Forty-some years ago, on Christmas morning, a thousand rats and I fled from our bedroom in a cane field on the north end of the isle of Maui. Someone had set fire to the other end of the field. The rats had a better handle than I on what was going down and were in a hurry to get the puck out of there. Several ran right over my bedroll, waking me enough to recognize that the crackling in my dreams was a big fire in real time.
My partner and I had abandoned hitchhiking the night before and spread our blankets in the cane. Neither of us, fresh out of the Snake River country, realized that the science of sugar cane agriculture involved (at least in those days) torching off the whole works. Sugar burns quickly. To this day I cut rodents a bit of slack when I find mouse turds in the silverware drawer. Those rats saved my buns that morning.
Hitching in Hawaii was neither easy nor fun. Ninety percent of the traffic through paradise was rental cars filled with folks who had plopped down a few thousand for plane tickets and a week in a condo alongside the Pacific. They were darn sure not going to stop and pick up a couple of hipnoid types smelling of sugar smoke with rat paw prints on their foreheads.
The rest of the folks, the native Islanders, seemed a bit testy about long haired Caucasians with alternative lifestyles at the time that Walmart started selling tie-dyed Hawaiian shirts. They slowed their rides only long enough to flip a finger and a few counter-racial “Hauli go home” epithets our way. So, when the 1940s open Jeep rattled to a whoa and a skinny brown shirtless guy waved a c’mon to us, we sprang at the chance. Anywhere he was headed was going to be an improvement.
I rode shotgun. Wedged beside the gearshift and the emergency brake was a machete in a green canvas case. I tried a couple of sentences of introductory thank-you chit-chat, but the driver just glanced my way and shook his head. Not an English as a second language type. By the time he had the old military rig up to full 45 mph speed, it was so noisy and front-end wobbly that we couldn’t have discussed the weather anyway, so my partner and I just hunkered and let things happen.
Ten minutes into the voyage, I was almost asleep when the Jeep skipped from the blacktop onto a red dirt road that led onto a tableland where we four-wheel drifted to a stop in what looked to be a miniature Christmas tree farm. The guy reached down for the machete, looked me in the eye, pointed to his mouth and bailed out. Two strokes of the blade later, he walked back, holding a pineapple the size of a chicken and the color of a wedding band. He flipped down the tailgate, and with precise surgical skill provided us with one of the most delicious, healthy, locally-harvested breakfasts I have ever eaten.
Now, flip the calendar pages five hundred months forward, to a Friday afternoon office party on the second floor overlooking Main Street, Walla Walla, Washington. I was feeling humbuggy, partly because I had been blindsided by the party. I only worked a couple of days per week for the orchestra that occupied the offices and had missed the party memo. There were presents for me, but I had none for my comrades in the music wars. Plus, I had already forged formal agreements with both my wife and my mom that I had enough stuff and I expected and wanted no new stuff in celebration of the Nativity.
Twenty miles away, my wife was experiencing shopper’s gridlock in a monster box store while standing in front of a display of artificial Christmas trees. Either we had turned into tree huggers or our son’s “whatever” approach to the holidays had deterred us from going up into the mountains and slaughtering a baby fir for decorative purposes. We own 2 cubic yards of ornaments that live in boxes above the hot water heater. Some type of tree, even a petrochemical totem, seemed obligatory. Luckily, she spotted the “Made in China” label, resisted the marketing, and wandered out of the catacombs of international commerce.
About then, in the very depths of my yule-inspired depression, the Christmas spirit became wholly manifest when the symphony’s boss man presented me with the perfect gift, a whole fresh Dole pineapple in all its green and yellow glory. Not only did its fragrant presence jerk my memory back into Hawaiian Christmases of yore, but the little red tag hanging from its spikey green top inspired me with a solution to the tree dilemma
That year, on a blanket chest in our living room, minimally lighted, surrounded by presents and assorted Yuletide doodads, stood in all its magnificence a fully decorated fresh pineapple. Later, on New Year’s Eve, we butchered and ate our surrogate Christmas tree. Try that with your hundred-dollar Colorado blue spruce.
J.D. Smith is an accomplished writer and jack-of-all-trades. He lives in Athena.