Southern Folks: Up on the hill under a tree

Bill Stamps

When I was a little kid, growing up out in the country a few miles south of Columbia, Tennessee, I knew and explored every house, barn, silo, creek and hillside in that little farming community.

Always at my side was my dog and faithful companion, Prince. A little black-and-white cocker-and-everything-else mix. It wasn't until years after I named Prince that I, quite by accident, discovered that he was a she. I can't help it. I still refer to Prince as he.

Southern Folks

All country children have three things in common. They fish, ride ponies and mules, and they get Mama-dragged to church on Sunday mornings. Back then, some, depending on their faith, went two or three times a week. I used to think those Baptists living on the other side of the bridge sure must be doing a lot of sinning.

Another thing we kids did was climb trees. We had three or four trees well known to us all as tall and challenging. There was a big poplar on the north bank of the creek just down from our swimming hole. Another couple of rough-bark, century-old, oak trees sat out back of Widow Stephenson's house.

Her neighbor, an old bald-headed man, would watch for us. You could see him pull back the curtain and peep out. He stuttered. As soon as one of us shimmied up to the first limb, he would run across the backyard, still in his bathrobe and holler us out of the yard with, "Y'all gi-gi-gi-gi-git!" We were long gone before he got it all out.

The tallest tree of the bunch was a great big silver maple that sat up above town and cast shade on the hillside graves of local war heroes and important families. Kids tried to climb the tree but gave it up when they got to a certain height. The limbs up there were bigger and further apart. I was small and acrobatic and had no fear. I gained a neighborhood reputation for being the only kid who had sat on the last top limb of the silver maple.

Almost every day, I'd sit under the tree with Prince, watch the clouds and the birds and silver-tailed squirrels and think. Mostly, daydream. Sometimes, for many reasons, I'd go up there to cry. Prince licked my tears. When it rained, I'd sit up close to the silver maple's trunk and hardly get wet. Mother Nature and her Creator provided me security. Prince lay over my lap.

It was quiet and tranquil up there. Hardly anybody came up through the week. Weekends and holidays, a few families dropped by to pay their respects. Two widows came up every Sunday right after church let out. They'd help each other stay balanced on their wobbly walk down the gravel path and then pray over each other's husband's graves.

From the silver maple, I'd watch them clutch hands, tissue their eyes and whisper to the dearly departed loves of their lives.

There was an old man and his daughter who came up every so often and pulled weeds and did some sprucing up. The old man would nod. His daughter, a big woman, probably in her 50s, seemed a little off. She kept her head down. The old man could barely walk, just kinda shuffled along. About all either of them said to me was "Hey" and "Bye."

I reckoned that if I had an important prayer to send to God, it would be more quickly received by him from the top of the silver maple. I climbed it many times and repeated the same prayer. "Please get my parents back together." It never came to be. Our local man of the cloth - Preacher Man, we called him - told me, "Well, boy, the Lord must have his reasons." That's all he said.

In those days, I thought Preacher Man was kind of magical. He had a direct line to God. He started out his Sunday morning and Wednesday evening services with, "Praise the Lord and amen. Friends, I just got through talkin' to the Lord." And then, he'd take off into his sermon. That, and he showed up out of nowhere! He didn't drive, yet every time I turned around, at a ball game, somebody's house or Timbuktu, out of thin air, there he was! Magical.

In the cooler months, baby breezes passed through and made the silver maple's leaves rattle. As it got colder, its leaves turned pale yellow and crimson orange. Just a nudge of prewinter's wind pulled them loose and they fell to the ground, covering some of the marble headstones and all of the gravel path.

The silver maple stood up there stripped of its color, old and somber, but still alive. Almost defiantly so.

Before summer, the silver maple's leaves were green again. Orange-breasted robins built their nests up in the middle of the tree and flew away and back several times a day. You could hear their babies crying for them and cooing their thanks for the countless mini-meals they received throughout the daylight hours.

Preacher Man came up the hill one day with a little red dog following him. Back then, dogs ran all over the place. Most everybody knew what kids came from what family. Their dogs as well. Seems like all the grown-ups knew what you were doing, getting ready to do, had done, what you were thinking and where you were at all times. Preacher Man told me that God had told him that I was up there.

He sat beside me up next to the silver maple and patted my back. He talked to me about life, the Almighty and trees. Somehow, he knew of my love for the silver maple. It wasn't that surprising to me. I figured God or one of the grown-ups told him. Prince and the red dog chased after one another.

Preacher Man took his hat off and wiped his brow. He told me, "Son, you don't need to climb to the top of this tree to git closer to God. He hears yuh from wherever yuh are. Besides, a good many of the prayers the Lord receives come from people in very low places." I got that.

He went on, "And one more thing, boy. God told me to tell yuh to stop climbin' his maple tree. He says, if'n yuh need to git in touch with him right away, come tell me. I talk with him all the time." He patted my back again, and he and the little red dog walked back down the hill.

Simple as that. Thanks, Preacher Man.

Bill Stamps spent four decades in the entertainment business before moving from Los Angeles to Cleveland, Tenn. Contact him at or through Facebook.