By Sandra White
A magnificent sweet gum tree, thick as a wagon wheel ruled a section of the boy’s pasture near his North Carolina home in the 1940’s.
He was seven years old then-recklessly freckled, shock of unruly hair, usually uncombed, several teeth missing. Typical, inquisitive boy.
Each day he hurried home from school to stop and drink in it’s wide acre of shade. He would kick off his shoes and start climbing, Branch over branch to a spot as near to the sky as he dared to go. There the boy would daydream hidden among the great limbs, through the lazy afternoons perched at the top of the sweet gum tree, like a skinny lighting rod.
When he surveyed all he could; he imagined the pasture far below filled with his glorious fantasy; an endless army of the old Confederacy. He could easily conjure up soldiers in gray, marching bravely in heroic lines forging ahead to the far creek that splashed liberally through the pasture. He would squeeze his eyes tightly, peeking through the squints until he could see batteries of cannons rumbling over the plank bridge.
There they went onward to battle, boys in gray only a few years older than he was, struggling with oversized drums. And there, alongside the tattered group, he would bring to life, old Robert E. Lee; Stonewall Jackson, Bedford Forest and Jeb Stuart cantering in ghostly silence over the same path the boy would take later take home.
To him their faces shone like bright marble; feverish eyes, sad eyes. They were his brave and fearless ancestors, unyielding, doomed. They traveled on silent gliding horses. Onward, forever they rode; and the thousands of anxious gray shadows seemed swept on into eternity as they rode for hours into the lengthening shadows of the fading afternoon. Always the boy watched, and as he watched he sometimes dreamed he was with them, and he was glad he had the thick gum branches that held watch over his slight form to protect and keep him closer to heaven. And he would rub his lucky nickel, just in case, just in case.
The boy slept with a Confederate flag under his pillow. And time has made a confused jab at his feelings. But then at seven, as he lay in the branches of the tree with the umbrella sky overhead, his thoughts were innocent and spilled with excitement and pride.
The boy still doesn’t understand the war, any war really. The man he has eventually become examines his heroes carefully. Nevertheless, there is still that spark of Southern pride in his own stubborn soul.
It doesn’t sadden him to realize he might even be part of the last generation to have Confederate War heroes; there would be other heroes. But kinsmanship has still left their legends galloping in his thoughts and dreams, and he knows they will always be there, these wellsprings of adventure and history, that has always been a deep part of who He was, and is.
Today the boy is a man and lives with a family of his own. One that dreams happily of NC ballgames and trips to the beach. Time has passed and he still finds it hard to believe his hair is gray and his children are grown. Still the path through the woods that leads to the elementary school in his old neighborhood is still there. And so too remains the tree, the creek and the pasture. Sometimes, he comes back and sometime he can recapture the past and the ghosts of the long gray line that have always woven their magic in his memory. Sometimes he is a boy again.
On this hot summer day he gives another small boy a boost and sends him up, up, into the enormity of the old tree. He watches him.
Up there; freckled, hair uncombed; teeth missing, and he sees himself in this boy, his grandson. “How old are you now boy?” He asks. “ I’m seven granddaddy, ‘member? He grins.
“That’s just how old you want to be,” he tells him, gazing into the watery blues and grays of the ancient gum tree. “Seven years old forever. Then you can always climb. Then you can always dream.”