A final blaze of lights from two brothers

This is the last year.

For sure. Absolutely.

Dave McClenahan vows it.

Just to make sure there could be no doubt, no backsliding, he’s put his vow into black and white, in a letter to The Fallser, the community paper of East Falls.

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Yep, after 29 years of setting the December night aglow, of turning motorists’ heads on Midvale Avenue, of providing the holiday display to see in East Falls, the McClenahan brothers, Dave and Bob, are stepping down.

Literally. It’s about the ladder, you see.

The 16-foot-tall, Little Giant brand ladder that Dave climbs, while Bob steadies it, every Christmas season. The ladder from which Dave painstakingly strings more than 6,000 multicolored bulbs onto the evergreen that dominates the front yard of their home on Vaux Street – a brick house with red shutters where the brothers have lived for most of their 60-odd years.

That darn ladder … well, let Dave tell it (after all he’s the one perched way up there, craning, fussing, wielding the hybrid pole the McClenahans devised to string the lights just so):

“It’s the height of the ladder. It’s getting to me. I had a good friend, 80 years old, fell off a ladder, seriously hurt himself. I’m 63, up there on that ladder, waving that pole around over my head. I just can’t do it anymore. It’s gotten so I dread it. That’s the time to quit.”

Last year, Dave and Bob, his elder by three years, threatened to end the tradition of bedecking their front yard tree, and the six bushes behind it (900 more lights there).

But the groans from the community, the compliments from the folks who stop their cars just to say how beautiful it all is, well, that persuaded them … one more year.

2010 is the finale. So they’ve been out in the yard for the last week, working four to five hours together each day the weather allows.

A calculated tradition

They begin the ritual by digging for hours into their boxes of light strings, seeing which ones survived the summer in storage, which did not.

If they need more lights, they head to one of the hardware stores they know still stock the small, old-style lights (“no LEDs”) they prefer. And no pink lights. The McClenahan brothers don’t do pink. The tradition is red, green, blue and yellow lights – and if the paint rubs off some elderly bulbs, making them look almost white, that’s OK. But pink, that would mess up the effect.

They’ve been known to go to a store all the way in Stone Harbor, down the Shore, to get just the right lights.

Outside, they start by trimming the tree’s upper growth back to the precise height, 26.5 feet, that they’ve calculated is the topmost point where they can safely loop lights over the droopy branches. How do they know where 26.5 feet is? Dave clambered up one year inside the tree and taped a clothespole to the trunk, to that exact height.

Preparing for perfection

Did we mention these guys are both engineers by trade — retired, but still wedded to precision?

They run power cords connected to three circuits out to the front. (Don’t get alarmed, L & I; Bob’s an electrical engineer). They count lights to even out the electrical load on each circuit. They loop strings around stakes pounded into the ground to cover the tree’s bare spots facing the house (“To be honest, the tree’s getting to be an ugly specimen,” Dave says).

When Dave mounts the ladder, to string a new section with his finicky care, Bob stays below, fingers touching his pursed lips, offering troubleshooting advice on balky plugs, bulbs and strings.

Why is it always Dave up in the air? Accounts differ. Bob’s is persuasive: “My brother is a perfectionist. He wants it done his way, so he gets the job of putting it up.”

The brothers work in tandem, or at least have done so for five years since the time Dave, working solo, felt the ladder start to slip away from him. He held on with one foot, keeping it from falling, but was stuck in the branches, at eye-level with the second-story windows. The mailman eventually heard Dave’s cries and helped him down. The same guy still delivers their mail.

“Oh, he’s full of wisecracks this time of year,” Bob says.

Memories and mishaps

The McClenahans’ parents bought the house on Vaux in 1952; their father started the Christmas lights custom, stringing those old-time, fat bulbs across the front of the house.

“Joe’s Bar and Grill, our mother called it,” Dave says.

“Yeah, but it only took him three, four hours vs. the week it takes us,” Bob counters.

A mishap involving a chimney flue cost the McClenahans the original tree in their front yard; that led to the planting of this tree of Christmas fame. A blue spruce, the brothers have long called it, but someone from the East Falls Treetenders set them straight, insisting it was a fir. “Dunno, those needles look blue to me,” Bob says.

Either way, the tree will be magnificent in hues of red, blue, green and yellow come dusk Saturday, when the brothers will officially flip the switch on their holiday display. For the last time, Dave insists.

“People say to us, ‘We’ll miss the tree; why don’t you pay someone to do it?’” Dave says.

“It just wouldn’t be the same. It wouldn’t be us. It’s our gift to the neighborhood. Anybody can pay to have someone trim a tree. The point is we do it ourselves.”

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