Teddy Roosevelt believed you should speak softly and carry a big stick. I believe you should carry an entire tree.
When I was in the third grade, I was nearly killed while walking home from school alongside a busy street. A driver lost control of his vehicle and swerved towards the sidewalk. I stood frozen in panic as the passenger side of the car zeroed in on me. Luckily for me, the driver side of car smashed into a big tree that stood on a grassy strip between the sidewalk and the road. The whole car came to a sudden shattering stop that may well have killed the driver. I was so frightened by the experience, I ran all the way home without looking back to see if anyone came out of the car alive.
For a few weeks I took a different route to and from school. I was afraid to pass by the site of the crash. My new route was longer and less convenient, however, and eventually I returned to my old route. That’s when I first saw the huge gouge that the car had left in the trunk of the tree. Seeing it, I felt scared all over again. I never would have survived such a violent collision. The tree had saved my life.
After that, whenever I passed the tree on my way to or from school, I patted it with my hand and mentally thanked it for saving me. Its heroism expanded in my imagination, so that I began to almost believe that the tree had leaped several feet in order to place itself between me and the onrushing car. I knew, of course, that this was impossible, but such is the nature of hero-worship that logic rarely plays much of a factor in it.
When I was in the fourth grade, my family moved to a bigger house in another neighborhood. I still attended the same grade school, but now I took a different route to get there. Over the next few years I began to forget about my tree. I had other things on my mind, mainly sports and girls, though not necessarily in that order.
One day, when I was in the eighth grade, I happened to meander past the old crash site. That’s when I discovered that the tree was gone. All that remained was a wide, flat stump in the ground. Most likely the crash had severely weakened the tree, making it susceptible to diseases and freezes and harmful insects. Signs of its decline had probably been obvious for years to anyone who bothered to look up at its branches. But I had never paid much attention to anything but the trunk, which had saved my life. I never even bothered to learn what type of tree it was, or to collect one of its leaves to store between the pages of a book. And now it was too late for any of that. The tree was gone and I’d never even known its name.
For a while, after it was cut down, the tree managed to reclaim a prominent place in my personal mythology. Now I imagined that the tree’s spirit was following me, day and night, protecting me from danger. One night, in January of 1972, I stayed late at the home of my friend Donald Morris. Together we watched “The Night Stalker,” a legendary and horrific installment of the “ABC Movie of the Week” series about a vampire that terrorizes Las Vegas. I lived only about two blocks from Don’s house, but I was terrified to walk home after the movie. I put off the inevitable by hanging around Don’s TV room and discussing the show with him. Eventually Don’s mother poked her head through the door and told Don it was time for bed, which was really just her subtle way of telling me that it was time to go home. As I stepped out into the dark night, I called upon the spirit of my guardian tree to keep me safe from any vampires that might be lurking along the route to my house. Miraculously, I made it home unmolested.
Unfortunately, my spirit-guardian, like Puff The Magic Dragon, existed only when his memory was kept alive in the imagination of a child. When, like Jackie Paper, I quit thinking about my imaginary friend, he sadly slipped into his cave, or wherever it is that tree spirits go when they aren’t needed any more.
There have definitely been times in my life when I could have used the help of my tree spirit but I just didn’t have the presence of mind to call upon him. Now it is too late. He’s gone off to the land of Honah Lee and I’m stuck here in the real world without him. Imaginary friendships, like real ones, needed to be nurtured in order to survive. That’s why I believe we should all speak softly and carry a tree with us wherever we go. Heck, carry an entire imaginary forest around with you if you feel like it. You never know how many vampires might be lying in wait.
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