The Christmas Trees
By Jim Regan
As the Christmas Season approached, in December of ‘83, Darmstadt, FRG, my Boss asked a curious question. Sergeant Major, what are we going to do about Christmas trees this year? Being the new guy on the block I was stuck for an answer. Seems as if the local Boy Scouts decided that it was not worth the trouble and would not sell trees this year. I did a recon, searched and found that a local farmer could provide fresh cut trees. Now comes the fun part. How do I pay the farmer, where do I get the money, where do we set up for sales.
Attended a meeting for our Association of the US Army (AUSA) and broached the subject. How much do you want Sergeant Major? Only four hundred dollars and I’m willing to give the profits to the AUSA. Think you can make some money? Sure thing sir! Went back to my office with a check for the four hundred.
Several of my fellow Command Sergeants Major were with me at the meeting and immediately offered me whatever resources I needed. Arranged for 5 ton cargo trucks, a detail of Soldiers, and coordinated for the pick up date for the trees. The farmer was a retired Post Office worker and had a wonderful tree farm. The trees were mature and beautiful to see. How many do you want he asked? What’s the price, I asked. For you, six marks apiece except the trees like Blue Spruce and Douglas Fir. Eight marks for them. Well I did some quick figuring and came up with a total number of trees, computing the dollars to Deutsche Marks. I forget the “exchange rate” but ended up with about four hundred trees.
Where are you going to set up, the boss asked? Don’t know yet but I’ll figure it out. Well, Thanksgiving was almost here. I arranged with the Post Exchange Manager to fence off a part of the parking lot, near the PX on Cambrie Frisch Kaserne. Those familiar with the area will recall that it was a quadrangle lot with stores, barber and beauty shops and the Darmstader Club. Got with my Recreation and Sports guys and arranged for the portable, self standing fencing. Got the place set up a couple of days before Thanksgiving and arranged to pick up the trees the day after Thanksgiving. The Detail was all volunteers because it was a Training Holiday. We took off with about four trucks and went to get the trees. When we got to the farm we saw a wonderful sight. All the trees were cut and lying where they fell. The farmer was beaming! Got them all cut yesterday, no holiday for me and my family he said. We loaded up and saw that it would take two trips. No problem, the Soldiers pitched right in and really got with the program. Laughing, joking, competing with each other to see who could load the most, the fastest! Me and my fellow CSMs just stood and watched. The young NCOs took charge and did the job.
Back at the Kaserne, My XO, LTC Jack Dunn, was monitoring the area and had it all set up when we arrived. The trees were unloaded and stacked along the fencing, generally by size. Some were about four feet tall , some six feet others in between. How you going to “price” these things Sergeant Major? I thought about “tagging etc.” Didn’t want to bother with four hundred trees. Let’s price them according to size, I said. If they reach the top of the fence, they cost two dollars. Past the fence, over four foot, they cost three dollars. The special trees are four dollars. That’s easy, stand the tree up, look at the fence and take the money! Saturday morning, when the PX opened and the shoppers arrived, we were at the “Tree Farm.” Me and Jack Dunn handled the sales. Wow! We couldn’t take the money fast enough. The deal was, here’s the trees, pick yours out, and you carry it off. We didn’t provide rope, didn’t deliver, didn’t carry to the car/truck. Of course, we were dealing with military families and they didn’t ask for anything but the tree. Absolutely “No Frills” operation.
About ten o’clock here comes the General. How’s it going Sergeant Major, he asks with a funny expression on his face. Fine Sir, says I. Do you think you’ll get you money back on this deal he asked. Me and Jack both pulled out a wad of bills from our pockets and I said “What do you think Sir?” We already had the money to repay the loan! He was amazed. By noon time we had just about depleted the tree farm. Made the four hundred plus a bunch more.
By Six PM Jack and I decided to wrap it up. What do we do about the trees he asked. We close the gate/fence and go home, says I. The parking lot was well lighted and our M P Station was adjacent to the lot. The Kaserne was secure and guards were on the gates. I had no doubt that the trees would be secure. Went back Sunday and did some more sales. After we counted what we had, looked at the leftover trees, we decided to call it a day. End of operation. How about the rest of the trees? Let’s have the duty officer and NCO call all the units and tell them to come and pick up their Christmas tree, says I. Great idea. By Monday afternoon the trees were gone. We had also spread the word that if a family didn’t have a tree, come and get one. Some Soldiers could not afford to buy stuff like trees.
Bottom line, we made eight hundred dollars. Any and all “Nay Sayers” had shut up. The Guys from the Scout Troop were amazed. They still did not want to get back into the tree business. Next AUSA meeting I was happy to repay the loan and add another four hundred. Doubled the loan! Should have heard those guys. Are you going to do it again next year they asked. Let’s wait and see, I’m still trying to recover from this year. So everybody was happy; The farmer, the General, my Boss, and lots and lots of Soldiers’ families in the Darmstadt Military Community. Wrote up a short note about how to do the “Tree Operation and sales.” Thought it would come in handy.
The Next Year
Here we go again, same time of year, before Thanksgiving and the Boss is asking about Christmas trees. At the Staff meeting I ask if anyone else wants to honcho the Operation. No takers! OK, me and the XO will handle it. Could use a couple of helpers this year to take in the money. I attend another AUSA meeting and of course “beg” for the loan. Non problem, how much do you want and is the deal the same, that we get the profits they asked. I considered the past year and said that I’d split the profits with the AUSA and the Communities Activities Office (they do neat things for the kiddos.) Deal, they said. So, with the lessons learned last year I take off and do my magic. Now, an interesting development. Seems as if another association, the Noncommissioned Officers Assoc. (NCOA) wants to get into the act. What do you want to do, I asked. We want to sidesaddle with you and set up a “Glu Wine” stand. Glu wine is a special treat for anyone who doesn’t know about it. Coming in from the cold, snow, et al, it just warms the cockles of your heart. Right down to your toes! OK says I, but you have to share your profits with the Community Activity Guys. No Problem, we’ll charge fifty cents a cup and make a bundle. As we are setting up for the tree sale, day after Thanksgiving, here comes a truck dragging one of those hot dog/vendor trailers, you know, the kind they set up at ball games. They hook up power, get their crock pots going and soon the aroma of the Glu wine is wafting through the area.
The weather, unlike the previous year, turns really cold and nasty. The tree business is brisk to the point were we have two guys collecting the money as the folks grab their trees and exit the area. Jack and I decide we need to warm up so we hit the Glu Wine. It was “complimentary” for the “Tree Guys!” What a way to work, Christmas music, hustle and bustle of the shoppers, Soldiers’ families laughing and having a wonderful time. The Glu Wine operation is just the thing and the older folks are “warming up” at the trailer. The guys in the trailer are cheating ‘cause they have a space heater in the trailer. They hang out the window and “hawk” their wares. Several Sergeants Major join in and sell trees or Glu wine. We have a wonderful day and sales are terrific. Found out that the Tree sales at Rein Main Air Base are quite different. Seems as if they charge two dollars a foot for the trees. Ouch! That’s more than double what we charge. Our customers are delighted. This year I had already given a “Heads up” to all the units to be prepared to pick up a tree on Sunday night.
Sunday, the weather changes drastically. Snow, rain, temperature drop. We are bundled up and frequent customers for the Glu wine! One fellow comes in and tells us that his wife is not happy with the tree he brought home. Here, let me have it and you and your wife pick out another. I take the tree around the fencing, out of sight and place it in a row with other trees. Well, this guy is crushed and follows his wife, head bowed, as she “shops” for that special tree. Up and down the aisles she goes and still not satisfied. I go down the aisle and pull out a tree, bounce it so that the branches are full and I ask her “How ‘bout this beauty!” She looks and begins to beam! That’s the one, that’s the one Sergeant Major, she says. OK, here you go and the Soldier grabs the tree and follows her out of the area. I follow them and as they are going to their vehicle I call out to the soldier. He turns around and I mouth “That’s the same tree!!” He leaps in the air, swings his fist and hollers “YES!!!” Smiles at me and probably had a great evening decorating “HIS” tree.
The weather is closing in on us. The “Glu wine” operation wimped out and closed down! The rain, snow and sleet is killing us. Let’s shut this down sir, it’s dark, cold, wet, and I need to Pee! You bet Sergeant Major ! Here comes a guy driving up with his wife. Need a tree and have to have it tonight he says. She begins to shop and wanders up and down a couple of aisles. Jack is ready to leave and so am I . I head around an aisle and as she is coming down towards me I pull out a pretty good looking tree and bounce it on the ground. How ‘bout this one I ask. She tells me, “I wanted one a little taller than that.” It’s kinda dark and the sleet and snow is getting to everyone. I pull the tree up off the ground about two feet and ask “How ‘bout this?” Great she says and her husband grabs the tree and they take off. Jack was watching and can’t believe what he saw. Maybe I should be a tree salesman when I retire, you think? we laughed and almost cried. Another successful operation completed.
That year we made more that five hundred dollars from the trees and another two hundred fifty from the Glu wine sales. Everyone was happy and lots of folks got Christmas trees and bargain basement prices. No, Jack and I did not do the tree thing the following Christmas. We both rotated to the states and our replacements had the opportunity to excell! It was one of the fun things that I got to do while at the Darmstadt Community. I think of it as I see the Christmas trees lined up at the super markets or along the roadways. All the ingredients for a Merry Christmas were there. Soldiers with their loved ones, working with super NCOs and Officers, no one griping or complaining about things, and everyone remembering the true meaning of Christmas, the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.