Once upon a time when I was a brave and crazy fool I rode a tree like a dragon. Armed with a homemade boomerang, I was a pretty young lad somewhere in that transition between preteen to true teen. My exact age and even what grade I was in remain lost to memory. What I do remember is a gusty, late afternoon storm with cloudy skies churning the color of dark green moss. It happened in Virginia where I grew up on a farm, and I thought I was gonna die.
I felt proud of my boomerang. I’ve spent hours carving and sanding it from a piece of wood. When I whipped it through the air across the cow pastures on my parents’ dairy farm, my boomerang actually returned. It would spin away from me whirling like a helicopter propeller. As my boomerang spun it rose high and higher still, turned, and came zooming back to me. Sometimes it flopped and dug into grass and dirt and skittered off rocks. At other times, however, I had to duck as it zipped over my head. I dared not reach out to grab it. Those were the best!
My buddy Jerry Vernon and I were out in a huge cowpasture on the Gates Family Farm. Jerry’s dad worked for the Gateses milking cows and fixing fences, so we played a lot. My brother Joe, six years younger, also hung with us that day. Our dad ran the Bass farm for his uncle, who was cousins with the Gateses and further down the road the Bruces.
It was one afternoon after school, and I can’t remember if it was November or March. The weather felt heavy with a cloudy-late-afternoon-right-before-supper-time feel, and we had one eye out for bulls. Rumor had it the Gateses had turned loose a bull into the pasture to impregnate the cows, and he would snort, charge, stomp, and gore you all to bloody pieces if he discovered you simply existed. We were terrified of bulls.
So we stuck near the fence and kept an eye on the herd of cattle way off down in the draw between the hills. It was a barbed-wire fence, too, and we gambled if we got charged we would dash to the fence and fling ourselves under the barbed wire into the bushes. We tossed my boomerang back and forth somewhat like a game of Frisbee except we ducked and covered when it whirled back at us. We moved further out from the paved road down the fence line where we followed old tractor tracks. One side was grass and wide-open pasture. On the other side of the barbed wire rose tall pine trees above a mix of cedar, broom straw, blackberries, and honeysuckle.
The wind picked up in gusts. Down below us we noticed the cows lifting their heads and smelling all around.
“D’ya think they’ll smell us?” asked Jerry. “I bet that damn bull gonna smell us!”
“That’s because you ain’t had a bath in several days,” I joked.
“I did, but I don’t wanna be smelt by no bull,” said Joe, my little brother.
“Don’t you worry,” I said as I reminded him “We can scoot under the fence quick as lightening and run off into the woods. He has to run all the way uphill to even get close.”
“Yeah, but they can run fast!” exclaimed Jerry. “Why, my Daddy says they charge like a freight train, man. Fast and just can’t stop. They’ll even tear fences down. Snap off them cedar posts. Won’t even feel it, them bulls won’t.”
“Naw,” I said, enjoying the sensation of blowing wind. I turned and whipped my boomerang out across the field and directly into the breeze. It spun like a flying saucer in a long, beautiful, graceful arc.
“Wow!” we all said together.
A gust of wind blew in and my boomerang shot up high and spun back at us. It whirled over our heads and lodged into the top of a tall, skinny pine tree. Right up in the tippity top, too.
“Whadaya gonna do now?” asked Joe.
“I’m gonna go get it,” I said.
“No you ain’t,” said Jerry. “It’s caught up too high. Besides, we better be gittin’ on home.”
“Yep,” I said as I slithered between strands of barbed-wire fences beginning to hum in the wind.
The wind howled and mossy clouds dropped low and menacing. Any big-nut bulls were now cowering down in the gully with the cows. We could see them bunched up under the trees and moving further back into the ravine from where we stoop atop the ridgeline.
For a moment clouds spun as cotton candy just enough we all thought “Tornado!” The pine trees were swinging around in the wind with their branches thrashing into one another. But their needles were nice and soft, I reckoned.
To my surprise I had a hard time finding my boomerang. Once under the trees the branches over my head obscured the view. But I knew it had to be in the top of a tree right … near … here.
“Do y’all still see it?” I hollered at Joe and Jerry who waited back in the cow pasture on the other side of the barbed-wired. “I can’t see it.”
“It’s right over there!” they both pointed. “Way up in the top of that tree over yonder! Ya right next to it, just go a little bit more.”
As I moved around craning my eyes up into the treetops, I finally spotted my boomerang. It was hooked up in the tippity-top of the tallest tree, and hooked good, too. Damn.
I felt scared. And foolish. And determined. I looked up at that tall, skinny pine tree, took a deep breath, felt the soft stinging swish of green needles, and loved the smell of the woods. I reached up with both hands, pulled myself up into the lower branches, my boots kicking out till they got a grip. Slow, then quickly, I slid up through knots of branches. The bark was smooth as paper but sharp and prickly, too. And sticky. My hands quickly were coated in gummy pine resin. Sap coated bark, branches, twigs, and needles.
The tree shook in the wind and trembled under my weight. I trembled a little bit, too. Slipped and almost fell backwards but clutched handfuls of pine needles and branches just in time. Swayed in the wind as I spun my feet up the trunk. The higher I climbed the tighter and more crooked the branches. Pushed my way up through prickly knots of sticky, sappy branches and twigs. I smeared resin on my clothes and scratched myself up good. Had to close my eyes often to protect them. Kept pushing my glasses back on tight, too.
Finally, I reached the tip of the tree, poked my head out of the crown, and looked around. What a sight! The wind rippled over the fields and through the forest in waves. I could see a long ways off under mossy-green cotton candy clouds. And wedged in a twisted knot of branches and pine needles was my homemade boomerang. Just as I reached out in triumph a big wave of wind slammed into the woods. Quickly I wrapped my legs around the slender trunk and my arms around bundles of needly branches. For once I appreciated the sticky sap as I hugged the tree tightly.
The blast of wind shoved us both over. Top heavy with me clinging to its tip, the pine tree bent way over. Oh my God, I thought with a mix of awe and panic, will this tree snap in half and hurtle me through the forest? I’ll die! Or break all my bones! Be paralyzed! Get big splinters in my crotch! The tree paused for a moment, then shot back like a catapult. I held on even tighter.
Another wave of wind crashed over and into us. And another. Gusts of wind pummeled me and my tree hard. We thrashed about in all directions. I felt as if I was a cowboy bouncing atop a bucking bronco or a mad steer. The tree swung and swayed, bent far over, and whipped me around as if possessed by a fierce urge to toss me off.
At first it was so violent I squeezed my eyes shut. I could faintly hear the voices of my little brother and buddy far below. My hearing aids were squished against my head and squealing in the wind, and I couldn’t tell if Jerry and Joe were laughing, shouting, or crying.
After a gust mashed branches against my face, I opened my eyes upon the most magnificent sight. The sun, now low over the horizon, jacked open the sky and burned a baleful hole through the swirling cloud moss. A sea of trees rippled in waves before the driving wind. I could see across the rolling hills and gullies of south-central Virginia for what seemed miles and miles. Beautiful! I didn’t want to come down.
I kept looking, and realized I felt cold. The wind was dying down. The storm was already passing. I looked down and my boomerang was tucked inside my jacket with one end sticking out below my chin and the other jammed inside my armpit. I don’t remember grabbing it and shoving it in like that. It must’ve been automatic.
Down I scrambled, slipping and sliding in a hurry through knots of twisted branches, ignoring all the scratching and poking. Fell backwards into broom straw, wild Indian tobacco, and orchard grass, jumped up, tore through a low barrier of blackberry bushes, and scrambled under the fence. Not a bull in sight!
“Wow, that was CRAZY, man!” shouted Jerry.
“Did you get your boomerang back?” asked Joe.
Grinning, I tugged open my jacket, pulled out my boomerang, and held it aloft. For a moment we were all silent. Laughing, we turned and burst down the field, racing each other home, young boys in the prime of our glory.
William Dudley Bass
Copyright © 2011, 2016 by William Dudley Bass. All Rights Reserved until we Humans establish Wise Stewardship of and for our Earth and Solarian Commons. Thank you.