by Bill Scutta
The news traveled swiftly through the town. My father learned of the horror before the rest of the family. At supper time on
December 15, 1953 he solemnly announced to the family that he had heard that Stevie Vahovich would be charging $2.50 for Christmas trees. This was a quarter more than he charged last year. With rising emotion in his voice he, in no uncertain terms, imparted his rather strong feelings about this price gouging at a time of year when peace and love are supposed to reign. After this diatribe, which could have won him a place as a prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials, he revealed his plan.
Call your uncle Dick and tell him to bring his panel truck down here on Saturday at five o'clock in the afternoon." My brother Bobby and I were instructed to go to the woods and up the mountain to the northeast of town. Our mission was to mark two evergreens which were to be cut down under cover of darkness on Saturday evening.
By Saturday evening all was ready. Dick parked his "Miner's Laundry" truck at the base of the mountain and my brother and I began a perilous trek up the mountain, a journey of roughly three quarters of a mile. A complicated series of flashlight signals and headlight blinkings was used to let my dad and uncle know when we had succeeded in locating and felling the Yule trees.
As we ascended the slope armed with an axe and a flashlight which dimmed off and on, I was frightened. Dante, in the first line of Inferno states: "Midway our life's journey, I found myself in a dark wood"; many years later when I read The Divine Comedy in college, I recalled my ascent of the mountain. The fear increased as the form of Dick's truck grew smaller and smaller. Every noise seemed loud in the dark, quiet woods. It was as though the dusky silence itself exaggerated the sounds. I also remembered the stories about the deranged "Albino Lady" who was said to live on the other side of the mountain in Owl Creek Valley. Viola Halushka claimed to have seen this specter roaming the woods and wielding a large bread knife. At the age of ten, in the woods at night with my brother who was sixteen, I had not made the connection that Viola only told the story on holidays after she had sampled the aromatic but potentially lethal home-brew called "boilo."
Having, with no small degree of difficulty, located the targeted trees, we went to work; each axe blow sounded like an explosion. In the dead chill and quiet of mid-December all sound was magnified. "Suppose the albino-lady is alerted to our presence," was only one of many anxious thoughts doing an Apache dance in my brain.
After the longest hour of my life, and after a few coded flashlight/headlight blinks, we descended the mountain swiftly. We arrived at the truck in rough shape since our retreat from the dark woods and its real or imagined inhabitants, was punctuated by a series of trips and stumbles.
In fewer than ten minutes we were back at our cellar door. My father, jubilant over his clandestine triumph, still had the presence of mind to whisper, "Give Dick the small one." The "Miner's Laundry" truck disappeared down the street with my uncle in possession of a beautifully shaped, seven-and-a-half foot spruce tree. My brother and I started to drag our prize through the cellar; we dragged and dragged and it seemed to take forever for the tree to clear the coal bin. Still abeam with pride and satisfaction my dad mumbled a sentence which contained, "Goddamn Stevie Vahovich," and ". . . big son-of-a-bitch of a tree." My brother and I concluded that a tree in the forest looks a lot smaller than it does coming through the basement door. Having applied my dad's twenty-five-foot steel tape to the tree we were surprised at the reading; it was close to thirteen feet tall.
This was a minor problem for my jubilant father, "We'll just cut the bottom of the bastard off." We were ordered upstairs and awaited the outcome of the impending tree surgery.
I have been told that prayers ascend to heaven, and maybe it's true; that curses can be heard rising through the living room floorboards from the cellar, I have no doubt. Amid a cacophony of grunts, saw noises, hammer poundings, and invectives, the mumbled name of Stevie Vahovich could be heard. We descended to the operating theater to find the tree in the stand; it was at an angle so that the top of the tree pointed to about ten o'clock. For some reason there appeared to be a malfunction in the laws of gravity; it didn't fall over. It was then that the truth was revealed: the tree had a bent trunk. My father had cut through this large bow and the tree could not stand straight. Never one to be bested by such a turn of events, my dad decided to try a surgical procedure which would amount to tree vivisection. Bobby and I were again sent upstairs and a mixture of sounds again filtered through the floorboards. After about ten minutes the floor stopped mumbling; we decided to go back down and see how the work had progressed. In our most surrealistic dreams we could not have imagined what awaited us as we descended the steps to view the result of my dad's handiwork.
There he stood beside what appeared to be the remains of an evergreen, but was it a tree? "All I had to do is cut out that damn twisted middle part," he said with apparent satisfaction in his initiative and creativity. My brother whispered to me, "He cut the middle of the tree out and nailed the pointed top on to the bottom." Our tree was now seven feet high and it existed in two stages. The lower part consisted of a trapezoidal bottom whose base was a little more than six feet wide and whose top was about four feet wide. Then, affixed securely to this with ten-penny nails was the triangular part. This was of isosceles variety with a base of about two feet. The total effect was depressing.
It looked like what it was, nature reshaped by Mr. Robert B. Scutta, a fat trapezoid with a triangular hat nailed on top. As we stood there transfixed, He misinterpreted our widening eyes and said, "I told you we would have a nice Christmas tree without paying two-fifty to that bastard Stevie Vahovich." No, we didn't pay Stevie, but by my birthday, December 27th, the little triangle had turned a brownish black because water could not be sucked up through galvanized nails; the bottom part had stayed a bright green.
During that entire Christmas season my father delighted in relating to visitors the story of how he refused to pay an exorbitant sum for a tree, how he and the kids cut the tree down, and how Dick got the small tree, etc., etc. He also relished pointing out that it was his idea to cut out the middle of the tree and reattach the top. Everyone who endured this story knew him well enough to agree with everything he said. He was actually proud of the decaying geometric monstrosity which inhabited our living room. I recall that he often asked my brother and me, "Why don't you invite your friends over to see the tree?"