Christmas on the thirsty river

The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, alongside Ma’s slips and Grandad’s underwear………..

Merry Christmas, all. Here’s a re-peat that seems appropriate on such a day.

10/27/2009 – Daily Hampshire Gazette

By Bob Flaherty

NORTHAMPTON – When the ice breaks apart upriver, it storms down the Connecticut in a roaring tsunami of jagged bergs, and all hands better not be on deck. Out there on the middle of it one winter, and for 21 winters in all, was Russ Myette’s wondrous Christmas tree, protected only by the pontoon raft to which it was attached.

Yes, children, there once was such a tree. It became a tradition so fast that no one even questioned where it came from. All we knew was that one December night, as we were crossing the Coolidge Bridge, a Christmas tree appeared on the ice far below, throwing a reflected yuletide rainbow halfway to shore.

At first, no one knew who had done it. The city? Seriously. And how was it done? Boats, cables, anchors? This was an undertaking.

It got around quick: Some guy’s floating a Christmas tree out in the middle of the Connecticut River, colored lights and everything. The guy turned out to be Myette, a maintenance supervisor who lived high up on the river’s banks on the Hamp side, and looked down on its majesty every single day from the astroturfed deck of his house.

Russ Myette died Oct. 13 after a seven-year battle with Lou Gehrig’s disease. He was 75.

“I sit on my dock and let the beauty of the river work its magic,” he said in interviews published in the Gazette prior to his death.

Spoken like a poet. But Russ Myette, who couldn’t read or write, was more of a general, and in fact was buried as one in a coffin of his own design. The poet can dream the idea of floating a tree on a wild, thirsty river, but the general is the booming-voiced guy who talks a bunch of cronies into the breach.

Living on the river, as many will attest, has its ups and downs. In 1984, the river rose so high it was level with Myette’s dining room window. “You can’t have fear of any water coming in if you want to live here,” he said with a shrug.

This coming from a man who couldn’t swim a lick, who lived on that river and in it for more than 40 years, and was never seen in a life vest.

Spirit of the season

People will remember Myette for a lot of things – recreating battles from the Civil War, hauling his “traveling Christmas tree” around to nursing homes on the back of a utility trailer, fighting Lou Gehrig’s for a lot longer than its sentence. But that tree on the river – that was something.

He said he just wanted to make people happy.

Myette was asked to tell his story in magazines, on radio shows and on “Good Morning America.”

“People thought he was crazy,” said grandson Nathan Patten, 25, “but he’d have six or seven guys out there with ropes, lowering the dock down to the water, somebody in a boat to tow it out there, divers in wet suits to anchor it in. He loved the spirit of Christmas, no other way to explain it.”

In December 1976, Myette and his son Jim walked out on the ice, dug out a little hole and wedged a tree in it. The idea, which was thought up on the spot and supposed to be a one-shot deal, became an overnight sensation, then a ritual, with bands and speeches and the firing of his cannon, a 12-pound Mountain Howitzer with a bark like all of Gettysburg.

“He led a life consumed by adventure,” said former radio personality Dennis Lee, who presided over many of the tree lightings, doing the countdown as Myette and his crew, with walkie-talkies, flirted with the currents and wrestled with cables and colored bulbs.

Each year led to an ever-evolving series of anchors and electrical hookups, plus the ongoing maintenance of protecting the tree from what Myette called “an endless floating quagmire of debris.”

His hero was Ulysses S. Grant, who once said, “No man ought to achieve victory without running the risk of defeat.”

Myette no doubt used those words during his annual battle with the Connecticut River, concerning the tree he stuck in it. A committee was formed to help Myette defray his costs, but the day-to-day? That was him.

Rough with the smooth

The tree broke free in 1989; the Hadley Aquatic Rescue team found it a half-mile downriver. Broke free again in ’95 and led Myette and his band on a cheerful chase down a river no one should have been on. Divers unloosed it in ’86 and dragged it home. Thieves stole lights and underground cable one year and then came back and hacked off the top 15 feet of the 25-footer he’d been preparing to float. Another year the tree got bent and didn’t look right. Myette hauled it in, no easy feat in itself.

And some years it stayed out there and withstood the wind at its worst and just shone.

He often walked out on the ice or waited for it to melt and took a boat out to tend to the project. The project flipped over in ’96, the whole kit and kaboodle, in a terrible storm, a wacky all-nighter. Bridge-travelers saw the submerged lights in the river, and were touched in a way that only song could do justice.

“It takes genius to come up with an idea like that,” said Mayor Clare Higgins of the tree. “Even underwater, it was a classic.”

“This is it,” Myette famously said, hauling the mess to shore. “Mother Nature and the elements have claimed it for the last time.”

Then he famously turned it on one last year, abandoning the shore-to-tree power-line for an in-boat generator.

And then it was gone. Like the Alpine slide, and Suntan Joe, and the Words and Pictures. Myette got too old to risk life and limb to keep it afloat.

He was irascible, bear-like, crusty, a needler who could give as well as take, with a voice so booming all heads turned.

Higgins often got the business from Myette and his cronies while grabbing her morning coffee at Jake’s.

“In the biggest, heartiest voice, he’d yell at me for all the things wrong with the city. I’d get a kick out of it; he had such a great sense of humor. I told him once I’d paint a target on my back so he’d know exactly who to aim at with that cannon of his.”

Higgins got to fire that cannon at First Night, one of the perks of high office, she said.

Living history

Myette’s grandkids got to fire it, too. Not only were they part of the tree lightings each year on the river but they were also part of the Civil War re-enactments.

“We spent summers with him, my sister Nichole and me – three times to Gettysburg. It was like a family I grew up with, all those kids to play with,” said Nathan Patten.

“He always stressed that nobody really won that war,” said Patten. “It taught us that we must come together to be a great country. He said that war shaped how we thought about ourselves, who we wanted to be.”

Fellow re-enactor Elliot Levy, of Longmeadow, part of the 9th Battery Massachusetts Volunteers, said Myette put his heart and soul into every event, becoming general in the process.

“It’s not a rah-rah, beer-drinking thing,” said Levy. “It’s living history, paying respect for some brave people. You are in character from the minute you set up your tent on Saturday until the moment you break camp Sunday night.”

Despite his illiteracy, Myette was a mechanical genius who could figure out how something worked simply by looking at it.

Myette constructed the entire limber chest that dragged his cannon around and also built his own coffin – black and silver, cloth handles – for his Civil War funeral last week.

For years he portrayed Capt. John Bigelow, wounded hero of Gettysburg, whose calm resourcefulness and ability to be everywhere at once rallied his men, Bigelow’s Battery, to hold the line – and hold they did.

But, alas, Bigelow required the energy of a younger man. Levy remembers the day the torch was passed. “It was six years ago at Gettysburg. Russ promoted me to captain. One of the greatest moments of my life – for him to have confidence in me like that.”

“Whenever we take the field, Russ is with us,” said Levy. “We do it his way.”

Myette had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis for seven years, which is a pretty long time for sufferers, and was active for five of it, bedridden only the last two years. He was still talking right up to the end.

Patten thinks his grandfather lasted so long partially because he wouldn’t accept the diagnosis. “He didn’t believe it,” said Patten. “It was a sore subject with him.”

Myette believed in other things.

There is good to come from Christmas trees. They can be as religious as Lourdes if you need them to be, but their boughs can sway for something else, too. That tree that used to twinkle on our tempestous gray river said nothing more than, “Hey, up there, good person, there’s another good person way down here.”