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Lady J. Westerfield

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Hanging Tree
By Lady J. Westerfield
Monday, December 29, 2008

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The mystery behind a landmark tree that stands between Missouri and Kansas.

Happily, it was a sunny Saturday morning after a workweek filled with rain.  Casually the wife made their coffee as the husband leisurely went outside to pick up the paper from the front steps.  Alas, whoever delivered the damn thing once again threw it in the bushes.  He mumbled something unprintable as he tightened his robe in order not to give the neighbors a peepshow, especially the middle-age gay couple that always broke out their lawn chairs whenever he mowed the grass.

            Just as the husband emerged from retrieving his wayward newspaper, he noticed a tourist bus full of African-Americans all staring in his general direction.  He smiled but didn’t wave, assuming that they were booked at the Highland Hotel a block east of their rented home.  It wouldn’t be the first time some bus got lost on one of the side streets while trying to find the enormous pink hotel that basically defined the neighborhood.  What puzzled him most was overhearing a loud comment, “We should just take a chainsaw and chop it down.”     

            They couldn’t possibly be thinking about the historic tree that was positioned on the northern edge of the property?  No, they had to be speaking about something else.  Why would anyone want to chop down the designated ‘oldest tree’ in the county?  For what sin could a tree commit?  He then spotted a flash from a camera, which perplexed him for a second longer before reentering his home.

            Both husband and wife continued their day.  She poured the coffee as he gave her the sections of the paper she most likely wanted to read first.  “Oh look, The Jones Store is having a sale.”

            To which he responded, “I don’t know if a professional hockey team will make it in a city our size.”

            They heard a car slam on its brakes.  Without looking up from the opinion page the wife muttered, “Is it just me, or does it seem like there is a lot of traffic on this street for a Saturday morning?”

            “I think there is some African-American convention going on.  I saw a tour bus when I got the paper.  Here it is, it is a tour ‘retracing the historic events involving slavery that lead up to the boarder wars between Missouri and Kansas.’  There’s even a map.”

            The wife looked over his shoulder, “Honey, why is our address marked with a star?”

            “Oh Jesus, it says our tree was known as the hanging tree!”

            “Oh my God, runaway slaves who were caught would be hung from it because they could see Kansas was only a quarter mile west!”

            They both looked at each other.  How could this be?  The tree that sold them on this place, even prompting them to sign a two-year rental agreement, was the ‘Hanging Tree of Jackson County!’  Everyone they knew loved the tree.  It was cool to have a historic landmark with a golden plaque in their front yard.  There was something reassuring about a tree estimated to be at least three hundred years old resting outside their home as if it was a personal sentry of sorts.  Images of grizzly hangings of individuals only wanting freedom were difficult to contemplate in lieu of their gentle giant, which now housed a family of noisy squirrels.

            Of course, such savage death taking place over hundred and fifty years ago outside their door would help explain some of the weird things that sometimes happened.  For example, neither the wife nor the husband felt at ease when going into the basement to wash their clothes (they were a modern couple who did their own loads of laundry thank you very much).  Sure, it could be debated that no one feels completely comfortable alone in a basement, but there was something else, shadows moving just outside the corner of their eyes.  Noises, which could be explained as the house settling (built sometime in the 50’s) yet, these sounds were sometimes sharp as if it was someone crying out in pain. 

There was also the incident when a friend who came over for a causal gathering thought there was a full flung party happening in the basement.  Since there was a ping-pong table down there (always a bit lopsided due to the unfinished dirt floor) she thought the crowd had come early.  No one was more surprised than the early guest, when after descending the wooden stairs she found no one there. 

Then there was the situation with their dog, a nice compliant mutt who so far had grown twice the size the vet originally predicted.  Their dog was a bit of a scamp, always getting into the trash and teething on all but two pairs of the wife’s shoes.  Beyond those minor complaints, he was a good dog.  The only thing that seemed to get his dander up was when company came over and someone, like an elderly aunt, couldn’t take him jumping on them.  It was during these rare times (assuming he couldn’t be put outside because of the weather) he was vanquished into the basement.  While there it was as if he morphed into another dog, a mix between one that always lived in fear and the wolf that was his ancestor.  He barked and growled non-stop while he greedily clawed at the door trying to flee his prison.

 

For the rest of the morning the couple hid inside.  They didn’t want their white faces to be misconstrue d.   After all, how does a couple prove they are proud liberals when they have only a few seconds worth of first impression time for travelers on buses?  Sometimes the appearance of living under the shade of the ‘hanging tree’ can be misconstrue d as a demonstration of ‘white pride’ when it is, in fact, something much more innocent.  One could call it ignorance, but that implies an intentional effort to ignore the facts.  It would be hubris to assume that anyone signing a rental contract would want to know the full history of a tree labeled ‘the oldest in the county’ - the historic importance of such a thing seems self explanatory.  Besides, legally agreeing never to knowingly harm the tree, along with an explicit direction to always mow around it, inquiring if it had some dark past would appear ludicrous of the inquirer.         

That afternoon the couple set forth to find another home, one in which they could buy, hopefully located across the state line in the once anti-slavery state which now distinguished itself from its neighbor as having the better schools.  Eventually they settled for a ranch styled home circa 1967.  Their friends jokingly observed that from certain angles it looked like the Brady home of television lore. 

Their lives moved on.  The ping-pong table was sold at a garage sale.  They bought a new washer and dryer to fit into their laundry room located off the kitchen.  Sadly, six years after moving their dog died in his sleep.  Strange, at their new address the only times he got excited was when the post carrier dropped off a heavy package or someone he hadn’t met came knocking harshly at the door.  All these little things together were the loss of tangible mementos that allowed the couple to forget their old rental home with its hanging tree.

The fate of the hanging tree was such; it survived another thirteen years before a nasty, out of season, ice storm destroyed half of it on Halloween eve.  In the time span since the couple moved, it was neglected by those who once claimed to love it and scorned by the people who were refreshed on its pre-Civil War significance. 

It is hard to say how long trees should live.  Much probably has to do with the whims of people and nature.  The tree stood by as the rental home was torn down to make room for affordable housing for seniors.  Before the house was even built, the tree had overlooked the surrounding plots where a community garden had been planted.  Regardless of all the new pavement for parking lots and such, people could still spot an occasionally tulip or a stalk of corn.

It was on Halloween of that year that the couple picked up the paper and found a picture of the tree.  Half of it had fallen on a parked car.  Times forgotten were recalled again.  Comments were tossed between the two of them, the jest implying how lucky they were not to live there any more.  One of them said, “That was the same spot where we used to park the truck!”

Funny the effort that is put forth once something old and mostly forgotten is on the verge of death.  A few concerned citizens (many from the African-American community itself) wanted the city to do everything it could to save the tree.  Some said it should be saved because it was old, others said it was a concrete thing to look at and imagine the strange fruit which once swung from its limbs.  Without the hanging tree standing who would remember the hung? 

Regardless of the sentiments, the tree had could not be repaired.  What was still firmly planted in the ground wasn’t enough to hold up the rest of its bulk.  On November 1st, commonly known as The Day of the Dead, what was left of the tree was cut down.  Its golden plaque remained until it too was laid to rest, sacrificed in the name of urban renewal. 

 

 

It has been forty years since the tree was cut down.  Where the pink hotel used to stand is now a supermarket within a comfortable walk for the majority of retirees.  Most evenings you can hear someone play alternative rock songs they remember from their youth.  Where the tree used to stand now grows a rose bush just about to bloom with large blood-red flowers.  On occasion individuals have remarked about seeing things from the corner of their eyes but they attribute it to failing eyesight.  Then there are other times, usually right before a storm hits, you can hear an echo as if someone is crying out in pain.

 

 

 

 

© 2006 Westerfield

 


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