Fellowship Street:The Plum Tree
Most people look back fondly on their childhood, tending to remember the good things and letting go of the bad. As kids, we found interesting and unique methods of entertaining ourselves, accepting as our due, the balmy, warm weather of Southern California, which lent itself to the task of providing an ideal environment for kids to be out and about at any and all hours of the day. We used to get up in the early morning hours, while the air was still gray and cool, so that we could construct the roads and turnoffs in the back lot for riding our bikes, trikes, wagons, go-carts, pogo sticks, or whatever form of conveyance we were into.
Frequently, in 1963, we were already sleeping out under the stars as the early morning dawned, the four older of us boys, lying parallel under a minimal layer of sheets and blankets, far predating the existence of sleeping bags, at least in our household. The folks were amazingly cool about sleep outs, I think because it didn't cost anything, and because the younger generation would invariably sleep later in the morning if the four older boys were out in the south forty. Mama was smart enough to take advantage of the natural order of things, when it came to energy conservation. A few extra minutes in the morning, after Papa had left for work, to drink a cup of coffee, and get ready for another day, left her far better prepared to deal with the complications of keeping the household afloat.
We would lie out at night, Eric, Brian, Noel, and I, counting the stars, still well before the smog started to have any drastic effect on the Southern California nightscape. We listened to the voice of Vin Scully announcing the Dodger games and hoped for Frank Howard to do something big. If not Frank, then maybe Willie or Tommy Davis would come through, or Maury Wills, or any of the pitching icons such as Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Johnny Podres, Claude Osteen, Don Sutton, Ron Peronoski, or the eagle, Phil Regan. We rooted against the Giants and their perennial power players like the two Willies, Mays and McCovey, the Baby Bull, Orlando Cepeda and the pitching of Juan Marichal and Gaylord Perry. When I rooted for the Dodgers, the Giants always seemed to prevail; now that my loyalties lie with the Giants, it seems as though their toughest opponent is always the team in blue. I was six years old when the Dodgers and Giants pulled up stakes and moved from the East Coast out here to California, and so I took up baseball, not as a way of life, but as the way of life.
Eric was the oldest, and the undisputed leader, not just because he was oldest, tallest, and most experienced, but...OK, maybe those things did contribute a little, but Brian was no slouch either. What he lacked in brawn, he made up for in brain. Brian the Brain. Not just straight A's smart, even I could pull that off. But SMART, with no caps-lock issues. Eric's nickname was Uncas, the character out of The Last of the Mohicans, Papa being the one who gave him this name. Brian was Callix, and Noel was Neex.
Noel was the one with the great ideas, the one who was always in the background, pulling the strings of the smaller kids, getting them to carry out his agenda, in the least likely manner to get him in trouble. Noel was the one who put the kitty in the suitcase so that it could go “on vacation.” By the time Mama found the poor thing, it was on vacation all right, one from which it did not need a return ticket. Using Tinker Toys and Lincoln Logs, he lit a “campfire” in the bedroom one morning, that should have been a clearer indication of things to come, if we had not been lulled into a false sense of security by his decision to enter the seminary after eighth grade. What a brilliant ploy, to get everyone thinking that he was going to be a priest, thereby opening the door for any and all questionable behavior, for the next four years, anyway. We heard the ever-popular explanation of, “Oh, well, he's only home for [as applicable] Christmas, so we'll pretend that he didn't just do that.” Realistically, Mama never found out about most of it until years later, when the rest of us gleefully shared details, while sitting around campfires as adults, with our own kids flapping their ears for precious details.
There was the famous “plum tree incident,” which was problematic only in the sense that having the old plum tree and the shed go up in flames, would be very challenging to explain to Papa just how that did occur. The way I described it around the campfire went something like this. I would have been around ten years old, and Noel would have been thirteen. It was sometime in the summer because we were barefoot, and it was well after dark. This undoubtedly signified that Mama and Papa were either already asleep, or so deeply engrossed in the television, that our absence went unnoticed. The game was an ever popular one known as “soak the rag in lighter fluid (or gasoline), wrap it around a stick, and use it as a torch to light our way around the back lot.”
Only this time Noel decided that it would be fun to see fire fly, sort of like seeing time fly, only a little more tangible. At first we were content to race around the back lot, holding the torch aloft, lighting up the paths and roads we had created through the mustard greens and trees. After a few minutes of this, Noel commenced to climbing up on the old shed roof, that was pretty ancient, but nonetheless, perfect for launching the torch up into the night sky, which he proceeded to do. Everything was going just fine, which meant that Noel quickly got bored, and adjusted his mechanics slightly, resulting in the torch traveling a greater height and correspondingly greater arc, through the perfumed night air.
The perfume was to suddenly change, however, as one of his prodigious heaves of the torch, caused it to lodge up in the branches of the old plum tree, and the resulting smoke was to cloud the perfumed air, with a fragrance more associated with earlier evening barbecues, than late night plum pudding. The plum tree had long since stopped producing fruit, though it still sported a few green leaves in its summer zenith. Most of it was dead, dry, and ready to flame-on-Johnny, which is exactly what it did, burning, blazing in a gasoline-soaked frenzy of unexpected fury.
Noel did the only logical thing he could do, and that was call the fire department, right? Not on your life. In fact, I don't know how many ideas he thought of and rejected, but I do know that he made his decision in a hurry.
Brian might have been the brain, but Noel was quick, especially since he had to be to get himself out of trouble so often. Before I could even threaten to go tell Mama (even I would never have ratted him out to Papa), Noel had taken matters into his own hands, literally. Gathering up every iota of speed that he could muster, he had raced the length of the shed roof, and propelled himself through the air, to grab hold of the burning branch.
There he was, hanging from this blazing branch, eyes bulging out of their sockets, as he looked at me as if to say, “What next, Partner?” And then the branch snapped, and Noel plunged to the ground, with the burning branch coming down all around him. Boy that dude moved fast. Not only was he quick in the mind, he was quick when it came to activating the lemon tree faucet, to put out the fire. I decided to keep my mouth shut for the moment, instinctively recognizing a fortuitous development when I saw one. I figured there was enough physical evidence to hold Noel hostage in the future, without having to mention it precisely at this moment.
I waited for instructions. I regretted not broaching my trump card immediately, though, because I underestimated Noel's ability to get rid of the evidence. He was already scuttling toward the garage to get a pair of clippers, and he instructed me to go back to the humus pile and start to forge a hole through the disposed weeds, grass cuttings and leaves so that we could conceal the burned evidence with several layers of unburned humus.
I was impressed, when at the end of a surprisingly short period of time, all physical evidence had been removed. The only indication of trouble in the attic, was the still-present smell of burning plum tree, and the barely discernible limp that Noel displayed, as we made our way back into the house, being careful not to slam the back door screen. We washed up thoroughly with Ivory soap, guaranteed to disguise the scent of burning wood, but also potentially damaging should Mama connect the unusual actions of two young boys, who customarily avoided applying soap to body except under extreme duress, with anything unusual. We slipped, one at a time, into the living room for the last few minutes of the Happy Wanderer, one of Papa's favorite shows that the rest of us tolerated, because the whole concept of TV was still so new, that we welcomed anything.