The H Tree   Growing up, my hometown had four basic landmarks. There was the swinging bridge built by Republican voting independent farmers that populated the community during the Great Depression under the WPA.    There was the merry-go-round that was slowly rotting away in the grocery store gravel parking lot. My friends and I would fire our cap guns leaning over the side of the horses like the cowboys in the movies our fathers watched and try to avoid fingers in one of the moving parts.  It would be saved when I was in high school by some wonderful citizens and is now a source of civic pride. It is easy to tell how proud they are of it because they now call it by the French word “carousel” instead of merry-go-round. When an academic uses German, a doctor or lawyer uses Latin, or a Norwegian tries to wrap their tongue around a French word, it is clearly important.   There was the giant statue of a chef dressed in white that stood in front of a local restaurant. Kids could push a button on its base and the chef spoke some pre- recorded message. Although he remained silent for a few months after some of the high school kids who worked there snuck down to the basement and swapped out the tapes. I guess several of the town’s fathers did not find humor in what he wanted to do with his giant spoon.   And a few miles outside of town, there was the H-Tree. The tree had been there just about as long as anyone could remember. It was really two trees, a slippery elm and a white elm, that had grafted together to form a giant H. A full-grown man with his arms outstretched could stand under the crossbar of the H. It was always claimed that the local Native American tribe had grafted the two trees together in some mysterious way that no one could quite explain to serve as a marker for the best place to ford the nearby river, but it was highly unlikely that any of the settlers asked them about the tree as they were too busy chasing the local Indians off their land with guns.     As kids we heard the stories of young couples parking nearing the H tree, how in the midst of passion one couple had seen something move in the shadows as the radio announcer reported an escaped killer with a hook for a hand was on the loose. Frightened, the girl demanded the boy take her home. Angry, he slammed the car into gear. When they got back to her parent’s place, there dangling from the passenger door was a bloody hook. It never really made sense to us. If you were a mad dog killer, would they really let you walk around an asylum or prison with a sharpened hook for a hand?   There was a farmer nearby that had a hook for a hand, but as far as anyone knew, he had never lost it anywhere and none of us had ever seen a bloody hook dangling from a passenger door.  He had enough trouble trying to take a dip of tobacco with it, let alone trying to open some kid’s car door in the middle of the night.   My friends and I knew the truth. It was the Gateway to Hell, old Beelzebub’s doorway. If you walked underneath the crossbar of the H at exactly the stroke of midnight, you were as likely as not to find yourself in Mephistopheles’ bedchambers. None of us really questioned why the devil needed a doorway just outside a community of stoic Norwegian farmers where the most sacrilegious thing that probably happened of a Saturday night were a couple of Ole and Lena jokes. We knew the truth. The H-tree was the Gateway to Hell, period, end of sentence. Our brothers had told us that and they wouldn’t lie.   One of my best friends growing up was named Matt. He was one of those kids for whom the expression “grew up on the wrong side of the tracks” was coined. If my hometown would have had railroad tracks cutting through the center of town, he was on the wrong side. While almost everyone with older siblings had hand-me- downs, he had hand-me-downs of hand-me-downs of hand-me-downs of probably hand-me-downs to wear. His mother might have been one of the most amazing people I ever met. She somehow kept a family of eight kids clothed and feed. And there was a night or two she sat at the top of the steps with a baseball bat so her children could sleep and not have to worry about the pounding fists on the other side of the door coming from their downstairs.   His father pretty much drank. If he wasn’t drinking, he was popping pills. I don’t think there was a moment I ever saw the old man sober.  Mainly, he just stared straight ahead and smoked. Whatever he was looking at must have been pretty interesting, but I never saw it. I know my friend was embarrassed when his father would send us uptown to a local bar that is no longer there to get a bottle of gin or dispatch us to his brother’s house to get him some pills. Half the time we came back his father would be passed out. Fun thing is we never thought about drinking any of the gin or taking the pills. Even though some of the adults in the community viewed my friend in a harsh light, he was a good kid.     He had a little green Gemini SST 50cc mini-bike that was probably as old as we were and more often than not left a major burn on your inner-thigh from the hot muffler. Before we could count to ten with 100 percent certainty, we had formed a dirt ring around his house going faster than we should have and more often than not flying off over the top of the handlebars, landing with a thud into some bushes or the hard dirt.   There are certain truths in life. One of them is when elementary school kids find out the gates to hell are just a few miles away, someone is going to use the word “chicken.” This will escalate to “chic-chic-chicken” and that same person will put their fists in their armpits, flapping their wings, and walking with their hind end out like a member of the poultry family.  There is no going back when someone challenges your less than decade old manhood.   We were going to walk through the gates of hell at midnight because we were bad to the bone and get there the only way two elementary school kids could, on a mini- bike that burned your inner-thigh.    Armed with nun-chucks and throwing stars because if you are going to potentially battle demons, nun-chucks and throwing stars are the weapons of choice, not that anyone you knew actually knew how to use them. Throwing stars, six to nine inches away from a table, deadly, any further, total crap. If you could go more than two seconds into a Bruce Lee imitation without slamming a nun-chuck into your crotch or forehead you were gifted. This was the era of Kung Fu reruns and no one told us Bruce Lee had been dead for a long time. So, every elementary school boy thought they were the height of cool. Plus, perfectly reasonable adults thought it was okay to sell such things to elementary school kids back then!      Now, in a Stephen King novel a group of boys have interesting conversations and adventures on their way to entering the gates of hell. In reality, the main two sentences spoken on our trip as we drove into the night was “My thigh is on fire, stop, stop!” and “I got to pee, stop, stop!”   Driving a mini-bike on pitch black Iowa gravel roads is not that much fun unless you enjoy things vibrating and slamming violently into the seat with each bump and rut in the road as your thigh burns. I guess the closest thing one can compare it to is being married to a Kardashian. We arrived at our destination, laid the mini-bike in the grass, hopped the fence, and stood before the Gateway to Hell, the H-tree.   We steeled ourselves for our upcoming combat with the under-lord. The darkness of the night added to the tension. Standing in front of the doorway, one small step and we would cross the under bar into hell itself, my best friend told me there was no one he would rather go into hell with, I agreed, and then gave him a forearm shove across the threshold. When I saw he just fell into the dirt on the other side of the tree, I walked across.   What? Did you think we were chicks or something? We were elementary school boys. He would have done the same thing to me. I just shoved him first.    We didn’t enter hell that night. Matt just went home. We made several more trips out to the H-tree over the next few years on bicycles and later mopeds and finally cars. We never found the gates to hell, just an old tree slowly dying of Dutch elm disease.  They cut the top off of it to try to keep it from toppling. Matt moved away after high school, moved out west, and made something of himself.  One day soon after he left, the H-tree just blew over in a storm. I guess the gates to hell were not needed anymore.  
The H Tree   Growing up, my hometown had four basic landmarks. There was the swinging bridge built by Republican voting independent farmers that populated the community during the Great Depression under the WPA.    There was the merry-go-round that was slowly rotting away in the grocery store gravel parking lot. My friends and I would fire our cap guns leaning over the side of the horses like the cowboys in the movies our fathers watched and try to avoid fingers in one of the moving parts.  It would be saved when I was in high school by some wonderful citizens and is now a source of civic pride. It is easy to tell how proud they are of it because they now call it by the French word “carousel” instead of merry-go-round. When an academic uses German, a doctor or lawyer uses Latin, or a Norwegian tries to wrap their tongue around a French word, it is clearly important.   There was the giant statue of a chef dressed in white that stood in front of a local restaurant. Kids could push a button on its base and the chef spoke some pre-recorded message. Although he remained silent for a few months after some of the high school kids who worked there snuck down to the basement and swapped out the tapes. I guess several of the town’s fathers did not find humor in what he wanted to do with his giant spoon.   And a few miles outside of town, there was the H-Tree. The tree had been there just about as long as anyone could remember. It was really two trees, a slippery elm and a white elm, that had grafted together to form a giant H. A full-grown man with his arms outstretched could stand under the crossbar of the H. It was always claimed that the local Native American tribe had grafted the two trees together in some mysterious way that no one could quite explain to serve as a marker for the best place to ford the nearby river, but it was highly unlikely that any of the settlers asked them about the tree as they were too busy chasing the local Indians off their land with guns.     As kids we heard the stories of young couples parking nearing the H tree, how in the midst of passion one couple had seen something move in the shadows as the radio announcer reported an escaped killer with a hook for a hand was on the loose. Frightened, the girl demanded the boy take her home. Angry, he slammed the car into gear. When they got back to her parent’s place, there dangling from the passenger door was a bloody hook. It never really made sense to us. If you were a mad dog killer, would they really let you walk around an asylum or prison with a sharpened hook for a hand?   There was a farmer nearby that had a hook for a hand, but as far as anyone knew, he had never lost it anywhere and none of us had ever seen a bloody hook dangling from a passenger door.  He had enough trouble trying to take a dip of tobacco with it, let alone trying to open some kid’s car door in the middle of the night.   My friends and I knew the truth. It was the Gateway to Hell, old Beelzebub’s doorway. If you walked underneath the crossbar of the H at exactly the stroke of midnight, you were as likely as not to find yourself in Mephistopheles’ bedchambers. None of us really questioned why the devil needed a doorway just outside a community of stoic Norwegian farmers where the most sacrilegious thing that probably happened of a Saturday night were a couple of Ole and Lena jokes. We knew the truth. The H-tree was the Gateway to Hell, period, end of sentence. Our brothers had told us that and they wouldn’t lie.   One of my best friends growing up was named Matt. He was one of those kids for whom the expression “grew up on the wrong side of the tracks” was coined. If my hometown would have had railroad tracks cutting through the center of town, he was on the wrong side. While almost everyone with older siblings had hand-me-downs, he had hand-me-downs of hand-me-downs of hand- me-downs of probably hand-me-downs to wear. His mother might have been one of the most amazing people I ever met. She somehow kept a family of eight kids clothed and feed. And there was a night or two she sat at the top of the steps with a baseball bat so her children could sleep and not have to worry about the pounding fists on the other side of the door coming from their downstairs.   His father pretty much drank. If he wasn’t drinking, he was popping pills. I don’t think there was a moment I ever saw the old man sober.  Mainly, he just stared straight ahead and smoked. Whatever he was looking at must have been pretty interesting, but I never saw it. I know my friend was embarrassed when his father would send us uptown to a local bar that is no longer there to get a bottle of gin or dispatch us to his brother’s house to get him some pills. Half the time we came back his father would be passed out. Fun thing is we never thought about drinking any of the gin or taking the pills. Even though some of the adults in the community viewed my friend in a harsh light, he was a good kid.     He had a little green Gemini SST 50cc mini- bike that was probably as old as we were and more often than not left a major burn on your inner-thigh from the hot muffler. Before we could count to ten with 100 percent certainty, we had formed a dirt ring around his house going faster than we should have and more often than not flying off over the top of the handlebars, landing with a thud into some bushes or the hard dirt.   There are certain truths in life. One of them is when elementary school kids find out the gates to hell are just a few miles away, someone is going to use the word “chicken.” This will escalate to “chic-chic-chicken” and that same person will put their fists in their armpits, flapping their wings, and walking with their hind end out like a member of the poultry family.  There is no going back when someone challenges your less than decade old manhood.   We were going to walk through the gates of hell at midnight because we were bad to the bone and get there the only way two elementary school kids could, on a mini-bike that burned your inner-thigh.    Armed with nun-chucks and throwing stars because if you are going to potentially battle demons, nun-chucks and throwing stars are the weapons of choice, not that anyone you knew actually knew how to use them. Throwing stars, six to nine inches away from a table, deadly, any further, total crap. If you could go more than two seconds into a Bruce Lee imitation without slamming a nun-chuck into your crotch or forehead you were gifted. This was the era of Kung Fu reruns and no one told us Bruce Lee had been dead for a long time. So, every elementary school boy thought they were the height of cool. Plus, perfectly reasonable adults thought it was okay to sell such things to elementary school kids back then!      Now, in a Stephen King novel a group of boys have interesting conversations and adventures on their way to entering the gates of hell. In reality, the main two sentences spoken on our trip as we drove into the night was “My thigh is on fire, stop, stop!” and “I got to pee, stop, stop!”   Driving a mini-bike on pitch black Iowa gravel roads is not that much fun unless you enjoy things vibrating and slamming violently into the seat with each bump and rut in the road as your thigh burns. I guess the closest thing one can compare it to is being married to a Kardashian. We arrived at our destination, laid the mini-bike in the grass, hopped the fence, and stood before the Gateway to Hell,  the H-tree.   We steeled ourselves for our upcoming combat with the under-lord. The darkness of the night added to the tension. Standing in front of the doorway, one small step and we would cross the under bar into hell itself, my best friend told me there was no one he would rather go into hell with, I agreed, and then gave him a forearm shove across the threshold. When I saw he just fell into the dirt on the other side of the tree, I walked across.   What? Did you think we were chicks or something? We were elementary school boys. He would have done the same thing to me. I just shoved him first.    We didn’t enter hell that night. Matt just went home. We made several more trips out to the H-tree over the next few years on bicycles and later mopeds and finally cars. We never found the gates to hell, just an old tree slowly dying of Dutch elm disease.  They cut the top off of it to try to keep it from toppling. Matt moved away after high school, moved out west, and made something of himself.  One day soon after he left, the H-tree just blew over in a storm. I guess the gates to hell were not needed anymore.