by R J Dent
Just outside the kitchen door – about five feet forward, and ten feet to the right – was a plum tree. It was one of the best trees in the world, not just for its delicious fruit, but because it was good for climbing, with good hand and foot holds, as well as having some really great branches for swinging and hanging on.
After watching or reading a western, there was nothing better than tying a length of rope around one of the low, strong, almost horizontal branches, then having a mock-lynching, during which my hapless brother – now a desperate outlaw – invariably got hanged by an angry mob, led by me – now a just and fair frontier town marshal. I was always the marshal as I had the pistol, holster, belt and Stetson. If I ever lent the cowboy accoutrements to my brother, then I became a Native American, known back in those politically-incorrect times as Indians.
Somehow – and I don’t remember where the specific knowledge came from – I seemed to know some of the names of the thousands of Indian tribes. In a lot of cases, I knew their geographical locations too, as well as some of the clothes and marking that those tribes wore. I was reasonably familiar with the Apache, Blackfoot, Mohave, Sioux, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Pawnee, Iroquois, Comanche, Wichita, Cree, Crow, Shawnee, Yaqui, Hopi, Huron, Mohawk, Mohican, Ute, Spokane, Chinook, and Choctaw tribes.
When I was an Indian, I would always be an Apache or a Comanche, for they were the ones noted for their bravery and their savagery – a winning combination for a young boy. I would take my knife, my bow and arrow, my headband, my feather, and my home-made tomahawk and climb the plum tree and wait for my cowboy enemy to come walking along beneath me. I’d fire a few arrows at him, and then I’d drop onto him and scalp him. For some reason, my brother always got bored with that particular game a lot quicker than I did.
Anyway, you can imagine the shock, indignation and sadness I felt when my father cut down the plum tree, citing ‘disease’ as the reason. To me, that seemed irrelevant. So what if there were no more plums? – it wasn’t just a fruit tree. It was a reservation, a fort, an ambush, a gallows, a court-room; it was the Little Big Horn, the Alamo, the Dakotas, Nevada; in short, that plum tree was America and therefore the home of every Native American (Indian) tribe.
Late one afternoon or early one evening, a few months after the scythe incident, I got back from somewhere I don’t remember only to find the plum tree had been cut down – all that was left of it was a stump about a foot high. I went indoors and saw my father sitting in his armchair, dozing. My mother was knitting.
– Mum, what’s happened to the plum tree?
– It’s been cut down.
– Because it was diseased.
I went back outside and looked again at that poor little tree stump, the sad remnant of a once-glorious continent full of Native American tribes. Now it was gone, vanquished, destroyed, and ultimately driven out of its happy hunting ground.
An Indian uprising was what was needed.
Over the next few days, I watched as my father did his best to get rid of the stump. He attacked it with an axe, a spade (which snapped), a crowbar, and a saw. He drilled holes in the trunk and poured acid into the holes; he doused it in petrol and set fire to it; he wrapped a rope around it and tried to pull it out of the ground as though the tree stump were a recalcitrant tooth. But the stump refused to budge. It stayed firmly in the ground, throwing down its silent challenge. And I liked it. I liked its indomitability.
That changed when my father said:
– I want you and your brother to get rid of that tree stump.
– With a bit of elbow grease.
I’d heard enough of my father’s archaic phrases to know that what he really meant by ‘elbow grease’ was for us to work very hard at removing the tree stump. I also realised that he’d given up on it and was now passing the buck, or reassigning responsibility. Unfortunately it meant that he could also reassign the blame if anything went wrong, or if we failed to ‘get rid’ of the tree stump. It might very well defeat us – after all, it had stumped our father.
Despite our misgivings, the next evening my brother and I – armed with an axe and a spade – stood in the hole that had been cleared around the plum tree roots and started chipping away at the exposed roots. We worked for about an hour at a time, usually for three or four evenings a week. It was hard, boring work. The tree was set firmly in the ground and two boys with gardening implements weren’t going to move or remove it in a hurry. For a ‘diseased’ tree, it certainly seemed very tough.
During the hours, days, weeks, that we chapped, chepped, chipped, chopped and chupped at the tree roots, our father continued his war of attrition against the plum tree stump. Some of his modes of attack were questionable: in particular the electric saw, which merely resulted in a few round thin slices of tree trunk, no good for anything, and of course, the bomb…
The bomb was quite exciting really. It was a homemade bomb. Our father had made it by packing a variety of dangerous ingredients (which for obvious reasons I won’t list here) into a Golden Virginia tobacco tin, and securing it shut with string and rubber bands. He used a foot-long piece of string as a fuse.
It was one evening during the week when he casually sauntered out of the house and stood watching me and my brother working away at the roots with axe, spade and crowbar.
– I’ve got something here that’ll make our job a bit easier, he said.
That ‘our job’ really rankled. He then held up a tobacco tin and I wondered what he’d got in mind – rolling the plum tree a cigarette; smoking it to death. I didn’t think plum trees were frightened of tobacco, cigarette papers or tobacco tins. However, I was curious.
– What is it? I asked.
– It’s a bomb.
‘Bomb’ is magic and magical word to a boy. It evokes tension, terror, noise, excitement, fear, smoke and general chaos. Boys love bombs. My brother and I were no exception.
We dived out of the hole as fast as we could, dragging the implements we’d been using behind us. This we had to see. We looked at the tobacco tin carefully, but it just looked like an ordinary tobacco tin, albeit one with a piece of string sticking out of one corner and a few rubber bands around it. It didn’t look like a bomb.
With a lot of fuss and ceremony, our father prepared the bomb site. Helpfully, he gave us a running commentary that was a cross between a terrorist monologue and Mrs Beeton-style cookery instructions. Key words were emphasised by a slightly louder tone.
– First you take your BOMB and then you VERY CAREFULLY place it amongst the ROOTS of your TARGETED tree. Then you make sure your FUSE is sticking out, providing you with EASY ACCESS for lighting it. Then you get out of the EXPLOSION SITE and move BACK, but staying JUST close enough to LIGHT your FUSE.
At this point he held up a box of safety matches and shook them.
– Matches, he said. Very important. After a moment, he added: Not as important as the bomb though – although without the matches, the bomb’s useless.
We waited some more. Finally he continued.
– After I’ve lit the fuse, he said, we all need to move a long way back – well away from the tree stump.
– We’ll go into the front garden.
– Good. I’ll go down to the bottom of the garden. Ready?
– Okay, here we go!
He lit the fuse and we dashed around the side of the house. He hadn’t told us how long the fuse would burn for, so we waited… and waited… and waited.
Eventually, after hearing no loud bang, seeing no tree stump hurtling through the air, we ventured back, tentatively peering around the corner of the house.
The explosion was unusual, and not in the least what I’d expected. It sounded as though a giant elastic band had sproinged through the air. At the same time, a v-shaped piece of scorched and smoking tobacco tin lid went flying down the garden and landed in the lavender. A huge cloud of smoke engulfed the garden. It was like fog. Our father loomed out of the smoke, coughing. He wandered over to the targeted tree.
– Damn and blast it, he muttered.
We didn’t need an interpreter to tell us that the tree stump was still intact. The bomb hadn’t worked. Even with matches, it had been useless. We looked expectantly at our father. What was next? A flame-thrower. A tank. A nuclear bomb.
– They don’t always work, he said. I suppose you’d better carry on with what you were doing.
And with that, he wandered back inside. Gloomily, we carried on with our work chipping away at the tree roots, the smell of cordite, scorched tin and burnt lavender assailing our nostrils.
My least favourite mode of attack used by my father was the creosote.
My father was a bit of a fanatic when it came to creosote. He thought it was wonderful. Creosote mad, he creosoted all of the back garden fences, the garden gate, the hut, the bike stand, the front garden fences – and then he started on the non-wooden items. And if anyone stood still for too long – well, it didn’t bear thinking about.
I think the stump had been standing there for a bit too long, simply looking wooden and un-creosoted. It must have really irked our father. My brother and I got back from wherever one evening and the stump had been creosoted. It was dark brown and stinking.
– He’s painted it!
– Creosoted it, you mean.
– Whatever. It’s still been painted. Why?
– Let’s go and ask.
We were saved the trouble of hunting for our father, because he came out into the back garden.
– Ah, there you are, he said. As you can see, I’ve poured some creosote over that damned tree stump.
– Yes, we saw. What will it do to it?
– Well, it might eat away at it from the inside.
– Isn’t creosote a wood preserver?
– Some types of creosote are, yes. But this one’s different.
– Like I said, it’ll eat away at the wood from the inside.
– So it’s a bit dangerous at the moment then?
– For us to touch…
– …All that eating away that’s going on inside. If we touch it…
– We’ll dissolve…
– It’ll be like death by acid…
– Like in Carry On Screaming…
– No, it’s quite safe for you two to carry on working on the roots.
– Or like the witch in The Wizard of Oz…
– The wicked witch…
– I’m mellllt-iiing!…
– Anyway, it was water, not acid…
– She still dissolved though…
– It’s a very special sort of creosote that attacks wood, but doesn’t harm flesh, skin or bone.
– That’s clever creosote.
– Yes, it is. Cleverer than you.
And off he went, leaving us to continue our battle with a newly preserved, hardened, armoured tree stump. Of course, we had our queries:
– Do you think if I study hard enough, I can become cleverer than creosote?
– Does creosote have A-Levels?
– Is there a college for creosote?
– Creosote college.
– Brush up on creosoting.
– I hate creosote.
– So do I.
– He’d bath in it if he could.
– Here you go, Dougie, here’s some lovely creosote-flavoured soap.
– He’d drink it if he could.
– Hello, Dougie, what can I get you?
– Pint of creosote, please.
– Anything to go with that?
– Give me some of those creosote flavoured crisps too.
– Creosote nuts?
– Yes he is.
It took us nearly a year to loosen that tree stump. After we’d worked on it day after day, week after week, month after month, chipping and chopping away at the multitude of roots in rain, hail, snow, sleet, gale force winds, or bright sunshine, and had finally loosened it enough to drag it out of its hole, our father came along carrying a crowbar, jumped down into the hole, rammed the crowbar between the root remnants and levered the tree stump out of the ground.
Then he climbed back out of the hole, looked at the defeated stump for a moment, whacked it with the crowbar, and then wandered off, muttering:
– Well, that wasn’t that difficult.
by R J Dent
Copyright © R J Dent (2014)