By Shelly Reuben
My Mostly Happy Life: Autobiography of a Climbing Tree CHAPTER 14

Illustrations by Ruth McGraw

Chapter 14 – A Period of Relative Calm

Despite its air of enchantment, the Samuel Swerling Park exists in the real world, on terra firma, and is subjected to the same social, political, and atmospheric conditions as is every other municipal park.

Yet, there are differences.  

The first and most important being that ours is the only privately owned park in the city. Therefore, and despite occasional bureaucratic intrusions by elected officials, we are autonomous and can make, impose, and enforce our own rules.

The second difference, even though our park is surrounded on all four sides by public streets, is that the wrought iron fence which defines our perimeter has only one entrance.   

My Mostly Happy Life: Autobiography of a Climbing Tree CHAPTER 14

The third difference is our security system. Although it is every bit as sophisticated as the fictional system that Alonso Hannah dreamed up to intimidate Jarvis Larchmont, it has the added advantage of being real, and it is monitored full time by an on-site groundskeeper.

The fourth difference is our greenhouse, which was inspired by the iron and glass conservatories popular in Victorian England during the 1800s. Unlike those classic conservatories, however, our little jewel of a building is paneled in two-way glass so that those who are inside can observe everything going on outside the greenhouse, but those who are outside can only see their own reflections in the glass.

All of these differences – freedom from bureaucracy; single-gated entrance; monitored security system; Victorian greenhouse; and groundskeeper on premises – provide excellent deterrents to undesirable visitors.

Speaking of which, the primary deterrent to crime in the Samuel Swerling Park happens to be the current occupant of the greenhouse, Alonso’s and Pepita’s son, Hercules Hannah. Giant-like in stature but lynx-like in speed, Hercules can quell disturbances armed with nothing more menacing than a scowl.

Hercules (everyone calls him Herk) was not named after the Greek god, but after Samuel Swerling’s first successful invention, the Hercules Burglar Alarm, the profits from which Sam channeled to Alonso during the war, so that his landscaper could use the money to build the park. 

My Mostly Happy Life: Autobiography of a Climbing Tree CHAPTER 14

There is a poem printed on a plaque posted at the entrance to the Samuel Swerling Park which alerts visitors about the behavior that is expected of them. Sam’s daughter, Honor, wrote it:  

Samuel Swerling Park Our rules are simple, Short and Sweet. Keep it Civil. Keep it neat. Romp and frolic. Climb a tree. Walk on grass respectfully. Jump a rope. Play a game. Then … Please visit us again!!! 

From the day that the park was first opened until this very minute, we have endured and enjoyed many things. Even in good times, though, demagogues lurked along our perimeters, eager to breathe blistering flames of bureaucracy through our gate.

Their motives?

“For the good of the people.” “For the city’s well-being.” “For the benefit of the park.”

Humph!

The last politician who espoused such lofty objectives almost killed us. And by “us,” I mean the climbing trees. But by then, I suppose, we should have been used to it, such interference dating back to shortly after Mr. Swerling’s return home from the war.

Our mayor at the time was Joseph Tiberius Hyland.

During Mayor Hyland’s first year in office, he announced that he was going to expand public transportation throughout the city by building a surface tram-line, the projected route for which would run through the heart of the Samuel Swerling Park. His proposal was quickly approved by a compliant City Council, and as quickly sent to Governor Vincent Cavalcante for his signature.

Governor Cavalcante was an interesting man. Very well liked and considered more a conciliator than a combatant, he had a doting wife, two daughters, and a son named Arthur. During World War II, Arthur worked closely with Samuel Swerling, designing and implementing communication devices.

Over time, the two men became great friends.

Eight weeks after the victory was declared in Europe, Sam was sent home. Three weeks later, Arthur followed. But on his way home, he decided to stop off in Sam’s city to visit his old friend.

It was a felicitous reunion, the highpoint being the tour that Sam gave Arthur of the park. Within seconds of walking through the gate, the governor’s son fell in love with the Samuel Swerling Park. So much so that when Sam told him about Mayor Hyland’s plan to run a tram-line through its center, and that a bill authorizing funding to do so was currently sitting on his father’s desk, Arthur was appalled.

He took the next train home.

His mother greeted him at the door. He kissed her, and asked, “Where’s Dad?” Minutes later, Arthur burst in on his father and told him about Sam Swerling and the Samuel Swerling Park.

Governor Cavalcante was a good husband, a devoted father, and a reasonable man.

The tram project was killed, the Samuel Swerling Park was spared, and when it was all over, Sam named a park bench after Arthur’s father (you can see it on a knoll overlooking the only bridge above the park’s creek).

And that was that.

At least, for a time.

Forty years later, the Department of Transportation decided that a new street should diagonally bisect Sam’s property, connecting both avenues, and effectively destroying the park.

Why?

Another puzzlement.

Maybe the Commissioner of Transportation’s wife thought she was snubbed by Sam’s wife at a party. Maybe the Deputy Commissioner’s son was reprimanded by Alonso for throwing stones

in the Children’s Garden. Maybe Sam offended a politico by not slapping the right back, not kowtowing to the right aide, or not contributing to the right campaign.

Regardless of the catalyst, the ingredients are always the same: Petty bureaucrat carrying a big grudge and seeking to wield terrible power.

This time, however, Sam Swerling had resources of his own.

His journalist son Desmond wrote a blistering front-page article about municipal corruption.

His film producer son Tennyson made an award winning documentary about the assault on the sovereignty of private parks in general and the Samuel Swerling Park in specific.

His nephew Franklin (other than reciting poetry in trees, he is also a constitutional lawyer) filed a lawsuit threatening to “bring the city to its municipal knees.”

And the proposal to bisect and destroy the park disappeared.

Ironclad contracts designed to protect private property, such as the one that Samuel Swerling had with the city, are often ignored. Sam called it the “I want what you have principle,” and deplored those who practiced it.

As long as he lived, he fought to defend his right to use his property as he saw fit.

And as long as he lived, he had to fight.

After he died, the battle went on.

 

Copyright © 2017, Shelly Reuben Originally published in The Evening Sun, Norwich, NY - evesun.com Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her work, visit www.shellyreuben.com.