Whitesburg KY
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Christmas tree cutting brought out the turpentine

Points East

I’m pretty sure I’ve written about this story before, but if you are younger than 40, you probably missed it. In fact, if you are younger than 50, you probably didn’t spend a lot of time reading a weekly newspaper in the early 1980s unless an elementary school teacher forced one on you. I’m reasonably sure my column was in its infancy when I first spun this yarn, but I can’t find the original, so I’m guessing it was in the late 1970s to early ‘80s.

Anyway, it’s still a Christmas story and I can only hope that contains some elements of the first go around.

When I was growing up on Blair Branch in Letcher County during the 1950s and ‘60s, it was not unusual for my younger brothers and me to start being on the lookout for the perfect Christmas about the time blackberries started getting ripe in late June and July.

We would usually settle on a hemlock sapling, white pine or cedar well before Thanksgiving. Usually they were much taller than the rooms in our old house could accommodate and we had to saw the tops out of the first cut and use them to make our tree. Oftentimes we would drag a 25-footer home and then have to cut it down to less than eight feet. The bottom two-thirds often made enough kindling for the fireplace and two stoves to last for weeks.

I can’t recall whether it was a Douglas fir or some variety of spruce, but several decades earlier our Uncle Stevie Craft had planted it to sit on the corner of his old homeplace. His old home had been torn down many years before any of the Adams boys were even born, but the big evergreen was still standing and it was probably 50 feet or taller. It would have been ideal for a Christmas tree at the state capitol.

However, we only wanted the top eight feet and the tree was much too big for us to undertake felling it.

I asked Uncle Stevie if I could climb it and cut the top out. He just grinned and shook his head before telling me to ask my mom if it was okay. I asked Dad and he also told me to, “Ask your mom.” Of course we all knew what the answer to that one would be, but I figured that what Mom didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her and that I’d had all the approval I needed if anything did go wrong. I had absolutely no expectation that it would.

The trunk of the “spruce pine”, as Uncle Stevie called it, was well over a foot in diameter for the bottom eight feet or so and it was covered with globs of resin we called pine tar. The resin was all that stood in the way of scaling the tree because climbing it was as easy as going up a ladder until I got to about 15 feet from the top and it began to sway. Reaching up as high as I could, I managed to use a bow saw and the top was soon on the ground.

When I sawed out the top eight feet, it turned into the scraggliest Christmas tree we had ever seen and I was covered, head to foot, hat to boots, including my best winter coat, with pine tar. I even had the stuff on my hands, face and in my hair. I soon found out that soap and water had no utility for cleaning it off anything. Visions of Uncle Remus’s Tar Baby flashed through my mind and I knew I was in deep trouble.

Thank God my mom, after getting over her mad spell, had a sense of humor. Somehow she managed to use turpentine to scrub the stuff, none too gently, off my body and had Dad siphon some gasoline from the truck to get it off my boots and clothes. Dad said, “The next time I tell you to ask your mom about something, you better pay attention.”

I believe I was in either third or fourth grade at Blair Branch Grade School at the time and my schoolmates teased me about smelling like a Christmas tree for the rest of that winter. I suppose it could have been worse.

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