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Out on a limbA

Simulacrum is a word every good writer should know … and no good writer should use.

It means a poor imitation of something. And when I think of poor imitations, I think of every town’s Christmas tree, compared to the one My Home Town had in The Great Old Days.

The reason this subject came up is because after I mentioned that tree in last week’s column, I got all sorts of emails from old townies saying how much they loved it.

The tree was installed in Berkeley Square every Christmas, and it was magnificent. Not only was it tall, but its branches were full and long. So long and full that driving through Berkeley Square was not a chore for either the faint of heart or the car finish fetishist.

No matter how you did it, there was no way to get by the tree without getting lashed by the branches. But here’s the thing: Even though the tree could raise holy hell with your car’s finish, as well as your psyche, everyone loved it.

OK, I lied. Not everyone loved it. But the ones who didn’t were mostly out-of-towners who were totally flummoxed by it. And maybe there were some townies who didn’t like it, but they were of the ilk I think of as being from SL … but not being OF it.

Most of us thought of the tree the same way we did our town characters — as objects of affection. Yeah, maybe some characters were a pain in the prat, but they were OUR pain in the prat. As happens in towns that love their characters, they were more like family. You know, like that weird uncle who makes everyone listen to his bird calls, or the cousin who bestows her lousy paintings on everyone all the damned time.

The power company (the Paul Smiths Power, Electric and Railroad Company, then owned by the college) put up the tree. It was no simple task since it had to be anchored in the square and then secured by guy wires attached to various buildings. But put it up they did — always to an admiring crowd of kids and adults alike.

After that, it was festooned with lights, making the square assume an aura that can only be described as other-worldly — which is exactly what Christmas is supposed to be, says I.

And when I think of those lights, I can’t help but think of the funniest thing that happened to them.

From love unbounded …

It concerned a nameless couple two grades ahead of me. Actually, rather than being a couple, they were THE couple. Of the school. Of the state. Of the cosmos. They’d gone out since childhood, and were together constantly. And when they were together, they clung to each other like vines. If they hadn’t been different genders, I’d have mistaken them for conjoined twins.

In school, they walked the halls in step, his arm wrapped around her shoulder, her arm wrapped around his waist. And if they weren’t in the same class, their farewells looked like he was going off to war the next day.

One Friday night during Christmas season, they’d gone to the flicks at the Pontiac, afterward going back to her family’s house for an hour’s lip-locking before visiting hours were up. Now, don’t rush to any conclusions. This was 1961, as distant in social mores as in time. Back in those innocent days, necking was pretty much literally that. Still, a body — especially an adolescent male body — could get mightily overworked and overheated, which the kids did.

Consider it a case of Love’s Greatest Pride … with Passion Denied. But without any label, the result was the same: After a last smooch at the door, he stumbled to his car, eyes blurred, legs wobbly, and a half pint of melted butch wax running down his temples. He was no more competent to drive a car than he was to translate the Bhagavad Gita. Not that he realized that … or much of anything else.

His drive home took him through Berkeley Square, where God’s Own Pine stood … proudly … mightily … and effectively blocking both lanes of traffic. No matter, he plowed through the usual assortment of limbs and boughs, and went on his merry way, oblivious that his rear bumper had snagged a string of lights. Then again, he was so stoned on love and hormones, he wouldn’t have known if he was dragging the Chinese National Guard, kicking and screaming.

If the local constabulary had stopped him, he could’ve been arrested for DWI (Driving While Infatuated). But he made it home just fine. At least it was just fine till he got out of his car. Because when he did he saw a 100-foot string of Christmas lights stretched out to the middle of the street, and he freaked.

A brief historical note: We were a generation who, even if we didn’t blindly respect authority, we deferred to it, because if we didn’t, we were sure to suffer its punishments. And perhaps the biggest punishment wasn’t from the authority itself, but from the fallout, namely public shaming. The last thing we wanted was to drag our family name into public forum and ridicule. As a result, many of us felt inordinately guilty of minor transgressions, and such was the case with our Romeo du manque.

Once he saw the lights and realized what he’d done, he thought he’d just committed The Crime of the Century!

What to do?

First, he gathered up the lights and buried them in the snow behind the garage. Then he mulled over his options. Turning them over to the cops would have him in Dannemora, making little ones out of big ones, for sure. He’d never be able to explain it to his parents (or so he thought), and his friends were as clueless as him. Besides, if he told his friends, it’d be all over town in no time flat.

Finally, after agonizing till the wee hours, he figured it out.

The next night, he put the lights in his car’s trunk. Then, on the way back from Honey Babe’s, he detoured to St. Bernard’s Street, where he piled the lights on the St. B’s steps, like an incandescent foundling. And he knew the lights, like a foundling, would be taken care of by someone at morning mass. Which is exactly what happened.

… to love ungrounded

That chapter over, you might wonder what happened to the couple. I believe that story far overshadows the other one.

For all their cooing and doving, they were serious planners who’d mapped out their future in detail. After graduation, they’d stay in town for the summer, then in the fall, he’d enlist in the Navy and she’d go to college. They’d get engaged after boot camp, and when his hitch was up in four years, they’d get married. She’d have her teaching degree, he’d have the GI Bill, they’d have it made in the shade and would live happily ever after.

Their plan, like those of mice and men, as Bobby Burns might’ve predicted, did gang a-gley.

What went wrong was one of boot camp’s oldest stories, and the most common communication from The Girl Back Home — a dear John letter.

She realized she couldn’t wait the whole four years, she said. She also said it wouldn’t be fair to him to have to wait so long, either. Then she said he was a great great guy and she’d always love him like a brother (the last thing any guy wants to hear, unless it’s from his sister). Of course she didn’t say she’d hooked up with the varsity quarterback, nor did she have to: He was a heartbroken mess, barely able to go from Point A to Point B. In lots of places, such behavior wouldn’t be noticed. In boot camp, it’s instantly apparent since everyone is being pushed and stressed to the max all the time and any slippage sticks out like an unshined shoe.

Seeing the kid go from a squared-away recruit to a teary-eyed zomboid, the Company Commander knew something was wrong. He called him into his office and asked what was up. The kid told him.

Dear John letters were about as common in Great Lakes as white hats, so this was no surprise to the CC. And while the CCs hardly had the milk of human kindness flowing through their veins, they’d been young sailors themselves. Plus their duty was to keep the crew functional — everyone had to pull his own weight or the whole unit suffered. So he tried to get the kid back on track as best he could … which in terms of humanistic psychology, left a bit to be desired.

After listening to the kid, he told him the usual: The sun would come up tomorrow, he was young and had his whole life ahead of him, in 10 years he’d have forgotten the girl’s name.

“But after boot camp I’m goin’ overseas,” the kid said. “I won’t have a chance to even talk to her.”

“Well,” said the CC, “you can find lots of girlfriends overseas.”

“You don’t understand,” sobbed the kid. “She wasn’t just a girlfriend. She was gonna be my wife.”

A wife? Dealing with that issue, all the lifers quoted one line and one line only: If the Navy wanted you to have a wife, they woulda issued you one with your seabag.”

The CC thought about that for a while and then uttered the perfect Old Navy Lifer reply.

“Yeah, that’s tough,” he said. “But, hey, you can find lots of wives overseas too.”

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