TUESDAY: The King’s Tree, Part One

BY DON HERALD

This is the first part of a two-part story. The conclusion will be posted tomorrow. Copyright is held by the author.

THE LOMBARDI family lived in a small wood-sided bungalow with peeling paint and sagging roof line. All of it had a worrisome right-leaning tilt. The fenced yard was a stone’s throw from the main tracks that ran down the middle of town on their way to the smoky steel mills of Hamilton where Tony’s Dad worked.

Everybody in Fraserville called Tony’s neighbourhood ‘Wog Town’ because that’s where all the poor immigrants lived. It was only when he grew older that Tony realized Wog Town was definitely on the wrong side of the tracks and life there was a difficult one.

Spreading out beyond the tracks was a bush. To young Tony, it was an enormous forest, full of tall trees, scrub brush and a small, ever-flowing creek slowly working its way from one corner to the other. Tony’s mother, like all the other mothers on Station Street, warned the kids to never go into that bush to play.

“It’s a dangerous place.”

Her voice always had a weird edge whenever she talked about it.

“Before you were born, little Jasper Santos wandered in there one afternoon and was never seen again. Oh, the sniffer dog found one of his shoes. And the small red ball Jasper always had with him. But never no body.”

Tony knew this was serious stuff. At the mention of the Santos kid, his mother always crossed herself, then whispered a quick ‘Blessed Father hold him dear to you.’

Occasionally Tony overheard his mother talking about the bush to Mrs. Ryder from next door. The mothers called it the Devil’s Bowl. But it was with hushed tones and always when they thought the boys weren’t listening.

Tony and best friends Randy, Brian and Clifford all yearned to go exploring in Devil’s Bowl. What made their desire even more intense was the giant tree. It towered way above everything else. The boys had a name for it. The King’s Tree.

The tree was a natural magnet. It drew the imagination and attention of 10-year-old boys like nothing else could possibly do. It would be an excellent tree to climb. Maybe even build a fantastic fort in its lower branches.

The boys drew up some rough plans of what their tree fort would look like. Secretly, from the many piles of discarded debris the work crews frequently left along the track, they began stealing odd sized lumber pieces, a half dozen weather-warped plywood sheets, a couple of small wooden barrels with old nails, a few rolls of rusty wire. The boys hid their stash in the tall grass of the weed-choked field behind Cliff’s house.

It took them an entire summer to collect everything. By the next summer, the boys were almost ready to sneak into Devil’s Bowl to build their fort. And, of course, to climb as high into the King’s Tree as they dared.

But then a totally unexpected thing happened.

One Saturday morning in early July, Tony’s mom announced that since the boys were older now, all the Station Street moms had decided that Devil’s Bowl was now a safe place to play.

Tony and his friends hollered and danced, then took off at full gallop, wildly crossing into the mysterious, once- forbidden Devil’s Bowl.

The bush was thick and dark, a glorious and scary place to explore. At the base of the King’s Tree, the boys found the remains of campfires, old shelters made of wooden packing crates, dirty chunks of grey canvas, mouldy bits of clothing including an orphan leather boot, an old pocket knife with its single blade open and a massive pile of rusty cans. But one treasured find fed the fires of their wild imaginations like no other. It was a bunch of gnawed upon bones. The boys decided these were the remains of human sacrifices surely done by the Devil himself.

But their greatest prize was an old two-handled push saw with big, sharp teeth. Randy found it wrapped in an oily grey Army blanket, hidden in a hollowed-out tree. Immediately, the boys began to awkwardly practice the two-person sawing technique on smaller trees. With a few hours of concentrated practice, they had just about perfected the smooth push and pull rhythm of the long blade.

A week later Randy suggested they cut down the King’s Tree. They could saw it up into long, wide boards to build an even better fort in one of the smaller but easier to climb trees.

Tony’s real mission was to climb to the very top branches of the King’s Tree. So, he wasn’t in favour of cutting it down. But he was out-voted. The felling of the King’s Tree began in earnest.

Tony believed it would never happen. He was sure it would take months of hard cutting on the tough trunk, so he continued to practice climbing the King’s Tree whenever he could. He would leap and grab the lowest branch, pull himself slowly up, then cautiously move from branch to branch using the naturally staggered limb placement like a ladder.

The higher he went, the scarier it became. Up there the tree was thinner, the branches less strong and spaced further apart. With a wind blowing, the top of the King’s Tree swayed back and forth. At that height, Tony realized it was much harder to climb and still hang on safely.

Young Tony was determined to get to the very top. His natural passion for climbing was fuelled even more by a book he had recently smuggled out of the Fraserville Library. It was about the two men who were first to climb Mount Everest. Edmund Hillary and his Nepalese guide Norgay Tensing reached the mountain’s 29,000-foot summit in 1953.

To 10-year-old Tony, this was an incredibly inspiring tale. He imagined himself as Hillary each and every day he climbed one more branch upwards. Summiting the King’s Tree was his goal. And he would surely do it.

But sometimes, life has its own plans for 10-year-old boys.

Randy, Cliff and Brian were equally determined to bring down the King’s Tree. Whenever they could, the three boys worked with focused energy at the base of the tree. They made fun of Tony’s story about the climbing of Mount Everest and teased him terribly about his silly goal of summiting the King’s Tree.

On a bright, cool late September day, the boys went into Devil’s Bowl for another day of working and climbing the tree. Tony had decided that this was going to be his Everest moment. But he didn’t tell his friends. He quickly made his way up to the remaining tiers of upper branches.

Way down below, his friends pushed and pulled with a steady and experienced rhythm. They loudly sang a lumberjack song Randy had learned from a storyteller at the library. It was about rough men who cut tall trees and dragged them to the river for floating down to the mill. The song was inspiring and helped keep a steady swishing beat for the saw.

The wind was gusty and strong that day. Tony carefully pulled himself onto the uppermost branches and hung on tightly. The treetop swayed and bent with his added weight and a more than usual force of the wind. He could see for miles. All of Wog Town and over the tracks into downtown Fraserville. In the hazy distance, Tony was sure he could see the blue Caledon Hills. To his left, over toward the lake, the faint outline of the four slender smokestacks of the steel mill in Hamilton where his father worked.

Victory at last!

Just like Hillary and Tensing, Tony Lombardi raised his arm in triumph. He shouted out, “I am the King of Wog Town and Fraserville! God bless the King!”

Beneath him, the King’s Tree began to shake and sway. Much farther than any time before. He faintly heard someone shout.

“Timber! Run for your life! It’s going down!”

Under Tony, the giant tree seemed to sigh deeply. A short, silent pause. Then a deafening crack echoed up to him.

Suddenly he was on his way down.

It was all over in an instant. But to young Tony, the moment seemed to go on forever.

Clinging desperately to the top branches, Tony rode his King’s Tree down into the forest canopy far below. Air rushed by. Branches slashed at his face as the King’s Tree hit the top foliage of the surrounding trees, bounced hard to the left, then bucked right as the trunk snapped cleanly off and slammed into the ground with a loud wump.

Cliff was shouting “My god, oh my god he’s dead.” Brian was running for Tony’s house crying and yelling for Mrs. Lombardi to come quick. Randy, who had the good sense to jump away from the trunk as it started to crack and fall, dropped the saw and just stood there, his mouth frozen open in a silent scream.

Tony awoke on his back among the branches of his King’s Tree. He was lying in the rocky and damp stream bed of the creek that ran kitty corner through the Devil’s Bowl. He couldn’t breathe easily. His chest felt like the time when Big Dave from school had pushed him down in the playground and flopped on his chest like a TV wrestler. His right arm, the one he had just raised so triumphantly in victory, felt odd. It didn’t move too well when he tried to pull it out from under a large branch. His crotch and underpants seemed very wet. He prayed to the Holy Mother that it was from the stream and not from pissing himself. He knew the boys would never let him forget it.

Tony just wanted to close his eyes and sleep. He did.

Dr. Roberts kept him in the hospital overnight for observation. ‘It’s just a precaution,’ he told Tony’s mother. She sat by his bed all night, wiping his head with a damp cloth, stroking his left hand. Tony’s Dad arrived at the hospital in a company truck that his foreman signed out when the mill learned of the accident. He sat in the corner of Tony’s small cubicle, staring blankly into space, sometimes leaning forward to whisper quietly with his fretting wife.

The boys never again went back into the bush.

When the railway heard of Tony’s accident, they quickly sent in a crew with saws and cleared out all the tall trees from Devil’s Bowl. The railwaymen carted away the remains of the hobo encampment using stained, rough burlap bags left over from storing coal in the old abandoned sheds that lined the tracks. And of course, a long-bladed, two-handed saw they found at the stump of the tree the Lombardi kid had ridden to earth a few days before.

As so often happens with adventures of ten-year-old boys, the story of the King’s Tree was told again and again. The entire tale took on legendary status among all the kids in Wog Town. And to the delight of the Wog Town boys, it even crossed over the tracks into the posh schools and ever-so-safe playgrounds of downtown Fraserville.

Come back tomorrow for the conclusion of the story.