There it was, Christmas morning, and I had 100 miles to drive to work and an interview for the story I would be writing for the next day’s paper.

At the newspaper where I work, everybody has to work one of the holidays, and Christmas is mine.

It’s a short shift, so it’s not as bad as it might be.

I was running late, but the patriarch of the house, Sue’s son, insisted that I should open my gifts before I darted out the door for the drive from Baltimore to Harrisburg.

I’m glad I did. If I’d left, I’d have gone through the whole day without knowing about the frog.

That morning, the usual suspects poised around the tree with age-appropriate decorum, from the mellow familial glow of the adults and older children, to 12-year-old Tristan’s barely-bridled anticipation, which I can only liken to that of a young piranha downstream from a wounded deer.

Like most guys, I prefer toys to things like clothing. As one gets older, as I have done, one’s range of toys expands and matures, so that I can receive, as I did this year, a rechargeable power screwdriver and take great delight in it.

There were some other gifts, equally as sensible. And then Sue handed me a box large enough to hold, say, an inflated football.

“This one’s from Wendy,” she said, perhaps by way of warning.

Wendy is one of her two sisters. They live in California.

She’s good people. But California is, well, California. Even those of us who grew up in the Deep South, where just plain loony people and actions are thought of as part of the local charm, wonder about those folks out there in California. In my several visits to the place, I confess, I was always on the lookout for somebody to do some damnfool crazy thing. Like anybody else, I watch TV, so I know about these things. Nobody ever did. I figure my timing was just off.

Anyway, so there was the package, in light blue holiday paper, a lacy white ribbon enwrapping the whole. I slipped the ribbon off, peeled away the paper, and sliced the clear shipping tape from the box lid, and carefully lifted it.

flyingfrog2-1.jpgflyingfrog.jpg

Two eyes bugged out at me from a chartreuse background. A very wide chartreuse background, a kiwi cloud.

I squinted in the dimness. It was….

….a frog. Wendy had sent me a very tubby, very green frog. But what’s this at its nether end, protruding from its little froggy butt?

A feathered tail. I looked north. The froggy’s front feet were feathered, too, and spread- er, -eagled, as though in flight.

A flying frog?

And then, on the side, I saw a round hole, about an inch-and-a-half across, with a little peg sticking out below it.

A flying frog birdhouse.

I can’t wait ‘til spring so I can hang it. And sorry, I can’t tell you where to get one for yourself. The frog itself was made in China, possibly from lead (just kidding.) I looked up the company name online, “Pacific Rim…The Company for All Seasons.”

Unfortunately, Pacific Rim has run out of seasons, and gone into receivership. So, there may be a whole warehouse full of flying frog birdhouses somewhere in Seattle. But I don’t know where.

You will just have to live with your envy.

Big Tree, Big Heart

December 12, 2007

I am sitting here in a comfortable chair with my feet stacked up all laid-back and comfy, laptop perched on what remains of my lap, and a mug of hot tea perched nearby. I am thinking about my father.

I’m trying to write a column, which is easier some weeks than others, and not made any easier this week because standing at the other end of the room is the eastern red cedar we just murdered out in a farm field and mounted on the sill of the bay window.

My father has been dead for a tad more than a quarter-century, but now and then I see him in the mirror, lurking in the bones of my face, or sometimes he kind of floats up unbidden from something I hear or see. This is one of the latter.

You don’t usually find eastern red cedars on the Christmas-tree lots or at the “cut-your-own” farms because, for one thing, they’re as common as fleas on a dog, and for another thing they probably don’t smell as good as some of the higher-grade commercial trees.

If I had to be pinned down to describe the odor, I’d say its bouquet is piney with a soupcon of cat pee. But then again, it was free.

My perception of the smell may, of course, be simply prejudiced by my intense dislike for Christmas. And, before you ask, I don’t know why. I just do. But hating it is cheaper than liking it, and takes less work.

The placing of a tree is only a big deal inasmuch as it is the first I’ve had in my own residence in 30 years. Sue said she’d really like one this year and so now we have one.

Cutting the annual Christmas tree was always a big production for Dad. I think he took me and my brother along every year when he went to go get one. Sometimes we would go to a lot, but the clearest memories are of hiking out into the Georgia woods somewhere, cutting down a tree and lashing it to the Dodge for the drive home.

My father was not an emotive man, but some sort of largesse overtook him when it was time to get a Christmas tree. You’d have thought he was selecting one for display at the governor’s mansion. I don’t think we ever got one that didn’t need major surgery before we could even get it through the door.

It was sort of a family joke.

I remember one year, in a riot of excess, Dad took me and David and his bow saw out into the woods to look for “just the right tree.” I don’t know about David, but by the time we found this blessed conifer, I thought we’d walked all the way to Colorado. It was getting dark, and the tree seemed enormous.

“Gee, it looks, um, big,” I think I told him.

“It’s fine,” he said. “It’s just right. We don’t want a tree that’s too small.”

It took forever to drag it to the station wagon and strap it to the top. I think when he saw how it dwarfed even the 1958 Dodge, a vehicle roughly the size and maneuverability of a minesweeper; I think Dad was beginning to think maybe he had gone a little overboard.

I’m not saying it was big, but the car looked like a bedroom slipper on which someone had perched a watermelon. It was a really BIG tree.

At home, Mom took one look at it and went to sit in the family room.

The tree would not even go through the door until Dad trussed it up with some clothesline. Then, when he tried to stand it up, he got it to about 45 degrees and the top hit the ceiling.

Out came the saw, and the clippers.

He sawed and pruned and tried again. Still too tall. And again.

Ditto.

The third time did it. There it stood, massive, occupying a third of the living room. The Tree.

Well, not so much a tree, as a green furry cylinder. Dad had to trim it from both ends, so that by the time he got it upright and bolted into the holder, what we really had was just the center of the pine tree. It seemed to rise out of the floor and go straight up into the ceiling. No cone-shape for the Burger household, nossir. We had us an evergreen silo.

Fortunately, we didn’t have much furniture. There wouldn’t have been any room for it anyway.

It was splendid, once we got all the lights and ornaments, fake snow and phony icicles on it. I took to sleeping on the floor in front of it until Dad would come and more or less drag my sleepy self back to my bedroom. I loved that tree.

So, today, a little reluctantly, I dragged my Grinchy butt out to that field, selected a cedar, and sawed it off at ground level. I selected a short one, because it was going to stand on that window sill. I stood in front of it and checked out where the top of it came to, just a little above my eye level.

I maneuvered it through the house and laid it in front of the window where it will stand through the holidays. I looked at the window. I looked at the tree. I looked back at the window.

I distinctly heard my father say “It’s just right. We don’t want a tree that’s too small.”


It must be something genetic. I dragged the tree out to the deck, sawed 8 inches off the trunk, and trimmed another 10 or so off the top, and used the clippers to bring it back to something like a taper. Then I carried it carefully back through the house and set it on the sill.

Perfect.