Neal, Bill, and the Christmas Tree
By JIM NICHOLS
Every family has a set of Christmas traditions; they might not make sense to anyone else, but they are important to the family. The traditions are often accompanied by memories that reach outside the family itself. In this case I am thinking of my friends Neal and Bill, folks no longer in my life nor the life of our family.
I understand that many families use an artificial Christmas tree, and I can see the advantages of that. It might be a pain to get it out of the box and re-assemble the tree each year, but at least you do not have to go find and buy one. Despite that attraction, we have always been partial to a fresh tree (as fresh as we can find) and that has set up some memories. It is odd how memories can lie dormant for months and even years and then re-surface with only a song, a place, or an aroma.
Our friend Neal is on the stage with his tractor on his land in central Arkansas. Neal and his family owned and occupied many acres of undeveloped land—just rolling, grassy hills, bushes, and trees, lots of trees. Unrelated to Christmas, when we had purchased a new house with no landscaping at all, Neal and I spent a Saturday on his land digging up four trees, transporting them to our new house, and planting them. These trees were not large, but they were substantial enough to result in us questioning our decision to attempt this. At one point Neal said, “If my father saw what we were trying to do here, he would say ‘Boys, you about bit off more than you can chew.’”
Pre-Christmas each year with our young family involved a Saturday morning driving to Neal’s farm, climbing onto a small trailer, and being pulled by Neal’s tractor out to the farm to find the perfect tree. Some years another young family joined us. These were magical trips for us. The whole concept of the family searching for and cutting the tree was special. Some years, there had been an ice storm the preceding night and the ground and vegetation were glistening and bright; it was a sight not easily forgotten. Back at Neal’s house, we tied the tree on the roof of the station wagon and took it home.
The pattern changed when we moved from Arkansas and had to begin commercially purchasing a tree. There was still the problem of getting the tree home, however. Neighbor Bill had a pickup truck—an old, unlicensed, uninsured, beat-up pickup truck, but sufficient for the need. Bill would loan me the truck for tree-hauling, though he never rode with me. Because of its physical condition (and its unlicensed and uninsured status), this caused my apprehension and adrenalin levels to be high as I drove it; I tried to make my tree trips as short as possible.
Adventures with Bill’s truck were many, though I never told him. One Christmas I waited so late in the season that all the tree suppliers were sold out. I drove all over town in this unlicensed, uninsured, unsafe truck and finally saw a single tree for sale at some farmhouse. I had driven so much that I had to stop and buy gasoline for Bill’s truck.
Another year I was carrying the tree in the truck bed but when I arrived home, the tree was gone. Shocked at the empty truck, I retraced my route and found the tree on the side of a major street I had just traversed.
Life changed for Bill, however, and one day the truck was gone, as was Bill. I never heard the story of the truck’s fate. Furthermore, I was now on my own for any subsequent tree.
I also found that, as I aged, I could not lift such a heavy tree. These years I have grown content with a smaller one, one I can put in the trunk of the car, although it still sticks out. I figure that sight might be a positive one for onlookers.
My hunch is your family has some similar important memories. Certainly, we give thanks for God coming to earth as a human. We are also thankful for friends who have sprinkled peace and joy in our lives. Perhaps they are named Neal and Bill.
Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current hospice chaplain