Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Walnut Tree

         When I was a small child my family lived in Sharpsville in northern Tipton County. There was a big walnut tree in the backyard. To this day the smell of green walnuts is evocative to me. It’s not really a nice smell at all, rather pungent, but it triggers memories of my childhood. 
         I like to pick up a green one, rub the skin gently, then take a big whiff. It’s one of those smells – like freshly ground coffee or the entrance to a tobacco shop, that only provides maximum, intoxicating impact on the first whiff. All repeated attempts to enjoy that smell fade to the point of futility. Time must pass between such intense aromas before recapturing the initial burst, as if our olfactories need to air out and take a rest between such jolts.
         On a summer day more than forty-five years ago the old train station downtown was being demolished. My brother and sisters had been pestering my Dad for a tree house. He suggested we go down with the wagon and ask the workmen for some scrap boards.
         We came home with the wagon stacked high with old woodwork and rough sawn two-by-fours. With them, my father built a tree house in the walnut tree. Looking back now I can see that it was a terribly dangerous arrangement. Wouldn’t be allowed today. Still, nobody ever got hurt.
         We could see our entire world from up there. There was a basketball court against the garage, not paved, just dirt. Beside that was a gnarled, aging apple tree. There were old names carved in the bark and we, too, carved our initials there with a roofing knife. There was a large sandbox along a fence that separated the backyard from the gravel driveway and a big garden that lay just beyond the reach of the shadow of the tree branches. There was also a long row of forsythias along the fence - great for making instant green roses – and whips. We were at the very edge of town. Beyond the road to the west (where I learned to ride a bike) was a barn and a field where cattle grazed, across the road to the north was a soybean field.
         My brother and sisters and I did such terrible things when we were kids. If my own children ever did the same things we’d have rushed them off to therapy. We shot each other with BB guns, got in vicious fights and experimented with cigarettes behind the garage. Our family had taken a trip to California in the summer of ’67 – in a day when the airlines put mini-packs of cigarettes on your food tray (yes, they served everyone a meal). My sister and I gathered all those little packs and brought them home and gave them a try behind the garage. You could have seen what we were up to from the tree house in the old walnut. Of course we got caught. There were spankings and groundings - it was a dark day.
        Whenever I smell green walnuts, I think of that.
         I found a little puppy and brought it home and begged my mother to let me keep it. It only lasted a few weeks. I remember standing beneath the tree one day, filling a bucket with walnuts as my mother often forced us to do. My brother, Tom, came around the house and sneered, “Your dog just got hit by a car. It’s your fault because you never take care of it.” I dropped my bucket and ran around the house. Sure enough, there was Poochy laying along the curb - dead and bloody. I laid him on a brown paper sack and carried him to the doghouse under the walnut tree. When my dad came home from work he dug a hole and buried the dog in the garden. I built a little grave marker out of sticks. You could have watched all this unfold from the planks of the tree house.
         Oh, the trials of childhood.
         After a winter season, the walnut husks turn from Kermit-The-Frog-green to rotten-banana brown, and the layer beneath congeals into a black goo, as thick and staining as used motor oil. At this point they were gathered with gardening gloves. When that dries and falls off, you’re left with the nut we all recognize as a walnut. One warm, late spring day, my sister, Jama gathered those walnuts fallen the previous autumn from the garden and along the neighbor’s chain link fence. Each had a 2” or 3” sprout of a walnut tree popping out of the nut. She filled the wagon and went door-to-door selling walnut trees to the neighbors for a dollar.
         We moved from that house when I was eight. I remember being quite happy there. It seems that money was tight and we lived with few frills. We moved to a bigger, nicer house in a bigger, nicer town and our lives seemed suddenly very different – less wild. When I think of that house in Sharpsville I see the layout in my mind from the lofty perspective of the tree house in the walnut tree. It was a hideout when we played war, a base for hide and seek and shade when we shucked sweet corn.
         Many years later, when my own kids were small, I bought a rental property on Logan Street here in Noblesville. At the back near the alley was a huge walnut tree. I took my boys with me when I did yard work. In the autumn when I mowed, I gave them each a bucket and made them pick up walnuts. As children often do, my boys mimicked me. Sometimes when I picked up a green walnut, they would do the same. They gouged the felt-like skin with a fingernail or rubbed it on the concrete and then held it against their noses for a big whiff.

         But the smell did not mean the same thing to them that it meant to me.

My new book, The Salvage Man began going online for e-readers before Christmas. It's currently available at iTunes,, Fastpencil, and I'll be doing a public launch to tell the world in the weeks ahead - probably throw a party at my house with hardcover versions available.