wondering why I had left the American West.  I had been hearing about blogs so I decided to start my own.  To this day, this has been my semi-anonymous blog as I don’t talk about work and spend little time talking about family.  Over the past decade, I have posted poetry, satire, memoir, book reviews, travelogues, recipes and a few memes (thank God that fad has seemed to have faded).  I have a few readers who have been with me since the early years and I appreciate them and learning about how their lives are changing.  There have been a few readers who disappeared and I learned later that they had died.  The world is a sadder place.  And then there are many who kept blogging for a few years before they threw in the towel, but I am thankful for what they shared and their comments on my blog.  Some of the later, I have kept up with on Facebook (which is why my blog is only semi-anonymous). 

In honor of my first decade, I am posting this photo of me.  The photo of me with a dark beard was taken in a few years earlier on a cross-country ski trip across Cedar Breaks National Monument in Utah.   Now, gray has taken hold of my beard and the top of my head no longer sustains hair growth.   I have always liked hats and sunglasses.

In case you ever wondered, I like classic rock and debated on whether to call this post "Ten Years After" after the British blues-rock band (remember their classic, "I"d  Love to Change the World") or Decade after the classic Neil Young 1977 album by the same name.  I had that album on vinyl and wonder what ever happened to it.  There was lots of good music on those three LPs:  Cinnamon Girl, Sugar Mountain and the haunting "The Needle and the Damage Done."  

I will close with a photo of this evening’s sunset behind the marsh on my late afternoon walk (taken on an iphone on the panoramic setting.  This country is so different from Michigan and Utah!   Cheers!