It was July 1976. Much of the country feverishly celebrated the bicentennial. In the small town of Pleasure Heights, Arkansas, Thomas Deerfield was anything but happy. He wasn’t unhappy because of the near-100 temperature or the fact that his neighbor’s dog stole one of his boots off the porch again. His Lucille died in February of an exotic cancer that erupted from nothing the week after Xmas. They were married for forty years, the day she died. Lucille expected 1976 to be a great year. She’d made plans to drag Thomas to see the American Freedom Train at least once. Thomas had no interest in seeing the train. He’d rather have put his feet up under the shade at his brother’s cabin by the pond a few miles east of town. Lucille loved fireworks, parades, rodeos, and the sing-alongs by the creek near downtown.
“It’s time to see the world, Thomas. We’re retired and the world ain’t coming to us.” Lucille had a way of telling her husband nicely what he was going to do.
“I can see my entire world right here,” Thomas told Lucille as he grabbed her hand and winked provocatively at her across the table. “If I want to see the world, I’ll climb the Elm tree by the square,” he said, using one of his favorite and tired jokes. Lucille laughed and pretended to do a fake shot of whiskey as she rolled her eyes at him.
On July 4th, most of the town’s seven hundred and forty-one inhabitants stood on the square silently watching in awe as 72-year-old Thomas climbed one of the oldest elm trees in the state. It was a witness tree, and fifty-five feet tall. Unlike some other largest trees in the state, its circumference was twenty feet. Like so many other people in Pleasure Heights, Thomas had proposed to Lucille under the huge canopy of the elm tree. It had witnessed over two hundred years of different names and faces marching past it and sitting under its majestic foliage.
Most of the townspeople came to the square to eat hot dogs, watch the small parade featuring a mix of children and adults as they played their musical instruments and strode awkwardly around the expansive square. Afterward, the person voted “Most Civic-Minded” would take his or her place on the base of the absent Robert E. Lee statue. In 1958, someone had stolen the entire statue, a theft that everyone within a hundred miles still discusses heatedly. Some theories were wild, such as the one that Postmaster Evans often told. It involved both aliens and communists. No one could figure out how he’d combined those two unlikely groups. It was impossible to go to the diner for lunch without hearing the Postmaster Evans bring up his theory.
No one noticed anything unusual about Thomas as he walked across Main Street and toward the giant elm. I saw him as he walked, but thought nothing of his arrival. Everyone knew him, and many offered their hellos as he walked past them. Fire Chief Raymond used a ladder to stand on as he addressed the commencement of the parade. Thankfully, he didn’t sing his announcement this year. The Chief was one of the immensely likeable people who loved singing, but was tone deaf. He seldom noticed the pained expressions on people’s faces as he treated them to his latest rendition from the radio.
Thomas picked up the ladder, folded it, and continued walking until he was under the tree and about one third of the width of the overhead canopy away from the massive trunk. He propped the ladder and sat on the second rung. He removed his work boots and socks and laid them neatly at the bottom of the ladder. He removed his hat and stuck it on top of his boots.
Without fanfare, he grabbed the ladder and climbed it. As I watched from the edge of the street, his head disappeared into the leaves above him. I watched as one leg went up and then the other. I looked around to see if anyone else was watching. Most people were eating and talking a mile a minute as the kids of the town ran amok, filled with soda, hot dogs, and popcorn. Thomas slowly moved his way back and forth across the horizontal limbs. As he found a spot that supported his weight and allowed him to boost himself up, he climbed to the next limb up. As he climbed, he moved closer and closer to the middle of the tree. At that juncture, the largest limb went slightly to my left and became precarious.
As Thomas reached about halfway, Jim Peters saw me craning my neck and asked me, “Watcha’ watching? A movie?” I shook my head ‘no,’ and pointed. After a few seconds of staring up where my finger pointed, Jim excitedly said, “Who is that?” He said it loud enough for several people to take notice. Within a minute, about a quarter of everyone in that large cluster of people were looking up into the elm tree.
There was a collective chorus of “Who is it?” from multiple angles.
“It’s Thomas Deerfield,” I said, loudly.
“Bull! He’s at least 70,” argued Phillip Douglas. Phillip owned the tire shop and loved saying ‘bull’ or its more vulgar counterpart at least once a minute. “Yes, he’s 72,” I told him. I could hear the name Thomas being echoed across the growing crowd. There were a few gasps from the older ladies as they tried to imagine someone that age climbing a tree. They’d never be able to scold another rambunctious boy for climbing again, not after that day.
I gave up my vantage point and moved back. Instinctively, so did a lot of others observing the tree climb.
“We love you, Thomas!” someone half-jokingly shouted from behind me.
In a testament to the town’s spirit, it didn’t occur to a single resident that Thomas might be on a quest to hurt himself – or that he might fall, even though the likelihood of that outcome was obvious to anyone who’d dare climb any tree taller than thirty feet high.
Like a wave, the chant started from nowhere and subtly grew. “Thomas! Thomas! Thomas!” In a few moments, even the smaller children were chanting.
We all stood in awe as Thomas continued to climb the branch he chose to get as close to the sky as possible. When he could go no further, he stopped and braced himself against the bark of the elm tree.
“I can see the whole world from up here, Lucille,” Thomas shouted over and over. “I can see it! And ain’t none of it got you in it!”
It was a moment of pure collective joy, and most of us laughed.
We stood, watching, holding our breaths for something we couldn’t identify.
“I’m coming down!” Thomas shouted.
To my surprise, most of us below applauded, our hands thunderously giving our approval to the spectacle. It took Thomas thirty minutes to get down low enough to find footing on the ladder again. Several male townspeople were there to help him the last few inches. When Thomas stepped off the ladder, we all applauded again.
Pleasure Heights didn’t just celebrate the bicentennial of the country. It celebrated a life on that 4th of July. Even though we didn’t vote on it, we all started calling the elm tree “Lucille,” a name it still carries today, even in the book someone wrote describing all the old trees in the state.
Thomas lived to be 92. He spent the 20 years after Lucille died immersed in the social life of the small town his wife had loved. He sang, led the town’s parade a few times, and often sat outside the diner saying hello to everyone who passed. He died on Independence Day in 1996. My son June found him sitting under the Elm tree near the square, his hat pulled under his eyes, his back against the tree he stood under as he proposed to the love of his life all those decades ago.
I got a call from the new Chief of Police around 9 a.m. He told me June was at the square with his bicycle and needed me to come as soon as possible.
An hour later, after they’d taken Thomas’ body to the funeral home off Highway 37, June asked me what happened to Thomas. Since June was old enough to know the story, I put my hand on his shoulder and said, “June, love finally caught up to him. He went to the see the world.” Although June didn’t understand what I meant, he hugged me. We both smiled as we walked to stand a moment under the witness tree’s canopy. The heat was almost unbearable without a breeze. I looked up, and told June, “You wouldn’t believe it, but I was here when Thomas climbed almost to the top of this elm tree…”