He was 10 years old and in way over his head...
- Posted on Jun 25, 2020
“I’ll bet if I climbed to the top of this old oak, I could see forever,” I said, looking up into the branches. Climbing trees was a rite of passage in the mountains of East Tennessee, where we lived. At 10, I’d climbed all the apple trees in the area, but to scale a huge oak—that was a real challenge.
My brother Buddy Earl put his hand on my shoulder. “Brother Doug, you’re not Tarzan.”
Being more of a bookworm, Buddy Earl knew all about Tarzan. He was always willing to share in my adventures as long as whatever daring deed arose, I did it first.
Buddy Earl pointed to the first limb above the ground. “How do you even think you’re going to get up there?” he said. “You sure can’t jump that high.”
Sometimes my little brother could be as bossy as our older siblings, telling me what I shouldn’t do. He might as well have been my sister Anna Ruth in that moment. “Douglas Clark, what do you think you’re doing?” she would say if she were there. Would Buddy Earl threaten to tell our mother and father? That’s what Anna Ruth would do, no question.
“For your information, I’ve already solved that problem,” I told Buddy Earl. “You see that muscadine vine? I’m going to climb it and swing over to the first limb.” Let’s see Tarzan do that, I thought.
“If that vine breaks and you fall, you’ll smash like Humpty Dumpty,” Buddy Earl said as I tugged experimentally on the vine. “Do you have any last words before you break your neck?”
“Yes. Don’t tell Mama and Daddy.” I kicked off my shoes. I wasn’t about to climb a grapevine or a tree wearing slick-bottom shoes. I’d been going barefoot all summer, so my soles were pretty tough. I got a good grip on the vine and prepared to pull myself up.
“What are the Clark brothers doing today?” someone called. It was the Johnson brothers, Ronnie and Randle, from over the hill.
“Doug’s going to climb to the top of that oak,” Buddy Earl said, pointing.
“He’d better sprout wings,” Ronnie, the oldest of all of us, said.
Randle smirked. “You’ll most likely get scared and come back down before you make it halfway up.”
“My brother is no fraidy-cat!” Buddy Earl said. “He rode down Mulberry Hill on a bike, didn’t he?”
“If he falls from up there, nothing’s going to catch him but the ground,” Randle said.
While this conversation was going on, I was looking up at that oak tree again. It was pretty big. And the vine in my hands was pretty scrawny. Maybe this wasn’t the best idea.
If it were just me and Buddy Earl, I could reconsider the idea. But I couldn’t back out now in front of the Johnson boys. Not after Randle predicted I’d chicken out and Buddy Earl had so quickly defended my honor. To be branded a fraidy-cat was worse than being a crybaby.
I gripped the vine in my fists and pulled myself up. So far, so good. But the higher I got, the less courage I had. What if the vine broke? What if I fell? Mama and Daddy would be awful upset.
I pulled myself up another foot.
What if I get up there and I’m too scared to come back down? I thought. I pictured myself stuck, waiting for rescue, the Johnson boys laughing their heads off. Lord, I know I got myself into this, but please get me out of it!
I pulled myself up a little further. Suddenly a beautiful voice filled the air. “Douglas Clark! Just what do you think you’re doing?”
I snapped my head around. There was my sister Anna Ruth standing just a few feet away and…snapping my picture with the family Kodak camera! “You know Daddy said never to climb those muscadine vines,” she scolded.
“He’s just going to climb it high enough to swing over to that big oak,” Buddy Earl said. “Then he’s going to climb to the top.”
Anna Ruth lowered the camera. “I’m going to make you a deal,” she said. “If you climb down and stop this foolishness, Mama and Daddy will never know about this. If not…” She waved the camera in the air.
I let out a big sigh. I hoped it sounded like disappointment, but really it was relief. I would not be climbing that big oak today, and I wouldn’t be labeled a fraidy-cat either.
I dropped to the ground and put on my shoes.
“That would have been a sight to see, you all the way up there,” Ronnie said, looking wistfully at the oak.
“Older sisters are always tattling,” Randle said. “They just don’t want us to have any fun.”
Anna Ruth kept her promise not to tell our parents what I’d almost done. I didn’t even see that photograph until I was 18. “Remember this?” she said one day out of the blue and handed it to me.
I gave Anna Ruth a hug. “It probably saved my life that day,” I said. “It and you.”
Sometimes God sends a guardian angel. And sometimes he sends a big sister.
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