This is our hero (moi) at the time of the Christmas tree caper.
The following story is from my memoir Burning the Furniture, which you can find here. It is my way of wishing you the very best of the season.
Here’s the story:
The Christmas Bomb
It was nearing noon, seven days before Christmas, 1954, and our South Carolina elementary school would let out for the holiday in minutes. My brothers and I had a plan and it was on the edge of being implemented.
Christmas inevitably meant resourcefulness for all of us in the Smith family. Dad had to carefully manage the small salary he earned as a cook and Mom had to shop for bargains, beginning at 50 percent off, if there was going to be any Christmas at all.
And the tree—that was me and my brothers’ responsibility. Ever since I was in first grade, two years before, my brothers and I had waited in the woods behind the school for the teachers to toss out each classroom’s tree as we broke for the holiday. Some of the trees, most often small pines, came fully decorated. Those were aggressively sought by our competitors, one group of whom didn’t want a tree so much as it wanted us not to have one.
Ralph, Earl and Tinker made up the gang we wanted to avoid. They were sixth graders and a lot bigger than my brothers Sandy and David and 8-year-old me. Sandy was 10, David 9. (Mom had her 8 kids in sets, a year apart.) Sandy was the athletic one. David, whom everybody called “slow” because he was, was the sweet kid. I was the brains of the outfit, and those brains often tended toward devious resourcefulness.
Our three adversaries didn’t much like us, didn’t much like anybody. They knew Christmas tree procurement was our job and it was important to us. The sport for them was to impede us, to prevent us from taking home a big decorated evergreen.
Their challenge meant that we’d have to plan, scheme, connive to win. We were too little to simply beat them up; we’d have to outsmart them and I knew, even then, that there was a lot more satisfaction in the humiliation of a bully by being smarter than he was than in being bigger and nastier. (It was a lesson that would come in handy much, much later.)
Sandy, David and I had talked well into the night preceding our adventure. We settled on a plan that was delicious in its simple intricacy, its deviousness and its timing. One small slip-up and we’d fail. That would mean no Christmas tree for the first time in our young lives. David was the lynchpin of the plan and I suppose that in other circumstances there might have been some concern since he had been identified as “retarded” by the school system. We knew David better than those anal-retentive, bun-wearing, old maid school teachers and administrators and we were betting on him.
The lunchroom of our elementary school, built in the late 1920s or early ’30s, was on the third floor of the brick monstrosity of a building. At the back of the lunchroom was an old-style fire escape, a big, metal tube about four feet in diameter that we jumped in and slid down to safety. At the end of the slide we hit the ground behind the school and at the edge of the woods. The fire escape had become a kind of theme park ride for us on weekends. Because the school was locked (and because the administration would have killed us if it caught us), we had to climb up the escape from the bottom, usually in bare feet because shoes and socks were too slippery. When we reached the top, which was just under the massive terra-cotta roof, we sat on waxed paper and slid lickety-split down. It was a 75-foot rush.
My classroom was on the third floor; Sandy’s was on the second floor; and David’s was at ground level in his “special class,” the one where these educational Neanderthals herded people who were “different.” The bathrooms were on the first and third floors. The bathroom on my level was accessible through the lunchroom.
At 11:55, my hand shot up and I said, “Miss Anderson, may I go to the restroom, please?”
“Can’t you want five minutes?” she said, in something of a huff.
“No, ma’am,” I said, squirming with as much urgency as I could generate. “I really gotta go.” Both hands were in my lap.
“OK,” she said. “That’ll be your Christmas present from me.”
Thanks a lot, Miss Generous Spirit of Christmas, I thought, as I scrambled out of my seat and hurried down the hall. Sandy met me at the door of the lunchroom and we scrambled toward the back left corner. Miz Washington, probably the first Black person I ever knew and our school’s chief cook, was just leaving. We hadn’t figured on her being there at all since lunch wasn’t scheduled that day, but she had been at the school for 30 years, and the faculty was going to have a combination Christmas-anniversary party for her after the students left for the day, in just a few minutes.
We stopped short and looked at her. “Merry Christmas, boys,” she said cheerfully as she passed us. We looked at each other, mentally wiping the sweat from our brows, and charged through the door toward the boys’ bathroom. We stopped briefly on the other side, waited about 10 seconds and re-entered the lunchroom a few steps from the fire escape’s small, white wooden swinging doors. Sandy went in first and I followed quickly. Then we waited on the small landing at the top of the fire escape.
After a long two minutes, the bell rang and we heard the young celebrants screaming and running from the school, full of freedom and anticipation. We knew our teachers wouldn’t miss us or even suspect anything amid the confusion of school closing for the holidays. Sandy and I sat patiently for about 15 minutes. It was quiet on the third floor, but we knew we had a good two hours to go before we could slide out and pick up our tree.
After a while, as we fidgeted and shifted, we heard a rustling at the bottom of the fire escape. Teachers were bringing out their trees and tossing them into a pile. We had scouted each classroom and we knew the tree we wanted: it was from Miss Crutchfield’s second-grade class, a seven-foot beauty, the only spruce in the school and a blue spruce at that. All the poor kids would covet that one. Ralph, Earl and Tinker would consider themselves appointed by God to keep us away from it.
Sandy and I continued our restless wait, patience growing short. He punched my shoulder and said, “Get over to your side. You don’t own this fire escape.” I backed up as much as I could and tried to be still.
Another hour went by. Except for occasional brief, noisy skirmishes at the bottom of the fire escape when our adversaries leaped from cover to pummel and chase some of the neighborhood kids away from the trees, it was tomb quiet and the dark of the tubular fire escape intensified the eerie feel.
Finally, we heard what we were waiting for. Boom! Boom-boom-boom! It sounded like cannons going off. Then again, another series: Boom! Boom-boom-boom! It was louder this time and we heard Earl yell, “What the hell is that?” His partners, using forbidden language that the bad guys always used in those days, said, “Crap! Let’s go see.” Reeling from a double-barreled blast of cuss words, we listened to the telling sounds as they scrambled down from their tree perches at the edge of the woods and ran toward the front of the school building.
Sandy didn’t hesitate. He pulled his waxed paper from the back pocket of his blue jeans, unfolded it, put it between his butt and the floor of the escape tube and sailed down. I was a few feet behind him. Sandy hit the ground running—a practiced technique we’d both developed through many hours of sliding these tubes—and I was less than a second in the rear.
As we suspected, Miss Crutchfield had thrown her Best in Show tree on the top of the pile. The faculty’s party for Jesus and Miz Washington had been in the second grade room and Miss Crutchfield had left the tree up until the songs and toasts were over. It was fully decorated with popcorn strings, foil tinsel and icicles, crape paper balls hung by paper clips, cotton pulled flat and placed on branches as snow. It was topped by a pretty angel Mary Anne Thompson had made for her favorite former teacher. She’d shown it to me on the way to school one day and I told her how pretty it was. Mary Anne moved away in the spring, but she stayed long enough to give me my first kiss.
Sandy instinctively went to the front of the tree, stuck his hand inside the limbs and grabbed the trunk. I went to the base and picked up the heavy part. We worked in perfect unison, lifting the tree without dropping a single decoration, and running with it as fast as we could toward 110 Forest Avenue. A smiling Mom waited at the back screen door, the one that squealed so loud we’d often hear it open before we heard her voice yelling for us.
David, the boy everybody underestimated, sat smugly on the sofa as we entered the living room. He grinned. “Got a couple of them left,” he said, pulling the cherry bombs from his pocket. “Good thing we didn’t use all of them July 4.
“You should have seen those three bums trying to figure out what was making all the noise. I put the cherry bombs in that big metal trash can out front and turned it on its side, pointing toward the back of the school. I hung around to watch them, and, boy, did they look confused.”
“I’d bet they were more than confused when they went back to guard the trees,” I laughed. “When we pulled this one off, the pile looked a lot smaller.”
We laughed and slid the tree into its stand. Mom went to the basement to get those wondrous, multi-colored, used car lot lights we always strung on the tree. It was Christmas again and our wait for Santa would be much easier with the big blue spruce sparkling in the corner.