Over the past 16 years, I've participated in a few online forums, never under my real name. As we all know, an Internet forum is a virtual location where people behind computers meet to discuss a mutual interest by initiating topics called threads. One thread that I started 14 years ago continues to chuff along, having gathered well over a million views and 25,000 replies. The participants are a mismatched crew of cyber buddies from all over the continent, and some members who live near enough to each other have actually met and become real-life friends.
There aren't any other northern New Englanders, but after years of conversation, laughs, photos of homes, wives and children, projects, stories of tragedy and contentment, you become attached, particularly to the core group.
When one of the longest-standing members died last fall, I donated one of my baseball prints to the fire station where he served, while another member donated the framing. The plaque reads: "To the Memory of a True American Hero."
I was surprised at the intensity of my emotion with his passing because we had never met in person, our only contact outside the forum being the yearly Christmas card.
Three things have bound the thread's participants together: We are almost embarrassingly obsessed with vintage steam trains, we drink, and we all have a sense of humor.
Most holiday seasons, I'll put up a post something like this: "Do you hear a sweet sound in the air? A delicate chiming, a pleasant squeaking, so you know it's not annoying sleigh bells. Might sound a tad like approaching joy. Any idea what it might be?"
And one of the members will immediately post: "The beverage cart!"
Imagine one of those carts during the heyday of passenger train service across America in the 1920s, the kind that headed down the aisles. My cart, the New England version, is pushed by an ancient black Pullman porter who always calls me captain.
"Afternoon, cap'n," he'll say, since my cart never appears before 12:30 p.m. "What will we be having today, cap'n?"
He knows I only drink beer, perpetually Canadian or the Dutchman, but he's an exceedingly agreeable apparition. And when he sets down my beverage, impeccably served, old-school style just the way I like it, he adds, "Merry Christmas, cap'n. I'll be by later, see if you might fancy another."
He knows I'm good for a few on holidays, but the man is forever polite.
On the forum we joke about always keeping one wheel free from oil. We want to be able to hear that squeak of the approaching cart. Of course the Californians have a longer wait.
While one ear is listening for the cart to approach from the club car, I try to write a quick story about getting our Christmas tree. Along with the posted photos of the fully dressed tree, the members look forward each year to the tradition.
"Has he put up the tree and story yet?" they begin to ask around Thanksgiving.
Some years there's something funny or unusual that makes for an easier job, and some years there is absolutely nothing to write about.
A previous Penobscot Falcon detailed the story of the first nicknamed Christmas tree (Genghis Khan) when way too much happened—I was forced to drive the filthy run-over fir through the carwash during a gale-like snow storm—so this in some ways is its dull if weighty counterpart.
My wife and I headed to the usual forsaken balsam tree farm, the weather laughably mild. Although Thanksgiving had been blizzarded white as Labrador January, there was nary a flake on the ground at mid-December. The owner of the farm is an aged curmudgeon of a Mainer — beady blue eyes, raspy nose, and 11 strands of white hair. I enjoy sparring with him every year, attempting to get a rise out of the fellow, which I've come to accept is impossible.
He sells his overgrown and unpruned trees for $35, and overgrown means that most of them have reached 25 or 30 feet.
The year before we had cut and hauled our balsam (nicknamed Longfellow) ourselves, up hill and through a foot of frozen snow, but I figured for that kind of money, I'd let the Dickensian Aged do the work this time with his chainsaw and tractor. Lucky thing I did because my wife chose a tree that could only be nicknamed Godzilla. Heavy? The circumference of the trunk had to be carved down to fit our massive no-trunk-too-big tree stand, the bottom branches spanned over 9 feet—I measured—and the beast had no less than three bristly tops at its 12 feet.
Godzilla was not one to be felled easily. On Aged's first attempt, his chainsaw malfunctioned. I stood ready to assist with my trusty handsaw, which would've solved the matter in 37 seconds, but Aged merely shook his head at the suggestion, grumbled loudly at my audacity, and continued dismantling his Hitachi. Took about 20 minutes, but finally—I'm not known for patience—he got the chain realigned and filled the area with an impressive cloud of blue smoke, revving the machine cruelly. The Hitachi's pained cry must have alerted my wife who returned to the polluted valley. She had wandered off into the woods searching for deer.
Each year, I've secured the tree with rope a little more precariously to the top of the rusty Honda, just for the game of it. After Aged loaded Godzilla with the tractor, I realized this time there would be no concern. The car morphed into a lowrider; that tree wasn't going anywhere. When we arrived home, and I slid him off the car, I began to truly comprehend the weight, only managing to drag him half into the dooryard. After pruning out the two extra tops, I left him there until the next morning, almost hoping some fool would try to steal the creature.
Getting Godzilla into the house by myself while my wife was working at the boatyard was one of those impossible-but-you-somehow-manage-it tasks. Heaving at the balance point of the trunk, gaining mere inches with each tug, and trying not to trip on the branches was key. (By the way, rubbing alcohol will remove balsam sap from jackets, sweaters, jeans and hands miraculously.)
Once the beast was secured and vertical in the parlor, the lights, all twelve hundred of them, went on without a whimper. I admit it, I do not enjoy stringing the lights, consistently spined by errant fir needles, and I've been known to become frustrated and even angry when the lights fail and permanently die after hours of careful artistic positioning—my wife craves the basically impossible "wireless" look. But at least this time she was impressed by my overall attitude, my new calm and non-griping manner, my gentle smile of holiday cheer and goodwill toward all creatures, even Godzilla.
Of course the next day, once all 300 antique balls, tinsel and candles had been carefully adhered, the entire tree went dark, and it took over an hour to locate the one devilishly dead strand and replace it. Even this I managed without temper. I'm a much happier man now. The right woman will do that.
The ornament trimming has been vastly improved because of a new system that I highly recommend to those with tall trees. Trim and finish the top first, even the icicle tinsel. This way the stepladder can be nestled into the lower limbs easily without knocking off and breaking delicate balls. I'm surprised I hadn't figured this one out sooner. (Reminds one of the cranberry rake: after 100s of years someone decided to attach a long handle.)
Another added plus to the top-first method is that you're finished with the ladder work while still reasonably sober. No more balancing on the top step, reaching out precariously with that one final ornament while the wife points and directs, "There, a little further up. Almost, honey. Just above that silver one," while the body sways and the head reels with calamitous visions as the holiday soaking of the Dutchman strays into agility centers.
I don't tire of our Midcoast holiday traditions, which for us seem to begin with the collecting of our two plaid-bow wreaths at the First Church. But who could possibly tire of the scent of balsam in a creaky stairwell, the beaming smiles of elderly volunteers, a classic church that still rings its bell on the hour, and whose tall lit spire is visible from our house all night long. Last year, Dawn (not elderly) even gave us a huge wreath for our barn because its needle freshness had slipped below First Church standards, which are impeccable wreath standards in my opinion.
There's the salmon filets to purchase, so that I can salt and dill the Christmas Eve gravlax; the downtown shops to search for last minute gifts, the street wonderfully hung with old-fashion lights; people's spirits not jaded but joyous as we enjoy a New England American dream that has faded from too many communities. I believe that the quality of aesthetics is important in life. The beauty and poetry of surroundings change our moods and our happiness more than we might think, and I'm thankful that so many in our region want to protect or improve the quality that we have maintained.
The forum thread I started was based on the idea of having a place to air poems and stories about vintage trains. Of course it spread into many other areas in order to last so long, one being photos of nature from different regions of the country, some of rare desert flowers, some of fields in rural Pennsylvania, some delving into the history of a forgotten railroad bridge or station and so forth, but what binds them all together is the quality and care in the posts.
Quality takes time to produce and time to absorb fully and this concept seems to be waning in our national culture. Therefore my wish for our Christmas this year is that we take the time to really notice and appreciate things: the cutting and decorating of the tree, the preparing and tasting of the food, the hanging of outside lights, recalling the memories of those no longer with us. I'm going to try not to hurry or gripe even once, but embrace everything as it happens. After all, as Dylan Thomas said, "Because it's only once a year." Speaking of which....
"Hey, what was that sound? That faint squeak?" Must be my old friend heading up the Pullman aisle like Santa Claus.
-Eric Green lives in Belfast.
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