“Where’s Bugsy?” I asked.
My friend Lefty looked at the floor and said we would have to do without him.
“He ain’t comin’, he said. “It’s just too risky.”
I knew he was right. If the law got us, we sure wouldn’t be home for Christmas. They’d send us up the river, with the kind of reputation I had. But it was a little too late to back out. We were dressed in black, our hands and faces covered with charcoal. In the dark, only our eyes would show. Mine showed worse than Lefty’s. His were always pretty bloodshot and didn’t show up as much in the dark.
His old black pickup was waiting. Lefty would drive. We had marked the place along the highway earlier that day with a big white rock. Our planning had been precise, but it would have to be. There was no margin for error. Lefty would slow down to about 20 miles an hour and I would jump from the bed of the truck. I was always athletic when I was younger; it presented little challenge for me.
When we were kids, Bugsy and Lefty and I had jumped out of a barn loft on occasion with a kid name Harvey. Harvey got busted up pretty bad one time and couldn’t play with us anymore. It’s the way it is, and you live with it when you’re a kid, you jump for the pile of hay and if you miss it and hit the wheelbarrow, you spend some time on the couch watching Leave it to Beaver, while waiting for the cast to come off.
At 2 in the morning, there would be little passing traffic. I checked the holster on my belt, and felt the cold steel and plastic handle. Without it, there would be no chance to accomplish our goal. At 1:30 p.m. we were rumbling toward our destination, neither of us saying much. The time for talking was over — now we had to act. We had to do things with the split-second precision that men like us are known for.
My heartbeat increased, my mouth was dry. As we had hoped for, there were no cars either coming or going. Lefty slowed, and I jumped for the ditch. I hit the darn white rock we had set out with my knee, and I lay there in the ditch watching him drive away, my knee throbbing, saying cuss words beneath my breath that I had learned in the pool hall when Lefty and Bugsy and I were just kids.
In the darkness, I limped up the hillside until I was in a heavy growth of cedars. A passing truck roared by, its lights illuminating, only slightly, the thicket where I lay massaging my bruised knee. I knew I had to ignore the pain and get the job done. There was no time to waste.
A dog barked from the nearby farmhouse just beyond the highway right of way, but the house was dark. They’d never suspect a thing.
I reached down to the holster, as a coyote on the other side of the highway howled at the barking dog. I pulled out the folding saw, and felt the sharp teeth along its edge. The darn thing had cost me a pretty penny, but it would do the job better than a hatchet. The first tree was before me, just the way I remembered it, green and full, about seven feet tall. In little time, I sawed through the stump, and smeared mud on the exposed base so it wouldn’t shine along the hillside as motorists passed.
The other tree was harder to find, about 20 feet away, nearly identical to the first. It was the one Lefty had picked out, a little fuller than mine. In minutes, I was dragging them both down to the highway, and like clockwork, I saw the lights of Lefty’s old pickup approaching. He stopped and I threw both trees in the bed of his truck, and jumped in just as the lights of another vehicle topped a distant hill.
As we sped away, we yelled at the top of our voices at our victory, a way to eliminate the stress as we both lit cigars to celebrate. But it was a short-lived celebration. A highway patrol cruiser passed us, then turned around and switched on his lights.
For a moment, Lefty thought about running for it, but I advised him not to. “Just be cool,” I told him. “They got nothin’ on us.”
“You guys really look suspicious in those sunglasses, out here at 2:30 in the morning, to say nothing of those black clothes and the charcoal on the face,” he told us as he checked Lefty’s license. “Guess you got those cedar trees all legal?”
“You got nuttin’ on us copper,” I tried to sound like Robert De Niro. “We bought them trees from some guy in Oklahoma!”
The patrolman handed Lefty his license and shook his head. “We’re on to you two,” he said, “eventually you’ll make a mistake and we’ll have you for cutting cedar trees on public right-of-way. Those trees belong to everyone, and if we let everyone cut trees along the highway, there’d be all kinds of accidents, and these Ozark highways would look like Kansas.”
“Why don’t the two of you just go to Walmart and buy a plastic tree like your friend Bugsy did this year?” he said, walking back to the flashing lights.
Back on the road, we were quiet, except for the coughing caused by those cigars. Lefty spoke first. “So Bugsy has double-crossed us,” he said, “ bought a store-made Christmas tree!”
“It’s that wife of his,” I answered, “she won’t let him go near a barn loft neither.”
We figured up the gas, the cost of the saw, and the cigars, and we spent only about $30 in the heist. My wife said we could have bought two cedar trees from the Boy Scouts for $34, so we saved four bucks. But the next evening, as I watched my little girls and their mother decorate that tree I knew it was worth it all. Tradition means more to me than money.
“Thank you daddy, for this wonderful Christmas tree,” my youngest daughter said. Then she turned to her mother and asked, “Mama, why is daddy limping so bad?”
No matter where you get your Christmas tree, I hope you have done well enough this past year to have a Christmas gift or two under it, and maybe a manger scene to remember that we celebrate the birth of Christ here in the Ozarks. The baby born in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago, means there is hope for all of us, even men like me and Lefty and Bugsy.
Today, my old college roommate, Woody P. Snow will join me to reminisce about the good ol’ days of our boyhood at School of the Ozarks College.
Woody is well known as the radio personality broadcasting each morning for many years from Springfield. He is a song-writer who once had a No. 1 song on the charts, by the name of “Rocky”. You can call in and ask him questions, and we’ll have an hour that will definitely give you a laugh or two. It starts at 8:06 a.m. on KWTO (560 AM).
“Where’s Bugsy?” I asked.
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Rutledge retiring after national track and field competition
Patty Vavra knows it’s going to happen at some point during the next school year.Continued ...
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