It was one of my favorite rituals every year.
One evening after dinner — a few weeks after Thanksgiving — my father and I would shop for a Christmas tree.
My father wore his rattiest coat as he prepared to do battle with strangers who would attempt to part him from precious family resources.
He instructed me to remain silent as he executed his negotiation strategy — one he’d refined and perfected over the years — for good reason.
When I was 7 and he was on the hunt for my first bicycle, he’d found a beauty by accident. As he worked his cunning on the unsuspecting flea-market guy, I raved about the bike — how I couldn’t wait to get it home!
I screwed up the deal royally, of course, and my dad was steamed. The flea-market guy wouldn’t budge off the price and we walked away bikeless.
Over the next few years, I learned to keep my yap shut when my father displayed his cunning.
As the cold December air froze our bones — as a hot fire raged in an old steel barrel to keep the tree-lot guys warm — my father would almost go into a trance.
We’d hit no fewer than four Christmas tree lots every year — among Kiwanis Club, Knights of Columbus, VFW, Elks Club and American Legion lots.
We’d search high and low, pulling out a variety of trees and assessing them. When we found a real beauty at each lot, we’d set it aside.
Then my father would shift into high gear.
“That’s a sweet tree you found there, mister,” one tree-lot guy would eventually say. “Want me to ring you up?”
“You call this a Douglas Fir,” my dad would say, as though he’d earned a doctorate in horticulture. “This tree is dry and weak and will probably burn my house down!”
It’d take 90 minutes or more, but my father would soon pit the Kiwanis Club guy against the Knights of Columbus guy, the Elks Club guy against the VFW guy, then the American Legion guy against all of them.
He’d pound them so hard on the poor quality of their product that one would soon break, giving my father a massive discount so long as he’d leave the lot as soon as possible.
I had no idea at the time, but my father taught me many valuable lessons — lessons he’d wished his father, who died when my dad was only 3, had been able to teach him.
In the most basic sense, he taught me the value of money — how hard it is to earn and how much harder it is to save.
He taught me that strangers don’t generally care about my interests so much as they do their own — that, like it or not, you have to hold your ground against people who likely don’t care a whit about what is best for you.
He taught me how much he loved his family and put their needs before his own. He didn’t enjoy fighting with strangers to save every dollar, but he knew that money was needed to provide for his children.
From the day he and my mother married as young people in the 1950s, they had to pinch every penny and still do — woe to anyone who tried to take food out of the mouths of their children.
If I could make one Christmas wish this year — a year in which more than 40 percent of children in the U.S. are born to single mothers — it would be that all children would be blessed with a father like mine and would spend these next few weeks shopping for Christmas trees with their dads.
Tom Purcell, author of “Misadventures of a 1970s Childhood,” is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review humor columnist and is nationally syndicated exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate. Email Tom at Purcell@caglecartoons.com.
©2012 Tom Purcell