The Big Tree

05 Aug

            If you go to the corner of Chestnut Street and Rochelle Avenue, and look toward Midland School, you might notice a huge hole in the sky. It was once filled with the branches of a giant oak tree. It was one of the oldest trees in town, if not the biggest, and was close to 8 feet across at the base. On the day it was taken down, traffic was periodically stopped in both directions on Rochelle Avenue, and only one-way traffic was allowed during most of the time it took to cut it down. No one seemed to know why the tree was being removed, but to those of us who had grown used to seeing it there, the emptiness was almost heartbreaking.

            Not too long ago, I visited my step-daughter in East Stroudsburg, PA, and spent a few minutes by myself sitting out on the front porch of her apartment. I watched as a couple of crows flew over and landed in the tall trees across the street. I haven’t heard a crow cry since the 50’s, and as soon as they started "cawing" to each other, I leaned back in my chair, closed my eyes, and was instantly transported back to the woods that I played in as a kid.

            We spent a lot of time playing in the woods. Our favorite spot was the clearing behind our house. There were two very tall trees along one side of the clearing, about 20 feet apart, that were connected by a long log that the older kids had hoisted up and lashed to the branches. The log was about 10 feet off the ground, and the big dare in those days was to walk across it without falling. The ground underneath the log was packed so hard, that a fall from that height could be just as dangerous as jumping off the roof of a tree house.

            My next door neighbor Don and I used to dare each other to do a lot of things like that, and if you ask around the neighborhood, you might find someone who can tell you about the time we did jump off the roof of a tree house, using parachutes we made from bed sheets. We got the sheets from my mother's linen closet and tied ropes to the four corners, but we might as well have been hanging on to rocks when we jumped. I managed to walk away with a few bruises, but Don broke his arm and spent the rest of the summer in a cast.

            I'm not sure whose idea that was, but I'm pretty sure it was Donny who talked me into going out in the woods earlier in the year, and climbing a tree so he could chop it down, "just for fun." The object was for me to ride it to the ground, and believe it or not, it was fun. Clinging to the highest branches of the tree, I could hear Donny chopping away at the trunk, and feel it reverberating through my feet, barely covered by an old pair of P.F. Flyers. Then he stopped, yelled something like, "There she goes!" and ran off to the side to watch it come down. At first, the tree started to fall very slowly, and then it picked up speed and headed toward the ground, faster and faster, until it crashed in a tangle of branches and leaves, and I half-fell, half-jumped out of it just at the last minute, and landed on my feet. The impact was surprisingly soft. The smaller trees and undergrowth had cushioned my fall, and I emerged shaking, but grinning from ear to ear. As soon as Donny saw that I wasn't hurt, he couldn't wait to find a tree that he could ride.   

            I don’t know how old Joyce Kilmer was when he wrote the first line of his famous poem, "I think that I shall never see, a poem as lovely as a tree," but I do know that learning to appreciate the beauty of trees, and to admire their strength and longevity, is probably not something a 12 year-old would think of. It's not something that some adults think of either, but when we were growing up, a tree was something to play in, long before there was a town park, or a set of "monkey bars," or even a "swing set."

            We made our own swings, using ropes and tires, and climbed to the very tops of all of the tallest trees we could find, just to look out over the rooftops of Rochelle Park and get a bird's eye view that no other generation would ever get to see. 

            It will take a long time to fill that hole in the sky at the corner of Chestnut and Rochelle Avenue. Longer than it took to grow up and appreciate what we had back then.

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