When I was in the third grade, I was nearly killed while walking home from school. A driver lost control of his vehicle and swerved towards my spot on the sidewalk. Luckily, the car clipped a big tree that stood on a grassy divide between the sidewalk and the road. The collision brought the car to a sudden shattering stop. Terrified, I ran all the way home without looking back to see if anyone had survived the crash.
The next day, when I saw the huge gouge in the trunk of the tree, I felt scared all over again. I never would have survived such a violent collision. The tree had saved my life. Now, whenever I passed by it, I mentally thanked it for saving me.
A few years later, on the first day of a new school year, I walked past the crash site and discovered that the tree was gone. The crash had probably weakened it, making it susceptible to diseases, freezes and harmful insects. Signs of its decline had probably been obvious for years. But I had never paid much attention to it. 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. Now it was gone and I’d never even known its name.
After its death, the tree’s spirit took up residence in my personal mythology. I often imagined that its spirit was following me, keeping me from danger. If I found myself alone and frightened, I would talk to the tree. Sometimes I asked it for courage or protection. Sometimes I just prattled aimlessly to it.
One night, in January of 1972, I was at the home of my friend Don Morris. Together we watched “The Night Stalker,” a horrific TV movie about a vampire that terrorizes Las Vegas. I lived only two blocks from Don’s house, but I was terrified to walk home after the movie. As I stepped out into the dark night, I called upon the tree-spirit to protect me from vampires. The tree-spirit told me to just keep walking and talking and I would be safe. Miraculously, I made it home unmolested.
Alas, my spirit-guardian, like Puff The Magic Dragon, existed only when he was kept alive in the imagination of a child. When, like Jackie Paper, I quit talking to my imaginary friend, he sadly slipped into his cave, or wherever it is that tree spirits go when they aren’t needed any more.
Many times in my adult life I could have used the help of my tree spirit, but I didn’t have the presence of mind to call upon him. Now it’s 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, need to be nurtured in order to survive. That’s why I believe we shouldn’t laugh or interfere when we encounter someone talking to himself. The conversation may not be as one-sided as it appears.