It was fall of 1995, I was a young police officer starting a family. Our first child was one, and we just found out we were expecting our second. Money was tight, but we always got by. We had sold a doublewide mobile home at a loss and after overextending ourselves during a real estate boom and were living in a rental. My wife came to me and said she had found a house in the town I worked in and the price was low enough that we might be able to figure out a way to purchase it.

Staci called the realtor, who said that house was sold, but she had another that was in the same price range. It was an FDIC foreclosure, and it would sell fast so we set up a showing for a couple of hours later. At the time I was working undercover but was able to clear what I was doing for 15 minutes. I came pulling into the driveway in my undercover car, a beat-up Mercury Topaz, I jumped out introduced myself and did a speed tour of the house. It was dirty and needed a lot of sweat equity, but it was structurally sound, and a good deal. I ran out, asked the realtor for a purchase and sale form, I signed my name in all the right places, handed it to my wife, told her the house was good and to use her judgement on the rest. I jumped back in my car and took off.

Our offer was accepted, now the hard part. How do we pay for this? I took inventory of everything we had of value. I had a small collection of hunting rifles. We had my Ford Ranger Pick-up.  And we had a mish mash of odds and ends that most people accumulate in a household. My rifles got taken to the local gun shop and converted to cash. I loaded up the pick-up with everything else of any value and sold it at the local flea market. Next I sold the truck, figuring if we were in the same town that I worked in we could live with one car for a while. Still short, we borrowed four thousand dollars from Staci’s sister and brother-in-law, I expecting to be able to cash in unused sick days in a few months.

At this point we had just enough cash to close on the house with not much left afterwards. I was the middle of December. We moved in a few days before Christmas. We started hauling out trash, and painting the nicotine-stained walls white, with the cheapest 5-gallon bucket of contractor grade paint we could find. It was hard work, we got dirty, but we felt like we had achieved something solid, and that this would be the beginning of a new path.

As we got to the day before Christmas Eve, the house was livable. We had one present, a Fisher Price Farm set, for our daughter. We were OK with that, but one thing was missing, we had no Christmas tree. We decided with only two hundred dollars left in our savings account, and a new mortgage payment coming soon, we would have to do without this one tradition.

I loaded up our car with the last load of trash from cleaning up the house and headed off with it to the town dump. As I pulled into the dump, I saw a strange site. There were piles of Christmas trees lined up against the fence. I asked the attendant what the story was with the trees. It seemed that year there was a glut of Christmas tree vendors, and several had given up early, as the prices became ridiculously low due to excessive competition. I asked if I could have one, the attended told me “Take as many as you want”!

There are few times I can remember being happier than I was tying our dump Christmas tree to the roof of our car. I took it home and dragged it in the house. Staci was surprised as I shared with her the story of the tree. That Christmas morning, our daughter woke up to a present under the tree from the dump. She was happy. We were happy. We were flat broke, but we had accomplished something against the odds. We did it with grit and determination, but that tree always reminds me there is a little more to it than just us, there are intangibles that make all the difference. There was family who had faith in us and bet on us to win. There was our faith in one another and what we could do. These things made all the difference.

My wife and I went on to build a pretty successful company after I left the police department. (Our kids, eventually 3) didn’t want for anything. There were many more Christmas trees and presents under them. Whenever one of us seems to take for granted what we have, we are reminded of the story of the dump Christmas tree. While it’s a reminder that we haven’t always had the benefits that we have now, it’s also a reminder of what you can achieve with the power of hard work, faith in one another, and a little bit of luck while in the process.