Distance and time—that’s how adults measure journeys. But because we were just boys, distance didn’t matter and time didn’t exist.
Now, as I retraced the familiar path of my youth—the path that led to our tree—I realized that the distance hadn’t changed, but the journey that used to take 30 minutes had taken me twelve years.
The turn off to the trail was still hidden. I was glad about that, it's what made our place secret. There were also short stretches where the route had been covered by overgrowth and the canopy of trees that surrounded me, as I walked, obscured everything except for my childhood memories. The path, like most I've walked, was anything but straight, but the light at the end was as bright and warm as ever.
When I entered the clearing we had discovered all those years ago, I looked to my left and saw our tree—almost exactly 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 were three young boys who didn’t know we were different. 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. It seemed as if our friendship was destined.
Keegan, the blonde haired, blue eyed golden child, was an old soul, organized to a fault, as everything he owned was always in its assigned place. He was a meticulous planner and the de facto leader of our little group. As for Tommy? Well he was the rich kid, but you’d never know it to look at him. He wore Toughskins jeans and Keds sneakers and always looked like he needed a haircut. Yet 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 the very definition of average. You might even say forgettable, so much so that even I don’t even remember what I was known for. But for some reason I fit in with Keegan and Tommy, and on our 10th birthday we found the tree.
“Let’s go for a walk.” That’s how our journey began, I think it was Tommy’s idea but I can’t say for sure. It was, however, a perfect day for exploring the woods, sunny 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 for a moment we were pirates engaged in duels shouting things like “Avast ye matey” and “Arr!”
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. In a flash, he 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 always doing the most work and doing 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 see what was so important.
“Look, over there,” Tommy said pointing to the west. “It’s my house.” Then he turned and pointed north “And Jason, there’s your father’s hardware store.” I was surprised at how small everything looked from the top of our tree.
“There’s our school and my house right behind it,” Keegan exclaimed, imploring Tommy and I to look.
“We can see everything from here,” Tommy said softly, “This is our place and our tree, now and forever.” Keegan and I nodded our heads in agreement.
The rest of that day was adolescent boy perfection. We built a makeshift fort, one we improved upon with each subsequent trip. Throughout the years, boughs, branches, and leaves were replaced with boards, nails, and an old windowpane Keegan had “borrowed” from his dad.
That first day we stayed much later than we should’ve, but we were able to sit together and watch the sunset while drinking Juicy Juice grape juice boxes, just being boys and becoming lifelong friends.
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.
Then we all shook hands 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 time when Tommy dragged me there three weeks after my dad died. I had been 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 Juicy Juice grape juice boxes at sunset.
Then, as is always the case, three boys became young men. Keegan left for college in California, becoming an electrical engineer. Tommy joined the army doing 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, Juicy Juice grape as always.
I arrived 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 just sat down silently and stuck the straws in our juice boxes. Then the three of us watched the sunset together, just as we had promised.