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Tree of Enlightenment

by Donald J. Bingle 10 days ago in parents
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A Story About My Dad and Life Lessons

Tree of Enlightenment by Donald J. Bingle

When a boy is growing up, there eventually comes a time when he realizes that his father is not infallible, that he needs to make his own decisions in life, that bad stuff can happen to good people, that actions have consequences, and that you have to live with the consequences of your own decisions. Most often, those realizations don’t all occur on the same day, at the same moment. Only rarely do they involve a running chain saw.


During my junior high and high school days, my family lived in the woods. In fact, I helped my dad clear trees for where the house would be built. My dad, having paid a premium price for a wooded three-acre lot, was not about to cut down any more trees than absolutely essential for construction. Consequently, there were a number of big, leafy trees right near the house, especially near the back, where a concrete patio and A-frame doghouse were the only things between our familial dwelling and the wilds.

The cycle of life being what it is, some trees do better than others. Branches die and drop off. Entire trees fall in the forest, whether there is anyone there to hear them or not. And so it came to pass that a very large branch from one of the trees nearest to the back of the house stopped leafing and turned dark, except where bark fell off to expose the dead, white wood beneath. Normally, not a problem. Our property had a number of dead trees, some fallen to the forest floor. My dad did nothing about these trees—we lived in the woods, not some landscape-designed, prettified, suburban version of the woods. The only thing Dad did to the acreage away from the house was to venture into it on his ancient riding lawnmower, cutting paths for people to stroll along. Hardly anyone actually walked those paths, and the detritus of the woods did a number on the riding lawnmower, breaking off lawnmower blade after lawnmower blade until my dad got tired of paying for new blades and installed rubber ones.

In this particular instance, however, a dead tree branch hung out over the roof of the house. More specifically, over the master bedroom of the house. Even more specifically, over the bed in the master bedroom of the house. Most specifically, over where my mom slept.

My mom became convinced that the dead branch was going to break off, somehow crash through the sturdy roof, the architectural beams holding up the roof, and the ceiling (aka attic floor), and fall upon her in her sleep, killing her. This made her anxious and interfered with her sleep. (Whether this was because the fear of killer tree branches kept her from falling asleep or because she lay awake on breezy or stormy nights waiting to dodge out of the way, I never knew. Teenage kids don’t really ask about such things.)

Lesson one: People ... and spouses, in particular ... are not always rational.

In any event, the law came down one Saturday morning. My mother would no longer sleep in fear for her life. My dad had to cut down the offending branch. My mom left to go shopping, leaving me and Dad to take care of the chore. My siblings weren’t around to help, though I don’t remember why.

Lesson two: Love means your spouse is always right. (Certainly, my wife is always right.)

Dad dutifully got out the chain saw and gassed and oiled it up, then carried it from the garage to the patio. Next, he went to the side of the house where he kept the largest, longest aluminum extension ladder we had. We each grabbed an end and walked it to the back yard. We extended it to its full length, planted the feet firmly in the soil parallel to the branch, about six or so feet back, then walked it upright.

The ladder was too short to reach the branch. We moved the bottom a bit closer to the branch and tried again. Still short.

This did not deter my father. Once my dad started a project, he didn’t stop until it was done. In fact, he rarely would even go to the hardware store for supplies until it was done. If he didn’t have the right tool or the correct doohickey to go forward, he would somehow jimmy things so whatever he did have on hand would work. My dad didn’t like to do a project twice, when once would work. Maybe that’s why he put Christmas lights up in 1968 and never took them down—I mean, they weren’t that visible when they weren’t turned on, unless you were looking at the roofline for some reason.

I have to say that I’m my father’s son on these things. We have outdoor spots we never use except for the holidays. They have red and green bulbs in them year-round. And the nails used to hold the garland around the front door, and even inside along the windows overlooking the back yard, are permanent, making Christmas decorating an easier task.

Lesson three: Doing something in a way that involves the least possible work, is not laziness, it’s efficiency. Really.

Lesson four: Sticking with a job until it’s done, even if stopping to get a part or a better tool would make it easier, isn’t stubbornness¸ it’s a strong work ethic. Sure.

All of this explains why, when the ladder came up short, my dad didn’t hire a tree service or go get a bigger ladder. No, my dad stuck to it. Instead, he went around to the front yard, got into our big, blue station wagon (the one that had replaced our little, white Rambler) and drove it to the back yard, positioning the car perpendicular to the offending branch, a bit forward of where we had placed the ladder on earlier attempts. Then he opened up the tailgate of the station wagon and we lifted the ladder up, setting the feet in the crack between the tailgate and the back of the car, so the ladder was now eighteen or so inches off the ground, then re-extended the ladder and leaned it toward the tree, aiming for the stout part of the offending branch near the trunk of the tree.

The ladder now reached, the end of the fully extended ladder clearing the midpoint of the branch by six or eight inches.

Now, before we go any farther in this story, let me disabuse you of any misconceptions. The branch, even dead, was clearly stout enough to support the ladder and my dad. And my dad had cleverly placed the car angled as far toward the trunk of the tree as possible, so most of it was to the left of the tree, while he would be cutting off the branch to the right of the ladder on the right side of the tree, so the branch wasn’t about to fall on the car. Everything was carefully planned ... or so he thought.

Having set up the ladder, my dad got the chain saw, started it up after a few pulls, and revved it, squirting oil on the chain to make sure it was running smooth. Then, with the idling chain saw in his right hand, he turned to me and asked me to hold the ladder while he went up to cut off my mother’s branch of death. I stood to my dad’s left and leaned over the tailgate to grab the left side of the ladder, as he stood ready to clamber up onto the tailgate and onto the ladder from the right.

I glanced up. The ladder still cleared the branch by six or eight inches.

My dad stepped on the tailgate and the old shocks gave ground. Now the ladder cleared the branch by four inches. Five, tops.

I watched as my dad continued up the ladder, grasping the aluminum rungs one by one with his left hand as he ascended; his right hand still holding the idling chain saw. The ladder moved a bit up and down, but nothing too precipitous, as he climbed. Finally, he got to the top, leaned into the ladder as much as possible and put both hands on the chain saw, as far right of the ladder as he could comfortably get, which wasn’t far.

He revved the chain saw and began to cut.

I don’t know if you’ve ever used a chain saw, but the best way to cut something large with one is to push hard, then ease up, then push hard, in a regular rhythm. This keeps the chain from slowing under constant pressure, shortening your cutting time and keeping the chain from binding.

The thing is, as my dad pressed, then eased off, then pressed again, I saw the ladder begin to move up and down as he, in essence, took weight off of the ladder when pushing down on the saw, then added it back on as he eased up. That four to five inch clearance kept shifting about.

Five ... four ... three ... two.

Three ... four ... three ... two.

Three ... two ... one ... two.

One ... two ... one ... two.

I tried to yell at my dad to be careful, that the ladder was shifting, but it’s hard to be heard over a running chain saw inches from your ear. He never heard me. There was nothing else I could do. No one was home. There weren’t such things as cell phones. I had no other option, but to hold the ladder and either stare at the empty cargo area of the station wagon in front of me or watch my dad at the top of the ladder.

So, I watched the ladder.

Three ... two ... one ... two ... one.

And that’s when enlightenment struck me and I learned all the other lessons a son needs to learn to become a man. This clever idea to extend the reach of the extension ladder wasn’t so clever after all. Not replacing your worn shock absorbers wasn’t entirely wise, either. Something terrible was about to happen and there was nothing ... nothing at all ... in my power I could do to stop it. If that ladder slipped beneath the edge of the branch as my dad eased up from cutting or had to yank upward because the partially cut and the now bending branch began to bind the chain saw blade, very bad things would happen.

I couldn’t hold the ladder in place if it started to slip. I couldn’t catch my father or break his fall. I had no interest in getting anywhere near a descending chain saw, whether or not the chain was still spinning as it tumbled from on high. I wanted to live to see another day.

And if I did die that day, I didn’t want to die from stupidity. And, trying to catch an adult male revving a running chain saw struck me as pretty stupid.

So I looked in front of me and made a decision.

If things went bad, if the ladder slipped and my dad started to fall, I decided to fling myself into the cargo area in the back of the station wagon and let gravity take its course. The back of the station wagon would protect me from falling objects, whether my plummeting dad, the dismembered tree branch, or the slashing blades of the chain saw.

It was the only safe place.

It was the smart thing to do.

Two ... one ... two ... one ... less.

Then, it happened. The branch fell free with a thud next to the car and my dad let up on the throttle of the chain saw and the ladder settled down.

Two ... three ... four.

No one fell. No one died.

When he was safely back down on the ground, I told my dad about the ladder clearance problem and how I’d tried to yell, but he didn’t hear.

But I didn’t tell him that if he’d started to fall, I’d decided to jump into the open back of the station wagon and save myself. There was no good reason to tell him that, to tell him that I had grown up in those few terrifying minutes into someone willing to make hard decisions and live with the consequences. Even if he might not have.

No one fell. No one died. But I can’t say no one was traumatized.

Growing up is traumatic. Growing up fast, with a running chain saw looming above you, leaves an invisible scar.

If the roles had been reversed and the ladder had slipped, I have little doubt my dad would have tried to catch me, running chain saw or no. Parents do amazing, unbelievable things for their kids.

Some days, I wish I could be that kind of person. But then the rational, logical, empirical part of my personality re-asserts itself and I know that I’m not. I also understand what people mean when, after such situations, they say the reacted by instinct, because there’s just no logic in love or heroics, especially when part of the equation is a falling chain saw.

Heck, I flinch from even using the things.

Sorry, Dad.


About the author

Donald J. Bingle

Donald J. Bingle is the author of eight books and more than sixty shorter works in the thriller, science fiction, fantasy, horror, mystery, steampunk, comedy, and memoir genres. More on Don can be found at www.donaldjbingle.com.

Reader insights

Nice work

Very well written. Keep up the good work!

Top insights

  1. Excellent storytelling

    Original narrative & well developed characters

  2. Heartfelt and relatable

    The story invoked strong personal emotions

  3. On-point and relevant

    Writing reflected the title & theme

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