Somewhere in Alabama. A small town with a cute main street, lots of muddy trucks, and men who wear neon orange, even to church.
The elementary school staff went overboard on decorations that year. Too overboard. The school had, for instance, purchased two dozen balsam fir Christmas trees.
The school placed the trees in each classroom, office, hallway, multi-purpose room, and urinal. They bought so many live trees the school had leftovers.
“It’s the fresh smell everyone likes,” said the 73-year-old maintenance man. “Everyone just loves a live tree.”
Let’s call him Butch. The grizzled janitor reminds you of your favorite uncle. He’s a Vietnam vet who smokes like a diesel freighter and is about as warm and fuzzy as 300-grit sandpaper.
After Butch decorated the school halls, he had three surplus balsams left. He stored the trees in the custodian’s closet, then texted a local preacher.
“I just told the preacher, ‘Hey, look, I got two or three trees left, if you know anyone who wants a real tree, just tell’em to call me. They can have one.’”
The first telephone call came in late that night. It was the voice of a child. A little girl.
“Is this the man with the trees?”
“Yes it is.”
“My family ain’t got no tree.”
The next day, Butch drove into the hinterlands, past miles of cotton and rows of peanuts, until he found a doublewide trailer on a dirt lot. A faded blue tarp covered the roof.
He installed the tree for the needy family and received roughly six thousand hugs before he left. The little girl wished him a merry Christmas. She even kissed his cheek.
On his drive back into town he got another phone call. “Hi,” said the voice of an old woman. “Is this the man with the trees?”
“Well, I’d love a real tree.”
In a few hours Butch was in an elderly woman’s living room, decorating a fragrant conifer while Bing Crosby sang in Deutsch.
Before he finished at the old woman’s place, another call came in. It was a teenage boy. “Is this the man giving away trees?”
Before Butch knew it he was across town, delivering his last fir to a family of six who lived in a one-bedroom unit in a rundown apartment building.
Then he was out of trees.
The next morning his phone woke him up. “Excuse me,” said the soft spoken voice of a young mother. “Is this the man with the free trees?”
He rubbed sleep from his eyes and almost told the woman that all his trees were gone, but he didn’t have the heart.
“I’ll be right over,” he said.
He stopped by a Christmas-tree lot near the Piggly Wiggly and bought their biggest tree. Soon, he was at a ramshackle house, standing on a ladder, hanging a shining star upon the highest bough.
He received four more calls about trees that day. The next day he got nine calls.
“Is this the man with the free trees?” they all asked.
Butch’s answer was always the same. “Gimme your address.” And then he delivered a tree. On the house.
He became a regular at the Christmas-tree lot each morning, purchasing more trees to give away. Sometimes he bought 10 trees at a time. Sometimes more. And still the calls kept coming. The requests came from all kinds.
A little girl with a mother dying of cancer. A single father who worked at the mill. A young family who lived in a house with no electricity or running water.
A 10-year-old boy being raised by his 19-year-old sister. Twelve residents of a local nursing home. A homeless woman who lived in a church shelter.
A Mexican dishwasher. A man living in an RV parked at a Walmart. A kid in critical condition in the local hospital.
Sometimes Butch delivered five or six free trees each day. By the end of the season, he had given away over 100 trees. Although, if he’s being honest, it was probably more than that. He lost count somewhere around 50.
“I don’t even wanna know how many I gave away, man. I ain’t keeping score. I don’t tell people what I’m doing because publicity ain’t what I’m about.”
After our short interview, I asked how his own house was decorated for Christmas.
There was a pause on the telephone.
“My house?” he said. “I ain’t got no decorations at my house.”
“Well, I did have a tree, but I got rid of it a few days ago.”
I asked where it went.
“Oh, some guy called and asked if I was the guy giving away trees. I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s me.’ Then he told me he just got custody of his daughter on Monday, he wanted to have a real tree when she came to live with him. So I just gave him mine.”
Next, I asked the obvious question. I asked why anyone would do something like this for another.
His answer came quickly.
“That’s the wrong question,” he said. “The better question is, why not?”