Prove your humanity

This story was originally published on December 22, 2012.

In winters past, Joey Spehar spent a lot of time outside. His family’s business required it. The Spehars own a gas station on Pittsburgh’s North Side, and some years, “full service” included more than washing windows and checking oil. There was a special additional service offered after Thanksgiving: Christmas trees.

LISTEN: “A Gas Station Christmas”

My brother and I were cheap labor. We spent hours and hours outside on cold days: Scraping ice, shoveling snow, carting around dollies stacked with cases of pop, slipping and sliding and learning to appreciate sunshine and warmth.

Our station has always been more of an old-time general store. We sell everything from Fanta to finish nails and fine meats and cheeses in the deli. So with a big patch of unused real estate in the back corner of the lot, Christmas trees were an obvious choice to try to sell.

The year was 1997. I was in the eighth grade. I think my brother, Bobby, was relieved when I won the coin toss. It decided which of us got to take the ride up to Indiana, Pennsylvania with our dad, bright and early, on the day after Thanksgiving. Bobby was never much for playing in the snow.

Taking a ride in the dump truck always gave a magical feeling, which was mostly about how great it felt being out with Dad, acting like a grown-up.

It was exciting going to the nursery. We watched the guys who worked there toss trees taller than me—50 of them to be exact—onto the back of the truck. I picked out a tiny sapling that Dad promised to help me plant once we got back home (which we did). We stopped off at the BBQ joint along the way back for some ribs, beans and cornbread. But when we got back to the gas station, these trees became work. Endless new varieties of work.

The guys that loaded the trees onto our truck didn’t make the ride back to help take them back off. The trees needed to be unbaled, put into stands and taken out in the morning for display by the front door. Then we took them back in at night. Through the day, we picked up and showed off the trees as customers said, “This one. OK, now that one. Ummm, let me see the third one you had out.”

We always had to cut, rebale and tie the trees to the roof of the customer’s car. The branches were always wet. They were always cold.

“Taking a ride in the dump truck always gave a magical feeling, which was mostly about how great it felt being out with Dad, acting like a grown-up.”

But these were some really fun times. When the trees were plentiful at the start of the season, I would jump—back first—into the pile of soft, cushiony trees. They smelled great — especially the silvery-blue concolor firs. The needles made your hands smell like oranges. When branches were cut off, Bobby and I would beat each other senseless with them. It was great.

We continued this tradition for about seven years. Bobby and I took turns picking up the trees with our dad in the dump truck. It turned out to be the easier of the two jobs. Even though it meant being on the road at 6 a.m., it also meant the other guy had to do most of the tree removal from the truck back at the station. But when the first 47 trees just earn your money back and two of the three remaining trees end up going over the fence at midnight on December 22, some traditions must end.

I miss those days some winters. But then I remember how cold and wet it was. Now I just look at the Colorado blue spruce that I planted that first year, which now stands 12 feet tall in my parents’ front yard. That is all the reminder I need.

Joey Spehar is host of the Morning Mix at WYEP-FM in Pittsburgh.