Ask Dr. Salvo
December 7, 1993
Dear Dr. Salvo,
I too recall certain trees I knew and climbed in childhood. It seems to me the trees at that time belonged entirely to small boys aged six to twelve. Girls were not welcome. I can recall only one, a pesky tagalong tomboy, who insisted on climbing to the top of our biggest live oak, but neglected to notice how to climb down. She stayed up there shouting and calling for help until rescued by a kindly fireman with a long ladder. If she had been agile enough to negotiate down the top twenty feet she could have literally walked down the tree on one limb and stepped off on the ground. This live oak, like several others in our club, had lowermost branches attached to the trunk say ten feet up then gently sloped out 50 feet and down to the ground. Thus we could step up on such a branch from the ground and walk up it to the central trunk. Balance was easy as the surface of the limb was six or eight inches wide, flat, and padded with tree ferns (as we called them). A couple of these trees had a quasi-holy Druidical look, with large, deep, black hollows in them. Here one could shelter from the rain or build a fire and read in the secret texts of the club. These were magazines filched from Nixon's drugstore on the way home from Old Shell Road School. All these magazines had one subject: Sex!
They had names like Saucy Secretary, Spicy Detective, and Hot Numbers, and I suppose were the early ancestors of Esquire magazine, Playboy, and the later ones with centerfolds. By today's standards our sacred Druidical texts were chaste and childish, the illustrations both virginal and comical.
To us, however, they were profoundly mysterious and stimulating. Thus we hid them in the deepest recesses of the hollow trunk of our oak. Other kids stole them anyway, and we stole theirs in return. Mr. Nixon's drugstore must be out at least twenty dollars from the depredations of our study club. We had no guilt about this, just called it "swiping" magazines.
There were other solitary pleasures offered by our trees. To be well concealed in the very top of a large live oak was to be free, alone, cut loose from all ties and obligations -- free to meditate. Children do meditate, especially in grape arbors and tree tops, they just don't call it that. I guess "day dreaming" was the term we borrowed from the adults to describe our contemplative times. Learning to sit still, be quiet, and attend to the inner voices is no small accomplishment for a child, and may be the beginning of self knowledge as well as cosmic curiosity. And it generates music.
Over near the corner of Fulton Road and Williams Court there was a vacant field with one tree in it: The Prickly Ash also known as the Toothache Tree. I used to sit very still and quiet under its thorny silver gray branches, and wait for a bird to kill with my sling-shot. Once I actually knocked a pigeon out of the air as he flew low over my tree -- but this was far beyond my usual standards. Once I was sitting there, absently chewing a strip of bark, and the thought came to me of itself: "You will always remember this place and this moment."
Sure enough, I have done so and will continue in the future -- but whence the admonition and to what purpose? This was not an audible voice, but an emphatic thought that seemed to originate elsewhere. Sometimes it seems to me there's a thin line between an insistent thought (as in obsession) and an auditory hallucination.
Chewing the bark of the Toothache Tree did not produce hallucination, but local anesthesia, hence the name the Indians must have given it. First there would be a not unpleasant strong tingling sensation, something like a mouthful of club soda. This would pervade the tongue, gums, cheeks, and inner surface of the lips. This would be succeeded by a decidedly numb sensation, and this would last ten or fifteen minutes. Long enough for a filling, anyway. I'm surprised this tree has not been cultivated and exploited as a cheap source of local anesthetics. Like the rain forests, it was chopped down and forgotten before it had a chance to be useful in the modern world. This brings up the chestnut and the chinquapin. You no doubt recall the great chestnut blight, early in this century I think, and how it practically exterminated the species. This far south I don't think we had so many to start with, but we had its miniature cousin the chinquapin. It was about ten or twelve feet tall, bush-like, and the small, sweet nuts were covered with a stickery burr like a real chestnut.
There used to be plenty of them in Wragg Swamp two or three miles southwest of the Green House, over near the Roofing Mill. Now there are none and no swamp, but we do have all the consolations of Airport Boulevard and the Mall. Before these developments were bestowed upon us we had quail, coons, possums, doves, rabbits, and one year -- a bear! People usually cannot suspend their disbelief for this story, but here goes again:
It was toward the end of a hot, dry summer, and a welcome light drizzle was falling. I was on the back porch in my grandfather's morris chair, reading a book and eating soda crackers. Far back, southward, in the Back Field over toward Murphy High there was a noise of firecrackers -- but different. I ran to the edge of the field and saw five or six policemen running east toward the high school and firing their pistols. An air of the chase was somehow communicated and I took off after the cops. The rest is a series of flashbacks. I saw blood on the ground where the bear had cut his feet climbing the wire fence around the football field. Then I saw our high school track star chasing the bear, firing at it with a .22 rifle. The bear looked as big as a bull yearling to me. I kept running. A nursemaid pushing a baby carriage emerged from a side street, enlarged the whites of her eyes to double size, then ran backwards at high speed. The bear turned right at the next corner, all the cops having disappeared and quit shooting. I decided against pursuing the bear further and walked home. A little later I heard the cops shooting, six or eight times close together, then silence. Later I heard how the bear met his end:
A little boy of four was pedaling his tricycle in his driveway, and jumped off to run inside to his mother. She was placidly making biscuits. "Mommy, Mommy, there's a bear in the garage!" he bellowed, all out of breath.
"I know dear, he's a nice bear like the one in Goldilocks -- now run along and play while I finish these biscuits."
"But Mommy his feet are bleeding!" This got her attention. She crept out the back, spotted the bear licking his torn paws, and ran back in the kitchen to call the police. Several of them appeared, surrounded the garage, and killed the bear with a fusillade from their pistols. The little boy was sad but vindicated. The mother ever after would check the garage for stray bears before parking the car inside.
The bear, I read in the Mobile Mullet Wrapper, had weighed about 250 pounds and appeared undernourished. Later still reports came in that this bear had been robbing garbage cans on South Street for a couple of weeks. The dry summer had produced few nuts and berries so he had been forced to shop around to support himself. That was the first and last bear hunt I've ever attended, and one was plenty. The bear was donated to an orphanage and was much appreciated, since the orphans were also subsisting on slim pickings and a surfeit of grits, corn bread, and turnip greens.
The great bear hunt must have taken place almost sixty years ago, and of course "seems like only yesterday." I add this time marker so that those of you who are skeptical may resort to the newspaper morgue, and read how the bear hunt went when it was news hot off the press. Come to think of it, that bear hunt deserved an Extra! Extra! edition with newsboys crying the event in the street. But the weather was too hot and nobody had the energy.
Thanks for listening, Dr. Salvo. The next time anything happens in Pensacola I'll let you know the facts of FAX. Never say I am not au courant!
December 7, 1993