semantikon feature literature
Nov. 2003
Patrick Sebastian

Patrick Sebastian has been writing and performing for some 12 years. Works from his chap book Growing Up Jimmy, featured here, have been serialized in City Paper.

Patrick's column Dorothy and the Snake Handlers is available exclusively

About Artist:

patric sebastian, dayton ohio, sante fe, new mexico, essayist, humor, poetry, performance artist, growing up jimmy, dorothy and the snake handlers

Tree Hugger

In my experience, it was the lucky kids who got into trouble only to be grounded or lose their allowance for a week. These possibilities, of course, implied that they went places to be grounded from and received an allowance that could be suspended. I knew neither of these luxuries. My parents must have graduated from the Butcher Holler Gestapo of Child Rearing & Endangerment. While Mom could do some damage with a hairbrush and Dad resigned himself to a belt or bare hand on occasion, their very favorite ever-ready arsenal was as close as our backyard elm.

When the chores weren’t completed, when I “talked back,” when I persisted in shutting my bedroom door despite their wishes, the offended parent went for the living room corner where three or four switches leaned at the ready. With the impossible command to “Be still!” the limber young switch sliced the air and welted my dancing legs and their defending arms. Of course I ran. Of course I was chased, caught, and whipped with an even more determined vengeance. Dad was a holy-roller redneck Zorro, who would defend the distressed damsel of his authority and ego until the surrender of my tears.

One of the first times I was old enough to be left at home alone I demolished the entire switch armada. The rush, however brief, was exhilarating. As soon as the station wagon was out of view, I lunged into action. Like a delirious Joan Crawford pillaging her rose garden with an axe, I feverishly carried out my premeditated plan. I used every utensil I could find in the house to hack those switches into a million bits. This, of course, led to the same horror that happened when Dad would break a switch in mid-use. I would be sent, walking like a lamb to the slaughter, to collect a switch from the tree myself. Should I return with a specimen too short or too dry, I would only be sent again and try his patience further. “And for his next trick, Ladies and Gentlemen, Isaac will actually build the altar on which he will be sacrificed!” Abraham, as it turned out, spared his son. Dad would take a painfully firm grip on my forearm with his left hand while his right wielded the switch at what felt, and sounded like, humming bird-wing speed as we danced in a loud, violent circle. As often as I was sent to sever switches, it’s surprising the backyard elm wasn’t left with fewer branches than our family tree.

Where did this particularly vicious form of corporal punishment come from? No one I knew, outside of relatives, was experiencing this unique and routine torture. I can only imagine that this practice originated in the poor South where poverty dictated that trousers were held up by pieces of rope, not unaffordable belts, but trees were plentiful. In my adulthood, I’ve attempted to retain the valuable lessons from my childhood, say…learning to tie my shoes, and to extract or change things that don’t, and sometimes never have, served me. There have been many changes. My diet has evolved, for instance, from the heart-stopping deep fried fat smothered with gravy I grew up on to one that is comfortably vegetarian. As a result of my diet choices, I’m sometimes labeled a hippie, even though I was in a high chair, not in the Haight Ashbury Summer of Love. And, sometimes I’m grouped with the supposedly eco-mad “tree huggers.” Of course, it’s a label. It’s shallow and trite and meant to be offensive. Yet, I have to say the truth is, it does warm my heart with a certain satisfaction to see a tree, any tree, all of its limbs intact.