BY DON HERALD
This is the conclusion of a two-part story. Read the first part here. Copyright is held by the author.
Thirty-four years later . . .
WHEN HIS wife had first raised the idea of a personal Bucket List project, Tony had taken it up with enthusiasm.
It helped that in the past couple of months he had been thinking about the King’s Tree from his childhood. How that unfortunate experience had ended his tree-summiting career right then and there. Tony knew it would sound silly to Terri and his friends if he confessed it openly. But now, as a forty-four-year-old man, he was determined once again to climb and summit on another tall tree.
The Bucket List offered a safe way to go public with it. The King’s Tree became Tony’s number eight: ‘Climb the tallest tree in the forest like I did when I was ten.’
Without telling Terri, he immediately began a search for the tallest, most suitable tree to climb. He checked out nearby conservation areas, old bush lots on farmers’ back acreage and of course every city park of reasonable size.
Two weeks ago, he discovered it.
The tree was a fifty, maybe even 60-foot Jack Pine in the heart of Emily Park on the eastern edge of town. The park was a popular area, partly because of its heavily forested grounds of mature trees of both the needle and leaf varieties.
Tony’s chosen tree towered above most of the nearby ones. It had stout branches that spiralled lazily up and around the trunk, spaced just about right for climbing. From the ground, he was sure the top-most branches would support his two hundred plus pounds. Even better, the tree was at least a hundred feet from a popular running and biking trail so he would be assured of some privacy as he climbed.
On his final recon visit, Tony tried to jump up, catch onto a lower branch and pull himself up. It took some effort because he was out of shape, but eventually, he was able to struggle up onto the branch. Satisfied, he jumped down, wondering if he should bring a short step ladder to help conserve his energy for the climb.
Tony knew he would have to climb early in the morning before any of the runners and bikers would be on the trail. Given his obvious age, it might be hard to explain to a curious passerby. So, he’d have to start just before daybreak.
The adult, rational side of Tony’s brain repeatedly whispered that this was an absolutely crazy idea. But the wild, unpredictable ten-year-old kid side of his brain was a loud and persuasive cheerleader for doing the climb.
So, climb it he would.
As he began his preparations, Tony recalled Terri’s words when she saw the ‘climb the tallest tree’ item on his Bucket List.
“When you find the right tree, let me know. I’ll be there with my cell phone to take some pictures. And of course, to call 911…just in case.”
It was an unnecessary afterthought. But she didn’t regret saying it, given the circumstances.
This past weekend, over their usual morning coffee and pastry, he told Terri that he had found the ideal tree in Emily Park.
“Next Sunday. Just before dawn. That’s when I’m going to climb. You still up for it?”
Terri knew there was no point in arguing all the reasons why this was such a stupid and really dangerous stunt.
“Ok,” she said, forcing a tight smile. “Let’s do it!”
So just before dawn, she found herself standing beneath a ginormous pine tree. She had her cell and a large Thermos of black coffee they had picked up on the drive to Emily Park.
Tony had chosen his climbing gear with care. Tight fitting black T-shirt and riding shorts. So, he wouldn’t get snagged on the branches. New fluorescent orange runners, bought specifically for the climb. Tony assured Terri that ‘these beauties have an odd tread pattern that is perfect for clinging and grabbing.’ He’d tried to get them in a darker, less conspicuous colour. But the store clerk at Drane’s had insisted they came only in bright orange. On his hands, Tony wore a pair of black, ventilated fabric gloves. He told Terri that all the NFL pass receivers used them for their guaranteed sticky grip. A black wool seaman’s watch cap topped it all off.
Terri asked him to pose at the trunk of the tree. Unfortunately, she left the flash on. The bright light temporarily destroyed Tony’s night vision, so he had to wait a few minutes impatiently until it returned.
Just before leaving home, Tony had decided against the step ladder. So, with a deep, loud breath, he leapt up, grabbed the lowest branch and with lots of moaning and groaning, slowly pulled himself onto it. Against her better judgment, Terri even gave him a final boost upwards with cupped hands. She tried taking another picture of Tony heading up the tree. But this time she left the flash off, hoping it would turn out in the semi-darkness.
First light was peaking over the distant horizon.
The first thirty or so feet were relatively easy. In the pre-dawn mist, Tony could faintly make out the town’s white water tank and the limestone clock tower on the red slate roof of City Hall.
As expected, going upwards from branch to branch was no problem. But Tony hadn’t counted on the tree sap and pitch that started to cover his gloves, shirt and shorts. Big, gooey chunks of it were also getting tangled in the hairs on his arms and legs.
Now, the sun was just up over the water tank.
The next twenty feet or so were more difficult. The branches were spaced further apart, not in a regular spiral pattern like lower down. Tony noticed that every branch seemed to have slightly more flex to it than the previous one.
Flashbacks came unbidden about climbing the original King’s Tree in Devil’s Bowl. His concentration on climbing was starting to drift a bit. He forced himself to stay mentally focused. To lose concentration at this height would put him at too much risk.
Far below, Terri would occasionally yell up to him, asking how he was doing. Sometimes she offered words of encouragement. For some odd reason, her shouts reminded him of the cheerleaders’ chants when he was playing football at Fraserville High. It had pumped him up then and did again now.
His watch showed three minutes to seven. The early morning sunlight seemed to be bathing the upper branches with a soft, almost mystical light. He was still making progress, but it was slower than before.
A slight wind started to sway the treetop slowly back and forth. The higher he climbed, the more aware he became of the swishing rasp of his breath coming in shorter, somewhat laboured gasps. He heard a bird making a racket somewhere below. He wondered what that was all about.
Tony was almost at the top. Only a couple more branches. It was as far up as he could safely go. He dared to glance to his left, then right. He was awestruck by the spreading landscape of the waking city and the distant sounds of early morning traffic. Oddly at this moment, he thought about his usual double-double and fried egg breakfast sandwich from the drive through over on River Road.
He was at the top. Or as close to it as he could possibly get and not risk breaking a branch and crashing down into the tree canopy beneath.
Over the past couple of days, Tony had given quite a bit of thought to what he might shout to the mostly slumbering world of Fraserville spreading out below him. Now he knew first-hand what Neil Armstrong must have gone through as the astronaut tried to decide what to say as he set foot on the surface of the moon.
But in his heart, Tony knew there was really only one set of words that was worthy of this special moment.
Here at the top of the tree in Emily Park, it felt exactly like when he was ten years old, swaying wildly at the very top of the original the King’s Tree in the Devil’s Bowl.
Forty-four year old Tony Lombardi shouted at the top his lungs.
“I am the King of Wog Town and Fraserville! God bless the King!”
And just as he had imagined his childhood hero Edmund Hillary doing at the top of Everest, Tony raised and pumped his right arm in triumph.
He had done it!
For the first time in decades, he was once again at the top of the tallest tree around. It felt utterly amazing.
Way down below, he heard Terri whooping and hollering. She was probably dancing around the trunk, celebrating his accomplishment. He knew that Terri believed it was a totally crazy, wildly immature thing to do. But he hoped she’d got some good shots of him striking his Hillary pose.
Juiced on adrenalin, Tony reluctantly started down.
It was far trickier than coming up. He had to feel blindly for a secure branch below him. Sometimes his runners slipped, forcing him to hang on tightly to the branch above until he could find a new toehold.
All the goop from the tree syrup was messing up the treads causing the slipping. But there was nothing he could do about it now. He just wanted to get down and celebrate his victory with Terri. Maybe they’d each have that double-double with a breakfast sandwich he’d promised himself.
By Terri’s estimate, Tony was about halfway down, making slow progress, when it happened.
A woman’s voice pierced the crisp, early morning air. It was shrill, excited and shouting from somewhere over by the trail.
“Hey! For god’s sake, what the hell are you doing up there? Are you crazy? You’re a man for god’s sake! Shit! Get a grip. Get out of that damn tree! Now!”
A whistle started blowing very loudly. Apparently, the woman always carried one for just such an emergency. But until this very moment, she’d never used it.
Startled by the combination of excited shouts and loud, long whistle blasts, Tony immediately lost his toehold and slipped off the branch. He hung on desperately to the now sagging branch above, feeling wildly for another somewhere below him.
“Oh my god, you’re going to fall. Shit, I’m calling the cops!” It was the woman with the whistle again.
Terri was now in panic mode. High above her, Tony was desperately scrambling to find a toehold while hanging bat-like from an upper branch. She could hear him calling out with a noticeable measure of panic to the unknown woman.
“Please, don’t call the police! I’m ok. I’m on my way down! No need for the police. Everything’s under control.”
But everything was happening too quickly.
Tony now knew with certainty that the cops would soon arrive. Maybe even the film crew from the local television station who monitored the police radio communications. There’d be roof lights flashing. Maybe sirens wailing too. They would catch him in his silly stunt. He knew it would all be totally embarrassing and tough to explain in any rational way to anyone other than Terri.
His toes briefly found a semi-solid hold. But then he started sliding down, branch to branch. Sometimes, in fleeting glimpses, he thought he could see Terri beneath the tree looking frantically off toward the trail.
He had to hurry.
His rapid, erratic bouncing descent from branch to branch finally came to an awkward and painful stop about ten feet from the ground. Looking down, he realized he was just above the big branch he had used to pull himself up into the tree.
Terri was yelling at him.
“Tony! Hurry the hell up!”
There was an angry buzzing. Instantly, Tony was swarmed with what must be dozens of Yellow Jacket bees. Somehow in the dark, on his way up the tree, he had avoided waking the bees nesting inside a large crack of a twisted branch.
In his blind haste down, he had accidentally put a searching toe firmly into the entrance of the nest. The bees were now fully awake, angrily determined to punish the intruder.
Looking up, Terri realized that something was horribly wrong. Tony was hanging on with one hand, twisting wildly while swatting at some invisible thing with the other.
That was about the time flashing red, white and blue lights flooded the space over by the distant roadway. From the general direction of the path, a bunch of people were noisily crashing through the low bushes toward her.
“Oh my god,” she blurted out. “This can’t be happening!”
Terri quickly realized that not only was it the cops but also the paramedics and firefighters! All of it in response to that screaming woman’s frantic 911 call.
Above her, there was a sudden groan mixed in with a ripping, wush type sound.
Tony came crashing down, bouncing painfully off the lowest branch, miraculously landing on both feet an arm’s reach away from her, legs immediately collapsing, his limp body corkscrewing awkwardly to the ground. Terri could see that Tony was wildly but feebly swatting at what she now realized were dozens of bees darting angrily at his face and hands.
A red-faced cop and a fresh looking woman paramedic were the first to reach them. The cop demanded to know what the hell was going on while the kneeling paramedic started to immediately work on a groaning, twitching Tony.
Inexplicably, the bees ignored the paramedic, preferring to punish the creature that had damaged their nest. A stretcher was eventually produced. Tony was carted off to the hospital for assessment, and whatever treatment was necessary.
Terri spent the next hour explaining as best she could to the cop Sergeant about Tony’s Bucket List wish to climb a tall tree. But she could see that he was just not buying such a crazy-ass idea.
However, the cop eventually decided it was just another stupid, wacky stunt. Since nobody but Tony had been hurt, no harm was done to the public.
As Terri began to slide out of the rear seat of the Sergeant’s cruiser, he stopped her.
“I’ll have to talk this over with my boss downtown. But you and your husband may have to pay for the costs of three emergency services being dispatched to this ….”
The Sergeant hesitated. It was clear to Terri that he really didn’t know exactly what to call what he had just witnessed. She smiled. She didn’t either.
After a couple of hours in the ER, the hospital sent Tony home with bruised ribs, some raw looking scrapes and lots of white calamine lotion splotches smeared on many bee stings. His dirty, sap-scarred fluorescent orange runners and torn black climbing gloves were in a clear plastic bag along with what Terri figured was Tony’s badly dented ego and reputation.
After gingerly settling into the passenger seat of their car, Tony took a deep breath. And then he began to laugh.
“What you say we get some coffees and pastries at the Silver Bean? My treat!”
Flashing Terri his ten-year-old boy smile, Tony held up one slightly swollen and scraped finger.
“One down. Nine more to go.”