[Formerly titled "Mr. Boozer's Christmas Trees"]

Christmas 1998

Valleyford, Washington State

Christmas is a high water-mark time of year for families with young kids, and our family was no exception. With five young kids at home, those weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas day were ripe with memories. For our family, Christmas always begins the day after Thanksgiving with a trip to a local tree farm to select and fell the perfect tree.

When we moved to the country in 1993, we bought a house with a 23-foot ceiling, which could accommodate a lot of tree, and my husband is of the mindset that bigger is better in the tree department. You can see where this is heading.

For the first four years of our life on the rolling wheat fields of the Palouse, we bought respectable, 12-foot trees from local tree farms—or “mere table-top trees,” as Scott called them. His eyes glistened every time we drove past a certain wheat farm a few miles from our house, where 25-foot-tall firs served as a wind break for a farmhouse up the hill.

By the time 1998 rolled around, Scott was done with tabletop trees. The day after Thanksgiving, we borrowed a friend’s pick-up and drove up the winding driveway of our neighbor with the towering firs. And that’s how we met Rex Boozer. No joke, his name was Mr. Boozer.

Mr. Boozer was a retired wheat farmer, but many years back, he had planted some Christmas trees to sell to nurseries. Most had sold, but he still had a line of trees too big for commercial use.

“Would you be willing to sell us one of your big firs?” Scott asked.

“Well, I do need to thin out my wind break,” he said, scratching his head. “So I recon I could sell you one. But I’m afraid I’ll have to charge you the same price as I charge everyone else…” Who else is crazy enough to buy a tree that size, I wondered. The White House?

“And how much is that?”

“Twenty-five dollars.”

“Sold.”

The kids tore down the hill to the line of firs and began assessing which tree was the best. I was more interested in which one didn’t have, say, a family of bald eagles nesting in it. All were well over 25 feet tall.

We chose the fullest tree that wouldn’t be dragged bald by being too long for the pick-up truck. We had brought a handsaw that might work for your average 12-foot tabletop tree, and Matt and Scott had already worked up a good sweat taking turns at the 10” trunk. Only Scott’s lower legs were showing from where he lay sawing, when Mr. Boozer appeared,  chainsaw in hand.

“This’ll do,” he said, firing it up. Matt helped Scott extricated himself from beneath the lower branches. Bethany (11) and Katie (9) helped me grab Sam (7) and Tember (5) out of harm’s way. Mr. Boozer’s chainsaw sliced through the trunk like butter, and the tree crashed to the ground. (No eagles flew out, which I took as a good sign.)

Our friend Garry loaned us his pick-up to haul the tree.

Our friend Garry loaned us his pick-up to haul the tree.

Somehow we got the tree loaded onto the pick-up. But the real trick was getting it into the house. Scott cut about 6 feet off the bottom of the tree, so it topped out at a mere 20 feet tall. But turns out even a 20-foot tree is still very wide at the bottom. Scott removed the front door from its hinges, then he and Matt and I pushed and pulled, until at last the lower branches gave way to allow passage—though new molding and spackle were necessary for post-production.

Then came the herculean task of raising the tree upright. Pulleys, ropes, and guide wires were involved. It took three trips to Shopko to secure adequate Christmas lights to cover the branches, and even our ample volume of ornaments looked sparse in its mass.

But oh, how we enjoyed that tree! The scent of all those fir boughs delighted our noses every time we came inside. For our annual family Christmas photo, the kids climbed up the extension ladder I’d used for decorating the top of the tree, posing oldest to youngest, with Matt in the enviable top position. And at our traditional overnight New Year’s Eve party a month later, many of our friends had slept around the tree.

Vaudrey Christmas Photo 1998–a week before the plague

Vaudrey Christmas Photo 1998–a week before the plague

But the most memorable image of our 1998 Christmas tree came the day after New Year, once our friends had gone home. That’s when I discovered Mr. Boozer’s trees–in addition to being beautiful and huge–were also pesticide-free: In the warmth of our woodstove-heated home that December, our towering tree had been fooled into thinking it was spring, and a plague of long-legged, black-winged bugs had hatched from the bark. Each branch was now enveloped with moving mounds of these crawling bugs. Cupfuls of them. Gallons of them.

While it had taken the better part of two days to get the tree into the house and decorated, it took a mere 30 minutes to get it stripped bald and out of the house. Scott grabbed his chain saw from the garage, the kids began ripping ornaments and lights from the tree, and Tember, just four at the time, helped me box the more delicate ornaments as quickly as possible.

The older kids, however, had the unsavory task of grabbing bug-invested branches and hauling them outside, then throwing them off the deck into the pasture. The boys were pretty brave, but the girls were totally disgusted. But, tears streaming, and plenty of complaining, they stuck to it, as we were all in a panic to get the tree out of the house before the bugs decided to take flight.

Soon, all that was left of our magnificent tree was the naked trunk, also covered in bugs. Scott sectioned the trunk with his chainsaw, but there was no shortcut to getting each section outside but to grab it with both hands—squishing the bugs that coated it.

The kids narrated through grimacing faces: “Ewwww! Dis-GUS-ting!” “Gross!” “I’m gonna gag!”

When the last section was finally out the door, all that remained was a pile of sawdust, an empty tree stand, piles of tangled lights—and a story we will never forget.

Next year, a tabletop tree.