The Old Coot reads the comics

In a “Hi and Lois” comic strip in a newspaper the other day, “HI” pointed out a carving in a tree trunk to his teenage son. It contained the initials BW + AG scratched inside a heart. Hi’s son said, “Cool, so that’s how people shared their relationship status before social media.” 

If you don’t read the comics (we called them “The Funnies” when I was a kid) you are missing out on a lot of wisdom, served up with a chuckle. Sometimes an outright belly laugh. Certainly more uplifting than the news items in the rest of the paper.

People have carved messages in trees, school desks, benches, fences, and any material that yields to a jackknife or any sharp, pointed object. The most poignant example of using a tree to convey a lasting message is that of the “Scythe Tree,” along Route 20 between Geneva and Waterloo, N.Y. If scythe is a foreign word to the vocabulary in your head, replace it with sickle, the kind that farmers used (still do in some places) to cut hay, so it can be bundled and stored. 

A young man (teenager really) by the name of James Johnson volunteered to fight for the Union in the Civil War. He hung his scythe in the notch of a tree in his yard and asked his parents to leave it there until he returned. He didn’t return. He died on May 22, 1864 and was buried in an unmarked, battlefield grave. His parents refused to believe he wasn’t coming home. They considered his request to leave the scythe hanging as a sacred vow.

Years passed; the tree grew around the blade; the wooden handle rotted away. Decades later, the sons in the farm’s new family, Raymond and Lynn Schafer, left home to serve in World War One. They, too, hung a scythe in the tree. They returned home, but left their scythes hanging, to honor the memory of James Johnson.    

I’ve stopped by on several occasions when traveling through the area to pay my respects. The scythes are still partially visible, but the top portion of the tree has fallen away; only the stump remains. The site contains a small marker, placed there by the local Rotary Club.

I have the “Hi and Lois” comic strip to thank for stirring up the Scythe Tree memory. Read the comics for the wisdom and for the memories, they might dredge out of the fog in your head. Or, just for a chuckle.  

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