Had Santa’s sleigh been flying low over Maple Avenue the morning of Nov. 19, his reindeer might have collided with another holiday icon. However briefly, a Christmas tree entered Santa’s airspace that day.
For two fleeting intervals between 8:15 and 9:55 a.m., the Christmas tree destined for Fountain Square floated above the ground, suspended from a sky hook.
Pure magic for onlookers, those moments were among the trickiest of the day on which the Parks/Forestry department transported an inconvenient old blue spruce to stardom.
The tree’s road to glory began outside the Maple Avenue home of the Bayldon family. At 7 a.m. Matthew, 5, and Daniel, 3, waited indoors while their dad, John, stood in a light drizzle and explained why he and his wife, Jane, called the City last spring to donate the tree in their front yard. “We love the tree,” he said, “so we have mixed feelings.”
But the evergreen’s wide, shallow root system had heaved the sidewalk near the foundation and threatened their home’s original brick basement, he said. And he was looking forward to enjoying the original, unobstructed view of the landmarked 1890s house.
“It is a great way for the tree to move on,” said Mr. Bayldon, “to finish in Fountain Square.”
A five-man City crew pulled up at 7:45 a.m. and fanned out in well-choreographed formation. A truck held off traffic north of the house, no-parking signs south of it. A City bucket truck and a crane contributed free for the project by Sunrise Tree Service stood ready at the curb.
The Bayldon family watched from the porch as work began. “Every step is a challenge,” said Javier Chavez. Crew chief Tony Galati was calm but vigilant. “If we aren’t alert, the tree could fall on the house,” he said.
Other years were tougher. This tree was just a short ride from Fountain Square, in a front yard unencumbered with overhead wires, and the crew was experienced. “Most of these guys have been doing this for 10 or 15 years,” said Paul D’Agostino, superintendent of Parks/Forestry.
Already, the tip of the crane dangled a hook just above the treetop. At 8:05 a worker aboard the bucket swung over the yard and up into the branches.
This was a crucial maneuver, said Mark Younger, City arborist: The worker had to cinch a huge strap around the tree trunk, placing it where it would support the tree without breaking the trunk.
At that moment the crane lowered the hook so the crew member could snap it into an I-bolt on the strap. That secured the tree. On the ground, men looped a “tag line” around the lower part of the trunk.
A sharp sound rang out as the cutting began. With a few quick strokes of his axe, a forester notched the street side of the tree. Then, stepping to the other side, he ran a chain saw clear through, making a “back-cut” that severed the trunk. A miscalculation at this precarious moment could spell disaster. But at a pre-arranged signal, the crane operator lifted the hook so the tree twirled almost imperceptibly on its stump.
Then, upright and light as a balloon, the tree glided through the air. Guiding it with the tag line, the crew planted it precisely behind the cab of the truck. It was 9:45 a.m.
They laid it down gently on the improbably small trailer, after lopping off 10 feet of trunk. “It looks so much bigger lying down,” said Jane Bayldon. She admired its shapeliness – no flat side – and wondered about its age. “Thirty-five to 40 years old,” said Mr. D’Agostino, who had read the rings and hedged only because rot obscured the center growth.
“Fifty-two feet tall,” said Mr. Younger. In the end, they shortened it to the requisite 30.
Tied fast to the trailer, some branches sweeping the ground, the tree rolled to its destination. There, in a steady rain, three men from Facilities Management were affixing bolts to the sides of the fountain to hold the four stabilizing rods they would attach to the tree.
For one more moment – one more held breath – the tree was airborne, sliding through the air over the plaza. The crane set it down in the exact center of the fountain. It was 9:53 a.m.
“A little to the west,” urged a perfectionist. “Step away and look,” said another worker, though the tree would assume its final splendor only when hung with lights. The tree shifted, then settled, and another voice said, “I’m satisfied.”