Discover more from William Shunn’s Main Wish Null
How Not to Make the Season Bright
An expedition to cut your own tree can forge indelible Christmas memories. But indelible doesn't necessarily mean good.
This essay is adapted from my memoir, The Accidental Terrorist: Confessions of a Reluctant Missionary.
Some well-meaning people think that, if you’re down in the dumps at Christmas, there must be one magic bullet that will fix everything, one miraculous missing puzzle piece that will make the season complete if only they can force it into place for you.
Depression doesn’t work like that, but I had no way to explain that to Elder Dedman when he jumped up from the one armchair in our tiny basement apartment, full of crazed energy.
“Flip, Shunn, why are we sitting here talking?” he said. “It’s been a rotten day, this place is claustrophobic, and you could use some cheering up.”
The back of my neck crawled. “What do you have in mind?”
He looked around. “Well, here it is almost Christmas and we’re hardly in the spirit at all. Get your snow gear on. I think we need a tree.”
The year was 1986. Dedman and I were Mormon missionaries posted to Brooks, a colorless oil town on the wind-scoured plains of Alberta. I was nineteen and had been away from home just over three months. I missed everything about my life back in Utah. Church services earlier that day had been a painful reminder of everything I’d been forced to leave behind to come to this godforsaken place.
Elder Drew Dedman had been on his mission for about a year, which meant he only had one more year to go. As the senior member of our companionship, he was responsible for setting the example for me of how a diligent proselytizer works. At this he was an utter washout.
I couldn’t really say he was failing as a missionary, because failure at least implies trying. Dedman didn’t even try. Instead of knocking on doors trying to convert the ten thousand benighted souls in this benighted berg, we spent our days bowling or shooting pool or hiking the Badlands or watching contraband movies on VHS. Anything but the sacred work we were sent to Brooks to do.
I had given up trying to convince Dedman to get with the program, even a little bit. If he felt any guilt about his slacker ways, he didn’t show it. He was oppressively cheerful, relentless in his determination to make every moment of every day all about having fun. I didn’t want to work hard either, but my guilt and paranoia over our nonstop flouting of mission rules were eating me up from the inside.
Something was going to have to change.
It was dark out already. In typical fashion, Dedman didn’t say a word about our destination as we climbed into our church-owned Chevy Citation. I thought we might be heading to a tree farm or a Canadian Tire, but Dedman drove us only five or six blocks before parking near the mouth of an alley.
“Where are we going?”
“Shhh. Follow me.” He turned off the overhead light, exited, and closed his door gently. I did the same.
When he duckwalked down the alley like a suburban commando, I mimicked him as best I could. We kept to the muddy ruts torn in the blanket of snow by knobby winter tires. To our right, behind wooden fences, lay the backs of slumbering houses. To our left was a chain-link fence, and behind that a line of tall, shaggy spruces that bounded the grounds of a grade school. A bright, gibbous moon had just risen.
Dedman stopped far down the alley in a zone of relative darkness, away from any streetlights. Crouching in the weeds and dirty snow beside the chain-link fence, he whispered, “Hold it so it doesn’t rattle.”
In answer he stood, latched onto the fence, and swarmed up it. The sound was like a million sleigh bells jingling. I quickly hooked my gloved fingers through the fence and strained to hold it taut. I expected lights to flick on any moment in the houses behind us, shotguns pumped and ready for a Santa Claus invasion.
The fence was at least eight feet tall. Dedman dropped lightly down the far side, landing in the pristine margin of snow between it and the closely spaced spruces.
He motioned me up. “Your turn.”
I seized the fence with both hands, as high up as I could reach. My boots were too big to get a toehold in the links, but after half a minute of huffing and puffing and several queasy seconds of instability at the top, I made it over. I stood stock-still as the rattling of the fence faded out, conscious of the clear night, the bright moonlight, and my own visibility.
I turned toward my companion, but he had vanished.
I pushed my way between the two nearest trees. Their lowest boughs overlapped, clutching at my legs. The scent of broken pine needles stung my nose.
“Elder Dedman!” I hissed as I emerged into the broad, ghostly schoolyard.
A hand touched my shoulder. “Boo!”
I yelped as Dedman materialized from the shadows beside me. He shushed me with a delighted grin on his face. “Keep it down, Shunn. You’ll get us busted.”
“Then don’t do that. What are we doing here anyway?”
Dedman pointed at the spruce that had concealed him, which had to be twelve feet tall. “Getting a tree.”
“Oh, right. Because that’ll fit in our pit.”
He drew his hunting knife and raised it in front of my face. It gleamed in the moonlight, a wicked thing with toothy serrations on the spine of its six-inch blade and a hilt wrapped in rawhide. Dedman, who always carried it when we hiked, called it his coyote-sticker.
“You just stand guard,” he ordered. With that, he sheathed the knife and clambered into the tree.
It was the platonic ideal of a Christmas tree. Its bushy boughs tapered in a perfect cone from the ground all the way to its apex. Had you draped it in tinsel and capped it with an angel, there’d have been no grander tree in town. Dedman wriggled in toward the trunk and picked his way up from there. About three feet from the top, his head popped suddenly into view. That’s where he started sawing at the trunk with the knife’s serrated spine. The loud rasp seemed to carry for miles. The teeth weren’t made for cutting wood, and the job took forever.
At one point I spotted a distant police car prowling past the front of the school. “Cops!” I squealed, throwing myself flat in the snow and cursing the reflective strips on the back of my parka. The car never slowed, and Dedman resumed his work.
After ten minutes or so, I heard a resounding crack! as Dedman snapped the trunk. I was so fixed on watching for trouble, the treetop nearly hit me as it shooshed to the ground. It sounded like wind in a wheat field.
Hoisting three feet of heavy, prickly fir over the fence was no simple feat, but we managed it. As we hustled down the alley with our prize slung between us, I glanced back at the ugly gap in the treeline.
It looked to me like we’d knocked someone’s tooth out.
The tree did brighten things up in our dingy apartment, I will admit, especially with our few presents from home tucked beneath it. But that didn’t outweigh the guilt I felt every time I looked at it.
I don’t know how Dedman could imagine this act of vandalism would cheer me up. If he gave me one gift that Christmas, though, it was to push me one step closer to what I really needed to do — to stand up for myself and get the hell out of Dodge.
Maybe it was a Christmas miracle after all. ∅