The path to the tree was just as long as always. This trip, however, was unlike the countless ones Keegan, Tommy and I had made as boys. We walked those in 30 minutes or so, whereas this one took twelve years. The turn off to the trail was still hidden, but I didn’t mind, that’s what made it secret. There were places that had grown over and the debris of the forest littered the way, but, like Ebenezer Scrooge, I felt I could have walked it blindfolded.
As I entered the clearing at the end of the path the tree stood majestically—just as we had left it. It had grown quite a bit in 20 years, so had I. Yet, standing there, looking up at the familiar limbs, I felt like a little boy again and smiled, and remembered.
We didn’t know we were different at the time. We all liked frogs and didn’t like girls, and that’s pretty much all that mattered. Still, the real reason we became friends was probably the result of a statistical anomaly: we were all born on October 1st. What are the chances of that in a town of less than 500 people? It seemed as if our friendship was destiny.
Keegan was an old soul, organized to a fault and with everything he owned always in its assigned place. He was also a meticulous planner and the de facto leader of our little group. Tommy was the rich kid who didn’t know it. He wore Toughskins and Keds and always looked like he needed a haircut. He was a fearless defender of the downtrodden and the unquestioned heart of JTK, as we called ourselves. The “J” was for Jason, that’s me.
I was average, so much so that even I don’t even remember what I was known for, but I fit in with Keegan and Tommy, and on our 10th birthday we found the tree.
It was a perfect day for exploring the woods, sunny but with a crisp breeze. The leaves had started to turn bright orange and red and those that were already on the ground made the crinkling sound of fall. Sticks we found became swords and we pretended to be pirates.
We spent many a day in those woods, so much so we considered ourselves experts, but we had never seen the trail that led to the tree, not until that day. Being young and fearless we did as boys usually do, we investigated.
When we came to a clearing at the end of the path Keegan and I ran into the opening as if we were trying to win a race. Tommy, who walked in more slowly to take in this new secret place, saw the tree first, and in a flash, navigated up the perfectly placed branches. Where others might have seen a challenge, Tommy saw an opportunity. He was always reaching higher and the tree seemed as if it was made for him to climb.
Keegan, as he was wont to do, decided we should build a fort and began barking orders. He had it all worked out, we could use the boughs and branches that were plentiful in the field to create the shell of what would become our hangout. We never minded when he took charge as he was a benevolent dictator and always did the most work and did it well.
We didn’t get very far when Tommy yelled, “Oh my gosh! You guys won’t believe this!” Within seconds Keegan and I made our way up the tree to Tommy. To our surprise, right there carved in the tree, twenty feet above ground were the initials “JTK 1901.” I’m sure it was just a terrific coincidence, but to us it was a sign that this was our tree, our woods, and our secret place.
The rest of that day was adolescent boy perfection. We built a makeshift fort, one we improved over time. Throughout the years, boughs and branches would be replaced with boards, nails, and an old windowpane Keegan had “borrowed” from his dad. That day we stayed much later than we should’ve, but we were able to sit together and watch the sunset while drinking grape juice boxes. It was Tommy who came up with the idea just before we started back. “Let’s spend every birthday here together!”
“It’s a deal!” I agreed instantly.
“I’m in,” Keegan added.
“It has to be a promise,” Tommy insisted.
“I promise,” I responded, holding my hand up like a witness in court.
“I promise, too,” Keegan joined in, with conviction and the covenant was complete.
Young boys make and break promises easily, but we were true to our word for the next eight years. There was one time we practically had to carry Keegan to the tree because he’d broken his leg playing football and another where Tommy dragged me there three weeks after my dad died. I was inconsolable and isolated. That birthday, at the tree, was the beginning of my healing. Tommy knew I needed to be there even if I didn’t. It was an act of love, not common at our age, and one I’ll never forget. Yes, we were always there on our birthday with grape juice boxes at sunset.
Then real life happened. Keegan left for college in California, becoming an electrical engineer. Tommy joined the army spending almost two full tours in Iraq. He had a servant's heart and a hero’s soul, though we always heard of his selfless deeds second hand. I wasn’t made for college or the military, so I stayed in town and worked at my family's hardware store. We made one last promise on our 18th birthday. We’d meet at the tree on our 30th birthday, watch the sunset and drink one more juice box together. It was a promise between best friends and a commitment to stay that way.
When Keegan called me last week, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Like I said, he’s always been the planner. I thought it would be impossible to keep our promise, but Keegan would have none of it. He would drive cross country to be there on October 1st, and he intended to pick up Tommy on the way.
I had just one job, to bring the juice boxes, grape as always.
I was there early. I wanted time to reflect, but I soon heard footsteps coming through the paths we had explored as children. I turned to see Keegan walking towards me, reverently holding Tommy’s urn.
No words were spoken. Keegan and I sat down and stuck our straws in our grape juice boxes. Then the three of us watched the sunset together, just as we had promised.