Brenner's Christmas Tree Farm (1060 words)

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By Paul Briggs

Mr. Brenner was a friend of my dad's. They went deer hunting together every year that I could remember, and Dad always bought a tree from his lot. We would go there a couple of weeks before Christmas, bring the tree home and set it up in a little pail of sand and water, keeping the sand wet so the tree wouldn't dry out and become a fire hazard.

For most people, cutting down a Christmas tree is a cumbersome task. It's not the weight of the thing, it's the size of it that makes it awkward to handle.

But I'm not most people. At age 14, I was seven and a half feet tall and still not quite done growing. I could grip the tree in one hand, saw through the trunk with the other and carry the whole thing to the truck by myself.

That was the year Mr. Brenner saw me in action and decided to offer me a job for the week before Christmas. Basically, he'd charge the customers $10 extra, of which I would get half, to have me cut down the tree, bring it to their car and either tie it to the roof or put it in their trunk. I was only too happy to oblige.

(I know, I know. I was getting seriously exploited here. I should have said "Pay me by the hour or go find yourself another giant." I thought of it as a favor for some friends, rather than a real job. The money was just a little bonus. Also, it was a chance to get out of the house. When you're a teenage girl and it's the holidays and everyone's home all the time, this is not to be sneezed at.)

So I would get up well before dawn, eat four slices of toast and half a dozen hard-boiled eggs, drink a pint and a half of skim milk, and then Dad would drive me out to the farm and drop me off.

The thing about making your own winter clothes is, the minute you step out the door you know whether or not you did it right. By the end of December, I'd long since sorted out all the little leaks and drafts in my handiwork.  I wouldn't have won any awards for style, but I was warm and comfortable. The footwear was always the hard part, but not as hard as shopping for a decent pair of snow boots in women's size 18.

At first, there wasn't much to do. I'd hang out on the porch with the Brenner boys, Erickson and Hudson, maybe have a few snowball fights. (I was a bigger target, but on the other hand, I could throw bigger snowballs.)

But then a customer would come by. Some of them (usually men) wanted to handle the whole thing themselves, but with me standing there looking shamelessly bright and eager to please, they usually said "What the heck." And then there were the older couples that wanted a traditional tree but didn't feel up to all that heavy lifting, the divorced and single moms who wanted an old-fashioned holiday for once... I got a lot of work.

Mostly what I remember is the smell -- pine sap and sawdust -- and the surprising warmth. The blade got very hot, and I often had to unbutton my coat while working. A chainsaw would have been faster, but the handsaw was easier and safer to handle. (Picking the right tool and getting the right grip on it can be tricky when your hands are nearly the size of tennis rackets.)

The trick was to make sure my left hand was as high up on the trunk as I could comfortably reach when the saw cut through. If I did everything right, when I held the tree upright with the cut end resting on the ground, the top would be about level with my eyes.

(Of course, some customers wanted a smaller tree -- five or six feet tall, say. These were much easier to handle, but I had to resist the urge to use them for baton practice. Mr. Brenner was very strict about that.)

Then I'd get out the twine and tie it very firmly in place, either on the roof rack or inside the car. If either end of the tree stuck out more than a little bit past the bumper, I'd get out a red ribbon and tie it there. And that would be it.

Every year that I did this, Mr. Brenner managed to sell all his salable trees. For a Christmas-tree farm, this is important -- the last thing you want is to get stuck with a bunch of ten-foot trees that won't fit in anybody's living room. I think I actually made more money than I would have made working minimum wage for the same amount of time.

It's a fact of life -- pretty much everything I do outdoors becomes a public spectacle. When word got out, people actually drove a mile outside of town to do nothing but stand around in the cold and watch the big girl cut down trees. They'd all make what sounded like the same joke about me being Paul Bunyan's granddaughter. Some of them even packed a lunch.

Then, of course, they'd get out the cameras and I'd start striking poses like a model. It was on days like this, when I was putting my size and strength to good use, that I really enjoyed being a giant. And people are going to stare at me anyway, so what's the point of being shy? (And I bet I looked sexier than you'd look in a coat and pants you had to make yourself out of old blankets and some waterproofed canvas.)

Eric and Hud, meanwhile, would fill a couple of great big thermoses with hot (or at least very warm) cocoa and serve it to the crowd in Dixie cups for fifty cents each. (Those particular apples didn't fall too far from the tree. I've heard they've gone into real estate development now.)

So for the first day I was pretty cheerful about the whole thing. Towards the end, I started getting tired of all the attention, thinking "Don't you people have any last-minute shopping to do?"

It was some time later that I realized why Mr. Brenner hired me to do this when he usually didn't hire anyone. It wasn't just because I worked so cheap or my dad was a friend of his.

There was nothing I'd done that couldn't have been done almost as easily by a very big, strong man. But... well, picture it. You've got a family all together, they've picked out a tree, and Mr. Brenner says, "For a little extra, Bubba here will do it all for you." Is Dad going to let that happen? In front of his wife and kids?

A seven-and-a-half-foot-plus teenage girl is just too far outside the norm to be a threat to anyone's masculinity.
A moment in the teenagerhood of the seven-foot-nine Irene J. Harris.
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