The advantages of growing up close to an ash tree
Every kid ought to grow up in a neighborhood graced by at least one ash tree.
There was a fine specimen of the species just two houses down from mine and I thought it was the best thing in the world.
Well, maybe not better than a set of foam pads for my BMX bike, or watching a corpulent man in a singlet pretend to puke on “Portland Wrestling,” or that game where you slammed a plastic football player’s helmet as hard as you could to kick a plastic football through plastic uprights or possibly into the side of your younger sister’s head.
But the ash tree was pretty awesome just the same.
Its greatest attribute — actually its only attribute, as the tree wasn’t tall enough to make climbing it worthwhile, nor stout enough to build a fort in — was that it produced each year a veritable bonanza of berries.
I believe this to be a common trait of ash trees, although I’m no botanist.
These fruits were about the size of blueberries, this being the only thing they had in common with blueberries, except for the word “berries.”
The ash berries grew in clumps as big around as a tennis ball, and they were an alarming shade of yellowish orange that on a sunny day could sear your retinas.
Which is nothing compared to the damage, ocular and otherwise, that the berries could cause when you hucked a handful at somebody riding by on a bicycle at a rate that only a 10-year-old kid pedaling a one-speed can muster.
A velocity best measured in parsecs per hour, in other words.
The ash tree grew in the park strip between the sidewalk and the street, and its branches overhung both routes of travel.
This made it a most versatile ammunition depot because you could yank off berries while riding on the street or the sidewalk.
Our street was North Fern Avenue although I never saw any ferns growing nearby. It was — and still is, I expect — a typically tranquil suburban street of modest one-story homes.
(I’m stretching the definition of “suburban” since Stayton isn’t really a suburb, but the word is accurate enough in this context. My neighborhood would look perfectly appropriate on the periphery of any major city.)
There were basketball hoops and chain-link fences and a lot of flower beds that were refreshed each spring with new, aromatic barkdust. You often smelled the pleasant aroma of simmering charcoal briquettes, and heard the hollow smack of a plastic bat striking a whiffle-ball.
We had the usual complement of kids — a couple of older boys who you could sometimes slip past for an easy lay-in, others who would run home sniveling when you beat them at horse, a few girls who you hoped would stroll past on the sidewalk at the exact instant when you broke free from your older (and much stronger) brother’s grasp to dash in for a touchdown.
This last never happened, of course.
There was as well a small but eternally fascinating contingent of adult neighbors who you rarely saw but always assumed were engaged in various illegal activities in their basements, possibly involving unspeakable experiments performed on local cats.
And of course there was one cantankerous elderly lady who wouldn’t toss back your baseball if you fouled one off and it went over the hedge. Naturally she owned a tiny but vicious dog which she carried in a purse, or anyway some purse-like container, from which it would occasionally and unpredictably emerge, like some awful jack-in-the-box that could, if it escaped, simultaneously draw blood from your ankle and pee on your sneakers.
So anyway it was a great place to grow up, and especially because of that ash tree.
We had plenty of fun just pedaling up and down the street and the sidewalks — especially the latter because there were curb cuts for each driveway and you could sometimes get pretty good air if you went off one these miniature ramps just right.
(You could also get a pretty good flesh wound if you didn’t. And usually you didn’t.)
But the presence of the ash tree, and specifically its function as an arsenal, added a martial element to our maneuvers that kept us in the saddle for hours.
The whole enterprise had a medieval flavor to it that reminded me of nothing so much as jousting, except we rode 20-inch bicycles instead of horses, and carried fistfuls of ash berries instead of long wooden poles.
(Sometimes we rode around clutching sticks we had picked up in a small copse of Douglas-fir and white oak, but those were more typically an infantry weapon. Also the fir sticks could ooze pitch, which makes an awful mess of foam handlebar grips.)
Our rolling duels rarely ended with a decisive victory because the berries, though abundant, were so small that they didn’t as a rule deliver much of a wallop.
Once in a great while, though, if you squished a bunch of berries to the proper pulpy consistency, and then got lucky with your aim — they had the ballistic attributes of, well, a blueberry — you could spew fluorescent juice all over a foe’s cheek or forehead, making him look as if he had had a terrible accident in a factory that makes those dyes they put in breakfast cereals.
Whenever this happened to me I rode straight home to wash the stuff off before it could burn a hole in my face, which I knew it would do if given the chance.
(Why the juice posed no similar threat to my hands I can’t say.)
Our affinity for the ash tree, and for our bicycles, was not the result of our growing up during a technologically stunted era when kids had nothing better to do but go outside and get all scabbed up.
My dad loves electronic gadgets and we were the first family among my circle of acquaintances who owned a Pong console, the original video game.
We replaced that with an Atari 2600 — the one with the fake-wood cabinet and the game cassettes that remind me of scaled-down 8-tracks.
We whiled away many days playing Combat and Asteroids and other games, but it never seemed to me quite as satisfying to toss electronic dots around on the screen as to heave ash berries all over the neighborhood.
You could try to inject some physicality into Atari, of course, but if you threw the joystick you were liable to break something or impale a sibling — either outcome likely to attract Dad’s attention, a most unwanted development in any situation involving the destruction of property or the injury of an innocent younger sister.
It so happens that there is an ash tree on the Baker City street where I have lived for almost 18 years. It must be a slightly different variety, though, because its berries seem to me neither as plentiful nor as fluorescent.
I’ve never plucked any berries from this tree but I’m glad it’s there. Whenever I pedal past it my childhood feels much less historical than the accumulation of years insists it must be.
And I wonder if I could still make those berries fly.