Dad, Did You Ever Kill Someone?


Years ago I ran a weekly newspaper, the type of community rag that dealt with local issues, carried plenty of "grip and grin" shots and had a substantial advertiser base. So much so that I was able to sell it for a healthy profit after five years of blood, sweat and tears and purchase a stately old 1914 brick home for my wife and family. The back yard of that home was also home to an ancient apple tree, a battered tool shed and a tangle of underbrush. I cleared away the brush and constructed a three-tiered flower garden up against a stockade fence as per my wife's instructions. I cleaned out the old shed, scraped and painted it a bright white. As a finishing touch I built a tree house in the old apple tree for our then three children. It was a spring and summer's full of work, but when my wife and I stood back to admire the fruits of our labor we realized something was missing:

A tree.

Now we had the old apple tree but it was close to the house, and it was an expansive back yard (they built them long and narrow in the old days, to avoid city street frontage taxes) and it seemed empty. We thought on it for a few days and then decided we wanted to plant an oak, a tree that would provide us with shade in the summer and a place under which our growing family could picnic, and play. I had written an article a few years earlier about a local man who was in the business of planting trees for free, a sort of local Johnny Appleseed, and I gave him a ring, told him our plans and asked him if he could come over and plant a mighty oak in our back yard. He agreed, and stopped by the next day.

He was a mangy character, with a pencil-thin goatee and the look of the rebel about him. He carried a plain metal bucket filled with dirt, and in that dirt was an oak sapling, probably no more than a foot high.

"Where do you want it?" he asked. I pointed to a spot dead center in the yard and he looked around and pronounced it satisfactory. He got down on his hands and knees and with a trowel he had brought with him began to dig a hole in the earth. He sprinkled some fertilizer in the hole, then placed the tiny tree in the hole and covered it with the earth he had dug out of the hole. He patted it down firm, then stood.

"There," he said. "Now you have your tree. Water it well."

I stared at the upright spindly stick with its few tattered leaves. He read the disappointment in my face.

"Something wrong?" he asked.

"I just thought it would be bigger,"I said. "We were hoping for some shade, something to block the sun."

He put his hands on his hips and looked straight into my eyes. "Listen," he replied. "You don't plant a tree for you. You plant it for your kids, and your grandkids. And their grandkids."

"If you want me to take it back," he said. "I will."

"No," I replied.  I was embarrassed. To him, I sounded like just another selfish American, worried about the moment, all about me before anyone else, and he was probably right. A tree is for future generations. You enjoy the trees planted by those before you as they enjoyed the trees planted by the generations that preceded theirs. That's the way it is, and that's the way it should be. We have to once again understand that simple fact in America: that we are planting seeds for the future, and not just for ourselves.

I am going through this right now, with my youngest child. He is 18, and slowly coming to grips with being a man. It is not easy thing to do these days. The genders have been blurred, and many of the once-admired male characteristics are now out of fashion. Boys are confused, looking for answers, for support. But he is still growing into manhood, whatever that means today.

He asked me a question before leaving for work this morning: "Dad, did you ever kill someone?"

Stunned, I paused from my work at the computer. "Why would you ask such a question?"

"Because I just think you could have done it. Did you?"

I had a mighty reputation back in the day as a very violent person, and although I've never regaled my children with the misadventures of my misspent youth he must have heard something somewhere. It was a completely innocuous question, asked without malice and perhaps even a hint of admiration in his voice. It dismayed me that he would have had such a thought about his father. And perhaps believe that murder was something to be admired.

"No," I replied. "Never." Then I added, "And don't ever think that violent acts make the man. They don't."

I shook his hand. "See you after work, okay?"

"Okay, dad."

Did it sink in? I don't know, but I had planted the seed, and now I was nurturing the tree. I cannot for the life of me remember that long-ago Johnny Appleseed's name, but I've never forgotten his lesson. I only hope the trees I leave behind me will provide shade, and comfort, and ripe fruit in the fall and will in their turn plant trees that offer the same to the generations that follow.

Saccharine sentiment, perhaps, but there is no more nobler goal in life.

Lenny Palmer 8/21/11


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