I can’t remember how it feels to squeeze into a rusty hand-me-down Jeep among friends I’d probably die for.
I do not recall how it feels to cheer its four bald tires toward gaining enough traction to climb an unplowed hill in Western New York beyond the “county maintenance ends here sign” in early January. We hoped it would reach the summit; we prayed we could make it safely down the other side without sliding into the forest.
And when we did, the lights of the big city – and its 18,000 residents – awaited us. There, we would find old Christmas tree after old Christmas tree by curbs in front of homes, waiting for city workers to pick up and take them to the dump. Some still had tinsel. A few still had lights. Most had only a 100 or so needles barely staying attached.
All were perfect for tying to the hitch of the Jeep and being dragged down the streets.
I also don’t know why this was so humorous to us. It was stupid, really, I say now as an adult. A multitude of bad things could have happened: we could have been pulled over and had to explain it before still getting fined, we could have hit a parked car with them and got caught, a car coming up quickly behind us might not have seen them and been sent into a fiery crash when it swerved to avoid the trees. People could have died!
But we laughed and laughed and laughed every time we’d pull up to a house with a tree out by the curb, run out of the Jeep, grab it and tie it to the train of trees we’d already accumulated. It wasn’t really stealing, right? No one wanted these old trees a week after Christmas. We were doing them a favor.
“All right guys, I think that’s all she can take,” Corey said, referring to the Jeep’s struggle to navigate the streets packed with snow atop a sheet of ice. We had about a dozen.
Suddenly, it occurred to all of us there was no way we were dragging this cargo back over the hill. Would we just leave them somewhere, victims of another night with nothing better to do because we didn’t have beer?
“Jake’s house,” Corey said. “Let’s drop them off there.”
Speaking of things I cannot fathom today, why this made perfect sense 18 years ago is one of them. Our friend Jake’s house was just outside of the city. That meant we’d have to drag them through busy neighborhoods and side streets for probably three miles, hoping we didn’t see a cop and putting our faith in Corey to navigate the makeshift train that was almost as long as a tractor-trailer but more difficult to control since metal trailers don’t twist and bend like a 30-foot snake.
But Jake’s mom was pretty high strung. Imagining her reaction the whole way there was almost as enjoyable as hearing the next day how it actually occurred. This explained why it was necessary to do this.
We could not resist this reward.
We arrived with our precious cargo one of the greatest rides of my life later. We stared out the rear window with every turn. We looked far down side streets for other headlights to avoid. We stayed aware of our location because we knew every inch of the city and had to keep in mind the nearest dark parking lot in which we could quickly pull if trouble came our way.
Somehow, when we arrived at Jake’s house, we were able to unhook every old Christmas tree – in terrible shape by now – and stand each one-by-one in the plowed snowbank along the perimeter of the driveway without anyone coming out to see what we were doing. If all went well the next morning, Jake would laugh, his dad would say “what the Hell” and his mom would tell his dad to get those the Hell out of there before calling Corey’s mom to complain. We would not tell Corey’s mom what we did, as her lack of explanation for Jake’s mom would add to our delight.
I don’t know what happened to those days – days when dragging old Christmas trees behind an old Jeep in an old town were all I needed to live a life fulfilled. I never would have believed it at the time, but one year later I would move away. Two years later, we’d only be together twice a year. Four years later, I’d be a father. Eight years later, I would own a home. Twelve years later, I’d barely know any of them anymore. Fifteen years later, one of our football coaches would pass away. Seventeen years later, our head football coach would give up coaching football.
Eighteen years later, I would be 50 years older.
And all of this would just be something I fondly – but sadly – recall when the house goes quiet on a Monday night.