My Mostly Happy Life: Autobiography of a Climbing Tree

Updated 2 years ago By Shelly Reuben
My Mostly Happy Life:  Autobiography of a Climbing Tree
Illustrations by Ruth McGraw

Chapter 1 - Young Samuel Swerling

Trees get to know a lot of people.

The longer we live, the more people we know.

And the more we know about them.

Over the years we, meaning my fellow climbing trees and I, have developed a huge vocabulary of human beings. Mostly, they are city dwellers, except for the arborist who shaped us. His name is Alonso Hannah, he came from the Pacific Northwest, and he only has one arm. He lost his left arm just below the elbow in an accident that he never discussed. But the loss didn’t seem to affect him, because he was bigger and stronger and more capable than ninety-nine percent of the men out there who weren’t missing a limb. Early in his association with Mr. Swerling, I heard him grunt, “A man only needs one shovel and a shovel only needs one arm to dig a hole to plant a tree.”

At first, Alonso wasn’t a friendly man. But he knew what he was doing, and nobody has ever quite accomplished what he did in terms of shaping trees. I’m not sure if some of the ideas were Alonso’s or if all of them originated with Sam Swerling. Either way, you can’t argue with results, and by the time they were finished with us, we looked great.

Well, we thought we looked great. So did Sam. And so did all those children.

That’s what counts.

Or what used to.

Back then, I thought of Sam as Mr. Swerling. I still do. But he didn’t like formality, and made sure everyone involved in creating the park called him by his first name. Not Samuel Swerling, either.

Sam. Just Sam.

I tried. I still try.

Sometimes I call him Sam. Sometimes I refer to him as Samuel. But in my heart of hearts, he will always be Mr. Swerling to me.

That is how much I respect him. That is how much I love him.

He’s gone now, of course. He was born in a big slum in our big city in the year 1911, and he died at a family picnic in his very own park – my park – two weeks before his ninety-first birthday. You don’t have to know much about Sam’s early years, except that he survived the grim and gritty streets of a childhood during which, he later told newspaper reporters, he never saw a tree. That’s right. Until he was eighteen years old, Samuel Swerling had never seen a tree, a lawn, a garden, or a park bench.

But the city college he attended had a small quadrangle of grass surrounded by classrooms, and thriving within that lush green quarter-acre were half-a-dozen large and lovely elm trees. In the early 1980s, the Dutch elm disease killed them and all the other elms in the city, but before they died, they were magnificent. When Mr. Swerling talked about those trees to interviewers, he always used the same four words: “They stirred my soul.”

I like that.

It affects me.

When I visualize Samuel Swerling, it is always as he was on the day that we met: A handsome young man with a high forehead and a prominent nose, his profile not unlike that on the face of the Indian on a Buffalo nickel. I can still see the rakish tilt of his fedora hat, his always-impeccable three-piece suit, his brightly colored polka dot necktie, and the mirror shine on his wingtip shoes.

My Mostly Happy Life:  Autobiography of a Climbing Tree

But when I get to the left side of his chest where his beating heart should be, my memory substitutes a tiny arboretum, and I see fluttering leaves performing the task he ascribed so long ago to those beautiful elms.

They are stirring his soul.

I should give you a bit more background so that you can better understand the things that happened later.

Samuel Swerling’s parents were immigrants from a never-referred-to Baltic country they were happy to escape from and forget. His father was a hard-working carpenter. His mother was a seamstress. He had an older brother named Jacob.

A photograph taken of the two boys when they were nine and ten years old shows them standing side-by-side, both wearing wrinkled white shirts and Sam in a scruffy necktie.

My Mostly Happy Life:  Autobiography of a Climbing Tree

Sam’s left hand is on his hip; Jack’s hands are invisible to the camera but hanging loosely at his side, as relaxed as a gunfighter confident that his fingers are within easy reach of his six-shooter. They looked like miniature grown-ups, except that on their heads were the kinds of caps worn by newspaper boys in the early 1900s, and on their faces were the knowing grins of street urchins.

These boys were survivors.

And survive they did.

Their father saved the money he earned as a carpenter, and he invested it in real estate and formal dress wear. First he opened one tuxedo rental store. Then another. And another. By the time the Swerling boys were in their teens, each was managing a different tuxedo rental store after school and on weekends.

They went to college. Jack graduated, continued on to law school, and passed the bar. Sam dropped out of school to become an entrepreneur. By the time they entered the

military for World War II, Jack was a practicing attorney, and Sam was a full-time inventor.

During the war years, Jack served as a lawyer in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps (JAG) in Europe, while Sam worked in the United States and England on communications design and expedited techniques for teaching Morse code to recruits.

Jack met his future wife in college, and they were already married before he enlisted.

Sam didn’t get married until ten years after the war.

Both had children.

Jack succeeded in his law practice and made enough money to move his family to the suburbs.

Sam succeeded on an even grander scale. He continued to invent (retractable wheels, folding luggage, rotating signs, convex mirrors, security systems), and he became a wealthy man. But he never moved out of the city that he loved, and he bought a five-bedroom condominium in an apartment building across the street from his park.

My park.

In it, thousands of children have played since the first trees, of which I am one, were planted.

It is where his wife strolled with her baby carriages after their children were born, and it is where all five of them played when they were growing up.

I was the first tree that Sam Swerling’s children climbed.

I was the first tree that his grandchildren climbed.

And with my arms outstretched, I will be the first tree that their children climb.

But perhaps it would be best not to anticipate events.

Copyright © 2017, Shelly Reuben

Originally published in The Evening Sun, Norwich, NY - Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her books, visit

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