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          THE TREE

By Marie Huston


We never made it to California. We blamed it on the flat tire. The good thing about the flat tire was its timing. Three incredibly good-looking boys happened to be passing by when it blew and stopped to help us. They fell madly in love with us, married us in elaborate wedding ceremonies and gave us beautiful babies, who grew up to be as rich and famous as their handsome fathers, who had really been movie stars in disguise. Even though we spent weeks and weeks driving the Studebaker down Route 66, we never made it to California.

There were other reasons that we didn't get to California, of course, besides the flat tire. I guess the main obstacle was -- well, we didn't know how to drive. We could steer if we sat on a pillow, but we couldn't reach the pedals. Then, too, there was the minor problem of a Studebaker with no tires at all, hoisted onto concrete blocks in the Twins' back yard. Route 66 didn't follow the circular driveway around the Twins' house and sometimes their mama parked her car in the wrong place which messed up our storyline. These facts were mere technical difficulties, easily overcome by a little ingenuity.

I have fond memories of lazy afternoons filled with great energy as the Twins and I traveled Route 66, falling in love with the men of our dreams. And, oh, the men we met! One afternoon, Troy Donahue, Edd Byrnes and Frankie Avalon fixed a flat and fell in love with us and an hour later, Tim Considine, Fabian and Moondoggie proposed marriage. It was heaven on earth. Well, almost.

Life gets complicated when you're playing with twins. Twins'll turn on you in a heartbeat and gang up on you and get their way because it's two to one and you have to be in love with Fess Parker because Harry already said she was in love with Buddy Ebsen and Hope'll jump in and say she's got Davy Crockett, so you're stuck with Fess Parker who's really Davy Crockett anyway, but sounds like a stupid name to be in love with no matter how good-looking he is.

But I digress.

I was four when we moved to the house on the hill, directly across from the Twins. Ours was the first house on the right after you turned off the highway at Mr. Moore's store and crossed the railroad tracks. A few houses were scattered along the other side of the road between the tracks and the Twins; old people lived in them. We didn't really live on Route 66, just a narrow road which passed our houses to become a web of dirt roads eventually dwindling into farm driveways. Few cars traveled our road and dogs sunned peacefully on the hot pavement, arrogantly ambling toward the ditch whenever a car dared to interrupt their naps.

Our boundaries were the railroad tracks where the road began at one end and the white chapel next-door to the Twins on the other end. Graveled tracks wound through the church cemetery's grand monuments and picnic tables. There were also a few abandoned gravesites in my back yard at the entrance to our woods. Honeysuckle and blackberries covered this older and smaller graveyard; its sole monument worthy of our attention -- a large concrete slab at the base of a small headstone. A deep gap protruded down into the earth at the side of the concrete, begging the question of whether someone were trying to get out. We used that gap as a prop for ghost stories when my little brother tried to horn in on our back-yard campouts. Both cemeteries were natural playgrounds and we knew them intimately. The woods in back of the houses created natural boundaries and we rarely ventured past their shade into the stark heat of open fields.

Our only fears were poison oak and the occasional snake sliding through the brambles -- not so much for their own sakes, but for the lectures we'd have to listen to later if we weren't careful. We didn't know about property lines. The entire neighborhood was ours and we roamed at will wherever we pleased, being careful to sidestep Mrs. Fleming's pansies or leave enough blackberries for Miss Savannah to make a cobbler. We'd stop by Mrs. Poss' house on our jaunts to Mr. Moore's store to see if she needed a loaf of bread before her son made it back on Saturday to take her grocery shopping. Mrs. Fleming taught us to make potholders and we helped her plant flowers. They both made cakes from scratch which were very good. Mrs. Fleming would stop whatever she was doing to sit in the swing and listen to our adventures. We could sit in Mrs. Poss' swing if we helped her shell butterbeans. We by-passed the Pig Man's house, except on Halloween, and steered clear of Charlie Dean when he started acting goofy. We roamed the countryside safely, with dolls instead of beepers, and knew every secret spot within walking distance.

The neighborhood grew slowly, one house at a time, and other children joined our gang. Unfortunately, they were all boys and quickly assumed the status of brothers, alternately fighting and playing with the feminine minority. Ours was not always an easy alliance -- the Twins and me -- but to the neighborhood boys, we presented a united front, quite the Three Musketettes.

Our respective roles evolved slowly and companionship blurred the edges, but looking back, I see clearly who we were. Harriett, only we called her Harry, was the brains of the outfit and was more serious than Hope or I. Harry was first with everything we considered important in life. She found the best library books and discovered the newest, most handsome movie star to be in love with before we even knew he existed. She got her play name from an old Rosalind Russell movie and once she had it, she was "Kendal" from then on in our games and never shared it. I paid her back as an adult by having the first daughter and stealing her name. Hope and I changed names frequently, being Patty Duke one day and Hayley Mills the next. Harry's true expertise, though, was instigation. Whenever we ended up in trouble, we could trace it back to one of Harry's plans.

Hope was the peacemaker and mediator. If I argued that one of Harry's plans was crazy, Hope would step in with a big smile and cajole me into going along with it anyway. When the boys begged us to play ball, we put Hope in charge of cutting the deal.

My job was to get us out of trouble and to be the butt of the Twins' jokes. I'm sure it was Harry's idea to tell me the Alka-Seltzer was a new kind of fizzy; I know Hope was the one who convinced me to drink it; and I definitely stood there gasping for water while they doubled over with laughter. Most of the time, though, our partnership worked smoothly. I could usually come up with a logical excuse for the things we did. If there were occasions when I'd hear my mother calling me right as their Daddy started to punish us -- well, such is life.

The world was a quarter-mile long and walking-distance wide and when we weren't driving to California, we played under kudzu tents or rambled through the woods. Southern woods are mostly pines which grow in tight bunches and bottom limbs tend to disappear as the trees grow old together. This makes it hard to find a tree with limbs low enough to get a grip on and use to pull yourself up onto a branch. Once we graduated from the low-hanging magnolia in the Twins' front yard and started the search for better climbing trees, our future looked dim.

A good climbing tree's hard to come by, especially if you're short. Oh, we had lots of trees but a climbing tree is a peculiar thing -- it's got to fit. Not just any old tree you happen to have standing in your yard will do.

To be a good climbing tree, it's got to be some distance from the house because you don't want grownups yelling at you in front of all your friends not to go too high or you'll fall and break your neck. It's got to be close enough to hear when supper's called, but far enough that you can't hear when it's time to mow the grass.

To be a good climbing tree, it's got to be outside the smaller children's boundaries. It won't do you any good to climb a tree if your little brother can stand at the bottom and bother you to death. Half the point of having a climbing tree is to get away from him in the first place.

A good climbing tree needs limbs low enough for you, but too high for smaller kids. It should have several good Sitting Limbs -- limbs strong enough to hold you, preferably with a place to prop your feet up. You want enough Sitting Limbs to hold all the members of whatever secret club you happened to have formed that week. It also helps if you can sit on your bottom Sitting Limb and ward off invaders so they can't climb past you since you were there first.

When you settle on a tree, it takes a while to break it in because you have to get rid of all the little twigs that scratch. Then, you've got to sit on the same branch enough times to even out the bark so it won't prick you. It doesn't hurt if you scrape off the loose bark while you sit. In fact, if you're really mad, every piece of bark you pinch can be your brother's nose and the tree won't tell your daddy if you say "durn". It may take an entire childhood to get the rough edges of a limb smoothed out correctly, but that's what makes a good climbing tree. You want it comfortable.

Like I said, a climbing tree's got to fit and it's a complicated business to find a good climbing tree. Naturally when we found one, it became the Tree.

So the day we saw the yellow flag on the Tree, we called a meeting. It didn't matter that we weren't speaking to Mack Carter or that the older boys had a baseball game going. It didn't matter that the younger kids were too little to understand the problem or that the Twins and I were extremely busy. Fear brought us together. There was a yellow flag on the Tree. None of us put it there. Somebody had been to the Tree and if it was a grownup, it couldn't be good.

Calling a meeting in the 50's in a small Southern neighborhood wasn't the organizational phenomena it became in the business world of the 80's. There were no hors d'oeuvres unless you count 1/2 piece of Juicy Fruit and a fireball with the red already sucked off. There were no conference calls unless you count yelling underneath Mack Carter's window up to him what was going on because he was being punished and couldn't come outside. There was no memo to schedule the meeting -- we just sort of hollered for everybody to come here and see what we found. There was certainly no chairman to head the discussion because the Tree was off limits to the person who first saw the yellow flag and it took a while to convince his sister not to tell on him for being there in the first place.

Billy was supposed to be playing on the swingset and he wasn't allowed to cross the ditch where the honeysuckle started unless one of us older kids was with him. If he got near the honeysuckle, his mama had promised to tan his hide and he was pretty sure she meant it. In case you don't know about honeysuckle, yeah, it smells good and you can suck the juice out, but the important thing to know about honeysuckle is that snakes love it.

We had forged a secret path through the honeysuckle covering the ruined graveyard and on down into the woods by the simple expedient of always jumping over the narrowest graves and landing in the same place. We used this path without a problem -- being extremely careful, you know, not to step on anybody. Billy wasn't allowed down in the woods by himself because he was one of those people who can get hurt standing still. His mama said if there was a snake in the honeysuckle who was going to get anybody, it was going to be Billy because the Lord only knew he was just an accident waiting to happen.

But on that fateful day, as Billy got the swing pumping so high it was rocking the swingset and going to tip over and he was going to get in trouble when his daddy got home and had to fix it again, he kept seeing something bright yellow down by the Tree and he couldn't figure out what it was. He glanced back to the house and climbed up on top of the swingset, but he still couldn't make it out. So he did the only thing left to him -- he snuck off down there. He must have jumped over the half-opened grave and run like the dickens to grab a yellow flag without his mama catching him. He brought the yellow flag to the Twins and me.

We were in the middle of making witches' brew in the driveway, but we didn't make him eat any because we had promised his mama that we wouldn't poison him any more. In case you don't already have a good recipe for witches' brew, the Southern version is: you mix up some sand, red clay, whatever leaves and berries you can find, water and sticks and top it with crumbled pine needles. Then you convince somebody younger and dumber than you to eat it.

When Billy told us there were a lot more yellow flags down in the woods, we thought he was making the whole thing up. We double-dog dared him to prove it and followed him down to the Tree. Little yellow flags covered the woods. We watched them fluttering in the breeze all the way down to the Pig Man's house.

So we girls, with Billy tagging along behind, crossed the street to where the boys were playing a game of roll-hit-the-bat because they couldn't get up enough people for a real game. For a real game, they had to include us girls and we had been mad at them since they let Mack Carter ruin my hula hoop. We held the meeting under Mack Carter's window.

The bigger boys didn't care about the flags because it was just an old tree and nothing special. We understood they were tall enough to have moved on to worthier trees and begged them to help us, but Ronnie Sims was already on base and they went back to their game. So the Twins and I were pretty much on our own. The younger kids weren't supposed to go down to the Tree and being little, we scorned their help. We did have a captive audience in Mack Carter who was hanging out his bedroom window, but we didn't count him either since he couldn't leave his room.

First, we decided we had to find out what those flags meant and for that, we needed a grownup. Now we knew, in the way children do, that the grownups were better off not knowing that we ever actually climbed the Tree. Oh, they knew we played down in the woods, but some things, grownups don't need to know and they start lecturing you whenever certain subjects come up -- tree-climbing, crossing the pasture when you know that bull's mean, spying on Charlie Dean when he's preaching to the chickens and throwing pine cones at pigs being particularly notable for lectures. So we couldn't ask our parents.

I thought of Mrs. Fleming. Mack Carter yelled out the window, "She won't know. She's too old to know stuff like that." He was right. Mrs. Fleming was so old that even her son was a grownup and old himself. Using the logic which brought me some degree of notoriety in later life, I yelled back up, "Yeah, but she knows how to grow pansies."

So I went off to get an answer from Mrs. Fleming. This took some time because when you visit old folks, you have to spend a while being polite before you can move on to what's really on your mind. You have to ask them how they're doing and what do they hear from their son and have they finished making that apron yet. I finally got around to the point and she said, "Well, honey, you don't need to be playing down in those woods because they're pulpwooding down there. Lordy goodness, why those men won't pay any attention to you and if a tree were to fall on you, nobody would ever know what happened to you. That yellow flag marks a tree they're going to cut down." I could feel the fear in my stomach and I quickly excused myself and went out to report to the gang.

I had taken so long being polite, everybody had disappeared. It's a real disappointment when you're bursting with important information and your audience has gone home for lunch. By the time we finished eating, the little kids had to take a nap and the big boys had lost interest and didn't care anymore what happened to the Tree. But I did.

I stood on the precipice of womanhood without knowing it. Every young girl faces a moment when the menfolk don't care and she's on her own. So she just "does". She reaches down in the pit of her soul, gathers up her fears until they form a hard ball deep inside her stomach and marches forward to face the enemy. Once you've got the knack of it, you can pretty much do anything in life when you absolutely have to, but it never gets easier.

With Mrs. Fleming's warning in mind, we came up with a plan. Well, Harry came up with the plan. Hope talked me into it.

We followed the path through the cemetery and held our discussion in the shade of the Tree. We could see a huge truck parked behind the Pig Man's house and we heard the low whine of a chainsaw. A man with huge shoulders and tremendous arms was cutting stray branches off a tree as two men loaded the truck.

Harry looked at me and said, "You're going to have to go down there and ask that man not to cut down our tree."

The fear in my stomach became a baseball and I said, "Why do I have to do it? Look how big he is. He's not going to listen to me. Why don't you do it?"

Hope spoke up, "You talk to grown-ups better than we do." She smiled. "He won't pay any attention to us. Do you think my daddy would have listened to us that time he caught us with his magazines? If you hadn't been there to talk him out of it, we'd have missed Walt Disney for sure, and probably had to stay in our room for a week. You do better with grown-ups and you can make the big lumber guy stop."

I looked towards the Big Lumber Guy and suggested, "Why don't we all go? Three is better than one. Y'all need to go with me."

Harry said, "Remember what Mrs. Fleming said. If a tree falls on you and kills you, nobody'll ever know."

Hope smiled as she nodded her head and said, "Yeah, you don't want your mama not knowing where you are. Somebody needs to watch out for you. We'll squat down here in the honeysuckle and keep a lookout. Then if you get killed, we'll go tell your mama."

I knew a con when I saw one. They were scared to go talk to the Big Lumber Guy. I was, too, but I wasn't about to let the Twins know it. I searched for a way to back out without looking bad. "But I'm not supposed to talk to strangers. What if those men know my daddy and tell him I was talking to strangers?"

Hope was a master of her craft. "The rule is that you can't talk to strangers when you're by yourself. You're not by yourself. We'll be up here in the bushes right behind you. So it's okay. Go on."

I had been had and I knew it. I took a minute to think it all out. The older boys didn't care. The little kids were totally useless. The Twins were not going to go with me. If my daddy found out I went near those men, he'd wear me out. The Big Lumber Guy wasn't going to listen to word I said. Nobody was going to do anything. I was going to lose my Tree.

I made the Twins cross their hearts to stand guard and they crouched down into the honeysuckle as I looked over my shoulder toward my warm and inviting house. My stomach now had a basketball in it. I sucked in my gut, took a deep breath and headed down the path toward the Pig Man's house. I could hear the chainsaw going, but the Big Lumber Guy had moved behind an old pile of uprooted stumps and I couldn't see him until I was almost up on him.

He was big -- not as tall as the Pig Man but big. His face and hair and overalls were covered in sweat and pine needles. I had to wait till he turned off his saw so he could hear me and the eyes in the back of my head knew the men loading the truck had stopped to watch me. I prayed none of them knew my daddy. I stopped short of the range of flying bark, waiting for him to see me.

The Big Lumber Guy turned off his saw when he noticed me and I remember wishing his eyes would smile. That's always a good sign when you're dealing with adults. I talked fast and I talked loud. I thought I was carefully explaining to him how important the Tree was to me. I wanted most of all to tell him that the Tree was the only place in the world where I could be alone, but I never knew what I said. The twins were too far away to hear the words and afterward, I couldn't remember. I know I said it loud, whatever it was, because I figured if he listened to a chainsaw all day, he was probably hard of hearing. He stood towering over me. He didn't laugh and I wasn't sure he was even listening, but he stood still while I talked and his head cocked once toward the tree I was pointing to. When I finished, he grunted, spit a wad of tobacco and said, "Well, I ain't making no promises" and cranked that chainsaw back up.

It's been 35 years since my family moved to another house. By the time we left the house on the hill, I had picked up an interest in local boys instead of movie stars and I never got around to finding a good climbing tree at the new house. Daddy planted a magnolia in the yard and nowadays my grandchildren claim its low-hanging limbs as their own. They're very young and we adults sit on the porch and yell at them not to go too high or they'll fall and break their necks.

In the manner of country communities, I've heard through the years of the various comings and goings in the old neighborhood. Most of the parents stayed put and the kids left, only to come back. Some left again, but some stayed and live there still.

Over time, Mrs. Fleming's house got modernized and painted Wedgwood Blue with white trim. Her swing disappeared and nobody told the new people they were supposed to plant pansies in the cracked urns on the front porch. I guess nobody remembers Mrs. Fleming much anymore except me, every fall when I see those bright yellow pansies with purple faces.

Somebody built a house right on top of the old baseball field and the dirt road we used as a short cut to Ronnie Sims' house is blocked off. Mrs. Maxwell's cows disappeared and her grandson turned the barn into a garage. You can still see the pussy willow tree my mama had planted seven years before it finally bloomed, the spring we moved to the new place.

I went back last week to see my mother. For once, I had some extra time and didn't have a car packed full of kids or grandkids. I pulled off into the old churchyard and sat there awhile before deciding to get out and visit some of my old places. Charlie Dean's house was abandoned by everything except the kudzu and the blackberries down near the cow pond were green. I wasn't sure what drew me. The old cemetery was still there, covered in honeysuckle but the path we had made was grown over. Erosion finally conquered the spooky half-opened grave and I could step across it rather than jump. The goosebumps were only in my memory. Once through the cemetery, the woods were replanted with houses and our play area was fenced in.

The Tree is still there. It's grown in the way of trees and I could not have pulled myself up on its bottom limb if I'd wanted to. There is no trace of the Pig Man's shack or his pigs.

Looking up into the Tree, I noticed a weathered plank of wood, hanging by a nail on one of the lower branches. Someone had come after me and made themselves a comfortable bench on my branch. I pictured them secretly hauling the wood and their daddy's hammer up there and creating a comfortable place to sit and think about all the problems of their ten-year-old world.

Standing underneath the Tree, remembering the young girl who had stood in the same spot gathering courage to confront the Big Lumber Guy -- standing there full of warm, fuzzy memories and looking at some other child's forgotten tree bench, I smiled, slowly shaking my head as I turned to walk back to my real life. I took one last glance over my shoulder at the rotting board hanging by one nail from a limb and said to myself, "Okay, now, Harry, so howcome you never thought of that?"



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