In the winter of 1976, Northern Wyoming experienced one of the worst cold snaps on record. I remember it well – on the day after Christmas 1976, we awoke to a beautiful blue sky, and three feet of freshly fallen snow.
The outside temperature that morning was – 65 (that’s 65 degrees below zero) Fahrenheit. And that is without the wind chill factor. That’s cold enough to freeze engine oil solid, and cold enough to cause instant frostbite to the membranes and tissues in your throat and mouth. You have to cover your face and breathe only through your nose in those temperatures. Without a heavy goose down parka, heavy mittens, wool socks, moon boots, and extreme cold weather head gear, hypothermia would take hold in less than 15 minutes.
Another thing we noticed was that the huge old willow tree in our front yard was beautiful – its branches a crystalline frost white.
It was also dead – killed by temperatures willow trees just aren’t supposed to be exposed to. In the spring, we were forced to cut the old tree down. Its stump remained for a few years to come – we finally had it removed in 1980 as part of some improvements we were making to the yard at the time.
Willow trees are most commonly found in America in the southern portions of the Midwest and in the southern states. They are susceptible to cold temperatures, as we found out. What a large willow tree was doing in the front yard of a country home in Northern Wyoming is anyone’s guess. I suppose the man who built the house and the Blockplant planted the willow tree for one reason or another.
We had always sort of adored that willow tree. It seemed like a kind of sentinel, something that somehow defined the uniqueness (and major strangeness) of the property. It was really sad, for all of us, I think, to see it go.
Like I said, the stump of the old tree remained for a few years. For one reason or another, that stump became one of my brother’s and mine favorite little play areas. We would play ‘King of the Hill,” trying to knock each other off the stump. We also used it as a podium where we gave speeches mocking our most mock-able teachers. Heh.
We also used the stump for our GI Joe adventures and other action – figure related activities.
My mom always referred to this as “you boys playing with your dolls,” but we were NOT playing with dolls. We were playing with our action figures, thank you very much.
And it wasn’t just GI Joes, either (we had the old school GI Joes, too – the ones that are worth bank today). Some of our favorite action figures were Captain Kirk, Spock, Shazam (if you remember Shazam you probably have a few gray hairs, just like me), Aquaman (majorly collectable today), Bullet Man, the Six Million Dollar Man, his robot nemesis I now forget the name of – another rare collectable – well, you get the idea. And we had the Enterprise Bridge for Kirk and Spock too, and the GI Joe Mobile Support Vehicle – that was one ridiculously cool toy (that one was my brother’s, dammit).
We used to load up the GI Joe Mobile Support Vehicle with every single GI Joe accoutrement we could think of and take the whole thing, along with our GI Joes, out to the stump and play there for hours, the stump of course being the objective of our mission – the stump could be a castle, a mountain, whatever.
And for some reason Captain Kirk wound up with Shazam in my Tonka Winnebago Motorhome (I still have that one) packed to the nines with GI Joe gear. Hmmm – must have been an away mission or something. Hope they got permission from GI Joe. (You might remember the ‘70s Saturday morning live action “Shazam!” show, in which Shazam and some old dude traipsed around the country in a Dodge Winnebago motorhome and got into generally impossible scenarios, which often involved Isis, from another TV show called, appropriately enough, “Isis.” So that was probably where we go this particular idea.)
And of course, we can’t forget our Batman and Robin dol…… er, I mean, action figures. Batman and Robin were the only action figures we ever had who failed one of the missions we invented for them with our imaginations. I really don’t know why. Maybe we were just sick of them – I mean, we had to put up with these two on Superfriends (Superfriends and Scooby Doo, Where Are You? were pretty much our favorite after school cartoons) just about every day after school. Or maybe Batman and Robin just looked too stupid behind the wheel of either my Winnebago or the GI Joe Mobile Support Vehicle.
Whatever the reason, Batman and Robin went out to willow stump in the GI Joe Mobile Support Vehicle and never came back. They got their butts handed to them by the mummy from the GI Joe Secret of the Mummy’s Tomb play set (also lost to history – too bad too, that set goes for $300 on E Bay now!) . That was the prevailing story our imaginations kicked up, anyway. So, in a cruel twist of irony and sadistic glee (well, for the mummy, anyway) Batman and Robin were buried alive at the base of the willow stump.
I actually think we meant to go out there and retrieve our ill-fated dynamic duo, but we sort of forgot about them by the time dad had the stump removed, and so the action figures went along with it.
Hardly a fitting end for the Caped Crusader and his Boy Wonder. Oh, well.
I visited the old house, by invitation of the current occupants, this summer when I went back and visited my hometown. I got a surprise – a new adult willow tree now stood six feet to the north of where the old one had been. The occupants had no idea how it had sprung up, it just broke ground one day by itself, and they decided to give it a chance. And it thrived.
Although I somewhat euphemistically like to think that the house – or more precisely its lingering, ghostly occupants of old – wanted the willow tree back, I have to recognize that logically, it must have just been a matter of time with a portion of the root structure left underground. Even then, it’s taken 37 years to grow back. I guess it’s like they say – the more things change, the more they really do, sometimes, at least, stay the same.