Normally, Dad’s drinking was quiet and subdued, but sometimes there was unexpected drama. At Christmas, when I was sixteen, Dad and I went shopping for a Christmas tree. Each year, this was a major production and massive effort on Dad’s part. He loved Christmas more than anyone I knew. Planning and searching for just the right tree was a welcomed ritual for him. Because we placed the tree in our den, the tree had to be just right. Our den was large and beautiful; sixteen feet by thirty-two feet, and it had a twelve-foot high ceiling. Its walls were planks of pecky cypress and stained a dark, red oak color. Each of the giant beams that spanned the ceiling had been hand-hewed by Dad. The den had a 14-foot long bar made of red oak and a solid brass foot rail. The den was featured in several newspapers and magazines, and when Mom was questioned about the solid brass foot rail, ever frugal, she replied, “Had we known in advance the price of brass, we might have used something cheaper—like gold.”
Finding a tree that was ten- or eleven-feet tall, and perfect, was a difficult undertaking. We sometimes spent the entire day driving from tree lot to tree lot trying to find the right one. Finally, we found the ideal tree. It looked like it came right off of a Hollywood movie set. It was a huge scotch pine about eleven-feet tall. Even I was impressed with its beauty. It was so large we could have used lumberjacks to help get it loaded on top of our station wagon. As there were none available, the tree lot employees and several volunteers helped Dad and I load it on the car. When we got home, it took Dad and me forty-five minutes to drag the tree from the car, through the house, and into the den. After some struggling and deft maneuvering, we got the tree mounted on the elaborate Christmas tree stand Dad had designed and built. Even his Christmas tree stand was a work of art. Dad said we now needed to wait four or five hours to let gravity settle the branches. “Only Dad would know to do shit like this,” I thought.
While we waited, I went in the living room, watched TV, and snoozed. Dad sat at the huge bar in the den drinking bourbon and staring at the tree. Just about five hours later I heard Dad slur out my name and call me to the den. “Alright Ichaboody, let’s get started.” When Dad was drinking, my nickname, Ichabod, sometimes came out as Icchybod, Ichadoodle, or some other derivation. When that happened, I knew it was going to mean a night of surprises that were sometimes good or sometimes bad.
Dad had a ritual for trimming the tree. He employed the same amount of care and precision Rembrandt used when he painted meticulous brushstrokes on a canvas. First, Dad hung the lights in carefully chosen locations, and then he adjusted and tweaked each one until he pronounced them perfectly in place. Sometimes he spent hours just placing the lights. Next, he would drape the garland and hang it in perfectly matched loops descending at a twenty-degree angle around the circumference of the tree. Then he hung each ornament, moving, adjusting, and tweaking them with the same, exacting placement. That took another two hours. Finally, came the icicles, which he hung with care. Dad would say, “Unless you make fake icicles look like real icicles, you’ve failed.”
By now, after the five-hour gravity break and countless bourbons for Dad, Mom saw that Dad was drunk asked him to wait until the next day to finish trimming the tree. She hoped he would be in better shape the next morning, but I knew Dad better than that. Like all proud alcoholics, Dad said, “Nonsense. We’ll begin now.”
With a stack of 45s churning out Christmas carols on the hi-fi, Dad wedged our 10-foot ladder strategically between tree branches and climbed to the top. I held my breath as I pictured a catastrophe in the making. He looked down at me and barked, “Lights!” using the same commanding voice a surgeon would employ when he asked a nurse for a scalpel. I climbed up several steps on the ladder and handed the first light string to him. He placed them where he wanted them, and when he reached for the top-most branch, the ladder started teetering a bit. To steady himself, he grabbed an antler on the mounted elk’s head that hung on the den wall.
This mounted elk’s head had been a gift from my great-uncle Fred when Mom and Dad added the beautiful den on to the back of our house. The elk’s head was massive. For someone who can’t picture the size of a giant elk, one should try to imagine the head and chest of a bull elephant mounted on our den wall. Ah, the elk. It had haunted me since I was a child. When I couldn’t sleep at night, as I made the trek from my bedroom to the safety of my parent’s bedroom, I knew that the elk had come down off the wall by itself and would be waiting for me in the dark hallway and gore me to death with his antlers. Then, grinning, he would gobble up my bloody corpse. I had the same thought this night.
Dad stretched toward the furthest branch, and the ladder went from a teeter to a sway and he grabbed the elk antler tighter. Then the ladder slowly tipped away from the tree, and Dad’s death-grip on the elk pulled it away from the wall. Like the collapse of a house of cards, the elk fell on Dad and they both fell against the tree. Then Dad, the elk, the ladder, and the tree all fell on me. When we hit the tree stand and the floor, it sounded like a bomb went off. My head hit the tile floor, and I must have been stunned for a few moments. As I shook the cobwebs from my brain, I heard Frank Sinatra’s voice coming from the hi-fi, singing, “Have yourself a merry little Christmas, let your hearts be light; from now on our troubles will be out of sight…” In my concern for Dad’s safety, I crawled out from under the tree and shook him to see if he was still alive. He was disoriented but unhurt. The explosive sound caused Mom to run down the den stairs, because she thought the fall had killed both of us. “Good Lord,” she said, “I thought an airplane crashed through the roof.”
As Dad and I sat in the floor looking up at Mom, I was instantly reminded of a hilarious Laurel and Hardy short that showed them sitting in their living room floor covered in bricks and dust after they fell down their chimney while trying to attach an antenna to their roof. There was no laughing now. I watched Mom closely. If looks could kill, Dad would have been one, dead, Christmas goose. He pulled himself to his feet and said, “I think I’ll take a nap and finish the tree later. Ichhybood, don’t bother with a thing. I’ll take care of it.” Dad made his way to his bedroom and fell into a Kentucky bourbon sleep. I got up, dusted myself off, and thought that I needed to get that elk back on the wall before it killed Dad. With Mom holding the ladder steady, I hoisted the elk across my shoulder like a large sack of potatoes, struggled my way up the ladder, and somehow, got the elk hung back on the wall. After that night, I never had any fear of that elk again—just hatred.
The next morning when we awoke, we saw that during the night Dad had gotten up and had trimmed the tree from top to bottom. It was beautiful—breathtaking—right out of Better Homes and Gardens magazine. Only Dad could have turned that chaos we had left earlier into Christmas tree perfection. I marveled at the inexplicability of Dad’s talents as a tree trimmer and recoverer from hangovers. As we stood in wonder and stared at the beautiful tree, I mumbled to everyone and no one, “Fuck… as Tiny Tim said on that long-ago Christmas, ‘God bless us, every one.’”
In spite of my father’s progressive drinking problem, I couldn’t deny that I was still proud of him for his genuine humanity, kindness, and compassion for all people. He never talked about loving others—he had shown it in his actions. Alcohol never seemed to interfere with that. He drilled that compassion into my sister and me, and it would shape our views of society for the rest of our lives. To Dad, never was there an acceptable reason for turning your back on someone in need. He believed everyone deserved a hand up, a shoulder to cry on, a pat on the back, or a sympathetic ear. To him, God loved everyone just as much as he loved us.