By Leon Worden / SCVNews.com
Expectations ran a bit high for spectators who thought they’d see the U.S. Capitol Christmas tree standing upright Saturday morning at the Saugus Speedway, but at more than 8,000 pounds and six stories in height, it isn’t coming out of its brand-new Mack tractor-trailer during its two-week, 4,500-mile journey across country.
The small but steady stream of Santa Clarita residents who braved the gathering storm clouds did get to peek through plexiglass at the tree’s top branches and sign banners spanning both sides of the 62-foot trailer – an enormous “thank you” card to the sponsors of the privately funded trek.
“This is the people’s tree,” said Maria Benech, the 2011 Capitol Christmas Tree coordinator. “It’s going in front of the people’s house.”
Canyon Country resident Dante Acosta penned a special message on one of the banners. His son, Army Spc. Rudy Acosta, 19, was killed in action in Afghanistan on March 19.
“I put, ‘Rest in peace, Rudy,’ and I also mentioned Donald Mickler, who was killed alongside Rudy,” Acosta said. “I want people to know that the reason we can do these things, these celebrations, and be here, is because of our soldiers and fighting men and women around the country, around the world, that are fighting for our freedom. I want to make sure that’s always in the forefront of people’s minds.”
Service organizations used the opportunity to collect cards that will be sent to U.S. troops during the holidays. Catherine Moore, a fourth grade teacher at Pico Canyon Elementary School, handed her classroom’s batch of holiday greetings to U.S. Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon and his staff.
“It’s hard for people to understand the impact,” said McKeon, R-Santa Clarita. “But (for military personnel) to hear from home, and especially during the holiday season, it’s just a fantastic thing to be a part of.”
McKeon, who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, started putting out the call for holiday cards two years ago just prior to a Thanksgiving trip to Afghanistan. He delivered the cards in several locations, including hospitals. There was one he says he’ll never forget.
“This soldier was lying in (a hospital) bed and I handed him the cards. I was still talking to him, but he started reading the cards. Then he started laughing. He held up the card for me to see and it says, ‘Dear Soldier, don’t die.’ From a third grader.”
On Saturday a different third grader, Jeremy Root from Sulphur Springs Community School, crafted a card with a more traditional albeit equally simple message.
It said, “’Thank you’ (from) Jeremy, as a thank you for what they do – fight for our freedom,” the boy said.
His sister, first grader Jenna Root, said she “made a card for the soldiers, because the soldiers fight for things. I wrote, ‘Thank you for all you do,’ and I signed it.”
Suzon Gerstel and her small army of volunteers from Prayer Angels for the Military ran a booth for people to donate toys for military children. They could also make cards, letters and ornaments to go into care packages, and sign a banner to be sent to troops fighting in Afghanistan.
“It’s just a great way to kick off Christmas,” Gerstel said.
The U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree trek got into the spirit of giving, as well, with a food drive for Gallup, New Mex.
“We (saw that) Gallup was one of the cities that runs along our route on Highway 40,” Benech said. “It’s the third poorest city in the nation, has a mean annual income of $5,000, and we felt, ‘My gosh, what can we do for Gallup?’ So we’re doing a canned food drive. At every (stop) we’re asking people to bring canned food for us, and we’re providing that to Gallup.”
Cash is OK, too, she said. “We’re going to be buying some food before we head out of (California) for those folks in Gallup.”
The tree is due to arrive in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 20. It will be lit Dec. 6 by House Speaker John Boehner and by a child from Sonora, Calif., who won a drawing.
The tree is a Sierra white fir that comes from a portion of the Stanislaus National Forest about 50 miles east of Sonora, Benech said. The USDA Forest Service has provided a Christmas tree for the U.S. Capitol annually since 1970. This is only the fourth time in those 41 years that the tree came from California, and the first time since 1995.
Benech said the Forest Service chief in Washington picks the region each year. This year he picked the Forest Service region that consists of California and Hawaii.
“It wasn’t going to come from Hawaii,” Benech said.
She described the tree as “perfectly conical. If you go to the Christmas tree lot, it’s the perfect tree that you’re looking for – really full, no holes in it. It’s 360 degrees around perfection.”
It took two cranes to lift it onto its ride.
“It’s on a specially made cradle so the bottom branches didn’t break when we set it on the truck,” Benech said. “It also sits in a 60-gallon bladder. We used a big old inner tube, and we fill it with 60 gallons of water every night so we can keep it green, just like you do with your Christmas tree at home.”
She said Santa Clarita was selected for a showing because “it was a nice in-between stop.” On Friday it was in Kingsburg and it’s scheduled to stop Sunday at the Autry Center in Los Angeles.
Benech said the entire trip – except for her salary as a USDA forester – is funded through donations, including the truck and fuel.
Asked about the environmental implications of chopping down a tree in a national forest, she said, “We cut trees down all the time. It’s actually really healthy for the forest.”
“We have more trees today than we did historically because of our fire suppression that we’ve been doing for years – which is a great thing, not to let the forest burn up,” she said. “But unfortunately we’re really good at it. We actually have an overabundance of trees. Removing this one tree from the forest is actually a good thing.”
She said this year’s Capitol Christmas tree “is an older tree that was kind of really slowing down its growth.”
Sierra white pines “don’t live much beyond 150 years,” she said, “unlike the sugar pine or the ponderosa pine that will live 400 or 500 years, no problem. Removing this tree actually allowed those trees around it to grow and be better. It was competing for water, and now it’s not. So it’s a good way to end its life and be a wonderful way out, in front of the Capitol.”
Even then, its service won’t be done.
“After Christmas, it will be taken down and it will be mulched and spread on the Capitol grounds so none of it goes to waste,” said McKeon.
“We’re fortunate here in Santa Clarita to have it stop for four hours,” he said, adding: “This is middle America. Even though we’re on the West Coast, this is middle America. People that love their country are here to celebrate the beginning of the holiday season.”