Sleigh ride?

Many families have special traditions for the holiday season, with heart-warming tales that are lovingly passed on from one generation to the next.

This is not one of those tales. (Though it could be considered a humorous anecdote.)

It happened during a Christmas season in the late 1970’s. I don’t remember exactly when, but my brother was still in the first stages of elementary school, which suggests the period of 1976 to 1979. The scene was in my childhood home town of Homer, New York, during one of the heavier winter snowfalls, about a week before Christmas. My family used actual trees at Christmas well into the 1980’s, so each year we would find a suitable pine tree to fill our living room. After the holidays, the remains of the tree would be put along the side of the house where it served as a shelter for birds and other animals until it was broken down for compost in the spring.

We generally tried to acquire a tree one week before Christmas, so that it would still have most of its needles through January 5th (Epiphany, or Twelfth Night). One of our “go to” places for a Christmas tree was a place called Forest Fisheries in Homer. It was a local business that sold gear for hunting and fishing, as well as various other sports that were popular in the region. It’s still in business, and now sells boats and all-terrain vehicles in addition to hunting and fishing equipment. During the Christmas season they sold trees (and may still), mostly from local tree farms. White pine and blue spruce grow in great quantities in upstate New York, so they were always in good supply.

This particular year we had a unique problem: our car was in repair. My father had arranged a carpool to his office at SUNY with a co-worker, my brother and I could both walk or bike to school, and there were some small local grocery stores in Homer at the time. So basic needs were not a problem. But how were we going to get a Christmas tree to the house without a car?

I had a small, wooden sleigh. roughly five feet in length (think of Citizen Kane’s “Rosebud”). Forest Fisheries was only four blocks from our home, so that year we decided to use that sleigh to transport a tree back to the house. So, during the driving snow, the four of us dragged that sleigh over to the place, picked out a nice blue spruce, loaded it up, then dragged it home.

Many people saw this display: a family of four, with the family dog happily marching along side, bringing home a Christmas tree on a wooden sleigh. It probably looked like something from a Currier and Ives print. For a few years after that we had people complement us on our “lovely family tradition.”

The truth is we didn’t enjoy it at all! The tree refused to stay lashed to the sleigh, and had to be re-tied at least twice. My brother ended up riding on the sleigh with the tree, holding it by the trunk to keep it in place. Pine needles fell out of his hair for days afterward. A layer of ice had formed under the snow in the streets of Homer, which made the sleigh hard to control, and footing very difficult. I fell down at least four times. Over the course of the trip, the snowfall went from moderate to heavier-than-usual, even by Central New York standards. Our dog Sparky, who was generally loyal to a fault, got sick of the whole thing and eventually ran ahead home.

We never did that again. After the ordeal, my parents decided that if we were ever in a situation like this again, we would order an artificial tree from the Sear’s catalog, and just hope it arrived in time. As it turned out, we never again were without a functioning car at Christmas, and we didn’t switch to an artificial tree until I was in college.

But even so, for many years after that people would ask us about our perceived family tradition of bringing home a Christmas tree on a sleigh, and how we would disappoint them. I now wonder how many romantic notions we managed to shatter. I now find that when I look at a Currier and Ives painting on a holiday card, and I see people riding in horse-drawn sleighs and what not, I have to ask myself if the people in that scene were really enjoying themselves, or if they were longing to be indoors in front of a warm fire!

Are they really having fun, or just indulging the viewer?


Birthday self-roast


Greetings, gentle readers! Yes, today is my birthday, and to celebrate that, I have gathered some pictures from my past, including some of the absolutely worst pictures of me ever taken.

I was born on February 6, 1967, at Cortland Memorial Hospital, in Central New York, at roughly 7:35 AM. I was born in the middle of the coldest, most bitter winter on record up until that time. (The winter of 1977 broke any and all low temperature records for the area; it was a doozy.)


As a boy I lived in the town of Homer, New York. I did most of the usual kid stuff, though not as much as most other boys, because I had an almost pathological hatred of High School. Why? Well, I was what we would now call a “nerd,” and Homer Central was a school where (at least at that time) athletes were demigods. Need I say more?

I went to college at St. Bonaventure University, in Western New York. and those were among my happiest years. During this time I experimented, unsuccessfully, with facial hair.

Gads, I look like Leon Trotsky!

After working a various jobs for two years, I returned to school at SUNY Albany, for a Master of Science in Information Studies. That’s a fancy name for a Master of Library Science.

Had I been drinking earlier that day? I look like I’m about to fall over.

I had some good times at SUNY, and I made some lasting friends. But on the whole, those two years were part of my job.



Career developments moved me to the Washington, DC area in 1996. I met my future wife there, and we were married in 2003.


I started working for the Library of Congress in 2003, and in 2007 I took a lateral move to the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center in Culpeper, Virginia. My daughter Caitlin was born in 2006, and somewhere during this time I went prematurely grey. I’m certain there is a connection.

In 2009, Lisa and I bought our first (and so far only) house, and in 2012 our son Michael was born.

Definitely the worst picture ever…

Last year, Lisa made me these cute Welsh cupcakes for my birthday.

And here is one good picture of me, just to show that it can be done:


And that concludes that. I have now completed forty-eight solar laps. I’ve done many of things I set out to do, and believe it or not, I think I’m in a pretty good place these days. Some things could be better, of course, and some things are a work in progress. And for some things, I’m just getting started.

Janet H. Pugh, 1936-2015


Some things are difficult, if not impossible, to talk about. So I’m not going to try. Instead, I’ll share her obituary from the Donald L. Barber funeral home, as it appeared on February 2.

Janet Habecker Pugh, 78, formerly of Warren St., Homer, passed away on Thursday, January 29, 2015 in Silver Spring, MD.

She was born August 21, 1936 in Lawrence, MA; a daughter of the late Joseph and Alice Langlais Habecker. She graduated St. Anne’s High School in Lawrence in 1954, Merrimack College in 1958, and received her Masters of Arts from Michigan State in 1962.

Janet and her late husband, David L. Pugh, settled in the Cortland and Homer area in 1962.

She was a communicant of St. Margaret’s Church, serving on the landscaping committee and as a religious education teacher. Mrs. Pugh also was a member of the SUNY Cortland Faculty Wives Club, Leisure Club, and the Little York Garden Club for 25 years.

She was employed for more than 20 years at SUNY Cortland as an English teacher and had also archived records for Cortland County.

Janet had also been a candle and craft designer, worked in cabbage pollination at Reed’s Seeds, and served as an adjunct professor at Michigan State.

Surviving are two sons, James W. (Jeanne) Pugh of Brookeville, MD and Richard J. (Lisa) Pugh of Boston, VA; four grandchildren, Connor, William, Caitlin and Michael Pugh; a sister, Alice Valliere and several nieces and nephews.

Funeral services will be held at 10:30 a.m. on Thursday, February 5, 2015 in St. Margaret’s Church, 14 Copeland Ave., Homer, where a Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated by Rev. Paul Alciati. Janet will be laid to rest beside her beloved David in Glenwood Cemetery at a later date.

The family will receive friends following the service in the basement of the church.

In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions in Mrs. Pugh’s memory may be made to The American Diabetes Association or The American Cancer Society.

The funeral arrangements are being handled by the Donald L. Barber funeral home. The Barber family have been long time members of St. Margaret’s parish in Homer. My brother and I both went to school with members of the family. This is the same funeral home that handled my father’s funeral, back in 1993.

The reality of this still hasn’t set in for me, yet. The idea of a world without Janet Pugh somewhere in it, is still unthinkable. I guess this is just part of the whole grieving process.

For a refresher on some of the events leading up to this point:

January, 2015, surrounded by her immediate family. This is one of the last photos of her ever taken.

With her grandchildren, in November of 2014.

With her two boys, in November of 2014.

Again with her grandchildren, Thanksgiving Day, 2014.

With Caitlin and Michael, May of 2014.

On my brother’s wedding day, August of 2002.

Again with her two boys, in October of 1987 at Letchworth State Park. She never liked my beard.

On her wedding day, 1964.

As a graduate of Merrimack College in 1958.

Christmas Past

The Green of Homer, New York, at Christmas

Many people travel for the Christmas holiday, typically to visit family or friends. Generally, I did not. When I was very young, as in three years or less, my family would travel to the homes of other family members for Christmas. Apparently Lisa’s family did that until she was about ten. But my parents wanted us to have our own family traditions and customs for Christmas, and, apparently at about age four I started to show a preference for spending Christmas at home. So most of my early Christmas memories have been based in the village of Homer, in upstate New York.

Another view of the Homer Green.

Christmas was almost always white. Upstate New York is famous for it’s snow, and for a time it was a major hub for winter sports. The 1980 Winter Olympics were held in the Adirondack mountains of Upstate New York.

Christmas at the Pugh residence usually started on Christmas Eve. We tended to have a light dinner, because we were often snacking on cheese, crackers, and holiday sausage all evening long. Typically one of my parents would be frantically doing the last of the gift wrapping in some secret corner of the house, while my brother and I watched live Christmas music on one of the PBS stations.

I used to spend hours just looking at the Christmas tree, especially when every other light in the house was turned off. Several of my original science-fiction stories (currently tied up in editorial hell) trace their origin to those Christmas tree meditations.

Christmas morning started at seven AM. My parents had a very strict rule about this. We could not, repeat, could not enter the front room until after everyone was up and about and breakfast was served. And we (my brother and I) could not awaken our parents until seven AM or later. So naturally, Christmas began at 7:00:01 exactly.

Coffee cake!

For many years, Christmas breakfast was a home-made coffee cake. Mom’s coffee cake was to die for! The body of the cake just melted in your mouth, and the topping had just the perfect amount of crunch. However, for reasons we never understood, mom would end up aspirating on some of the topping, resulting in her coughing for several moments. It became a running joke. It shouldn’t have, but it did.

The area around the Christmas tree rapidly became a dumping ground for discarded wrapping paper, and more often than not, my parents were napping by lunchtime. My brother and I, of course, had toys and games to break in, so we never napped. Christmas dinner was usually pretty impressive. It wasn’t as massive as Thanksgiving, but it was certainly substantial.

Alastair Sim's Christmas Carol

Finally, after dinner, we would all sit down and watch Alastair Sim’s version of Christmas Carol. More often than not, that version was all over the dial, so it was rare that we couldn’t find it on one of the stations. In later years we acquired a VHS copy of the movie, so we no longer had to worry about finding it.

This pattern continued, largely without variation, through Christmas of 1992. By then, I was in graduate school and my brother in college. But we still made a point to come home for Christmas. That changed in 1993. My father died unexpectedly in May of that year, so when Christmas arrived we needed to do something different. For the next few Christmases we again traveled to different locations, usually with family. By 1996 we had settled back into a variant of the old pattern, and often my grandmother or aunt were there as well.

By Christmas of 2006, my brother and I both had young children. Instead of Homer, my brother’s house in Maryland became the primary gathering point for Christmas. By 2013, the house in Homer had been sold, thus closing the book on that long era.

Today, the Culpeper Pugh’s typically spend the first part of Christmas at home, in Virginia, then travel to Maryland later in the day. When I was young, it was important to me that I had some of my Christmas in the place I called home, and have some little traditions of my own. I want Caitlin and Michael to have that option as well.

Christmas of 2014, however, turned out to be different.

More about Christmas:

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