Monday, December 23, 2013

The “Big” Tree

Okay, traveling around the world in the military, we were not always able to get a really nice Christmas tree. Some, like the ones we got in the Philippines, looked up to the Charlie Brown tree as the rich, fat dude. They had to be flown in by the military on C-5 cargo aircraft, so were seriously restricted in size, i.e. needles and limbs took up weight and space.
Others were small because of the space we lived in. In England, because I was a Master Sergeant, we lived in Mayors' quarters. This meant we got 800 square feet of living space, vs the standard 750 for a family of four. Who cares that that 800 square feet was under a four foot ceiling, we had 50 more square feet than the rest of the folks. The trees there were from the Knights Who Say Ni Shrubbery Farm.
Well, all good things must come to an end. I retired from the Air Force, took my fabulous 18,000 a year retirement checks and invested in VHS tape and Blockbuster Video futures. Luckily, along the way as a fall back, I got edumakated just in case my investments didn't pay off.
So, I take the rest of my money from my retirement job and build a house. Not just any house, but one large enough to house my bride's quilt fabric collection (almost). This house comes with a 14 foot ceiling in the living room. Wow! Not only can I not touch the ceiling to change a light bulb, I can't even change the light bulb after balancing a kitchen chair on top of my 6 foot step ladder.
In the second year of living in this house, my bride and daughter decide that the five foot tall, cornstalk-thin tree we had the year before did not adequately fill the space in the living room. We're gonna get a “big” tree. A tree that you can be proud of. One that would fill the space in both height and width. One that can hold all the ornaments from 23 years of traveling around the world. One that would empty the space in the wallet.
The search began. Lot to lot, tree farm to tree farm. We had to find the right tree for that space. I put out calls on social media, used Google Earth, followed around the neighbors' yellow labs, to no avail. I was never gonna find “that tree.”
And then it happened. As I was driving to physical therapy (a common drive for me), I drove by the illegal Christmas tree lot by the gas station. The city had instituted new licensing rules on the Christmas tree lots and the SWAT team was closing the place down by proving that you can indeed cut a tree in half with a minigun.
I waited for the smoke to clear and the EPA to come in and ticket the cops for spewing so much brass on the ground and made my move. The woman who had run the place was rumored to grow huge trees hydroponically in Colorado. Don't know why they would use hydroponics in Colorado, but they did. I low crawled across the lot and took cover behind a giant, netted bale of trimmings and looked around. As I prepared to move out, I noticed a trunk sticking out of the bale. It wasn't a trimmings bale, it was a tree. A big tree. The fulsomeness of which could be foretold by the girth of the trunk. The wrapping was stretched out like fishnets on Rosie O'Donnel. I had found “that tree.” Sniff, sniff. Its a balsam fir. Yes. “We wants it, we needs it. Must have the precious.”
I drag the tree over to the tree lady who's doing fire sale business because the noise had drawn in a ton of customers. She sits on the steps of her trailer with a coin changer on her hip and wads of cash stuffed in every pocket of her woodworkers apron. She draws in a huge lungful of smoke from her hand-rolled “cigarette,” looks at what I've brought and smiles. She lifts her chin slightly to point out something behind her on the door of the trailer. The sign behind her says “Cash Only.” Crap.
I look at the gas station, its got an ATM. Go through my wallet, look at my cards, do a mental calculation of how much I can get on each one, and do what I have to do. I tell the EPA guys that the tree lady dumped a quart of oil out behind her trailer into the storm drain.
As the EPA agents try valiantly but futilely to take her into custody, I drag the tree to my station wagon. I'm prepared. I get the log chains out of the back, slide them under the tree, one forward, one rear, hook them into the luggage rack on top of the car on one end, flop them over the tree and the car and hook the other end to the back bumper of the fire truck that's there to put out the flames from the minigun.
I tell the volunteer fire captain that that Walmart has a sale on brass fire poles and the engine takes off. The tree rolls up on top of the wagon, the fire trucks tires spin on all the minigun brass on the ground, giving me time to cut the links of the chain with my portable welder. Locked and loaded, I have my tree.
I pull out onto the highway and head home. The tree acts as a keel in the wind. I unintentionally change lanes repeatedly and do some cross country when a gust blows me off the road onto the golf course. Its amazing how fast old, white guys in plaid pants and parkas can move when pursued by a whole national forest. I quickly get back up on the highway when I remember that this is Nebraska where a chainsaw is mandatory equipment in any vehicle and those golf carts were quickly approaching.
I pull into my driveway right as my tires finally blow under the weight. Need a machete to get out to the car. The neighbors gather round my Pine Parade float and ask when the bowl game starts. I mention that I need some help getting this son of an Ent into the house. They start to drift away. I whisper beer and pizza. That does the trick. The Egyptians hauled in the blocks for the pyramids on the promise of beer and pizza.
First, its getting the tree off the car. Okay, with the blown tires, the car is just a tad bit lower. We just unhook the chains that hooked through the roof rack on one side, reverse the process of getting it up there by pulling on the top ones and Bob's your uncle. Its on the ground. Unfortunately, its now on top of the neighbor's labs. We extricate the hound and, because they're labs, they decide that was fun and try to get us to throw the tree.
We now need to get it in the house. Lifting ain't gonna cut it, but we've got a couple of engineers in the group so we know how to get it done using all of our engineering skill. Yeah, we've got an HVAC engineer, an electrical engineer and a computer engineer, but we're engineers.
We all remember those old commercials when we were kids where the guys are pulling the tree out of the woods behind the two-horse team. We've got a 260 horse team in my bud's Bobcat tractor. We roll the tree to line it up with the front door, run the rope through the house and out the back and hook it up to the Bobcat. The Bobcat takes off down the back hill and the tree moves... fast. CRAP. Some idiot, uh... engineer.. tied the strap onto the tip of the tree.
The tree opens wide like a cat being thrown into the the tub for a bath. The trunk grabs some snow and swings sideways, taking out a row of light-up candy canes in its own mutiny. It shoots up the steps and we realize we have no way of contacting the Bobcat driver to tell him to stop. It goes through the door without slowing down, taking out the side windows in the process. The labs chase after thinking someone is stealing their stick.
The tree is in the living room when the Bobcat stops. The tip of the tree catches the sofa and the trunk swings around into the dining room with the momentum and ends up lodged under the china hutch. It has formed itself into a giant C-shape, bowed by its anchors under sofa and great grandma's china. We've lost the cat. The three engineers assess the situation. The labs pee on the tree.... so do the engineers.
We measure the tree as it lays there curled into the fetal position. Roughly 23 feet. Okay, we can cut off seven feet at the bottom and use the left over to make pine garlands. Pine garlands large enough that hopefully my bride won't notice the now wider front door. Chainsaw comes out just as the Bobcat driver comes in. The guy who's taken down many trees screams NOOOOOOOO!!!!! Unfortunately, he could not be heard over the sound of the cheap chainsaw.
None of the engineers, not the HVAC, not the electrical, nor even the computer engineer have to deal with kinetic energy on a day-to-day basis. The tree had formed a 23 foot long longbow and we had just cut the cord. The new bottom of the tree swings back towards the entryway. The cat, we discover, had been hiding in the tree. It flies out of there, well, like it was shot from a bow. The labs hare off to catch what they think is a weird black, hairy frisbee. That did not end well for any of the players.
The tree continues around like break dancer on bad burritos, spewing bits in its wake. The HVAC guy had been on the chainsaw and on top of the tree. He does the Jean Claude Van Damme Volvo truck commercial without the nice music and pretty ending... a lot faster... with a running chainsaw.
The electrical engineer tried to grab the tree at it flew past him. He offered no real resistance and came up short. The tree slams into the umbrella tree, takes down the plant stand and continues around, coming to rest in the corner where it was supposed to be set up. I, the computer engineer, had planned that. I opened a beer.
After getting a replacement for the HVAC guy (who has a new career as an NHL goalie) and pulling the electrician out from under the curio cabinet, we moved onto standing up the tree. First, we set the artistic neighbor kid to painting white Corelware plates to look like the remaining piece of the wife's delftware set. As you might guess, the china hutch didn't quite make it. It has taken “distressed antique” to a new level.
Getting the now much shorter tree upright was a piece of cake. It stood up straight quite quickly. Still, there was an issue. It would not fit in any tree stand. We finally nailed some 2X4's to a 5 gallon bucket, filled it with sand and stuck the tree in. We then lifted the tree out, dumped out the sand, put the tree in and put the sand back in. Goes in much farther when the sand isn't in there.
Wow, tree is up, now we just have to get the lights on. Electrical engineer is in charge. He comes up with a brilliant device. A nail sticking out the side of a 10' 1X1. Lights are up. Brilliant. Plug them in... none of them work. Didn't think an educated electrical engineer knew those kind of words. He storms off. I lure him back with another beer. Hmm, large quantities of beer and 110. What could possibly go wrong? I leave him to his own devices and have another beer.
Now its time for the ornaments. However, after a few tries, I find that the nail on a stick is rubbish for the ornaments. Time for the ladder. We set up the ladder at the base of the tree. I climb up with the first box of small ornaments and reach over... and realize that I can't reach the top of the tree. Granted, we've knocked seven feet off the bottom of this thing but its still about nine foot across at the bottom and only ½ inch at the top. I try to reach out and get a serious lean from the ladder. This is not gonna be fun.
Okay, engineering skills and late night ESPN come in. I remember the guys on the Americas' cup having the same problem. One guy can knock back a magnum of champagne.. oops, wrong replay. No, they have to counter balance a huge boat without going into the drink. Personally, I'm already into the drink, so this should be fun.
We rig up harnesses for the three of us. The new guy, who qualified for the job based upon his inability to fit into an XXL hoodie and the electrical engineer hook themselves onto the outside of the ladder, I climb up and hook in to the top. I grab up a delicate, Hungarian glass ornament and lean out.... and it works brilliantly! I hook in the ornament and lean back in, ending upright. Wow! This is gonna be perfect.
We get into a rhythm. Swing out, hook up, swing back, swig beer, rinse and repeat. The Philippine capiz shell star and choir boy, the German hempleman, the English crystal star all up. Swing out, hook up, swing back, swig beer, swing out, hook up, swing back, swig beer, swing out, hook up, swig beer, AHYYYEEEEEE! Thump.

Yeah, timing just a bit off from the new guy. I am now impaled on the top of the tree. New guy runs out. Two yellow labs run in carrying a very pissed off cat gently between them. They drop the cat and pee on the tree. The electrical engineer hands me wings and a halo made out of 10 gauge wire and locks the door on the way out. Think I'm gonna be up here a while. 

Monday, March 18, 2013

Chumming - The Hard Way


I was down in Louisiana at Barksdale Air Force Base for schoolin'.  The Air Force really believed in edumakin' us, 'cause they could say "Its not our fault he did that, we trained him to these exacting standards." 
   I had gone out on our daily run. Nothing stressful, just a couple of miles when I felt my back going south. Old war wound, dontcha know.  Knew it was gonna be a bad one and it was. Got hauled to the base hospital by one of my classmates. When I finally was able to claw my way to the reception desk, the NCO behind the counter bypassed the request for a wheelchair and called for a gurney. Evidently, the muscles in my back had spasmed so bad, there was a waterfall effect, i.e. every muscle from my forehead to my ankles had spasmed. I'm told I kinda looked like some weird death camp survivor with a great tan. 
   Once I'm done with docs, I learn I get to have physical therapy every afternoon. This takes me out of class, but I'm able to make up the lessons with recorded material. What happens is I go to my 45 minutes of PT and then I have a boat rented on the base lake on a weekly basis (grand total of 27 dollars a week, gas included). I fly fish till dark then go back and study. I get to know the lake pretty well and catch a crap load of fish.
   One Saturday, one of my classmates asks to come along. He's a bait chucker, but we all have our faults (well, except me. I'm practically perfect in every way). Lake was huge, full of cypress trees and alligators.  We needed to unwind and relax and that big chunk of water was a good place to do it.   We did some fishing, catching loads of bass and bluegill.  Even got an alligator to chase my lure.  This was August in Louisiana, so it was hotter than the exhaust of a Missouri bootlegger's Chevy.  We had just a little liquid refreshment with us, for medicinal purposes don'cha know.   
   One of the sights on the water was the hornets nests hanging from every other cypress tree.  These things were as big as basketballs.  If you didn't see them, you could always hear them.  The buzz went right to your bone like the whine of a dentist's drill.   
   As I said, we'd had just a bit of liquid refreshment and my partner convinces me of the hilariously funny idea of knocking one of these things into the water with an oar.  The concept was that I would run the motor and he would smack the nest.   
   Well, the malted beverage thought long and hard on that one. Did I ever tell you that malted beverage decision making is primarily based on the easiest sound a human can make? That is "shure." The little "good" angel on my shoulder had long since passed out and fallen down the back of my pants.  
   So, after much cogitation, I idled the boat in towards one nicely placed nest.  My partner stands up in the boat, oar in hand and I'm on the throttle. He's got a swing like a juiced-up ex-San Francisco Giant. He goes into the windup, I twist the throttle hard, the boat jumps forward, my buddy falls back into the boat mid-swing, misses the nest and... the engine stalls. Hmm, the boat drifts under the nest and bumps into the tree, stopping.  I guess my driving skills had deteriorated in the heat. The engine is flooded and the nest is two feet over our heads. 
  We quietly used the oar to push against the tree to drift away from the nest. This is rather hard to do when you're flatting yourself in the bottom of the boat and moving at the speed of a three-toed sloth on Quaalude  We did NOT wanna do anything that would piss off the wasps with a dead engine on the boat.
    So, on the second pass, I decide to change tactics. We're going in at speed and I'll gun it after the hit. I head in doing about 3 knots (that was "at speed" in this boat), my partner swings the oar and hits a home run (a six pointer for the cricket fans).  I gun the motor for all its got and, ..and .... it stalled again.    So, there we were, calmly assessing the situation.  The nest had exploded like a Martin automatic reel fighting a 150lb tarpon.  The hornets,to say the least, were perturbed.  The fish, on the other hand, were having a blast.  All this food hitting the water at one time caused a feeding frenzy.  I thought about casting a line in the middle of the fray (for about 13 nanoseconds) and started pulling on the motor cord.  It wasn't working.    Just as the hornets had formed into squadrons and made one of those big,black cartoon arrows in the air, the motor coughed to life.  My partner was expressing (most vociferously) his desire to find another place to fish,namely in Alaska.  I GENTLY raised the rpm's and put the engine in forward.
   We casually vacated the area and had a wonderful discourse on whether we should further deplete our medicinal supply or revert back to our shared Christian Scientist and Mormon roots.  Modern medicine won out.