The old oak tree was an unspoken (and often unthought-of) staple that made the view of the hill above the small town. It was unknown when it had sprouted, everyone just could tell it was old because of how massive it was.
In actuality, the great oak had been planted in the autumn of 1848 buy a small blue jay when a seed had dropped off of a twig it was carrying to build a nest. From then on, the small seed took in nutrients and sprouted in early spring, and continued to grow.
As a budding, just coming out of the ground, the tree was the only witness, apart from the soldiers, to the battle of North and South, when two marching armies ran into each other on an excursion to get the better position for an upcoming attack. That was in 1863 and life was about to bring many events to the tree when it somehow survived. A Union soldier named Joseph McCreery died bleeding onto the roots of that oak tree, his brothers-in-arms carried his lifeless body away to be buried in a mass grave the next day.
In 1899, still relatively young, but big enough to hold weight on its branches, the tree was the scene for the small town’s last execution by hanging when a few robbers known as the Harvey Gang were killed by the sheriff and mayor of the town, Donald Blumesfield. The entire town had treated the occasion as if it were a public show to attend. They all agreed it was a fitting end to the men.
As the prior generations had and new ones entered the world, the oak tree was the scene for happier events.
1923 brought Margaret Addison and her new love-of-her-life Peter Smythe. Their first date happened in the shade of that tree on a cool September evening. The first kiss had been when the sun came down. Margaret and Peter’s relationship revolved around that tree. The proposal had been asked by Peter in the Summer of 1924 and picnics were frequented there. They eventually moved away and never returned in 1932 when the Depression caused Peter to move himself, his wife, and three sons away after losing his third job in two years. They often missed that old tree, but survival in a time of harsh economic downturn was more important.
As birds nested and squirrels gathered in its branches, children played on the ground around the tree. The braver ones would climb as high as they could and swing from the plethora of branches that were sturdy enough to hold them. Little Johnathan Marshall, only eleven years old, slipped from twelve feet up and broke his ankle. A friend, Thomas Walther, snapped a stick off of a branch- momentarily causing the tree pain- to use as a support while he tied the sick to Jonathan’s ankle to walk the crying child home. That was 1925.
No matter how bad things were for the struggling town, children always gathered around the oak for games of war and hide and seek. Ten-year-old Tommy Doyle kissed Lindsay Wallace, who was the same age, on a dare from his friends in 1934. Though Tommy pretended to be sick and Lindsay faked disgust and horror, the two secretly enjoyed it. Tommy courted her in high school and married Lindsay under that same tree in the Fall of 1942, just before Tommy shipped off to fight the European Campaign. He never returned home.
Upon hearing the news in 1944, Lindsay (now) Doyle carried a box of letters and photographs to bury under the leaves of the oak tree as a way of burying her husband- whose body was at the bottom of the English Channel. When she climbed to the top of the hill, she came across another woman named Victoria Winslow- great-granddaughter to Jebadiah Winslow- who had been hanged at this tree or being part of the Harvey Gang. The two explained to each other what they were doing at the tree. Lindsay told of how she had received her first kiss, fallen in love, been proposed to, and gotten married at the tree.
“I am burying this box of memories as a way of burying my husband, his body couldn’t be recovered,” Lindsay spoke.
“My condolences,” said Victoria, “I am visiting from Marfa, Texas to see where an old relative of mine was executed. I am writing a book on bandits in this state.”
The two women bonded over their loose connection of having to do with the oak tree with Victoria aiding her new friend in the metaphorical funeral, even giving a short eulogy of her own. Lindsay had found out that Victoria’s own husband had been in the Marines and had been killed during the attack on Pearl Harbor. They became close friends and were even maids of honor at each other’s second marriages, Lindsay’s happening in 1948 and Victoria’s in 1950. Often, they would visit the oak tree to visit with each other.
In 1958, Buddy Hornbury- a wealthy business owner in the small town- gathered his children around the great oak. He told the family that it had been the spot where he talked to God as a child in the 1920s.
“My dad made ten dollars a week,” he spoke somberly and softly, “I used to pray to the Lord every night here at this tree and ask him to provide my children with a better life than the one I had. The Good Lord was kind to me. He heard my prayers and allowed me to return home safely from the Pacific and allowed me to meet a man named Jonathan Marshall who needed an investment partner to open some small shops.
“Well, together he and worked hard to make the company successful and with God’s aid, we did. I’d like you all to say a prayer for Mr. Marshall, who died last night in his sleep.”
Though no one else would admit to feeling it, Buddy’s daughter, Rebecca, felt a strong spirituality at this tree. She couldn’t see it, but she felt that this tree had a special history of people. She was only eight then but would return to the tree as often as she could, talking to God in her way and feeling a sense of happiness that she knew no one else would be able to understand.
In 1966, Maxwell Courtier gave Rebecca his class ring. Leaves fell around them in the early November night as Rebecca warmed herself in her boyfriend’s letterman jacket. She was working as a secretary in her father’s company and he was a farmhand at Johnson’s Produce right outside of town. Jonathan admitted that he had joined the Army that day and was headed for basic training in Georgia before going to Vietnam. She begged him to run away with her, but Maxwell argued that he needed to do this for himself, his country, and for them. Rebecca did what her father had done growing up and what she did as a little girl, she returned to the tree every night to pray for God to keep her love safe, and He did just that.
Corporal Maxwell Courtier returned home from Vietnam in January of 1968, he married his wife at her favorite spot in town a month later.
In 1973, John Santino arrived at the oak tree after the death of his mother. He was seventeen and wanted to bury a small portion of her ashes within the roots as she wanted. It had been her favorite place as a girl and she would often take Anthony to the tree for picnics and storytelling when he was young. He had made the four-hour drive alone from his grandmother’s house to bury the small amount of her.
While digging, John’s small shovel tapped the rusted lid of another box buried long before. He opened it and found the letters and black and white images of a beautiful couple, apparently named Tommy and Lindsay. He read through the letters of the soldier fighting in Europe and the woman working in a garment shop. The two of them were smitten by each other and the photos made them look like the happiest couple in the world. Though he enjoyed the treasure found in the dirt, John knew it should stay where he found it. Replacing the rusted memories back in the hole, he figured his mother’s ashes would go well being placed on top of the time capsule, giving her memory a friend to be with. John As if by chance, a woman spoke behind him as the last bit of dirt filled the hole.
“Thank you for leaving my old letters and pictures where you found them, dear.”
Jonathan jumped around to find a middle-aged Lindsay standing behind him. The two conversed until late in the night when Lindsay offered John her couch to sleep on for the night so that the kid would not have to drive home in the dark. He graciously accepted, a feeling of acceptance had taken over inside of him of his mother’s passing.
A group of nerdy-but happy high school sophomores used the old oak tree as the place for their film festival submission in 1987. The film was a fifteen-minute ghost story of a kid who was dared by his buddies to spend the night in a cemetery. Well-crafted foam gravestones and rotting jack-o-lantern props were added to the visuals to make them spookier. The group of six friends won second place in the “Short Film” category.
By 1993, the tree was showing signs of its old life. Year after year, it had started blooming fewer leaves than the spring before, giving it bare spots that provided less shade. Still, though, the magic contained held strong.
Yet another proposal happened in 1997 when Barry Winston had gotten his girlfriend, Samantha Hopkins pregnant. He didn’t have a ring, but she still said yes. They were married four months before giving birth to a son in August.
In 2014, the town, now a bustling small city, announced the construction of a new park to be situated on the hill that still held no houses or buildings. It was a way of attracting even more people to the growing metropolis. The oak tree, now bare for ten years as old leaves crumbled off but not sprouting back after age and too many lightning strikes were going to be cut down to make way for a fountain as new trees would be planted in neat rows along walkways and around the playground.
The night before the tree's final demise, a substantial crowd of individuals gave their final respects to the tree. John Santino dug up his mother’s remains and the box of Lindsay’s memories to take to a new home before it could be dug up and thrown away by developers. Barry and Samantha shared one last kiss as their children awkwardly looked away. Maxwell and Rebecca Courtier wept silently for their safe place that would never hold the same draw as before. Many people that night, young and old, now living in other towns or still living in the one the tree habited gave their silent respects to the oak tree that had borne witness to their most intimate experiences. They would all feel a dull sense of loss for the rest of their lives after some man- oblivious and uncaring to what the tree meant to so many people toppled the tree down with a chainsaw.