Elijah and I could have been the best of friends if we had not been interested in the same woman. They had lived together for several years before I arrived on the scene and he could not help but think of me as an interloper. He was not pleased when he realized he now had to share her and her bed with me. The only place he could find to sleep comfortably with us was between my legs. So every night he took his Basenji self and walked in a circle, laid down with his snout three or four inches away from my genitals.
This may have worked but whenever I moved during the night he would become upset at my disturbing his sleep and growl menacingly at my privates. He thought he was there to insure the purity of his woman. I will never forget one of the first mornings after I moved in: we had our first disagreement. I woke and was walking to the bathroom urgently and there he stood between me and the bathroom. His woman was in the bathroom doing her morning grooming and he felt a need to protect her. He gave that low guttural growl that said if you try to pass I will inflict injury. I was in need of a bathroom and barely awake and I look at this threatening self and thought I will drop kick you if you do not move. I called out to his woman and said in my sweetest voice, “If you do not bring him to heel. I will.” Seeing the dilemma she instantly started cooing all over him to calm him down and told me to go to the bathroom.
Elijah was proud and came from a pure bred stock and thought the world needed to heel to him. When he stood with his head regally erect no one could resist him. So I knew why my woman loved him so much. But he was one of those aggressive ones who, when he encountered others, he instantly had to snarl. He would never bark at people. That was not in his toolkit. But he would always approach others with teeth baring to show he was the alpha dog among the group. In other words he did not play well with others. I have never seen anyone have to mark their territory as much as he did. He was determined to leave no one any space to operate.
Now it may seem we did not get along, but the truth is we had some very good times together. He was a yodeler and loved to sing with you. He could do it for hours on end or at least for as long as you were interested in singing with him. We used to take walks together and we would usually end up running in reckless abandon at top speed until one of us would, from pure exhaustion, have to pull up. He seemed to like these walks/runs because our woman always kept him on a short lease and with her, he was always pulling the other way. He wanted to be in charge and cut loose but she was always holding him back.
Elijah, as I have stated, was beautiful and could sing like no other. But he was not the brightest. After several nights of enduring his snarls at my genitals we agreed that he would no longer be our bedmate. This had to hurt his male pride but he had to see this day coming. He compromised by claiming the chair right next to the door to the bedroom. This was a wee bit uncomfortable as we knew he was listening to everything we did but the woman thought it was cute that he wanted to be as close to her as possible. Why do I say he was not the brightest? Every night he would claim the chair and the other (Basenji) lady of the house would come and stomp her feet at him playfully; he would chase her around the dining room table and would look chagrined when, after circling said dining room table, he found she had claimed his chair. He never caught on. This ritual happened every night until he was too sick to climb into the chair.
I was to go on a sabbatical for three months. Elijah would have our woman to himself. This would make him happy I know. Especially now that he was older and was unable to walk much and was receiving daily shots to keep him alive. Our woman was a great caretaker of Elijah whom she loved so much. She cradled him in her arms every day and at night before she slept. Every time I called her she would be almost in tears when she talked about Elijah. I would later find blankets on the floor where our woman slept beside him in his bed on the floor.
Two days before my sabbatical I awoke with a shot. I did not know why but every bone in my body said it is time to go home. My rational self argued that you still have this and that to do, you cannot go home yet. But ‘irrationality’ took over; I packed and without stopping I drove straight home. When I entered the house you could feel the grief. I found my woman with Elijah in her arms. He had died in the night about the same time I had awaken with a shot. She had called the vet hospital and they were coming for the body and she was spending her last moments with Elijah. I sat down beside her and placed my arm around her and she cried. My irrationality had been right; I needed to come home.
Elijah and I had always been rivals for our woman’s affection. Yet I still grieved him. We would never run together again. We would never sing together. He would never growl at me again. I find myself surprised that I miss him as much as I do. But when you think about it we shared a love for the same woman and that will always keep us bound together.
As far back as I could remember I have always had trees as friends. They have always been a steady force in my life. The first tree I befriended was actually two trees. They were pine trees which had their surfaced roots intermingled in the five yards that separated them. They lived in front of my house in Laurel Bay, South Carolina. My dad’s career as a Marine was in full blossom, which meant, in those days, that we were poor. But these two trees occupied my time. I would balance myself on the roots and make the treacherous path across them from one tree to the other tree. I would repeat this pattern for hours, it seemed to never get old. I would also use those roots to play war with my toy soldiers. I created fortresses and mountains out of those roots and the battles I waged were epic in scope. In the summer the trees provided some shade to make the southern heat bearable. Whenever I was bored or felt a need to be away from the rest of the family more often than not I would be visiting these trees. For a period of three years we were inseparable.
But as most military families know, moving was a way of life. We moved away and in an age before cell phones and Facebook we always lost touch with friends after the move. Years later I was on a literal trip down memory lane with my parents and we drove by the old military housing and there stood the same trees. They somehow looked smaller now but flashes of the past where I had gone to them for comfort or play momentarily took me to a self I barely knew anymore. Christopher Robin had left for school many years ago and the old trees were now only a distant etching in my soul.
Because my first relationship with a tree had gone so well that it came as no surprise I would make friends with another tree at another home. It was a large maple tree that stood proudly in the front yard. Everyone wanted to be friends with it. People who visited us would comment on how beautiful she was. But she was my friend and I resented anyone trying to distract her from me. Almost every day I would climb as high as I could to try to gain perspective on my quickly developing life. From the aerial view it gave me life made more sense. In the spring she dressed in huge leaves of green and in the fall her colors of red and brown dazzled any eye. I admired her. I remember a day when I was angry at the world so I climbed higher than I had ever been in the tree.
My father was away at war and we had not heard from him in weeks. I could tell my mother was scared. He had never let so much time occur between communications. He was lost to us. Once I stopped climbing I became scared because I could not see how I would ever get down. This once familiar world made no sense and was full of feelings and hurt I was not aware were possible. It would be a week later that we finally heard from him. He had been wounded but was safe now. But for now I cried and wallowed in my pain and anger in the arms of that tree. The cool breeze found in the tree limbs began to salve the wounds the world had inflicted. I stayed for hours and then realized it was time to return to the ground. At first I was impressed at the heights I had climbed. Anger can carry you a long way from your home and pain. But though I may have liked to, I could not live in anger, it consumed too much energy. So I left the heights my friend had shared with me and returned to the ground.
Many years later after the death of my father I drove by the tree. It stood proud. I felt a pain in my heart that we were no longer together. But to see it there large and strong as it ever was, gave me comfort. Even with the death of my stalwart father there were strong limbs of love and care that held me together. I could be the strong man he was because I had once climbed a tree to its highest point and could see the world around me for what appeared to my young eyes miles and miles.
Part of the diversity of life is that three people can live through the same event and because of it be touched by the event in three varied ways. One of the horror stories of my youth was also one of the saddest and most empowering.
My brother had brought a ‘friend’ home who had, in a dispute, hit him. My father happened to be watching from the window and was appalled at how the friend was bullying my brother. He opened the sliding doors to the back of the house and demanded my brother hit him back. The friend was terrified at the demeanor of my father and said he was sorry and offered to leave. My father barked at the friend to stay right there and not leave. He commanded my brother to hit him. My brother refused to hit him. Later years he would claim a pacifist streak led him not to hit the boy back but at some point it became about resisting my father. My father yelled at the other boy to hit him until he hit him back. The boy uncomfortably struck my brother a couple of times and my brother refused to retaliate. I had been watching from the back of the room and saw this was out of hand. I walked up to my father and told him let the friend go home. He glared at me. He was not himself. He was not there. There was a strong urgency to his voice. At the time I did not know what it was. Reflections in later life and listening to him talk about his life as a soldier and especially as a Marine Drill Sergeant, have made me know he was having some sort of post-traumatic stress disorder episode. He had once said, in another calmer place, a normal person had to be trained to kill. Killing was not a natural instinct. So his job was to train people to kill naturally. It was his responsibility to make sure his recruit would not hesitate to kill in battle. It was the soldier who hesitated that went home in a body bag. He also told of horror stories of young good men who froze during the middle of battle. How he had to command them to move to shoot to fight or they would die. He was not always successful. He looked me in the eye and said no human being should have that put upon them. To tell someone they must kill, even desire to kill, so that they may live.
I am convinced he was in battle that day and his son was refusing to fight. It became a matter of life and death for him to make his son fight back. I pled with my brother to hit him once to get it over with. He would see this as my great betrayal—siding with my father in an insane situation. But I did not know what to do but I knew if he would swing once I could will this to a conclusion. I was also scared. I could tell if he did not swing, the place my father was in would not bring this to a good conclusion.
I do not know how long this went on; it seemed like hours. My father commanding the friend to hit my brother again and my brother refusing. He would not give in to this crazy mean son of a bitch. My mom came in and yelled for my father to stop this nonsense. She told the friend to go home right now. The boy more than willingly ran home.
My father was still crazed; he walked out to where my brother was still on his knees and snatched him off the ground and carried him in the air. I had never seen him move that fast or violently before. My mother said for my father to stop it. He brushed by her. I had never seen him ignore my mother like that. He took my brother into a room and threw him on the bed. My mother was yelling for him to stop. He shut the door on her. I could tell he was hitting my brother now. He was demanding my brother hit him. Fight back he kept saying. I do not know what came over me but I entered the room. My father was in full pitch battle. I was scared. I yelled at him to stop. He did not.
I do not know what happened next. But somehow I had pulled him off my brother and he was lying on his back on the bed. I was holding his arms with my hands telling him to stop. I suddenly saw his eyes return. You could see he was trying to understand what was going on. And then you saw the truth come to him. I saw a look of horror and shame come into those eyes. He had never done anything like this before. He was a rough mean son of a bitch but it was always controlled meanness.
I let go of his arms he got up and looked at my devastated brother. He left the room. My mother came in to check on us and said she was sorry. When she saw there was no major physical damage, she left and went to my father. I am not sure but that night I think I heard him crying in their room and my mother telling him he had to get help.
My brother was angry at me. He carried that anger in the back of his head for many years. He never looked at my father the same way again. He loved him but he was angry and hurt. No one deserved to be treated like that.
I remembered my father after he had been wounded in Vietnam had convalesced in Guam. Although his recovery from his wounds was to take only a month at the most, he stayed for two and half months. He explained to me once at Guam he had met so many young men who were not ready to be in normal society. He had stayed to help them adjust. This was probably partly true. But one wonders if one of the men who did not need to return to society yet was him.
This experience was remembered as a nightmare and a great injustice by my brother. My father held its shame in his heart even many years later. Yet for me it had been cathartic. I had met my father’s rage and had literally been able to control it. I no longer feared him or was bothered by the tough Marine Drill Sergeant’s training he had raised me with.
The incident shaped the three of us in totally different ways. And though we each lived it, we each carry its burden with us in ways that none of us would recognize these many years later.