Photo by Jerry Robinson
Sally Ganong poses in front of a special tree in Fentonwood.

Photo of special tree brings memories of final visit

(Editor’s Note: Charlie Ganong offers a poignant story about a special tree in Highline, followed by Jerry Robinson’s memory of a chance meeting years ago in Boston.)

Jerry,
Thanks for sending us the picture of my mom and the "historic tree." It brought back a lot of memories, and prompted me to write the following:
That is a historic tree behind my mom. She no longer lives in Fentonwood. But that grand tree in the background will thrive there another four or five hundred years, when all of us will have long since gone to that big tree house in the sky.

Trees--and that grove in particular--hold a special meaning for me. My first job out of college was as a freshly scrubbed, wet-behind-the-ears PR flak for Weyerhaeuser, the "Tree Growing Company," a dream job for me. As a kid, I loved playing in the woods--building fir-bough camps, flying down trails, scrambling over mossy logs or scooting up tall trees. Later, I grew to love the Northwest's sheltering, fragrant forests even more as a hiker and camper. The dark, cool woods always called to me, soothing my restless spirit and offering sweet solace in a world bereft of fresh air, peace and quiet.

Anyway, a veteran forester named Howard Millan befriended me at Weyerhaeuser, taking me under his sturdy wing and teaching me the ways of the corporate woods. He gladly supplied me with three dozen seedlings from the Big W to plant on the hillside behind my parents' home, where the furrowed corpses of fallen cedars felled by bandy-legged loggers of long ago lay mute and slowly rotting beneath a mad tangle of blackberries, unruly salal and scraggly hazelnut. My goal was to jump-start my own "tree farm," returning this little half acre of paradise-lost to its former sylvan splendor.

So, sometime in the early 1980s, I patiently planted each of those 36 seedlings on the hillside. But, to my great disappointment, most of them never made it out of the starting gate, nibbled to death by the gully's elusive "mountain beavers," trampled underfoot by unwary siblings or smothered by relentless waves of ivy, stickers and underbrush.

But a half-dozen or so defied the odds and survived their adolescent trauma, rising above the thick understory to become sturdy, stalwart citizens. The result, 30 years later, is the "historic" fir tree in the background of this photo, serenaded by a trio of graceful hemlocks below it, to the right, just in view down the hill.

But there's more to this story than just trees. . . . Flash forward 30 years from the 22-year-old wannabe woodsman to December 2001, a late-autumn Seattle day like any other. I was on my way from someplace to somewhere, absorbed in the routine busy-ness of life, stopped at the intersection of S.W. 116th and 28th S.W., near Shorewood School. Then came the familiar dilemma: to turn left or right. To stop and visit the folks--a commitment of, at minimum, an hour, probably more--or to turn the other way and proceed with all the critical pursuits of everyday life: bank, post office, gym, hardware store, leaf-raking, e-mail checking, blah-blahing.

I had a lot to do that day; maybe I'd stop by and visit the folks tomorrow. I hesitated at the intersection a beat longer, listening, perhaps, to the echoes of my own youthful footsteps skipping toward schoolyards of long ago. I decided to turn right, not sure, in the words of Jackson Browne, if it was the past or the future that was calling. But something--or someone--definitely was.

My mom and dad were home when I stopped in. My dad hadn't been too well lately; but until I actually saw him that day, I didn't realize how pale and weak he had grown. I think my folks had been keeping his condition from us, not wanting to worry "the children."

I visited with my dad awhile as he lay in bed. He was tired, so I didn't stay long. As I was leaving, he propped himself up on a wobbly elbow and said, "I'm gonna get back up," gazing skyward through the sturdy branches of the once-fragile seedling grown into a lofty giant. "I'm gonna get back up." His vow to regain his health--but, as it turned out, the last words I would ever hear him say.

He died the next morning. Linda delivered the news as I awoke from a sound and restful sleep. I wasn't sad. I didn't grieve or mourn. I had already done enough of that when my father had suffered through a car accident thirteen years earlier, miraculously survived and was given a new lease on life. No, the last thirteen years had all been "bonus time, for him, each day a gift unto itself.

Came winter, then spring. One day a nest appeared in the hemlock next to the "historic tree." Shortly afterwards a Great Blue Heron emerged from the nest, cradled in the boughs of a tree I had planted with my own hands years before. Soon the great bird left its home and joined its brethren patrolling the shores of Puget Sound. And every once in awhile, when I am mowing the lawn, fishing or just scanning the gray horizon along Three Tree Point, I see that heron rise shakily from its perch on a raft or a buoy and take flight above the waves, seeking calmer seas and bluer skies.

My dad's been gone ten years now. His ashes are interred at the Veteran's Cemetery in Kent, beneath a stone engraved with the words, Look Homeward, Angel, the title of a book by Thomas Wolfe, one of his favorite authors. I will visit the place one day, although I know that his spirit has long since been liberated from his failing body, as all of ours will be, by and by.

Some say that the central quest in life is the "search for the father." If so--or, if not--I'm glad I found you that day, Dad. Had I turned left, instead of right, I might be searching still.

Charlie Ganong, the Burien writer who wrote about his mother’s Highline Fir tree story was my neighbor boy who lived next door in Gregory Heights.

He was at Harvard when I was in Boston on a trip and decided to take a subway to nearby Harvard Yard.

I had no idea where Harvard Yard was but figured it was a bunch of brick buildings surrounded by a fence with some shrubs, a swing or two and maybe a dog.

I emerged from the subway at an intersection and the light was green so I crossed the busy street and was standing there without a clue on where to go and a voice said, "Aren't you Jerry Robinson?"

I was delightfully stunned. What are the odds on his being 3,000 miles from Seattle? On the same corner at the same street corner?

We found a lunchroom and he gave a small tour of his Yard. Never saw a swing or a bulldog.

Charlie is today one of the guys who brings you many of the teevee sports events you watch.

He was an honor grad and captain of the Evergreen football team in White Center during the Jack Thompson quarterback years.

Jerry Robinson, Publisher

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