We needed a Christamas Tree. Not a Papa Bear tree, tall and full and brushing the ceiling. Not even a Mama Bear tree, shorter and more modestly proportioned. No, this needed to be a Baby Bear tree - something pint-sized and endearing, a three- or four-foot balsam that could add a touch of pre-holiday brightness to the home of a recent widower.
In New England, finding such a tree is relatively easy. Balsams abound, and many lots carry a selection of small trees that Charlie Brown would love. But this was the Midwest, where Scotch pines predominate and where the shortest trees, in this city at least, typically measure at least five feet
From tree lot to tree lot we drove, certain that the next stop would yield the perfect size. But the response was always the same: "Sorry, we have nothing that small."
At the sixth and last lot on our list, this one run by the Retired Men's Club of the local YMCA, a salesman of Papa Bear proportions greeted me heartily. Together we traipsed up and down the aisles of balsams. Nothing. Then he spotted a tree, six or seven feet tall, and held it up.
"This doesn't look like it could do anyone much good, does it?" he said with a conspiratorial smile. The top was fine, but the bottom looked shapeless. Suddenly he was on a mission.
Turning to a fellow worker who was making wreaths nearby, he called out, "Can you use the bottom of this tree for greens?" "Sure," came the reply. "You want the top?" he asked me. "Sold," I said. "But are you sure it's OK?"
"Sure I'm sure," he said, a note of triumph in his voice. With that he marched the tree to the front of the lot, hoisted it onto sawhorses, and cut it in half. Voil! A Baby Bear tree.
I paid him and thanked him. He carried the tree to the car, and we parted with a smile and a handshake. He probably knew it was the most memorable sale of the day.
Call it creative thinking, this ability to see not just one big tree but a tiny tree and several wreaths. It's a way of approaching a situation that defies conventional wisdom: Follow the rules. Color inside the lines. Play it safe. Don't rock the boat. Most days, for most people in most situations, that's good advice. The world needs all the order and stability it can get.
Yet progress depends on stepping outside prescribed boundaries to consider unexplored possibilities. As long as a new idea is legal, moral, and safe, it could be worth trying.
In this case, it's safe to assume that the those in charge of the tree lot hadn't written a rule that says, "Never cut a tree in half for a customer." Before the salesman made his offer to me, he might even have calculated that selling a tree in separate parts would net at least as much as selling it whole - if the scraggly specimen sold at all.
For more than two weeks the Baby Bear tree has brought pleasure to its owner, who is warmed both by its presence and by the memory of how it came to exist. "It hasn't shed a needle," he says in amazement, pleased at the prospect of having a still-fresh tree when he returns from celebrating Christmas with family members in another state.
If only the Papa Bear salesman knew how much his spontaneous decision to create a Baby Bear tree has meant. But his greater gift, which will last long after the holidays, remains in the lesson he unwittingly taught: Think big, even if the result involves thinking very small.
Charlie Brown would surely approve.