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The $3 Christmas


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Francis E. Caldwell


My wife and I and two infant sons were living in a one-room shack that had once been a rabbit hutch, or perhaps a chicken coop, and still smelled like it.

Some imaginative former renter had papered the walls with old Seattle and Tacoma newspapers, using scissors to appease their art, or while away time.

I had a 1936 Chevrolet that I’d traded an old saddle for. It used so much oil I never bothered to change it. I’d simply add more from several gallon cans of used oil someone had graciously left.

Jobs were practically non-existent after the war ended and most factories closed. Gas was so expensive (.28 a gallon) it wasn’t worth driving around looking for work. We lived on small game I shot with a slide-action .22 caliber, and what few things we could buy with the twenty dollars a week the government sent, known as the “52-$20” club.

My landlord was a single man, an ex-GI from WW-I, and felt sorry for me. His wife had died of the flu while he was in Germany. He gave us free rent for cutting wood for both of us.

After the G.I. checks stopped, my wife took to her bed, insisting she had the flu, a word that struck terror in anyone if they were at least a little sick. Her temperature was normal. The only thing I had to give her was a teaspoon of cough syrup.

I came from a family who, after countless generations of fruitless worry, had wisely decided to let the Lord do their worrying for them.

One evening, two weeks before Christmas, my brother-in-law burst unannounced through the door waving a sheet of brown wrapping paper under my nose.

“I know where this is and have already looked it over. We get the job and we’ll both have enough money for Christmas,” he announced excitedly.

POLE CUTTERS WANTED. APPROXIMATELY 2000 TELEPHONE POLES NEEDED FROM PRIVATE LAND. TREES MUST BE FELL AND LIMBED.

There was a crude map showing how to reach the property, which Gene was already familiar with.

We took off in his Chev. G.I. 6X6. The farmhouse was old and the surroundings overgrown with grapevines and blackberries. A mean-acting dog was chained at the gate, as if guarding a No Trespassing sign.

The man who appeared at the gate was obviously an ex-marine. He introduced himself as Sergeant Miles. I’d seen him before, probably at Butler’s Corner Store. He was never without Growler, his dog that he kept on a chain.

“It was a simple deal”, he explained, glancing from me to Gene, then back again, as if to convince himself we understood. It was exactly the same look I’d seen many a time as some arrogant young officer mustered his squad on deck in the morning, before explaining that the mop was to be pushed, not pulled.

He claimed to have bought this old homestead, but to make payments, had a contract with Cascade Pole in Tacoma, who would pay one dollar a running foot, regardless of size. Miles would pay half that to us. We could settle between us any way we chose.

There would be no cash advances, either from Cascade Pole, or himself, until the poles were loaded and delivered to Cascade. Then, after a reasonable length of time, for Cascade to do their book work, he explained with a smile, we could expect our money.

In other words, once the poles were on the ground and limbed, our part of the deal was over.

We signed an official looking form with CASCADE POLE printed haphazardly across it in several places. We then took off for home to break the good news.

My wife’s sickness evaporated when she heard the news and she cooked one of her favorite dishes, rabbit stew. Gene and his wife were invited to attend.

Since there was no reason to delay getting started, we left at daylight the next morning. By quitting time quite a number of poles were on the ground. Length could be as much as forty feet and the top cut had to be at least six inches.

Despite a snowstorm, in a week we were finished. “Give “em two weeks,” Miles said. That’s a busy place down there.”

It was a long two weeks. When we drove to Mile’s place, the poles were all gone.

“No money yet,” Miles announced. “It should be any day now. Check back next Saturday.”

Saturday seemed forever in coming. When we drove into Mile’s place we knew something was wrong. There were no new tire tracks in the snow and the guard dog was gone. We banged on the door but no one appeared. Inside everything that would fit into a car was gone.

“We’ve been had,” Gene said. Out in the garage were a few things no one would want, or could haul in a car. Hanging on one wall was a bamboo fishing rod and reel. I took it. Gene took a dull, worn handsaw.

We were both too angry to say much as we drove to Butler’s Store. After explaining what had happened, Mr. Butler checked his books. “He owes us nearly one hundred dollars. I don’t expect to ever get it.”

“What can we do?”

“Hurry down to Cascade Pole and report it. Being Saturday, they’re bound to be closed.”

We siphoned enough gas from Gene’s army truck to get my car to Tacoma and back.

As we expected, Miles had been paid over a week before. Next we went to the county Sheriff. He listened sympathetically, then explained there was little they could do. “Did you get his license plate number?”

“No.”

“I’m afraid you two have been had. The guy’s probably over in Montana or Idaho by now.”

The worst was telling our wives. Christmas was only a few days away. We had $3.75 cents my wife had “squirreled away for an “emergency.” Each child received something, but I cannot remember what it was.

Being a Christian, I tried hard to forgive Miles, but after over 60 years, still haven’t today.
 
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