How much Christmas cheer can you fit into a Ranchero?

It was our first married Christmas and my husband and I had a lot of adjustments to make. We had just moved into our house in Elgin . . . with my three sisters, the new Christmas puppy (Bono) and a host of life duties I wouldn’t have the energy to tackle today. But we were excited and determined this was going to be a special Christmas . . . with everything over the top until Clark Griswald would be jealous.

Top of the list — a big tree. A really big tree.

We headed down to Ray’s Superette to check out the selection. Crystal (the youngest) liked the sad, sick little trees . . . she always went for the underdog. Kelly (in the middle) said she liked the ones that smelled good . . . she liked anything that promoted warm and fuzzy feelings. And Maria (the oldest, who was turning into a teenager) said she hated trees and pretty much the world in general.

There were the soft ones — too wimpy, Jerry said. There were the round ones — not tall enough. There were the longer ones — too skinny.

Then we remembered “old Dr. Callahan” had a tree farm, about 15 miles away. None of us had been there before, but we agreed this may be the place to find that really, really big tree.

The brown conversion van was not going to work — the needles would get stuck in the plush 1980s carpet. The old pickup wasn’t running at the moment. The only answer — we were all going to pile into the 1970s Ranchero which had once belonged to Grandpa Wilkinson.

The red and white “half car, half pickup” had been parked in the back yard since we moved there. We didn’t drive it, necessarily. It was a family heirloom which meant the world to my husband. But on that day — it would the chariot of champions as we headed out to find the perfect tree.

Of course, there were some protests. Preteen Maria said she would be embarrassed and she’d rather die than be seen with all of us in “that thing.” Middle-of-the-road Kelly said she didn’t want to be stuck in any vehicle with Maria, period. But Crystal, the “little one,” thought it sounded like a blast. She was in.

And so was my husband. This, he said, was going to be an adventure we’d never forget.

How many people can you jam into a Ranchero? Unbelievably, three kids and a grown couple. Yes, by today’s standards, we weren’t abiding by the safety codes — too many people and seat belts didn’t even exist.

But we took country roads all the way there, at low speeds because it frankly didn’t go much faster.

As Maria complained, Jerry explained what was causing all the backfiring and that the smell probably came from some hidden mouse nests. That went over well.

We inched our way across the countryside — with Jerry and Crystal having the time of their lives. She got to “help steer” — he probably needed the help because there was no power steering.

Eventually, we drove over a hill and saw our Mecca. There it was — a beautiful tree-covered farm with a handwritten sign, “You pick it, we’ll chop it.”

Jerry reluctantly turned off the Ranchero — I don’t think he was sure it would start again. We’d worry about that later.

We fell out of the Ranchero like clowns from a Volkswagen — Maria was embarrassed and worried her hair didn’t look good. But it was only us and the “lumberjack,” who came across the yard carrying a chainsaw and an axe.

“See one ya’ like?” he said between bouts of spitting out his chew. Copenhagen, I think.

We walked among the many acres — some of these trees were older than we were. Obviously, too big. Some were just getting started — the yellow flags were taller than the trees themselves.

And then, we heard a voice yelling from inside the green maze. We couldn’t believe our ears. It was the Grinch herself — Maria was the brave hunter who had actually brought home the game.

“I found it, it’s perfect,” she said. Suddenly all her pubescent angst was gone. Proudly, she stood before her find. She even had a smile on her face.

I swear the sun shone differently on that tree. The clouds parted and rays of sunshine came down on that perfect specimen. I thought I heard angels singing — no, actually, that was the sound of Maria saying words instead of making teenage whining sounds.

Crystal and Jerry were immediately on board. This was it. Kelly and I agreed.

“Then can we go?” Maria started whining again. “I’m cold, this is stupid.” But I could see her smiling behind her mask of angst.

The lumberjack sauntered over in his blue flannel shirt and soon the tree became ours. We dragged it to the Ranchero.

“That ain’t gonna fit in that,” Lumberjack said.

Jerry pulled straps over every branch, anchored every needle. The tree went up over the cab — Maria’s embarrassment reached new levels. Jerry threatened to drive down main street when we got back to Elgin, to show all her friends how she was spending her Saturday. That quieted things down.

We piled back in, trying to remember how we fit last time — a foot here, put your arm there. Lumberjack pushed the door shut for us. We were ready.

Jerry turned the key and nothing. Click. Click. Click. We’ll wait a little while, he said. Click, click. Suddenly, the old vehicle came to life.

With a puff of smoke and a loud bang of backfiring, the husband put it in gear. Back over the gravel hills, he and Crystal laughed hysterically about the horror on Maria’s face. Kelly marveled how so many people and so much tree could fit in this half-car.

Eventually we reached home. It didn’t take long to realize we’d have to take the front door off to get it inside. Once in, it filled the majority of the living room. Strategically, we tried to get it in the tree stand. It was simply too large — the stand wouldn’t hold it. It eventually found its home in a big, antique 20-gallon crock filled with gravel.

For the next hour, we carefully decorated our find. The tinsel, the garland, my mom’s first tree ornament from 1967. We stood there, ahhing and oohing.

And then, in one violent move, the massive pile of green plummeted to the ground. We dove out of the way — one could be crushed. Bono ran into the other room. As the earthquake ended, we stood in disbelief.

But by the next morning, we had salvaged the majority of the ornaments and it was still a good looking tree. We just hoped no one would notice it was anchored to the window cranks by jump ropes and bungee cords.

We still reminisce about that festive day so long ago. Who’d a thought you could fit so much Christmas spirit in a Ranchero.

 

 

 

 

 

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