Chapter Two SHELLY REUBEN’S NEW NOVEL: My Mostly Happy Life – Autobiography of a Climbing tree

Updated 2 years ago By Shelly Reuben
Chapter Two SHELLY REUBEN’S NEW NOVEL: My Mostly Happy Life – Autobiography of a Climbing tree

Illustrations by Ruth McGraw

Chapter 2 – Birth of a Park

In 1939, while the world was slogging through the swamp of the Great Depression, the City held a sale of derelict buildings that it had seized for back taxes. Samuel Swerling used every penny of the money he had saved while working in his father’s tuxedo rental stores, and he bought four of them.  

They were small structures that occupied an entire city block, but they were constructed so shabbily that they had no intrinsic value. The rocky terrain they occupied was elevated above the level of the surrounding streets, as though eons ago the earth’s crust had surged upward in exactly that spot. Sam wanted the land, not the buildings on the land, so he donated them to the fire department for training exercises. His only condition was that after they had been incinerated, the city would remove the debris at its own expense.  

This was accomplished before the beginning of World War II.

Alonso Hannah, Mr. Swerling’s arborist, was twenty-two-years-old when the United States entered the war. Despite repeated attempts to join the army, navy, and marines, he reluctantly accepted that no branch of the military wanted a one-armed warrior, and he resigned himself to staying on the job that Mr. Swerling had given him before the first bomb dropped on Pearl Harbor.

Chapter Two SHELLY REUBEN’S NEW NOVEL: My Mostly Happy Life – Autobiography of a Climbing tree

Alonso Hannah with Shovel


Alonso’s primary responsibility was to provide young trees for the park, and to train them into shapes that, as Mr. Swerling put it, “positively begged children to leap into their branches and climb to the very top!”

Sam Swerling vowed that others would enjoy what he, himself, had missed as a child: Up close-and-personal time spent with trees. Trees that boys and girls could study as if they were living books; trees in which they could observe birds and butterflies fluttering among the leaves; ants and caterpillars inching in and out of crevices; squirrels and chipmunks scampering up and down trunks. Trees where their little feet could find toe holds and their small hands clasp sturdy branches. Trees they could ascend to dizzying heights, eagerly gazing out upon streets, skyscrapers, and bridges, their eyes following the course of our river until it empties into the sea.

Sam Swerling was in love with trees.

And somewhere along the line, Alonso Hannah, his young, dour, and dedicated arborist, fell in love with us, too.  

Before Mr. Swerling went to war, he and Alonso designed every aspect of the park. They poured over blueprints, drawings, and schematics. They decided where to drain ground water; how much clean gravel and dirt to import; where to construct pathways; where to lay water pipes, install fountains, and build a foot bridge over a small flowing creek. They selected a pattern for the decorative wrought iron fence that would surround the park, and decided where to plant grass, shrubs, ground cover, flowerbeds, and trees.  

Among the trees that they planted were climbing trees (me and my pals); shade trees (maples, oaks, and chestnuts); flowering trees (dogwoods, magnolias, and crape myrtle); and fruit trees (apples, cherries, and pears).

Sam Swerling obtained permits, applied for and got tax-exempt status, and signed a contract with the City wherein the Samuel Swerling Trust would retain ownership of the park, pay for park maintenance, and employ a full-time groundskeeper/gardener with the authority to hire part-time employees as needed and upon approval of the trustees. The City would be responsible for snow removal, trash disposal, repairing and replacing street lamps, and providing police protection.  

In exchange for those municipal obligations, our gates would be kept open twenty-four hours a day, three hundred and sixty-five days a year, and the park would be accessible to ragamuffins, socialites, delivery boys, amateur botanists, business executives, chess players, art students, rambunctious children, and everybody in between.  

Surrounded as it was (and is) by elegant door-manned apartment buildings, the park’s location is an excellent deterrent to vandalism and vagrancy. The worst rash of criminal activity occurs every spring, when old ladies from nearby buildings stroll through the wrought iron entrance gate with pruning shears rolled up in sheets of newspaper, and sneak out fifteen minutes later with clusters of lilacs hidden in shopping bags the size of circus tents.

Alonso Hannah and his crew built the Samuel Swerling Park during the five years that his employer was off fighting Nazis during World War II.  

It took all five of those years.

Although Alonso was initially not a city boy, the park turned him into one, and after creating that single square of greenery, it became his entire life. It remained so until the day that he met Pepita St. Claire.

In looks and stature, Alonso Hannah loomed like a one-armed giant in a fairytale. He had broad slightly stooped shoulders and one big calloused hand. He was not a handsome young man, and as he aged, his looks did not improve, but his face became friendlier. He had a nose like a drooping cucumber, a high forehead, tufts of dark red hair that banked either side of his bald pate like rusty shrubs, and bristling eyebrows that jutted out over hooded eyes. The combination should have been off-putting, but wasn’t. Nor were the deep creases on the sides of his mouth – a scowl on anyone else, but on Alonso, merely battle scars of a man who had spent too much time in the sun.

When he worked, and I can personally attest to this, since much of my life was spent in his presence, Alonso sang or hummed arias from operas. He had a beautiful baritone voice, and one year (the year he met Pepita), he sang so often and so loudly that out of sheer listening pleasure, my pals and I grew an extra foot in height.

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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