Thursday, October 1, 2015

It CAN'T Be the Shoes!?

Fall, Harvest season, the Autumnal Equinox (, you are seriously lacking in the synonym department); these are amazing in Ohio: the colors, the weather and the state's official tree scattering the landscape with the brown, poisonous nut that Ohio's flagship university has as its preeminent, fear-inducing mascot....the buckeye.

Each September the Aesculus Glabra (ESS-kew-less GLAY-bruh....when did science begin using Star Wars as its basis for explaining nature?), a.k.a the Buckeye Tree, spreads its achene like the Johnny Appleseed of the this-looks-pretty-but-its-toxic-and-the-joke-is-on-you world. Many folks, including my family, typically gather the buckeyes and use them as fall decor around the house. As kids, we kept them for good luck. Now we did not have a Buckeye Tree in our large yard growing up, but many of our neighbors did. This includes our church, which was about a half-mile down our street.

One fall, I think I was about 12 or 13, my mom suggested as we left church on a Sunday morning that she could use the buckeyes resting on the ground near our car. My brother, sister and I thought nothing more of it as we were more interested in doing jack squat the rest of the day. We were all in sports and other activities and Sunday was typically our only day without something scheduled. We wanted to be lazy, before being dragged back to school Monday morning.

Later on, possibly in an effort to get us out of her hair and the house, mom mentioned the gathering of those buckeyes again. Now she may have really wanted them, but Linda is famous for repeating requests, must-dos and you-need-to-dos so much that it would drive a sane person nuts (or to gather nuts as it would be). I had college roommates who acted as hostage negotiators talking me out of shoving my head into our mini-fridge freezer compartment after phone calls from mom. They would ask, "Why did she keep repeating that? You answered her like eight times?" Did she think I was hard of hearing? There were times I secretly wished I was.

This particular afternoon was warm and sunny and we had nothing else better to do (and really didn't want to hear her ask AGAIN). So my brother Chad (about 15 at the time) and I made our way back up the street to the Richmond Dale United Methodist Church to gather what we could from the giant Buckeye Tree jutting out of the church's lawn.

Upon our arrival we noticed many of the spherical brown nuts were gone - someone had beaten us to them. We garnered the few remaining felled decorative toxic balls, but if we were to get more we would need to have them come to us. This, my friend, was a challenge. Most mature Buckeye Trees are anywhere from 50 to 80 feet high with a long, round trunk. This means most branches, or limbs, are well out of the reach for normal human beings.

Chad and I had a bag for the buckeyes and the clothes on our backs. The question: what do we have, or can we find, to use as weapons against nature? Then it donned on us - shoes, we have SHOES! If we just throttle a shoe into this tree's massive canopy, we are bound to knock loose some of the noxious nuts that were being held from us....pure genius.

Soon we had buckeyes raining down on us like the sixth seal of the apocalypse - all we had to do as fling a shoe into the tree in our church's side yard, I'm sure this happens everyday. As it was, everything was going much better than we had anticipated, but apparently karma was not amused.

On his next throw, more buckeyes fell - but Chad's shoe did not return. Instead it was being held for ransom, it became lodged in between branches. We were stunned momentarily, but no worries we thought...we have other shoes. With decent aim, we're be back in business.

And we were - until shoe number two did not return. Undeterred, we keep at it. More buckeyes fell -but a force field of some kind was keeping us from dislodging our kidnapped feet protectors. Before we knew it, shoe number three was also occupying an excellent viewpoint of our hometown in the midst of this great buckeye topiary.

Now panic began to set in.

We had dozens of buckeyes - the tree had three of our shoes. Our only weapon was, of course, our fourth and final shoe. Do we risk walking the half-mile home, shoeless, with our tails between our legs and explain to mom that we were bullied by a tree? That we were on the wrong side of a Jack and the Beanstalk like trade? That we were the subject of a bible school lesson we were apparently not aware of?

I can only imagine what passersby were thinking seeing the two of us staring solemnly into the canopy of this tree that somehow spontaneously started producing a pair of Nikes and a left foot Reebok. Richmond Dale is a super small town -  we would never hear the end of it if we had to breakdown and call either Pastor Pete or knock on the fire department's door, which just so happened to be directly across the street from the church.

Visions of Pastor Pete mocking us the following Sunday telling the congregation about the program we started collecting shoes for a less fortunate grove of deciduous outside of town; or our volunteer firefighters explaining they had to save our sneakers after they were chased up the tree by a pack of rabid, stray cats; or the local newspaper's article about the miracle tree of Ross County that's producing shoes. Screw that turning water into wine thing! Christians from all around would descend on Richmond Dale waiting for the next sign from above.

We suppressed our impending embarrassment and decided to try our luck with recovering our captive shoes. It was like a reverse Wizard of Oz - instead the tree was collecting our belongings and not angrily tossing apples at us.

Along with our remaining shoe, we used some of the branches that fell during our rogue buckeye collecting exercise as ammunition toward knocking free our footwear. It was a challenge, but slowly our desperation and persistence paid off. One, then two, and what seemed to take forever, the third shoe was swiped from the clutches of the Aesculus Glabra.

Chad and I sat there in exhausted elation, our arms sore and necks stiff from having to look straight into the sky for the past two hours. Being at eye level with things gave us a vertigo-like experience until our senses gathered themselves and returned to normal. Once recovery set in, we gathered our buckeyes, put on our shoes and tied them as tight as we could - ignoring the lack of circulation to our extremities. We had our shoes, we didn't care if we could feel our feet.

Similar to wounded warriors returning from a successful, but disheartening battle, we marched the half-mile back up Market Street in relief that the ordeal was over - mission accomplished. Saddened, though, that our pride and humility continued to lie bloodied and motionless underneath the massive, sneering Richmond Dale landmark.

To this day our nemesis still stands, presiding over the United Methodist Church kingdom it rules without regard to anything or anyone - pelting passersby each fall with buckeyes, warding off ne'er-do-wells. I can feel it staring at me whenever I return to my hometown, I'm sure it hasn't forgotten.

Buckeyes, despite their history and beauty, are not worth your shoes.

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