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When our biggest trees moved south

Recently, an Alpena tree went south. Selected as our state’s official Christmas tree, it’s felling, loading, trucking, and placing were all accomplished smoothly in time for an official Lansing lighting — a slick operation from trunk to smallest branch.

But Alpena has sent larger trees south. Alex MacArthur and Walter Benac were in the tree business for a lot of years and delivered many a 60-footer to the J.L. Hudson Co. in downtown Detroit. But the biggest trees they ever delivered were the pair of 70-plus-footers they moved to Cincinnati, Ohio back in ’56.

A move that didn’t go all that smoothly.

Alex told Ted Johnson and me the whole story at deer camp in the 1990s. We laughed so hard our memories got fogged. Alex’s daughter, Joan Sumerix, and her husband, Ken, helped me restore mine somewhat with old clippings from Cincinnati newspapers. What follows is my less-than-perfect recollection of a Christmas tree saga.

Before I begin, the reader needs to understand the importance of junkyards. Back then, it made no difference if you were running a fleet of seasoned equipment or a single jalopy. If you ventured far, it was best you knew the junkyards along your route. The prospect of an overnight parts shipment wasn’t so much as a glimmer in a young mechanic’s eye.

A small quantity of select liquor was hidden among the trees’ branches — extracted only to allay junkyard owner’s protests to after-hours calls — an equivalent to today’s AAA road insurance.

Today, big trees fall into a caress of hydraulics. But these trees, using manual skills now forgotten, were laid prostrate on a flatbed hitched to a vintage Dodge whose engine complained from the moment of its ignition. The flatbed had seen better days — so too, the tires it rode on.

No freeways then, they moved south on two lanes through cities and towns. Tires blew, springs gave way, wheel bearings howled, the truck’s clutch argued with its transmission despite their engagement, oil and grease was needed always, everywhere. Unscheduled stops were the only stops they made.

That first night, the boys overnighted with their load resting in the middle of the intersection of U.S.-23 and M-16 in Standish — but they didn’t sleep. Soon, the crew was as bedraggled as the equipment they so painstakingly attended.

But to the members of the Cincinnati Junior Chamber of Commerce, whose project this was, the tree’s progress was secondary to a multi-stage party. It had begun with their trip north months earlier to select from trees Alex had identified and it picked up again as our boys drew near their destination. Prior arrangements for newspaper, radio — even newfangled television coverage — had been secured and became manifest, as did an escort of motorcycle police, their lights flashing, sirens screaming.

To say our boys were confounded would be an understatement.

Unprepared for this attention — weary, their clothes wrinkled and soiled, shoes unshined, faces unwashed, unshaven, hair an unconsolable insubordination — they yearned to tip their hats to crowds along the way, but pride prevented revealing such a tangle. Having nowhere to hide, they smiled shyly at those gathered — a growing multitude smiling back at them!

The nearer to the city’s center, the denser those crowds became: black, white, brown, native, Asian, rich, poor, gay, straight, young, old — believers and not — all the combinations, permutations, and orientations of our human condition, united. Smiling, cheering, waving, they stood in appreciation as those evergreen symbols of varied meaning passed, pulled by men as ordinary as they were, as vulnerable as they could often be, as genuine as the big trees they brought with them.

There are over 30 different religious denominations in the weekly listing on the religion page of the Alpena News. All have answers to complexities they believe to be true, some to the exclusion of those who have different answers or who are themselves different.

But that day in Cincinnati, Ohio, Alex, the boys, and the Christmas trees they carried merged with an equality of enthusiasm as that city welcomed and enveloped them.

Still, the boys wouldn’t remove their hats — but they wanted to.

Merry Christmas to all.

Doug Pugh’s “Vignettes” runs biweekly on Tuesdays. He can be reached at pughda@gmail.com.

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