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THE MAGICAL PEAR TREE
The True Story of My Friend:
A Black Soldier, and His Miracle
By Don Noyes-More Ph.D.
"It's been years since Douglas and I last spoke.
But in heart and soul we remain friends. Time changed so much in our lives. I told Douglas years ago I'd write his story.
It's done (2005).
The 1950's were a slow and somewhat peaceful time for most African-Americans living in Petersburg,
Virginia. Yet the pall of segregation and disenfranchisement hung low over the small tobacco town and its southern Virginia
people. For many generations, even from slavery days, slaves, freed Blacks, poor white people, and mixed race including those
with Cherokee blood, lived and worked under the painfully hot Virginia sun; toiling year in and out and so it had always been,
and still was, one sultry and humid Virginia morning in July 1958.
1958 was not much different than any of the other years that had passed since Virginia's post Civil War reconstruction.
People still woke up looking to the same long hours of work at the local tobacco company. Mornings tobacco workers would listen
for the mill whistle that told everyone they had an hour to get to work. If you were late you'd get sent home or worse. The
sticky-humid 12 hour days during the summer seemed to last forever. The incessant heat would slow everyone down to a long,
hot, wet crawl. The pungent smell of the tobacco mixed with sweat and stayed with everyone like glue. Workers collected tobacco
leavings from the work floor to roll their own cigarettes. Every day was the same. Gallons and years of sweat stained the
yellowed floors. Black faces shined with the wet toil. Some workers died where they worked, on their feet, sick and exhausted.
The old Black Shad man in his wagon still made a slow progress through the
neighborhoods, "Shad, now, Shad now," was his cry. He was seen with a straw hat pulled down half over his face. At 12 Douglas
would run from the old house and wave at the passing Shad man on his wagon. Even at that age Douglas knew this was something
that would last only in a memory sone day. The Shad man tipped his hat to Douglas as he passed. Smiles were exchanged. The
day seemed right when he saw the Shad man.
lively, intelligent, and strong for a boy of twelve, curious about everything. He was often asking questions people found
baffling or disturbing, "shut yo' mouth boy," would be the curt response to a dangerous question. Douglas just did not seem
to understand why things were different for Black folks. He never would.
Downtown Petersburg comprised a couple dozen or so brick and stone buildings. The most noteworthy building was the
bank building with its fine stone fašade and large windows. Black folk never entered Downtown stores from the front door,
back door only and they may have to order something from the door, not being allowed to shop with White people. Downtown was
mainly the domain of the white folks. Douglas knew at an early age that Black boys never stopped to look in the windows and
never went in any of the stores, including the ice cream parlor. That ice cream parlor was the stuff of Douglas' dreams, so
pretty and bright. The thought of those ice cream sundaes made Douglas' trips past the parlor slower and slower. "If only
I could go in one time," he thought to himself. He could see the white boys and girls laughing and enjoying their ice cream,
he'd pause a moment and pictured himself sitting there too. A smile would come to his face and he'd move on.
Miles down the road from Petersburg was an abandoned plantation. There were
acres of orchards sorely in need of tending. Sitting by itself in the long abandoned orchard was a giant of a tree with twisting
branches and a canopy wide and broad. This was known as the magical pear tree. People said all sorts of things about it including
that wishes made touching its trunk would come true. It was a slave tradition going back over 200 years. The tree was a favorite
spot for Douglas and his climbing abilities, a spot where he felt safe and would play for hours. He also played in the ruins
of the old plantation house. This was a plantation where many of Douglas' family toiled during slave days, a place where numbers
of Douglas' family were buried in unmarked graves; and the slave cabins still remained empty and very quiet. He remembered
his great-grandpa that would tell stories of the slave days. “Yep, yo’ great-great grandma Sarah cost ol’
Massa $475 dollars cash money.” Yet the real tale was in the joy of this singular Black boy
who played in the ruins of a system that so cheated and kept his ancestors in bondage.
Years passed, but sleepy, hot, Petersburg stayed very much the same. The struggle for integration was but a whisper
in Petersburg. The institutions remained segregated. The days of work were end to end and the cycle of life and death played
out as ever before.
Vietnam seemed so very far away
to the people of Petersburg, but many of the boys, Black and White were going. Most saw it as the only way out of town, the
only way out of a life that never changed and offered few the opportunity of a comfortable living. Douglas now 19 was one
of those boys ready for a change, ready to leave it all behind; leaving behind the hurt, the struggle, and pain, in this Southern
bowl of hot bean soup, greens and cornbread. To leave behind and try to forget never getting an ice cream cone in the one
ice cream parlor in town, of the sense of shame felt by being excluded, of being on the outside looking in.
Death was everywhere from the moment Douglas stepped off the plane in Vietnam.
The smell of heat and death crept into his body, up his nose and swirled around his eyes. Vietnam was not easy. The skank
half-rot, half-sweat was on every thing and everywhere in Vietnam. And there was also a moral fungus that spread through almost
each soldier in Nam, moments of intense fear and hate of everything Vietnamese, except the whores in town.
They dying seemed ever present. Fear was like Douglas' shadow, he wondered if it would ever
leave him. He thought of Petersburg, "Never saw this kind of death at home," Douglas thought fearfully. He started thinking
of home and the magic pear tree, the “wishing tree”, if he could only be there, if for only a few minutes.
The nurse and doctor stood above Douglas, they were busy sewing up cut blood
vessels, and his torn limbs. There was blood everywhere. Douglas could hear the conversation above him but as much as he wanted
to, he could not speak. He faded into a warm sleep. A soft whirling kind of sound filled his ears.
He woke up confused
at first. "What’s above me?" He had problems clearing his eyes. A large blooming tree spread above him. A warm breeze
wrapped around Douglas flowing down through the tree. He saw pear blossoms in the tree. Where was he? "There ain't no pear
trees in Vietnam," he was thinking to himself. He looked around and finally was able to sit up. He was under the magic pear
tree he climbed in as a boy. He was confused and disoriented. Where was Vietnam? He looked at himself and he was not “shot
up”, but well and healthy. He saw someone walking slowly through the trees in the distance. He knew the person. He stood
up with some difficulty at first, and then the person came closer. It was the old Shad man, the one who drove the wagon through
town was walking up to him. "How could this be?" Douglas thought to himself, “the Shad man had died many years ago.”
Closer and closer the old man approached him. "How you be son?" He asked Douglas. Douglas did not have words to respond. "You
know I've missed you," the old man said touching Douglas's shoulder. "I don't understand," Douglas said softly to the old
man. "It's OK you don't need to understand," the Shad man said smiling. "You go'in to be all right now son, you be under the
pear tree. What you need do is make yo'self a wish on this tree." The old man smiled again. "I don't get it, what do you mean,
what do I wish for?" Douglas said in a confused manner. "Wish yourself back live son, see it's not yo' turn to come here,
so jus' wish yo' self live." The old man took Douglas' arm and directed it to the trunk of the old tree. "Now wish yo' self-live,
do it now," the Shad man directed pointing to the tree. Douglas could hardly force the words from himself but confused and
slowly they came, "I wish myself alive," he said with the palm of his hand upon the trunk of the tree. The old Shad man smiled.
"See boy it not be your turn, not now!" A warm breeze picked up colors, which strangely flowed around Douglas and started
to blend into each other, everything became blurred. The last thing Douglas saw was the smile on the Shad man's face. He heard
the old man say, "we be meeting again some day son, I comes fo' you then." There was warm all over Douglas, like warm water,
and then all became dark.
up on a hospital bed, he could smell and feel the heat, and he felt intense pain from his wounds. He was back in Vietnam.
After a few weeks Douglas was released to go home
and recover at an Army hospital in the States. A couple months later Douglas finally made his way home to Petersburg from
the Army hospital. He drove slowly into town, past the ice cream parlor, which had closed while he was in Viet Nam. Douglas
drove down the dusty country road, out to the old plantation. He got out of the car and walked into the overgrown orchard
towards the Magic Pear Tree. A warm breeze wrapped around him. The leaves on the tree fluttered in the breeze, streams of
silver sun shone through the wide tree. Douglas walked up to the old tree and put his large scared hand on the gnarled trunk.
"I'm alive,... I'm home," he said with a smile, then tears came. "I'm home."
Douglas went back to Vietnam for a second tour of duty. He married a Vietnamese woman and
they had two children. After his last tour of duty Douglas, his wife and children stayed on in Vietnam. The new People’s
government a month after the Liberation Army entered Ho Chi Minh City evacuated Douglas and his family to Thailand.
Douglas moved from his home
in Maryland and is now living near Downtown Los Angeles. His son is a Downtown clothes designer and his daughter is a designer
living on the West Side of LA.
Vietnamese wife left him many years ago and has a business that takes her all over the west. They still remain married.
This is the story I promised Douglas I would write.
Update: I have not heard from Douglas or his family in many years. I know he moved back to Maryland.
|PLANTATION AFTER CIVIL WAR c. 1866