The best tree of all

Written by Jayson Jacoby December 24, 2013 07:45 am

Gary Baxter was a soldier in Vietnam, Christmas 1969, when a special package arrived 


By Jayson Jacoby

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Gary Baxter had never cried over a tree until his mother sent him one by mail.

That tree he watered well, with his tears.

The little fir also had quite a thirst for beer, but more about that later.

The more salient point is that it was a Christmas tree.

Hardly an unusual item, of course.

Unless you’re a soldier stationed in Vietnam in 1969.

Which Baxter was, in that long ago December.

Baxter, who was 10 when he moved from Astoria to Baker City with his parents, Ray and Irene, shipped out for Vietnam on July 4, 1969.

He was already an apprentice metal worker at Valley Metal and Heating in Baker City, and he transferred his skills to the Army.

“I patched up helicopters — bullet holes and that sort of thing,” said Baxter, who graduated from Baker High School in 1965.

Even before Christmas of 1969 Baxter had earned a reputation in his unit — or rather, his mother had earned him a reputation by frequently sending cookies and other morsels the soldiers craved as much for their symbolic sweetness as for their sugar and chocolate.

“She was a beautiful woman, my mother, and she was always sending me things like that,” Baxter said.

But one day, not long before Christmas, Baxter received a package that didn’t much resemble a box of homemade cookies or candy.

It was too big, for one thing, a cube measuring maybe two feet to a side.

And it was heavy.

Still and all, Baxter figured the box contained food.

So did his buddies.

“They all gathered around, figuring it was some sort of treat,” Baxter said.

He folded back the cardboard and what he saw was a bunch of wet towels.

“Lo and behold, I take off the towels and here’s a doggone baby Christmas tree,” Baxter said.

His parents had gone out into the snowy woods outside Baker and cut it.

“My dad said it would never get here,” Baxter said. “But my mom told him, ‘just watch me.’ ”

She draped those towels over the tree, taped the box together and paid the postage.

And when her son, in a war zone thousands of miles away, lifted that tiny fir from the box its needles were still green and flexible and bearing the fresh balsam scent of the cold clean woods, where no soldiers died, and where no helicopters needed to have bullet holes fixed.

Baxter’s eyes welled with tears that day.

They still do, 44 years later as he tells the story.

Nor was he the only soldier whose cheeks were moist when they glimpsed that dark green decoration, so redolent of home.

One particularly tough soldier, upon seeing the tree, festooned with the tinsel and red ball ornaments Irene Baxter had sent along, “cried like a baby,” Gary said.

The soldiers, lacking a proper tree stand, improvised in typical military fashion.

“We took a bayonet and stabbed it into a can of beer, and then set the tree in it,” Baxter said. “It would go through about a can of beer a day, but we kept that tree going for two weeks.”

The beer, by the way, was Budweiser, a favorite among American soldiers in Vietnam.

Baxter returned to the U.S. on July 4, 1970, exactly one year after he left.

He went back to work at Valley Metal and Heating, and years later he bought the business.

Baxter retired six years ago.

Neither of his parents is still living. But among his many fond memories of them, that little tree and all that it represented — home, peace, safety, and above all a mother’s love for her son — remains a powerful symbol for Baxter of what was good in the world at a time when so much was not.

So far as he can recall he doesn’t have a photo of the tree — “if I do, it’s in a footlocker a mile deep,” he said.

But he doesn’t need a photograph; he can see the tree as clearly as he needs to.

“Something like that Christmas tree, you’ll never forget,” he said.

“You appreciated such little things then. Good memories, and lots of tears.”