There was no moon that night but for some reason our eyes adapted to the dark enough to pick out not only one perfect Christmas tree but two.
My friend Jim phoned me a little after dinnertime. I was playing a Johnny Rivers album of Jim Webb songs on my old Phonola and reading Playboy, nobody home. He said Sister Fernanda called him and wanted to know if he could hustle up a crew like me and Homer to take the convent car out to Mosinee to pick up a Christmas tree. Jim didn’t have a drivers license, so I’d have to drive, at least until we picked up Homer. Would I meet him at the convent in half an hour?
I was having a strange week. I was living with my dad and he had just lost his job as general manager of the local Chevy dealership, accused of embezzlement. He revealed to me and my sister Bernadette that his latest girlfriend, at least ten years his junior, was six months pregnant, and they had decided to pack up and move to San Diego, California before the end of the year. And I turned eighteen that week too. My car, a 1962 Chevy Bel Air, was repossessed from the school parking lot by a tow truck from the dealership during school the day my dad got fired — apparently it wasn’t paid for yet — and the finance company came to the house to repo our couch, dining room table and chairs, some end tables and a coffee table and our TV my dad bought on credit from Prange’s, word spreading fast that his credit was no good.
And about a foot of snow fell that week. It glistened under the streetlamps and squeaked under my boots as I walked in the plowed street with the ridges piled to the curbs like miniature sierra cordilleras.
I lived two blocks from the convent, which was next door to Newman, the Catholic high school, which amazed anybody who knew where I lived because I was notoriously tardy for the first bell — there were kids who came all the way from Antigo who made it on time, and yet yours truly couldn’t make it two blocks.
Jim, whose full name was Getchmis James Olsen, lived maybe six blocks from school, but he notoriously walked everywhere, never tardy. He was the smartest boy in our senior class by GPA and had a perfect attendance record. His dad served on the Newman school board and his mom taught fourth grade at St Matthew’s. The nuns trusted Jim and trusted me because Jim vouched for me. Everybody called him Jim except the nuns, who were obliged to call us students by our real names, not nicknames. I arrived at the convent’s front door a few minutes after Jim.
Sister Fernanda taught maths at Newman and served as the convent treasurer. Jim did all the communicating except where she gave me the car keys and made me promise to be careful. She gave Jim custody of a hefty bow saw with an orange elbow-frame handle and sharp teeth. Their blue late model Oldsmobile station wagon was parked on the driveway. She said we wouldn’t need gas money because the tank was full.
It wasn’t the first time for me behind this wheel, the nuns had supplied it for our transportation the prior spring when Jim herded up the school speech forensics team to compete in Madison at the state tournament and Jim’s small one act play he wrote under the pseudonym Yndian Sommers competed at State. Jim admired Samuel Becket. I had a part as a sulking skulking jeremiad. We took third, though one judge said later she would have given us a higher score had she known it was an original production.
Not halfway backed out on 28th Avenue Jim was playing with the radio trying to tune KAAY Little Rock, though it was too early to get Bleeker Street. Instead he found WLS Chicago. Na na na na, Na na na na, Hey hey hey, Goodbye.
Homer Joe O’Leary lived outside the Wausau city limits on a steep hill in a woods down a long gravel driveway off the main road. His dad was a dentist and Homer was the fourth of nine kids, the elder three more or less grown — a sister married and out of college, another sister currently at UW LaCrosse, and a brother — the younger ones mostly brothers and a baby sister about ten. Doc Leary — most people who spoke of the family in the third person dropped the O — bought the house about five years back, a big Victorian style structure that stood near the old Wausau railroad station that used to be the logo of an internationally known insurance firm but lately fell idle and discarded in a part of town abandoned to decline at the foot of East Hill. Legends said the old house was once a convent, or it was a bordello, perhaps both. Doc Leary bought it for its bones and arranged to have the structure uprooted and hauled up Bridge Street all the way up the hill to his new property, where he tore it apart and rebuilt it to suit his big family, an undertaking still unfinished with electrical switchplates missing and some rough patches in the sheetrock and a little incomplete molding, but by and large a completed project bearing no resemblance to an antique Victorian mansion whatsoever but rather a spacious modern and efficient home designed in situ for his family.
Jim and Homer Joe were lifelong friends from the old neighborhood on the east side of town not far from the train station. They played together as kids. About the same time as the O’Learys, Jim’s family also left the old neighborhood and moved to the thriving new west side just beyond the city limits, albeit Jim’s family lived in a regular neighborhood on grid streets whereas Homer’s family situated a little more on the fringe of land still considered country.
The driveway stretched through what could have been pasture and came to a loop where the house nested amid a grove of mature oaks, maples and tamaracks. We parked at the door to the three car garage and hiked up the stairs to the wide deck overlooking an undeveloped forest downhill. The deck framed the main entrance to the house through a sturdy sliding glass doorway into an entryway towards the family dining area, between the kitchen and the living room. The ceilings were high and the passages between rooms open and airy, and there was a skylight in the spacious living room, where I noticed a long black leather couch. It was Homer’s night to do the dinner dishes so we hung out at the dining room table until he got done, talking small talk with his mom and one of his younger brothers and his little sister, whose name happened to be Kelly, like my surname. We engaged in a ritual Jim called Say Hello and Pet the Dog. The O’Learys actually had a dog, a burly woolly bear of a beast named Schlotsky.
Doc Leary had a voice like a trombone. He was in his easy chair in a discreet corner of the living room reading the Daily Record Herald or the Milwaukee Journal, and he called out to me from where I didn’t see him. “Mr Buffalo Kelly, c’mere a minute. Present yourself.” At that same time Homer’s little brother said their dad wanted to see me. My boots were already off by the door and I unhesitantly excused myself from Jim, explaining our mission from the convent to Homer’s mom, and stepped up into the carpeted living room, which was more like a loft. Doc rose from his chair to shake my hand. He had a precise grip and farsighted brown eyes that expressed graciousness, sincerity and mirth. He tipped his reading glasses atop his gray crewcut flattop he still wore since his days as a Navy pilot during World War II, and I may have been taller than he was but he stood solid and yet not rigid, not like the usual military man, impressive but not imposing. Not like I expected of a dentist, either, but an informal politeness more like an educated teamster. He wore a cardigan sweater with a hole in one elbow.
He said, “I hear your dad is undergoing some troubles of his own and plans to relocate to California.”
“Yes, he’s got friends out there in the car business. He’ll make out okay.”
“So what about you?”
“I don’t know.”
“How do you feel about giving it up and not finishing your senior year at Newman? Are you excited about following after your dad?”
That was an odd way of putting it. “Not really,” I honestly replied.
“Then I wonder if you might consider living here through graduation. I talked with Grace and we talked with the kids and we’ve got room, you can bunk with Homer and Mickey. You wouldn’t be the first orphan kid we’ve adopted. You’d help out around the house, of course. Think about it. Have your dad give me a call. We’ll work it out. You can finish your senior year here and then figure out what you’re going to do. Seems your dad has enough on his plate. And personally, I wish him luck where he’s going — if Florida is the armpit of this country, California is the crotch. Think about it.”
It didn’t surprise me that Jim had been scheming with Homer to figure a way I could stay in Wausau. Jim had even gone to the Newman vice principal, Father Kulovits, and sketched a plan by which I might occupy a small apartment on the top floor in the wing near the band room in an empty office next to the guidance counselor, with full access to lockers and showers, and the kitchen, be Newman’s hunchback phantom, but Father Kulovits wisely cited insurance and liability issues and ducked the true issue of literally turning over the keys of the school to me, a notoriously suspect personality.
My friends earnestly assumed I would rather stay with them through the bitter end of high school in Wausau, Wisconsin than take off into the great unknown of Southern California with my fuckup father and his pregnant girlfriend. They didn’t realize how tempting it was to start over, kiss this dead end fartsniffing dumbshit town goodbye and go off to the forevereverland of grass and ass. I had a fresh opportunity to go to a public school. What no one else took into account, my third available choice (which Doc Leary didn’t know about at the time) which was to return to my dysfunctional, anarchic and semi-barbaric mother’s household in the Twin Cities, which seemed to me a worst-case outcome, worse than remaining in Wausau, although it still meant I could attend a public school. Now my friends, behind my back, had engineered for me a safe and above board means for me to keep going to Newman, and I was touched to realize I had such friends who needed me and believed I needed them to get through the next six months together. We had unfinished business. My friends persuaded me to stay. Those bastards.
We took the freeway — funway, as Jim and Homer called it — the US 51 bypass as it was known — which ran along the east side of the Wisconsin River along the foothills of Rib Mountain in a beeline more or less between West Wausau and the paper mill towns just south of the city. Most nights to get to the same destination we would likely cruise through town on Grand Avenue, Business 51, look around at what’s happening (nothing) and who else might be cruising (usually nobody) but this night we had a mission, plus we were uncertain whether it was cool to be seen cruising in an Oldsmobile station wagon. Our destination was a tree farm somewhere in Mosinee township off an ABC county road off Hwy 29 and 51. The farm was owned by a Catholic family with a freshman and a junior at Newman, and they sold pre-cut Christmas trees or you could go wander the rows of stands and cut your own. The place was easy to find from signs with arrows at every intersection from the main highway. Bare-bulbs lighting decked the pre-cut lot and spotlights lit the barnyard and the surrounding forest of pines and firs. The place was busy. Lots of families shopping for Christmas trees.
We rolled through the lane cautiously avoiding customers on foot and found a place to park near someone with authority, a guy in a snowmobile suit and duck boots. Jim explained who we were. The guy pointed to another guy who stood in the doorway to the pole barn, who turned out to be the patriarch of the farm. Jim talked to the patriarch. He pointed off yonder down the lane towards a deep corner of the property and told us we could cut anything we liked way back there. We got back in the car and rolled down the plowed lane to the corner where the boss indicated. The way was lit by a string of white bulbs. At the end of the property we halted, put it in park and got out to survey the available trees. The convent’s central living room had a high ceiling, so Sister Fernanda said not to get stingy with height, we could go twenty feet. The trees before us were easily that tall. Height would be no problem.
“You gotta be shittin’ me,” said Homer, the first to speak. Jim shook his head and lit his briar pipe. I lit up a Camel and Homer gestured for a hit. We agreed these were the ugliest Christmas trees in life. Asymmetrical and flagged, crooked, partially limbless and ratty with bare branches and patchy needles, there was not one tree from all of this pre-selection we could in good conscience bring home to the nuns. To select any one of them we agreed would disrespect the sisters. We said a few words about the integrity of the donor patriarch to pawn off such crappy Christmas trees on our nuns and finished our smokes, got back in the car. “We can do better,” summed Homer and we agreed.
We drove off the property the back way without checking out, and without any distinct plan I took country roads toward Rib Mountain. The great landmark, lit with ski slopes like an ice cream sundae, its cherry transmitter tower up top, rose apart from the valley in the night like an electrified Mt Fuji. Being I just turned eighteen it would have been customary to go with my buddies to a beer bar and treat them to a couple 15 cent Pabsts on tap. There were several such beer bars in the valley along the river, including one on Lake Wausau, formerly known as Johnny’s, purchased that fall by the ex service manager of the dealership where my dad used to work. My dad told me this ex service manager was the real embezzler, somehow simultaneously charging shop customers and General Motors for work done under warranty and pocketing the cash. Somehow he framed my dad, though it was a thin case the Chevy dealer’s owner declined to prosecute, happy enough to ruin my dad’s name. I believed my dad. He wore nice suits, drank a lot socially and rarely ate at home, but I never saw signs of the kind of money alleged embezzled, enough maybe to buy a going beer bar and quit a day job. I wasn’t inclined to bring my friends to this beer bar, though I recognized the road along the lake. Besides, Jim and Homer weren’t eighteen yet, which seemed ironic to me because the whole year or so before this while I lived in Wisconsin I regularly hung out at the beer bars with my eighteen year old and older friends without ever being asked for my ID.
I just seemed we should be going someplace to hold a sit down meeting. It turned out the meeting occurred in the car as we cruised the county trunk roads around the base of the mountain, listening to the Big 89 on the radio and musing about our alternatives to bring the nuns a Christmas tree. Snubbing the donor family tree farm put us in a peculiar situation to make good on our resolution to do better. Jim actually had a part time job and a checkbook but it seemed outlandish to pay money to a Christmas tree lot in town just to prove a principle, even if the lot were operated by the Y, Scouts, or of all things the Knights of Columbus. No. Not when the whole river valley at the floor of the mountain was forested and woodsy. This was the town of timber and lumber and pulp built by guys named Rothchild and DC Everest. We would find the nuns a tree. Somewhere.
We brought up a debate about longhair trees vs shorthairs. We agreed on behalf of the nuns we preferred shorthairs. What was wrong with the family donor’s trees from the get-go was they were all longhair pines to begin with and after that were so scraggly and mis-shapen they looked more like saguaro cactuses than white or red pines.. Homer said he saw some rows of nice shorthair spruces and firs back at the donor farm and found it hard to get past the concept that the patriarch was too cheap to offer “One freakin spruce. Just one freakin fir.”
LS came in clearer the deeper we got into the country. They played a hit from the past summer by Three Dog Night, “Easy to be Hard” from the hot new play called Hair. It was kind of a sad song that questioned evil and social injustice. Jim and I were still kicking ourselves for not hitting the road to Woodstock that past August.
The valley was a wallow in trees, all right, but every prospective grove seemed to have houses nearby, too close to risk a heist. Further off on the backroads — arbitrarily Homer said turn right at a crossroads, so I did — the houses became more sparse, but so did the trees. The only vehicle on the road, we cruised between plains of pasture land, or maybe crop land, it was all fenced and white in the dark. There seemed to be more deciduous woods now, bare trees with no leaves sticking up like spears and ptchforks. At another crossroads Jim suggested we go left, back towards the Little Rib River. There were crossroads about every mile. Off across an open plain you couldn’t make out the backside profile of the mountain but you could see the red cherry transmitter. It never occurred to us we could be lost. For us there was no lost.
Off to the right a bare field crossed over to a plantation of Christmas trees. Acres as far as we could see across the night, at least a mile along the road, rows and rows of pines and firs. Nearer the road the trees looked too small for our desires but deeper away from the road looked promising. We drove until we finally found a small house set off the road a hundred yards into the trees with a yard light, a big shed, a car and a truck, colored Christmas lights on the porch and smoke from the chimney. We u-turned around down the road at the next crossroads, cruised by the driveway to the house again and observed no change and kept going until we were confident that the car motor was well out of earshot of the house.
There was no fence to keep us away, and no signs warning against trespass. That meant they couldn’t shoot us, legally. I parked the wagon as tight to the plowed shoulder as I could and still be on a steady road surface to make a clean getaway. Homer collapsed the back seat to expand the station wagon’s carrying capacity and Jim carried the bow saw. For a moment we paused in the road to savor the succulent silence.
We crossed over the plowed cordillera and descended into a ditch, then rose into the tree plantation and entered three abreast into the grid of trees. The virgin snow was knee deep with evidence of wild grasses under our boot soles. There was no moon — the very moon we had visited by proxy with Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins that past summer was nowhere to light our way. Instead the stars of the Milky Way dazzled overhead. The pristine snow looked gray in the perpetual shadow, yet seemed somehow to generate enough ambience for us to see. We were among the shorthairs — who could tell if they were fir or spruce? — and now it was a matter of which one. They seemed tall enough. Jim split from the group and trudged a figure eight around a pair of likely specimens. Homer followed him around one of them and patted the boughs. “Okay?” Jim whispered, the first word said since we parked the car. “Bonum,” Homer replied, and I assented with a sense of relief we were half done with our caper.
Jim got down on his knees and pressed the saw teeth to the trunk. “No looking back,” he said and began to cut the bark. Homer for a moment wandered away amid the trees and when he returned he said in a normal voice, “No worries. You can’t hear nothin’ beyond the next two trees.” After about fifty saw strokes I took over for Jim. It took about a hundred and sixty strokes — I subconsciously counted them off by tens. Homer held it steady through the final stroke and let it fall gently to the snow. We stood still and listened. No sound anywhere except our own breathing, steaming in the night.
Jim and I grabbed the base branches, Homer took the top end and we half carried and half dragged our loot back through the grid following our trudge marks in the snow. There was no way to cover our tracks. Once more we paused before emerging from the tree farm and we listened to the quiet. We looked around. No one behind us. Nobody waiting for us at the car. (It was an unspoken great relief to find the car still there.) We dropped the tailgate and loaded it into the station wagon butt first and it was so tall we had to roll down the rear window for the tip top to stick out. There was no time to admire the tree in the dome light but at a glance we shared a sense we had outdone ourselves. With the tree occupying the whole back we had to all three sit in the front, but it was a wide car with a bench seat. I pulled away cautiously, turned on the headlights and we drove back towards the faint silvery light pollution of the city.
On the way we chatted nervously, rolled down the windows as long as the rear window was open, and smoked. The car smelled like coniferus sap and aromatic tobacco. For the first time we seemed to notice how cold were our fingers and feet and we cranked up the heater. The Big 89, WLS still played clear. It was Yvonne Daniels, the first female deejay we ever heard, and she touted the new number one song, “Leaving On A Jet Plane” by Peter Paul and Mary. It bugged us that none of us could name who wrote the song. We agreed it wasn’t Bob Dylan — he already did “It Ain’t Me Babe” and “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue”, and this song wasn’t cryptic enough or sardonic. Homer questioned if it might be Gordon Lightfoot but Jim and I thought it wasn’t Lightfoot’s attitude, not pitiable enough, and he’s already covered the topic with “Early Morning Rain”. We knew Paul Simon would never give away such a song. Jim knew it wasn’t Phil Ochs, not cynical enough. Same with Randy Newman. It wasn’t Leonard Cohen — too sentimental and not wry enough. Homer said for sure it wasn’t Muddy Waters. We just somehow knew it wasn’t written by Peter, Paul, or Mary. Jim figured we could ask John McCutcheon, our classmate who was a folk singer, or if nothing else he could call the public library reference desk, or he might walk uptown to Bob’s Musical Isle and read the name off the record label, all tomorrow.
This was fifty years ago. 1969. Today one of us would have pulled out a smartphone and googled the answer before you could say John Denver.
Today a laser security surveillance system would have detected us in the trees, snapped a picture of us from a satellite, relayed an alert to law enforcement and we would be nabbed within a mile.
I remember vividly the starry sky, the endless trudge with the arbor corpus back to the car in the knee deep snow, and most of all the exhilaration — almost ecstasy — of pulling the car around the corner on Bridge Street where the convent put up a life size nativity scene and easing the Olds into the nun’s driveway without being pursued by a police car. All the way home I feared an Alice’s Restaurant ending.
We presented the tree horizontally at the front door. Sister Fernanda led us to their main living room where the other nuns were decorating and unpacking lights and ornaments. I have never seen nuns acting so spontaneously ecstatic and utterly enraptured. The moment we hauled in the tree all the sisters raved and sighed. Even Sister Sardinia, the crusty old nun who taught chemistry and still wore the old style habit, practically giddy, cracked such a big smile I didn’t recognize her face. Sister Fernanda was delirious with joy. Sister Mark the literary nun sat amused on the sofa in a corner nursing a smoke and a beer and gave us the high sign while we propped the tree into the tree stand waiting in the middle of the room. Besides the nuns who taught at Newman, the convent housed nuns who taught grade school at nearby St Ann’s and St Matthew’s, so this convent had a couple dozen nuns, most of whom I’d never met. They called us heroes. They plied us with Irish hot cocoa and thanked us profusely. They called it the most beautiful Christmas tree they’d ever seen. Sister Fernanda proposed a toast and called us her boys. They couldn’t wait to decorate it.
Then in the midst of the fun — this convent of light and modern ceilings was far different from the dark and gothic sobriety of the convent of the Academy of the Guardian Angels in the parish where I grew up, especially this night — Sister Fernanda took us aside and asked if we would mind going back out to get a tree for the high school, the official Christmas tree for the Newman rotunda.
Sure, said Jim as nonchalant as a moviehouse usher, and before either Homer or I could come up with a rationale not to do it we were back on the road heading somewhere vaguely west of town in the nuns’ Oldsmobile.
This time Jim dialed up KAAY Little Rock, a 50,000 watt clear channel station, meaning no other radio station in America could broadcast on the same channel. It was time for its Bleeker Street show, when this rock station featured music considered avant garde or underground. The first song we heard was “Eli’s Coming” by Three Dog Night. Jim suggested it was some kind of sign that it was the second song by Three Dog Night we heard on the radio that night. Homer said it might be a sign it was going to get colder. I suggested its meaning might be related to the songwriter, Laura Nyro, who had an album coming out called Christmas And The Beads Of Sweat — just showing Jim wasn’t the only one who hung out at the record shop reading album covers, and I read Billboard magazine. I was trying to sound scriptural and prophetic. Though we all knew who Laura Nyro was, none of us had ever heard her sing. We thought she might be a girl Leonard Cohen, and for all we knew she wrote “Leaving On A Jet Plane”.
Then there was this song called “Venus” by some new group called Shocking Blue. I’m your Venus, I’m your fire, What’s your desire. Hard chords. Singer with an attitude. Jim called it banal.
What we avoided for a few miles was talking about what kind of karma we were courting to pull off our first heist and now going back a second time. If we pulled it off, the original tree farm donor family was going to get a lot of credit — which could cast suspicion on us if they ever found out that’s not where we got the trees. Homer assured us it would never get that far. He was certain the original donor would gobble the credit and his kids would feel good, and our unsuspecting true benefactor would earn all the cosmic grace. We agreed no matter what, if we got away with the second tree there was no way we would go back for a third. It was almost a pact presented to God on God’s terms.
It was easier than I anticipated to find our way back. Our collective memory and sense of direction led us back to the exact location. We cruised past the farm house and everything was as it had been before. We parked at the same location, more or less. We found the same route into the tree farm grid. We followed our path to our stump, chose a tree nearby and set about sawing it down. There was no sense of adventure this time, no savoring the moment, but rather an anxious desire to get it overwith. On the way out of the grid we stopped more to audit the atmosphere, hypersensitive to the sounds of our own breaths and footfalls.
We loaded the tree, slightly larger than the first one, and shut the tailgate as firmly and quietly as possible and collectively exhaled and looked up at the starry sky, thankful no one was around, no one followed us, no one saw us and no one else was driving along this road.
Suddenly the sky rippled with ribbons of magenta and green shimmers coming from the northern horizon. Like electrified cirrus clouds blown by a hurricane wind these reams of ribbons crossed halfway across the sky and then retreated away into the darkness like an ocean wave leaving the stars to fend for themselves like a beach.
All three of us said something of a variation of Holy Jesus, Holy God and Holy Sheist.
Aurora Borealis. The northern lights. We stood in the road staring, waiting for it to come back. After about a minute when it didn’t I said I didn’t want to be a downer but we gotta go.
We were so blown away we had nothing to say as we headed towards the red transmitter of Rib Mountain. When we did resume conversation it centered on reflection on luckiness and living a charmed life. In truth I was having a life changing feeling. I paid attention to the side mirrors and watching our speed but I began thinking this night, if it ends well, could mark another start of a whole new life. What Doc Leary said to me about giving up made me reconsider giving my senior year a serious reevaluation. This night could be a symbol of the possibilities — not of criminal behavior but adventurous living. I didn’t need to be a middleman and a buffer between my dad and his pregnant girlfriend while they found their Route 66 to California — man, I had my own problems. I was between girlfriends and drowning in a sea of celibacy, but that too should pass. Bleeker Street played a new song by a new band called Led Zeppelin. It ripped with stuttered, raunchy guitar and drums and the singer was a screamer. Whole Lotta Love. Could be.
Then talk between Jim and Homer took a conspiratorial tone so I turned down the radio and asked what’s up. “You don’t want to know,” they both said. I pried.
“You probably didn’t notice when we drove by,” Jim began, “but somebody took the Baby Jesus from the manger at the Newman creche scene.”
“Somebody?” I pressed. They knew more than they were willing to confide, this I could plainly tell.
“You’re better off not knowing,” said Homer. “Trust us.”
“They’re keeping it hush hush for now while they conduct an investigation,” Jim explained, he privy to deliberations of the school board. “Forget what we’re telling you. They’ve got a few suspects, and let’s just say you might get called in for questioning. The less you know the better.”
“What? Who? When?”
“That’s right,” said Homer, “act just as shocked as you are right now.”
“And appalled,” said Jim. “They’re going to offer amnesty and mercy if the perpetrator just turns over the little Bethlehem Bambino, like leaves Him on the doorstep of the rectory at St Matt’s. Personally I think the Kid’ll turn up reunited with Mary and Joe.”
“Christ,” added Homer, “He’s not even due to be born for two weeks.”
“When you look at it,” Jim continued, “Advent just started. Suspense should be building. It’s not kosher to put Him out there prematurely. He’ll show up on time.”
“Thank you Isaiah,” I conceded, “but when it all comes to pass I want to hear the true story.” I actually never did.
Homer asked if he could be let off at the end of his driveway and he would walk in to House of O’Leary rather than trek all the way back uphill from the convent. He said he’d had enough hero stuff for one night anyway and we should wish the nuns Merry Christmas on his behalf. He reminded me to have my dad call his dad. We dropped him off and left him gazing at the sky watching for the northern lights to return.
Down at the convent the nuns were virtually giddy drinking cocoa and cider and beer and decking out the tree with lights, the gradeschool nuns on ladders, Frank Sinatra singing his Christmas album on the record player, certain nuns singing along in harmony. A little exhausted from the caper and a little wet and chilled from snow on our jeans, Jim and I were somewhat freaked out and humbled by our fortunate karma and a glimpse of the northern lights. We agreed to Say Hi and Pet the Dog and get out of there (even though the nuns didn’t have a dog) and not stick around to Play the Role. When the nuns raved about the new tree, even insofar as kidding about swapping their own for this one, we modestly credited Homer Joe for its selection, turned over the car keys, handed back their bow saw and chugged down our hot cider. We asked where we might stash the new tree for the night and Sister Fernanda said to just leave it on the porch, no one would steal it, Mr Wilson the custodian would arrange to take it to the school in the morning. Heralded by joyous thanks we exited as discreetly and unceremoniously as we could.
As vividly as I remember that night, like a lot of my memoir essays I am not comfortable telling this tale to my grand daughters, at least until they themselves turn eighteen. I never even told this story to my kids, and they’re both around forty.
Jim walked me about halfway home and then split off to get to his house. In our conversation he used the word catharsis. It gave me something to ponder after we split up. In Jim and Homer’s mind my residence at House O’Leary was foregone. My mind wasn’t so made up. Somewhere in the back of my mind the Animals were singing We gotta get out of this place, if it’s the last thing we ever do. Coming to live with my dad in Wausau was supposed to be my fresh start, and it was, but the way things went just proved you can start out fresh anytime but it doesn’t mean the outcome won’t go stale, sour or downright rotten.
Dad sincerely tried to make a home for me and my sister Bernadette, who both needed to get away from our mother. He even married his then girlfriend to give us stable guidance of a stepmom, a brutal mistake — she turned out a severely mean drunk whose evenings spent stewing prone to midnight tirades meant to drive us away so she could have Dad to herself again. Violent outbursts when she threw things. Not at all funny it was unbearably sad. One night she put broken glass in my bed. It didn’t last past Christmas but set the tone for my junior year, my first year at Newman. I don’t know how Bernadette got such good grades — she went to the public school junior high — but I could barely keep up. At a time most critical for me to reform my study habits, after just about flunking out of St Bernard’s Academy sophomore year, an academic fresh start at Newman junior year (how hard can it be?) was supposed to stabilize my life and help me fit in. Instead I could barely think. There was no place at home stable and quiet enough to study. I studied on the fly. Jim and I bonded hanging out nights at the public library. I read and wrote theme papers at coffee shops. It helped a little but I was easily distracted in public places. It was hard to concentrate.
Fresh Start take two after the eviction of Dad’s eventual next ex-wife provided a serenity I didn’t quite know what to do with because with it came the catharsis of freedom. I substituted my study time with a flourishing social life, especially among the senior class, and with graduates I would meet who were members of the senior classes before that. I sneaked into the beer bars like Johnny’s and the Shindig and hung out like I always belonged. I met up with guys for coffee at the Ponderosa on the Avenue. From the new kid in town in the fall, and a fair target for bullies, by springtime I was a popular guy. With the sway of a charismatic classmate named Kenny who volunteered to be my campaign manager, the smiles of the girls I flirted with, and a lucky glib speech I gave to the student body at an assembly, I was elected to be Student Council President the following, my senior year. Immediately when I learned I won I regretted it. All that summer vacation I mentally reconciled my guilt for my ego trip with accepting the responsibility to be an appropriate elected leader of a high school. All my graduated friends told me to just be myself. Somehow I knew that was going to be my undoing.
Was I a students’ rights activist? A radical? An agitator? From the outset of the short one week campaign I was warned that the school administration was none too pleased to see my name on the ballot. My backers hoped I would shake things up, whatever that was supposed to mean — maybe to challenge authority by agitating for meaningful participation of the students in their school government, or just for the sake of stirring up trouble to wig out the establishment. It was such a simpleton environment, what issues could there be? I was a known opponent to the Vietnam War, and it was fair to suspect I could potentially infuse the student body of this closely held traditional Catholic high school with inconvenient real world politics. Given the times, it was inevitable, and I could not help that without denying what precious little I actually believed in, and maybe I was naive and not cautious enough about wearing my beliefs and my disbeliefs on my sleeves.
At home alone again the night of the Christmas tree heists — Bernadette called to say she was staying overnight at her friend Kimberly’s and would go straight to school from there in the morning, and I already knew my dad would be staying at his girlfriend’s — I pondered these things in terms of Fresh Start number what — eighteen? I was expected to stop by and register with the Selective Service very soon. The Draft. At Newman I’d have an automatic high school deferment. I was considering not registering, of course, and risking prison — it seemed an unnecessary risk. I was seriously contemplating filing as a conscientious objector, and if that didn’t work there was always asylum in Canada — those things could wait until summer. The immediate existential plan seemed to call for me to attract as little attention to myself as possible if I were to survive another six months in Wausau. I could see in retrospect the irony of getting busted for stealing those trees and getting one of those classic sentences for things as petty as stealing traffic cones, jail time or join the army.
The school principal never called me into his office to interrogate me about the missing Baby Jesus, but I recalled the last time he did call me into his office to give me a lecture. It was just after I’d won the election and he wanted to remind me of the responsibilities of the high office and its obligations to right leadership. His name was Father Francis and my friends and I referred to him as Frankie Lee, after the Bob Dylan song The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest. I can’t say enough about how much he detested me and made me wonder why, from my first interview in his office, he ever allowed me to go to his high school. He made a point of my transcripts from St Bernard’s showing unfulfilled potential and slack self-discipline. In his office again eight months later after winning the election he reminded me of the primacy of the Newman Family and made it clear he would not tolerate acts that caused disruption to the Newman House — practically his exact words. He had a scary look in his eye as he asked if he made himself clear.
The last time I went voluntarily to Frankie Lee’s office was in May my junior year, after the election but just before summer break. I was asking him to sign off on my application to take an English class at the local UW extension (The Stench) that summer. Since I was still in high school I needed my principal’s recommendation to take a college course. Father Francis wouldn’t sign. He said I wasn’t academically ready to take a college course, pointing out my junior year grades had barely improved over my sophomore transcripts from St Bernard’s. The bad part about it was I went away agreeing with him, I doubted I was ready to take a college English class.
For about twenty four hours. But instead of standing up for myself and fighting to prove him wrong and assert my right to get educated, I just let it slide.
And here I was, on the verge of putting Frankie Lee and the whole Newman experience behind me to go off to the promised land of southern California for a fresh Fresh Start, probably even go to public school, maybe learn some conversational Spanish and get to go to the beach in January.
Dad meant well when he sent me to Newman. He thought I would fit in with the Newman curriculum (from what he heard) since I had already been schooled in private Catholic education and was accustomed to it. I figured at least Newman was a co-ed school, a step in the right direction — St Bernard’s was an all-male school.
I could say adios to Frankie Lee and consider a Christmas tree his going away present. Get in the car with Dad and his girlfriend — she had a name, Joyce, which Dad would sometimes pronounce Jerce when he was imitating a Las Vegas mobster from New Jersey — ride cross country in Joyce’s Impala pulling a U-Haul trailer setting off into the sunset with my sister into a complete unknown, it was my choice.
It came back to what Doc Leary said about not finishing. Fresh Start for Fresh Start, there had to be a clean finish before starting again. I even thought I owed it to my dad to stay behind, to give him some privacy, some room to get his own life together without worrying about me. It might do me some good to live in a regular household with a normal family, doing chores, peeling potatoes and eating home cooking. I was touched that my friends cared about me. I felt I owed them loyalty. They needed me, more than my dad or Joyce or my sister, though I could not figure out why.
Eventually we would go our separate ways when high school was over.
Now we shared a bond compacted by the nuns’ Christmas trees, a good deed done committing a bad deed, something we could never brag about, something that canceled itself out like both sides of one of Sister Fernanda’s math equations.
If I stayed to finish the school year I could still plan to go out to California after graduation, after the new baby was born and Dad and Joyce and Bernadette got settled.
I could get revenge on Frankie Lee, kill him with kindness, be a respectable representative of the student body, prove him wrong about me and straighten out my transcripts, my permanent record. Community college was free in California.
As I mused to sleep that night I drifted into mental Christmas songs. Not so much the ones the nuns played by Frank Sinatra on their stereo, but sung by a full-lunged choir. I liked Silent Night, Holy Night except the line that goes Holy Infant so tender and mild — it sounded like a line from a cigarette commercial, or worse, suggested that the baby would taste good to cannibals.
So I turned to that song about comfort and joy. Comfort and joy! Comfort and joy! Tidings of comfort and joy.
Just before I fell asleep, though, my mind lapsed into Na na na na, Na na na na, Hey hey hey, Good Bye.