“Vandals destroy trees at Chippewa School.”
One of those pine trees—and many evergreen branches from the others we butchered—decorated the sanctuary at Griswold Street Baptist Church.
Traditionally, the youth group trimmed the church at the beginning of Advent. In years past, they purchased a tall tree from the Ruby Tree Farm, cut it down, dragged it to a truck, drove it to the church, dragged the tree inside the church and decorated it. The reward for this day of hard labor was hot cocoa and cookies.
This year was different because, being high-school seniors, we were the oldest kids in the youth group. My friend and I had a better plan: find a tree for free and spend the $25 (designated for the Christmas tree) on pizza.
It’s important to point out that Domino’s Pizza didn’t exist at the time. In fact, there were no pizza chains to speak of and only a handful of restaurants served this Italian treat: Saffee’s, Joe’s, Dino’s, and House of Pizza. My point being, pizza was a big deal in 1973.
After the Wednesday night church service, the Youth Group Chaperon gave us $25 to spend on acquiring a Christmas Tree. All we had to do was find a tree—a free tree—between now and Saturday morning.
This is much harder than it sounds.
The next day after school, four of us piled into a pickup truck and we combed the area looking for a suitable tree. There were many trees that fit the bill, but cutting them down and making a clean getaway would be next to impossible. We ruled out trees located in neighborhoods because one of the girls thought that would be rude. Next, we continued to search the industrial areas, city parks, beaches and cemeteries, all to no avail.
I had an epiphany.
Years ago, I went to Chippewa School for Saturday morning basketball games. Since I didn’t have a bike lock, I hid my bicycle behind a thick grove of evergreen trees. Better yet, Chippewa School was isolated at the end of a secluded road. Bingo. We selected our tree and returned after dark.
We chopped down the best-looking tree and severed the branches of many other trees for trimmings. It was a well-executed surgical strike. 15-minutes later, we dragged the tree inside the church, placed it in the tree stand and washed our hands—figuratively and literally—because they were sticky from the sap. The rest of the youth group would decorate the tree on Saturday morning. Our part of the job, procurement, was done.
It was time to celebrate.
We spent our ill-gotten gain at Joe’s Pizzaria by ordering two top-of-the-line 16″ Supreme pizzas—and they were absolutely delicious. (Stolen fruit tastes the sweetest.) Living the dream, we gorged until we were stuffed and pumped coins into the juke box all evening—a perfect ending to a perfect caper.
On Sunday morning, my co-conspirator approached me in the church parking lot.
“Did you tell anyone where the tree came from?” he asked.
“Hell no,” I said.
He unfolded the newspaper article and I read it. A wave of fear came over me as I looked at the photograph of the barren trunks and one-lone stump. I have to admit, it did look a lot like vandalism.
“Holy shit,” I whispered.
The short article ended with a request for anyone with any knowledge of this crime to contact the St. Clair County Sheriff’s office. Well, anyone with half a brain could solve this crime; the evidence was right inside the church for everyone to see. We would be caught for sure; it was just a matter of time. The cops were probably on their way here right now.
My friend refolded the article and stuffed it back into his suit coat pocket. We were doomed. It occurred to us that, most likely, we would spend the rest of the holidays at the juvenile detention center on Krafft Road. We walked into church with our guilty heads lowered. And there it was, in all its glory, (Is this the same tree?) the most magnificent and radiant Christmas tree I have ever seen in my life.
It was unrecognizable.
The youth group had done a spectacular job. The tree was decorated from top-to-bottom with strings of colored-lights, ornaments, tinsel and a star-spire capped the top. Canned goods for the needy surrounded the base. Evergreen trimmings adorned with red ribbons were hung down the halls and aisles of the church. All that was missing was the choir singing, Joy to the World. No one would recognize this tree. Not now. Not ever.
We walked into the Youth Bible Study Class, took our seats and said a prayer of thanks.