My cousin Chris grew up in a large city (at least by my standards)
on the outskirts of South Detroit. I had always lived in a small
farming community whose population often threatened, but never quite
reached, 3,000--livestock included. Being from two entirely different
environments, my cousin and I were always anxious to explore each
other's domain. His, with the shiny lights and noisy streets that are
the universal symbol for fast city living, was always a great curiosity
to me; I found my adventures at his house to be exhilarating--if not a
bit intimidating at times. And mine, with the cornfields and red barns
that showcase Midwestern farm life, was a source (I believe) of great
relaxation for Chris; a chance for him to get away from the city's
gritty reality and experience life in the slow lane.
But, just as they say you can take the boy out of the country but
you can't take the country out of the boy, the city, too, leaves a
permanent mark on its occupants, following them no matter where they
might find themselves throughout their lifetime. This was certainly
true for Chris, a born risk taker from off the streets. Not always
happy to idly sit and let the world pass him by like I was, my cousin
thrived on finding a new challenge every day. These challenges usually
involved some risk of bodily harm, and many times--much to my dislike--I
was the one to receive the resulting damage. None of the pain I
experienced during our visits together, however, could compare to the
injuries Chris sustained one crisp, spring afternoon when the grass was
green, the puddles were wet, and the trees were ripe for climbing.
My parents owned two and one half acres of land, of which the last
20 yards or so was a steep sloping hill that acted as a bank of a large
pond. This pond had been manmade in order to allow the county's largest
river--the River Raisen--to pass uninterrupted into the next town. Much
of my time was spent on the shores of that pond, capturing whatever
aquatic creatures I might be lucky enough to get my hands on--frogs,
turtles, crayfish and such. My cousin, being from the city as I
mentioned before, never ceased to be amazed at the wonders the pond had
to offer. How could I blame him? After all, it truly was
heaven-on-earth for any young boy fortunate enough to be near it.
At the top of the pond's bank grew a large White Birch tree. The
tree had grown at a curious angle, almost perpendicular in relation to
the slope of the hill. This odd angle placed the tree's trunk and lower
branches above the bank's ground, while the upper portion hung directly
over the edge of the pond. As long as I could remember the tree had
been there--never smaller or never bigger. Just there. Beyond that, it
never really meant much to me. Until, that is, one day when my visiting
cousin decided that it would be fun to climb and that I should join
I, being obedient to my extremely anti-tree climbing parents--not
to mention afraid of heights--immediately refused and informed him that
he would do well to forget the idea. Why did I waste my breath? No
sooner had the warning-filled response left my mouth when my cousin,
using his best alley savvy, turned his plan into a dare and labeled me a
"chicken" if I failed to follow through.
Peer pressure is a potent weapon, especially amongst family
members. Knowing that he would never let me forget my "yellow back"
status should I refuse the dare, I had only one choice: I would have to
join him in the tree climb.
Sensing victory, Chris walked to the base of the tree, straddled
the trunk with both his arms and legs, and shimmied to the first
branch. He knew it was only a matter of time before I would give in to
his ploy and follow him up.
By the time I reached the first branch (a rather large one), Chris
had already ascended to a position a good ten feet above me. My fear of
heights caused me to move at a near snail's pace up the side of that old
birch tree, and my cousin had nearly made it to the top before I even
struggled my way to the third branch. One thing I can say for him: he
sure was a good tree climber for a city kid. He moved quickly, with a
reckless abandon I have yet to attempt with anything to this very
With nowhere to go but down, Chris decided to occupy his time by
taunting me. Could I go any slower? He asked. Did I want my mama? Did
my little handsys hurt? He was pushing all the right buttons--we both
knew it. But what could I do? The further I got, the more paralyzed I
felt, until I could finally climb no more. Halfway up and I was
through. Yellow back or not, I was not going to continue.
I swallowed my pride and looked up, sure I would see the most
disgusting look of smugness on my cousin's face. I was wrong. What I
saw made my jaw drop.
Apparently, during my labors, Chris became bored and decided