Our Annual Family Crime Wave

Harry Drabik

When we first came to Minnesota there was no question but we’d go in the woods to get our Holiday Tree. (Isn’t that expression nicely less offensive than saying Christmas Tree that might upset any of the easily disturbed?) As mother wasn’t exactly thrilled we’d left the city, getting a tree on our own was one of the few north woods boons she willingly recognized along with blueberry picking if accompanied by armed guards to protect her from ravening bears she was sure were lurking in wait for her. The innocence of these attitudes was real. We’d never have cruised the streets of Chicago looking for properly shaped pines to chop down or have limbs removed for outside decoration. City trees were owned by someone who lived nearby and would likely raise a row over axe wielding strangers in their yards. It was also the case that most city trees were deciduous such as the elms that largely succumbed to the Dutch Disease. We never thought to break into a city yard as illegal holiday loggers. But in Minnesota there were “free” trees everywhere. Mother kept a mental list of the best shaped trees seen in roadside ditches. Being somewhat on the obsessive competitive side about such things mother was sure in her heart that dozens of other conniving women were “licking their chops” (an expression she favored) to get their hands on those same trees. As crime boss it was mother’s job to send her gang of hooligans (father and me) out as ground-floor second-story men to “get” the selected victim.

After the first year father (in one of his wiser moves) forbade mother to accompany us. We knew our first tree would be rejected so it was by far easier to go get any-old-tree and have that part of the ordeal over. Actually, in a family with one child most of the ordeal fell to the youngest member who was expected to wade through hip deep snow in woolen coat and combat boots to do hatchet battle with a feisty balsam fir or black spruce. Not until I was wet thoroughly through and so exhausted even all the whine was out of me would the day’s thievery come to an end. Having put their son into a near hypothermic coma the adult rulers would allow their successful young criminal to remove 300 pounds of wet clothes and come downstairs. In underwear with a wool (wool was warm, a conclusion we were never allowed to question or argue as fact) blanket wrapped around me I could sit like an olive drab (the color of the wool army blanket) pyramid topped by a human head with both feet on the nylon frizz cushion taking up an entire end of the couch where Burl Ives chanting jolly tunes was supposed to cheer me. Following a day of miserable wood cutter it’s a wonder I didn’t turn axe murderer. But those were innocent times so I drank my cocoa pouting over the skimpiness of the mini marshmallows and hummed along with Burl who’d not have been singing if he’d done what I had.

At a point in later years mom and dad switched to an aluminum artificial tree with three color spots rotating as decoration. I’m sure none of that was stolen. The move from theft to purchase was in part due to my increased resistance as chief tree butcher and the other part being public notices from the DNR about tree rustlers. The prospect of prosecution did concern mom and dad, but as their hit man was underage they counted on legal leniency toward a juvenile offender. They never suspected how quickly I’d have sung fingering the driver and the behind-the-scenes crime boss playing innocent homemaker who made large quantities of Mamie Eisenhower Fudge to use as bribes to keep the juvenile axe man contented and in reserve as kickback for any DNR enforcer who tracked us down. The syndicate was secure. As I recall it the aluminum tree appeared (both too late and too soon in my opinion) on the scene the first Christmas I was off to college. My absence from home inspired a remarkable law abiding reform for which I’ll take full credit.

Attitude shifts from past times to present interest me. It wasn’t until we moved to Minnesota I heard of women named Pearl. Before that the names I recognized were Gertrude, Anastasia, Mary, Patricia, Frances, and the like. I gaped dumb as a guppy when a Junior High friend said his mother’s name was Pearl. I’d have recognized Rose as a feminine name, but Pearl was definitely not. A pearl was decidedly a thing most often “cultured” and much rarer and more precious “natural.” My conviction about pearls had been bolstered that very year by one of our teachers showing a film (a 16mm projector was state of the art) about Japanese pearl divers; all female and all topless. Compared to a health class film on tooth brushing, this was good stuff. The male members of the class were (for a change) highly attentive. Not so the girls, some of whom had objections brought on and reinforced by continual male sniggering and an occasional snort. Until that day in class I’d had hardly the slightest interest in where pearls came from or how they were harvested, sorted, etc. I think it’s accurate to say few of my classmates (of either gender) will remember the name Mikimoto as father of the Japanese cultured pearl industry. I do not need to say what was/is most recalled of that film, a Junior High favorite and one I believe we saw more than once and seemingly without much harm, but then attitudes have changed haven’t they?

I’m glad to no longer be a tree thief and butcher and I approve of social progress, but at times I wonder what will be left as risk and contention are gradually reduced to near zero. Does a strong spirit thrive on gruel?