The Last Christmas Tree

At last! A story to make the National Enquirer Blush
By Tom Kuncl

christmas-tree

The Tree Acquisition Unit was ready. The lumberjacks and roustabouts and the three waiting railroad flat carts were all standing by, the first to fell The Tree, the second to burst, shimmy and wrestle it into the third, which would transport it from the state of Washington to Lantana, Florida.

“You can’t cut one this year,” said the forest ranger Dourly. “Not enough rain. Could start a terrible fire, big tree like that.” He elaborated something about friction from dragging.

“There must some mistake,” spattered the Unit Leader. This wasn’t just any tree. This was THE NATIONAL ENQUIRER CHRISTMAS TREE, THE FAMOUS FIR, THE COLOSSAL CONIFER…

Sorry, pal.

The National Enquirer people were boughed but not broken.  This was Injun country, they reasoned and if Injuns can sell un-taxable cigarettes then surely they can sell their own trees. And so the Tree Acquisition Unit hobnailed off and found nearby reservation, made peace with the tribe through kindly words, and respectful gestures, and a transfer of eye-popping number of full negotiable National Enquirer simoleons and arraigned for the purchase of the largest tree around.  But first, the Indians insisted on performing an ancient rain dance their elders could not perfectly recall, and grimly warned had never worked anyway.  The dance was held without result, and the Indians who, it turned out, would risk punishment just like everyone else for starting a forest fire.

Which sent the Tree Acquisition Unit hauling off on a plane to Olympia, where they attempted to obtain a special tree-cutting exemption from the state Legislator through the judicious application of logic, diplomacy, and hair-raising amount of National Enquirer simoleons rained down upon influential lobbyist.

While that matter was pending, they skied back to the Tree Acquisition site, where now stood 50 firefighters (on The National Enquirer’s payroll) equipped with hundreds of gallons of fire retardant chemicals. A giant air tanker plane was rented to circle overhead, ready to dump tons of water if needed.  A meteorologist was sent aloft to scout the probability of rain (zero).  On the recommendation of the U.S. Army a mighty Chinook helicopter was at the ready, on a one minute call, to lift The Tree and plop it on to a truck, eliminating any spark-producing friction caused in transport.

The Tree Acquisition Team waited for rain or for word from Olympia, which ever came first, but neither looked promising.  The Unit Leader, whose name was Dinno, phoned Lantana to report impending failure.

Iain Calder, the editor, took this news gravely. True, things looked bad, very bad, but one had to keep these things in perspective. What could the boss do, fire him?

Well… “Yes.”

That night, Iain Calder, cynic, crusty tabloid editor quietly said a prayer for rain 3000 miles away.

And lo…

Some days later, The Unit arrived back in Lantana packing a 125 foot Christmas tree, THE WORLD’S LARGEST CHRISTMAS TREE, and Calder arrived at the office of Generoso Pope, famous publisher, famous ball buster, WORLD’S MOST BAFFLING HUMAN. Calder began to detail his team’s triumph.

Impatient, busy with some matter before him, The Czar of Christmas barely looked up. As was his custom, he was smoking like an FDA test chimp.

“So you cut down a tree,” he said. “What’s the big deal? We always cut down a tree.”

And that was that.

That was also two years ago today. For the first time since 1973 there will be no National Enquirer’s Christmas Tree in Lantana this year because for the first time there will be no Generoso Pope.  He died last year and the tabloids new owner decided the cost of obtaining, decorating and dismantling The Tree  (never publicly revealed but according to Colder, “you wouldn’t get a heck of a lot of change back from a million dollars”) was considered prohibitive, a luxury.

A lunacy, actually – the single most bizarre obsession of a man known for his bizarre obsessions.  For 16 years the tree became Generoso Pope’s delirium, a one-of-a-kind extravaganza that no other historical figure, except perhaps P.T. Barnum, would had thought to undertake, and Barnum would have charge you $10 to see. Pope spent money on his tree without slightest regard for any corporate bottom-line.

A really huge Christmas Tree has no branches on the bottom 30 feet or so.  But that looks unelegant, so tons of branches from other trees had to be nailed on. Full-time decorator oversaw what had to be the world’s oddest-at-first-glance motorcycle club, hired each year to do nitty-gritty work of festooning the tree. They drove down on their Hogs from all parts of the country. Many of them had the tree, or the giant 6-foot star that crowned it tattooed on their arms.  The names of each of them were scratched inside the big star that now languishes in a Pompano warehouse along with tons of other decorations.

A 6 foot-deep bunker was built into the ground to receive the tree which last year stood a 126 feet high. It was anchored to a half-dozen huge concrete piers by heavy-gauge guy wires and engineer said would withstand 80 mile per hour winds. Water was pumped into the bunker to keep the tree from becoming a fire hazard. When it was lighted, you could see it for several miles. 1500 electric bulbs made it shimmer. More than 1000 ornaments were affixed, along with a mile of garland and 250 giant bows.  More than 350,000 other lights twinkled from nearly every shrub, tree, and hedge on the grounds.  Among them were individual displays that rivaled any window on 5th avenue.

The strangest display of all on The Enquirer grounds at Christmas – as executive editor, I had a ringside sit for much of it – was Pope himself.

Hated by Hollywood, reviled and ridiculed by the establishment media, (The Herald once ordained him “The High Priest of Low Brow”), still feared and cursed by legions of ex-employees who were fired because they could not learn to do things his demanding way. He was also to those who knew him as I did, a first rate mind, an amazing teacher and enormously generous friend. And the oddest sort of duck.

Inside the offices of The Enquirer at Christmas, the joy of the season was mitigated by the chaos it brought along when hordes of visitors began descending on the wonderland on December 11, the work day life of the staff sometimes became as crazed as one of the 2000 acted news files working every day.  Busses pulled in all day and half the night from Miami, Jacksonville, Tampa, and Pahokee, disgorging thousands.

The employee parking lot became a chromium graveyard for those who parked there and failed to make their get away before the unbelievable crash of nighttime traffic.  Some visitors made it an all-purpose pilgrimage, viewing the tree, then gawking into the office windows. Perhaps in hopes of catching a glimpse of a space alien or a chicken that could do calculus, or one of the other mind-bugling subjects of stories they’d read about in the paper.

One editor, who braved the mob suddenly found himself buttonholed by a woman from somewhere around Akron, as he recalls today. She thrust into his hand a rock about the size of a baseball and told him it had been fired from a hovering UFO.  Striking her husband dead as he fished from a rowboat.  The nervous editor vowed to turn the strange weapon over to The Enquirer’s crack staff of UFO-ologists for detailed analysis. He used it instead as a paperweight for a stack of old newspapers beneath his desk until an overzealous pitched it.

After daily calls from the widow-returned-home, and finally under threats of a law-suit to return it, the editor found a comparable rock and mailed it up to Ohio along with a gibberish note that said exports had determined the missile to not be of this Earth.

While the tree was annually built as the world’s tallest, it never won any official backing for that claim.  Several staffers greyed prematurely trying to get the tree listed as such in the Guinness Book of World Records. Their had once been, it seemed, a 150 foot tree erected at a mall opening in Oregon, and though it was never put up again, Guinness editors stubbornly refused to supplant it in their annals with Pope’s tree.  Efforts were made to enter it under several ingeniously modified categories, but Guinness was as implacable as Pope.

Wonderful tales would float through the office each year when the tree came down. It was to be sawed up and used to add a sun room to an old folks’ home, one years story went. Another said Jacques Cousteau was coming by to pick it up for use as a new schooner mast. John Chappell, whose task it was to clean up the world’s biggest mess, cleared up the mystery “We cut it up and hauled it out to the dump,” he said.

Pope often brought down from New York a wheezy quartet of musicians, whose repertoire, even at Christmas, tilted toward any tune with any reference in it to The Big Apple, back East college fight songs and ditties from Broadway shows the boss had seen and liked. Maybe they knew Away in a Manger, perhaps some four-four arrangement, but I never heard them play a song of the season that I can remember. We called them the Schmenge Brothers, but judiciously applauded their music wildly.

Once Pope’s then teen-age son, Paul, whom we assumed to be the dauphin, and heir to the throne walked up to his dad and a group of executives listening to the band.

“Where did you find these stiffs, at a garage sale?” he pointedly asked pater, with a look in his eye so undeniably genetic that I reached for my pulse and found none to count. Pope first looked shocked, annoyed. Then a monster movie grin spread across his face.

“You’re all going to be working for this kid someday. How do you like him so far?” Pope chuckled.

Pope’s largeness outside was not quite equaled indoors at Christmas.  There were no routine bonuses, but then again, no one expected one. For many of the editorial staff, every Friday was a Christmas of a kind, on which they received paychecks that reduced high-minded mainstream newsmen elsewhere to anguished tears.  When I left, early in 1981, my salary was nearing $200,000 a year. They may not expect a lot of geniuses from the small town in Iowa where I was fetched up, but I never said to Gene Pope, “what, no Christmas bonus again this year?”

There was an annual Christmas party, an unbelievably lavish bash. Lucky, a mixed-breed floor mop of a dog, whom I believe Pope secretly disliked, but was forced to make a fuss over because we had rescued him from death in a pound and made him the paper’s mascot, was usually invited to attend. Often it would be a return in triumph from a road trip in which he had posed with a celebrity for the paper’s annual Christmas cover photo. In that shot stars would be featured wearing a Santa suit, or at least a hat, and waving their good wishes for the holiday to Enquirer readers.  A spokesman for Johnny Carson reportedly once told a pleading photo-editor that “Johnny would rather have a picture of himself looking up Mother Teresa skirt then to appear on the front page of The National Enquirer.” Other celebrities were not so aloof. Bob Hope was all-time favorite front-page St. Nick and important others stood still for the somewhat silly and sentimental portrait.  It always sold a tremendous number of copies. As Pope once told me, and I never forgot, “More people eat corn then caviar.”

Pope could dish it out, but he couldn’t take it. He didn’t like to be on receiving end of a gift. One editor who boldly gave G.P. a truly fine bottle of Scotch as a Christmas gift failed to endear himself. Instead, he embarrassed Pope, who created cruelly:

“I had a sip of that cheap booze you gave me,” Pope said unexpectedly one day to the editor during a staff meeting.

“I must not be paying you enough. It tasted like kerosene. I used it to clean out the carb on the Chevy.”

My favorite Enquirer Christmas memory is from a year I was not there to witness the Gala. I was seriously ill, hospitalized at John Hopkins in Baltimore with a bone infection that had intermittently plagued me for years and had suddenly become dangerously out of control.  Gene Pope turned loose the top medical reporters on our staff to determine the best place in the world for me to be treated and to identify the most prestige doctors to be brought in for my care. When I was flown to Hopkins, I was met by dr. Neil Solomon, author, syndicated columnist, adviser to the Enquirer on medical news. He came to my bedside every day to explain in layman’s terms what the doctors intended to do. He reported to Pope, who sent out for medical texts and resent research papers on my illness-osteomyelitis – in order to follow what Solomon was telling him.

My hazy recollection is that Pope called me everyday, including the morning I was wheeled in for then seven hours of surgery and told there was an even chance I would lose my leg. On Christmas Eve day, a man who looked like he had just snowshoed his way down from Minsk signed his way into my hospital room. He staggered under a load that included a miniaturized version of the big tree in Lantana, a gigantic fruit basket,  a silk stuffed Santa and an envelope containing a Christmas Card I am now looking at with almost as much wander as when I first saw it. I realized I have never seen his actual signature – only the crimson, abbreviated thunderbolt looking scratch he used to sign off everything at The Enquirer. No one else in the shop was allowed to use a red pen.

On the bottom of the card he had written these words, “It might not be a 110 foot tree, but it’s just as full of cheer and good wishes. Merry Christmas, Gene Pope.”

The circulation field force employee who had come bearing the gifts shyly produced a Polaroid camera and asked my wife to step in close to my bed so he could snap pictures.

“I have to get one of these back out to the airport and down to the boss.  He wanted to be sure the tree looked OK,” he said.

The phone at my bedside rang not long after he had vanished. It was Gene Pope wanting to know if anyone unusual had shown up.  He tried to growl away my fangs.

“I am surprised those jerks could find the hospital, it’s only the biggest building in town.” He snorted, “By the way,” he nodded, “there are some guy here who want to talk to you.”

I next heard the slightly tipsy voices of a gaggle of my colleagues from the news room. Schemers, who on any other day of the year would cheerfully have eaten my liver, sincerely sang for me those two great old Christmas standards, On the Sidewalks of New York and The Marine Corps Hymn as the Schmenge Brothers played what sounded like Hello Dolly in the background. Pope was back on the line again… “They can’t sing, and they don’t know how to get out a newspaper either. What the hell am I going to do with them?

“Well, anyway, Merry Christmas, Tom. I’ll see you later,” he said and hung up.

Well, Merry Christmas to you too, Gene Pope. I will see you later. But this year – bet on it – I am going to find the biggest damn Douglas Fir that will fit inside the small apartment of a recently divorced guy. And I am going to hang more stuff on it then you ever saw. Maybe I’ll even get a tattoo. There is still a streak of fool’s gold tabloid crazy in me. Then I am going to stand back and admire it, plug in the lights, drink a quart of Scotch, remember old times and sing few bars of an un-Christmas song. Then I’ll pull a prepared statement out of my frayed bathrobe pocket and give you time to hide before I read it.

“This tree’s for you, Gene Pope,” it will say.

I know. I know. It needs more tinsel on the left side.

ChristmasTreeVideo

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4 thoughts on “The Last Christmas Tree

  1. What a wonderful story by Tom Kuncl, it brings back fond memories of so many Christmases past. I am thankful for the opportunities I had as a reporter/editor, to not only be part of team who put out some pretty interesting stories, but part of a team of men and women who taught me so much. Gene Pope was a real icon. And while he could make you shiver in your boots as you passed him in the hallway, he also took care of his own…even when you didn’t realize you WERE his own. I remember being hospitalized with back problems and him making sure I had the best doctor to care for me. And when I returned to work – he’d ordered me a special chair designed to be easy on my back. And I remember fretting when the down payment on my new home came due, and my income tax – which was to provide the money – had not come. I was called into Pope’s office – sure I was about to be scolded for something – and somehow he’d discovered I was $10,000 short. He then told me to go across to see Guy who would write me a check on the spot – and he said, ‘just pay it back whenever you can.’ Some of the best times of my life were had while working at the building in Lantana. And I will be forever grateful for friendships that were formed back then which will last a lifetime. Peggy Dattilo

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hello Paul;

    Thanks for sharing this article. My dad, Gene Massie, worked as the head grounds keeper at the Enquirer from ’75 to ’80. And I was there on a regular basis between classes at PBJC and semesters at UWF.

    I remember meeting you father, Iain, Dino Gallo, Guy Galliardo, and a Mr Elliot. On a handful of occasions I was also at your house and met your security staff. You were quite young at the time and we were never introduced. But I knew of you and remember seeing you and one of the security guards riding a go-cart around the driveway.

    At one time your folks had acquired a Rottweiler that had problems getting along with your other dogs. He however was very affectionate to my dad. Your father noticed the relationship and gave the dog to my dad. Beautiful animal!

    During those years the Christmas tree and displays were also a huge part of my family’s holidays. My dad took a great deal of pride being a part of it. And I know both our dad’s would have been pleased to read the memories of the tree that get shared on Facebook.

    Those were very unique times, events, and now memories. I see you’ve written a book. I look forward to reading it and learning the back story!

    Like

  3. David;

    I just realized I made a mistake. The dog your dad gave us was a beautiful solid black Great Dane. The rottweiler came a bit later. Please forgive my faulty memory and edit my previous comment!

    Merry Christmas!

    Like

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