6. Wild Kingdom

6. Wild Kingdom

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Merry Christmas!

Wild Kingdom

Heav’n has no Rage, like Love to Hatred turn’d, Nor Hell a Fury, like a Squirrel scorn’d.

~“Chippy” Congreve

I was eight years old and I would remember that Christmas forever. It all started when my father made the announcement at dinner that we were not going to do our typical “tree night.” We always did the same thing. We would go out to dinner, drive around a bit to enjoy the holiday lights, and then wind up at the same tree lot. We made a big deal out of choosing just the right tree, and then drove home with our prize tied on top of our car. We would spend the rest of the evening setting it up and decorating it. I would get to stay up as late as I wanted, but typically wound up asleep on the couch, leaving my parents to finish the decorating.

Mom and I had already made dozens of cookies with red and green ribbons through them that we would hang on the tree. As the boxes were slowly unpacked there was a bowl of popcorn to munch on while listening to Mom telling the same, familiar stories of Christmases past that were attached to each ornament.

But this year, my father said we were going to cut down our own tree. I wasn’t too happy about this. Dad was definitely not the outdoor type. But, he said, business friends of both my parents had recently bought some land that had a lot of Douglas fir trees on it and they offered to let us choose one for Christmas. We could drive out to their ranch early in the morning, enjoy a nice visit and brunch with them, cut our own tree and be home by late afternoon to set it up. It would be fun.

It took some cajoling to get me to go along with it. I didn’t like change. I preferred the comfort of our rituals. However, when Dad told me they had horses, I changed my mind. Like a lot of kids, I was horse crazy.

So it was all set. The day came and the trip was long, but the ranch was beautiful and there were a lot of fir trees. They had to drag me away from the horses to actually help choose one, but finally it was done and Dad and his friend cut it down and tied it to the top of the car.

I had to admit that it was a beautiful tree. It was much deeper green and very thick. It was much prettier than the trees on the lots. The ritual at home went as it always had. Dad set up the tree in the stand and attached the lights. Mom told stories as she unwrapped the ornaments. We munched popcorn and hung the ornaments, cookies and tinsel, while the music of familiar carols filled the air.

I don’t know what time I fell asleep on the couch, but I do remember it was 3 a.m. according to the clock by my bed when I woke up to hear my parents yelling, a cat screeching, a dog barking and what sounded like a train rumbling and bumping from the living room and down the hall between our bedrooms.

The bumping and banging was the Christmas tree. Our dog Lassie was completely entangled like she had on a harness in the light strings and was now charging up the hall back toward the living room hauling the tree behind her. A terrified squirrel was about two feet ahead of the raging dog, only to be met by Mom’s cat, Mr. Mitty, who dove off of the top of the drapes at the terrified animal.

Mom pushed me back into my room and dashed after Dad to help. Of course, I came out and watched from the hall. Dad managed to grab Lassie but she was so tangled in the light strings the best he could do was carry her back into the hall where he and Mom pushed her into the bathroom, tree and all, and shut the door. Lassie, however, was not going to go silently and a volley of barking came from behind the door.

Mitty had the terrified squirrel cornered on the mantel, which was now devoid of all holiday decorations. The squirrel was ready to fight. Dad tried to move between the cat and the little beast, just as Mitty took a leap. He missed the squirrel but landed on Dad’s back with all four paws — claws out. Dad screamed, fell over a chair and the cat took off for parts unknown. Now it was just Mom, Dad and one very upset gray squirrel. Evidently, that tree had been his or her home and the branches were so thick that the little creature simply hid away in them until the decorating was done and the lights went out. Then it ventured out, only to be met by a Collie and a Tomcat. It probably jumped back into the tree for safety, but both the other animals had already seen it and jumped into the tree too.

Dad motioned to Mom to open the back door. She slipped past him, opened the door and then she hurried back. Dad picked up a magazine and swung it at the squirrel and started yelling. Mom picked up a throw pillow and did the same. Not to be left out, I ran into the living room yelling and waving my arms. We went through the house like hunters beating the bushes for game until the squirrel took the best path of retreat and dashed out the back door and up a tall elm tree to safety.

It was now around 3:30 in the morning and we all stood looking at a house in total ruin. Instead of getting mad, Dad started laughing, Mom joined in and we all went into the kitchen. Mom made some hot cocoa and we sat at the kitchen table reliving the event and laughing even harder — until Lassie started to howl.

Dad got up to go take care of the poor dog and see if anything at all could be salvaged from the ruins. Mom hustled me off to bed.

Mom and Dad spent the wee hours of Christmas morning putting everything back into place the best they could, and when I got up, although short a few ornaments, and all of the cookies (Lassie ate them), the tree looked perfect to me. The presents were there and all was right with the world — except Mom and Dad were not quite as chipper as they were on other Christmas mornings.

It was our first and last venture into cutting down our own tree. However, it did create a memory that lasted through generations.

~Joyce Laird

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