The Elm Tree

Words by Sloane Citron

Photos by Scott R. Kline

The towering elm is on the right side of the lawn near the street at my childhood home in Amarillo; it is, if you will, perfectly positioned to take on the role of first base. Its bark is etched with deep grooves and winding, circuitous paths. The mature tree’s solid trunk supports a large canopy of branches and leaves that blow and sway with the strong Amarillo winds.

The elm trees were planted about every 50 feet on the street lines when Charles Wolflin first thought to develop the area. He started with a flat, barren, dusty prairie, and saw that trees would block the Panhandle wind, provide shade on hot summer days and create a park-like atmosphere. He was smart, thinking that trees define a neighborhood, so before he even thought about building any homes, he planted thousands of Siberian elms. More than 80 years later, aside the stately Southern homes and the brick streets, those trees have honorably done their job.

When I last visited my home, which had been inhabited for almost 70 years by Citrons, but now is being enjoyed by a young family with several children, I noticed that they had done work to the home and landscaping. What had not changed was that towering elm, just as majestic and stately as ever. It got me to thinking about the role that tree had in my life.

Growing up in Amarillo meant that you didn’t spend much time inside your home. We were lucky to have a neighborhood full of kids, enough so that year-round we were outside playing football to basketball to anything that we invented ourselves. In a matter of minutes, we could assemble six or more kids, all ready for action.

When I was quite small, we played the forever popular Hide-and-Seek, and the elm was the perfect spot to hide since you could dart out from either direction if the seeker got too close. In the evenings we played Kick the Can, and the elm again served an outsize role in our efforts to, well, kick the can before being tagged.

Soon, the front yard became our baseball diamond. Although not deliberately, my Mom’s landscape plan had created the perfect baseball infield, with the elm taking the role of first base and two other planted trees correctly positioned to be second and third bases. “Home” was right in front of a bed of plants that curved around nicely to complete the field.

Our stadium was perfect for all iterations of ball, depending on the season and the number of kids playing. Sometimes it was kickball; other times it was bunt ball, where you could only bunt to get on base. One rule that made so many games possible was the home rule that you only had to throw the ball—whatever kind it was—at the elm and if you hit it, the batter was out. With this rule, we could even play one-on-one baseball.

In the wintertime, when we had a good snow, we often had great snowball fights. We might build some snow forts, as we called them, but when running wildly around the yard, the elm was the perfect defensive position. You could stand behind it making a couple of tightly compressed snowballs and then jump out from behind the tree and attack your opponent.

In the summertime, the cicadas screeched from early evening until nightfall, and we would find their empty shells all over the trunk. Sitting beneath the elm—with its graceful cover shading us from the hot Amarillo sun—was the perfect place to have private conversations. Sometimes it would be me and my brother Dan—our German Shepard, Tamby, panting on the grass next to us—talking about baseball or the vagaries of life. Our heart-to-heart talks under that tree, our backs leaning up against it just so, helped create the wonderful relationship that we share today, still having long talks about baseball and life’s challenges.

I was also known to have some sweet girl sitting with me beneath that tree, chatting about our teachers and our friends and the other nonsense of teenagers. With the sun slowly going down and the wind abating, it was a bit of magic to be there with a pretty companion who had my heart all aflutter, our backs pressed up against the solid tree. 

But it was also under that canopy of our elm on one frightful day that my girlfriend Armanda and I came riding our bikes back from Tom Maynard’s home and saw two girls standing beneath it in the shade, crying. When we asked, they told us the tragic news that my buddy and next-door neighbor David Ramsay, part of our neighborhood sports gang, had been struck and killed by a car. I can still view that scene under the tree with great clarity.

When I return to my hometown now, I park my car and walk the brick streets of the beautiful neighborhood that defined my childhood. And there in my old front lawn, just as strong and graceful as ever, stands my elm tree, as though patiently waiting for my return to remind me of the times we shared together, having given so much and never asking anything in return.