It was June 1970. I lived in a tiny village in southwestern Wisconsin. School had just let out for the summer. I was excited because my 13th birthday was in a week and I was about to start my first real job of my life. I was to work for the Village of Gays Mills with the Neighborhood Youth Corp. Low income families were qualified to work for the Corp. My father had passed away a couple years prior and my mother was way qualified due to her six children.
My job for the Village was a jack of all trades. You could find me sweeping the entire main street weekly. I mowed everything that needed mowing in town from sewer holding ponds to the cemetery. The curbs and crosswalks needed painting yearly and that was one of my tasks. There were three of us that were the “Corp.”
One day our supervisor Alvin Lee asked for a volunteer to help him plant some trees down by the park near the dam. I was quick to volunteer because I thought I had a green thumb. The green thumb came from a Weeblos Scouting Contest where I had won first place in a seed to flower contest. Mine was the tallest and best. It was judged by our Den Mother Marie Kuzinar.
I was given the shovel by Alvin and told to have at it. I was to plant six sapling Cottonwoods and six evergreen small bushes. Alvin told me the general areas and spaces he wanted them planted. Alvin told me to alternate one male and one female Cottonwood. I thought he was kidding. I had no idea that trees had gender. Alvin told me the females were the only ones to actually produce cotton. They shed their cotton yearly in June for 10-14 days.
I had never been given any responsibilities in life before. I remember looking at the trees after I planted them and admiring my handy work. I was truly proud of myself. I worried a lot about the sapling trees due to them being so small when I planted them. I went back that summer often and the next summer to check on my trees. They were growing straight and strong. They were on their own from then on I thought.
The years passed quickly. At least 30 times a summer I would go down to the banks of the Kickapoo River and fish. I looked at my trees and bushes each trip. They were getting quite tall. One trip I remember quite vividly. It was a mid June day and the wind was coming from the East.
An eastern wind is unusual. It was a warm wind and quite forceful. The fish were going wild hitting white fuzzy things on the surface. I scooped up some to see what it was. It looked like cotton. I quickly found out where the cotton came from. My Cottonwood trees were throwing off cotton. I examined the six trees and only one was doing the cotton thing. I thought I had planted three male and three female cottonwoods. It was obvious I had only planted one female.
I told the female versus male cottonwood story many times through the years. I was proud of my trees. I shared the story of planting them with anyone who would listen. I remember the summer of 1985 well. My wife Barb and I were dating. We were down at the dam watching the submarine races and I told her about my trees. Almost on cue an east wind caused my female cottonwood to shed her cotton and it caused quite a commotion on the water. I remember it so well because it was the night I told Barb I loved her for the first time.
Decades have gone by since then. Through the years I have bragged that those trees over there…I planted them to anyone who would listen. My trees and bushes grew and grew. Each time I went down there I would look at them and smile.
Two years ago I was fishing on the othe side of the stream in May. I noticed my Cottonwood trees were not leafing out like typical. I went over to examine them. They looked like they weren’t doing well. I researched on the internet what could be wrong with them. At the end of the article it said: “Cottonwoods seldom live past fifty years at maximum.” I did the math quickly and my trees were forty-seven years old. It was hard to fathom that I could outlive a tree. I found it quite ironic that when I planted them there was no internet.
I told my wife Barb about my trees two years back. I watched them deteriorate. A couple of them had to be cut down. The others just died. My female cottonwood was the last to leave. The village planted some maple sapling to replace them.
Today my wife and I drove past the park. I stopped to look at what was left of my trees. The bushes were still thriving. That could not be said for the cottonwoods. I snapped a photo of the stump of my female cottonwood’s remains. In the background is the parking lot we enjoyed the submarine races in.
On the way home today we talked about the tree. I was sad. I told her I was going to write a story about my trees. My cottonwood trees were gone now but the story about them will live on forever. I told Barb that was the reason I write. It was so some of me will live on after I am gone. People reading my stories might shed a tear when they read my tales or smile when they read about my travels through life.