The Outlaw Life

This is a true story, written to a prompt for The Chatham Writers Group. The prompt came from The Tiny Buddha website and involved being kind to a younger version of yourself.

Once Upon A Time In Middletown: A Christmas Story, Sort Of…..

There was a time in my life where I was a member of a group of desperadoes, engaged in the scheme of acquiring certain goods via dubious means and selling them for a profit.  We were a cunning bunch, wearing dark clothing and ski hats to render us nearly invisible in the dark, timing our capers to the phases of the moon and scanning local weather reports for overcast nights.  Our getaway vehicles were a 1957 Ford Fairlane and a 1965 Rambler Classic, the only two modes of transportation capable of carrying a team of brigands and their booty  from the scene of the crime.  The crime sprees were seasonal, occurring between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  We goniffs were high school students , our crime was pilfering Christmas trees to sell to sports coaches and several teachers. 

Our gang was formed over slices of pizza and pitchers of Pepsi at Marabella’s, a hangout in Highspire frequented by families and and any number of high school cronies.  A friend, who I will call Vince because, after all, that is his name, outlined his scheme.  Vince had overheard one of the football coaches puzzling over a question of logistics.  He needed to purchase two Christmas trees, one for him and one for his mother.  He was lamenting having to transport trees with a VW bug.  Vince volunteered to help.  Enlisting the aid of another friend, nicknamed “Mill” and owner of the aforementioned ’57 Ford, they were able to obtain the necessary trees for the Coach and his Mom.  They were handsomely rewarded.  Vince described the transaction as “Cash & Carry”.  Meaning he and Mill, in the middle of the night, carried the trees from a farm stand on the outskirts of town, delivered them and received cash for their effort.  Our career as purloiners of Tannenbaums commenced the following weekend. 

Having sizable vehicles were key to our operation.  Because two of us also drove VW Bugs, and two did not have a car, we had to rely on the big Ford and Rambler sedans.  The second part of this formula was to have vehicles that were reliable, something neither car was.   The Ford’s starter behaved erratically in cold weather.  If you turned off the ignition, sometimes you would have to rap the starter 2 or 3 times with a rubber mallet before it worked.  The terminals of the battery in the Rambler were prone to becoming caked with a white oxide layer that would also prevent the car from starting.  It was necessary to lay a screwdriver across the two terminals to jump start the car.  The effect of doing that would typically result in the person holding the screwdriver to either get flash blinded by the sparks, or knocked on their butt from being shocked.  Sometimes both would occur.  Despite these minor glitches, our acts of piracy earned us extra spending money over the Holiday season.

The following year proved to be more of a challenge as the Christmas tree vendors added bright spotlights and even dogs to protect their inventories.  History tells us that lives of outlaws eventually become fraught with peril and seldom end well.  Other students heard rumors of our nefarious deeds.  The Principal of our high school, who liked me and always addressed me as “Ernest my boy”, one day said “Ernest my boy.  I heard a rumor that troubles me, about you and Christmas trees.  Maybe you should seek employment at McDonald’s if you are cash strapped.”  I replied that I already worked there, his withering glare suggested I should probably look for more hours.  One of our heists resulted in us being chased.  But in 1971 it was still impossible for a human to outrun a ’65 Rambler on foot, even if it took 10 minutes to go from 0 to 60.  We decided, after that chase, that our careers as freebooters needed to end.

During our senior year of high school, another football coach approached two friends and I with a request that involved acquiring a balsam fir.  Reluctantly, we agreed to pull off one more caper.  I was no longer driving a VW bug, I now was driving a 1968 Pontiac LeMans.  It was very fast, but more importantly, it had a huge trunk.  I would be the getaway driver.  We cased several of our old haunts and found them to be as secure as the previous winter.  We decided on a snatch and grab from behind a grocery store in the center of Middletown.  A very bold move because the Police Dept. was nearby.  Dimming my lights, I drove down the alleyway to the back of the store where the tree stand was.  One friend took my trunk key and opened it, my other friend jogged over to grab a tree.  I sat behind the wheel, engine idling.  As my friend with the tree got close to the car, the boxy form of a Plymouth pulled into the alley behind me.  High beams flashed, my friend dropped the tree and sprinted off into the dark, my other friend flew through the open door into the passenger seat and shouted “Go”!  He slammed the passenger door shut as I floored it. The LeMans was not only fast, but highly maneuverable.  Turning on a dime, I sped down an alleyway to my right and burst out onto Main Street, my trunk slammed shut when I accelerated.  I left Middletown at a high rate of speed, losing my pursue, whether Cop or Security Guard I will never know.  Returning to Middletown from an entirely different direction than when I departed, my buddy and I went from lamenting the fate of our other partner in crime, to shitting bricks as a police cruiser pulled from a side street and followed us into town.  We breathed a huge sigh of relief when he turned a few blocks later.  A light snow had begun to fall.  I dropped my friend off at his house and returned to mine, spending a sleepless night as I expected the Middletown PD to kick in our door at any moment and lead me away in handcuffs.  That did not happen.  

At school on Monday, we were relieved to discover the third member of our party escaped unscathed.  A few hours later in gym class, the coach seeking the tree approached us and said “Thanks for the really nice tree.  But you put it in front of the wrong apartment”.  As he was opening his wallet to pay us, we told him of our failed attempt.  His head shot up, eyes wide as saucers and he blurted out “Shit! I stole my neighbor’s tree”.

Although I have recounted this story in somewhat humorous detail, it is a brief period in my life for which I felt remorse for a long time.  I was a thief, and I drove recklessly and could have endangered others.  It was was over 30 years before I told this story to anyone, and it was only after it was revealed by one of my partners in crime, in front of my wife and sons, at the wedding of his daughter.  Everyone thought it was a great tale.  In the end, no one was hurt, a lot of Christmas trees never do get sold and turn brown on the lot, I guess I could be kinder to a younger self.

My getaway car looked just like the one in the photo.

One thought on “The Outlaw Life

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s