Happy Arbor Day

By Tim Murphy:


In September 1963, my mom went to the hospital to give birth to my youngest sister, Eileen. My Aunt Mary came to watch us—which was like when the substitute teacher came to class; it promoted misbehavior. I was getting old enough to know Aunt Mary’s patterns—sleeping late. Let's just say that she didn’t embrace the morning sun, or any sun for that matter. She kept the curtains drawn.


It was early September and a beautiful sunny day, and a bunch of the neighborhood kids were out riding bikes. School had started back up, so everyone was around. We all gathered under the Kelseys’ big Cottonwood Tree in their front yard. The Kelseys didn’t trim their tree much, so it made for good climbing—a lot of low branches. We weren’t supposed to climb trees. It wasn’t just discouraged, it was forbidden. That meant we only climbed trees where we wouldn’t get caught. There were a couple of trees in the prairie that we could get up without anyone knowing, but not the Kelseys' tree. They lived next door to us. Too close. But my mom and dad were gone. The Kelseys didn’t seem to be home. Aunt Mary didn’t know all the rules, and she was not up for looking out the window yet.


So, I started climbing.


Some of the goody-goody kids (the girls) in the neighborhood said I was going to get in trouble. They were very quick to remind me that my mom had told me not to climb trees. Some of the other kids that weren’t so goody-goody (the boys) started cheering me on, yelling for me to go higher. The more they both voiced their opinions, the more I climbed, and the higher I went. I knew there was no getting caught today. I would show those girls; so I kept going. I was above the roof line, higher than I had ever gotten before, because I would have already been caught by my clairvoyant mom who knew when I was headed for trouble. Not today, though; she was having a baby, and the boys were yelling “Higher, higher!” I was getting to hero and villain status at the same time.


“You’re gonna get in trouble!”


Ah, those goody-goody girls. Not today. It was the highest that I had ever been in a tree.


With the excitement and exhilaration and the attention; I kind of got a little giddy and a little sloppy, and I lost my head. I stepped on a dead branch, and it broke off, and I had nothing left to grab on to.


I fell . . . all the way down.


Somehow, I missed all the low branches and came down clean, but I landed on Jimmy Donnelly’s bicycle. The way I landed caused his handlebars to turn and jam the end into my ribs before I hit the ground. The impact of the handlebars knocked the wind out of me, although at the time I did not know what that meant. All I knew then was that I could not breathe. I was lying on the ground desperately trying to gasp for air, but nothing would come in. I thought I was dying.


I remembered David Zumlas—the kid who lived on the street behind us. He had died the year before when a baseball hit him in the chest at a freak angle that pierced his heart. The last time I saw him, he was gasping for air—like I was now. So, I thought I was going the same way. The more I tried to breathe, the more panicked I got. Air was not coming in.


The kids that had told me that I was going to get in trouble now yelled, “See! . . . See!”


The kids that had yelled, “Higher, higher!” now yelled, “Don’t cry! Don’t cry!”


Well, I wanted to cry. I wanted to scream and cry, but I couldn’t breathe so nothing would come out. I tried to scream . . . nothing. My mind raced from David Zumlas to me dying to the religion class where'd I'd been taught about Adam and Eve and the Forbidden Fruit from the Tree of Knowledge—but my racing mind substituted Forbidden Fruit with the Forbidden Tree. I had climbed the Forbidden Tree, and now I had fallen from grace, and now I was going to die and go to Hell for climbing the Forbidden Tree.


It seemed like I was down there for hours, because I guess going to Hell takes a long time. I had tunnel vision. I was really panicked, trying to suck in air, and nothing was happening.


Then, all of a sudden, I sucked, and air came in. I could breathe, and I was going to live! I screamed a high-pitched squeal-scream that sounded like rabbits when coyotes get them—or my lawnmower that one time. I screamed and started to cry, and now the tunnel vision was gone, and I wasn’t going to Hell.


I had heard about people who were dying and came back from the dead. They always said that they saw a light and Jesus coming from the light. He always looked happy to see them

. . . but I can’t say that that’s what I saw. I didn’t see Jesus. I saw my dad, and he didn’t seem too happy to see me. He did say something about Hell though.


"What the hell were you . . . ?"


So, Hell was not out of the question yet. He didn’t seem as happy as I was about my breathing and the miracle of my coming back from the dead. Instead, he was looked pretty mad. Maybe I wasn’t going to Hell, but I was sure going to catch Hell for climbing the Forbidden Tree. He told me that my mother was in the car with the baby and that I had scared her to death, and what the hell was the matter with me?


Mrs. Kelsey had come out and started yelling at me for climbing her tree. My dad was yelling at me. My mom was crying. My baby sister was crying. I was crying. The goody-goody girls looked pretty smug with their know-it-all righteousness and nodded with approval that I had gotten what I deserved. My buddies were now nowhere to be found, and nobody seemed concerned that my ribs hurt every time I took a breath. No one cared that I had almost died. I didn’t feel very good, and I was in trouble too. What started out as a really good day had sure gone to Hell.


So, Happy Arbor Day! April 27—a day to celebrate all things that are trees. Planting them. Pruning them. Sitting under them in the shade. Laying in the grass underneath them and looking up. Hanging a swing from a limb and swinging. Hanging a hammock and relaxing. Hitting a golf ball through them. Carving “I Love You” in them. Admiring their beauty.


"I think that I shall never see

a poem as lovely as a tree."

—Joyce Kilmer


It's a day to celebrate everything about trees, but stay away from that Forbidden Tree, and don’t climb them. That is the Forbidden Fruit that comes from the Tree of Knowledge. Just stick to admiring them. Maybe even hug one. They can be breathtaking.

Tim Murphy grew up on the south side of Chicago in a home filled with Catholic Irish traditions. He has kissed the Blarney Stone and been given the gift of storytelling. He attended Catholic Grade School, public high school and a Lutheran College—which perhaps has shaped his somewhat irreverent style. In his sixty-four years, he has received many blessings, and despite his misbehavior, they seem to keep coming.

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