Santa Claus, fire & an ancient tree
W e got home from church on Christmas Day to find Santa Claus standing on our chimney.
From the top of our hill, half a mile away, before we plunged into the valley, we could see him clearly. It was only a glimpse, but enough to persuade us that the Dear Old Man, for some unaccountable reason, had come back for a second visit to our home.
We had just enough time to ponder this. Each of us must have thought it strange. Santa had already embarrassed our family with a surfeit of gifts. There was no need to pile it on.
Our car sped down the hill and into the valley, shot up the incline on the other side and out of the woods. An illusion vanished. Santa’s red suit belonged to the fire chief. His elves were our rural town’s firemen, and not one but three sleighs were drawn up in our field — fire trucks called in to put out a Christmas Day chimney fire.
That happened in our New Hampshire home a long time ago. Neighbors saw the flames spouting from the chimney, called up the volunteer firefighters, who quickly got matters under control. We arrived to find the men getting ready to go back to Christmas dinners they had left to rescue us on that most cheerful of holidays.
What I remember best about this event, besides the indelible impression of Santa Claus astride our chimney, is the fact that that chimney took a week to cool off. It was a massive structure, really the central post around which our home had been built. There was access to it from each of the four rooms it served: small doors cut in the wall, behind which storage space provided useful places for tucking away things not immediately wanted. For the next several days we opened those small doors to feel the chimney’s bricks. For a while — too hot to touch.
We had a Glenwood cook stove in the kitchen, a Glenwood parlor stove in the living room and fireplaces that used separate flues on the other sides of the chimney. From September through the next May we put wood to those heaters, with never a thought to how may BTUs were lost up the chimney — or how much creosote was building up on its insides.
Dad was a transplanted city man who never got the hang of countryman’s ways. We kids tried to persuade him to put aside a year’s worth of wood to dry — the way everyone else in town did. Cord wood was dirt cheap. You could buy a forest’s worth of it without mortgaging your home. For some reason Dad couldn’t see an error in his ways. White pine, black cherry, yellow birch — green wood — if it caught fire, Dad burned it. This was, of course, why creosote formed a blanket on the wall of our chimney and, when ignited, almost took our house with it.
In back of the small lot on which our house sat, there was a five-acre parcel that made up the bulk of our property. The hurricane of 1938 had knocked down every substantial tree growing on it. There is no way to describe adequately this jungle of felled trees. It was a mess. Young pines now grew up through tall trees that lay on the ground, many of which were still rooted and putting out leaves in season. Only by clambering over slanted trunks, and crawling under others, could you get from one end of this jumble to the other.
We youngsters saw it as a bonanza of firewood and resolved to cut it up into lengths too long for Dad to handle. We’d give him a present of dry hardwood at the expense of our muscle and sweat. For a couple of years, whenever vacations took us home, we cut and chopped and piled wood until we had built a very satisfactory store of it.
One of the trees we worked on was a “line” tree, a huge pine that had been planted next to the dirt road that ran down behind our place. It was one of several trees that served as a boundary. The hurricane hadn’t spared it. It lay on its side where it fell, having crushed to earth others of its kind, hard to get at with any sort of cutting tool.
With a two-man crosscut saw, we went to work. It took half a day to cut out the first drum cylinder from the base of that giant. We’d not heard of chain saws then and probably would have disdained the use of one had we been able to get our hands on it. Sweat of your brow was good enough by our youthful standards.
We were so bushed when we finished the first cut that we stood around gulping for air. We saw that the old stump was marred and scarred — there was history in that ancient wood. One of us started counting rings. Some were clear to see, some were thin and hidden in the pitchy-damp pulp of the old pine. We got to my birthday, not too many rings inside the bark. It was one of the thicker rings and my companion said: the sap ran well that year.
Back to the turn of the century we counted, into a time after the Civil War. We found 1876 standing out. That was the year of the Philadelphia World Exposition, when the Corliss steam engine got everybody’s attention — and the Mason jar and tin can went overshadowed in some small room off the main thoroughfare of that industrial circus.
Fifteen and 20 years farther back we counted, and found what got us going in the first place. It was a wedge of lead, a pound ball of conglomerate small balls, no doubt shot into that tree so long ago by some hopeful marksman out trying his skill with a new gun. Who was he? Whatever became of him? Did he tramp up that nearby dirt road to go off to the Civil War as did so many of his Cheshire County fellows? His shooting was done in time for that.
Back of this scar were more rings, concentrics growing ever smaller in diameter, too close, one on the other, to count. Time and age were lost in the pressing together of the tree’s core. It must already have been a substantial tree when the marksman stuck his target up on it.
At one point, we had sat on its trunk to get back our wind. Now, as we surveyed the great old tree, thinking of the history written in its rings, we stood. We stood reverently. Like an old lady who is unwilling to tell her age, the tree kept its secret tight at the heart of it. Next to us and our youth, it was old, very old. That was enough for us to ponder.
In semi-retirement after 58 years of writing for The Recorder, Paul Seamans of Gill will continue Said & Done on a regular monthly basis. Some of his columns will have been previously published.