With the return of my oldest from college, our family finally began the task of decorating for Christmas. The first order of business was to assemble our Christmas tree, an artificial tree. Having lived in Florida for nearly 15 years, I can’t remember the last time we had a real tree.
As a kid there were no artificial trees in my house. We always had fresh-cut trees. When I say fresh, I mean we went out and cut our own. The smell of pine reminds me more of Christmas than the aroma of baked ham, or sugar cookies or mulled cider.
My dad and a friend, Richard, owned a tree farm, a Christmas tree farm. We grew blue spruce, Fraser firs, white pines, Douglas firs, Norway spruce, and Scots pines. My favorites were the blue spruces because they really are blue ~ a beautiful pale teal blue.
When I was in my early teens I would spend summer and spring weekends on the farm planting seedlings. I could lay a straight line of pines, sowing 150 trees an hour. In the winter my brother and I would join my dad, his business partner, and the seasonal local workers to cut trees. Wrapping them in bailing twine and piling them by type on long, flat-bed trailers to take into town to sell.
This would be a weekend job for me, working from early morning until late afternoon… or however long the jugs lasted.
The farm was located in the middle of nowhere, in the armpit of one of the most economically depressed regions of East Tennessee. Once we pulled off the main highway, we drove for another 20 minutes on dirt roads, sometimes so rutted and torn up that it would be impossible to navigate in anything other than a four-wheel drive truck.
It wasn’t like it was just undeveloped timber land, we passed houses on the way back to the farm. And by houses, I mean tar paper shacks, some that looked more like abandoned, dilapidated barns, than where families lived.
Early in the morning Richard would go pick up some of the local boys to help with the harvest. He would pull up at the farm cabin and a half a dozen or so young men would pile out of truck bed, each carrying a full, plastic milk jug. In my naive brain, I thought they had brought their own water for the day.
The only thing the contents of the jugs had in common with water was that they both were clear. It was working on the tree farm that I had my first encounter with…. moonshine.
These men each had their own gallon of shine. They’d work, and work hard, until each had emptied his jug. They would then pile back into Richard’s truck and he would take them home – shit-faced drunk. Only to start over again the next morning.
My dad, ever the progressive when it came to imbibing, let me have my own little taste of moonshine. I have a suspicion that lighter fluid would be smoother. It was the nastiest, harshest, foulest thing I have ever tasted, and these men, some only a few years older than I was, would drink it like water… literally like water.
One minuscule sip and I thought my throat was on fire. I know I coughed for at least five minutes, more like hacked up my esophagus.
Our tree is now up at home, decorated to overflowing with memories throughout all our lives. Even if it’s not filling the living room with that holiday scent of pine, still more than 30 years later, whenever I set out my Christmas tree, artificial or real, I think of those men… and moonshine.