A life long lesson taught through hard work and sacrifice.
|The Old Man, the Man and the Boy and the Tree”
by Jim Ethridge
Dedicated to Daisey Ethridge
The year was 1960, give or take a year, and I was 18 give or take a year. My grandparents lived on a farm with my uncle about 16 miles away. (A pretty good distance at that time.) While in school I would earn money by cutting firewood from the farm and selling it in town. I had purchased a chainsaw, before we had used handsaws and axes. My uncle, a man with high intelligence and a kind heart, would help me cut and split the wood, pile and burn the brush, even loan me the truck to deliver the wood.
Down the road about a ¼ of a mile lived an old black man, Tommy Cole was his name. As far as I know (still living in a pretty much segregated society) he seemed to be kind and a gentle man. I suppose he was in his 70’s but looked quite ancient to me at 18. Uncle Roy was about 40 and pretty much a father figure in my life as my father had left my home when I was eleven.
One Saturday as we were cutting wood, Uncle Roy told me lightening had struck the large oak tree by Tommy’s house and he was afraid it might fall on his home. If I were interested in cutting it up for him, what would I charge? Now I knew that Tommy had very little money but then this was a business deal. I looked the huge tree over and estimated the time involved and how much wood I could cut for sale in the time it took me to cut up Tommy’s tree. I told Uncle Roy I thought I could cut 4 ricks of wood in the time it took me to cut up the tree which meant I would lose about $40 dollars as wood was bring $10 a rick at that time. So I said he could tell Tommy I’d do it for $40. Uncle Roy pointed out I did not have to deliver the wood and he would help me. So I said, “Okay, tell Tommy $30 for the job.”
Now in 1960 gas was 25 cents a gallon and deluxe hamburgers were 50 cents so $30 then would be about like $150 now.
Uncle Roy called me mid-week and told me $30 was agreeable so we planned to start next Saturday morning after breakfast.
Saturday I arrived early and my ma had a wonderful breakfast for us. Bacon, eggs and biscuits (made from scratch). Before we left for Tommy’s house Uncle Roy gave me three $10 bills for the job.
I looked up at the huge tree only about 10 ft. from Tommy’s house. I began to get more worried. What if it fell the wrong way and hit Tommy’s house or one of us? This was not going to be an easy task. I turned to Tommy and said, “ Are you a God fearing man Tommy?” This was a silly question, as I very well knew all the older black people were very strong in their faith. I never really understood why with all the adversity they faced how they kept their faith so strong, but now I believe it was that adversity that made their faith so strong.
“Yes Sir, Mr. Jim I sure nuf believe in God”.
I said, “Let’s pray before we start,” and I began to pray. “ O God who created this tree so many years ago. A tree that has been home to birds and squirrels, that has given Tommy shade from the hot summer sun. We give you thanks for that creation. Now it’s time to remove the tree so Tommy can have warmth through the winter and his home will be safe. Protect us from injury and we will give you the praise. Amen.”
And Tommy added on “ Amen, Mr. Jim” to mine.
I climbed high into the tree and tied a rope securely to a strong limb, the other end we tied to Uncle Roy’s pickup and stretched the rope tight, pulling away from Tommy’s house. As I began to cut, Uncle Roy kept the pickup running and the rope tight as Tommy stood back and watched with eyes as big as saucers. The saw began to cut through the huge trunk; the old tree began to crack and pop as she gave up her strength that had held her through so many storms over the years. As the tree began to topple Uncle Roy pulled a little harder and it began to fall away from the house but straight for the pickup and Uncle Roy “Oh my God,” I thought, “we saved the house but we are going to lose the truck and perhaps Uncle Roy too.” But Uncle Roy knew his business. As he kept pulling straight and hard till he knew the home was safe and just before the tree hit the truck he turned hard to the left and the tree fell harmlessly behind him with a thunderous crash.
I went right to work cutting up the tree and as each huge piece fell off, Tommy and Uncle Roy would stand it up. Uncle Roy would begin splitting the wood and Tommy would stack it neatly by the house.
This went on for hours. I felt lucky I was running the saw because I could rest as I put gas and oil in occasionally. I even stopped a few times to sharpen the chain, but Uncle Roy and Tommy never seemed to stop or tire. I was beginning to feel somewhat humiliated, here I was 18, a strong young athlete, and the man old enough to be my father and this other man certainly old enough to be my grandfather just kept on going. Several times that day I said “ Lets take a little break,” and Tommy would hurry into the house and return with glasses of cool water. He had no electricity, so he had no ice, but the water seemed cool and refreshing.
About 4:00 in the afternoon I had had it. The tree was cut to my satisfaction. All the wood was split and most was stacked. All that we left was huge piles of brush from the small limbs. Tommy kept saying thank you and to my extreme joy Tommy said not to worry about the brush, he would take care of it. It would have taken at least 2 hours to haul all the brush away.
I went home exhausted thinking I had certainly earned my $30. The next week we drove by Tommy’s home and looked to see what he had done about all that brush. To my surprise there was nothing but leaves on the ground. Uncle Roy laughed and explained to me Tommy cooks with wood and every twig had been cut and piled in a mountainous pile by the back kitchen door. The tree made about 7 ricks of wood and a mountain of cooking sticks.
It is now 50 years later and as I look back several things I am pretty sure of. Tommy never mentioned money so I am pretty sure that was Uncle Roy’s money that found a home in my pocket. Uncle Roy paid me in advance knowing I had underestimated the magnitude of their job, but knowing if I had been paid I would not quit until finished.
I was exhausted at the end of that day, but so were Uncle Roy and Tommy. I had $30 in my pocket. Tommy would be warm and safe all winter. How about Uncle Roy, he had to have been exhausted and if I’m right he was out $30. I believe by him helping me and helping Tommy he had the most reward of the three of us.
Tommy died about 4 years later in his 80’s. I referred to Tommy as a black man; this was the correct and respectful term then. African American came along much later.
Uncle Roy died in his early 60’s, much too young and very much a loss to me but as a teacher of life's most important lesson I will ever be thankful.
I am now 66 and can only climb trees in my memory.
I write to you Daisey to show there are people who need, care and there are and always will be people who fill that role. “The role of putting others above one’s self.” At 18 I did not really know that but Uncle Roy did and now I do. And I hope someday you will also. The story is true as I remember except for the prayer, but I am confident it was on all our hearts and minds.