I always take our Christmas tree down early, because it’s just too nostalgic for me. That’s because when I was a kid, our family had the most unusual assortment of decorations, and I kept every one.
I still get tears in my eyes when I see a smashed beer can.
Granddaughter: “Grandpa, why do you have rusty old beer cans on your tree?”
Me: “Oh honey, they’re precious ornaments. My father, your great grandfather, hung a new one on the tree every year at Christmas. It was tradition. And someday, when I’ve gone to that Great City Room in the Sky, you’ll have them to hang on your tree. Won’t that be fun?”
Granddaughter: “Beer cans?”
Granddaughter: “Gee, I can hardly wait.”
Back in olden times before the Battle of Hastings, cans were made of sterner stuff — they weren’t the light-weight, sissy cans of today. In those days if you knew someone who smashed cans by squeezing them, you stayed on his good side.
My dad was the only guy I knew who could smash a can that way, which was unusual because his goal in life was to eliminate the world’s supply of alcohol by drinking it, and he wasn’t very good at it. But he had this knack of smashing cans, and he never told anyone his secret. Not even me.
At Christmas time he always went into town to Larsen’s Saloon and took great pleasure in offering free drinks to anyone who could smash a beer can bare-handed. When they failed, which they always did after the veins in their necks exploded, they said, “Let’s see you do it.”
That’s when Dad put on his show.
“Empty or full,” he’d say, and watched them cock their heads in disbelief.
Then he’d point around the room to various onlookers and say, “You want a piece of this action? I’ll buy a beer if I can’t smash a can. Of course, you have to buy one if I do.” Those who had previously witnessed Dad’s prowess with beer cans turned their backs, but he always had four or five who hadn’t.
So with the bets firmly in place, he picked up an empty can, held it to the light, and hefted it up and down as though measuring its weight. When he had a big enough crowd, he slowly wrapped his beefy left hand around the cylinder and put the palm of his right hand on his forehead. “I hate the noise it makes,” he explained. “Gives me headaches.”
Then a little smile passed his lips as his fingers began to tighten. The farm-fed muscles in his hands and arms swelled like carnival balloons, exercised daily by years of milking cows and tossing hay bales, and he pushed harder on his forehead.
BAM! Like a gunshot, the can was smashed flat in his fingers, and he always shook his head, saying, “Oh Lord, I won’t be able to take that noise much longer.”
When he came home, he always hung the smashed beer can on the Christmas tree, and my sister and I stood ooing and ahing at the new ornament. By the time my mother got tired of his nonsense and kicked Dad out of the house — for years I thought she killed him — 20 cans hung on our trees.
Oh sure, he brought home other ornaments too, like empty cigarette packs, green Luckies mostly, or an occasional silver dollar. One time he hung a $10 gold piece on the tree.
But I pleaded with him to show me how to smash cans, because I could see it as a great career opportunity. It wasn’t until my 10th birthday that he partially relented.
“OK, but you have to get your hands and arms in shape first,” he said. “I’ll start you milking tomorrow.”
Boy, I thought, won’t be long now before beer cans will just collapse when they see me coming. So I asked Dad, “How long will it take for me to be as strong as you?”
He looked my skinny frame up and down and said, “About three generations.”
But I didn’t care. It was several years before I realized he had tricked me into doing the milking, and I never would smash a steel can like he did. To tell the truth, even today I have a hard time with aluminum cans.
But that’s nostalgia for you — it’s always in the way. It’s better to hope for a brighter year ahead, or at least one that couldn’t be any worse than the one we just had.
Still, I’d like to hang an aluminum can on next year’s tree just to start a family tradition, but I don’t want to keep a cow in the garage.
Bob Huber is a retired journalist living in Portales.