Story 24: A Tree, A Torpedo, and Me

Story 24/24: The Christmas I remember best happened during my College Freshman year over Thanksgiving break. I moved to Cedar City, living for the first time on my own and returning for a holiday no longer felt like I was coming home.

In the Ellis household, the day after Thanksgiving had nothing to do with the words Black Friday or sales. Instead, we had a tradition of cutting down our Christmas tree. We’d head east on I-84 through Weber Canyon to a town called, Mountain Green, and a Christmas tree farm called Papa Pines.

Papa Pines speckled a steep hillside perpetually covered in marshmallow fluff. Here, my family would separate into groups of two and hike, seeking out the perfect Balsam Fir—bell-shaped, with green and gray two-toned needles and smelling of evergreen.

This trip was much like all the others. We reached Papa Pines. We dispersed through the planted forest, knee deep in the snow, scouting for our family Christmas tree. When one was spotted, my dad retrieved a handsaw. While he and my brother, Rick cut it down, the rest of us stood around drinking watered-down hot cocoa from white Styrofoam.

Afterward, we half carried, half dragged the tree back down the mountainside and tied it to the roof of our Caprice Classic station wagon by rope remnants and bungee cords.

I took my place in my designated spot in the car, sharing the jump seat with Rick, facing backward. For our entire childhoods, the first we saw of any destination was what everyone else saw looking behind them.

As we headed home following the last traces of sunlight, the tree began hinting at escape. Thump! Thump! Thump!

“Dad?”

“What?”

“Something’s happening with the tree,” Rick said.

Overhead, the tree shifted scratching into the aluminum roof in high-pitched screeches. Several tree limbs dropped low over the side of our car.

“Dad?”

“Yeah, I see it!” My dad yanked the steering wheel hard to the left. The tree slid to the opposite side, and the branches disappeared. After a minute the banging began again.

A low groan rumbled along the rooftop followed by a whine and snap! The ribbons of a bungee cord flapped down, its metal hook slapped the side window.

“Dad?“

A wind hurled through the narrow Canyon and collided with the front of our car ripping the Balsam pine free and launching it off the rooftop like a torpedo rocketing out of a wood-paneled submarine. It landed in the middle of the highway.

My dad skidded to the shoulder and slammed on the breaks. He leaped from the driver’s seat and ran onto I-84. Rick scrambled after him. The rest of us stayed, open-mouthed, and wide-eyed, as car after car maneuvered within inches of hitting our tree and then our family members.

Rick and my dad almost had a solid hold on the tree when the sound of a loud horn bellowed. They dropped it and hurried out of the way as a Semi-truck ran over our perfect pine splitting limbs, scalping needles, and shredding its trunk.

It was dark now. The only light came from passing cars swerving around the Christmas tree corpse and the two men lugging it off the side of the road.

No one said a word as the pine was strapped back down to the roof. No one breathed even as we drove up the driveway of our house.

The tree was taken off its gurney and carried inside like a funeral procession. It was leaned against a far wall in the front room, bent, bald, and broken.

“It’s not that bad,” my mom said tilting her head to the side, assessing the damage.

“It’s missing a whole side,” my dad pointed out.

“Oh, I can fix that,” she said, and we believed her. My mother is a decorating genius with a black belt in disguise. If anyone could make the tree presentable once more, it was she.

I’d made plans with some friends that evening and left. Hours later, I returned. A beautiful Christmas tree stood in the corner where the battered one had been. My mom was at the base adding final ornaments.

“Did we get a new tree?” I asked.

“No.”

I walked closer and saw the fix; branches were reassembled around the trunk secured by screws. At the tree’s point, between the star topper and the ceiling was a white eyehook with fishing line wrapped and knotted in the middle.

Perhaps it was the act and antics of getting the tree, or maybe it was the familiarity of witnessing my mom’s brand of magic that whispered in my heart. For the first time since I arrived for Thanksgiving, I felt like I was home.

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