This is as close as we will be able to come to a Christmas story from me this season. Persons not satisfied with a tangential approach to the conventions of the holiday may find their time better filled with other essays by other writers. It will for them be better to have disengaged here, not yet four score words deep into an unsatisfying excursion, than to hold on through the whole ride anticipating satisfactions I shall not be able to provide. I write for the few, after all, not the many. Someone should.
We ask from our celebrations, I think, a strengthening of delusion, a confirmation of the wisdom of putting off bitter, nasty, crippling, devastating reality for a few more hours or days. Thus the happy wedding afternoon, the flags and fireworks of "The Fourth", even the pomp of a presidential oath of office on our television screens on a January afternoon when we may briefly sedate ourselves with the pleasant hope that the new boss will be better than the old boss and his slithering, slavering right hand man.
Christmas is of course the best. It begins in mid-November when the TV news turns from daily briefs on Brittany and Paris and happy, formless affirmations of the greatness of our collective spirit from Mr. Obama balanced with dark warnings of terrorists just over the horizon from prosecutor Giuliani, to the urgent and breathless revelations that Americans will be taking to the roads and sky lanes in record numbers again, the price or scarcity or polluting effects of fuel be damned. It makes a man proud, it does, to be part of it all.
And Christmas does not end with a sudden bang at the turn of the clock to midnight on the day of our great savior's birth. It holds through New Year's Eve and New Year's Day and until we heave the tree out for roadside collection, and some say even until Superbowl Sunday may be put to rest. If our wonderful country is about anything, it is surely about wringing as much diversion and satisfaction for as long as possible out of the complex fascinations of Christmas, in all its confusing religious and secular and commercial and even patriotic splendor.
So my little tale is set in November, just before Thanksgiving. It was a cold November, you'll remember. And a wet one. The weather was already set in the pattern that has given us an early and colder than average start to winter. This may not much affect a properly raised and educated individual with a decent career, but November can be the first of about five very unpleasant months for the dirty fools whose poor preparation, unfortunate choices, and addictions to various intoxicants have reduced them to crawling from one home to another pursuing an endless string of construction and remodeling jobs. As the ground begins to set up and the cold seeps down from the Arctic, these sad creatures crave no gratification greater or more noble than an inside job.
Thus it was that old Eagles and I in our thirty-first year of partnership found ourselves in a little upstairs back bedroom of an old cape on the West Alna Road, replacing windows and doing such framing, insulating, drywall and minor cabinetry as our customer ordered, and glad of the opportunity. We enjoyed one warm and sunny day, sufficient to trim the exterior of the new windows and repair the shingles around them and paint the whole business. Subsequent chilly days we witnessed from the warm side of the glass.
It was a small house, second floor access was limited by a winding staircase, and storage space was scant; we bought materials as we used up what we had on hand. It came then to pass that we needed a quantity of insulation and wallboard.
There used to be a lumber yard just a couple miles down the road. Well, there used to be two of them, come to that. But Wiscasset Lumber disappeared some years ago as its owners retired and downtown Wiscasset lost its purpose, useful businesses giving way to tourist shops and traffic congestion. The yard that owned then the whole of the Wiscasset area trade, and would have made a fine living for any responsible local operator, was summarily shuttered and abandoned a few years after its new corporate owners dismissed it in a reshuffling of their priorities.
So we could go to Damariscotta and buy from that same corporation, thus supporting their cold consolidation decision. Or we could drive to Brunswick or Augusta and wrestle heavy items around Lowe's or Home Depot on awkward heavy carts. Or we could go as we went of yore, to Hunt's.
I bought my first building materials in Lincoln County from Norman Hunt in 1975 at his sawmill and retail store in Damariscotta. Hunt Brothers Lumber then filled all of the land now occupied by Hancock Lumber, the Yellowfront Grocery, a bank, a strip mall, the surrounding parking lots and some of the cattail swamp behind them all. Several sheds across the road where the drugstore site is now carved out of the hillside held overflow and odd lots. That outfit sawed lumber faster than they could sell it. Immense piles grew between the store and mill. Sawdust and bark were heaped here and there. The saw ripped through millions of feet of pine and hemlock logs. They ran a kiln. Bill Pierce was their planerman. They would do custom work. It was a satisfying and necessary operation.
When it was sold, to a Brunswick lumber yard bent on modest expansion, some of the charm dissipated. It became more "Home Center" than lumberyard; the mill no longer ran. But it was still recognizable. Sold again, to the firm that closed the Wiscasset store, it became yet more cold and corporate and less appealing to those of us who remembered the sawdust and mud and the mill.
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Norman went down east and ran a mill in Princeton. It burned. He came back home and started N.C. Hunt Inc. in Jefferson. There I stood at two in the afternoon on the fourteenth of November. "Is there any possibility of getting a delivery this afternoon?" I asked, knowing full well there was little such chance on no notice. The counterman turned to his expediter: all drivers were out. "What do you need? he asked me. "More drywall than I'm interested in hauling on my own truck," I replied; "but I'll manage." "There's a one-ton out there if you want to go," he told the counterman.
So I chanted my list of materials and one man went with me to the loft to pull the foam and fiberglass and round up some incidentals. By the time we emerged into the chilling afternoon air the other guy had the load of wallboard on the truck. We strapped everything on and headed for West Alna. My driver waited while I stopped at the Puddle Dock post office so I'd have that week's New Yorker cartoons to read at lunch. An hour after I'd presented myself and my needs at their address, the employees of N.C. Hunt had landed everything I required at our job. When I thanked them for such an uncommonly accommodating degree of service, I got the answer I always get: "No problem. We do what we can."
And I had a chat with the man turned from operating a computer to running a delivery truck. "I'm seventy-five years old," he said. "I don't mind getting old, but I have to do something useful." So he works at the lumber yard three days a week. Short days. He does what they need him to do. He doesn't have to wear a goofy vest of a lurid color with an obnoxious corporate insignia. I doubt he attends many meetings about productivity or protocols. Probably everybody in the organization knows his name.
Everybody seems happy at Hunt's. Probably not everybody is. No doubt a disgruntled employee lurks somewhere in the operation. Some have quit or been fired; some think they could do a better job if they were in charge. But nobody seems beat down or suppressed or depressed or harried or forgotten or discounted. The mill and the store are big enough to support those who work there and to supply the increasing number of contractors who do not rise to the level of developers and are thus of small interest to the corporate yards. It is enough to do a small and necessary thing well and decently and with a regard for the fact that the essential part of doing so will not be the business plan or the growth projections or even the machinery and the plant, but the men and women who haul themselves out of bed every morning to turn the keys and boot the computers and grease the fittings and throw the switches and engage the levers and grade the boards and deliver the loads and serve the odd old carpenter who walks in the door needing some Sheetrock now.
Another driver told me just last week, "I've gone forty miles with three boards to make a customer happy." Imagine that.
I said it was a Christmas story. Call it the Miracle Of Immediate Delivery. And who is to say there were no wise men somewhere on the premises? Perhaps even a camel or a donkey-it's a messy enough yard to shelter some livestock among the piles of pine and hemlock. And while the television advertisements suggest we express our fondness for our loved ones with the precious gift of a diamond, my transaction rests at the other end of the mineral hardness scale-gypsum-but no less commercial or meaningful for that.
And there was a journey (Alna to Jefferson and back), with no certainty at its end, no likelihood of room at the inn. And faith was rewarded. Not faith in a fantasy, an agglomeration of centuries old myths and fables and parables and fears and fancies, but faith that good persons going about honest business will do right by each other, do what they can, give what they have for equal measure in return.
We will be saved not by Jesus or God or Allah or Mohammed, not by reading the sacred texts or prostrating ourselves in prayer or by fondling an icon or making the sign of the cross or taking a pilgrimage to Mecca or Jerusalem. We shall be saved, if we can yet be saved, from ourselves and from all that we have done and do, saved from our selves, from our hatreds and suspicions and our crippling, deforming fears, by simple, honest, fair and decent transactions, one after another, piling up into a substance irrefutable and unstoppable between ordinary men and women day after day after day.
Merry Christmas, whatever that may mean to you whomever, wherever you are. This isn't much of a gift, I know, and it's poorly wrapped and may soon be forgotten, but it's what I have and what I can give. As they say at N.C. Hunt, "We try. We do what we can."
And the story is told that in those days a man did dwell away from his fellows at the dark edge of a cold and lonely bog in a town called Alna, Maine, and that though he would not, could not abandon himself to the popular love of either Jesus or Santa, salvation or shopping, he did nonetheless hold in his hurting heart that small measure of hope and light that enabled, even required him to engage the spirit of the season in his own limited way and through his own oddly refracted vision, and to leave some evidence of his struggle to understand and accomodate and to be a part of the conventional celebrations by discovering such joy in small things as small things often do bring and to invite persons moved toward a similar partial involvement with a difficult season to find him by the expedient of the gift of E-mail access.
This piece originally appeared in The Wiscasset Newspaper, Wiscasset, Maine.