When I was in the tree business I had an old farmhouse and three acres in the county. It was an isolated hilltop not readily visible from Putty Hill Avenue or even the nearest neighbors. I liked that aspect, but it had some hypothetical disadvantages. The narrow dirt and gravel road to it was indirect, not coming in a straight line from the street, but following the curved Beltway fence via a vacant lot between two bungalows. That diagonal access was perhaps three times as long as a straight route would have been. Even though I had a numbered mailbox at Putty Hill, my house was not easily found by those previously unfamiliar with the place. The house and the upper lane were largely obscured by a wooded area.
Depending on the season and the amount of sold work I had a variable number of employees ranging from one to five or six. In answer to my question to a former employer for whom I was selling tree service, “What do I tell customers who ask what kind of men would be working on their property?” he replied, “Tell them that they are the best of a bad lot.” I used the same line on my own customers.
Erwin Cosner was the worst of a bad lot. He was a West Virginia hillbilly who looked like a grinning rat with the body of a monkey. He boasted a lot and had teeth which probably had never been brushed; they were blackened and he had bad breath even from a distance. I didn’t like him, but to give credit where it was due, he was a good climber who knew trees and his way around in them which is why I kept him on. He and his fat, slovenly wife, Irma, lived on the grounds of the Maryland School for the Blind where they were given a free cottage in exchange for his doing part time tree work on the property.
The tree business is like the good little girl who when she is bad is horrid. It is highly seasonal, lasting from the first spring warming until about Christmas. Like everybody else, whenever I had a good climber, I would try to do whatever it took to keep him employed over winter when you couldn’t sell a hundred dollars of work for ten dollars. I had a log dump on my property, so when the going got tough whatever employees I could keep on would be cutting, splitting and delivering firewood for about cost, if I was lucky. Come spring each year, I was usually about as broke as the men who worked for me. Ironically, that was often the time they picked to quit and go to work for another company. It is not only gruelingly hard work, the business of pruning and cutting down trees, it is also economically unsound. It’s hard to get or stay ahead.
If it weren’t for my wife’s job in a doctor’s office, we couldn’t have gotten by. We had two sons, Kevin and Christopher who were young while the marriage lasted. My wife and I were both alcoholics in denial, living within a socially acceptable lifestyle. We were I can quit if I want to, but I don’t want to alcoholics. Neither of us was worse than the other. Her poison was wine; mine beer. In this I was typical; it is my observation that the majority of tree climbers were practicing alcoholics. Whenever the work of the day is done you all sit together around a case of beer, or in a bar.
We were coming to the end of a particularly poor work year in which even the market for firewood was down. Christmas was six weeks away. Cosner presented me with an idea; why don’t “we” go into the Christmas tree business? He was from a place between Gormania and Mount Storm in West Virginia not too far below Deep Creek Lake. He had a relative who had a tree farm there. He extolled the potential and I was interested. He made some phone calls and an appointment was made to see the trees. We drove down together in my pickup.
We took I- 70 from Baltimore to I-68 at Hancock then left on MD495 to Oakland, about a three hour drive. From there on each turn put us on smaller and narrower roads. This was country of the rocky foothills of Backbone Mountain and the deep valleys of many streams. A final right turn brought us to the foot of a steep and rutted trail that I took to be an old logging road. Cosner said that although we were expected we’d better walk up to the tree farm. Even though I was in good shape it was rough going; the hill was so steep there were a lot of cutbacks to make vehicular traffic possible and to keep washouts to a minimum. It was very zig-zaggy.
An increasingly strange feeling came over me as we made our way up the mountainside, as if we were being watched. If Cosner felt the same he gave no sign of it. Finally we came to a semi flat area like a sloped meadow that had been cleared of forest. Here there were rows and rows of Spruce and Fir in the rocky soil. A wizened old man greeted us with a nod of his head. Cosner approached him, but they did not shake hands. Cosner was talking the whole time, introducing me from a near distance with nods of his head. As this was going on four or five men emerged from the trail behind us; each of them carried a rifle. We had been watched, invisibly from behind trees no doubt.
There was obviously another product than Christmas trees nearby; illegal moonshine, “white lightning” was good, if risky, business and it was prevalent in the area, according to legend. I would not have been permitted up the mountain had not Cosner been with me. He was, no doubt, related to some or all of them. They greeted Cosner, then silently gathered behind us as the old man and I began to discuss the business at hand.
Having managed a garden shop and a garden department at Sears I knew a little about Christmas trees, but not a lot. I felt I knew enough to decide that his wholesale prices seemed reasonable and the quality of the Spruce and Fir trees was definitely above average. These were full trees; the weeds around them had been kept down and there were no vines in them. They had been properly pruned to shape and they were of good color. The old man was generous in his grading of size. I was aware of the prices via Cosner’s phone calls and proceeded to give the man a list of what I thought I could sell.
Since there was no way I thought I could get one of my trucks up that road and no way I would risk going down that grade with a full load of trees, it was agreed that I would pick them up at roadside. They would be properly bundled; the old man’s men would load them on my truck. The arrangement was fifty percent then, which I paid in cash, and the balance upon pick-up the first week in December. I didn’t want to risk getting them any sooner in case the weather was hot, but I had no doubt harvesting would begin immediately. The temperature was much cooler up there; there would be no detriment to the trees.
We came back to continue with tree work. I didn’t have many jobs contracted and the phone wasn’t ringing so I decided to go out on a limb, pun intended. I had to let my other men go and keep only Cosner on for the winter. Some preparation was needed. I rented a vacant lot on Harford Road in Parkville a half block below Taylor Avenue. Cosner and I cut steel stakes from pipe that I had and made fairly good signs. We put the signs up and drove stakes into the ground in neat rows. By then it was time to get the trees.
We loaded ropes, wire and wood posts onto one of my big trucks and drove back up to West Virginia. The trees were ready as promised. I paid the balance due and we loaded and tied them down securely. The round trip travel time was longer than in the pick-up and, what with loading time added, we got back to Baltimore very early the next morning. Because we were so tired, we agreed to meet at noon the next day to off-load the trees and begin setting up the lot. In the course of wiring the trees upright onto the stakes I tagged each tree individually, each priced according to quality and size rather than just by size alone. This took the entire next day. We made a few sales.
We manned the lot together the next day although it wasn’t necessary for both of us to be there at once. I had been bleeding money, but I knew he was dependent on me for the bills he had to pay. We reached a compromise; with the lot open seven days a week we agreed to work on alternate days, although I was free to work on his days with him. I parked the pickup on the lot and we sometimes ran the engine to keep the heater going. The weather had turned nippy. We also had a steel drum there in which we kept a fire going from tree trimmings and firewood from my place. With gloves, we kept warm enough. Business was fairly steady, though not brisk. At the end of the first week, I was disappointed, but assumed that the closer we approached Christmas, the better it would be.
Cosner asked if Irma could come to sit with him in their car on his days on. I’ve always had a policy of not hiring employees’ relatives, but since I wasn’t paying her I reluctantly agreed. The second week was not much better than the first, and I came to feel I was selling more trees when I was alone. We didn’t give or keep receipts and there was no way I could figure out how to keep a tally of what was sold against a count of stock. They were only so many trees on display at a given time; the rest remained bundled in a pile at the rear of the lot. Theoretically, each time a tree was sold another would be brought from the stockpile, unbundled, shaken out to fullness and tied to a stake. If a price tag didn’t get put on the replacement tree immediately it could be forgotten and then that individual price would be estimated and negotiated with a customer. There was, of course, some haggling; I hated to see a serious customer turn away without a tree and would compromise whenever his offer seemed reasonable.
I started keeping daily sales records at the end of the second week. All money was turned over to me at the end of each day, and each day’s total went into my record book. Cosner’s days definitely grossed less income than my own. I didn’t want to make paranoid accusations, but I became increasingly certain that they were skimming. Midway, through the third week, the week before Christmas week, there was no doubt. The discrepancies between the money on their days and mine was too regular and becoming gradually greater. I had two choices. I could bar Irma from the lot and work with only Cosner, in which case there would be ill will, not to be taken lightly when you’re dealing with a hillbilly. Or I could fire Cosner. I chose the latter, paying him in full on the spot. I didn’t accuse him of stealing as a fact, but told him simply that the evidence and my suspicions didn’t leave me much choice. Right or wrong, that was what I had to do.
He grinned and asked if I knew what mountain justice was. On one of our trips to West Virginia he told me that if a traveler left his car on the side of the road he’d better not lock it or it would be stripped clean of valuables when he returned; if he left it unlocked nothing would be bothered . He grinned and told me he was going to burn me out- my house- in the night while I was sleeping. I had heard of that. He wasn’t the first hillbilly who had worked for me, but he was the first who had threatened me with it.
I didn’t take the threat lightly, but my inner response took a few days to gel. For one thing, I was stuck with the tree lot. I had to stay with it long hours to cut my losses to the minimum. I couldn’t go to the town police with an accusation based on a brief threat; Cosner and I had not argued at length. I fired him, he denied stealing saying “that ain’t right”, I paid him, he threatened me and then he left. There was no public scene; there were no witnesses. I hadn’t seen or heard from him since.
There was, however, a town cop who had been badgering me for a free tree, the best Spruce I had not yet sold. I kept putting him off in a lighthearted way, but two or three days before Christmas he came by again and I told him I’d make him a deal. I explained what had happened with Cosner and asked if he’d put the word out and have an eye kept on my place. He knew me and where I lived and he knew Cosner by sight from seeing him on the lot, and elsewhere for all I knew. I told him the tree was his if he’d keep me in mind. He said he’d do the best he could and would tell his fellow cops to do the same. I had plenty of trees left so I said tell them to come by and get their free trees. That went over good.
Before he left with his tree he offered me his personal advice, “Get a gun. A shotgun. And outside lights on your house.” He went into some more detail about guns and photocell switches and left in good spirits reassuring me he would try to watch out for me.
Ironically, there was a gun store half a block from the lot. On Christmas Eve I bought a double barrel twelve gauge shotgun and a box of shells. I also bought a .45 automatic pistol and a box of bullets for that. I made a few last minute sales. When I got home very late from the tree lot I explained things to my wife; she offered no serious opposition.
The next day, Christmas, I went to the lot with the big truck and gathered up the leftover trees. When I got home, with my wife and kids, we made a roaring big bonfire on our hilltop. They loved that. The following day I went to the hardware store and got four spotlights with photocell switches, one for each side of the house. I got the wire and circuit breakers I needed to run them and spent nearly the next week wiring them in. If anyone came anywhere near my house at night they would be not only well lit up, but startled as well. That might make them change their mind. Whether they would be seen from the road was another matter. In the neighborhood our place became known as “The Lighthouse”. Of course, we would be at their mercy if they came to burn our house down while we were away. There is a limit on the measures one can take against determined insanity. We had gone full measure.
Nonetheless, considering the consequences of letting our guard down, I became accustomed to sleeping with the shotgun and a pick handle beside my bed and the .45 on a shelf above my head. I had hunted a bit with my father when I was a kid, so I had handled shotguns before, but had no real experience with pistols. I was generally not comfortable with guns; they scared me. Cosner scared me. I had no idea how far he would go to carry out his threat, but his intention felt clear enough..
I almost never drank alcohol during the day, but when I started at about six o’clock or dark, whichever came first, I didn’t stop until I went to bed. My wife, the same. This meant that, come bedtime, we were under the influence between a little and a lot. I never considered myself to be a drunk; I was uncomfortable being drunk on those infrequent occasions when I went over the edge and I avoided hangovers as the hell that they were. But a drinker with a shotgun and a pistol under threat of someone burning his house down while he sleeps makes for a restless night’s slumber. It is a wicked combination, a threat in itself.
Then one night I was startled awake by a sound. There was a person in my bedroom! The outside lights were not on; there was almost no light at all. I was groggy, dazed, in a panic. I instinctively reached over my head and grabbed the .45, racked it and leveled it at the intruder, ready to fire.
It was my son, Kevin. He couldn’t sleep; he didn’t feel good. His mother got up to comfort him.
I put the gun on safety and returned it to the shelf, then sat on the edge of the bed, my head in my hands, my heart racing. It had been that close!
The next day I returned the guns to the store and sold them back for half what I had paid for them. They had never been fired. Thank god.
I have neither owned nor fired a gun since.
®Copyright 2015 Jack Scott. All rights reserved.