The Big Oak

oakWhen I was about six or seven, and Hughie or Hank weren’t around, I’d sometimes ride my bicycle over to my friend Allen’s house, usually on a Saturday afternoon or randomly during the summer vacations. Allen was a nice enough kid, but he was two and a half years younger than I was, and whenever possible, I preferred to play with kids my own age or a bit older. But I think Allen was mature for his age, and I was immature for mine, so it worked.

Allen lived on what was then the edge of town. There was a paved street in front of his house, but behind his house there were only a few scattered houses, the city was slowly but steadily encroaching on what was otherwise a large and ancient wooded area. Once, when I arrived at Allen’s he and a couple of other neighborhood boys were just getting ready to ride their bikes to The Big Oak. I joined them.

We went down to the corner and turned left. In fifty yards or so, Harmon Street suddenly turned to packed grass and dirt and ended at the edge of the woods amid a few scattered empty pint flasks of cheap whiskey, several paper cups and occasional used condom. Hank called them “Cunyuns”. We’d see them in the park when we went looking for duds. I wasn’t quite sure what “Cunyuns” were but I suspected it had something to do with what grownups did and was something “dirty”. In those days they used to sell them from vending machines in the bowling alley or in gas stations and although I couldn’t read, you could tell from the silhouettes of the curvacious female figures in the graphics on the vending machines that it wasn’t bubble gum they were selling.

Once, Hughie and I had seen a used one discarded on the street in front of our house and he had picked it up, put it in his mouth and began chewing on it. I still wasn’t sure what these little round rubber rings were, but I was old enough to know not to eat or chew on them. Hughie was 18 days younger than I was, so I guess he just didn’t know any better.

Anyway, passing a used condom at the end of the dirt street, we entered the woods. A narrow path snaked its way through thick underbrush and scrub Oak, past the occasional discarded Coke bottle, beer can or cigarette butt. The whooshing sound of an occasional passing car from  Columbus Drive and the playful laughter of small children or their mothers chatting with neighbors in backyards while hanging clothes on the line to dry, gave way to different, more primitive sounds.

Crows called out to one another. “Four kids on bikes approaching from the North!!” The sound of a hundred thousand cicadas filled the air, which heated up quickly on a Saturday Georgia morning. Following the kid in front of you on a bike, meant trying not to get hit in the face as small branches snapped back while simultaneously not running into his rear tire with your front tire. It was all quite exciting. We passed foxholes, camouflaged refuges from which older kids sometimes heaved large clods of dirt at passing cyclists. Looking back now, after sixty years, I guess I was having fun, but was too young to know it. 

There was little talking now, only furious peddling. Soon the path curved sharply to the left, dipped down into a ravine and peddling even harder now, we just as quickly rose up a root-encrusted embankment, the roots getting larger and larger until they disappeared into the trunk of “The Big Oak,” the gigantic tree of which Allen had spoken so reverently only a few minutes before. That moment seemed, to me, now, very distant.

We were no longer in that world….

It was a giant umbrella to the Summer sun. We respectfully leaned our bikes against its trunk and stood around looking at one another, drinking in the enormity of the situation. Here was a tree that looked to have already been standing proudly on this spot when Oglethorpe and the colonists arrived on the banks of the Savannah River only a couple of hundred years before. Its majestic, enormous trunk was a testament to the existence of a force greater than man or boy. About twelve feet from the ground, the lowest of its many strong gnarled black branches reached out to infinity from its center. Clearly, no one would ever climb this tree. It would have been disrespectful. An affront to Mother Nature.

Gradually, there began a long and steady breeze and an accompanying rushing sound like a million bb’s all running down the barrel of a giant Daisy air rifle at once. I looked up. Spanish moss festooned its many branches and strained furiously in the sun against a bright blue sky like a flag on a windy day and then slowly hung straight down again. The tree reminded me of a big strong black woman in a ragged gray dress.

Then all was quiet again, except for the sound of the cicadas high up and unseen in its branches. They threatened to deafen us all. It was hot and we all stood there breathing it all in. The rest of the day could only be downhill from here, so, without any conversation, and with Allen as our guide, we remounted our cycles and rode back to his house just in time to have his mother serve us a couple of hot dogs and some potato chips and Pepsi for lunch. They were a Pepsi family.

It was going to be a very good day.

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