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Pining away

December 24, 2010

It was the start of a typical day in the navy radio shack in Bremerhaven, Germany. I'd signed on the log, put on my headsets and was turning the dials, looking for the usual traffic, when my pal Frankie Fig came up.

"Hey," he said, "you went to a college named Paul Smith's, didn't you?"

"Yeah," I said. "Why?"

"'Cause there's an article about it in today's Stars and Stripes."

The Stars and Stripes was the GI's overseas newspaper, but how anything about Paul Smith's got in it was beyond me.

"It was something about a tree getting cut down," Frankie said.

"The Leaning Pine?" I said.

"Yeah, that's it," he said. "The Leaning Pine. But what's that?"

"Later," I said, as I went to find a copy of the Stars and Stripes. And when I did, sure enough, there it was on a sidebar - the Leaning Pine had been cut down.

The leaning Pine's name said it all. It was a huge 250-year-old pine leaning over the main road on the campus, defying the forces of gravity and the ravages of time. It was the hick's equivalent of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and I doubt Pisa's residents took more pride in their tower than we did in our pine.

It was also the college's official symbol, and a perfect one at that a weird old survivor, just like a bunch of us were and like another bunch of us aspired to be.

There were no details in the article other than it'd been cut down by a disgruntled student. And no surprise there: This was only the first successful attempt to topple the pine. Over the years various idiots had taken whacks at it, chopping out some sizeable chunks but fortunately no lethal ones.

So I found out a student had chopped down the Leaning Pine. But it wasn't until a few year later, when I got out of the navy and started teaching at Paul Smith's, that I found out the next chapter of the story, namely why he did it.


The dullest tool in the shed

To say Paul Smith's was old fashioned is world-class understatement. Students never called teachers by first name, nor did they wear hats inside the buildings. Employment contracts were confirmed with handshakes, not documents. Long after calculators became affordable, all calculations in the math and forestry classes were done only with pencils, paper and brains.

In keeping with this theme, the forestry division insisted all their freshmen had to know how to use axes. And since a dull blade is far more dangerous than a sharp one, every student had to submit his axe for frequent inspections. And this is what caused the Leaning Pine to get chopped down: Some kid who'd flunked his axe inspection, went back to his room, drowned his sorrows in too many Rheingolds, and then sallied forth in the wee hours, vengeance in mind and axe in hand (and a newly-sharpened axe, at that)

I learned all those details right after I started teaching at PSC. But what I didn't learn till almost 40 years later was how they caught the culprit.

I found this out last week talking with my pal Floyd Lampart. We were chatting and, inevitably, with Floyd being an old Smitty, we started swapping tales about PSC in the antediluvian era. Suddenly the felling of the Leaning Pine came up.

"Yeah," I said, "I was overseas at the time. If you can believe it, it was in the Stars and Stripes

"Well," he said, "if you can believe it, I was there when they found out who did it."

"You're kidding," I said, amazed I was in the presence of a witness to The Crime of the Century.

Floyd's a great guy but not a great kidder - or even a good one, for that matter. So I knew what I was about to hear was the unvarnished truth. And here it is.

When Floyd went to class the morning the Leaning Pine had been chopped down, the teacher announced that all foresters had to get their axes inspected immediately.

"But my axe is home, back at the trailer park," Floyd told the teacher.

"Well, son," said the teacher, "you can either go home and bring back your axe, or you can go home and stay there. Because if you want to stay here you're having your axe inspected. And you look like a bright young fellow who wants to stay here, am I right?"

Floyd nodded and then did what we all did with the PSC faculty back then - he did what he was told.

When he came back, he lined up with the 700 or so other stumpies who were getting their axes inspected. It struck him as weird, but only because he didn't know what the forestry teachers knew.

Remember I said there'd been other attempts to chop down the Leaning Pine? Well, as a result, the tree had been thoroughly reinforced with cement. So whoever chopped the tree would've chopped his axe as well. And sure enough, some kid handed over an axe that looked like he'd used it to hack the S.S Normandie into scrap.

A couple of teachers took him aside and confronted him with the evidence. And while it was Paul Smith's Crime of the Century, he was not Paul Smith's criminal of the century: He confessed almost immediately.


Enlightened approaches

In today's more compassionate world, we'd try to understand why the kid did it.

Maybe he was a sensitive soul of delicate temperament. And if the teacher who'd flunked his axe had instead explained in loving terms WHY he'd flunked him, and then given the lad a heartfelt hug or two, he would've responded in kind and would've loved the tree, and maybe the whole world in general.

Or maybe the kid suffered from an authority defiance disorder. He could no more help chopping down the Leaning Pine than he could spitting in his Boy Scout leader's eye when he was told to help clean up the campsite. So he shouldn't have been punished, but had his anger redirected to more "amenable" targets.

Or if you're a Freudian, you could conclude the kid had an Oedipus complex and the tree towering over him, over the whole campus - represented his father, his hated rival for his mother's affections. And so there was nothing wrong with him - he just needed 20 or 30 years of weekly therapy.

Of course, all this happened long before there was a counselor on every corner, a psychiatrist on every talk show and a self-help book in every bathroom. Back then, no one tried to understand deviant behavior; they just handled it straight on.

So while I never found out the exact details, I've good idea how the kid was dealt with.

He was called into the office of the PSC president, Dr. Buxton, who then gave him two choices.

One: he could pack his stuff and go home, and never darken Paul Smith's doorstep again.

Or two: he could pack his stuff, call his parents to come and take him home, and never darken Paul Smith's doorstep again.

Those were, as I said, much less enlightened times.

They're also what I often refer to as The Good Old Days.



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