The Monkey Tree
By Cal Kirby
Sonny Pigpen was a smelly, bratty kid and made the life of the neighborhood kids miserable, most of the time it was me in misery. His real name was Sebastian Pignall, but his nickname was Sonny and everyone called him, behind his back, Sonny Pigpen.
“Leslie, Vivian, Clark, come home now,” our mother yelled from the front steps of our house, half a block away. Our mother was a real star-crazed, unrequited love of acting, early-thirties mother of three pretty adventuous kids. She was a real fan of “Gone With The Wind,” and so named each of her kids after the stars. My brother hated the name Leslie because he said it was a girls name, so he went by “Les” all the time, and hated it when our mother called him so the whole neighborhood could hear. Vivian, our sister, didn’t mind her name, but like to be called “Vi” by all of her friends. Me, I liked “Clark” because Clark Kent turned into Superman and I wanted to be brave like him. Although, from skittishness and fear of Sonny, I wouldn’t make much of the Superman role model.
Growing up in Central California in the forties and fifties, was a struggle for most of the Midwestern immigrants, from Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas and Missouri. Most everyone worked at one of the lumber mills or canning factories in or around Stockton. Most fathers, and some mothers, left early each morning for work and didn’t return home til after 10 or 11 hours away. By the time they got home, they were too tired to do much of anything else.
With our parents being gone most of the day (our mother worked in a Cedar factory), us kids were left home alone, with Leslie in charge. Leslie was 13, Vi was 12 and I was 10. We pretty much did what we were supposed to while our parents were at work. We did the breakfast dishes, made beds, swept the floors and got things tidied up. We also had outdoor chores like weeding the vegetable garden and minding the chickens and gathering eggs. After that we were free to go out an play with the neighborhood kids.
On our block, which had about 2-dozen homes, our house sat pretty much right-smack-dab in the middle of the block. Most of the families took pride in their homes and kept, at least the outside, looking neat and trim. That is except the Pigpen’s house. Sonny’s parents were real slobs and had junk cars, used tires and trash all over the lot. I can only imagine what the inside looked like, but Sonny never invited any of the kids into his place. Between my age of 10 and Sonny’s older brother’s age, who was 15, there were at least 30 kids on South Laurel Street. It was pretty evenly divided between girls and boys.
One of the favorite things for most of the boys, and a few of the Tomboy girls, to do, was go to the Monkey Tree about a mile from home. Every day, 10 to 15 kids would leave at different times and head to the Monkey Tree. Some even made a lunch excursion of the trip. Some road bikes, like Leslie, but most walked, like Vi and myself. Sometimes Leslie would put Vi on the crossbar of the bike and me on the handlebars.
Now to explain. The Monkey Tree didn’t really have actual Monkeys, but it had gotten the name about 5 years earlier when one of the fathers went looking for his kids and saw his son hanging by his knees from one of the branches. He yelled out, “Hey you Monkeys get down here right now!” The name became a natural after that. The tree itself, was a giant Oak tree that sat near a cross roads on about 40 acres of hayfields.
This is where me and Sonny had many encounters. Sonny was a year older than me, but we were in the same grade because he got held back a year. It was always a pleasure going to the Monkey Tree when Sonny didn’t go. Everyone had a good time and no arguments or fights took place. However, add Sonny to the mix and invariably someone went home with a scraped knee or bloody nose. Many times it was me and I wasn’t brave enough to stand up to him. My dad, who didn’t interact with us kids much, would ask what happened, if he noticed a scraped knee or elbow. I would whine that Sonny had pushed me down or did something to cause me to fall. My dad just said. “Well, Clark, you just got to learn to take care of it yourself.” He would then sip his Schlitz beer and listen to the sports station on the radio.
I would go to bed at night and complain to Leslie about Sonny. “Leslie you gotta beatup Sonny for me.” Leslie was a lot like dad and didn’t give me any sympathy. He’d say, “You are just going to take what he does or learn to fight him off. “Why don’t you take care of it, you’re my big brother?” He said, “Yeah, and have you seen the size of Sonny’s brother, Luke? No way.” So I was on my own.
Leslie turned over and went to sleep and I kept laying there in the dark thinking of the different ways Superman would take care of Sonny. Superman was so brave. In my dreams I always made Sonny suffer, but not in person.
The next day, I skipped going to the Monkey Tree and went up to the 8th Street market to help Mike, the owner, put out supplies. It wasn’t a job, but I liked Mike and asked if I could help him with anything. Mike always found something for me to do. Mike was a second generation Lebanese and a real likeable type. He was very supportive of our family, and probably others. When the lumber company would go on strike for three or four months at a time and our dad didn’t have any money coming in, Mike would let our family take food and put the amount in a voucher behind the counter, and Mom woud pay what she could each month. I remember the feeling of joy after the strike was over and my Mom was able to pay off our debt to Mike. Mike was a savior in my eyes.
Three days later, I got the nerve to go back to the Monkey Tree. Thank goodness Sonny wasn’t there. Vi, Leslie and I climbed all over that tree and had a real good time. At one point. I started to deviate from my normal climb and headed down the left branch of a big fork in the tree. As a I got about three feet from the split of the fork, Leslie yelled, “Stop.” Scared the Bejesus out of me.
Leslie said, “Comeback, that branch has a crack in it and it could break.” I scampered back as quickly as I could and took my normal route down to where I could jump down. I was still shaking when I got on solid ground. I’d never heard Leslie scream like that before. Thank God he was there, or I could be lying in a hospital bed, or worse.
The Summer months wore everybody down and we tried to make the best of the heat. Leslie, myself and Leonard from across the street spent many days going to the Eight-mile Road and Route 99, in Northern Stockton to swim in the large irrigation ditches. However, it was such a long trip (about 10 miles round-trip), that, on most days, we settled on wading and splashing in the creek about 2 miles away.
A lot of the time we were bored and Leslie, Vi and I would stay inside out of the sun and play Canasta and other games. Leslie always beat us in Canasta, but I got to where I beat him regularly in Checkers and Dominos.
In early August, we had a few days of high eighties temperature and a cooling breeze, so Leslie, Vi and I headed for a fun time at the Monkey Tree. However, when we got there, the hayfields had been cut and the hay baled and piled into several huge stacks. Well, we forgot the Monkey Tree and made a day of climbing and running around the giant stacks of hay bales. When we got home we had so much straw in our clothes that we had to strip down to our underwear outside and hose off. Of course, Vi slipped inside to the bathroom to have some privacy, but Leslie and I just didn’t care and laughed the whole time we were being hosed down.
It was nearing the end of Summer and I had successfully avoided Sonny for the good part of the month of August. It was too hot anyway to go climbing in the Monkey Tree. I remember when we went out to play the first week of September after all our chores were done and Leonard came across the street and said. “Hey, we start school next week. Why don’t we make a big day of it and take our lunches and climb the Monkey Tree all day?” We all thought that was a great idea and went inside and made baloney and mayonnaise sandwiches, with potato chips inside for a crunch, and then we stopped at the 8th Street Market and got two Grapettes and one Orangette soda to drink. Those nickel sodas were pretty darn good. We thought this was going to be the best day of the Summer. Then stinky, smelly Sonny Pigpen showed up.
I decided that Sonny wasn’t going to wreak my day this time. I was going to go out of my way to avoid him and try not to be in his way. That didn’t last long. After I finished my baloney sandwich and Grapette, I decided to go for a climb. I saw that Sonny was already near the end of his climb and so I would be hassle free for my climb. At least that is what I thought.
Getting up the base of the big old tree wasn’t easy and it took quite a bit of time to reach the first branch. I continued on higher and made it up to the third highest branch. I remember Leslie telling me about the broken branch to the left, so I made sure that when I got to the fork to take a right.
As I was making good speed and almost at the fork, I heard a rumble behind me and a voice saying. “Hey Dick-head get out of my way,” and there was pressure of someone crawling up my legs, over my back and almost breaking my arm with his elbow. Sonny was back up the tree and I was no longer safe. I was hoping that I would survive getting down with this clod-hopper now ahead of me.
Sonny reached the fork of the branch and started heading left at the fork. I smiled thinking that this was just what was needed to happen to Sonny, but then my compassion and senses came back to me and I yelled, “Stop.” It didn’t startle Sonny like it had when Leslie yelled that to me.
“Yeah, well who’s gonna make me? Not you, you little pipsqueak.”
I stammered, “But it’s, it’s not…”
“It’s not what?”
And, before I could get the words out I heard the branch break and saw Sonny trying to grab another branch, but couldn’t hold on. It was like slow-motion watching Sonny fall through the air and then I saw it. Leslie’s bike was right underneath where Sonny was falling.
My mouth could not form any words and I nearly fell out of the tree myself when I saw Sonny hit the handlebar of Leslie’s bike. The “Crunch” was sickening. I immediately started sobbing and couldn’t make myself move. I felt paralyzed just as Sonny would be for most of the rest of his life.
EPILOGUE: Fifteen years later, I was operating on Sonny’s spine, doing corrective vertebrae surgery and nerve reconstruction. After graduating from High School and the College of the Pacific (Now University of Pacific), I went on to Stanford Medical School and then interned and did my residency at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. I had always felt bad about what happened to Sonny, so I asked specialist friends to help me, pro-bono, reconstruct Sonny’s spine and nerve system. I paid for Sonny’s trip to Baltimore. The surgery and rehab were a success and Sonny walked out of John’s Hopkins a new man. As I was standing on the sidewalk seeing him get into the cab, he turned to me and said, “Hey, Dick-head, you did good.” As he settled in the back seat of the cab, I saw him wipe a tear from his eye. I must say, this was the bravest thing I ever did to pay back Sonny for his treatment of me.