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Christmas trees and tales of life

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Jim Corliss chatted on television with Martha Stewart, shook hands with the president in the White House, and did a live phone interview on California public radio – all because of Christmas trees. Jim sold his first trees off the porch of his home in 1978. Little did he know that he would become president of the National Christmas Tree Association and a national spokesman before he was done.

These were some of the stories I heard from Jim, a sturdy man with a white beard and jolly crinkles around the eyes when he smiles. I asked him how often people comment on his resemblance to Santa Claus.

“My usual response is bah! humbug!” he said, and laughed out loud in a strikingly Santa-like fashion.

I tagged along for a couple of hours while Jim ribbed customers and answered the phone in the heavily balsam-scented air of the Piper Mountain gift shop. Conversation was easy. Jim says he used to be shy, but to me he seems a born story-teller, a true raconteur. Once he gets started on a tale he never runs out of material;”Now this leads me to another story…”

At one point Norma, his wife of over 50 years, came in with a sandwich for her husband.

“I got the last word on the Martha Stewart show,” Jim was saying with amusement.

“Well somehow that doesn’t surprise me,” I said.

Norma laughed at my insight; “Thank you!” she said.

“Norma thinks I get too much attention,” he remarked later. “She’s probably right.”

One thing that not many people know about Jim is that he has been writing about the stories and people in his life for 33 years. Sadly, 21 years’ worth burned in a fire in 1998, but he is slowly rewriting his life’s recollections. I got to hear a few.

Long before Christmas trees came on the scene, Jim’s story led him to the skies. He left UVM in 1954 to enlist in the air force. Eight years later he and Norma had four children and another on the way when Jim received orders to fly to Okinawa. He had the option to leave the military for civil service instead, and took it. It was a life saving decision.

“The flight I would have been on disappeared in the sea…and they didn’t fly with empty seats. Sometimes I think about that guy who was in my seat…”

After five years in Burlington, Jim and Norma moved to Newburgh, Maine, where they could afford a big piece of land within striking distance of an airport.

Some say that air traffic control is one of the most stressful jobs on earth, but Jim loved it. Just before his retirement he described a quiet day on the job when he sent the rest of the crew out to lunch. “Suddenly fifteen aircraft showed up and I had a mess to clean up!”

I thought he was going to tell me that the incident confirmed his decision to retire, but I was wrong. “How could I give up anything that much fun?” he thought. But - his retirement papers were in, and the Christmas tree business had grown, so he moved to full time Christmas trees.

Now Jim is ready to retire again. He and Norma hope to sell the farm and business, except for a nice corner lot with a glorious view where they will build a house. Jim won’t miss the stress and demands of the busiest season. He does hope, however, to stick around and be a part of the business. “I’d mow till I fall off the tractor dead,” he told me. “I like watching the trees grow.”

He also likes to imagine, on a cold Christmas morning when the shop is strangely silent, all the joy blossoming around 3000 trees sold from the farm. “Then I feel pretty warm.”

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Robin Clifford Wood is a writer from Maine. You can read more of her work at her blog, a year of getting up to meet the day, or in the Bangor Daily News. Feedback is always welcome at robin.everyday@gmail.com

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