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Oh, Tanner Baum

I wrote this Christmas story a few years ago but I like to dust it off and place it under the virtual tree occasionally, like the old family tree skirt that keeps getting reused because no one has the heart to purchase a new one. Maybe one day I will write a new Christmas story but, until then, this is what I offer (but you should all know my wife claims this as one of her favorites so that has to be worth something). The story is one of two in a downloadable e-book available here. (Be warned, the other short story is not a feel good holiday tale, not even close, but it is interesting.) Feel free to share this story with friends, family and general acquaintances and I pray all of you have a tremendous Christmas and a successful 2016. And thanks for reading…

My Daddy set his fork down, placed his elbows on either side of his plate, laced his fingers almost directly in front of his face and cleared his throat. The rest of us occupying the rim of the breakfast table swallowed whatever we were chewing, sat up straight and quickly shut up.

“When I get home from work tonight, we are going out to get our Christmas tree. Everyone be ready at six p.m. sharp. We will depart at 6:01.” The buzz surging around the table was strong enough to reheat momma’s burnt biscuits. In other households picking out the Christmas tree may be seen as mundane or even a chore but in the Baum home, there was no bigger event. For us, it marked the official beginning of the holiday season and was an activity that involved the entire family. Six o’clock couldn’t get here fast enough and everyone would be ready. Tardiness would not be an issue.

I’m the second child in a string of five, all of us tow headed and thin. Too thin, according to my grandmother, but I think it’s because my momma refuses to get glasses and she tends to burn half our dinner because she can’t read directions or the numbers on the stove. Even though a diet of charcoal isn’t very filling, the plus side is we all have very pleasant breath. Since I’m almost the oldest, I have experienced the Christmas tree gathering almost more than any of the other kids. Momma told me it wasn’t as big a deal when it was just she and Daddy but something came over him when she birthed my older sister. Momma said he jumped from not caring too much about the tree to caring way too much, but she likes this much better even if he does take it too seriously. I’m glad he does because our trees are always the best in the neighborhood every year, and Daddy says that doesn’t happen by accident. “Planning, preparation and perfect timing” are the three “P’s” Daddy lives by, and we don’t go get our tree until he says it’s time. I guess he woke up this morning and could sense today was the day because he wouldn’t have made the announcement unless he felt it deep in his spirit. And he sounded mighty sure this morning, like he had a special feeling, more special than other years.

I couldn’t concentrate in any of my classes at school knowing what was waiting for me when I got home. I got called out by three different teachers for not hearing a question or just staring out the window. I snuck one of Momma’s pine scented air fresheners into my locker at school to serve as a pungent reminder of the upcoming event but after lunch I almost messed up everything by getting sick to my stomach from sniffing my math book. Daddy doesn’t take the weak and infirmed on the tree hunt and that includes children with queasy stomachs. For the last fifteen minutes of my final class I just stared at the clock, watching the second hand spin toward three o’clock. If I was given an assignment during that time I have no idea what it was because I was paying zero attention to my teacher. I ran all the way home, which was pretty stupid since we live three miles away and all of my siblings had already finished their snack before I got home because they rode the bus. I put up with the laughing and the name calling from my brothers and sisters because it was such a special day, although I will remember to get back at Oleta for continuing to chant “treetarded” long after everyone had agreed it wasn’t very funny.

When Daddy’s car pulled into the carport every one of us was dressed and ready to go. As he walked through the family room and passed in front of all of us sitting lined up on the sofa, he nodded approvingly and told us he needed to change clothes and then we would leave. When he left the room we all grabbed hands and simultaneously contorted our faces into silent screams. I kept my eye on Hootie during the scream because he always made the best faces due to his lazy eye and his current transition between baby teeth and permanent.

My father is shaped like a box. He is as wide and tall as he is thick. If he ever had a visible neck it was long gone before any pictures were taken of him. He has great posture but he is as wide as a door jam and he walks with tiny, bouncy steps that make it look like he is skipping everywhere he goes. I guess he’s kind of funny looking but we never laugh about it because we’re used to it. He’s not the snazziest dresser but the one day Daddy can be counted on to look fine is the day we get our Christmas tree. This time he put on a crisp pair of blue jeans held up by plain brown suspenders that overlapped his favorite green and red plaid flannel shirt. He always rolled up the sleeves, one turn each, because it gave him some breathing room when he needed to slide on his gloves. The rugged, manly, leather gloves hung exactly halfway out of his right back pocket, thumbs lined up, far enough away not to be a nuisance but close enough to grab when needed. On his feet were a pair of boots purchased over ten years ago that were still as shiny as the day he bought them. They were brown to match his suspenders and they were cut high, climbing midway to his knees, which gave him ample room to tuck his jeans into the top before he laced them, tight and secure, tied with a double knot. The whole fashion package was topped off with a bright orange John Deere baseball hat. Daddy liked wearing it really high on his head. I think he thought it made him look taller but it really just looked like he needed a bigger hat.

When he walked out of the bedroom and stood framed in the doorway, he was the coolest Daddy that any of us had ever seen. I had witnessed the transformation for 12 years and the initial sensation of pride never faded. Our Daddy was going to get us a Christmas tree and we were going to help.

The only person in the house not allowed to go with us was Momma. Daddy liked having her stay back at the house to make sure the tree lights were functioning and all the ornament boxes were open and ready to be raided. Whenever Daddy kissed her goodbye she would salute and thank him in advance for the task he was about to undertake. The way Momma smiled when she said it made me wonder if she was talking about getting the tree or the fact that Daddy was taking all five kids out of the house at once by himself. Either way, I liked the salute and I think he did too. We all piled into the mini-van and once Daddy was sure we were all buckled in, he got us on the road, heading out to find our tree.

The Methodist Church was only five blocks away but it felt like eight. It always seems to take longer to get some place than it does to get back. Daddy found a parking space right near the front of the tree lot and, before he turned off the van and unlocked the doors, he turned in his seat, as much as his body would let him, and went over the rules just like he does every year. “Number one: don’t act like little hooligans when we get out of the car. You represent our family and its good name while you’re in public. Number two: Help me with this one… Who makes the final decision about which tree we buy?”

We all shouted, “Daddy!” And with that we were released.

As we approached the entrance the smell of pines buckled my knees—caused by my stomach’s memory of that afternoon—but I recovered by taking a swig of ginger ale from Cecil’s flask. He was always getting car sick so he had special permission to carry carbonated soda with him every time he rode in the car, no matter how short the trip. Fortunately, since ginger ale lacked caffeine, it didn’t interfere with his Ritalin. Since I had to hesitate in the parking lot to settle my stomach, I got left behind. By the time I caught up, Daddy had already grabbed a measuring pole and was marching into the first row of trees. Boy Scout Troup 1412 always ran this particular tree lot and we kept coming back every year because they gave returning customers $5.00 off the purchase of a tree. Coupons are a big deal to the Baum family. I found Daddy and the crew halfway down aisle one, being led by one of Troup 1412’s finest, a little dude with buckteeth sporting his Scout shirt, scarf, khaki shorts and what looked like size twelve white sneakers. He looked nervous and I was guessing he was probably new. No one ever waited on Daddy twice. As I got closer I could hear Daddy getting ready to explain why.

“What was your name again, son?”

“Bart, sir.”

“Okay, Bart, here are my expectations for the evening. If you want to sell me a Christmas tree, you will need to follow these rules. One, I point to a tree I am interested in with the measuring stick. You will then pull it into the aisle and hold it straight. Two, I will measure for height, which will determine its price, which will determine whether it is in our price range. If it qualifies, we will proceed to three, which will require you to spin the tree one-quarter turns when I say the word ‘spin.’ I will say the word four times and you will spin the tree four times until I have inspected the tree from every angle. Understood?”

“Yes, sir.” Bart’s response was barely a whisper and his hand was shaking as he mindlessly raised it, holding up three fingers like he was going to start reciting the Boy Scout pledge. Daddy smiled and then made everyone jump by spinning 90 degrees and pointing the measuring stick toward his first evergreen subject, shouting “That one!” Bart recovered and ran over to Daddy’s choice, pulled it out of the stack and dragged it to the middle of the aisle. We all watched silently as he struggled to gain enough leverage to pull it upright. He was so little that it took him a long time to get it balanced perpendicular to the ground. By the time he succeeded, he was sweating through his shirt and his hair was starting to stick to the sides of his face.

“Good Lord, man!” Daddy shouted. “If you’re that slow with all of these trees we’ll need to order breakfast!” Bart was deflated and right before he started to cry, Daddy told us kids to help him with the trees, which was what we were waiting to hear. Humiliating a Boy Scout is part of the Baum family tree buying tradition, at least for Daddy.

As we started running toward the tree Bart was holding, we all stopped at the same time and stared. The tree was pathetic. The trunk was crooked and the left side of it looked like it had survived a hurricane, limbs curled back over themselves and needles sticking every way but right. There was no way Daddy would accept a tree in that condition and he proved me right by telling Bart to get that one out of his site and grab another. The next one Daddy pointed to got displayed a lot quicker because all of the kids were helping. We couldn’t help the way the tree looked, though. It was possibly more wretched than the first one. It was so bad that Daddy didn’t even have us spin it, not even once. Daddy decided to change his luck by trying another row of trees, but each one we pulled out to show him was pitiful. They were either really thin or had giant holes in them big enough for baby Cephus to hide in. Daddy was spinning and pointing that stick so fast he looked like a wizard casting spells, except he would have to be from the Minnesota Wizard Clan where they are more accepting of flannel and lace-up boots.

Whatever he was trying to conjure up with that stick it wasn’t working. Every single tree we hauled in front of him was useless. I was starting to get scared and, by the amount of fingernail chewing being conducted by my brothers and sisters, they were too. Bart had to go home when his momma came to pick him up an hour into our hunt. He looked relieved. As we all gathered around the latest choice, Daddy told me to run get one of the adult Boy Scouts because he had some questions for him. I grabbed the first dude I found and we hurried to the back of the lot to talk to Daddy.

Daddy didn’t give the Man Scout a chance to introduce himself before he barked, “Sir, your allotment of trees this season is deplorable. What say you?”

“I’m afraid you’re right, Mr. Baum. Seems we tried a different supplier this year and what they sent us has been a bit disappointing.”

“Disappointing? That, my man, is a gross understatement. These trees should be burned!” I admit I would love to see a whole Christmas tree lot set on fire but I know what Daddy was getting at. So did the Man Scout.

“I tell you what I can do, Mr. Baum. If you can find something in here you can work with, I’ll sell it to you half price.” When Daddy heard that offer, he softened up a little. If coupons are big in the Baum family then half-off deals are huge. The Man Scout was speaking Daddy’s language.

Daddy placed both his hands behind his back and took on a serious look. He stared at the Man Scout and said, “I will take that offer under advisement and let you know in a reasonable time what my decision will be.”

“As long as a reasonable time is within fifteen minutes because we close at nine.”

Daddy turned away from him and started to pace. This was a good sign because when Daddy paced it seemed to charge up the part of his brain where The Genius lives. Some near miracles have occurred from Daddy’s hands once he has spent a little time pondering. The kids knew to let him be and work through it on his own time. After ten minutes the Man Scout got tired of waiting and he walked back to the front to begin the process of shutting down the lot for the night. In all my years of hunting the tree, we have never come home empty handed, proving that when Daddy got the special feeling, great things happened. I could not imagine tonight would be different but just as a little seedling of despair started to germinate in my gut, Daddy stopped, turned to face us and pointed the measuring stick at me.

“Tanner, go find the man in charge and tell him to bring me a saw and a ball of twine and meet us in aisle two. The rest of you, follow me. There is work to be done.” I ran off to find the Man Scout. Daddy was getting us a Christmas tree.

By the time we found Daddy and the kids, they had pulled two nasty trees out of the stack and had them lying on the ground right next to each other. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what Daddy had planned but I was in no position to doubt him. He instructed my brothers and sisters to stand the trees straight up and hold them side-by-side. When that was done, he stepped back, setting one end of the measuring stick on the ground, holding it out from his body, looking like Moses before he parted the Red Sea. Since I wasn’t a participant at that particular miracle, what followed next will have to suffice as my Children of Israel moment. Daddy started barking out instructions, simple and clear, and that’s when we all knew Daddy was either a genius or a saint.

“Right side, spin!” The kids holding the tree on the right spun their tree one-quarter around. This was followed by a moment of silence before Daddy barked, “Left side, spin!” The kids on the left quickly obeyed. “Left side, spin!” They turned it once again. When Daddy told the kids on the right to spin their tree back to its original position, Daddy’s plan became crystal clear. It was like the heavens opened up and a big angel choir started singing one of those fancy church songs. Even the Man Scout muttered, “Well I’ll be…” Without being told the kids holding each tree moved toward each other, stopping as their two trunks met. The result was one of the most beautiful, full trees any of us had ever seen in our lives. Daddy had found two perfect halves to make a glorious whole and his reputation as a blessed genius was forever seared in our minds.

After a few moments of respectful silence, Daddy grabbed the saw and twine from the Man Scout and instructed the kids not to move. He started snipping and hacking, ridding each tree of its bad parts until the two orphans fit together like conjoined twins. Then he grabbed the twine and united the two at the top, middle and bottom, securing them so tightly that no man would ever put them asunder. When Daddy was through, the Man Scout offered to hold the tree (it was one now) and let the whole Baum crew inspect Daddy’s work. “Spin!” we all shouted at once and repeated it until we had seen the tree from every angle. It was perfect, probably the best-looking Christmas tree we had ever found. Then I had an idea that, weirdly, seemed to strike all of us kids at once, because we all grabbed hands and let out the biggest silent scream we had ever mustered. Daddy laughed but the Man Scout lost his smile briefly. I believe he happened to be looking at Hootie and, if you’re not ready for it, his silent scream can disturb you.

As we piled into the van, Oleta remembered Bart and wished out loud that he could have witnessed our Christmas miracle. Cecil said he believed the Man Scout would be telling that story for a lot of years to come so he was sure Bart would hear about it. Then everybody started talking at the same time and, for once, Daddy didn’t try to shut us up. It was a very special night indeed.

Published inThe Pursuit of Happiness

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