Mack Williams: The ascent of the great pine

  • Posted: Monday, July 1, 2013 1:17 a.m.
    UPDATED: Monday, July 1, 2013 1:21 a.m.

The Clines were our neighbors across the Old Concord Road when I was growing up: W.A. Cline, his wife Ethel, their two sons “A” Jr. and Wayne, and daughter Jayne. Wayne moved back there some years ago, restoring to that house one of the lives originally centered there.

I, of course, had my own big brother Joe, but in those days (and still now) the older boys in a neighborhood, just by virtue of their few senior years, were assigned a sort of “big brother” status by the younger boys. Last year, while stopping by and briefly chatting with Wayne, I noticed that I still had a trace of my old feeling of hoped-for “big-brotherly” approval from him, but I’m sure this was something only felt on my part, not his. Regarding my brother Joe, much more than just a trace of that feeling remains, for no matter how old two brothers of disparate age become, one is forever “big,” the other, forever “little.”

My brother and I snapped a lot of black-and-white photographs in the late 1950s and very early 1960s, the vast majority of them being of outside winter scenes. There was snow (both falling and fallen), massive icicles resembling a cavern’s stalactites, and ice “flowstone” cascading (statically) off a corner of the old front porch roof.

In cases where the camera was aimed toward our front yard, the snapped subject matter in the foreground of the developed picture might vary: a yard-built snowman, snow-covered front-yard trees, or me, standing in the front-yard, snow on my knees to make the snowfall look like something in the Northeast. The background across the Old Concord road was always the same: the Clines’ house, garage, chicken house, barn, a couple of piles of gravel and sand of Mr. Cline’s gravel business, along with the agent of delivery of those piles, his dump truck.

Standing out much more than all of those relatively low-lying, terrestrial things was the soaring “scene-stealer” of all that still-life assemblage across the road: a giant, perfectly shaped pine tree, which seemed to me to be well over 100 feet tall (but perhaps not quite that high, possibly enlarged over time in my mind, like a fabled, nearly-caught fish).

Though of perfect shape, the pine had a slight tilt. Even the Ancient Egyptians, despite their building prowess, did build one pyramid that was a little “bent.” (My son Jeremy made a ceramic pyramid in grade school which replicated that very same one, though not purposefully.)

The great pine’s slight “list” had the appearance of almost having been caused by some almost imagined, undetectable, ongoing wind, which by virtue of its constancy in direction had made the tree grow similarly. On the Old Concord road, such a subtle native wind would have been nothing turbulent, but instead a gentle, prevailing Piedmont breath, unlike that which gives the scrub trees on the North Carolina coast a chronic, violently “man-handled” look.

Although the tree in the Clines’ front yard was a pine, not a cedar, when I presently hear the phrase “Cedars of Lebanon,” that tree is what I see in my mind’s eye (along with fraternal men wearing fezzes and handing a check to Jerry Lewis on his MDA Telethon).

Being much more athletic than I, one day Wayne Cline chose to attempt a feat of physical prowess (a great one, as I remember) within the borders of his own front yard. In order to do so, he had to travel a distance of about 100 feet. If you were to ask, ”How can this be, since traveling 100 feet in that yard would be a simple walk which would have put him outside his yard’s perimeter?” To this, my reply would be, “Wayne didn’t travel horizontally, so it wasn’t a “walk,” but instead, a “climb” that took him straight up the great pine!”

Wayne determinedly made his way up with caution. His footholds were put there by nature, not like those put by the calculations of the manufacturers of some present-day “climbing wall.” He knew that the laws of physics would prevent him from traversing the tree’s complete vertical extent, since the trunk would narrow so much near the top that it would bow over with his weight. If Wayne had gone for that last foot, he would have been placed in the particular circumstance of tree-climbing peril announced by a “snapping” sound.

For the most practical of reasons (life), Wayne stopped just a few feet from the tree’s crest, having climbed “all that was climbable” of the great pine.

Wayne then tied some strips of white cloth to the tree to mark the uppermost point of his achievement, much the same as climbers on the Matterhorn and other mountains peaks do. He tied them very tightly, and in my ensuing years of observation while yet living there, they did not come loose. Though the bands were once bright white, some years later I saw them as discolored and ragged, but still tied, as I focused on them with my new pair of binoculars in the late 1960s (a Christmas present from my mother).

My first trip back there, since leaving in 1974, was in October of 2009, just before attending the East Rowan Class of 1969’s 40th reunion. Traveling down the Old Concord Road, I figured that those strips of tied cloth had probably been long “untied” and removed by both time and decay, but upon arrival, I discovered that the great pine was gone as well.

Having considered the possible changes which might have come about during my absence, I was fully prepared for the dissolution of the tied, commemorative “ribbons of achievement” of Wayne’s feat, but not for the dissolution of that upon which his feat was achieved.

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